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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne in Afghanistan.

And you've heard the expression about winning a battle but losing the war. This morning on a busy road through Kandahar city, a suicide bomber drove into the middle of a NATO convoy and eight Afghans were killed. And this latest attack comes just weeks after NATO forces claimed victory in a major conventional battle with the Taliban. It shows how far NATO still has to go.

And today, Steve, we'll follow their effort to keep their gains from slipping away. It's part of our extended look at Afghanistan five years after the start of the war that seemed, for a time, to defeat the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Well, Renee, remind us what this battle was, this recent conflict.

MONTAGNE: Steve, it took place in farmland outside Kandahar city and was described as the biggest engagement in the history of NATO. It included villages in the Panjwai district that we visited on the program yesterday. Canadian forces took some losses themselves but inflicted heavy losses, hundreds of casualties, on Taliban fighters, according to NATO.

INSKEEP: Okay, so if they've killed hundreds of Taliban fighters, what would make this a perilous moment for the NATO mission and the effort to rebuild Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: Well, the NATO commander here, General David Richards, says there's an opportunity to start reconstruction. But he also made a pretty dramatic prediction earlier this week. If those projects don't get going and Afghans don't see an improvement in their lives, the general said, in the next six months, the people will have gone over to the Taliban. And by next year, he said, NATO's military strength will be able to do very little good, which is why the place we're going to now is such a pivotal area.

It's where NATO's Canadian troops are mounting campaigns on two fronts, fighting the Taliban and, if you will, fixing things up for the people.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

MONTAGNE: Patrol Base Wilson is the staging area for the Canadian troops under NATO command. It's about 20 miles from Kandahar city, but since Taliban fighters still roam the area, getting there means hopping on a military convoy or, in our case, a military helicopter.

This walled-in compound is washed white with sunlight. Outside the small base, a desert of fine brown sand stretches many miles to jagged mountains. It's a wild landscape, broken by patches of dark green - vineyards, pomegranate groves and, quite likely, newly planted poppy.

Major Mark Gasparado(ph) knows those green patches as battlefields. For the last two months he's commanded all of the combat engineers and sappers, the men who detect and get rid of mines.

Major MARK GASPARADO (NATO Coalition Forces, Afghanistan): Anything that goes boom, we take care of it on behalf of either civilians but especially coalition forces.

MONTAGNE: Last Saturday, a Canadian soldier died near here when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.

Maj. GASPARADO: It was an IED buried in the road, and it killed the gunner.

MONTAGNE: There have been a number of these deaths since major fighting in this Panjwai area stopped. From your point of view, is it any less dangerous now than it was a few weeks ago when there was big fighting going on?

Maj. GASPARADO: I see it as more dangerous because now you have civilians intermixed. When it was full-scale combat and they had evicted all the civilians, you knew who the enemy was. Now that we've tried to get the area repopulated, you just have that uncertainty as to who is who.

MONTAGNE: In fact, just the day before we spoke, Major Gasparado himself had survived an IED. His vehicle was hit while his men were bulldozing a road just across the highway. The road started out as a military matter to provide a straight, paved, mine-resistant path through the battlefields. It quickly took on a second life as a development project for the locals.

At this end, the road would link isolated villagers now vulnerable to the Taliban to the main highway and the outside world.

(Soundbite of radio traffic)

MONTAGNE: To get to the road, the soldiers climb into armored vehicles

Unidentified Man #1: Three-three. This is Charlie. Is this where you want us to drop them off? Over.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) Drop them right there.

(Soundbite of machinery)

MONTAGNE: When we pour out of the back of the armored vehicle we find ourselves in the middle of a wide strip of dirt freshly bulldozed. Along one side is a vineyard. Along the other side, a dry creek bed where Captain Dan Clark's(ph) men are sawing trees.

(Soundbite of chainsaws)

Captain DAN CLARK (NATO Coalition Forces, Afghanistan): They've been working at this for a couple of weeks now, really. And the idea is to get, you know, one good, strong road through here so that we can provide security to the area and also be able to bring the aid and whatnot that we need to bring into the area.

Colonel FRED LEWIS (Deputy Commander of NATO Canadian Forces, Afghanistan): They're just cutting down the trees with chainsaws, that's what sappers like doing.

MONTAGNE: That's Colonel Fred Lewis. He's deputy commander of NATO's Canadian forces in Kandahar, here today to look over the road. He has a real affection for this project. Captain Lewis imagines the road allowing farmers to get their crops to new markets. He sees more goods getting to villagers and the government reaching them as well.

Col. LEWIS: When you can empower the locals, they will be very successful. I mean the numbers of Taliban are relatively small. And if you could take out the day fighters from the Taliban, which are the guys that get hired on at $70 a month because there might be no employment for them in a particular region, I mean, the actual hardcore Taliban are very small. We talk about the center of gravity here in Afghanistan as being the support of the Afghan people. So the Afghan people just have to convince them that there's a better way of life.

MONTAGNE: The road that could be a key to that will end across a dry riverbed from a bustling market, the Panjwai bazaar. Long before the Canadian soldiers arrived, local leaders dreamt of such a road.

Neyaz Mohammad Sarhadi is the district chief of Panjwai and a big booster. I asked him about one farmer we've heard from who'd fled the fighting and was now upset to hear that a road was running through his vineyards.

Mr. NEYAZ MOHAMMAD SARHADI (District Chief, Panjwai): (Through translator) Before starting this road, we talked with the people who are living in the village. And we told them that if the road was going in his land, we will give money instead of that land. They were happy about this. They said now we are bringing pomegranate, grape. We are shifting to this road, and then from the road we are shifting to the city. So if we have a road, it's good for us.

MONTAGNE: The road from Panjwai bazaar to the main highway is just one of many reconstruction projects NATO and the Afghan government are hoping to get started now in earnest.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

MONTAGNE: Back where Canadian soldiers are bulldozing, there's one powerful symbol of how the fighting in this area has, if you will, turned plowshares into swords. Tucked into these vineyards are grape drying huts. Hardly huts, they're mud buildings up to 12 feet high and 20 feet long with narrow ventilation windows perfect for lookouts. Over this past year, the Taliban seized many of these grape drying huts and turned them into small fortresses. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: 12 feet high and 60 feet long]

Unidentified Man #1: If you walk through some of these - the walls, some of them are 4 or 5 feet thick. So, you know, some of these things you can hit it with artillery and it won't fall down.

MONTAGNE: Corporals Matthew Rondo and James Patchky(ph) agreed to take us into one hut nearby.

Corporal JAMES PATCHKY (NATO's Canadian Force, Afghanistan): Hold up there, Scott. We try to space it out a bit, about 15 - about 10-15 feet between guys. Just in case if we step on anything, yeah, one of us gets hurt instead of all of us.

Corporal MATTHEW RONDO (NATO's Canadian Force, Afghanistan): Go in here last night, Patchky?

MONTAGNE: We've just stepped in. The place is in disarray. It obviously isn't being used as a grape drying hut. But it's been pretty well cleared, first by infantry then by the combat engineers. The trick will be to keep the Taliban from coming back so the farmers can put these mud huts to use again drying grapes. And all of this gets us back to the road, which is aimed at supporting both fronts in this critical region of southern Afghanistan, securing for the people both peace and prosperity.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

INSKEEP: We're listening to MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne, who's reporting from Afghanistan. And, Renee, quick question, is this road actually going to be finished?

MONTAGNE: Well, Steve, Colonel Lewis says three months, which is lightning speed for a paved road even when you're not being attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, as are these Canadian combat engineers. And there's also a bridge in the works. It would cross the riverbed next to the Panjwai bazaar and complete the connection.

INSKEEP: Struggling to build a bridge toward a better future in Afghanistan. That's NPR's Renee Montagne joining us. And she will join us again from Afghanistan in the coming week.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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