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SAKYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan village elder Noor Mohammad stroked his white beard as he listened to a local government chief appeal for help to rebuild the economy of this snow-bound plateau shattered by war and the fight with the Taliban.
Mohammad and the other elders at an impromptu shura, or council, think they have seen it all before, but new U.S. counter-insurgency strategy backing Afghan government and security forces in the east of the country aims to break with the past and appears to be achieving some results.
"Many people came here and made promises, but nothing has been done," said Mohammad, the senior elder in the village of Sakyan, a scattered collection of sparse high-walled compounds and snow-bound fields in Paktia province, south of the capital Kabul and close to the border with Pakistan.
Afghan army troops, backed by U.S. forces, are in the middle of an operation in the district, until only a few months ago a Taliban stronghold.
But the object of the operation is not to kill Taliban rebels who have fed off discontent with the slow pace of development to relaunch their fight to topple the pro-Western Afghan government and eject foreign troops.
"Hurting people is not the purpose," said Colonel David Woods, the U.S. commander in Paktia. There has been no fighting and no casualties so far in the operation. "If we kill someone out here is sets us back. If no one gets hurt in this entire operation, and I mean on both sides, that's an awesome success."
The new U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine, published at the end of 2006, is now beginning to be felt on the ground and may be paying off. Between August and the end of October last year, there were 60 improvised explosive devices in the Zormat district of Paktia. Since November, there have been none.
While the harsh winter undoubtedly played a part, across eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces predominate, there has been a marked drop off in violence in the second half of 2007.
In the south, British, Canadian and Dutch troops have been locked in hard fighting, often forced to retake the same ground several times from the Taliban and losing a steady stream of soldiers in the process.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week complained some NATO forces were not properly trained in counter-insurgency. While he quickly downplayed his criticism, the implication was clear; U.S. troops do it better.
In Afghanistan, humanitarian workers have for years called on international forces to bring security so they could provide aid and development work.
The trouble is that there are not enough foreign or Afghan troops to hold all the ground, so security has been weak, which has meant aid has been largely absent from many remote areas and resentment at the slow pace of change and official corruption has strengthened the Taliban insurgency.
To break the vicious circle, the U.S. strategy is to turn the problem on its head and make development the objective, trusting that security will follow.
"The enemy is in our way, but he's an obstacle, not an objective. He's no longer the focus of our activity," said Woods.
Sakyan elders complained they had been caught in the middle of Taliban rebels and corrupt local police who extorted money at gunpoint or by threatening to hand villagers over to U.S. troops who they said would ship them off to jail in Guantanamo Bay.
The locally recruited police have now been sent away for retraining and replaced with officers from elsewhere. Smaller units of U.S. troops have set up bases in towns and villages across Paktia and the east.
Afghan army units now lead all operations and district governors are getting out of their fortified compounds, meeting elders and hearing their demands. But are they under orders not to make promises they cannot keep.
By spring, when Taliban fighters return from their suspected hideouts in nearby Pakistan, Afghan and U.S. troops hope to have won over the people enough for the insurgents not to find support.
"We understand it is the people who are the centre of gravity," said Woods.