US troops in Afghanistan face tough battle: Making 'clear, hold, and build' work
In Wardak Province, the counterinsurgency model has been difficult to implement, though US forces have already seen some success in the first phase of the effort.
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As the US sends more troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse the growing violence, they are relying on the "clear, hold, build" model of counterinsurgency. The US hopes a surge of soldiers will help them clear areas of Taliban insurgents, maintain a lasting presence in those areas to keep militants from returning, and then bring development to attract popular support.
But soldiers in Wardak Province say that the model has been difficult to implement in here. In particular, they say they are caught in a vicious circle: To win over the locals, the troops must bring development, security, and economic prospects. To do this, they have to diminish the presence of the insurgency. But this, in turn, requires that the troops win support of the population.
US forces have already made some progress in the first phase of the strategy. The stretch of the Kabul-Kandahar highway that runs through Wardak, once a magnet for insurgents, has been free of Taliban checkpoints for months. The guerrilla presence along the route had gotten so bad that fuel convoys suffered almost daily attacks.
Along one stretch of the highway, a 90-minute insurgent ambush earlier this year destroyed nearly 40 transport trucks. Such an incident would be highly unlikely now because of the frequent American patrols along the route.
"The main highway is much safer now," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Sayadabad district of Wardak. "It used to be extremely dangerous, but now the Taliban have been pushed off it."
Hard to build rapport from an outpost
But the clearing phase of the strategy may be the easiest. Soldiers say they will need patiently to build rapport, something that might take months or years, if at all.
"We just have to earn their trust," says Staff Sgt. Adam Kapchus of the 10th Mountain Division. "We need to support clinics and support their economy."
To do so, the troops have been making an effort to visit villages.
"How is traffic? Have cars been coming through here and bringing business?" a soldier on a typical patrol asks one merchant, who says business is "OK."
"Have you seen any bad guys here?" the soldier continues.
"No sir. The bad people stay in the mountains," the merchant says, pointing to the purple peaks in the distance.
"That's good. Is there any way we can help you?" the soldier asks.
"Your helicopters fly overhead all night," the merchant says. "No one in our village can sleep. Please stop this – it is causing major problems."
The soldier promises to tell his superiors.
Despite such patrols, the troops generally don't have enough contact with the locals to convince them that they are here for their good, says Habibullah Rafeh, policy analyst with the Kabul Academy of Sciences. Most of the troops live in small, heavily fortified outposts near urban centers. Most Afghans, however, live in rural areas – only 0.5 percent of Wardak's population is urban, for example.
"The local village people view the Americans as occupiers, not as allies," Mr. Rafeh says. "Many don't have direct contact with the Americans, but almost everyone in those areas feel the Taliban presence."
To meet such challenges, the new commander of US forces in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is pushing for an approach that has troops living among the communities they are meant to protect. Soldiers will live in smaller outposts, embedded amid the local population — a tactic that some credit with helping improve the situation in Iraq.