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FOB ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — The sniper and mortar teams were just finding their positions when automatic gunfire rang out from a distant tree line. The staccato sounds echoed over rows of mud walls as the soldiers scrambled first for cover, then to spot the source of the shots. Squinting out over the rural Afghan landscape, nobody saw anything, and no more shots were heard.

After the initial excitement, the soldiers, members of Company C, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, went back to setting up their positions perched on the sagging mud roof of an Afghan police fort in the heart of Panjwai District while the rest of their platoon patrolled through a nearby village.

The morning’s gunfire were the only shots heard that day, and even that was unusual.

“Isn’t it crazy how different this place is now?” asked Spc. Damian Trice, as he looked through the scope on his sniper rifle. Just a few months earlier, these soldiers say, they could barely make a move in this area without drawing fire.

The area has long been a fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban, prompting U.S. forces to label Panjwai and other nearby districts the “Birthplace of the Taliban.”

Whether the new relative quiet is indicative of diminished Taliban influence or a strategic move to wait out the departure of foreign troops is a question being asked across Afghanistan as troops prepare to leave security in the hands of local security officials.

In between their routine duties, the men urinate in bottles and politely decline the marijuana joints offered them by Afghan police. One sniper trades a ballpoint pen for a pan of fried potatoes, fresh green onions and flat bread, which are then shared by the soldiers and the police. As the last spring fighting season looms for most foreign troops, U.S. officials are looking to local forces like these police to control the insurgency.

Ominous radio intercepts indicate that Taliban still observe the troops’ positions, but no one comes out to fight. That leaves the soldiers on the rooftop post a little disappointed, but their leaders are hoping that the quiet days indicate their forces have created a level of stability in Panjwai District that will outlast NATO’s dwindling mission.

'Quite a slugfest'Panjwai is infamous for the the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers outside Camp Belambay, just over a mile from FOB Zangabad, in March 2012. An American soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, has been charged in those killings and is facing a court martial. It’s a memory that Army officers are reluctant to revisit, and it’s only complicated efforts to reach out to Panjwai’s residents.

“It’s been quite a slugfest in Panjwai district since 2006 … it’s certainly been the focus of our attention for the last couple of years,” Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of Regional Command South, told reporters last month.

In recent weeks, Abrams and his commanders on the ground have been touting eroding support for the Taliban among local residents as indicated by an “uprising” earlier this year.

“The Taliban, frankly, have been kicked out of all but about four villages left in southwestern and western Panjwai district,” Abrams said. “And I suspect the rest of those villages will fall here in short order.”

Army officers are attributing the Panjwai backlash to a new, more energized local police commander, as well as an incident when young Taliban members humiliated a village elder.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Abrams said. “Within 15 minutes, they were on the phone to the district chief of police. And that started a series of ... operations that got us to where we are today.”

Afghan and coalition forces have detained or killed more than three dozen suspected insurgents in Panjwai since the beginning of the year, according to NATO reports. And late last month, they killed the district’s ranking Taliban official.

While the “uprising” is significant for happening in the Taliban’s heartland, the true extent of the anti-Taliban backlash remains to be seen, and similar events have been trumpeted before only to fail to dent a resilient insurgency, said the American Enterprise Institute’s Ahmad Majidyar.

“While the Afghan government and coalition should welcome and support these uprisings, it’s premature to assume that the local uprisings would have a decisive role in defeating the Taliban and ensuring peace and stability,” he said.

Local support, local shortcomingsEven in areas where things have calmed down, U.S. troops still face pushback. During a routine patrol into a market just outside the walls of Combat Outpost Talukan near Zangabad, soldiers with Company B dealt with irate villagers who politely but insistently complained about the troops’ efforts to search vehicles and question local men.

The villagers were joined in their dissent by Hbib Gul of the Afghan Civil Order Police, who leads a small contingent of police from a tiny, ramshackle checkpoint.

Voicing concerns on behalf of some of the villagers, Gul also aimed his criticism at Afghan national leaders, who he said have practically abandoned them. “We are not getting help from [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai,” he said.

His criticism highlights one of the more intractable problems faced by coalition forces as they prepare to leave. Local Afghans may be turning away from the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean they will automatically support the national government. As NATO troops pull out, it will be up to the Afghan government and local forces to earn the backing of their countrymen.

In February, President Barack Obama announced that half of the 68,000 American troops still in Afghanistan will leave by February 2014. The rest of the combat forces will be withdrawn after the 2014 Afghan National Elections.

Analysts say it is almost impossible to truly determine the security situation based on current unclassified reporting, and Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the Taliban and other groups have few incentives to meet NATO forces head-on at this point.

“Rather than attempt to win tactical battles, these groups can wait out the departure of most ISAF forces, concentrate on building influence, carry out politically high profile attacks designed to accelerate ISAF’s withdrawal, intimidate Afghans, and focus on softer Afghan government and ANSF targets,” he wrote in a draft report released in March.

Long-term success, Cordesman wrote, will come not from pitched battles with the Taliban, but from more nuanced political successes like winning over local populations.

Col. Michael Getchell, who oversees the forces in Panjwai as commander of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, said he’s convinced that a “certain amount” of violence is because of the U.S. presence.

At a recent weekly meeting with Panjwai District Governor Haji Faisel Mohammad, Getchell was told about efforts to boost involvement with the national government while there is continued American support in the district. “We need to take this fight to the Taliban, but we need your cooperation,” Mohammad told Getchell.

Mohammad said it is important to reach out to those Afghans who may be supporting or fighting for the Taliban out of a need for food and money, or out of a hatred for Americans or the national government, rather than because of a radical ideology.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. James Dooghan, based out of FOB Zangabad, attributes much of the progress in his corner of Panjwai to expanded Afghan police presence. Still, he admits that local police influence often only extends a few hundred yards from their checkpoints.

Local police have been involved in several recent extrajudicial killings, Dooghan said, and the long-term challenge will be to professionalize the security forces. It’s because of these well-known shortcomings that officials were encouraged when villagers turned to the police when they became angry with the Taliban.

Getchell also acknowledged that “there are a few Tony Sopranos” among the local Afghan leaders, but he said success in Panjwai will depend on local leaders who know the area, have deep connections, and have a lasting interest in its security. “I think we tend not to give the Afghans their due,” Getchell said. “They’re running a marathon while we’re sprinting.”

smithjosh@stripes.comTwitter: @joshjonsmith

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