by DAVID AXE (reporting from Afghanistan)
Fifty miles south of Kabul, in the Kherwar district of Logar province, lies a low valley ringed by sharp peaks. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gukeisen, commander of coalition forces in the province, calls it “basically a bowl.” To the roughly 1,500 American, Czech and Afghan soldiers in Logar, the Kherwar bowl is legendary in its deadliness. It’s a Taliban stronghold.
The bowl, home to tens of thousands of Pashtun farmers, has only a handful of practical entrances through the mountains — on unimproved roads — making it perfect terrain for ambushes. “An entire Soviet divison was defeated here by the mujahideen” in the 1980s, Gukeisen recalls. In the current war, an American helicopter was shot down there. That taught the U.S.-led coalition that “you don’t go in unarmored.”
Until January, there were just 100 coalition troops in all of Logar. Today, with more American soldiers surging into Afghanistan, there are now around 1,000 U.S. and Czech troops, plus a battalion of Afghans. But the coalition is concentrated north of the bowl, in areas that are more urban, more easily accessible and friendlier towards the foreigners.
Gukeisen knew he had to fill the Kherwar bowl, eventually. Additional reinforcements might ease his task, but he wasn’t waiting around for extra troops. Gukeisen devised a plan to slowly spread his influence from his northern redoubts, southward into the bowl. He calls it his “extreme makeover,” after a popular U.S. television show, where celebrities help lucky couples repair and improve their homes.
In the districts north of Kherwar, Gukeisen’s soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavarly Regiment, identified the villages predisposed to cooperating with the coalition. Gukeisen color-coded those villages on a map, creating a field of green that he calls a “security bubble.” To cement their loyaly, Gukeisen’s troops lavish reconstruction projects on the bubble, including new schools, mosques, toilets and agricultural facilities. A 200-strong Czech reconstruction team helps oversee the projects.
It’s a “carrot and stick” idea, Gukeisen says. The carrot is the promise of reconstruction projects. He dangles that carrot on a stick, in front of the noses of Kherwar residents. If they want projects like their neighbors’, they have to help the coalition establish a presence in the disctrict. That means turning in the local Taliban leaders.
Sounds simple, in theory. But does it work? Gukeisen says it does. He recounts a recent episode in a nearby village. A resident asked an American soldier when the village would be getting its own projects. The soldier said, not until you turn in any dushman — the Afghan term for “bad guys” — that the village might be harboring. The Afghan thought about it for a moment, then pointed to a man and said, he does not belong.
Since the Americans arrived in Logar in January, human intelligence provided by Afghans is up 80 percent. Attacks are down 60 percent. Gukeisen’s methods are bearing fruit.
Kherwar’s being primed for development work. The Americans have conducted aerial reconnaissance and ground patrols. “Active intelligence operations” — a euphamism for “combat” — are common. But the Czech reconstruction team feels confident enough that it has begun tentatively exploring the district. “We’re changing the dynamics of the battlefield,” Gukeisen says.
But don’t expect speedy results. It took nearly a year to lay the groundwork for a successful economics-driven counter-insurgency campaign. It will take years more for that campaign to really show big results. Gukeisen, for one, looks to the planned 2013 district elections as one important goalpost, to show that Logar residents — in the bowl and in less dangerous districts — are ready to build a peaceful society.