SHAH JOY DISTRICT, Afghanistan — An old man approached U.S. soldiers and Afghan army troops and told them he knew of a madrassa where it was rumored that Taliban fighters had indoctrinated young men to become suicide bombers.

U.S. soldiers saw the tip as a huge break. Shortly after they had moved into the area in August, a Taliban suicide bomber had struck during a patrol in the Shah Joy bazaar, killing two civilians and wounding 12 soldiers.

The discovery of the Taliban religious school was the biggest find during a three-day operation in late October in Zabul province’s Chineh villages, which U.S. troops described as an important Taliban stronghold. No weapons or explosives were found, but graffiti inside the mud-brick compound indicated that the building had served as a Taliban safe house.

In a remote region where U.S. and Afghan security forces are scarce, villagers have largely thrown their lot in with the Taliban, either by choice or necessity. The madrassa tip was a small sign, the Americans hoped, that those sentiments may be beginning to shift.

"I think the people right now are not convinced — especially as you get farther away from the district centers — that their security interests lie with the government," Shields said. "Our job is to convince them that their security interests do lie with the government, and that we’re here to stay."

Long on the back burner, Zabul province has been considered primarily a transit route for Taliban fighters moving from safe havens in Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. Until recently, there were few international forces in the province.

But Zabul has suddenly gained importance as U.S. and other NATO military planners seek to improve security around the city of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the most important city in southern Afghanistan.

In August, the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment from the 5th Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Wash., became the first large U.S. combat force to operate in Zabul.

The battalion’s battle space is huge, stretching over almost 1,600 square miles. And with almost no effective government throughout most of the province, it has been tough to establish relationships.

There are only two major towns in Zabul — Shah Joy and the district center of Qalat. Most of the population lives in scattered farming villages set among arid brown hills, where residents are lucky if they are visited by Afghan army or police patrols once a week or even once a month, according to Lt. Col. Burton Shields, the 4th Battalion’s commander.

Although the Taliban presence is evident throughout Zabul, according to U.S. troops, contact with insurgent fighters has been minimal. In addition to the 12 troops wounded in the August blast, three soldiers were killed when their Stryker was hit by a roadside bomb in September. "The enemy here is very smart," said 1st Lt. Christopher Franco, the executive officer for Company C. "They definitely won’t engage us unless they know they have the advantage. And when they can’t, they’ll throw down their guns and come out and pretend to be our friends. It’s frustrating."

So far, efforts to engage with local villagers have been largely unsuccessful. In Shah Joy, U.S. troops are often met with outright hostility — children throw rocks and even dead birds at them nearly every time they pass through, said Franco, 24, of Port Orchard, Wash.

During one patrol, soldiers from Company C sat down with elders in a village to discuss their problems.

"We asked what can be done to improve your situation here," Franco said. "They said, ‘Our problems will be resolved when you guys leave and we can sit down and talk to the Taliban leaders.’ At least they were honest."

Under new counterinsurgency guidelines governing the war, U.S. and other NATO officers are encouraged to talk with local villagers about their problems and how they can be addressed.

During the three-day mission in the Chinehs, a number of soldiers said that even though the area had been identified as a suspected Taliban stronghold, the villagers were the friendliest of any they had encountered in Zabul. But when officers asked about the Taliban, they were usually met with blank stares or polite, noncommittal responses. Most villagers denied knowing anything about the Taliban. Some made slashing motions across their throats.

"You stay here for one and a half hours in our village, and when you leave, the Taliban will come in our homes and beat us or worse," said one man.

Replied 2nd Lt. James Johnson, 23, of State College, Pa.: "Well, there’s nothing I can do to help you, if you don’t help yourselves."

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