CHARBAGH, Afghanistan — The American soldiers climb over walls, jump ditches and scan the dirt for trip wires in an hourlong hike, all to meet with one man: the new head of a mosque in a tiny village in a southern Afghan river valley. They hope to persuade him to support the Afghan government.
They have a tough sell. The mullah, Bas Mohammad, says residents in Charbagh never see government representatives – not doctors, teachers or agriculture workers – even though the village sits on the edge of the south's largest city, Kandahar.
In areas like these, where government authorities rarely venture, patrolling NATO troops are not just a security force: They are also envoys of the Afghan government.
The Taliban clearly have a presence in Charbagh. The road between the village and an American outpost is so littered with homemade bombs that soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment avoid it altogether, making what should be a 300-yard (-meter) walk last an hour. Mohammad's predecessor was run off by the militants, and the new mullah, a month into his job, has already been warned to leave.
The violence isolates Charbagh, and many other areas around Kandahar, and often soldiers are the only ones willing to risk the journey.
But NATO and Afghan forces aren't planning a major offensive to rout the militants around Kandahar city, as they did in the southern town of Marjah this past winter. Commanders have said that instead they're taking a softer approach in the area – known as "Operation Hamkari," which means cooperation – squeezing the Taliban by strengthening government services.
Government workers, though, are having a harder time getting around the Arghandab valley as violence has increased with the summer growing season. There have been suicide bombings, firefights and assassinations throughout the area. The district government chief was killed in June.
"A couple more weeks of this kind of fighting and we're worried that contractors are going to start refusing to go out there," said Chris Harich, a U.S. State Department envoy who works with the district government. Afghan contractors do much of the government and development work in areas that are too high-risk for international civilians.
"We think that the valley is about 50 percent government-controlled. The other 50 percent is contested," said Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. forces in the south. He spoke to The Associated Press last week during a visit to Bravo Company's combat outpost in the valley.
The Arghandab valley is key because it is a major transit route for Taliban fighters into Kandahar city – where they launch quick strike bombings and assassinations before retreating. But Harich said they don't expect to send government representatives into new areas of Arghandab until the risk eases. And so the onus is on the troops.
In Charbagh, the head of the American patrol, Lt. Ross Weinshenker, takes off his helmet and sits on the ground for a nearly three-hour conversation with the white-bearded mullah, who squats on his haunches.
The mullah tells the 24-year-old from St. Louis how he was chosen by the villagers to run their mosque, and the two discuss whether there's any way to justify Taliban bombings in the Quran and what to do about government corruption.
Mohammad says he can't let on that he's really pro-government – his son is a police officer – for fear of losing the support of the villagers and attracting the attention of the Taliban. When he first arrived in town, a Taliban operative showed up at his house and told him to leave. Mohammad says he told the man that he had nothing against them but stood his ground. He hasn't seen the man since.
Asked about the meetings of elders organized in the area by the government and NATO forces, Mohammad says they're not worth attending.
"It's all corrupt – just a bunch of people trying to get money, trying to make sure their people get government contracts," he says.
The conversation doesn't reach any conclusion. Mohammad makes contradictory statements: at one point he says there's no Taliban in the village, even though he also claims to have been threatened. He swears that no bombs have been planted near the village, then explains that he helped defuse some homemade explosives in a field.
But Weinshenker comes away declaring it a step in the right direction. He feels like he's on his way to building trust with the old man – key to eventually getting him into those meetings he now shuns.
It's a snail-like process, conducted by troops who were trained to fight and are now trying to retool to become gun-bearing diplomats. Sometimes the two roles seem impossible to marry.
The soldiers are willing to take off their helmets and drink tea with the locals, but they refuse to give up their practice of securing a compound by standing on the roof, even when a mullah in a nearby village protests that they might spy uncovered women in the courtyards of other compounds.
The commander of Bravo Company, Capt. Adam Armstrong, said they're willing to make slow progress.
And they have had successes: A few families have moved back into previously dangerous villages and Afghan soldiers have started to gain the trust of the population. Just last week, they successfully used word-of-mouth to persuade a wheat farmer to clear one of his fields of bombs that had been planted in it. The soldiers were ready to burn the field before the wheat was harvested if he didn't agree to clear it, but torching it would have certainly alienated some residents.
But the timeline is already starting to look crunched as new forces prepare to push into the area overseen by Bravo Company this fall and President Barack Obama has said troops need to start drawing down in 2011.
Soldiers say that impending deadline makes it harder for them to convince villagers that they're here to stay until the government really can step in. The Taliban have successfully convinced many that a full pullout is imminent.
And so it isn't surprising that Mullah Bas Mohammad is far from ready to stick his head out on behalf of American troops. He and the people he serves are still on the edge.
A young boy who's been listening in on the conversation from a couple feet away looks at the U.S. soldiers and says "Taliban" while giving a thumbs-up sign. Then he turns his thumb down toward the ground and says "American."
An Afghan soldier hands the boy a bottle of water. The boy pours it out on the ground without taking a sip.