U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, left, commander, U.S. Central Command, speaks with Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2009.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, left, commander, U.S. Central Command, speaks with Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2009. ()

KABUL — As the second in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez had the unique and critical role last week of distilling the entire war effort and all its pieces for a new commander.

The priorities are many. But in their telephone discussions leading up to the arrival Friday of Gen. David Petraeus, the conversations invariably led back to efforts at building Afghan empowerment.

Petraeus and Rodriguez spoke at length about the program to reintegrate local Taliban operatives and about the new initiative to help local villages establish their own protection forces, Rodriguez said. The at times stunted growth of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army was also an area of focus.

And while the fight against the insurgents is a key concern that plays out daily with a surge of forces that is almost complete now, it is more of the costly backdrop to the efforts that are being viewed as the real game-changers: efforts to help the people and the forces of Afghanistan take the lead.

“I think there are a combination of things, and which one will have more impact remains to be seen,” Rodriguez said Saturday in an interview at his Kabul headquarters. “Whether it is the reintegration piece or the public protection forces or just the improvement in the police, the army, the local governments — [they] will all be a part of it. I think the Afghan people look at all those things to be part of their decision-making process as they figure out which way to turn and figure out how to step up and participate in their government and a better future.”

Petraeus, who will formally assume command during a ceremony Sunday in Kabul, has enormous political challenges to address, particularly how to handle his relationships with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with Pakistan — two very influential and sometimes unreliable players affecting Afghanistan.

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He must balance those concerns with what is happening in the war-torn cities, villages and rural badlands, where U.S., NATO and Afghan boots hit the ground. That’s where Rodriguez comes in.

Those measures are difficult to gauge. The surge in forces approved by President Barack Obama in December began in February with an offensive in Marjah in the southern Helmand province, a rural Taliban redoubt with abundant poppy fields and powerful warlords that have turned it into a pseudo narco-state.

Touted as a precursor to the bigger, harder fight in the Taliban heartland of neighboring Kandahar province, Marjah was seen as the test of a new way forward guided by the counterinsurgency directive that Petraeus helped author. Critics have cited deadly ongoing battles against bands of insurgents as an indicator of failure in Marjah, while the operation in Kandahar is being waged under the shadow of a severe Taliban murder and intimidation campaign that has not waned.

But Rodriguez sees other signs of pieces falling into place. People in Marjah are participating in regional leadership shuras, or meetings, for the first time in years, he said. They are expressing their wishes to local governments, which is a tentative show of confidence in a system that’s failed them for decades.

Another sign is that across the country, a handful of villages are emerging to participate in establishing their own public protection forces, a program Rodriguez helped create and one he hopes signals a shift in thinking at the most basic levels of Afghan society. One such village is Dhaftani in Marjah, another is in Dand, an area on the outskirts of Kandahar city.

“The local communities who are trying to protect themselves and stand up against the enemy — [that] is another indication they are starting to take things into their own hands,” Rodriguez said. “It is part of empowering local leaders to protect themselves from things that they don’t want and all of those are initial indicators that there is some good potential to make a difference for the Afghan people of that area.”

These public protection forces are seen by the U.S. military as boosters where local police forces are just getting started and where, in some areas, local government has not gained the trust of a wary population. It’s an opportunity to give people their own ability to fight off insurgent control, even where the often-corrupt government of this highly decentralized nation has continued to fail them.

Rodriguez likened the public protection forces to the traditional Afghan justice system, while the nascent police force would be more like a formal justice system. In some areas, he said, these forces will be strongly linked to government, while in others, those links will be looser or weaker.

“It’s a balance ... and how you mix and match that and balance that based on where they are and how they’ve operated for many years is very important,” Rodriguez said.

“You know the history of Afghanistan and the decentralized nature of it and, again, the local people protecting the local people is a huge cultural value that has been very important to them for many years,” he added. “I think we just have to help the Afghans get that balance right.”

In Kandahar, where criminal enterprise is rooted in the city and its surroundings, operations have yet to yield many results. But while U.S. forces wage fierce battle with insurgents outside of the city, Afghan police forces are in the process of setting up checkpoints throughout the city and around the immediate outskirts, he said. The strategy is that these checkpoints, along with pinpoint strikes by special operations forces at Taliban operatives in the city, will help clear out the insurgents and allow for local government to take hold.

The checkpoints are being operated by the Afghan National Civil Order of Police, which is deployed while local police forces are recruited and trained before returning to police in their own districts. The number of city police is about to double in the size originally planned because so many residents in the outlying districts have flooded to the area around Kandahar city to be within reach of government services, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the last surge forces coming into the south, which was the focus of the increase, will arrive in Kandahar in the next month, while the Afghan National Army is adding a brigade there as well.

A brigade from the 10th Mountain Division has just deployed in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces in northern Afghanistan. Forces from other NATO countries will deploy in the west, he added, relieving Marine units who will then move into Helmand province.

And by the end of the summer, the final troops will arrive in Khost, Paktika and Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan.

The real measure, Rodriguez said, will come at the end of the year, when first NATO in November, and then the U.S. government in December, will expect an end-of-the-year progress report on the war.

This will be the time to take stock of what has gone right in Marjah and other parts of Helmand and then “where it’s going in Kandahar,” Rodriguez said. “Are we moving in the right direction, and can people see the light at the end of the tunnel in that the strategy and the concept is working, the [Afghan National Security Forces] are getting built, the government is improving and the people are starting to move forward to believe in a better future.”

If the command can show their governments that Helmand and Kandahar are on the right track by the end of the year, it’s a sign that their strategy is actually working.

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