By Bob Strong
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Last July, venturing outside Combat Outpost Nolen in the lush Arghandab Valley was a risky proposition for U.S. troops.
Insurgents had ringed the small military base, deep in a traditional Taliban stronghold north of Kandahar city, with pressure-plate and remote-controlled explosive devices, creating a homemade minefield.
Soldiers on patrol stayed off the roads and cut through grape fields and pomegranate orchards in an effort to avoid a lethal misstep. In just one four-day period of intense fighting, three men died and 20 were injured.
Today, a wide gravel road winds past COP Nolen, leading to four new military outposts established in the past six months.
On a recent battlefield tour, U.S. Army Lt Col David Flynn, who is in charge of the western Arghandab, escorted officers from a unit that will replace him and his men on a walk that would have been suicidal a year ago.
"We were the surge force and we were going to make a difference here," said Flynn, although he argues that it took more than just numbers to change the dynamic of the fight.
An aggressive push against insurgents last August, plus a series of controversial airstrikes that reduced some Taliban-held villages to little more than rubble, paved the way for 13 new U.S.-Afghan military bases in the Arghandab Valley.
Flynn says the targeted villages had been abandoned by civilians and laced with homemade bombs that were fatal to his soldiers and would be a risk to anyone returning to the area.
"When I got report that special operations had found homemade explosive with no people in the village, the recommendation came up to drop ordnance on the sanctuary that was Tarok Kalache," he said of one village.
Afghan police checkpoints now dot roads between small villages, overlooking budding grape vines and fruit trees -- although in some orchards and vineyards only stumps are left.
NEW HOMES, NEW SECURITY?
A walk through what was once the village of lower Babur revealed a narrow strip of rubble surrounded by orchards and forest on both sides, testimony to the force of U.S. bombing.
But a mosque has already reopened, and a pile of bricks had been delivered the previous day for building new homes.
Flynn says the U.S. has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuilding and is confident his team have not been duped by local powerbrokers in allocation funds and land.
Cultural and linguistic barriers, and complex relationships that are overlooked or misunderstood by outsiders, have often channeled foreign money into questionable hands in the past.
A short distance from the new mosque is Strongpoint Stansbery, one of the small military posts that Flynn says are vital to maintaining security in the Arghandab.
"The outposts are there specifically to ensure security in the village and to ensure there is no intimidation of the contractors," he said.
Despite the current air of stability and increased security, no one is sure what will happen when spring is fully under way and insurgents return from waiting out the winter to start the traditional "fighting season."
Flynn says they have been slow to return, cause for cautious optimism.
"People have told us this time last year the Taliban were already in the village, and its not happening this year, and its partly due to the fact that we are inside their sanctuaries that they used last year."
But critics say that calm does not equal victory, because with all foreign combat troops due to pull out of Afghanistan by 2014, all the insurgents need to do is play a waiting game.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)