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
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
"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
"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. …