KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- "Take a look at this," Tom Symalla says, reaching down to yank at a piece of gravel poking out from the surface of Morghan Road. It tears loose easily, exposing bare dirt beneath the engineer's boots.
He speculates with some U.S. soldiers and another engineer on what this means about how well this one road -- out of thousands and thousands of miles of roads here -- might be paved. Single coat of gravel, or two coats?
"That could be double," John Swanson, the convoy's other engineer, says over his shoulder.
"Well, no, that looks single," Symalla replies, snapping a photo. He's clearly frustrated. The road's contractors had agreed to lay down a second coat.
Along with neighboring Helmand province, Kandahar is the current focal point of the U.S. military's ongoing surge in Afghanistan. It is also a testing ground for another side of the conflict: America's uphill battle for hearts and minds in the region through reconstruction and economic development efforts. That piece of the fight isn't getting much attention, even with U.S.-led coalition forces now in their 10th year in the country.
In many ways, the success of the surge will be linked to how many well-paved roads, honest and functioning courts, clean health clinics, open schools and steady jobs are left behind when it finally comes to an end.
There's no denying that some key roads and government structures have been spruced up. The differences between "before" and "after" photos are stunning. But it's slow going, and only one part of the U.S. efforts to build a central government in a place that's never really had one. The military and a small cadre of civilian counterparts are also trying to install a skeletal legal system here, develop a network of social-services providers like schools and clinics, and build more sophisticated intelligence-sharing and policing operations that might enable locals to take control more effectively when the Americans depart.
Of course, only since May has there been a serious Western presence here in the south, which is where the Taliban was born and is also a straight drive from neighboring Pakistan. Coalition troops have been here since mid-decade, led primarily by a Canadian force that never had the numbers needed to lock down Kandahar City. They were trying to police a population estimated to be anywhere from 400,000 to 1 million people -- now likely around 800,000 -- with a force of about 1,000 soldiers.
This past summer, U.S. forces took primary control of Camp Nathan Smith, a onetime fruit factory that served as a notoriously brutal Taliban-era prison before becoming the forward base for coalition forces. Over the summer and into the early fall, the Taliban was largely chased from its strongholds in the city. But their loose confederation of suicide and roadside bombers is still out there, as daily explosions and an ever-growing number of dead government officials make clear. Coalition troops aren't allowed outside of the base in a detail of fewer than 12 men on foot, or nine men in three vehicles. Details are instructed not to linger in any one area for more than 90 minutes or so, lest they endanger nearby residents, and most details hurry home at dusk.
Still, while pan-Afghanistan military and civilian casualties hit post-9/11 highs last year, Kandahar City's U.S. forces are, for the most part, too concentrated to challenge directly. And that allows the 411th Civil Affairs battalion, a tiny unit of 36 soldiers tasked with revamping the region's infrastructure, to get to work.
The U.S. troops try to put a local public face on their projects, though. In addition to the public utility, they are designed to boost the local government's credibility in the eyes of residents more inclined to defer to the Afghan power brokers who have long controlled the area. So the 411th fronts the money, provided by U.S. taxpayers; U.S. civilian engineers like Symalla draw up the plans; local contractors do the work; and the Afghan government takes the credit.
"We really act kind of as a buffer between the contractor and the customer, making sure nobody gets shaken down," Swanson, the other engineer, says.
Paying for the project means the 411th has to account for the money, and they check in with the contractors a handful of times between start and finish. Symalla and Swanson are walking Morghan Road to perform the final inspection of a kilometer or so worth of paving. For less than a mile's worth of gravel, U.S. taxpayers anted up $350,300.
* * * * *
After consulting with Staff Sgt. Alisha Guffey, the 411th's point person on Morghan Road, Symalla presses the contractors about how much gravel they're laying down. The lead contractor, Abdul Shokur, says Symalla's wrong, that his workers (some of whom are just boys) have indeed been double-layering.
It's possible, Symalla allows: some stretches of the road seem thicker than others. But it's hard to tell. The contractors weren't working when our convoy -- two humvees and a heavier mine-resistant vehicle carrying U.S. troops, plus two white pickups jammed full of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers -- arrived at the site.
Most of the contractor's team watches as Symalla and Staff Sgt. Guffey talk through their options. Two workers slowly haul a wood-burning cauldron full of tar to the roadside in a beat-up tractor. The soldiers won't stick around to watch them spray the tar because the light is fading. Symalla says he has to come back in a week or so, when he can "walk this road from point A to point B."
Guffey plays good cop with Shokur, the contractor. "I know you're doing a good job, but we have to make sure," she tells him as he answers a barrage of questions from Maj. Akhtar, the head of the ANA unit. Akhtar, who has civil affairs training, is pressing the contractor and local village elders to see who's getting the $24,000 the U.S. is paying for another, smaller project nearby.
Akhtar's been on edge all afternoon after visiting the future site of a municipal services office for two of Kandahar City's 10 subdistricts. There, he said, the contractor, the Dubai-based Bakhter Afghan Construction Company, wasn't adhering to a standard requirement to hire at least 80 percent of their workers locally. Too many of them, he said, looked like Pakistanis. The contractor on that site argued that the workers were mostly locals.
"That's something we might never notice," Maj. Stefan Adamcik of the 411th says later. "Akhtar noticed right away."
"We try to let him do his thing," Guffey whispers during Akhtar's questions.
Since their arrival in May, the 411th has undertaken some 93 projects like these, totaling about $21.3 million. Some are big, like the $3 million nursing and midwifery institute (Afghanistan ranked second worldwide in infant mortality last year, according to C.I.A. data, averaging 151.5 deaths per 1,000 live births) and some are small ($1,400 for a "goat awning" outside Kandahar University, to provide shade for livestock while their keepers attend classes).
Without U.S. taxpayers, it's not clear where the Afghan government would get the money to pay for infrastructure development. What riches are held by local Afghans are stashed away in multi-story villas set behind walled compounds; grinding poverty is still clearly the rule, not the exception, and even the U.S. military's public affairs officers are less than bullish about the prospects for economic development here. Meanwhile, there is a significant price to pay for maintaining or further expanding coalition presence in Kandahar and Afghanistan generally.
U.S. President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which was released Monday, includes $107 billion for Defense Department use in Afghanistan and $2.2 billion for the State Department's Afghan programs. Taken together, that amounts to just over seven and a half times Afghanistan's gross domestic product for 2009, according to International Monetary Fund data.
It costs $500,000 per soldier per year here, according to Pentagon estimates -- or as much as $1 million each per year if higher White House estimates to members of Congress are correct. Either way, deploying troops to Afghanistan is a pricey endeavor.
In May of last year, the 411th was one of the first units brought to Kandahar with the U.S. troop surge. With much of the city still under hostile control, the unit's early meetings with local village elders were slow to move forward.
"It's tough to provide people with a government when they don't know what a government is supposed to provide," says Lt. Col. Kelly Thrasher, the 411th's battalion commander. "Maybe 7 percent said 'roads.' Ninety, maybe 91 percent had no idea what a central government was supposed to do."
Gradually, Thrasher's unit strung together a list of projects. One soldier was assigned principal responsibility for each of the 10 city subdistricts, along with overlapping three-member support teams. At the outset, the 411th was expected to take on 30 projects at the most, Thrasher says; as of Christmas, they were at 93.
Because they're short-staffed -- a battalion the size of a company, at 36 members rather than 203 -- most have had to play a variety of roles. "Everyone drives, everyone guns, everyone's out," says Lt. Col. Tim Hughes, the battalion's executive officer.
That becomes clear on my second trip outside the wire, the day after the trip to Morghan Road, when Thrasher, the battalion commander, accompanies us -- solely as extra muscle.
"I try to get out as much as possible, outside the wire, because it's great," he says. "My people are all so good -- it used to be, when we'd go out I'd try and mentor them a little. Now I just provide security."
Thrasher, a business consultant based in rural Pennsylvania, and Hughes, an auditor for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, are the unit's two West Point graduates. Each of them spent most of the 1990s in uniform and served in Iraq post-9/11, and both describe the 411th's makeup as "very junior" but "fast learners."
Both men joined the 411th within the last couple of years. Hughes says it was "officer-challenged" because like most civil affairs units coming out of the surge in Iraq, the 411th was overdeployed. Civil affairs units are made up of reservists, and would ideally spend only one year in six deployed, Hughes says. For much of the past decade, it's been more like one year in two.
* * * * *
The inspection mission Thrasher joins is a bit south of Morghan Road, but still on Kandahar's western edge. On the way to Zor-Shar Road, the soldiers pass a vendor selling Spider-Man balloons and stop to inspect a municipal services office next door to a police substation. The road costs about $295,000, the office about $385,000.
A sign next to the office site reads, in Pashto, "Brought to you by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
The 411th's Lt. John Lam checks briefly for snipers before letting civilians out of their transport. "There could be a sniper anywhere out here," Symalla laughs.
The office lies in the shadow of a fortress built by Alexander the Great, one of a handful of old landmarks dotting the nearby landscape. Slightly further west are The 40 Steps, the rocky path up to the western defense of Kandahar's "Old City," which was largely destroyed by Persians in the 18th century. A little farther still, and the convoy passes a turquoise dome that's a shrine to Mir Wais Khan, the local chieftain who fought for Kandahar's independence before the Persians destroyed the Old City.
"For at least the last 300 years, Kandahar's been the key to Afghanistan," Thrasher says later. "Got Kandahar, got the road, got Kabul, got the country."
Even more striking than the area's past, however, is its future: children are everywhere. Although adults stare at our convoy without moving or try and get on their way -- the convoy tends to block traffic, including a wedding party -- the local children follow by the dozens. "It's like we're in a parade," Thrasher quips, not far from a vendor with a popcorn machine.
The children's safety doesn't seem to be much of a concern for the locals. "My 16-year-old isn't allowed to leave the house, let alone walk with soldiers. It floors me every time," Symalla says. "Is it 'insha'Allah' or what?" he asks, referring to the Arabic phrase for "God willing."
"Because they don't have a school, they don't have anything," answers Leila, one of the unit's translators. "If they have a school to go to like in U.S., they have somewhere to go during the day."
Some money has clearly flowed down this road. Sprinkled amid ancient-looking mud huts is the occasional split-level ranch with its own water supply and a security tower four stories up. But it's easily the exception in a neighborhood where a collection of barrels and cisterns pass for a gas station. The graveyard is crowded. "The sad thing is all the little graves," Symalla says. "Children."
He has some concerns about holes in the road and some shoddy paving, but the contractors promise to fix them before the unit's next visit. "When I say they're gonna have to fix it, they're gonna have to fix it," he says back in the truck. "This isn't like in the United States. In the U.S., we'd have somebody on site every day. We can't do that here. But we're paying for it, we did the design, they've got to do the work."
A toddler in a pink onesie and purple wool cap turns to wave at the soldiers from her perch in a basket on her father's motorcycle. Then another motorcyclist passes and revs his engine, spewing a cloud of exhaust into the little girl's face.
* * * * *
For all intents and purposes, there are no traffic laws in Kandahar -- or, for that matter, in the much more crowded Afghan capital of Kabul. Drivers grab whatever sliver of roadway is available. The confusion makes things a lot easier for suicide bombers, obviously, but regulating traffic requires establishing a functioning legal system, a task much more arduous than getting roads built.
In order for the legal system to function, the area's traditional power brokers have to buy into it. The State Department is trying to appeal to arbiters known as huquqs, who often mediate disputes instead of passing them along to the courts.
"The informal system is so important," says Mike Sullivan, the State Department's senior rule-of-law adviser with the provincial reconstruction team, "because that's where you're competing against the Taliban."
It's been a struggle, Sullivan says, to get the huquqs to work more with the official district governors, to make sure the cases they hear actually get to a judge, and to pressure judges to hear cases in open court rather than resolving them in their chambers, as is the norm in the Afghan court system. The reconstruction team hosted a "fair trial practices" meeting focusing on these items, as well as the appeals process, right to counsel, an evidentiary basis for continued detention -- even records of how long detainees have been held are virtually nonexistent here. "It was really all over the board," Sullivan says. "I was amazed with the candor regarding what they didn't know."
Land rights are a principal roadblock en route to a clear legal framework. "Land is big, and it's all-encompassing," Sullivan says. "Land is the most confusing legal issue that exists here."
A more solid legal framework is taking shape, the reconstruction team says, but slowly. So far they've managed one trial in a courtroom rather than judge's chambers, which was a major event. Because judges and prosecutors have been consistently targeted for assassination -- only 12 of 95 judicial seats are filled, down by half since 2008 -- they're building judicial housing near the courts and have requested a judicial bodyguard unit from Kabul.
And there's an effort underway to boost judges and prosecutors' abysmal salaries in order to help undercut bribery.
Sullivan says both U.S. and Afghan civilians need more manpower. "They're really hampered by resources and personnel," he says. "The amount of training in certain areas is very limited."
Another translator for the soldiers who calls himself John says he was held hostage and beaten by the Taliban before escaping in 2000, then started working for U.S. forces in July 2003. He got a special immigrant visa to work stateside for a year in 2008 and now has a permanent-resident card. But he returned to Afghanistan in April hoping to earn U.S. visas for his wife and two young sons.
"It's so different," John says of the United States. "Life is very peaceful there."
Like many Afghans here, John lauds the increased safety the influx of U.S. forces has provided in the past year but thinks that can't be sustained without a permanent American commitment.
"People are more scared from one Taliban than 20 soldiers, because [the Taliban] use extreme tactics. They just don't have any mercy for anybody," he says. "They're saying if the Americans leave, you know, within 24 hours we'll be back in the country, back in control. I don't think they'll be taking over that soon, but they will. If you guys leave, they are coming back in."
That's not to say Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime would be a great loss, John's quick to add. "There are a lot of people who don't like the government. Some are starting to hate the government, because only the people who are in the government are taking -- are making money," he says.
Government watchdogs are saying the same thing. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the second-most corrupt nation in the world last year, tied with Myanmar and a rank below Somalia.
* * * * *
Col. Faizal Ahmed Shirzad, the provincial governor's chief of security, is sipping chai and taking phone calls at an ornate table in the governor's palace as coalition officers chat with Afghan security officers during a "weekly working group."
The coalition's frontman is Lt. Col. Michael Chandler, who mentors the Afghan 4th Infantry Division permanently from his quarters on the palace premises. This is a typical setup in the city: the police substations are generally divided between quarters for the Afghan National Police and quarters for a platoon's worth of U.S. military police.
It's December, and Chandler stresses the need to "push rocks up hills" in the next couple months, as winter typically brings a lull in fighting season and he wants to prepare for "increased activity" in the spring. A handful of U.S. military intelligence officers have joined him in order to help beef up intelligence sharing with the Afghans.
Yet the sharing is often not worth it. "We need true intelligence officers so that we can make operation decisions based on real intelligence," says Lt. Col. John Voorhees, who commands the 504th Military Police battalion out of Camp Nathan Smith. The information passed along by the Afghan National Directorate of Security, he says, is "gibberish."
Insurgents are keeping a close eye on VIPs, Shirzad says through a translator, and are planning larger attacks in conjunction with their Pakistani counterparts by targeting tribal elders friendly to the United States. Escorts needed for private security, he complains, are sapping police resources and the Afghan National Army will still need to lend significant support.
Many in Kandahar have been worn down by the insecurity. "When is the fighting going to stop? There has been so much war, so many people coming here, this is not the way to make things better," says Juma Khan Amdard, an Afghan National Police officer, age 40. "All my life's gone to this fight. Everybody's tired, very tired."
Voorhees' unit, the 504th, has taken on about 48 infrastructure and outreach projects, many of them on a smaller scale than the typical 411th project. But Voorhees is proud of all them: schools with more durable and explosion-resistant plexiglass windows; wood-burning stoves and firewood that help keep classrooms open during the winter; improved literacy rates.
At Christmas dinner in one of Camp Nathan Smith's dining facilities, he addresses the 504th and speaks glowingly of the little girls who can now walk to school. He seems personally offended by the Obama administration's recent warning that any apparent progress in Afghanistan is "fragile and reversible."
"With all due respect to the president, it's not fragile or reversible," Voorhees says. "The work you all are doing is not fragile and reversible, it's real and --" he pauses for the slightest of moments, as everyone in the dining hall hears the unmistakable sound of an explosion in the distance, "and that's an IED, we'll find out what that was, we'll deal with it, but it's not fragile or reversible."
* * * * *
The 411th's Lt. Benjamin Lee, a friend of mine for 15 years whose law school essay inspired me to pursue an embed, is the unit's point man for subdistrict 3. His meeting with the subdistrict manager, Haji Mohammad Qasam, gets off to a bad start before it even begins, when Lee is informed by phone that the government has suddenly opposed gravel paving for a key bypass road in the area. Now, Qasam tells him through a translator, the mayor will only be satisfied with an asphalt road. He won't hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for gravel.
By the 411th's estimates, asphalting the road would cost four times as much -- well over $1 million -- and would take months just to approve. What's more, contractors have already completed the majority of work on the project as is, at an estimated cost of $348,000.
Seated in Qasam's office in City Hall, which is warmed by a wood-burning stove and lit by one bare bulb, Lee calls the bluff. The gravel project is almost done and there won't be any asphalt. If the mayor wants to cancel the project, that's unfortunate, but it's the Afghan government's decision.
The subdistrict manager worries Lee might not understand the situation, so he takes him up to the roof to meet the project contractor and the city's longtime chief engineer. The Afghans say again that it must be asphalt or nothing; nothing it is, then, Lee says, not budging.
After the meeting adjourns, the Afghans circle back to tell Lee that the contractor should just finish the gravel job. Great, Lee says, and leaves.
Even if roads like this do get completed, there's still a big vacuum for most Afghans that infrastructure alone can't fill. "They need permanent work, a permanent source of income. It's been 10 years, and Karzai government hasn't created any jobs in Kandahar," says John, the translator. "These people don't care about roads, or electricity, or water. They care about jobs."
That's a tough one. The city's abandoned industrial sector isn't coming back any time soon, given ongoing security concerns and infrastructure limitations. The local power grid, for example, doesn't support more than eight hours of juice per day, where and when it works at all. Costs are rising across the board. And while there may well be tremendously valuable fossil-fuel or mineral deposits beneath the earth somewhere in the area, the nation's rebirth as "the Saudi Arabia of lithium" seems a long way off.
Instead, military and government officials alike talk rather tepidly about the prospects for pomegranate and saffron harvests, about craftwork and rug sales, and about establishing trade routes to Dubai. Yet the biggest and most viable local industry by far in Afghanistan remains opium -- despite a significant drop in production since 2008, the country still provides 90 percent of the world's supply -- followed by marijuana.
Ironically, one of the easiest moneymaking opportunities around involves the destruction of property. Every Wednesday is "claims day" at Camp Nathan Smith, when a couple dozen aggrieved citizens argue that they deserve restitution from the U.S. government for a bomb knocking down their wall or a humvee smashing their family's vegetable cart. A kid whose home took $500 worth of window damage -- an amount equal to the per capita Afghan annual income -- was given $1,800 as long as he promised to become a doctor.
Meanwhile, joining the Afghan army and police forces remains a big draw despite the parallel growth of a system of mandatory bribes that often leaves budding policemen and soldiers deeply in debt to the officers who hired them, forcing the new recruits to extract money in turn from Afghan citizens.
"I'm here to take care of a lot of guys, friends," an ANP lieutenant tells me, with John translating, at Police Substation 3. The work structure is like the family structure here, he says. "We inform each other. We need each other." Likewise, he says of U.S. forces, "Our mission and your mission are the same."
There's also something of a family structure at the estate of Toorjan Abdul Khaliq, a Member of Parliament who has been an influential local power broker for much longer than there's been a Parliament. An officer of King Mohammed Zahir Shah more than 30 years ago, he became a mujahidin during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his power continued to swell in the decades that followed. On the day we visit his palatial estate, he clears land transactions for the central government, brings village elders together to sign off on projects, and expresses irritation that the gates and concrete at a school nearby haven't been fixed.
"We talked about this six months ago," he reminds Lee, who begs off because he's about to take a two-week leave back to New York. Khaliq's nephew kisses his hand, "Godfather"-style, for arranging a claims-day appointment, while a handful of men and boys drag a slaughtered lamb to the patio and begin cleaning it.
* * * * *
There is perhaps no greater test of the U.S. forces' ability to build trust between the populace and the government -- and to keep themselves safe -- than subdistrict 9, the more rural northern edge of Kandahar that was only recently incorporated into the city.
For about $734,000, contractors are building a mammoth "green space" here that stretches more than a couple football fields and is designed to include both mixed-gender and segregated recreation areas.
A small army of contractors is pouring concrete and clearing parts of the space that still need to be leveled, like the soccer field. They work for BACC, a ubiquitous contractor that Lt. Jonathan Hinchey of the 411th says is one of the most reliable available. That is not, however, always a high bar.
The 411th is concerned that there isn't much progress on grass seeding for the soccer field. The contractor says that was never supposed to be their job.
"It wasn't in the contract to put grass," he says, through Shaz, another unit translator. "It sure was," Hinchey replies. "It was just sand and some gravel," the contractor maintains.
"Do you have the contract with you?" Symalla asks. "Not right now," the contractor says.
The laborers are also reinforcing concrete borders for flower beds around the concrete track with panes of glass, rather than the sturdier rebar in Symalla's design. "I've never seen that before," Symalla says. Shaz tells him it's relatively common.
A small group of children approach and begin looking around. An ANP officer walks by and scatters them. "They might be spies," he says. Somebody burned a municipal bus on nearby Third Street the day before, and the police and contractors suspect that the kids here report back on project activity and troop movements.
The children also cut fence wires and wreck concrete, the contractor says. "They just don't want to see any good thing happen, they want to destroy something," he says. Recently-installed playground equipment has already been ripped out. Railings for a metal slide are long gone, leaving jagged pieces of metal sticking up from the bottom of the slide.
On the walk to a nearby public-health facility, we pass a sizable pool of blood in the middle of the street. An animal was probably just slaughtered there, soldiers guess, because it doesn't look like enough blood to have been human.
The 411th has paid about $28,000 to repair and modernize the health clinic, including a small water tower that has a tap at ground level. Lt. Matt Johnston and I steady the rickety ladder while Hinchey climbs up to confirm the clinic worker's claim that the tower is full (it is), and Symalla tests the tap. Brown water belches forth, but gradually the dirt fades and the stream appears clean. This is only the second time it's been turned on.
Like the judicial system, Afghan health care is typically left to the U.S. military's civilian partners, the State Department and USAID. But because the civilian agencies have fewer than 300 people between them in Kandahar, the military's aid has been needed to accelerate development, according to Tamika Cameron, the principal USAID health and education program director for the province.
While the detail is at the clinic, a loud horn sounds in the distance, and what looks like an advancing army soon appears. Some of the soldiers curse. School's just let out.
"Watch the kids," Symalla warns. "They'll throw rocks at you."
From the clinic, the convoy heads to a meeting of nearby shopkeepers who are working to build a mosque with community funds and have requested U.S. aid. Hinchey asks them to offer some suggestions: "What can we do to help your progress without hindering the work you're doing on your own?" They want doors, windows, a water pump, drainage, generators, carpeting and paint. "Let's not go nuts here," he says, taking notes.
Afterward, the 411th team rides from the mosque to Route Zoo, the site of a $666,000 roadwork project, and local kids indeed pelt the transport vehicles with rocks. Near the roadsite, one father comes out of his home to yell at his son, prompting the boy to drop his stone. "That's the first time I've ever seen that," Symalla says.
Because of mountain runoff, the Route Zoo road needs wide drainage, a job that is just beginning. It looks good so far, Symalla says.
Later, with the light is starting to fade, the soldiers depart. A small boy lifts a huge, softball-sized chunk of rock, but one of the military police points at him, and he puts it down.
* * * * *
"The city is better, like, way better" than it was even in May, Lt. Col. Voorhees says of Kandahar.
"We have some problems still, but compared to three years ago it's nothing," says an ANP lieutenant.
"The security gains have just been incredible," says John Heather, a senior governance adviser for USAID. "Our biggest limitation is finding talented people to work for the [Afghan] government."
Gen. David Petraeus, who stops by Camp Nathan Smith one day to award some medals, likewise espouses cautious -- and, for him, characteristic -- optimism. "It's been a tough number of months ... but the progress you have made is extraordinary," he tells the soldiers. "I wasn't sure we could do what you have done."
Thanks in part to Karzai firing various government officials, the country now has "an increasingly -- yes, slowly, but increasingly -- more functional Afghan government," Petraeus adds.
But better doesn't mean good, and some soldiers and government officials say the city still feels perilous. "There's no place in Kandahar I feel safe walking around on the street without body armor," Lt. Col. Thrasher says. Asked by a translator if the city's land-survey office is secure, Amirjan, the office assistant, points to recent blast damage on the wall surrounding the office and says simply, "No."
Of the 711 coalition troops killed in Afghanistan last year, 499 were U.S. forces, according to the authoritative coalition-casualty database iCasualties.org. That's a 57 percent jump over 2009 (317 U.S. troops killed) and a 221 percent increase over 2008 (155 killed). And more than 3,360 U.S. troops were wounded by roadside bombs in 2010 alone, up 178 percent from 2009, according to military statistics.
The data on civilian casualties, compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, are even grimmer: In the first 10 months of 2010, the U.N. counted 2,412 civilian dead and 3,803 injured -- a 20 percent total increase over the same period in 2009. That includes 403 assassinations or executions of government officials, more than double the figure in the same period of 2009, and more than half of those were carried out in southern Afghanistan.
And the wave of violence has shown few signs of ebbing, even during the typically-quiet winter months. The deputy governor of Kandahar province was killed and three of his bodyguards wounded on Jan. 29 when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle caught him on his way to work. Last Saturday, a coordinated assault on Kandahar's primary police headquarters killed at least 19 people and wounded 53 others. Similar acts of violence are common.
Thrasher says the biggest obstacle to infrastructure development is his own team's size, though. "I'd say what hamstrings us is that we don't have more people. You want this," he says, holding up five fingers, "and I'm doing it with this," leaving up three.
And what happens when the 411th leaves in March, just as the fighting season is beginning in earnest again, with no civil-affairs replacement until midsummer? No one seems to have an answer for that, any more than they have an answer for what happens if U.S. forces withdraw entirely. The 411th's officers can volunteer to stay an extra three months, but Hughes says he expects few takers.
Whenever they leave, members of the 411th say, they hope to leave something good behind.
"I've been thinking about it," says Lt. Lam on his way back from Zor-Shar Road. "Hopefully, we can build like all the other countries we've gone in and helped, where they have a much better economy and a more stable way of life."
"Ten years from now, if this place is stable, I'd love to come back and see what it's like," Swanson, the engineer, says on his way back from Morghan Road.
At that, fellow engineer Symalla demurs. "Really? I don't know if I ever would," he says, responding to Swanson. "I don't know if it ever will be."
Right now, the U.S. military is planning a tiered withdrawal, with a minimal reduction in 2011 and at least a perpetual garrison presence.
"I'd just love to be a fly on the wall at one of these national-security meetings," Thrasher chuckles when asked about Afghanistan's future. "See the maps and stuff and say, 'Ah, okay, there is a huge plan that all comes together.'"
* * * * *
All photos by Jeff Muskus. The 411th's master project tracker, with costs and completion current through Jan. 1, can be found here.