By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
March 6, 2009 - It's hard to find a good, old-fashioned combat fight in Afghanistan right now -- even here, surrounded by the battle-hardened, well-armed infantry and artillery troops of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. That's partly because it is still winter and most insurgent fighters are holed up waiting for warmer weather, but also because the fight has changed across this rural landscape.
Here in Wardak province, just south of Kabul, the fight is not so much ideological as it is economic, senior military officials say. And while coalition forces are prepared to wage a toe-to-toe fight against enemy fighters, they are more inclined to focus on nontraditional means of separating those who want to fight, from those who want to live peacefully.
"I can, in an instant, become someone's worst enemy," Army Col. David Haight, the 3rd BCT commander, said. "But that's not really the main reason that I'm here. I'm here to try to help the people."
But fighting has not been far from people's minds here. Until last month when the 3rd BCT took control of Wardak and Logar provinces, the area was manned by only a company-sized element of coalition forces. Because this area is not near the Pakistan border, coalition forces leaders initially did not predict a serious threat developing here. But as more intense fighting began in the eastern part of the country, many insurgents took advantage of the small coalition presence and the remote districts.
Kabul is visible from here, and the increased enemy activity made its residents uneasy, feeling that the soft underbelly of the capital city was unprotected. The two main highways that run from Kabul south to Kandahar and Gardez were seeing more bombings and attacks.
That was until the 3rd BCT took over. The team runs the overarching Task Force Spartan, made up of more than 2,700 10th Mountain Division soldiers. More than 30 percent are veterans of the division's last deployment to Afghanistan in 2007.
The base is outside of Maydan Shahr, the provincial capital. There are more than 410,000 people in Wardak province and about 292,000 in neighboring Logar province. The two provinces together make up 3,700 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut.
The 10th Mountain troops have tripled the area's combat firepower, but the attacks they are waging now are aimed at building infrastructure, helping legitimize the provincial government and pumping much-needed money into the barren economy.
"It's an economic war. The enemy here ... he's just looking for a job," Haight said. "He's going to make a hundred dollars from the Taliban to carry an [rocket-propelled grenade launcher] or maybe we can pay him $150 to work on a road -- put a shovel in his hand instead of an RPG."
Haight acknowledged the long-running debate over which comes first, security or development. His battle plan, he said, is to work both at the same time.
His troops already have made good use of this time of light insurgency. Haight has pushed troops out of the base and into remote combat outposts near the villages, especially in the Jalrez and Tangi valleys, both of which are historical hotspots for insurgents.
The soldiers are patrolling the villages daily, talking to locals and building relationships with tribal leaders.
Haight predicts that by the time enemy fighters return to this area in the spring, his forces will have established roots in the communities, forcing insurgents to make a choice.
"He either has to choose to fight us -- and if he does then we can either kill or capture him and that's good -- or he chooses to leave, and that's good also, because it separates him from the people and then the people can get on with running their lives," Haight said.
The coalition forces work hand-in-hand with Afghan national security forces. An Afghan army battalion is collocated on the base. The army is well-trained and capable of conducting independent operations with the exception of needing logistics and other support elements supplied by coalition forces, officials here said.
Haight readily acknowledges the challenges that lie before him and his men -- an enemy that hides within the communities, a lack of basic infrastructure, treacherous mountain terrain, harsh weather and a local population that has had no experience with, or interest in, a local government.
It is misleading to reference "reconstruction" here. Mostly it is construction, with little or nothing to start with. This poses challenges as Haight's troops work through providing basic, sustainable services such as power and water in an area where they have never existed.
"Quite honestly, putting a man on the moon is easier than getting water running in Afghanistan," Haight said.
His biggest challenge, however, is strengthening the local government and fostering locals' trust in that government. In some places, insurgents offer a pseudo-government in the absence of a strong local government in the region. But, they also seek to expand their control through criminal activity, intimidation and fighting.
"We're not getting outfought here in Afghanistan by the enemy. We're getting out-governed," Haight said.
Many in this diverse area are skeptical, having not yet decided to support the local government or coalition forces. They do not want to revert to Taliban rule, but they are not yet sure that coalition forces are here to stay.
But, as Haight moves troops into the remote regions, he said the dynamic changes quickly and already many locals are turning in those who support the insurgents.
"These people who are fence-sitters are being pushed over with a feather," Haight said. "It isn't as hard as I anticipated it might be."
Haight plans to focus on building roads that will open up the area for commerce, health care and education. Roads here now are limited to trails and dry creek beds.
"I honestly believe that is the key to getting them out of the economic woes that they're experiencing," Haight said.
The commander said he plans other projects as well, such as schools and medical clinics. Haight estimates he will spend nearly $100 million in commander's emergency response program funds before he leaves.
Before his deployment here ends, Haight said there are a handful of roads in both the Wardak and Logar provinces he would like to have graveled or paved. Also, Haight said he hopes to have the Afghan security forces in the area capable of supporting themselves logistically. And he would like to see more of the corruption culled from the Afghan National Police.
Finally, Haight said, he wants people here to be able to trust and understand the local and provincial government. He does not predict a "Jeffersonian democracy" any time soon, but if people come to believe in the government, they will have eliminated most of the insurgency.
"If they achieve that, that's going to be a high enough quality of life that the enemy's alternative isn't acceptable to them. It's too oppressive," Haight said.