With Withdrawal Looming, U.S. Troops Shift Their Aim
The NATO campaign is now in a new phase. After years of fighting the Taliban and bolstering anemic local governance, NATO troops are handing those responsibilities over to the Afghans.
The fertile Arghandab Valley in Kandahar Province is considered one of Afghanistan's breadbaskets. For years it was also a valley of death for NATO troops.
Security in the region has improved dramatically since the U.S. troop surge in 2010, though Taliban hotspots remain tucked amid the small mountains overlooking the valley.
On a misty February morning, 1st Lt. Phillip Baki led a platoon of U.S. cavalry troops on a patrol up a steep peak. They were visiting the Afghan Police checkpoint overlooking the Dahla Dam.
"Every time we come out here, we try to get the general atmosphere of what's going on at the checkpoint and talk to the commander to see what he's got planned," Baki says.
This particular checkpoint has a reputation for being short on resources and staffed by Afghan officers who don't always show up. On this day, Abdul Karim, the second in command, is at the post and awake when the troops show up.
Karim says things are fine and they have everything they need, which is hard to believe given the ramshackle appearance of the small outpost. It doesn't exactly project a commanding security presence in an area where the Taliban continue to operate.
Baki says insurgents plant so many improvised explosive devices in the area that Afghan and NATO troops can't patrol safely. But, he says the western side of the Arghandab River is safe.
Bakis explains that the district police chief lives on the western side of the river, and so it is actively patrolled.
It's a typical phenomenon in Afghanistan — security can vary wildly from one side of a hill, or a river, to the other. Baki says that the Taliban on dirt bikes are able to move quickly into these villages on the eastern side of the river.
"So, it's an easy choice for these villagers," he says.
Baki says that's the crux of the issue: the insurgents rush in where the Afghan government is weak. Troops like his are now doing a lot less shooting and a lot more mentoring to boost the capacity of the Afghan government.
"It really is about reestablishing the [Afghan government and security forces] presence on that side of the river in order to give them that choice again – the choice to trust that the government is looking out for their best interests," he says.
Karim, the Afghan deputy commander, agrees, but says 30 years of fighting hasn't brought peace and stability.
"The best way to bring security is if we help and serve the people," Karim says. "We should have more training on how to interact with the public so we can get more support from them."
The persistent lack of governance in many areas has created a gap Taliban militants happily exploit. As the international community is drawing down both troops and financial aid, more Afghan officials are realizing they have to fill the gap.
That realization was front and center at a large gathering at the district center in Shah Wali Kot. U.S. Special Forces were on hand as officials from five different districts in Kandahar gathered to discuss security and governance.
A handful of U.S. troops sat along the back wall of the room and listened to one Afghan after another talk about the need to deliver services to win over the people. The question on the minds of the troops is whether the Afghans can translate the talk into action.
One of those troops was Capt. Mike Cauldwell, the team leader for the civil affairs unit stationed at the small base next to the district center. His job is not to patrol or train Afghan troops, but to help build the capacity of the district government. This role is much different than his first tour in Afghanistan about five years ago.
"It was pre-surge, and we were ... more focused on building stuff," Cauldwell says. "Whereas now we're trying to let their government do a lot of those development projects."
That's not an easy task, however, because there are few competent government officials in these remote parts of the country. Many district officials still haven't figured out how to get resources from Kabul.
"It can be difficult, especially since we have been here for 11 years and we have been ... leading the way on a lot of things," Cauldwell says. He said the Afghans have been used to that and now things are changing.
"We've provided for so long, now they've got to go get it," says Lt. Col. Paul Weyrauch, commander of the 2-3 Field Artillery Battalion. It was deployed in this district a couple of months ago to focus on the transition to Afghan-led security and governance.
Weyrauch says it's difficult to tell the Afghans that after all these years of relying on U.S. troops for money and projects, they now have to do it themselves.
"It's tough on them and it's tough on us," he says, "because it's hard to know you've got a resource you can't provide because of the rules, not because you physically don't have it. In the long run it's definitely going to serve them well, but it certainly isn't easy."
It's essentially a case of tough love with Afghan troops and government officials, something that not everyone has bought into quite yet.
Obidullah Populzai, the district governor of Shah Wali Kot, is one official who has adopted the new approach. He says he now reaches out to Kabul for support, rather than U.S. troops.
"Unfortunately, ministers and officials from Kabul have been down here multiple times and they promised they would bring several projects, but so far we have not seen results," Populzai says.
Populzai is currently paying a group of schoolteachers out of his own pocket because the Ministry of Education in Kabul isn't providing the money he needs. He's frustrated because he wants to do more for the people and show them that the government can deliver.
Weyrauch says long-term security will depend on the Afghan government seizing this opportunity. He's confident that the Afghan forces can do their part, so his main concern is making sure the government of Shah Wali Kot does its part.
It's just one small piece of the puzzle, however, and if the other districts in Kandahar don't get it right, then he says it's all for nothing.