In this dusty village in southern Afghanistan a small team of elite U.S. Marines is nudging Afghans toward rejection of the Taliban insurgency, a mission that is emerging as central to the U.S. and NATO exit strategy but is little known beyond the rugged brown hills of the upper Helmand River Valley.
Sixty-three U.S. troops, led by a team of bearded special operations Marines, operate from a small compound in the center of remote Puzeh, where they mingle with villagers and confer with local power brokers in an effort to create the beginnings of a homegrown militia that could eventually stand up to the Taliban.
Time is running out on the wider counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan, with U.S. and NATO combat operations scheduled to end in 2014 and the Taliban showing little interest in peace talks. In Puzeh the special operations Marines, working with Afghans, are at the forefront of a strategy designed to undermine the appeal of the Taliban as U.S. troops begin leaving by the thousands next year.
In Puzeh they have only seven men trained for a local force, with 19 others to come. It's been slow going, but the Marines, who could not be quoted by name under ground rules meant to shield their identities as members of the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command, said they are optimistic.
It's risky business in a volatile area, but on a brief visit here on Thanksgiving Day, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, encouraged the special operations Marines, praised their courage and marveled at the dozens of young boys scampering up and down the town's main dirt road.
Amos also noted that as he walked into the village, women strolled casually past him rather than avoid him or turn away from him and other Marines.
"I've never seen that before" in previous visits to rural Afghanistan, he said, adding that it appeared to indicate a degree of trust and confidence in the work of the U.S. special operations team.
Puzeh, in Helmand province, is about 10 miles south of the Kajaki dam where the U.S. wants to expand the hydroelectric capacity to supply power to northern and central Helmand and to parts of neighboring Kandahar province.
As the U.S. withdraws tens of thousands of troops from Afghanistan in coming months, special operations teams like the one in Puzeh are expected to remain _ and possibly even grow, U.S. officers said in interviews last week. It increasingly will fall to them to build sufficient footing for stability in key areas of the country.
That is especially relevant to Helmand province, where the Marines are scheduled to reduce their numbers by the thousands in 2012 and shift their main mission from fighting the insurgency and partnering in combat with Afghan troops to putting the Afghans in the lead. By next fall the Marines plan to be in what they call an "overwatch" role. That means they would intervene if the Afghan security forces falter but otherwise stand aside.
Brig. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, commander of the 2nd Marine Division in Helmand, said during Amos's visit to Puzeh that he foresees turning over lead responsibility for security in the upper Helmand River Valley to Afghans by next summer. That outlook has instilled a sense of urgency among the Marines in Puzeh.
"What you're doing up here is critically important to the big scheme of things in northern Helmand," Craparotta told the Marines at Puzeh.
By living among the locals, rather than in isolated, fortified compounds used by conventional U.S. and allied forces elsewhere in Afghanistan, the special operations Marines aim to gradually build confidence among ordinary Afghans. Officially called "village stability operations," it's a bottom-up approach that appears to be on a longer timeline than the rest of the war effort, which is closely tied to development of the Afghan national army and uniformed police and focused on larger population centers in the south and east.
This work is under way in numerous rural villages across Afghanistan, with an uncertain outcome. Many who have performed the work see it as vital.
Army Lt. Col. Brian Petit wrote in the U.S. Army journal, Military Review, last spring that the effort is indispensable. Petit commanded a special operations task force in southern Afghanistan last year.
"We establish stability in the villages first, then connect village governance to the districts and the provinces," he wrote. "Investing in Afghanistan's villages is analytically rigorous, socially tiring, and highly dangerous. Yet the rewards are worth the risk, for in combating Afghanistan's rural insurgency, we cannot `win' without support from the villages."
A Marine special operations team also is working in remote areas of western Afghanistan, where there are far fewer conventional U.S. and allied troops.
The Marines in Puzeh say they have gained the trust of most in the community, but tribal rivalries, fear of the Taliban and a general lack of governance make for slow-going toward the goal of undermining Taliban influence, which until recently dominated in the Helmand River Valley.
There is no functioning school in Puzeh, let alone a police force. But the special operations Marines are haggling with locals to reopen an abandoned school that stands within a stone's throw of a Marine watchtower that overlooks Highway 611, a dirt road that cuts through the village.
In an AP interview last week at a U.S. combat outpost well south of Puzeh, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the withdrawal of 33,000 American forces by next September _ as ordered by President Barack Obama _ will not include Marine or other special operations forces.
"You may even see them come up (in numbers) a bit," Allen said.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP