News / Asia

US Defense Secretary Visits Former Taliban Village, Still Calls Progress 'Fragile'

Secretary Gates poses for a photo with village elders in Tabin, March 8, 2011
Secretary Gates poses for a photo with village elders in Tabin, March 8, 2011

Multimedia

Audio
Al Pessin

We started from a small base the U.S. Army calls Combat Outpost Kowall, and walked along the puddled road between the mud walls of village homes and farms. Curious children came out to see the foreigners. As we approached the square of Tabin village, the call to prayer rang out from a tinny speaker mounted in a tree.

"In this village, we've got 10 vetted and confirmed members of the ALP, the Afghan Local Police, and we've got nine candidates that he's also going to meet here. Those are the candidates that are going through the vetting process," said Colonel David Flynn, one of the senior U.S. officers in the area.

Flynn explained that the army brought security to the village by working closely with the Afghan military, fighting hard against Taliban elements, and establishing a relationship with tribal elders who agreed to allow their young men to join the new local police force.

This is the Argandab Valley, a former insurgent stronghold in Kandahar Province, south of Kabul, part of what is called the Taliban Heartland.

To be sure, there was heavy security for Secretary Gates' visit, with U.S. and Afghan soldiers posted along the way holding automatic rifles, patrols around the perimeter, and likely unseen airborne surveillance aircraft. Still, it was remarkable for the American secretary of defense, a man whose security is guarded nearly as closely as the president's, to be able to stroll into the village square, past armed Afghan troops, and chat with the elders about the Afghan Local Police program.

ELDER: The situation was very bad four months ago, very dangerous here. Then I was elected the malik [mayor] here. And once I was elected, I asked the people to give me people for the ALP program.

GATES: Are the elders satisfied with the way things are going?

TRANSLATOR: Yeah, they said the elders are all happy.

GATES: Good, good.

The operational commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, came along. He helped plan and manage the Argandab campaign.

"We lost a lot of soldiers there early on. The governor got killed. The police chief was maimed. Now there are police out in the street. And Friday afternoon they [the people] are out picnicking in the river valley. Today, you saw children out. In a place that has no security, the children are never out," Rodriguez said.

Security for ordinary Afghans is a hallmark of the new strategy announced by U.S. President Barack Obama late in 2009 and implemented by his new commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. The president sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops, and persuaded allied nations to send 10,000 more, to try to make the strategy work. And the coalition trained tens of thousands of additional Afghan troops and police as well.

The idea is to establish and expand security zones, provide services to the people to gain their allegiance, and help the Afghan government and security forces gradually take over the job, so foreign troops can begin a withdrawal this July and end their combat role in 2014. Officials acknowledge that the situation varies from province to province, and often from town to town or even neighborhood to neighborhood. But in this area they claim success, at least for now.

The village visit was the highlight of the defense secretary's two-day trip to Afghanistan, during which he also visited neighboring Helmand Province, where U.S. Marines have been engaged in heavy fighting for months against entrenched Taliban fighters in the Sangin River Valley.

"Before you arrived here, the Taliban were dug in deep. And as the British before you can attest, this district was one of the most dangerous, not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world," he said.

That unit lost 20 Marines in its first few months in the valley, including the son of a three-star general, but officers say the area has been somewhat more stable during the last few months. Gates said the Marines achieved a major strategic breakthrough in Sangin, helping link security zones in Helmand and Kandahar, providing a more normal life for the people of the region, and creating a new, harsh environment for Taliban fighters.

"Alongside your Afghan brothers, you've written a new chapter in the Marine Corps roll of honor, with your sweat and with your blood, against the toughest odds, in the most difficult terrain," he said.

Still, Secretary Gates and senior officers warn that Taliban fighters will try to regain control of the area during the coming warmer months.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris commands the Marines Secretary Gates visited. He says for years under British command his outpost in Sanguin was an "island in a sea of insurgency." In the past several months, his U.S. Marines and others inserted in neighboring areas as part of the surge have changed the situation. But he says the fight is not over.

"We are expecting the violence to pick up in the next couple of weeks. Indicators that we have are that the Taliban, once the vegetation fully comes back on the trees, are going to feel emboldened to carry out their attacks and try and reassert their authority. I would tell you that they're going to have a real hard time doing that," he said.

Secretary Gates agrees, but cautions that the outcome of the nine-year-old Afghan war is still not certain.

"I do feel like the pieces are coming together, but I would continue to say what we have said all along. The gains are fragile and reversible. The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough. And that'll really in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress that we've made is going to be," he said.

It seems as if U.S. officials describe every year, every season, as a crucial test of the Afghan campaign. But this spring and summer that will perhaps be more true than ever.

With all the additional foreign and Afghan troops, the new strategy and initial success in some places, the coming months will demonstrate whether the security gains will hold.

It also will be a chance to see, as foreign troops begin a gradual withdrawal, whether the people will allign with the government or revert to supporting the insurgents, whether the Afghan government and security forces will continue to improve, and ultimately whether officials will be able to stop using the well-worn phrase "fragile and reversible" to describe progress in Afghanistan.

You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More