The Dand-district center is a novelty in the badlands of Kandahar province. As the seat of both the top government official and the U.S. forces based in the area, it's a seductive target for Taliban militants looking to make a statement. Yet its walls lack the extra defenses found at other district centers across Afghanistan's embattled south. On any given day, half of the guard towers are unoccupied and the front gate is left open, manned by a single police officer who casually waves visitors through. So calm is the surrounding area that U.S. Army officers living there are lobbying for permission to go outside the wire without body armor. "If there's an ink spot [of stability] forming in southern Afghanistan, I would say it's this district," says Major Edward Ash of the 1-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain division.
Originally destined for Iraq, the 1-71 Cavalry was diverted to Dand as part of President Obama's 30,000-strong troop surge to pacify the Taliban heartland. Its soldiers arrived expecting a fight. But aside from the improvised explosive devices that occasionally blow up under or close to their vehicle convoys, they've mostly focused their energy on the more mundane elements of counterinsurgency, a strategy that places winning public support ahead of killing enemy fighters. In Dand, good governance, better policing and reconstruction are the main priorities as envisioned by the former commander of international forces, General Stanley McChrystal, and his replacement, General David Petraeus. Though progress is not always easy to gauge by metrics, some officers already go so far as to claim that Dand is the de facto model of counterinsurgency success. In recent weeks, a host of senior NATO officers and journalists have been flown in to take note.
From a mud-baked outpost that once served as a Taliban redoubt, troop A of 1-71, known as Shadow Troop, tries to visit five nearby villages at least once a week in an effort to assert their presence and build rapport with influential tribal elders, a routine that involves a lot of tea and small talk. At a shura last week in the farming hamlet of Rorabad, Lieutenant Jared Hollows told the local malik, Abdul Wadod, how the dry, verdant landscape reminded him of his home in California, where his grandparents used to harvest fruit. "We grow grapes too, but they're not as sweet as the ones here," he said with a smile. The comment hung in the air; it was their first meeting, and the malik appeared unsure of how to respond.
Still, the malik had chosen to show up, unlike on Shadow Troop's previous outing. And as soon as the lieutenant started talking about possible cash-for-work projects, the malik became a torrent of ideas, finally settling on a canal that would boost the productivity of local farmers. Before they could settle on a plan, an elderly man cut in to ask for money to rebuild his burned-down house; another came looking for a job. Hollows listened patiently and then sighed, saying he couldn't do everything at once. But at least people are forthcoming about their needs, he said later, a sign that they are engaging with the right side. A similar sense of ownership was evident among the district police force that continues to swell with local recruits and a nascent pride despite being under-resourced.
"In the whole of Kandahar province, our district is the safest," boasted Sergeant Inyatullah, strutting around the dusty backstreets of Lowy Karizak village, his men keeping watch from the rooftops as U.S. troops tested the drinking quality of well water. The sergeant explained that as a native son of the village where there are "no secrets from neighbors and nephews," an open channel of sound intelligence keeps him a step ahead. In fact, in Dand, it's all a matter of having the right connections. Although he hasn't received his official $240 government salary in three months, a brand-new 9-mm handgun hung on the side of his spotless teal-green singlet. Similarly, his men brandished top-of-the-line Kalashnikov rifles and radios. Asked how the troops were able to afford such equipment, Inyatullah had no trouble answering: "Mr. Sherzai. He always takes care of whatever we need."
Inyatullah's response goes a long way in explaining why the district may be better off than most. Dand is the backyard of Gul Agha Sherzai, the former warlord turned governor of Kandahar, as well as that of relatives of President Hamid Karzai. The vast majority of area farmers are either Barakzai or Popalzai, the leaders' respective tribes. Many residents say that despite being away in Nangarhar province, where he is now governor, Sherzai still looks out for them, paying for public improvements out of his own deep pockets and keeping hundreds of people on his payroll. This includes a large private militia, which is the lone authority in some remote patches of the district. "It's because of Sherzai and Karzai that we have stability here," says Muhammad Daoud, a former mujahedin commander who recently folded his militia into the Afghan national police on Sherzai's orders. "The tribes work together; that's the difference."
Some critics contend these militiamen amount to wolves in government-issued clothing. American officers counter that there have been no signs of abuse. Besides, they add, effective counterinsurgency requires a broad-based local buy-in; traditionally, powerful individuals like Sherzai who can sway broad blocs of people should be considered assets, doubly so in areas where the state is weaker. Indeed, with major military clearing operations slated to accelerate in the coming months in nearby Taliban strongholds like the Panjwai and Zhari districts, there are concerns that some militants will simply filter into fallow areas like Dand, ramping up hostilities. Last week, a massive roadside bomb killed two U.S. troops and gravely injured several more. They had been traveling along the edge of the district. It was the deadliest attack yet on U.S. soldiers in the area. As the southern gateway to the country's second largest city, it may still be too early to take stability in Dand for granted.
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.