Fort Apache in Taliban Land

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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off after dropping soldiers in a village of Zabul province, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Maizan in southern Afghanistan's Zabul Province feels like the end of the world. It's a good three hours by Humvee from the regional base in Qalat — that's if there are no IEDs along the road. By helicopter it's only 20 minutes, but flights tend to come only once a week. When they do, it feels like Christmas — mail from home is the only thing that keeps the soldiers at Maizan going. Today's haul saw troops whooping over new Sony Playstations, games, Oreos, cigarettes, Cheese Whiz and even a flea collar for Beebe, the camp dog. Sergeant Florian Barrie, from Watertown, New York, walked off with three cases of Mountain Dew sent by his mom and a friend. Expensive? Yes, but it's these little things that make life bearable in Maizan.

"They understand what it's like," Barrie says. "I am way over here in Afghanistan; I'm loved." One infantryman received a fiddle from his grandmother, even though he doesn't know how to play. But the way things are looking at FOB Maizan, he will have plenty of time to learn. That's not to say that there is nothing for the soldiers at Maizan to do — there is just less than there used to be.

It's a small base, made up of soldiers from the Tenth Mountain 2-4 Infantry, Charlie Company 1-4 Infantry Regiment and Romanian troops from Task Force Calugareni, which took control of Zabul on 31 July when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took command of southern Afghanistan from the U.S. The mission of the troops at the base is to provide security to the district. Until a few weeks ago that meant daily patrols, visiting villages, checking up on reports of Taliban activity, and generally making their presence known. But these days FOB Maizan has had to limit those excursions.

Increased Taliban activity in the area means patrols are more dangerous — IEDs have been placed on roads and mortar attacks are becoming more common — and essential support resources, such as helicopters, have been monopolized by Operation Medusa, NATO's main thrust against the Taliban in nearby Kandahar. That leaves troops at Maizan spending more time confined to base.

"Our soldiers are spread thin on the ground, and the Taliban is taking advantage," says Lt. Col. Kevin McGlaughlin, who heads the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Qalat, the provincial capital. Maizan is one of the places they're targeting, and McGlaughlin has begun to notice that Taliban attacks are becoming more sophisticated.

"It's become a little smarter of an operation," he says. Just a few days ago, the Taliban fired mortars at the base. No one was hurt, but it certainly was a wake-up call. Now that the usual "presence patrols" are limited, the Taliban have become bolder.

The Taliban's resurgence is Zabul is notable precisely because the region had once been touted as the Coalition's success story in the south. A U.S.-led provincial reconstruction project saw the construction of a new hospital, a woman's center, a job-training facility and a new bank equipped with an electronic system of money transfers that allowed government employees, such as police officers, to be paid on time. Taliban attacks were unheard of as one of the poorest provinces in the south seemed destined to offer an example for all of Afghanistan.

Over the past month, however, those signs of success have begun to erode. Highway 1, the newly rebuilt road connecting Kabul to the southern financial capital of Kandahar, is the only paved road in Zabul, and until a little over a month ago, the eight-hour trip between the two cities had been considered a safe journey. No longer. Taliban checkpoints have been set up in several places, and trucks transporting goods to the provinces have been detained. Taliban fighters have even taken control of the district center of Argandab, not far from Maizan. In Maizan and other districts, Taliban have attacked Afghan police officers and troops, while Coalition soldiers have seen nearly twice as many IEDs, ambushes and mortar attacks this summer as they did for the comparable period last year. For the moment, the Taliban have been reluctant to mount frontal assaults on the Coalition troops in Zabul — "they are afraid of the Romanians' 14 mm machine guns," says McLaughlin — but for how long?

The situation in Maizan reflects the reason NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer last week asked member states to send another 2,500 troops to take on the rising insurgency. McLaughlin would love to have more troops in Zabul, but he says the province is still not understaffed. "Is Zabul going to change a little because of Operation Medusa? Yes. But it makes sense to take a risk in Zabul in order to make our point in Kandahar." Lt. Col Daniel Petrescu, who heads Task Force Calugareni in Qalat, adds that "where Kandahar goes, goes Afghanistan. So by stabilizing Kandahar, we will solve more problems here in Zabul."

So while Operation Medusa rolls on, back at FOB Maizan, the U.S. and Romanian troops struggle to fill the time between mortar attacks with chores, video games, books, and of course, learning to play the fiddle.