Evidence of how far the US Army's counterinsurgency strategy has evolved can be found in the work of a uniformed anthropologist toting a gun in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Part of a Human Terrain Team (HHT) - the first ever deployed - she speaks to hundreds of Afghan men and women to learn how they think and what they need.
One discovery that may help limit Taliban recruits in this rough- hewn valley: The area has a preponderance of widows - and their sons, who have to provide care, are forced to stay closer to home, where few jobs can be found. Now, the HHT is identifying ways to tap the textiles and blankets traded through here to create jobs for the women - and free their sons to get work themselves.
"In most circumstances, I am 'third' gender," says Tracy, who can give only her first name. She says that she is not seen as either an Afghan woman or a Western one - because of her uniform. "It has enhanced any ability to talk to [Afghans]. There is a curiosity."
Such insight is the grist of what US forces here see as a smarter counterisurgency. "We're not here just to kill the enemy - we are so far past the kinetic fight," says Lt. Col. Dave Woods, commander of the 4th Squadron 73rd Cavalry. "It is the nonkinetic piece [that matters], to identify their problems, to seed the future here." Nearly six years after US troops toppled the Taliban, the battle is for a presence that will elicit confidence in the Afghan government and its growing security forces. "Operation Khyber," which started Aug. 22, aims for a more effective counterinsurgency - using fewer bullets and more local empowerment.
US commanders have doubled US troop strength in eastern Afghanistan in the past year. They are also fielding the HHT - a "graduate-level counterinsurgency" unit, as one officer puts it - to fine-tune aid and to undermine the intimidating grip of militants in the region.
"This battlefield has changed," says Colonel Woods, from Denbo, Pa., whose 450 or so troops are working with 150 Afghan police and 500 Afghan Army soldiers to bring security to three districts along the Khost-Gardez Pass, a key trade route. "I think the enemy has changed. He has to work harder to gain popular support. He can't work openly any longer."
Militant influence is palpable
US and Afghan officers estimate 200 to 250 Taliban, foreign fighters, and members of local criminal networks operate in the three districts - Gerda Serai, Swak, and Waze Jadran.
Several key Taliban leaders have been killed in Paktia Province and neighboring Paktika Province in recent months, and an expected Taliban spring offensive never took hold.
But this week in Chawni, as Afghan and US forces pushed deeper into territory steeped in Taliban influence, two 107-mm rockets fell close by on either side of their camp one night. No third shell came, and while the attack was small by the standards of Afghan violence, it illustrated the challenges of rooting out militants.
One villager in Chawni, where the high, dun-colored compound walls are divided by tall trees and irrigation ditches, recounts how, the night before, he had seen a Taliban convoy of six cars and two motorcycles pass through, preventing him from watering parched fields.
"I was very scared and didn't go outside," said the man, his white beard brilliant against his dark-green silk turban.
"The problem is at night, when the Taliban walk here," says another villager. "The government told us not to come out at night. The Taliban tell us the same thing."
US and Afghan officers say the militants meet after 11 p.m., make plans, then leave by 4 a.m. The fighters have been forced into the mountains, where radio intercepts reveal uncertainty and hunger.
"A lot of the counterinsurgency fight is to deny the insurgents the ability to feed and shelter themselves by the local populace," says Maj. …