BANGI: US Army Captain Aaron Schwengler removes his helmet and smiles as he sits down for tea with elders in an Afghan village. “It's always nice to come here because we don't get shot at,” he tells them.
Boys in Bangi, located in southeast Afghanistan's troubled Ghazni province, watch over a dirt wall as Schwengler sits cross-legged on a rug near a bleating goat, telling the elders why he is visiting.
He wants their support for a scheme which would see young men in the poor village, where unemployment runs at around 80 per cent, sign up to protect it against the Taliban for a salary of 100 dollars a month.
This is part of US efforts to use the annual winter lull in fighting, when many Taliban retreat to Pakistan to regroup, to undermine the militants by building bridges with locals across Andar district, which includes Bangi.
Although Bangi seems relatively safe for now – elders say it is several months since they have had trouble with the Taliban – the troops accompanying Schwengler are heavily armed and ever-alert against possible threats.
Several stand guard on a nearby roof, while others stop and search passing locals or take photographs and fingerprints of young men for a database designed to make convicting militants easier.
“If you're not Taliban, you don't have anything to worry about,” one soldier tells a 20-year-old man as he scans his fingerprints into a handheld machine.
Meanwhile, Schwengler is making progress.
Some elders say they like the scheme, which the military calls “Community Watch” and Afghan officials term “Afghan Local Police,” adding participants will be armed and tasked with protecting villages after three weeks' training.
But the elders want a local canal cleaned in return for their endorsement so farmers can grow more wheat, apples and grapes on the dusty land.
Schwengler tells them this should not be a problem, explaining afterwards:
“It's kind of one of those carrot in front of the donkey things.” His men, from B Company of Third Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, have endured a tough four months in Andar, a strategically vital corner of Afghanistan close to both the capital Kabul and the Pakistani border.
They are part of Taskforce Iron, which covers two districts in eastern Ghazni and saw a 300 per cent rise in significant activities against them on 2009 figures between deploying here in late August and the end of 2010.
The anti-Taliban plan – part of Washington's surge strategy announced more than a year ago – comes at a crucial time for coalition forces, ahead of planned withdrawals from July and after their bloodiest year in Afghanistan in 2010.
But the “real test” of whether it works will not come until April or May, when the worst fighting usually flares up again, explains Lieutenant-Colonel David Fivecoat, commanding officer of Taskforce Iron.
“We've seen some key indicators on the enemy – their tax collection structure, judges, key leaders, caches – that we'd like to take out this winter to make it much more difficult for them to return in the spring at the same level of violence,” Fivecoat says.
The Taliban's shadow governance structure has thrived in the area amid weak local bureaucracy.
Troops say they recently found a tax ledger detailing how Taliban representatives collect payments from local families who face threats and violence if they fail to pay up.
Taliban courts adjudicate on disputes over everything from land to marriages and the militants issue “night letters” to intimidate local people.
In September's elections, only three people out of a population of 110,000 voted in Andar amid widespread threats and disillusionment, while the Taliban controls what is taught in 25 out of 26 schools here, officials say.
Back on base, Schwengler voices frustration that he and his men will not be around to see if their strategy reaps rewards come springtime.
They head home in a few weeks after a year in Afghanistan, and for many, the canteen talk is already of Lady Gaga concerts, fishing and home cooking.
But some cannot stop wondering what will happen in Andar once they hand over to the next set of troops.
“There's going to be a fight. There's a lot of work to do before the local populace deny villages to the Taliban,” said Staff Sergeant Joseph Brown.
“The US forces that are going to be here are going to have a lot of weight on their shoulders.” –AFP