In Kandahar, the Taliban Own the Night

On a recent evening Staff Sgt. Jeff Schaffer watched closely as a plain-clothes intelligence agent pointed to four different spots on a map of Kandahar. Schaffer is a squad leader in the first platoon of the 293rd Military Police Company, the only U.S. unit that regularly patrols inside the city center.

The intelligence agent showed a young, inexperienced Afghan police sergeant the location of a school on the edge of the city where insurgents had hid three jugs of explosives, destined to be used for the ubiquitous roadside bombs known in military parlance as IEDs.

The sergeant nodded with understanding, and the Afghan police and their American mentors left for a night patrol.

Multiple Kandahar residents say the Taliban "own the night." The regular night patrols that Schaffer leads are an attempt to take it back.

"The Taliban enjoy the limited visibility to have freedom of movement," Schaffer, 25, said as he walked along a rocky alley in the dark. The only light allowed was the red flashlight being used by reporters walking with him. "So us showing up sporadically here and there, it's good. It shows to locals that hey, we're out here, we're involved, we're going to be in your backyards day and night."

These missions are as much about security as they are about training, and the end of the walk revealed how far Kandahar police have to go.

The Afghan police sergeant arrived in the area where the school should have been. He then turned to Schaffer's translator and made an admission: He didn't know where he was going. Nobody had ever shown him how to read a map.

Kandahar will be the center of the new U.S. strategy announced by President Obama, according to military and civilian officials interviewed in Kandahar and Kabul. The goal: protect the population better than they have been protected so far.

At least 10,000 of the additional 30,000 troops Obama announced will be deployed in and around the city, officials say. Most of them will go to the city's outskirts to try to create what the new Canadian general in charge of Kandahar calls a "ring of stability" and a "true buffer zone" to keep militants out.

"Kandahar," a senior U.S. military official in Kabul said, "is the crown jewel of the new effort."

Some of the reinforcements will be deployed inside Kandahar, boosting the number of military police who arrived early this summer. Their job will be to train woefully equipped police who, in many areas of the city, simply refuse to leave their stations without their American mentors.

The commander of the Afghan sergeant who couldn't read the map admits his police owe everything they have to foreign troops and would be overrun without them.

"We need the support of the coalition forces. We don't have enough ammunition or equipment," said Abdul Qadir, who lost three members of his family to Taliban attacks. "We have our uniforms and we're sitting here today because of the coalition's help."

Obama made clear this week that training the Afghan security forces was the only way to "create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans" and eventually leave Afghanistan. That is especially true in Kandahar City, where Western officials long ago decided against sending in a significant number of foreign forces who would just provide more targets to the militants.

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