In the first post-9/11 battlefield, the challenges remain complexand deadly
HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTANFrom a lookout near a local prison, soldiers point toward the horizon and a wide swath of lush grass and palm trees that runs along the banks of the Helmand River. They have dubbed it "the Green Zone," an appellation that bears more than a trace of irony. This is not the sort of semisafe haven that the term conjures up in Iraqit is the hiding place of the Taliban, a base for attacks and ambushes.
Now that opium poppy harvesting season is over, the Taliban, preoccupied with the drug trade in recent months, has lately gotten back to the business of fighting in this southern part of the country. "We've seen more ambushes, more deliberative attacks," says U.S. Col. Michael Clancy, who heads up training for Afghan security forces in Kandaharbest known as the stronghold and onetime home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. And the attacks are increasingly sophisticated. "They know tactics. Some of their ambushes are classic, with kill zones and crossfire," Clancy adds. "They'll do coordinated attacks to hold a force so they can't respondthey'll do RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] in the front and back, then small arms fire out the wazoo. It gets pretty sporty down here."
Trust matters. Sporty is a soldierly understatement, but repulsing these attacks is the sort of dangerous work troops here are trained to do, they add, and they do it well. In any head-to-head confrontation with the Taliban, U.S. soldiers and their partners in the International Security Assistance Force tend to win handily. But the problems that most threaten the country today aren't often the sort the military can solve. Warlords jockeying for power in the national government. Rumors of corruption and drug trafficking involving high-level officials, including the brother of the president (true or not, officials say, they erode popular trust in the government). And low salaries for Afghan security forces that drive them to earn their money elsewhereoften by extracting bribes, occasionally by providing freelance muscle to the highest bidder.
Other tensions within the country have been exacerbated by the casualties of daily fighting. What soldiers here call the vital "third dimension"the use of air powerwins battles with the Taliban but is not helping with the elusive war for hearts and minds. A spate of civilian deaths in recent months has angered Afghans and spurred President Hamid Karzai to accuse forces here of being careless and indiscriminate. According to the United Nations mission in Kabul, some 600 Afghan civilians have been killed this year, more than half of them by Afghan or international forces.
This has prompted arguments among senior U.S. military officials about how best to handle such incidentsand has drawn criticism from America's partners along the lines that more coordination and less high-altitude bombing might help avert such incidents. American military officials tend to privately point out that they might not have to rely quite so heavily on air power if NATO allies here would fulfill their troop commitments.
All sides can, however, agree that these are pivotal times for a country on the brink. "In Afghanistan, we face a choice between audacious success and dismal failure," says Ronald Neumann, who finished up a tour as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in May. The outcome hinges on the government having a wide measure of popular supportwhat Neumann calls "the rough equivalent of democracy." To that end, there are new efforts underway to root out corruptionmuch of it inextricably linked with the booming drug trade-as well as to promote national reconciliation efforts to bring some former Taliban officials to the table, even into government.