The 3,000 new American troops who arrived in recent weeks in Logar and Wardak provinces, both of which border Kabul, face a formidable challenge: establishing control in areas with little government presence and where insurgents operate freely.
In Band-e-chak, for example, a district capital in Wardak, gun-toting Taliban fighters regularly come into town on their motorbikes to do some shopping. They buy their produce and go home, driving past government offices unmolested.
"Policymakers in Washington will be watching the progress there closely," says Habibullah Rafeh, political analyst with the Afghan Academy of Sciences. "If [the US] can turn things around there, they can create the momentum to turn around the whole war."
The strategy in Logar and Wardak will be to push the insurgents out of their strongholds and eliminate their contact with locals, and to emphasize development and reconstruction, says Col. David Haight, commander of the newly arrived troops.
Insurgents' expanding control
Unlike areas of the Afghan south, such as Kandahar, the provinces close to Kabul were free from a sizeable insurgent presence until the last couple of years. The deteriorating security here mirrors the trends of worsening violence nationwide over the past year, where record numbers of foreign soldiers and civilians were killed.
In Wardak Province, insurgents today control six out of nine districts, according to interviews with locals and government officials here. They also control four out of seven districts in Logar Province, locals say. Parallel governments exist in each of these districts, with the Afghan government nominally occupying the district capitals but allowing the Taliban to operate freely.
Residents of Band-e-chak, the capital of Chak district, say the local government made an agreement with the Taliban. "They leave each other alone, so there is no fighting between the two sides," says Fazel Minallah. "Sometimes when officials from Kabul visit, the Taliban leave and the [district government] puts a bunch of police in the streets and everyone pretends there is no problem."
One other Wardak district even lacks a Kabul-appointed governor, leaving only the Taliban administration.
Complex militant networks
In addition to dealing with corrupt and ineffective local governments, US forces will have to contend with a collection of insurgent forces with different tactics and ideologies.
In Logar Province, the Haqqani network is the dominant insurgent group, according to intelligence officials. This network has sympathies with Al Qaeda and is considered one of the most dangerous insurgent outfits. Authorities say it may have been behind the daring simultaneous attack on three government offices in Kabul last week, for example.
Here in Wardak, the rebel group Hizb-i-Islami controls two districts and the Taliban four. Hizb-i-Islami was a leading guerrilla force that fought against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and maintains ties from that time.
The rebels' ranks here are drawn mostly from the local population, unlike some other provinces where the Taliban imports fighters. "This could make it harder for the US to separate the insurgents from the population and isolate them," says Waliullah Rahmani, an insurgency expert with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.
Like elsewhere, Wardak and Logar are home to a bewildering array for tribes, each carrying a complex history of rivalries and allegiances.
A group of tribes here, which locals call the Maidani, has historically supported Hizb-i-Islami and contributes fighters to its ranks. Other tribes have allegiances with the Taliban and still others support the Afghan government.
Locals wary of more foreign troops
Washington's biggest challenge, however, may be winning the support of a local population that is wary of American troops. "I had a meeting with my constituents," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Wardak Province. "They were completely, 100 percent against the arrival of foreign troops."
"People are worried that the injection of more troops will bring more civilian casualties," says Muhammad Hazrat Janan, a member of Wardak's provincial council.
"We don't want more fighting here," says Najibullah, a taxi driver. "When the Americans come, the Taliban attacks us." The others in his car nod in agreement.
Colonel Haight says he recognizes the problem of local hostility. "You won't be able to build trust overnight. It will take some time."
"We need to push into the villages," he adds. "We have to get out there and show the benefits of our presence."
These benefits will include fostering development and better governance, he says, to go along with traditional combat operations.
"They got the groceries here," he explains, referring to farm produce. "They can get it out of the ground, they just can't get it to the market."
The two provinces have few usable roads and related facilities.
US forces here plan to facilitate infrastructure development, which officials contend will lead to more economic opportunities for the locals.
"He who creates jobs is going to win this war," says Haight. "The Taliban can't create jobs, but if we can, it can make a real difference."
In addition, the Americans plan to help build the capacity of Afghan government.
They are meeting regularly with Wardak's governor Muhammad Halim Fedayee. "I have been focused on getting qualified staff and creating a transparent and accountable government," Mr. Fedayee says. "If the Americans don't continue this approach, we are all in trouble."
Debate over arming Afghans
US officials are also backing the creation of an armed paramilitary force in Wardak known as the Afghan Protection Force. Village elders will nominate groups of young men, who will be vetted, trained, armed, and given a uniform by the Ministry of Interior. These groups will be tasked with providing neighborhood security – there are only 460 police officers for the more than half a million people there – and acting as a "holding force" in areas where insurgents are cleared out, according to Afghan officials.
While the plan is popular with locals who see the possibility of jobs in a province where they are scarce, many analysts say there are dangers in providing weapons to tribesmen in a region awash with arms and in a country with a history of civil war.
Government officials in Wardak, however, support the initiative. "The US should be helping support all local Afghan security forces, instead of sending in troops," says provincial council member Mr. Janan.
The provincial council is an elected body that advises the provincial governor. As the Taliban increased its hold over Wardak, council members started to leave the province. Now, none of the nine members even live in Wardak – they've all relocated to Kabul.
"My family can't stay there anymore," Janan says. "We just sit and wait for the day that we can return."