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In Afghanistan surge, soldiers negotiate complex web of local loyalties

As forces of the 10th Mountain Division have poured into Wardak Province to combat the Taliban, they've also had to battle a cool reception.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2009

In this photo taken April 26, US soldiers of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division take position on a rooftop of a mud house with Afghan policemen during a search operation for members of the Taliban in Tangi valley of Afghanistan's Wardak province.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/FILE

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Tangi Valley, Afghanistan

Part one of a two-part series.

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When the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division penetrated the insurgent-ridden Tangi Valley in the heart of Wardak Province, they braved rockets and roadside bombs. They succeeded in erecting a small outpost overlooking the lush, fertile dale in what is one of the most dangerous areas in the province.

Then they set about their main task: winning over the locals. They called a shura, or council, with the local elders here, to introduce themselves and take requests from the villagers.

"But to be honest, they didn't want us here," recalls 1st Lt. Christopher Wallgren, who commands the company of soldiers stationed in the Tangi, in eastern Afghanistan. "They all just asked us to leave. They didn't want us to interfere with their lives."

As thousands of US soldiers pour into Afghanistan this summer and push into uncharted territories, such an environment of mistrust will be one of the many challenges they will face in attempting to secure the country.

Early this year, nearly 1,500 troops landed in Wardak, which neighbors Kabul Province to the south, in a move that prefigured the larger influx this summer. Officials in Washington are hoping that the troop increase can reverse the growing insurgency. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told reporters that the military buildup was "absolutely necessary" and that the new soldiers will have to force a dramatic turnaround in the security situation over the next 12 to 18 months.

In the areas where new forces landed this winter, violence has increased – just as officials in Washington predicted. In Wardak, the number of insurgent-initiated attacks so far this year has jumped by more than 300 percent from the same period last year, according to statistics provided by analyst Sami Kovanen of Tundra Security.

Convincing Afghans not an easy task

For the troops here in the Tangi, the key to a turnaround lies in convincing the locals that they are here to protect them. But the soldiers say that this has been difficult. While they are welcomed in some areas – in Jalrez district, for example, where the insurgency has weakened in the past year, children regularly greet soldiers with waves and smiles – they have had a different reception in other parts of the province.

On a typical vehicle patrol through the Tangi valley, which is part of Sayadabad district, soldiers closely watch the villagers who line the streets and stare at the passing convoy.

"Okay, we're heading into a bazaar," says one soldier over the radio to his comrades.

"Roger, heading into the bazaar. There's people all around," comes the reply from another vehicle in the convoy.

"These people out here don't like us, so keep your eyes open," the first soldier says.