"The insurgency does not begin where the highway ends," Torelli says, quoting a common refrain among officials in Washington. "The insurgency begins at the highway. They view it as a soft target."
Today teams of Romanian soldiers patrol the highway and, increasingly, the villages a few miles on either side of it. That is a change, according to the lead non-reconstruction officer in the province, Major Greg Cannata. Villagers, he says, are beginning to have a little more trust in coalition forces because of the increased presence. He hopes that will increase as the U.S. sends more troops into Zabul in the coming weeks.
The villagers say, "'Okay, the first time we see you, this is new, this is different. The next time we see you, it's, okay, you've come back.' And they develop a little trust there and then third time, 'okay, now I'm buying into what you're saying,'" Cannata says. "So this isn't something that is going to be accomplished overnight. It will take a while to build that trust and confidence."
Ultimately, to increase development the U.S. will have to first increase security across the province. In many areas, it's too dangerous for development experts to work.
That will be the responsibility of the additional soldiers, who will try and increase the U.S. presence across hundreds of tiny Zabul villages that rarely if ever see U.S. troops.
In those villages right now, even if the U.S. delivers development aid, it often doesn't go to use because there aren't enough U.S. soldiers to defend the villages from the Taliban. "They steal the humanitarian aid after beating up the people for taking it in the first place," Torelli says.
The new soldiers will not only present themselves as fighters. They will largely be responsible for defending the population from the Taliban, rather than simply seizing land or eliminating fighters.
And that is because the U.S. has shifted its focus in Afghanistan from the enemy to its allies: the villagers who, in the long run, will need to defend themselves from the Taliban when the U.S. leaves.
"They will be happy to get behind us" once the U.S. provides enough security to develop the villages, Cannata says. And when the U.S. soldiers arrive at villages that haven't seen western troops since the beginning of the war, they likely won't be shooting, according to Cannata.
"What we do bring when we finally have an opportunity to bring it is going to be a well and a school -- and peace, finally."