KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Surrounded by gravel-filled buttresses and manned 24 hours a day by alert American and Afghan gunners, Combat Outpost Kowall appears like an outpost under siege. It is one of the frontline posts in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s expanded campaign to flush out a resurgent Taliban militia ahead of the major offensive on Kandahar expected in the coming months.
President Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan was an opportunity to express U.S. displeasure with the rampant corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai. But for the soldiers of Alpha Company of the 82nd Airborne Division, Kabul’s conference halls and money-guzzling ministries seem like distant places.
“The visit’s important for the big picture, I’m sure, but here on the ground, it doesn’t affect us at all,” said Pfc. Justin Tatum, one of about 30 soldiers based at a crumbling school building alongside a company of Afghan troops.
The troops have reinforced the base and are supported by constant drone- and helicopter-surveillance flights. A recent enemy machine-gun attack carried out from two directions was repelled with more than 1,000 rounds, laying down “an awesome example of firepower that will discourage the Taliban from targeting our outpost again,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Fernandez, commander of the base.
Mr. Obama, during his visit Sunday, lectured Mr. Karzai on reducing his administration’s high corruption levels, the main reason for the lack of credibility facing the government. Aside from millions of dollars in humanitarian aid squandered since the NATO-led defeat of the Taliban in 2001, a strong Tajik ethnic influence has sapped the government’s credibility among Afghans in the predominantly Pashtun southern areas.
Locals in Kochnay Manarah, the village adjoining the base, appear of two minds about their new neighbors. In the absence of a school or medical doctor, illiteracy is crushing. The only source of education comes from the mullah who runs a small kuttab, an informal Islamic seminary for teaching the Koran to every new generation.
Lacking cars, running water or electricity, the locals subsist on their fields and animals. Rejection rates of the American presence run high. Locals maintain a standoffish attitude toward patrolling U.S. troops and their Afghan counterparts.
“They hate us,” said one U.S. soldier who requested that his name not be used.
But some signs are promising. One local offered to visit the base and divulge information, and troops have received an upswing in tips regarding improvised explosive devices, the deadly bombs that have produced the most casualties in the conflict.
As part of Gen. McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency strategy, soldiers are exposing themselves more by patrolling on foot to engage local residents and offer pens, notebooks and candy to the children.
The American troops are trailed by dozens of children, but the adults spare them little more than an occasional smile.
Most of the Afghan army soldiers in Kochnay Manar are not Pashtun, the prevailing ethnic group in southern Afghanistan and the main support base for the Taliban. Posted to the area in up to six-year deployments, the Afghans hold negative attitudes toward the region where they find themselves.
“We tried to apply to this place the kind of laws we encountered while we lived in Iran, but these people are endlessly benighted,” said Rooz Mohammad, an Afghan soldier who lived as a refugee in Iran before returning after the fall of the Taliban. “They need another 30 years to get to Iran’s level,” he said of the Pashtun locals.
Even on a local level, there are clear examples that corruption is tearing apart the country and damaging the people’s ability to have faith in the government and move away from support of the Taliban. Village leaders abuse seed handouts by distributing only a small percentage to their villagers and selling the rest on the black market in Kandahar.
“Obama’s come here to speak empty talk and go away again, but stomachs do not fill with empty talk,” Mr. Mohammad said.