MIZAN, Afghanistan — Last year, Taliban threats and buried roadside bombs kept farmers from selling their fruit at marketplaces outside this small community in southern Afghanistan. Similar intimidation stopped residents from sending their children to school or attending their bazaar.
Change has come slowly, but the road is now open and ready for harvest traffic this fall. So is the Mizan bazaar. Children, including girls, are learning to read at a mosque while the district governor negotiates a deal to open five schools.
"Mizan is open for business," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Coroy, the top enlisted officer in the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, of Fort Wainwright, Alaska, which ended its deployment here last week and made way for cavalry troops from the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma, Wash.
As they prepare to turn over this district in Zabul province to Afghan forces later this year, the American soldiers could point to signs of hope as well as to ongoing challenges as the U.S.-led NATO coalition pushes ahead with the security transition in the country. The soldiers are aware of calls to hasten the American withdrawal, and many expect the transition to take place well before President Barack Obama's announced drawdown target of 2014.
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Their challenges include bomb-making Taliban cells in nearby villages and ancestral ties that keep some families looking to neighboring Pakistan to settle their disputes instead of to their own government.
Their assets are a well-regarded governor and Afghan forces who are planning their own missions to disrupt the Taliban. Afghan troops man five checkpoints along the road from Mizan to Qalat, the provincial capital; they're keeping the two-lane highway open for commerce.
The Afghan army "will stay and fight," said Maj. Dave Polizzotti, 36, the cavalry squadron's executive officer. "These guys have a sense of duty, a sense of purpose."
Last week, the small combat outpost was packed as the Alaska soldiers ended their deployments and the Lewis-McChord troops — Stryker soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division _laid the groundwork for a new high-level Army advisory team that's moving in to coach the Afghan police, the last phase of NATO's transition to Afghan control.
Insurgents attacked the outpost — which looks over a farming community next to the Arghandab River — a handful of times last summer. In July, a drone aircraft captured images of 16 armed insurgents moving in a valley on the other side of a nearby mountain. American aircraft destroyed them before they could enter the Mizan valley.
One of the most trying times for the Alaska soldiers came in January, when a man who was wearing an Afghan uniform shot and killed Pfc. Dustin Napier of London, Ky., on another American base in Zabul province. Napier belonged to the same company as the soldiers here, and many knew him.
The shooting, as with dozens of other "green-on-blue" killings over the past few years, seemed to strike at the heart of the NATO-Afghan cooperation that's essential to ending the war on a positive note. But the American officer who commanded the outpost for the past year said the shooting didn't weaken the bonds that had been forged with the Afghan army company attached to the outpost.
"We'd been together for six months by then," said Capt. Greg Benjamin, 26, of Boise, Idaho. "We'd been in firefights together. We fought the Taliban together. l trusted them."
Likewise, he strove to retain the Afghans' trust in their U.S. counterparts. Benjamin defused some unrest about the burnings of Qurans by U.S. personnel Feb. 20 at Bagram Air Field in northern Afghanistan, explaining to Mizan elders that the soldiers weren't a part of his platoon and their actions didn't represent the intentions of the U.S. Army.
News of the killings of 17 Afghan civilians March 11 allegedly at the hands of Lewis-McChord Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Kandahar province hasn't caused a ripple of protest here, Benjamin said.
While the Alaska team was proud to help open the roads and the bazaar, it's still waiting to see Afghans make full use of those projects. About five shops are open in the bazaar, up from none when the team arrived. But that's well below the estimated 50 shops that were in business five years ago before security deteriorated, a Mizan elder said.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeff Stewart said they'd listened to what Mizan Gov. Mohammed Zarif wanted to accomplish and aimed to build Zarif's credibility by acting on his plans and steering requests for assistance through him.
"Everything we did was something the district governor said was important and the elders would protect," Stewart said.
They passed out small radios and changed the programming from NATO messages to ones Zarif wanted, making the communication tools instantly more popular.
Stewart said the battalion had spent less than $100,000 on community assistance projects, mostly small efforts to spur commerce in the bazaar or to help the Afghans build irrigation networks.
The only failures they saw were NATO efforts that foisted American concepts on Afghan people, such as a large, concrete dam that collapsed and an agricultural cooperative that didn't fit in with the Afghan style of farming.
In a meeting with Mizan elders last week, Stewart pointedly sidestepped Zarif's requests for a new cellphone tower and for 60 men to gather intelligence against the Taliban. Neither request could be achieved without NATO's pocketbooks, and Zarif's inability to execute similar proposals in the future could discredit him among the district's elders.
"We're looking for projects that are sustainable," Benjamin said.
Two weeks ago, Afghan soldiers planned and executed a 10-day sweep of neighboring villages with minimal American assistance. A homemade bomb during the mission wounded Mizan's district chief of police. Other bombs hit several Afghan soldiers.
Attempting to deny the Taliban a propaganda victory, Zarif took to his radio broadcast to tell Mizan that the police chief survived and would return to duty. Benjamin asked the police chief to record a message from his stretcher telling residents that the Taliban couldn't kill him.
"Hopefully things are all right, but we need time," Zarif said.
Elders considered the Afghan army mission a success; there were no complaints about soldiers misbehaving during home searches, Zarif said.
The Americans were pleased that the only resources they'd needed to provide were food and air support.
"The cake is almost done baking here, " said Lt. Jason Oberoi, the new platoon leader from the Lewis-McChord squadron, who lives in Lacey, Wash. "They are close to being independent."
Zarif is turning his attention to building schools now that NATO and the Afghan army have followed through on his requests for more security checkpoints. He's pursuing schools in spite of Taliban threats against him, but of course he doesn't get the only vote in determining whether they succeed. Taliban intimidation could keep children from attending.
"The physical changes are easy," Coroy said. "It's the psychological ones that take work."
Mizan elder Mohammed Nayim exemplified that contradiction at a meeting in front of his home this week with Oberoi and Benjamin. Nayim told the officers that security was the best it had been in years. Even so, he wouldn't promise to send his children to school, no matter how much he wants them to have an education.
He also said Taliban threats had compelled two shop owners in his small village to close, because they'd been selling goods to Afghan soldiers and police. Benjamin and Oberoi implored Nayim to move his shop to Mizan's main bazaar, the one they'd helped reopen.
"You will be rich," Benjamin said.
"I am waiting for the people," Nayim said.
(Ashton reports for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.)
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