How to Win in Afghanistan

Nearly eight years in, a look at how the war in Afghanistan can be won.

MUKAREK, ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan, July 27, 2009 — -- 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.

Those Marines are reaching parts of the south that have had little if any western presence since 2002. Their job and the job of the troops moving into Zabul will be less about seizing land or killing Taliban than it will be about defending the population from the militants.

The war here will be turned around, military officers across the country say, by creating local government and military capacity, and it will be won village by village, district center by district center, sitting with and convincing the Afghan population that U.S. soldiers are able and willing to defend residents from the Taliban – therefore giving the villagers the confidence to defend themselves.

"I have no doubt that we can pretty much go anywhere in this province that we want to go," says Higgins' commander, Major Greg Cannata. "The problem is the Taliban can also go anywhere because we don't have enough force to stop them. And we don't provide enough security in the people's mind at the village level to reassure them that when we're not there, it's okay."

And so very little has changed in Mizan since the troops of the 1-4 infantry, who are based in Germany, began rotating through this province a few years ago. The soldiers still patrol the same valleys and villages that their predecessors did, and they are still fighting over the same land. The war here is essentially a stalemate.

"It might feel it's been groundhog day for three years," admits Cannata. "We can go wherever we want and so can the Taliban. And until we can stop them from doing that, yeah, we're not winning. Is that point coming? Absolutely it's coming."

The Increased Footprint

Since the war began the United States has largely left southern Afghanistan to Canadian and British leadership, who have deployed approximately 11,000 troops across the south. By the time of the national election next month, more than 15,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers will also be serving in the south.

Higgins' need for more troops became obvious in the first hours after an ABC News reporter and cameraman arrived on Forward Operating Base Mizan.

Higgins and about 12 American soldiers set off for a walking patrol of the Mizan valley, the riverbed and hills immediately behind the base.

As always, the patrol is led by Afghan police, who are followed by Afghan soldiers, and then American soldiers in the rear.

Within 20 minutes the sound of AK-47s fill the air. The Afghan forces have spotted a Taliban spotter on the hill and opened fire. They also reported seeing other fighters and being shot at, have unleashed a loud volley of bullets and RPGs onto a ridgeline above the base. The air smells of gunsmoke.

The Taliban Escapes

The Americans rush to catch up, calling in backup.

"Watch and shoot. Tell them to watch and shoot!" Higgins yells, worried the Afghan forces would accidentally target civilians. "They get a little overeager sometimes."

Higgins and his men are panting by the time they push forward to the lead Afghan shooter. From here, they can observe that the Taliban fighters had fled into a nearby orchard.

"We've cleared orchards before. It's a nightmare. You need a pretty large force to be able to do it," Higgins says. He looks through his binoculars and makes a decision: trying to chase the Taliban through the thick set of trees is too risky.

And so on this day, the Taliban escape.

"We only have a platoon strength," Higgins continues. "So we're limited in the operations we can do. Clearing the orchard is one of them. And that's why this whole troop surge thing is going to be a bonus. So once they get more dudes out here we can actually do more than just disrupt the enemy here, we can more effectively hunt them down and destroy them."

The Enemy

The majority of the enemy in Zabul are Afghan villagers, according to intelligence officials in the province. They are paid somewhere between $100-$200 a month, funds that are either donated from the Persian Gulf or taken from profits of the massive opium trade in southern Afghanistan.

Their leaders are almost all foreign: Pakistani, Uzbek, or Chechen. The three supply lines that run into Zabul – and most likely into the heart of southern Afghanistan, although U.S. officials don't seem to know for sure – all come from Pakistan.

Their lack of certainty about the supply line comes from a lack of intelligence. Just as the number of troops have been too low to secure more than a fraction of the province, the intelligence assets have also been neglected.

"Zabul is a black hole of information," admits the sergeant in charge of intelligence for the province.

They do know that the biggest threat to troops across the province, similar to across the country right now, is from the roadside bombs known by their military initials IEDs.

Until recently, the top month for IEDs was April 2009, when 36 exploded or were defused -- more than double any previous other month.

But then the number in May more than doubled the April record.

The IEDs are so simple, they're sophisticated. One IED that nearly killed three members of the Mizan Forward Operating Base in April had no metal in it at all, making it virtually undetectable. Only rubber triggers, toilet paper, and a sticky substance kept it together. It completely destroyed a humvee.

In Zabul the IEDs have been especially debilitating, pushing U.S. soldiers off of already poor quality roads. Sometimes to avoid the roads they drive through wheat fields, destroying parts of the local farmers' crops -- their only source of income.

When the IED destroyed the humvee, "it was at that point that our platoon realized we were facing an enemy that has adapted to what we used to fight them," says Gautier, who had been checking the road for IEDs. Before the explosion the soldiers had picked up Taliban fighters' communicating over walkie talkies, promising to attack the U.S. convoy.

The Inkblot in Afghanistan

"Before that, we didn't know the enemy communicated," Gautier continues. "We didn't actually know how complicated it really was. Now we actually know these … different factions talk together. And not just talk, but organize and work together."

Senior commanders in Afghanistan hope more troops can create security that spreads as an inkblot would: starting from district centers and population centers and extending out into more remote areas, creating a cloud of confidence and quiet.

That will be done, the commanders say, by sending more troops into key areas so they can reach more villages and create a sense of confidence that Afghan and American troops can help villagers defend themselves against the Taliban.

The goal is not to capture more land in the traditional sense. The goal is to be able to defend the population from the Taliban. Right now, there are simply too many people and too many villagers who don't feel as if anyone is defending them.

"The Taliban could own this province, but not because they're closer to the population," says Lt. Col. James Overbye, who is in charge of training the Afghan Army in Zabul. "It's because the population is farther away from us."

The U.S. reach has already exponentially expanded thanks to the presence of the 82nd airborne, which arrived in southern Afghanistan in the last few months. Their Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters have helped defend large swaths of Highway 1, the road that runs from Kabul through Zabul and on to Kandahar.

And they have allowed U.S. soldiers to more easily reach the sites where Taliban fighters have been attacked, giving the U.S. more intelligence and enabling the military to better publicize information about the enemy. "You can kill as many Taliban as you want," Cannata says," but if you don't exploit their deaths, it doesn't matter."

The new forces, Cannata says, will hopefully be able to "secure those district centers to allow the government of Afghanistan and future forces a foothold so when there is enough capacity in forces and effort and government intent to expand further into Zabul and reach more people, they've got a foothold to do it."

It will be up to the soldiers arriving in the next month to execute that expansion and turn around the war.

"Afghans, they want to know the U.S. is going to win. Then they will help us," says a development official in Kabul. "But right now, it's not clear who's winning."