GONDALABUK, Afghanistan — As their American trainers shouted out the drill, 15 bearded young Afghan police officers marched back and forth with their U.S.-issue fake guns at an American outpost in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, preparing for the dread day when they return to their valley, which the Taliban control.
At a meeting close by, however, the top police official in Nuristan province was offering a solution to the loss of the Doab valley.
"The answer is to kill at least two of the senior insurgent leaders," Gen. Mohamed Qasim told the U.S. commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Qasim offered to recruit an assassin, but he said he'd need American money "to carry out the killing."
It wasn't the first time the issue had arisen, but in Afghan guerrilla country, Navy Cmdr. Caleb Kerr, who's from Little Rock, Ark., responded carefully: "Actually, that is not the coalition policy. We do not hire mercenaries to go and kill people."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Kerr offered an alternative. "There is a (U.S. government) rewards program that we can work through in regards to information leading to the capture or killing of insurgent leaders."
It's not clear, however, whether "kill now, pay later" will wash in a place where fighters' loyalty often depends on who's paying them.
Kerr, who heads the reconstruction team at Operating Base Kalagush and shares the facility with Army units from Fort Hood, Texas, an Illinois Army National Guard platoon and the police trainers, who're based in Hohenfels, Germany, faces a daunting challenge.
Doab district, 30 miles from here, is astride one of the principal infiltration routes from Pakistan's tribal areas through the towering Hindu Kush for insurgents who're fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed Afghan government. In order to destroy al Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Afghan government must oust the Taliban from the infiltration routes though Doab and two other north-south valleys.
More Taliban and al Qaida fighters are streaming into the Doab valley daily, but American forces don't have enough ground troops, dependable air cover or reliable local intelligence to stop them. Worse: During a U.S. special forces operation in the neighboring Shuk valley in April 2008, heavy U.S. aerial bombing allegedly killed 17 civilians and left many local Afghans thirsting for revenge.
On March 30, the "Hellstorm" platoon of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment and the Illinois National Guard platoon came under fierce attack at a village to the north and had to retreat under fire, with two soldiers wounded and a Humvee destroyed.
The U.S. military is still trying to digest what went wrong, but two things are clear: The Americans were in the right place at the wrong time, and their foray may have emboldened the insurgents.
"Please have your guys listen to the talk of travelers," 1st Lt. Dashielle Ballarta, 24, of Pflugerville, Texas, told Mohamed Gul, a bushy-haired Afghan police commander, at the American base this week. "Try to get a feel for what is coming your way. My concern is that we might have agitated things up north, and that those effects might arrive down here soon."
The American strategy in Nuristan attempts to reverse the age-old counterinsurgency model of "clear, hold and build." It stresses building first, with the expectation that Nuristanis, long opposed to outside meddling in their affairs, eventually will "see the light" and decide to help the Afghan government hold on to it.
If the plan sounds like a hope and a prayer, it's also a necessity, because the air firepower that might support Afghan-American control of districts such as Doab hasn't been allocated to eastern Afghanistan.
The American foray into Doab wasn't a military operation but a "development assistance" mission to discuss building schools and roads. Kerr would've preferred to have had a stronger U.S.-Afghan military presence in Doab months ago, but the regional command in Jalalabad couldn't guarantee the air cover needed to support a base in the remote reaches of Nuristan.
The local Afghan commander, meanwhile, said his forces couldn't do the job.
"We can't fight them," said Gul Said, 32, the chief of the criminal department of the Afghan National Police force in Doab, who was at the U.S. base for training. The Taliban in Doab already have threatened to kill other police officers and him.
Gul's advice to the Americans: Don't come back.
"It doesn't matter how many soldiers the Americans send to Doab," Gul said. "The bad guys don't want them there. We need peace. We have to talk to these people. We can't fight them. They have too much money and too many guns. Now that the snow has melted, the dollars — fresh American dollars — are flying through the mountain passes from Pakistan."
"The Taliban and al Qaida are moving through Nuristan at will," said Lt. Col. Larry Pickett, 46, of McComb, Ill., who's the executive officer for the base for the Provincial Reconstruction Team. "The north of the province is wide open, and there is nothing to stop them."
Military intelligence officers in Kalagush said that senior al Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, could well live in Nuristan, which they termed a "dark unknown." According to Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials, al Qaida is thought to have embedded military trainers to work closely with the Taliban.
The U.S. commander for eastern Afghanistan north of the White Mountains, Col. John Spiszer, 46, of Harker Heights, Texas, stressed in an interview that he didn't have the air assets needed to win control of Nuristan, nor would he attempt to seize control of the province soon.
"To neutralize or clear the enemy out of there would take a lot more forces and air ability than we have at present," he said, stressing the need to build schools and roads instead.
In the weeks since their run-in with insurgents in Doab, Kerr, Ballarta and other U.S. officers have done a lot of thinking about Doab district, as have the Afghan police. The officers said they wanted to continue development assistance for Doab, including new schools, as soon as they could have more air support.
However, Gul Said, the chief of the police criminal department, said there was no short-term answer in Nuristan.
"The main problem is a lack of education," said Gul, who's literate and didn't hesitate to allow a photographer to take his picture. "Now the Americans are building schools. That is a good thing. But they should wait (to oust the Taliban) until my people get an education, so they can throw out the Taliban themselves."
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY