"They're threatening them, they're taking their food, they're creating checkpoints and taking away cell phones and personal property," says Lt. Chris Ward, another platoon leader in Alpha Company who showed us the abandoned school. "The locals haven't decided yet that they want to standup. They're notorious for sitting on the fence until they feel like they know who's going to be the winner. We're trying to communicate to them that we are going to be the winners."
On a recent patrol with Ward and his men, that message was received skeptically.
Ward walked through the local bazaar, stopping to chat with about a half dozen shop keepers, most of whom had moved their homes because of the local Taliban.
"If… the warriors of Zhari district stand up to them, they will have no place to stay and they'll have to leave," Ward said to one shopkeeper, reflecting a realization that American troops in the area need the help of local villagers to bring security. "We want to encourage you to choose the winning side. We're here to stay."
Asked by a reporter if he was willing to stand up to the insurgents, the shopkeeper -- an old man who sold bread – was skeptical.
"We can help them if they promise to bring peace," he said.
And do you think the Americans can bring peace?
He paused. "They're here now. And there's no peace."
"A Lot of Hard Work"
Western Zhari's security problems existed long before Alpha Company arrived. As company commander Capt. Chris Ullrich points out, his men have effectively executed their first priority: clearing Highway One.
The paved, American-built road runs from Kabul to Kandahar, makes a right, and then runs right past Alpha Company's headquarters on its way to Helmand. When 2nd battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade arrived in this area last summer, the road was littered with burned out trucks -- physical reminders of insurgents' presence. Roadside bombs regularly destroyed local cars and convoys carrying American equipment. And farmers in the area -- so desperate use the road to deliver their crops -- were too scared to do so.
Today, the road is much safer. Constant American patrols, stepped up Afghan Army intelligence, and an intricate system protecting ditches that run beneath Highway 1 has eliminated virtually all of the bombs on the highway itself.
Ullrich argues that compared to Christmas, when he arrived here, Alpha Company has made huge strides in western Zhari. "Nobody had been here in years. We didn't have a lot of intelligence on how these guys communicated or operated," says Ullrich, whose skinny, almost angular face softens when he talks about his men.
Today, Ullrich argues Alpha Company has handed the newly arrived forces a "good understanding" of where and how insurgents launch attacks, as well as a map of the insurgent leadership itself. "That knowledge has taken a lot of hard work," Ullrich says, and the new units won't have to "start from scratch."
But Ullrich acknowledges that Alpha Company has only been able to manage so much, with few resources.
"I can go in and own it for a day or two days, but when I leave, they can move back in," he says with a sigh, referring to the insurgents. "I can't yet push in and get closer to the people and under the Taliban's skin."
"I don't have a rifle."