In Afghanistan, Can 'Security Bubbles' Last? U.S. and NATO forces are pursuing a strategy of winning small pieces of territory from the Taliban and seeking to expand these "security bubbles" village by village. As NATO faces a new 2014 deadline to wind down the war, the challenge is to turn these bubbles into something permanent.
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In Afghanistan, Can NATO's 'Security Bubbles' Last?

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In Afghanistan, Can NATO's 'Security Bubbles' Last?

In Afghanistan, Can NATO's 'Security Bubbles' Last?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The United States is shifting its focus when it talks of an end date for the war in Afghanistan. President Obama wants the U.S. to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011, but it's been known that many forces would stay longer, and at a summit this week in Lisbon, the president will ask NATO allies will talk of staying until 2014.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. is now committing, then, to fight a war lasting well over a decade. This began in 2001, you'll recall. And that raises questions about the U.S. strategy: what's working and what's not. NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin has been traveling through Afghanistan, and today she takes us to a far, northwest corner of the country where NATO troops have retaken the area from the insurgents - at least for now.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

RACHEL MARTIN: Bala Murghab isn't the kind of place you hear a lot about in this war. It's this isolated river valley far from the intense fighting in the south and disconnected from the political drama in Kabul. Pashtuns, Tajiks and Kuchi tribes all live side by side here. And now in the mix, Italians.

Lieutenant Colonel UMBERTO SALVADOR (Italian Army): This I the valley of Murghab. This is Bala Murghab. We are here.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Umberto Salvador and his brigade have been at this remote base for about a month, overseeing what the Italians have dubbed Operation Buonjourno. Inside a wooden hut tricked-out as an operations center, Salvador points to a map projected on the wall. He explains the security bubble idea: protecting a small region, then growing that safe area village by village. It wasn't easy at first.

Lt. Col. SALVADOR: At the beginning, if you are moving on the other side, in this area especially, in this area on the south, we need to fight just to be free to move. So, the first step was ensure an area in which we can move without any kind of problem.

MARTIN: Historically, this part of Afghanistan has been relatively safe. But insurgent groups have emerged here in the past couple of years, terrorizing locals with illegal checkpoints, extortion and constant threats. NATO's security bubble has helped reclaim most of this valley. Colonel Salvador explains.

Lt. Col. SALVADOR: This is the situation today: we move on the north and we open two different COPs, Liberty and Metro, just to open the bubble on the north side and give the chance to all this population to move inside this area free.

MARTIN: In the past year around Bala Murghab, NATO troops have set up 17 of these COPs, short for combat outposts. A handful are operated by U.S. troops, but most of them are run by the Italians, with help from the Afghan national security forces.

(Soundbite of auto engine)

MARTIN: The closest outpost, COP Cavour, is a 30-minute drive from the main base, uphill on dirt roads that are better suited to donkeys than Humvees.

(Soundbite of auto engine)

MARTIN: Salvador's men make this trip about once a week, bringing supplies to the small group of Italian soldiers who live here.

We've arrived at COP Cavour. This is about, oh, five miles away from the main base. We're surrounded by massive sand dunes. And right in the middle, running through this is an incredibly lush, green river valley. And COP Cavour, this small outpost, sits atop this hill and overlooks this entire valley.

Lieutenant ANDREA GILLI (Italian Army): The most beautiful hour is during the evening when the sundown, and it's the most beautiful time in here. It's because you can stop and say, oh, my God. I'm not in, like, a war or a peacekeeping situation. It's, like, a beautiful country.

MARTIN: Andrea Gilli is the lieutenant in charge. He's bearded and tanned, and the 25-year-old talks about his work in this valley with the enthusiasm of a young Peace Corps volunteer. Gilli and his soldiers spend their days meeting with local village leaders and managing reconstruction projects.

Lt. GILLI: Very safe for the moment. In fact, we stayed in here for two months, and two months, nobody shot at us in this side of the bubble. So it's a very good situation.

MARTIN: A situation that could change quickly. Local Taliban drove much of the population outside of the river valley into the desert. Now, while locals are starting to come back, Taliban are often sighted on the edge of town, watching the NATO outposts.

The Italians aren't taking any chances. And on this day, a couple soldiers at COP Cavour are digging a trench line meant to connect the three huts that make up the outpost, creating a safe way to get back and forth in case they fall under attack.

(Soundbite of digging)

MARTIN: NATO is likely to point to the relative success of the security bubble strategy in places like Bala Murghab and hold it up as a model.

Brigadier General JOSEF BLOTZ (German Army; Spokesman, NATO International Security Force in Afghanistan): What you're seeing is more or less the same approach, the same template, if you wish, of what we're doing in Kandahar and Helmand. But they are different stages of success.

MARTIN: Brigadier General Josef Blotz is the spokesman for NATO's international security force in Afghanistan. He says the security bubble strategy is a key part of the overall counterinsurgency mission: start in a small area, secure the population, then as NATO's presence expands, security in those areas grows.

That's how it's supposed to work, but the problem with a bubble is the rather obvious one: It can pop. Again, here's General Blotz.

Brig. Gen. BLOTZ: We're making progress, but this is still a fragile progress which we have to solidify over time. It's not yet irreversible, and we need to still invest forces and money and resources to be even better coordinated with the Afghan side in order to, you know, exploit the success we've had so far.

MARTIN: Blotz says NATO leaders will ask member countries to double down on their commitment to Afghanistan, which is no small ask. Many countries, including Italy, have been in Afghanistan since the initial invasion in 2001. The Dutch have already left. And the political pressure in Germany against the war is mounting.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MARTIN: Whether NATO stays or goes is the kind of thing people talk about even here in a village market in Bala Murghab. That's where I found Shazaradad, an elderly man with a white turban and beard to match. He's an engineer by trade, and locals say he's made good money from NATO development projects in the area. Shazaradad runs his black prayer beads through his hands as he tells me NATO must stay.

SHAZARADAD (Engineer): (Through translator) They cannot leave Afghanistan. If they go from here, maybe the insurgents again attack to this area and take the control of this area.

MARTIN: And that's the big challenge: how to take the fragile security gains in some parts of the country - these bubbles - and turn them into something permanent. That's harder now, as U.S. and NATO troops push insurgents from one part of the country and they turn up somewhere else, even here. They also turn up across the border in Pakistan. Afghans like Shazaradad, the man I met in the market, are quick to point a finger at their neighbor to the east.

SHAZARADAD: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man (Translator): The main problem in Afghanistan is the Pakistan. He says, unfortunately, all time the Pakistan help the Taliban and keep some places for the Taliban, they go to the Pakistan and come back from Pakistan.

MARTIN: From Afghanistan, they go to Pakistan and back again. What American and NATO forces are trying to do about safe havens in Pakistan - that story tomorrow.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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