BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan — Five miles from the muddy bazaar where smiling merchants offered tea to U.S. Army Col. David Haight and insisted that outsiders were making all the trouble, a deadly reception had been prepared for his five-vehicle patrol.
A U.S. pilot had spotted men burying what turned out to be a bomb by the road where Haight was stopping to ask how he could help poor farmers and jobless youths who were desperate for any kind of work, including setting explosives for the Taliban.
The stocky combat veteran from Fairfax, Va., wasn't buying what he was hearing about all the troublemakers being outsiders.
"The IED" — improvised explosive device — "that was put on the road down there? The guys are from Baraki Barak," Haight said as he and his men made their way past dingy shops and fruit carts, their fingers rarely straying from the triggers, grimy children gamboling noisily in their wake.
Down the road, U.S. military engineers found and blew up the remote-controlled bomb.
The encounter illustrates the distrust and anger that U.S.-led forces face as the Obama administration tries to stem the Taliban-led insurgency by sending more American troops to Afghanistan and ramping up a strategy to start making good on years of empty U.S. vows to better the lives of ordinary Afghans.
The region where Haight's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, N.Y., deployed six weeks ago is shaping up as one of the most crucial proving grounds for the revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
The 2,700-strong force is headquartered about 40 miles from Kabul, the first major foreign contingent to deploy in Wardak and Logar provinces, a measure of how the Taliban are expanding their presence around the national capital.
Home to more than 860,000 people, the two provinces control the approaches to Kabul from the Taliban's southern bastions. Afghanistan's main national highway — and the key U.S. supply route from Pakistan's port of Karachi — runs up Wardak's border with Logar to Kabul and connects to Bagram, the largest U.S. base in the country.
The guerrillas are no military match for the Americans, but their encroachments are fueling a perception that Kabul is being encircled, which could make joining the guerrillas increasingly appealing to dispirited Afghans who otherwise hate the Taliban's harsh brand of Islamic rule.
"Perception is a reality whether you like it or not," said Haight, who like many of the Afghans he encountered on his patrol earlier this week expects the winter thaw to bring a significant increase in violence as insurgents test the new U.S. troops in the area. Since he and his unit deployed, they've been ambushed several times, but they've suffered no serious casualties.
There was little bloodshed in the two provinces before mid-2007, when the Taliban and allied militants began infiltrating from the south.
They ambushed private trucks, beheaded drivers, attacked Afghan security forces and set up shadow governments. Their crude Islamic courts settle feuds and punish criminals, filling a vacuum created by the corrupt police and dysfunctional local authorities with whom the U.S. soldiers are associated.
"The police are just worthless," fumed Fulat Khan, 20, when Haight said his troops were backing up the local cops. "Anytime there is a fight in the community, the police just laugh and watch it. We need an organization or a number we can call so somebody can come here and help us."
Until the 3rd Brigade Combat Team deployed, there were only 300 U.S. troops to help Afghan forces in Logar, Wardak and three neighboring provinces. Several hundred Turkish and Czech soldiers are restricted to overseeing small-scale aid projects.
Because no major American contingent was present for so long, U.S. officers have tagged much of the region "the Black Hole," an acknowledgement that they don't know the full extent of the Taliban threat in the area.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team's most recent five-hour patrol from Baraki Barak to Logar's provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, drove home just how tough its mission will be.
In addition to working with provincial leaders to jump-start local governance and aid projects, Haight has spent weeks trying to learn the complex tribal and ethnic dynamics of the rugged countryside in roadside chats.
He listened patiently to complaints about foreign troops, and he tried to explain how the stepped-up U.S. presence should allow aid groups to bring in projects that will create jobs.
"What's your motive here?" Bahuddin, 16, who like many Afghans uses only one name, asked Haight as his men on the street and in the turrets of their armored vehicles watched for any signs that cars passing through Baraki Barak carried suicide bombers.
"We want to help with security and make sure the Taliban don't intimidate people at night," replied the colonel, who did three tours in Iraq and is on his second in Afghanistan. "We want to help the local government provide jobs and stability."
Most residents refused to discuss the Taliban, an indication of the insurgents' intimidating presence, and several ridiculed the notion of a working local government.
Instead, they emphasized their economic plight, complained that U.S. convoys force traffic off the roads and voiced fears that the increased American presence will mean more civilian casualties.
"Please do not do any bombing in this area," pleaded Noor Agha, an unemployed engineer. "You need people to support you from the bottom of their hearts. If you put your heart out, they will put their hearts out."
One man in Pul-e-Alam cited incidents that were more rumor than fact, a common problem that's especially frustrating for Haight.
"Look at how we are standing here and talking. You are asking questions. Why don't you do more of that instead of snatch-and-grab operations?" said Samur Gul, a bearded taxi driver, to the approval of onlookers. "Innocent people are being killed."
Gul couldn't say when the last such operation took place.
Syed Hashim, a construction company owner, said he thought that there was still time for the United States to remedy its mistakes of the last seven years.
"When you open a dialogue, things can become smoother. We need face-to-face communications," Hashim said. "This can be a new era."
Reflecting on the patrol back at his base, Haight said he remained confident that the right combination of helping Afghan authorities restore security, improve governance and develop the local economy could drive the Taliban out of the area.
"I can't fix everything. I'm trying to fix the future," he said. "We have to succeed. There is no choice."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009