How to Win in Afghanistan

How to Win in Afghanistan

This tiny village, nestled in a dry riverbed at the base of the Toar Ghar mountains, is a Taliban transit town. It is only two miles from the nearest U.S. base, but militants come here more often than American soldiers.

The village elder and the town's 30 other residents sit in a circle, sipping tea from cups too hot to hold, with Lt. Patrick Higgins, the lead officer of the U.S. effort in this district. This is the second time he and his men of Bravo Company, 1st Batallion, 4th Infantry, have been here in the last two weeks.

Higgins asks about their families and asks about the local Taliban commander. The villagers thumb prayer beads and say they don't know where he is.

Click here for a map of Zabul Province

After the handshakes, after the Afghan soldiers and policemen lead their American counterparts to waiting Humvees, the village elder breathes a sigh of relief.

What he says in an interview pinpoints why the U.S. admits it isn't winning in Afghanistan, especially in southern Afghanistan, the historic heartland of the Taliban.

This story is part of an series THE FIGHT FOR AFGHANISTAN, WHERE WE STAND. The complete series so far can be found on this site's NEWS page.

He says Taliban fighters threaten not only him but the "whole village" if he cooperates with the U.S. soldiers. He wants a school and a clinic, but there are not enough U.S. soldiers to stop the Taliban from entering the village. And he does not have the means to defend himself against a well armed and seemingly well financed enemy.

"We are fed up with you, and we are fed up with the Taliban," he says. I am lost."

This is the neglected part of the neglected war, and the U.S. is only now trying to fix it. For years there have not been enough soldiers, enough development experts, enough training of Afghan forces in this province or across southern Afghanistan.

For Higgins, that means he doesn't have enough soldiers to reassure Mukarek that it is under the "bubble" of U.S. security and prevent Taliban fighters from moving freely through the town. Ninety percent of this province is still under Taliban control.

"At night, if they want to come in through those valleys, through those cuts, through those back mountain trails," he says of the Taliban, "there's not much we can do to stop them."

"This is one of the main routes the enemy uses from Pakistan to get to the central heart of Afghanistan," says Sgt. Nicholas Gautier, a platoon leader under Higgins, as he sits on the Mizan Forward Operating Base. "We have Taliban training camps right on the opposite ridges. And Taliban strongholds which, if we could hit, if we had the resources to get us there and the resources to be sufficient in a fight, we could really effectively stop the training and the movement of the Taliban coming into Afghanistan. But we don't."

And so for the first time the U.S. is flooding the zone here in coming weeks. About 6,000 members of the 5th Stryker "Destroyer" Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are arriving at the largest regional base, Kandahar, in order to massively increase the number of troops in Zabul and its surrounding provinces.

U.S. and Taliban in Afghan Stalemate

Already, 10,000 Marines have started their own push just west of Zabul -- in Helmand and Farah provinces -- and are currently conducting one of the largest operations of the war in Helmand, which provides 90 percent of the world's opium.

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