NALGHAM, Afghanistan – Sgt. Robert LaPointe shakes his head as he recalls the dangers he and his fellow soldiers faced during the first month of their deployment to Kandahar province, a particularly hostile region of southern Afghanistan.
Day and night they patrolled rows of grape vines and poppy fields on foot and slept in the open where Taliban gunmen lurked. Firefights and buried bombs killed seven of LaPointe's fellow soldiers and injured dozens more.
"I don't think we accomplished anything the first month here," he says.
Pvt. 1st Class Kerry Pinkstaff agrees.
"When you went out there, you would get shot at and blown up," Pinkstaff says. "You couldn't find them. They'd pop up, then be gone, like ghosts."
U.S. military leaders in the Zharai district responded with a new strategy. They ended the foot patrols on the roads and narrow paths where vast farmlands are flanked by steep, jagged mountains. They established small "strong points," heavily fortified guard posts made of earth and sandbags. They called in airstrikes and helicopter gun runs on Taliban positions.
"It was a rough summer," Lt. David Tuttle says. "We took the gloves off … and that allowed us to build the community back."
Today, the villagers in the region are able to go about their lives without fear of the Taliban, the harsh Islamic regime ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Though the Taliban is weakened as a military force and must subsist in remote areas, tribal leaders and U.S. troops agree it hasn't gone and the members who remain want their onetime realm back.
"The level of commitment by the insurgency is surprising," says battalion commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Mintz.
The mission of the International Security Assistance Force, the coalition of U.S. and foreign forces that have been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, is to neutralize the Taliban and turn over the security of the country to the Afghans themselves. Just when the Afghans can handle their own security has been the question.
The Pentagon says much of the south is largely under coalition control and forces will have to be shifted to the border with Pakistan, where Taliban forces and the Haqqani netwok of jihadists are a major threat.
NATO agreed in 2010 that the transition from foreign forces to Afghan forces should take place by the end of 2014, provided conditions on the ground warranted the move. Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested the transition may arrive earlier, in late 2013.
"If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan while the Haqqanis still have such safe havens, the mission President Obama set himself of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and creating conditions that will prevent it from returning will have failed," says Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who advised the Bush administration on the successful troop surge in Iraq.
Capt. Widmar Roman and the soldiers of the 10th Mountain, 3rd Brigade, 32nd Infantry Regiment are among those who have forced the Taliban out of Kandahar population centers. With its fortified positions and razor wire lining the road, the area little resembles its previous incarnation, and it's more secure.
The area was home to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who may be in Pakistan.
"The amount of security down here is unparalleled compared to what people have seen in the past," Roman says.
Roman says the change in strategy allowed troops enough breathing room to interact with local leaders in ways previously impossible.
Among the interactions is the shoring up of the Afghan Local Police, an initiative pushed by former ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus to train and arm Afghan men willing to keep the Taliban out of their villages.
Mintz acknowledges that the Taliban is still bringing insurgents to the area to replace those killed or captured over the last year. But he says the seeds of stability and security have taken root among the locals.
Several village elders helped U.S. forces root out the Taliban and recruit men into the ranks of the police who work with the Afghan National Army here to maintain security.
"It used to be that we couldn't travel from one village to the other because of the Taliban," says Shah Wali Khan, who lost his left leg to an insurgent mine a few months ago.
"Now we can travel all the way to Kandahar (city). God willing, we will be able to maintain security when the Americans leave," says Khan, stroking his thick beard as his followers nod in agreement and children play near a store once used as Taliban headquarters.
In a meeting called by Roman, two dozen Afghan men and members of the ALP raised concerns about the compensation they were promised by American forces for cutting a road through several fields, the destruction of homes during firefights and raids and buildings taken over for strong points.
"Condolence payments" amount to about $2,500, Roman says. He told the men they'd get their money after they appointed someone from their ranks to represent Nalgham at the district government level.
Fears remain that any appointed leader would be murdered by Taliban fighters based a few miles to the west who regularly engage U.S. and Afghan forces on patrols.
"We don't want to put anyone else in danger," yelled Gul Mohammed, one of the men at the meeting, which ended with neither Afghans receiving compensation for their losses nor Roman getting a representative for Nalgham.
The captain says the discussion was a normal part of the negotiating process, and he is optimistic that both sides will reach a compromise.
Afghan Brig. Gen. Guhlam Murtaza Sarwary says his soldiers and U.S. troops have convinced Nalgham they will remain in the area for the long haul, even after U.S. forces leave.
"Nalgham was one of those damaged and dangerous places last year," Murtaza says. "Now, the people no longer fear the enemy like they once had."
This time of year is ideal for talk, Roman says. The cold winter months are when many Taliban fighters return to Pakistan and attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces decrease. In a few weeks, it will be time for action when the warm weather approaches, signaling the start to the fighting season.
Then the Americans may be able to tell how close the Afghans are to being able to defend themselves. "We'll really be able to see the difference once it starts warming up again next summer," Roman says.