At a recent meeting of local government officials in east Afghanistan, a US Department of Agriculture representative lays out plans to build cold storage facilities for local farmers that would allow them to sell produce out of season at higher prices.
After listening quietly, Mohammad Hasan, a senior sub-governor asks a question that sparks nearly an hour of debate and ultimately questions whether the US mission here has worked at all.
“The Taliban threatens people not to accept development projects with American money,” he says. “How are we supposed to build these storage facilities? If we talk about them, the Taliban will kill us.”
Almost 11 years into the US-led war in Afghanistan and just weeks before the US military begins winding down its yearlong surge into Ghazni Province, the situation still remains so tenuous that locals worry about the safety of accepting development aid from the West.
For the past year, Ghazni has been home to one of the final major US military offensives in Afghanistan. Though the US military says it's made significant gains here, it remains unclear if these improvements can hold as the number of US troops drops.
The farming province became the focus of the US military because of the road that passes through it, linking Kabul and Kandahar, the nation’s two largest cities. Known as Highway 1, it connects Afghanistan to neighboring countries and is critical for trade.
With security established in Kabul and improving in Kandahar, US military planners wanted to eliminate the instability in the areas between them.
In Ghazni, the 1,000 Polish troops posted there reportedly lacked the resources to do much more than secure the area directly around the highway and did little to protect the outlying villages. As a result, the Taliban managed to gain a strong foothold in Ghazni.
Last summer, the US military took control of the province and increased the number of soldiers there to nearly 3,000.
“Overall the mission was to come in and produce a stronghold,” says US Army Lt. Matt Long, a platoon commander in Delta Company of the 2-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment. “I think we’ve significantly affected the area in what [the Taliban] can and can’t do.”
Throughout Afghanistan, whether these gains hold depends largely on the ability of the Afghan security forces that continue to take over responsibility for security ahead of the 2014 deadline.
In Qarah Bagh, many joint patrols are now planned and led by the Afghan military, with US troops there largely to support the Afghan National Army if it needs it.
Though US soldiers say that enough time remains to fine-tune their skills and get them ready for 2014, there remain questions about the ability of some Afghan soldiers.
At a recent training, an Afghan Army sergeant told of losing a friend who tried to remove a roadside bomb by taking several steps back and shooting at it with his rifle until it exploded and killed him.
“Prior to this [American] unit operating here, this Afghan National Army unit was really in a defensive fight to hold its own position and wasn’t really afforded the position to get much better,” says Lt. Col. William Ryan, security forces assistance team leader for the 2-504 PIR, who likens the Afghan military to a sports team without an off-season. “The contribution of the [the US Army] has … allowed the Afghan National Army to take time that it needs to get better.”
US military officials say “tactical and operational analysis” is still underway to determine how large a force will replace the current group of US soldiers currently stationed in Ghazni, but initial reductions are expected to be modest.
“What’s decisive is ultimately Afghans’ confidence in their security forces, both the police and the Army. Sure, us being here has had an impact on the enemy, but that impact is designed to give time and space to the Afghan security forces and the people to develop the relationship they need to have for our gains to be lasting,” says Maj. Jason Condrey, executive officer of the 2-504 PIR.
As US troop levels decrease, there is some question as to whether the Afghan forces will place the same level of focus on the villages far beyond the highway. Afghans tend to place greater emphasis on providing security through checkpoints than through patrolling.
“I think the highway will remain secure, but I don’t know about the villages,” says Lt. Kirk Shoemaker, a platoon leader in 2-504 PIR’s Charlie Company. He adds that while villagers are now open to speaking with American patrols that pass through, many seem to be waiting to see what will happen after the Americans begin to drawdown, he says.
In May, a group of villagers in Ghazni’s Andar district rose up against the Taliban after the group got too aggressive and had closed most of the area's schools. Despite hopes that the movement will spread to other areas of the province, no other uprisings have yet to materialize.
In the coming year, US Special Forces are expected to begin establishing Afghan Local Police units in the villages in Ghazni, which many say they hope will ensure that security does not slip away from the more remote areas of the province.
“Half the battle is the population. Once they all start turning on the Taliban, then the Taliban has no leg to stand on, and I do think we’ll get there sooner rather than later,” says Lt. Col. Praxitelis “Nick” Vamvakias, commander of the 2-504 PIR.