PUL-I-ALAM, Afghanistan — On what is more akin to a sunny winter's stroll, U.S. troops proudly tread on a newly asphalted road, past a refurbished mosque and a crowded market overflowing with produce. Children dance around the soldiers' boots and bearded men stop them for a casual chat.
This is Logar province: scene of a major U.S. military buildup, fuel for the argument by senior commanders that more troops and aid infusions could reverse Taliban gains in other areas of Afghanistan and ultimately lead to victory.
But the endgame has yet to be played out in Logar, a critical region south of Kabul.
Less than 10 miles from this provincial capital and a few days later, another patrol is greeted only by the cackle of crows and what soldiers call "the stinky eye" from some villagers when they enter Uzbakkhel in combat formation. Two roadside bombs welcomed them on a former visit, a district official had been assassinated the previous night, and three days earlier the Taliban nearby killed a 24-year-old man whose uncle worked for the government in Kabul.
"They came in the afternoon, about 4 o'clock, and they cut his head off," said Abdul Nabi, a farmer in Uzbakkhel. "Where was the security? Who was there to help him?"
Nevertheless, a year ago there would have been no U.S. troops at all in Baraki-Barak district, where Nabi's village is located, and only some 300 in all of Logar. Now, following a buildup launched in January, there are more than 2,000, including an elite 275-man Czech contingent.
Significantly, U.S. commanders say, the Afghan National Army strength has risen to 800 in Logar, with every operation down to the platoon level carried out hand-in-hand with American forces, serving to blunt the image of Americans as foreign occupiers.
"Last year you had talk of the Taliban at the gates of Kabul. Trucks were being ambushed on the highways. You don't hear that anymore. That's what the insertion of a brigade plus development have done," said Maj. Joseph Matthews, a battalion operations officer in the 10th Mountain Division.