In a rock-strewn valley so remote that US and Afghan forces here call their base "Wilderness," tribal elders met under a dusty tent with Afghan politicians and American officers in a bid to turn recent military gains against insurgents into progress in local governance.
Ringed with layers of military security, the jirga, or tribal meeting, Monday marked the close of Operation Khyber, a joint US-Afghan operation of nearly three weeks that is applying a refined counterinsurgency strategy to three tough districts in southeast Afghanistan's Paktia Province.
But while US and Afghan commanders say they have forced out insurgents – "creating effects," in their jargon, that they hope will last at least 60 days – getting government to the people is far from assured.
"Today it is your task to sustain the good situation in your area," Arsala Jamal, the provincial governor of Khost, cajoled scores of turbaned elders. Praising the "achievements" of the operation, he said it was now the duty of the tribes to turn against an "enemy [that] burns your school and your clinic." He told the crowd that the result would be "rewards" of reconstruction from the government and the US, a "golden opportunity" that may never come again.
"We want to live free; we don't want to live in slavery," said Mr. Jamal, who survived a fourth assassination attempt that killed three bodyguards the day Operation Khyber started, on Aug. 22. "And that can only happen when you say 'no' to the enemy and fight the enemy."
US military cash earmarked for development in these poverty-stricken districts adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and a US-funded project to pave the important Khost-Gardez Pass road adds at least $60 million. They are meant to be the fruits of better security.
"This is the big plan of the government," Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq, the top Afghan regional commander, told the elders. "We should provide a situation where the people and the government should connect together."
"I believe the government did not have an opportunity to see each village individually," said General Khaliq. "Right now we have the opportunity to meet with all the elders, all the district commissioners, and all the members of parliament … because we have good security right now."
"Do not let terrorism come and reside in your place," the general warned. "Do not allow your children to grow up as terrorists. We will help. We will build roads. All this is for your benefit."
But nearly six years after the fall of the Taliban, these elders from the sizable Zadran tribe, living in an area of significant insurgent and criminal influence not far from the border with Pakistan, have heard such promises before.
Convincing them to side with the government – despite its often negligible presence in their lives – may be harder to achieve than militarily clearing the insurgents. But it is meant to be the long-term result of the US counter-insurgency strategy.
"The challenge with all these operations is the nonkinetic phase," says Thomas Gregg of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), who has worked three years in the southeast. He says it remains unclear if the government – the police and district officials – can fill the "power vacuum" created after militants are forced out by Operation Khyber.
"So the question mark remains over whether or not the government is in a position to properly harness the potential to expand its influence," says Mr. Gregg.
The problem presents a Catch-22 for US and Afghan forces, here and elsewhere, as they shift focus to the needs of the population.
Was Operation Khyber premature, because local government is not well rooted in these remote communities? Or was the clearing operation necessary now, to give the government the best chance of sinking such roots before winter sets in at these high altitudes?
"This is not a battle of bullets; this is a battle of ideas," says US Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in southeast Afghanistan.
"The Taliban message is clearly one of threat and intimidation" that targets women, local officials, schools, and clinics, says Colonel Schweitzer. The government's message, he says, can "beat it" by offering education and jobs, and by encouraging Afghans to "look to your government for the solution, versus the Taliban."
But to do so, effective government must extend into rarely reached villages and offer an alternative. Until now, the writ of the weak Afghan government – widely seen as corrupt and focused on Kabul – has made only limited progress.
Still, Schweitzer says that of the 83 districts that he tracks, 58 are now in "direct support" of the government, up from 30 districts a year ago. The year before that, he says, only eight or nine were so closely aligned.
Schweitzer also says that even though US casualties are up 10 percent in Afghanistan this year, in eastern areas they are "significantly reduced" by two-thirds in his area, compared to last year. He confirms about a two-thirds drop in kinetic operations, also, with softer, nonviolent tactics that include using an anthropologist to learn more about Afghans.
But delivering on government promises, or even maintaining security, is hard in these remote mountains near the Pakistani border.
"In almost all districts … there is a desire to receive the practical benefits of reconstruction," says Gregg of the UN. "They want a functioning government. They want functioning, impartial courts. They want [the Afghan National Police] to play their policing role."
But that does not mean all districts support the government or that all others are in "active opposition" to it, says Gregg, who questions how US officers calculate the level of support.
"Are the people just being sufficiently coerced [by militants], where they can't be part of the political process, because of the degree of intimidation they are under and the absence of police?" he asks.
At the jirga under the tent of broad white and blue stripes, some men – including a handful of parliament deputies brought in from Kabul – expressed gratitude for Operation Khyber, which yielded more than 30 arrests, including that of a 6-foot 4-inch Russian with a red beard and wearing a black burqa, whose truck was full of explosives.
But others were unconvinced. Nadir Khan Katawazai, a member of parliament from nearby Paktika Province, was grateful that no civilians were killed in Operation Khyber, but said there were few achievements because militants had left and would return "refreshed" after hiding in the mountains.
And, he says, extending government rule is going to be tough. "When I was first elected by the people of Paktika, I made a lot of promises, because the government made me promises," Mr. Katawazai, told the elders, his head wrapped in a vast, gold-silk turban. "But all these promises [weren't kept], and today … the people think that I am a liar."
And so far, militants have an advantage: "Today the enemy are fully active [and] can easily go to each village, can go to mosques and preach to people," says Katawazai. "By contrast, the government is weak … [and] never gets the word out to the people."