When the US Army's 1-66 Armored Battalion arrived in Kandahar's Arghandab district in late July, it was one of the most volatile regions of the country. There were 50 to 60 attacks per week here. In one tiny collection of villages the unit hit 72 roadside bombs in just three months.
Soldiers in the battalion's Alpha Company – commanded by Capt. David Ahern – quickly learned it was little use to ask villagers direct questions about insurgents. As happens elsewhere in Afghanistan, even if soldiers had just been spectacularly ambushed with roadside bombs and gunfire within view of a village, locals claimed to know nothing.
So Ahern and his men adopted a roundabout approach. Rather than hiking to a village and asking questions about the Taliban, they asked about the local well, for example. If there was a problem, even if it was one that could be fixed immediately, the Americans stretched out the fix over multiple visits. Whenever they visited the village they had a noncontroversial reason for being there, and eventually villagers voluntarily started sharing information.
Insurgents had mixed in with the population, but Alpha Company – which arrived in the Arghandab as part of the 30,000-troop surge sent by NATO to regain control of areas falling under insurgent control – was still capable of winning back the locals.
"When we first got here, the people really didn't want a whole lot to do with us," recalls Staff Sgt. Henry Davidhizar, who does intelligence work for Alpha Company. "They were scared and intimidated by the Taliban."
But the area has seen a dramatic turnaround. Now, a year later, there are just a handful of attacks each week, and not a single roadside bomb for four months in the area where 13 American soldiers lost limbs as the surge got started last summer.
The extra manpower allowed NATO and Afghan soldiers to push into volatile areas and establish additional bases and a consistent presence. But more than a reinforcement of brute strength, the surge relied heavily on using extra soldiers to better implement the military's three-step counterinsurgency or COIN (pronounced "COH-in") strategy: clear, hold, and build. In other words, separate insurgents from the general population, keep control of an area once militants are removed, and develop infrastructure and government to cement the change.
Part of the plan was to tap the experience of the unit's veterans, who'd developed an understanding of the COIN, like Ahern. When he was an ROTC cadet at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., there'd been no particular training in counterinsurgency. His first combat leadership role was heading a platoon in Samara, Iraq, in 2007, just as command of coalition forces was taken by Gen. David Petraeus, who literally wrote the Army's book on COIN.
"Everyone [here] has grown up under the COIN revolution, [so] it's no longer like pulling teeth to get people to think that COIN is the answer," says Ahern. Some soldiers are still annoyed that the infantry has become a hybrid of jobs under COIN, but he adds, "nobody thinks that we can continue to do everything that we did in Afghanistan for the first four years ... and hope to win."
The Arghandab represented the ideal setting for a COIN fight because it was populated by those who've traditionally worked with the government but drifted due to a growing sense of alienation.
Having accomplished Part 1 of the strategy – separating insurgents from the general population – Parts 2 and 3 involve creating the security that allows control of the area and paves the way for the government to offer meaningful services.
Alpha Company created specialized squads to train and mentor a new type of police referred to as the Afghan Local Police. Drawn from the community and falling under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Interior, the ALP are trained by US Special Forces and then stationed in their own neighborhoods to augment the national police.
The program has won praise in the US military because it's believed that the ALP can spot abnormal activity that outsiders overlook, namely suspicious outsiders. Hoping to extend the reach of the program and improve existing ALP units, Ahern created several yowzai squads – Pashtu for "fusion" – to partner with the local police groups.
"The Army tries to train you up on a lot of things, but at this level this is just something you learn from being on the ground doing it," says Sgt. William Reese, a yowzai squad leader in the village of Lowy Manarah. While the program in this village is just beginning, Reese says that the progress has given him renewed hope: "This is one of the first tours I've had where you can actually see the change over the course of the tour."
Still, as the US Army increasingly intervenes in local affairs, it may now be finding itself on uncomfortable ground. Throughout Afghanistan, the Afghan National Police are notorious for corruption, so it wasn't surprising when a local poppy farmer showed up at the American outpost in Lowy Manarah to complain that the ANP had beaten him for refusing to pay them an illegal tax on his harvest. The farmer didn't object to paying the ANP for protection, but he'd already paid someone in the ALP and couldn't pay again.
Sitting with US Army Lt. Brian Miraglia, the farmer casually suggested that he might attack the ANP checkpoint if the lieutenant couldn't resolve the problem. Not surprisingly, Miraglia asked the man to wait for him to speak with the ANP commander to find a nonviolent solution. "[Afghans] want immediate revenge. That's how they've always done things," said Miraglia.
Though there are signs of progress, in a country that's been at war for three decades, burying the hatchet may never be as easy as it seems.
Editor's note: This is part of a cover story project that is a report card on the surge, with on-the-ground reports from three facets of the surge: the US military, the Afghan security forces, and the Afghans themselves.