Looking for the Good Guys in Afghanistan's Badlands

American forces try out new approaches against insurgents in forbidding Kunar province.

Master Chief Petty Officer Jesse Slothower (left) and 1st Lt. Alexander Thurman talk with young Afghans in a remote area of Kunar province.

Master Chief Petty Officer Jesse Slothower (left) and 1st Lt. Alexander Thurman talk with young Afghans in a remote area of Kunar province.

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Map locating Asadabad in Afghanistan

ASADABAD, AFGHANISTAN—On some days, Sgt. James Himrod and his buddies watch what they call "Kill TV" in the control room at Forward Operating Base Michigan, their remote mountain outpost at the foot of the embattled Korengal Valley. Video monitors show the action as U.S. helicopters unleash Hellfire missiles and other high-tech weaponry at the meagerly armed enemy. "You'll see a group of five of them running down the hill, and then, blam, they are all dead," says Himrod. "Sometimes," he adds, "I think we are trying to kill flies with an ax."

Himrod recognizes that the combat images on the small screens do not capture the big picture of how U.S. military strategy is shifting in Afghanistan. That can be seen more clearly at the base used by the NATO-run Provincial Reconstruction Team near the provincial capital of Asadabad, where lessons learned from six years of fighting the war on terrorism are being translated into new counterinsurgency tactics. Taking the lead on that are the road engineers, "human terrain" officers, and good governance experts serving under Col. Chip Preysler's contingent of the U.S. Army's 173rd Division.

Al Qaeda influences. Tiny Kunar province is one of Afghanistan's most violent battle fronts—and a testing ground for new anti-insurgency tactics. The region of inhospitable, rocky terrain straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border, an area where al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be hiding. A notorious Egyptian al Qaeda leader, Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, and his armed followers roam Kunar's mountains and valleys, intimidating local Afghans and engaging in regular attacks on U.S. forces.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Larry LeGree, who heads up the military's "stabilization" efforts here, admits that the work his experts and foot soldiers do is not what U.S. soldiers and sailors usually sign up for. "Call us well-meaning amateurs, but we showed up for the job," says the Naval Academy graduate. The 80-man team that LeGree commands is the central actor in the U.S. government's efforts to achieve a degree of peace and prosperity in Kunar. "Everything we do goes to the idea of looking for an end state in Afghanistan," he adds.

That end state is a long way off. Corruption is as endemic in Kunar as it is across Afghanistan. The last governor, Haji Mohammed Didar, a notorious warlord with a penchant for highway shakedowns and with ties to the same insurgency that U.S. forces are fighting, was sent packing last November. He is best remembered for squandering a half-million dollars to give away 5,000 goats to bolster his popularity. He is suspected of embezzling more than $2 million in Afghan and American money, say U.S. and Afghan government sources. On his way out of the country last week, Didar was prevented by LeGree's soldiers from hurrying off with a $190,000 armored car that belongs to the U.S. government.

But change is in the making, says Capt. Jay Coughenour, a reservist who is also a senior official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Los Angeles. The new development-savvy governor, Sayed Wahidi, has helped to cobble together district-level meetings aimed at establishing public services. For the first time in decades, large groups of men and women are meeting in downtown Asadabad to hammer out, with American and United Nations support, their complaints and needs. The men sit on the floor around a drawing of a giant "problem tree." They cut scrap paper and paste their ideas about the "root" causes of government corruption and inaccessibility.

As Coughenour, who dresses in local garb and leaves his machine gun on base, makes the rounds to the offices of the health and welfare administrators, all of them pay at least lip service to Governor Wahidi's new anticorruption campaign. The U.S. government gave Kunar province $40 million last year alone for development, although only some of that money is accounted for. As one U.S. Army colonel says: "In Afghanistan, it is not just a matter of corruption; it is a matter of knowing precisely how corrupt your partners are."