RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here is a simple reality of the war in Afghanistan: U.S. and international troops will be leaving; by this time next year, there will be only half as many American forces as there are today. Those that remain will be mostly trainers, along with some special forces.
And these forces cannot be everywhere - which has huge implications for the place we're about to visit. It's Panjwai District, outside the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. It's one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan. NPR's Tom Bowman just visited Panjwai, and brings us this glimpse of what the future could hold there.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Afghan farmer is finally fed up with the Taliban. His name is Abdullah Razik. He's slight with a trim beard, and a dark-green shirt that falls below his knees. The Taliban plant roadside bombs in his fields, he says, and shoot near his house. Then, not long ago, something worse happened.
ABDULLAH RAZIK: (Through translator) You see this, my friend also, he lost, you know, his hand.
BOWMAN: Lost his hand?
RAZIK: Yes, because of the Taliban IED.
BOWMAN: When did that happen?
RAZIK: (Through translator) Four months ago.
BOWMAN: His friend Ahmed stands next to him, and pulls up a dingy white sleeve to reveal a smooth and rounded stump. Now, Abdullah is among a dozen villagers here, outside Kandahar City, who patrol with an armed neighborhood watch called the Afghan Local Police. It's the first line of defense against the Taliban. But Abdullah says his group doesn't get any support from the Afghan military, who are supposed to be his partners.
RAZIK: (Through translator) They're just working over here to get paid. They don't care about, you know, our people.
BOWMAN: That lack of cooperation is a problem because when the Americans leave here in November, the Afghan security forces will have to find a way to work together, especially with those who live around here. And if they don't, the Taliban will continue to infiltrate the villages and mount attacks on Kandahar, the country's second-largest city.
After visiting Abdullah and the other police, Capt. Daniel Mitchell leads a patrol back to the nearby American base.
CAPT. DANIEL MITCHELL: Yeah, there's some definite friction between the different pillars.
BOWMAN: So what does that mean for the future, if they can't work together?
MITCHELL: It's - a good question.
BOWMAN: It's a question very much on the mind of the officer whose job it is to train the Afghan National Army, Lt. Col. Gary King.
LT. COL. GARY KING: From my perspective, the biggest thing - from being an ANA adviser - is the fact that ANA totally distrusts the ALP, totally distrusts them; you know, they're just a bunch of thugs.
BOWMAN: Col. King works out of an unpainted plywood building here. It's the nicest part of the small American base. And he's frustrated. The Afghan forces don't cooperate. They don't have the best officers. Their top general doesn't visit often enough. Supplies are hard to come by.
KING: This is the most lethal area. This is the main effort area, but the ANA don't treat it that way. You know, I'm not the only guy saying this. They've given us the least competent Kandak leader here; to hold the most lethal, kinetic area in all of Kandahar.
BOWMAN: Col. King says the Kandak, which is Pashto for battalion, has been in the fight in Panjwai for nearly six years, and they need to be switched out. The Americans suspect some Afghan soldiers at remote outposts are making truces with the Taliban - you don't shoot me, I won't shoot you. The colonel worries what's going to happen here.
KING: There's a chance, though, if they don't get anything, it's going to be "Escape from New York" - you know, the Kurt Russell movie.
BOWMAN: You might remember "Escape From New York," a 1982 action movie about a futuristic New York City, with savage gangs roaming its streets. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: "Escape From New York" was released in 1981, not 1982.]
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK" )
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) New York, 1997. The entire city is a walled, maximum-security prison. The bridges are mined, the rivers are patrolled, and the United States police force has everything under control - they think.
BOWMAN: That movie analogy makes sense in Panjwai, this key, troubled district near Kandahar.
KING: There's just bad guys in there, but as long as they kind of stay in there, then things won't be too bad.
BOWMAN: Because in the areas where the Americans have left, insurgents have moved in, targeting the Afghans who remain.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)
BOWMAN: Helicopters beat overhead to protect American soldiers on patrol, heading to the Afghan Local Police checkpoint. The Americans and Afghans have set up a long line of checkpoints, trying to hold back the Taliban tide. And if the worst happens, Abdullah Razik, the ALP policeman who has withstood Taliban threats and gunfire, says he will flee the area where he was born and raised.
RAZIK: (Through translator) Is this - my own opinion. I will be be leaving - after American leave over here.
BOWMAN: The Taliban haven't swept through this area just yet. At the Afghan army battalion headquarters, separated from the American base by a line of concrete walls and razor wire, troops are interrogating two suspected Taliban fighters. Spread out on a blanket are the contents of their pockets: cellphones and ID cards, and a thatch of wires police say would be used as triggers on a roadside bomb.
So this is a remote control?
MITCHELL: Wires and stuff.
BOWMAN: The stash includes a piece of paper, with scribbled lines and crude drawings on both sides of what looks like wires connected to batteries. A translator says they're bomb-making instructions.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Here we have the IED. These are instructions of IED, how to make an IED.
BOWMAN: One of the suspected insurgents has a small welt on his forehead, and a crease of dried blood that runs down his nose. I asked him if he is a Taliban.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says he doesn't accept, you know, he's a Talib. He says, no, I'm a mullah.
BOWMAN: Why did he have instructions about how to make a roadside bomb?
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says was passing here. Somebody put it in my pocket, I don't know.
BOWMAN: The Afghan commander stands nearby. He doesn't join in the laughter. He knows this is serious business, that more Taliban will be coming. Can he handle all this when the Americans leave?
UNIDENTIFIED AFGHAN COMMANDER: (Through translator) We are Afghan. I'm a soldier of this country. I got to stand, you know, against them and defend our family, our country. So whatever it costs me - even my life - but I will stand.
BOWMAN: What's still uncertain, though, is whether the Afghans will all stand together.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: And to see photos from Panjwai District, visit NPR.org.