Parallels
12:33 pm
Thu May 30, 2013

As The Clock Ticks, U.S. Forces Scale Back Afghan Goals

Originally published on Thu May 30, 2013 5:15 pm

As the American military winds down its efforts in Afghanistan, grand plans for nation building are giving way to limited, practical steps: building up the Afghan forces and denying the Taliban key terrain, especially the approaches to Kabul.

About an hour south of the capital Kabul, one Green Beret team returned to a village where American forces had pulled out.

Lt. Col. Brad Moses, who was in the Sayed Abad district four years ago, wandered around the government center and expressed disappointment at the scene.

Glass is shattered at some buildings. The roof of one has caved in. Across the yard are stacks of scorched and twisted cars. All this damage is the work of a truck bomb in 2011 that killed five Afghans and injured nearly 80 U.S. soldiers. After that, the American forces pulled out.

"This was the agriculture building over here, and the women's affairs and all the line ministers that were working out of here," Moses says. "It was nice ... the glass fronts, that was all civil affairs projects put in there, the flag pole, demonstrating their resolve."

The small team of Americans here now is riding around in all-terrain vehicles and large armored trucks, wearing body armor and carrying weapons. One of the Afghan government workers greets them.

"I'll pray for you guys to be successful," the Afghan official says.

Col. Moses thanks them and walks away. He's lean and intense, a New Jersey native who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan.

"It's a little disheartening to see a lot of time and effort and a lot of teams ... have been through here and this is where we're at," he says.

He points to a small green trailer tucked near one of the ruined buildings. That's now the local governor's office.

"I'll give him credit. He's still trying to be the district governor," Moses says. "I don't know how many people would do that."

Time Is Running Short

The Americans returned to this district in Wardak province just a week ago and they don't have much time. The team is scheduled to pull out this fall as part of the U.S. troop drawdown.

One of the main goals this summer in eastern Afghanistan is to work with the Afghan forces to secure two key provinces: Wardak and Logar. Both provinces curl under Kabul like cupped hands and serve as a staging area for Taliban attacks on the capital.

The surge of American troops several years back never made it to eastern Afghanistan in large numbers. So units like this Green Beret team have been shifted here to help hold back the Taliban forces that rise from the local villages or drift in like a fog from nearby Pakistan.

Moses commands all the Green Beret teams in eastern Afghanistan. He's hopeful his soldiers will improve things in this district, which straddles Highway 1, the crucial artery that connects Kabul to Kandahar, the country's two largest cities.

At midday, the highway is clogged with cargo trucks, fuel tankers and small pickups. It's too dangerous to drive at night because of bandits and Taliban roadblocks.

"I think the time is right to get the team to help empower the local population to stand up and defend themselves," Moses says.

That Green Beret team is building its base within yards of a previous team's base, now occupied by Afghan National Police. As the colonel and his staff tour the area, it's clear the new team has its work cut out for it.

An Ineffective Afghan Force

The Afghan Army battalion nearby is being replaced because of a poor track record and suspected ties to the Taliban. And the armed neighborhood watch here — called the Afghan Local Police or just ALP — is short on officers.

The Americans drive up a hill to the police checkpoint, which is little more than a shipping container stacked with sandbags. It overlooks the shattered district center and the surrounding valley. A tattered flag flies above.

This outpost is headed by Capt. Daoud, a small man in a drab military coat topped with a white and black checkered scarf. His curly black hair is streaked with red henna. Daoud says before the Americans returned last week, his forces were under constant Taliban threat.

"We were getting attacked every day [by] mortars," Daoud says, "but now with [the Green Beret] team we don't get any attacks."

This raises the question of whether the Afghan National Army could help. Daoud says his police are willing to work with the Afghan military. But, he adds, "the enemy is scared [of the Americans] — the ANA can't do what the Americans can do."

The Taliban just aren't afraid of the Afghan army, Daoud says. Senior American officers in Washington and Kabul routinely tick off statistics about the growing number of Afghan forces, about how they are in the lead. But that's not true here.

Later this fall, the American forces across Afghanistan will drop by as many as 15,000 troops, about a quarter of the current force. The roughly 20 Green Beret teams in eastern Afghanistan will be cut by half.

Lt. Col. Moses says that in Sayed Abad, the previous American withdrawal allowed the Taliban to slip back in.

From the hilltop police post, Moses points to a village a half-mile away. It sits on a slope, a collection of walled compounds. Next to the village is a three-story building, constructed by an international aid group.

Back in 2009, there were almost no Taliban there. But now the compound built by the aid group is controlled by the Taliban, according to intelligence reports.

Moses thinks the Green Berets will be able to team with Afghan forces to retake that village.

But in the short time he has left, he has serious doubts about the more ambitious goal of pushing into the surrounding valleys and rooting out the Taliban in their hiding places.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. What will last? That is the question as the American military winds down its efforts in Afghanistan. In the short time left, it's focusing on building up Afghan forces and denying the Taliban key terrain, especially the approaches to Kabul. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan. He recently went along with a Green Beret team as it returned to a village American forces pulled out of a year ago.

As Tom reports, any gains made back then did not last.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL BRAD MOSES: That's a little disheartening. When I was down here, our CAT 8 built this. That's what's left of it.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Lieutenant Colonel Brad Moses remembers better days just four years ago in the district of Sayed Abad. Now that he's back, he wanders around the local government center.

MOSES: This was the ag building over here. And then they had the women's affairs and all the aligned ministers that were working out of here. It was nice. Big glass fronts, that was all civil affairs projects that were put in there, the flagpole, demonstrating their resolve.

BOWMAN: The glass is all shattered now. The building's roof is caved in. Across the yard are stacks of scorched and twisted cars. All the work of a truck bomb in 2011 that killed five Afghans and injured nearly 80 U.S. soldiers. And then, the American forces pulled out. Now, a small team of Americans has returned, some riding on small all-terrain vehicles, others in large armored trucks, wearing body armor and carrying weapons. One of the Afghan government workers greets them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) I'll pray for you guys to be successful.

BOWMAN: Colonel Moses thanks them and walks away. He's lean and intense, a New Jersey native who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan.

MOSES: It's a little disheartening to see a lot of time and effort. A lot of teams have been through here and this is where we're at.

BOWMAN: He points to a small green trailer tucked near one of the ruined buildings. That's now the local governor's office.

MOSES: I'll give him credit. He's still trying to be the district governor. I don't know how many people would do that.

BOWMAN: It was only a week ago that the Americans returned to this district in Wardak province just south of Kabul in the form of a 12-member Green Beret team. They don't have much time. The team is scheduled to pull out this fall as part of the troop drawdown. One of the main goals for the American military command this summer in eastern Afghanistan is to work with Afghan forces to secure two key provinces: Wardak and Logar.

Both provinces curl under Kabul like cupped hands and serve as a staging area for Taliban attacks into the capital. Colonel Moses commands all of the Green Beret teams in eastern Afghanistan. He's hopeful his soldiers will improve things in this district, which straddles Highway 1, about an hour outside Kabul.

The highway is clogged with trucks at midday, fuel tankers, cargo trucks and small pickups. That's because it's too dangerous to drive at night with bandits and Taliban roadblocks.

MOSES: I think the team is right to get the team to help empower the local population to stand up and defend themselves.

BOWMAN: That Green Beret team is building its base within yards of a previous team's base, now occupied by Afghan National Police. And as the colonel and his staff tour the area, it's clear the new team has its work cut out for it.

MOSES: That's where they put up the lookout right there. Right up on top of that mountain and there was two guys up there yesterday just watching us.

BOWMAN: The Afghan Army battalion nearby is being replaced because of a poor track record and suspected ties to the Taliban. And the armed neighborhood watch here, called the Afghan Local Police or just ALP, is short-staffed.

MOSES: Those are dogs they tell you to stay away from. Probably not the nicest dogs around.

BOWMAN: The Americans drive up a hill to the ALP checkpoint. Little more than a shipping container stacked with sandbags, it overlooks the shattered district center and the surrounding valley. A tattered flag flies high above. That's where we meet the Afghan local police commander, Captain Daoud. He's a small man in a drab military coat topped with a white and black checkered scarf.

His curly black hair is streaked with red henna. Daoud says before the Americans returned last week, his forces were under constant Taliban threat.

CAPTAIN DAOUD: (Through interpreter) Anyway, we guard the special force team so we didn't get attacked. And before, we were getting attacked, like every day, like, mortar and PKM rounds, but now anywhere we go, the (unintelligible) teams, we don't get any attacks.

BOWMAN: Have you lost any policemen? Any killed or wounded?

DAOUD: (Through interpreter) In the last year, yeah, we give, like, two guys got killed, our guys, and one got injured.

BOWMAN: So why do you need the American Green Berets to help you? Why can't the Afghan Army help you?

DAOUD: (Through interpreter) We are happy to work with the Afghan ANAs, but the American guys, the enemy is scared of that.

BOWMAN: The Taliban are not afraid of the Afghan Army?

DAOUD: (Through interpreter) Afghan Army, no. Like they're afraid from the American Special Forces like this.

BOWMAN: That's a key problem. The Taliban aren't afraid of the Afghan army. Senior American officers in Washington and Kabul routinely tick off statistics about the growing number of Afghan forces, about how they are in the lead. That's not true here. And later this fall, the American forces across Afghanistan will drop by as many as 15,000 troops. The roughly 20 Green Beret teams in the east will be cut by half.

Colonel Moses says here in Sayed Abad, the prior American withdrawal allowed the Taliban to slip back in. From Captain Daoud's hilltop outpost, the Colonel points to a village just a half-mile away. It sits on a slope, a collection of walled compounds. Next to the village is a three-story building, constructed by an international aid group.

Back in 2009, there were almost no Taliban there. Not anymore.

MOSES: You look past this lot right down there, that's Taliban controlled.

BOWMAN: That village down there?

MOSES: That compound that was built by NGOs is now, according to all the intelligence that we've got, is Taliban leadership and there's been little progress. That's an accurate statement in this footprint, yes.

BOWMAN: So how does that make you feel four years later when you come back here and see really not much has done?

MOSES: These guys will fix it. They'll get it as far as we can.

BOWMAN: As far as we can. Colonel Moses thinks the Green Berets will be able to team with Afghan forces to retake that village. But he doubts they can achieve, by the time the Green Berets pull out in late fall, the more ambitious goal - push into the surrounding valleys to root out the Taliban in their hiding places. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.