PUL-I-ALAM, Afghanistan – On what is more akin to a sunny winter's stroll, U.S. troops proudly tread on a newly asphalted road, past a refurbished mosque and a crowded market overflowing with produce. Children dance around the soldiers' boots and bearded men stop them for a casual chat.
This is Logar province: scene of a major U.S. military buildup, fuel for the argument by senior commanders that more troops and aid infusions could reverse Taliban gains in other areas of Afghanistan and ultimately lead to victory.
But the endgame has yet to be played out in Logar, a critical region south of Kabul.
Less than 10 miles from this provincial capital and a few days later, another patrol is greeted only by the cackle of crows and what soldiers call "the stinky eye" from some villagers when they enter Uzbakkhel in combat formation. Two roadside bombs welcomed them on a former visit, a district official had been assassinated the previous night and three days earlier the Taliban nearby killed a 24-year-old man whose uncle worked for the government in Kabul.
"They came in the afternoon, about 4 o'clock, and they cut his head off," said Abdul Nabi, a farmer in Uzbakkhel. "Where was the security? Who was there to help him?"
Nevertheless, a year ago there would have been no U.S. troops at all in Baraki-Barak district, where Nabi's village is located, and only some 300 in all of Logar. Now, following a buildup launched in January, there are more than 2,000, including an elite 275-man Czech contingent, with units based in seven of the province's eight districts. Another 2,000 were inserted into the equally critical neighboring province of Wardak.
Significantly, U.S. commanders say, the Afghan National Army strength has leapt to 800 in Logar, with every operation down to the platoon level carried out hand-in-hand with American forces, serving to blunt the image of Americans as foreign occupiers. Next is a "civilian surge," with experts ranging from eco-psychologists to honey beekeepers beginning to arrive.
"Last year you had talk of the Taliban at the gates of Kabul. Trucks were being ambushed on the highways. You don't hear that anymore. That's what the insertion of a brigade plus development have done," said Maj. Joseph Matthews, a battalion operations officer in the 10th Mountain Division.
President Barack Obama is expected on Tuesday to announce his plan for the eight-year-old war, which has seen a dramatic Taliban resurgence in several once relatively stable provinces. Military officials say Obama's plan could involve adding more than 30,000 U.S. troops to the 68,000 currently here. NATO and other allies collectively have an additional 36,000 troops in the country.
Matthews, of Vero Beach, Florida, noted that it's possible to improve the lives of Afghans only by raising the ratio of "quality troops" to population. If the ratio of U.S. troops to population in Logar — roughly one soldier for every 200 Afghans — were extended to all of Afghanistan, some 150,000 troops would be needed.
"Logar by any metric that a security professional would use is more secure than before," said Col. David B. Haight, commander of U.S. forces in the two provinces, where he described conditions in 2008 as "pretty horrific" as the Taliban spread north toward Kabul from its traditional southern base.
Last year, the few government officials who resided in the rugged, remote district of Kherwar didn't dare travel to Pul-i-Alam. Now they come regularly to attend meetings. The Provincial Reconstruction Team, staffed by Czechs, has seeded projects in what were once no-go zones.
Capt. Frank Maxwell, an artillery officer from Fayetteville, North Carolina, said Logar's Mohammad Agha district headquarters was riddled with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades when his company arrived but hasn't been attacked since after the second day they got there.
"We've started to get intelligence from the locals. We're getting phone calls on our tip line saying, `someone is putting in an IED (roadside bomb), or there are 20 suspicious guys milling around,"' said Lt. Col. George Pitt, a battalion commander from Springfield, Virginia. In Baraki-Barak, such tips soared by 80 percent following a major push to secure an area of the district and reward villages that cooperated with aid.
In February, provincial Governor Atiquallah Ludin complained of "a gap between the people and the government. Assistance in Logar is weak and the life of the common man has not improved."
Now, he boasts that the Taliban in Logar have done "such a lousy job that they are not going to get a new budget from their leaders in Pakistan." The lieutenant general, who fought against the Soviets, says that 400 insurgents have surrendered, 27 senior commanders were captured or killed over the past year and that a Taliban "shadow government" doesn't exist in Logar as it does in some other provinces.
Still, nobody is declaring total or final victory.
"We see the impact, but it's slow and some of the results may not be seen for years," said Bohumila Ranglova, head of the highly touted Provincial Reconstruction Team.
One question is how permanent is the push in Logar.
"I think at this point there would be some backsliding" if U.S. troops were reduced, said Haight. "I think there will come a point in time when we will be able to do that. That time would not be appropriate right now."
Soldiers who daily interact with Afghan villagers are sometimes more pessimistic than their commanders.
"I think the Afghans are receptive but it will take a couple more generations before they can tackle all their own problems. I really don't think people believe we are here for the long haul. They have seen too many of us come and go, so until we show that we are going to stay they won't really trust us 100 percent," said Sgt. 1st Class Scott J. Lund of Balaton, Minnesota.
Another concern is whether the U.S. forces, development teams and Afghan officials who follow will carry on the efforts which appear to have yielded fruit in Logar — or terminate projects, slacken security and break promises made to the population.
Capt. Laszlo Palko, a key officer dealing with the provincial government, said the Americans and Czechs in Logar have veered away from the standard practice in Afghanistan — simply handing assistance into villagers' hands. Instead, any aid requested and rendered comes through Afghan channels so that the people will come to regard the government as the source of help and legitimacy, one deserving of their loyalty.
"We will never be a viable alternative to the Taliban — we are not going to stay here forever — so it has to be the Afghan government doing it. When we provide the services it doesn't change the equation at all. People simply say, 'Fine, thank you,"' Palko, of San Francisco, said.
Elected committees from the districts have proposed projects to a Provincial Development Council, which next month will forward half of these to Kabul for approval along with the first-ever development budget for the province. The process, Palko says, may fill some of the yawning gaps between villages, districts, the province and Kabul.
Gradually, it is hoped, such changes in a system riddled with corruption and inefficiency will help turn the still restive swaths of Logar and Wardak away from the Taliban.
The military plans to use the winter months to step up its efforts.
"Now is the time to set the conditions for the following year. The Taliban higher-ups have left for Pakistan and the lower ones are lying low," Pitt said. "We have to identify villages which have been historically hot spots and get into them so when the spring thaw comes and the Taliban return, the Afghan and coalition forces will be there in place."