"Looks like this was a bust," Lt. Col. William Chlebowski said when local leaders didn't show up for a meeting in this dusty village in eastern Afghanistan.
It wouldn't have been so disappointing if the meeting in Logar province hadn't been arranged by the Afghans themselves. Officials in the provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, had assured the Americans that tribal elders in Babous would greet him.
Their frustration highlights the U.S.-led coalition's struggle to match military gains on the battlefield with improvements in governance and public services to enhance daily life _ and dampen support for the Taliban. As a result, the U.S. says it has lowered expectations for creating a strong central Afghan government and now is pursuing a policy of what's "good enough."
Chlebowski went to Babous to find out what kind of public works projects were needed in the village.
"They're the ones who wanted to meet with us," Chlebowski said, cooling his heels as his interpreter worked his cell phone to find out why nobody showed.
An Afghan official said later that the elders and other residents were afraid to meet him in their village under the watchful eye of the Taliban. While some residents of Logar have embraced coalition forces and gladly take U.S. money for development projects, others don't trust the troops or the Afghan government.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, boasts of success in so-called counterterror operations, which have led to the capture and killing of hundreds of militants. At the same time, the commander told the U.S. Congress recently that these tactical wins on the battlefield must be coupled with progress on the other part of his strategy. This part _ known in military parlance as counterinsurgency, or COIN _ involves clearing the enemy out of a particular territory, then focusing on holding and developing it to win over the local Afghan population.
With waning public support for the war, a U.S. troop drawdown coming in July and rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Afghanistan, the clock is ticking on COIN.
Building good governance in Afghanistan will probably take decades, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this week in a visit to Afghanistan.
"One of the key things the administration has done has been to lower our expectations on creating a strong central government ... so that if the Afghans can settle disputes in the villages, if provincial and district governments can deliver security, then that's probably good enough," Gates said.
President Barack Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, echoed this sentiment at his confirmation hearing Wednesday. Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the goal is "good enough governance" in Kabul, "good enough to ensure that the country doesn't degenerate into a safe haven for al-Qaida."
In Afghanistan, insurgents know they can't militarily defeat the tens of thousands of coalition forces who are better trained and far better equipped. Yet their high-profile suicide bombings and fear and intimidation campaign play on the minds of Afghan citizens who must weigh whether siding with the government in hopes of gaining better security and public services is worth the risk of being harmed by the Taliban.
A May report issued by the International Council on Security and Development, an international policy think tank, said the international community has not been effectively countering the insurgents' message. The report also said the international community "has failed to build a positive relationship with the Afghan people, failed to engage effectively with communities at the grass roots political level, and has unsuccessfully communicated the reasons for its presence in Afghanistan to the Afghan people."
"A hearts and minds surge is needed with visible and positive impacts on ordinary Afghans' lives," the report concluded.
That's difficult when some villagers, like those in Babous, still fear talking to Afghan government or coalition officials.
Shajahudin Shejah, deputy governor of Logar province, said that even though people in Babous and other remote areas still worry about retaliation from the Taliban, most people are rooting for the government.
"We don't see anywhere in Logar where the people don't support the government," he said sitting his office in the provincial capital. "I can invite all these people from Babous to my office, but if the officials try to go there, that's going to be a problem. Even if there are only two Taliban but they kill people, who would be responsible for that?"
Charkh and Karwar districts in southern Logar province are the most dangerous. After troops cleared the area of insurgents, government officials went in to start development projects and create jobs. "A road construction company was supposed to go to Charkh this morning to start a road," Shejah said, "but unfortunately there were some disruptions by the enemy and they were not able to start the work."
There have been some development projects in Logar, but not enough, says Fazil Jan, who sells carpets in the provincial capital.
"In the past when the coalition forces were not here, we had civil war," he said. "Now we have the support of the international community, coalition forces are here and still we are at war and clashes are going on everywhere. Nobody knows what's going on and we cannot say what is good and what is bad."
A new report issued Wednesday by Democrats in the U.S. Senate said despite $18.8 billion that the U.S. has spent over 10 years to help stabilize and build up Afghanistan, the nation still risks falling into financial crisis when foreign troops are set to leave or take on support roles in 2014.
"Our strategy assumes that short-term aid promotes stability in counterinsurgency operations and `wins hearts and minds,'" the report said. "The evidence from Afghanistan supporting these assumptions is limited."
Moreover, the U.S. Congress has appropriated nearly $2.64 billion since 2004 for the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which lets commanders immediately fund humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects to help the Afghan people. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a January report that many projects it audited in one Afghan province were successful, but that concerns about the long-term sustainability of other projects "led to questionable outcomes and potential waste."
Chlebowski's trip to Babous was more a waste of time than of money.
The commander of the 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, spent more than five hours getting his heavily armored convoy there and back to his base.
U.S. troops assembled at 8 a.m. alongside a row of military vehicles caked in mud. After being briefed about where they might run into roadside bombs or ambushes, the troops tightened their flak jackets, strapped on helmets and piled into the vehicles. Joined by Jordanian and Afghan troops, they pulled out of Forward Operating Base Shank at 9:30 a.m. and merged into morning traffic.
A boy with a sack slung over his shoulder glanced only briefly at the massive vehicles rumbling past stalls selling fruit, eggs and vegetables, clusters of men chatting and three women in blue burqas that billowed behind them in the breeze. Inside one MRAP with U.S. troops, the conversation skipped from whether Donald Trump should run for president (he isn't) to former President Ronald Reagan's economic theories to U.S. economic woes.
About 40 minutes later, the convoy turned left onto a dirt road where a mine-clearance team was clearing a path to the village.
Chlebowski got out, walked into a light green building and looked inside several rooms. His voice echoed through the halls of the vacant building.
"I think we got stood up," Chlebowski said.