MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Last week U.S. Captain Roger Hill led a patrol into the Jaldez valley, just southwest of Kabul, and was immediately ambushed from three sides by 50 Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
The army of attackers, robed and bearded, fired somewhere between 25 and 30 grenades at his convoy, Hill said, pinning the patrol down in a furious two-hour gun battle that ended only when U.S. fighter planes swooped in for support.
It was a relatively rare and surprisingly staunch attack for that area of Afghanistan, reminiscent in its intensity to episodes in Iraq, where Hill spent more than a year. Yet asked where he would rather be deployed, he is clear.
“I feel like we’re getting somewhere here. In a way we’ve had to start much more from scratch in Iraq than in Afghanistan,” he said. “Here there’s a sense of progress.”
His commander Major Christopher Faber, the operations officer for a task force of the 101st Airborne Division in Maidan Wardak, a province just south of Kabul, is even more succinct.
“In Iraq, it’s hunting season all year long for them,” he said, referring to the insurgents. “Here, I feel like there’s a lot more optimism.”
In some ways those views contradict the received wisdom on Afghanistan, described by military experts in the United States as a “forgotten war” and one America and its NATO allies will lose if they do not boost numbers and change tactics rapidly.
Yet on the ground in Afghanistan the conflict quickly shows itself to be far more nuanced, with large swathes of the country relatively stable and making slow if very cumbersome progress, while other areas -- particularly the far south -- are mired in a conflict that frequently eclipses Iraq for intensity.
In the southern portions of east Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been operating for more than six years, even the provinces that border Pakistan and have been a refuge for the Taliban in the past are showing signs of calm.
U.S. commanders spend the bulk of their days meeting local Afghan officials, trying to coordinate efforts with French, Czech or Turkish reconstruction teams and running patrols alongside the slowly improving Afghan army.
There tends to be little combat, although rockets are still frequently fired at U.S. bases, roadside bombs are an occasional threat and an uptick in violence is expected as the weather warms into a possible Spring offensive by the Taliban.
At the main U.S. base in the area, just 20 km (13 miles) from the Pakistan border, U.S. soldiers appear very relaxed about their deployment and the day-to-day duties.
“This place is the Ritz,” says Private Adam Grow, 23, referring to what is known as Forward Operating Base Salerno.
“I work a 9 to 5 shift, get my work done, and then go the gym or take a class. There’s definitely worse places to be.”
Grow and his friend Specialist Christopher Moore, 34, are taking a philosophy class as part of a military education program. The gym on the base is the size of an aircraft hangar with 10 running machines, endless weight racks, ice-cold water on tap from stainless steel fridges and live U.S. sports on TV.
“This is a war zone, believe it or not,” jokes Moore.
Three provinces to the southwest, it very much is a war zone. In Kandahar and Helmand, in the desert regions of southern Afghanistan, U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops battle furiously against an entrenched Taliban on a near-daily basis.
Hundreds of U.S. Marines were sent in the last week to retake a town in south Helmand, where around 7,000 British troops have been based for two years and are making slow progress, sometimes taking territory only to lose it weeks later.
The battle to secure Helmand, which alone produces nearly half the world’s opium, could drag on for years more. Afterwards, years of intense reconstruction would still be required to prevent the region collapsing again.
Kandahar, the one-time headquarters for the Taliban, is little different. Alone, the two vast provinces help explain why even military and civilian optimists think it could be a generation before Afghanistan is fully on the road to recovery.
At the same time, in those areas to the east and in northern Afghanistan where progress appears to have been made, the United States and NATO have to be sure to coordinate their efforts so that the overall impact is not two steps forward and one back.
Forty countries are now contributing to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which has around 47,000 troops, but drawing up a strategy that unifies their work has proved elusive. In addition, the United States has some 14,000 troops serving in a separate force.
The U.S. defense secretary has expressed frustration that NATO cannot or will not come up with more troops to support the fight. Washington has mooted it could now send up to 7,000 more of its own troops to boost numbers next year.
Perhaps partly as a result, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan joke that ISAF stands for “I Suck At Fighting.” Yet a serious note underlines the soldiers’ ribbing of their allies.
Because they don’t feel totally supported by ISAF on the battlefield, there are elements of tension between U.S. and NATO commanders when it comes to managing post-combat reconstruction.
In Wardak, Major Faber shares a base with some French troops involved in reconstruction, and the Turks have a nearby compound from where they administer aid and training of Afghan forces. They wave hello, but do not always know what everyone’s up to.
”I see a lot more international effort here than in Iraq,“ says Captain Hill, weighing up the positives. ”But I don’t necessarily know what a French officer, or a USAID guy, or a Turkish reconstruction guy is doing and that makes it hard.
“We’re making progress, but if we can’t coordinate better then we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot,” he says.
Editing by Megan Goldin