July 30, 2010 / 5:42 AM / 9 years ago

Hearts and mind hard to reach in Afghan valley

SAIDON KALACHEH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Defeating insurgents in Afghanistan’s volatile Arghandab Valley would take time, but there were now enough U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat the Taliban, the area’s U.S. commander says.

A two-day push to widen security to “friendly” villages around a besieged U.S. combat post in Arghandab went awry this week, with American soldiers drawn into an insurgent fight and arguing with local people about their presence.

Soldiers shot and killed two suspected Taliban who had opened fire on them, although local people said the men were farmers. They accused U.S. troops of reacting to a backfiring tractor, underscoring how difficult the American mission to win support in the Taliban’s birthplace will be.

Colonel Arthur Kandarian, who commands the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, said he was confident Afghan soldiers now joining U.S. troops would eventually convince local people that the Taliban no longer controlled the fertile farmlands of Afghanistan’s bread basket.

“I think we are going to be fine. Across the three districts that I’m in charge of, we’re just starting to see additional forces in some of these areas. Security of the population takes time,” Kandarian told Reuters.

The Arghandab river valley is an important infiltration route used by the Taliban to attack U.S. forces and smuggle weapons and men a few miles east to Kandahar city.

An operation across Kandahar by U.S. and NATO soldiers is being planned, but insurgents in Arghandab are tying up Kandarian’s brigade with mines and hit-and-run attacks launched from thick cover in ripening grape and pomegranate plantations.

“NO HEARTS AND MINDS HERE”

U.S. commanders are pursuing a complicated counter-insurgency or COIN strategy, in which “protecting the population” takes priority over military efforts to defeat insurgents, thereby winning local “hearts and minds.”

But many frontline soldiers and junior officers believe the strategy will not work in Afghanistan, at least not before the July 2011 date set for the start of an American withdrawal by President Barack Obama.

They point out that, unlike Iraqis, Afghans have never rallied behind a strong central government and have allegiances to their local tribal groups rather than provincial and district leaders friendly to the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“There are no friendly villages, there are no hearts and minds here,” a U.S. soldier muttered as a lieutenant stood outside a mud-walled mosque at dawn in Saidon Kalacheh village this week, trying to convince the village leader or “malik” to let his troops stay a night.

After a threat of a forceful occupation to run security patrols, locals eventually moved the platoon into a difficult-to-defend house compound and complained they would be killed by Taliban if seen lending any support.

Kandarian said Afghan troops would bridge the cultural and trust differences in one of the most violent areas around Combat Outpost Nolen and the wider valley, but had only been conducting patrols for around five to six days.

“I think the people are very resilient, and I think a lot of them that do own lands are probably farming in their lands and then they are temporarily moving to other locations until they figure out what the security is going to be like,” he said.

Editing by David Fox

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