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Byline: Sebastian Junger
This now, too, is war: an American colonel striding through the market of a mud-walled Afghan town, scanning the produce. There's lots of it-fresh tomatoes, peppers, carrots-which one vegetable seller attributes to a new storage facility in nearby Kandahar functioning as it should. Otherwise, the produce would be overpriced and imported from Pakistan. All this, in some indirect way, is good news for the American military, which for four years has been fighting an infuriatingly low-level war in the mountains of Afghanistan. If there's plenty of food, according to this line of thought, the locals are doing well and will support President Hamid Karzai's fragile coalition government in Kabul. And if they support the government, they won't help the insurgents, who have kept 20,000 American soldiers pinned down in an almost forgotten war.
As a result, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Stammer walks through town every week or so to take the pulse of the community. Minutes earlier he finished up a visit to a local girls' school-built with American money-where he had knelt down in front of the headmistress and knifed open several boxes of school supplies for the children. The supplies had been sent by his wife, and included soccerballs bought by the women's soccer team at the University of Texas. The schoolmistress thanked him, and another person added that if he "heard anything" he would let Stammer know. By that, he meant that he would call if he got word of Taliban activity in the area-which, in turn, might allow Stammer to pre-empt an attack on American soldiers.
By all measures the situation in Afghanistan may be skidding dangerously off the rails. American military deaths in the past year-nearly a hundred-almost equal those for the three preceding years combined. According to a recent internal report for the American Special Forces, opium production has gone from 74 metric tons a year under the Taliban to an astronomical 3,600 metric tons, an amount which is equal to 90 percent of the world's supply. The profit from Afghanistan's drug trade-roughly $2 billion a year-competes with the amount of international aid flowing into the country and helps fund the insurgency. And assassinations and suicide bombings have suddenly taken hold in parts of Afghanistan, leading people to fear that the country is headed toward Iraq-style anarchy.
None of this dulls the enthusiasm of Colonel Stammer, who has exactly one year to make a difference in one of the poorest and most ravaged countries in the world. Back on the street, the inevitable crowd of curious young boys gathers around him as he moves through the market. He's a big man, and even bigger in body armor, and his head never stops swiveling from side to side as he walks. His slate-blue eyes seem to take in everything: the butcher shop that has plenty of meat, the pharmacy that still has medicine on the shelves, the townspeople who seem relatively at ease despite the Humvees at the end of the market. Two soldiers walk ahead of Stammer, and two walk behind, casually keeping an eye on things. Halfway through town, a car pulls up and the elderly Afghan man at the wheel honks so that he can get by.
"That's good!" Stammer says as he steps aside. "That's a good sign! The guy's got balls, honking at me like that-it means he's not scared! We're coming together here, I think!"
Stammer is waging war by every possible means: with children's books, with cheap vegetables, and, of course, with guns. He is the commanding officer for, primarily, the 700 or so soldiers of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, based in the dusty town of Qalat, in southeast Afghanistan. He is energy personified: every sentence ends in an exclamation point; every greeting turns into a hearty back thump or headlock; every idea is acted upon as fast as possible.
"I always carry a hand grenade because once I really, really needed one!" Stammer informs me at one point, in his typically rapid-fire way. We were suiting up for a trip off-base and he was, I suppose, explaining all the armaments he was draped with. "I went one-on-one with an ACM at about 20 meters. He was in a hole, and I didn't have a hand grenade, so I shot him with my Beretta when he stood up! Dude, what a horrible time to stand up!"
ACM means "anti-coalition militia," which is military terminology for the Taliban fighters America is at war with. They are for the most part young Afghans who have been lured into the movement by cash salaries and the fierce rhetoric of hard-core Islamist mullahs. (Since Afghan soldiers and police are paid only around $70 a month, Taliban leaders-many of whom work hand in hand with the opium growers-don't have to spend much to outbid the Afghan military.) Taliban forces are believed to number around 3,000 or 4,000 fighters in total, and they are led mainly by former commanders from the Taliban's brief, humorless reign.
Colonel Stammer estimates that in Zabol Province-his "battle space"-there are probably fewer than 300 active Taliban, and half that many during the winter. As a military power they are insignificant, but therein lies the problem. Because of the way the U.S. military is designed, the larger the army they are fighting, the faster it will be destroyed-a large army simply offers a broader target for America's superior weapons. The one force the U.S. cannot seem to defeat, however, is a small-scale insurgency that is not supported by a central government. The U.S. is effectively trying to weed a garden with a backhoe, and its success may well depend on the ability of men such as Colonel Stammer to re-invent, on the fly, the way America wages war.
To that end, America has spent a total of $1.3 billion on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan over the past four years. They have built or refurbished 312 schools. They have built or refurbished 338 medical clinics. They and other coalition forces have trained 82,000 Afghan soldiers and police. They have helped stage two national elections. They have increased by a factor of five the number of children in school, a figure that includes 1.6 million girls. They have helped pave a new highway from Kandahar to Kabul, which was formerly a dirt road. Colonel Stammer directed a village medical-outreach program that has treated 4,000 Afghans in Zabol Province alone, many of whom would otherwise have had to walk or ride for days to reach help. There is a new school in Qalat, the roads have been re-surfaced, and, stunningly, …