BABUR, Afghanistan — The American Army had arrived. Taliban fighters had been pushed on the defensive with surprising ease. With U.S. attack helicopters zipping by overhead, Babur elders gathered alongside swaths of red grapes drying in the southern Afghanistan dirt to hear from the new village rulers.
"You must make two decisions," Lt. Col. David Flynn told two dozen men who ventured out last week amid sporadic fighting to take part in the first town gathering under American military control. "Who will lead your village? And do you want to live under the Taliban or the government?"
The elders stroked their beards and fingered prayer beads as U.S. and Afghan soldiers waited for a response.
"We are not strong enough," one of the village elders finally said.
"If you allow us into your village, we will stand with you side by side," Flynn assured the men, who appeared unpersuaded.
As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division's "Top Gun" forces in Kandahar province's turbulent Arghandab valley, Flynn's ability to win over these anxious villagers in the coming months will help shape the outcome of President Obama's military push to change the trajectory of the nine-year-old war.
Across southern Afghanistan, commanders such as Flynn are at the forefront of Obama's military surge, which is reaching its apex as U.S.-led forces make a crucial push to dislodge Taliban insurgents from their spiritual heartland.
American and Afghan forces are methodically targeting Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Taliban forces are responding by planting deadly roadside bombs that are growing harder to detect. Insurgents are killing Afghan leaders who dare to join forces with the United States. They've also started to attack the newest American bases rising in their midst.
Flynn's soldiers began arriving in Afghanistan last spring as part of Obama's surge of 30,000 soldiers dispatched to target southern Afghanistan in hopes of putting the Taliban on the defensive.