MOQOR, Afghanistan—Raz Mohammad, the newly installed police chief in this town of adobe compounds, ramshackle shops and rickety stalls, needed help, and he needed it quickly.
The Taliban had torched part of his headquarters the previous week, killed his civilian boss a day earlier, and now they were gunning for him. Fifteen of Mohammad's 20 officers had bolted. Then there was the fact that the local militia chief he was replacing commanded 30 well-armed fighters and probably was in cahoots with the Taliban.
"I can't sleep at night. ... I'm afraid he will stab me in the back," said the lanky 25-year cop. "My immediate needs are razor wire and sandbags so we can build defensive positions. I don't have communications equipment. I'm lacking ammunition and weapons. I have nothing in my hands to resist enemy attacks."
Nodding and sipping tea, Army Lt. Col. Frank Sturek promised help. He'd send razor wire and 1,000 sandbags right away. And a U.S. platoon to secure Moqor's administrative compound until Afghan forces arrived. The local militia boss would be removed as quickly as possible.
Sturek also would bring in an Interior Ministry team from Kabul to recruit more police. He'd bring doctors to take care of sick residents and veterinarians for the livestock. There'd be humanitarian aid and help to rebuild the irrigation system.
This is the other side of the war in Afghanistan: As violence rages at its worst level in five years, U.S. forces are fighting back, but not just with force. They're also striving with new urgency to extend the Afghan government's authority to the hinterlands, where the rebels move freely, as well as deliver humanitarian aid, enlist the cooperation of tribal elders and kick-start reconstruction.
It's bedrock U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine aimed at denying the Taliban guerrillas the popular base they need to survive.
The problem, current and former U.S., European and Afghan officials and officers agreed, is that the United States failed to follow its own strategy in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
Instead, they said, the Bush administration, hostile to "nation-building," relied too heavily on military firepower and concentrated on hunting Osama bin Laden's followers, not rebuilding one of the most devastated countries on Earth.
The failure to make good on pledges of massive reconstruction has soured many Afghans on President Hamid Karzai and his U.S. supporters. Among the Pashtuns, the country's dominant ethnic group, sympathy has grown for the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns.
So U.S. commanders retooled their approach earlier this year without direction from Washington, putting more emphasis on winning hearts and minds.
"It's not been an institutional solution. It's been a bottom-up solution," said Sturek's boss, Col. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in southeastern Afghanistan. "I'm encouraged by what I see. There is a real dialogue going on."
But the challenge facing U.S. commanders is monumental, and it may be too late to prevent Afghanistan from sinking into greater violence and political chaos.
Infrastructure is virtually nonexistent in the countryside, where a majority of Afghans live in abject poverty. Many districts lack power, running water, telephones and roads. Some don't even have buildings to house the local administrators and police that the Americans are trying to help install. Many police officers are illiterate and have little or no training.
Sturek, a 39-year-old West Point graduate from Aberdeen, Md., who's also served in Iraq, kicked off the new effort, Operation Mountain Thrust, in early September with Task Force Warrior, more than 700 troops from the 10th Mountain Division's 2-4 Infantry Regiment from Fort Polk, La.
The operation by 9,000 U.S. and Afghan troops is focused on five eastern provinces bordering Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
While the soldiers continue to fight the insurgents, they're also putting greater emphasis on bolstering the shaky local governments and police departments in Afghanistan's districts (the equivalent of counties) or establishing them where they don't exist.
The 120 reconstruction projects include 26 new compounds to house district administrative and police offices and schools, along with roads, clinics and bridges.
Sturek, a father of two who could be Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris' stockier younger brother, has added some touches of his own, such as barring his troops from roaring down the center of the Kabul-Kandahar Highway. Soldiers and contractors adopted the practice to avoid roadside bombs, but it forces Afghans off the road, fueling anti-U.S. hostility.
Task Force Warrior soldiers do what they call "a wave test" to determine whether a village is under Taliban sway.
"The first time we came through here, we did a wave test to see if children waved back," explained Sgt. Maj. Joe Montour, 43, of San Diego, Calif., as he drove through a village called Nanga. "A kid waved back and an old man sitting next to him smacked him in the back of his head. That's a pretty good indicator."
Sturek took the machine gun out of his Humvee's turret as a gesture of goodwill. He attends Muslim prayers in remembrance of assassinated officials and has overseen food aid distributions and medical missions that have treated hundreds of Afghans. He also asks tribal leaders to choose police recruits and contractors.
"If I can engage the tribal elders and make them believe they can be part of the government through the district leadership ... then the Taliban have nobody to work with because the Taliban are going after the same people," he explained. "You have to do it where the enemy is strongest."
Task Force Warrior moved into a new base around the crumbling walls of a British colonial fort on a desert plain just off the main national highway in August. It's about 150 miles south of Kabul.
Its area covers parts of southeastern Ghazni and Paktika provinces, which have been hit by surges in Taliban attacks in recent weeks. The unit, on its first combat mission since World War II, was expected to return home in July. But its tour has been extended until November, and it's been told to be ready to ship out for Iraq next July.
Sturek's efforts have borne some fruit, especially in Moqor. The district of 90,000 people depends on a bazaar that straddles the national highway, and it has a tradition of sending educated young men to work as civil servants in Kabul.
Some 1,300 girls—who under Taliban rule were banned from going to school—attend a new Norwegian-built school inside the district compound where Mohammad's office is located.
The lilt of young voices reciting lessons wafted from the school as Sturek's soldiers took up positions around the compound and Afghans began unrolling razor wire and filling sandbags. Nearby sat the rusting carcass of a Soviet-built tank.
"The kids are the ones who are going to make the changes," said Sgt. Lawrence King, 35, of Great Falls, Va., as he stood in the dusty schoolyard, cradling his rifle. "I thought the mission was to go out and kill Taliban before they can kill us. But it's a lot more than that. We have no choice but to do nation-building."
In a district called Nawa, where Sturek planned to spend $5,000 to build 14 mud-walled mosques, U.S. officers said locals were fed up with being terrorized by the Taliban.
"Everyone has told us they are glad we are here," said Capt. Sean Michael Ontiveros, 28, of Clarksville, Tenn. "The Taliban engaged us in the town (of Nawa) and we ran them off. People told us they were happy we're bringing in the government and the ANA (Afghan National Army)."
The Afghan government's many weaknesses, particularly corruption and a lack of funds, pose problems, however.
"The government doesn't care about anything. When Karzai says he will do something to promote education and pay teachers, that's nonsense," said Abdullah Payram, the assistant principal of the Moqor Girls School. "We haven't been paid in six months."
Moqor police chief Mohammad's only means of summoning help or talking to his superiors in Kabul were his personal mobile phones. But he was lucky. Many districts are beyond cellular range. So Sturek has been passing out satellite phones
In the Taliban-infested district of Dilla, the new civilian sub-governor and his police chief have had to make do with a tent while they await the construction of a new administration compound.
Like pioneers who crossed the western United States in wagon trains, Sturek's men secured the site by drawing their Humvees up at night in a circle inside a razor-wire perimeter.
Notes on the writer and photographer. MCT bio pictures are available.
Jonathan S. Landay, senior national security correspondent with the McClatchy Washington bureau, has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1985. His experience before his most recent trip: He was among the first Western journalists allowed back into the country by the former communist regime in 1987, rode with the first Soviet troops to leave the country in 1989, covered the fall of the Taliban and the fight against al-Qaida at Tora Bora in 2001 and reported on Afghanistan in 2005.
Tom Pennington has been a staff photographer with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for eight years. This is his third time covering Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Tom also has covered Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan and Iran and recently spent three weeks covering immigration and the war on drugs on the Mexico-U.S. border.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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