As Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff prepares for an assault next month into the birthplace of the Taliban, he doesn't sugarcoat the hurdles his troops face in this crucial swath of southern Afghanistan.
"Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial. Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance? We've had one, hour-long visit by a government official in the last 2 1/2 months," the battalion commander says. "Taliban is the home team here."
"Here" is 116 square miles (300 square kilometers) of Zhari, a district just west of Kandahar through which the insurgents funnel fighters, drugs, explosives and stage attacks into the city.
It's also an iconic, psychologically significant spot for the Taliban. Just about two miles (three kilometers) south of the main U.S. base of Howz-e-Madad, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ran an Islamic school, founded the movement in 1994, and nearby hung a warlord from the barrel of a tank after he raped two teenagers.
Senior commanders call the fight for Zhari the next step — Phase 3 — of a wider campaign to pacify Kandahar, the country's second largest city, and surrounding countryside. They argue success in Kandahar could lead to overall victory, given that the Taliban's power base is rooted in this region.
Zhari itself remains insurgent territory despite five major NATO operations in recent years. In September 2006, a Canadian-led force launched a major operation in Zhari and nearby Panjwai district, pushing out the Taliban but at a cost of 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.
Militarily, Benchoff will have to seize the village of Singesar, site of Mullah Omar's school now defended by fortified trenches, mortars and mines, and stop Taliban movements and ambushes along Highway 1 and a parallel dirt road dubbed Iron City. Getting the area's 10,000 inhabitants to sever their links to the Taliban may prove even harder.
With the opening salvo of the push already on the planning boards, perhaps the densest concentration of forces in Afghanistan today has been marshaled: some 1,000 U.S. and 400 Afghan troops, a superb, rarely realized ratio for counterinsurgency operations of one soldier for every 10 civilian residents.
"We are now poking the bear, trying to figure out how he will react and then developing ways to set him up to our advantage," says Benchoff, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. "We are taking our time to do it right. We don't want to charge in with shock and awe like in Marjah, and then come out scratching our heads and saying, 'What happened here?'"
Marjah, a town in neighboring Helmand province, was captured in a highly heralded operation in February but has yet to see either solid security or effective government presence.
In Zhari, patrols are sent out daily, firefights erupt and Afghan commandos have staged some successful raids into Singesar. But Benchoff, a West Point graduate with 44 months in Afghanistan behind him, says his biggest priorities now are intensive training of a partner Afghan National Army battalion fresh out of basic training and understanding how to win over the local population via the circle of COIN, acronym for the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine.
Provide basic security to allow development. Tell the locals what you are doing for them and give them good governance, thereby ensuring more security. Spin the wheel fast enough, Benchoff says, and the Taliban won't be able to hold on.
"Will it work? I'm a guarded optimist. This is the last best way I know," the officer, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says.
"This is an enemy-controlled area and people either support the Taliban actively or passively in order to survive," he says. "People want security but they are not fed up enough to turn to the government. We have grandfathers, fathers, uncles who are charter-founding members of the Taliban. It is going to take a long-term, dedicated, persistent effort to win."
Development and governance-wise, the area is starting from virtually zero.
The only medical facility is a small pharmacy in the ramshackle bazaar. The one school was closed more than two years ago and may be mined. The people have no connection with even local administration just up the road, where the new district governor, Karim Jan, remains a question mark.
A former police chief inexperienced in administration, NATO officials in Kandahar say they are still uncertain whether he represents a wide spectrum of the population or just his own tribe or circle of cronies.
To start setting things right, the U.S. military has more than half a million dollars to build a new bazaar, farmer's market, small dams and farm-to-market roads, with locals to be employed on the projects. To get the message out, a radio station will go on air. Help for the rural population, the plan goes, will follow right behind the front-line troops.
Those in Taliban-controlled areas, it is hoped, will see the benefits reaped by people within the "security bubble" and begin to distance themselves from the insurgents, who already restrict their movements, impose taxes, provide no education and commandeer family compounds for attack positions.
"Will we get all this done in a year? Probably not," says Benchoff. He notes while U.S. troops may begin pulling out of Afghanistan in July, they will remain in Zhari for at least 1 1/2 years with a replacement for his unit already alerted. "But I think we can do enough here to take the pressure off Kandahar and hope that the ANA can then continue to hold it."
Repeatedly, Benchoff and his officers point to the Afghan army as the linchpin for success — or failure.
"We are deeply embedded with them. 'Shonna ba shonna,' shoulder to shoulder," says the commander who has paired off every U.S. soldier with an Afghan counterpart for both training and combat.
There are what Capt. David Yu, a company commander, calls "friction points" when two widely different cultures come together, and the U.S. Army's highly sophisticated systems and procedures try to mesh with troops who are often illiterate. But Yu, from Newport News, Virginia, concedes the Afghan soldiers are "a tremendous asset."
"They are essential. Before they came, we got nothing out of the locals. People wouldn't talk to us. Now we're starting to get tips, information," he says. "Maybe not a waterfall, but a steady trickle."
"The big test will come when the big push occurs and they start to take casualties," Benchoff says. "Will they have the skill and the will to fight?"