CHARBAGH, Afghanistan — The American soldiers climb over walls, jump ditches and scan the dirt for trip wires in an hourlong hike, all to meet with one man: the new head of a mosque in a tiny village in a southern Afghan river valley. They hope to persuade him to support the Afghan government.
They have a tough sell. The mullah, Bas Mohammad, says residents in Charbagh never see government representatives — not doctors, teachers or agriculture workers — even though the village sits on the edge of the south's largest city, Kandahar.
In areas like these, where government authorities rarely venture, patrolling NATO troops are not just a security force: They are also envoys of the Afghan government.
The Taliban clearly have a presence in Charbagh. The road between the village and an American outpost is so littered with homemade bombs that soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment avoid it altogether, making what should be a 300-yard walk last an hour. Mohammad's predecessor was run off by the militants, and the new mullah, a month into his job, has already been warned to leave.
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The violence isolates Charbagh, and many other areas around Kandahar, and often soldiers are the only ones willing to risk the journey.
But NATO and Afghan forces aren't planning a major offensive to rout the militants around Kandahar city, as they did in the southern town of Marjah this past winter. Commanders have said that instead they're taking a softer approach in the area — known as "Operation Hamkari," which means cooperation — squeezing the Taliban by strengthening government services.