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The other insurgency

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
Newly trained police officer Mosoma hones her shooting skills.


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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Remember the ad slogan "Pork - The Other White Meat?" The new slogan here should be "Afghanistan -- The Other Insurgency."

The I-word has become so associated with Iraq that it was surprising to hear the U.S. military suddenly refer to this sometimes-forgotten war as an insurgency.

But from the top down, that's how officials see the struggle against the Taliban and groups such as al Qaeda. So, the spring-summer offensive called Operation Mountain Thrust is under way in Afghanistan.

U.S. and NATO troops, along with their Afghan counterparts, are trying to clean the Taliban out of parts of Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan provinces - once no-go areas where the Taliban thrived.

Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says the Taliban is more powerful this year than last, but still believes the group does not pose a significant threat.

Fighting a counter-insurgency campaign, however, means more than winning skirmishes against the Taliban. It also means, according to Eikenberry and his team, bringing tangible benefits to resident Afghans and providing them with a sense of security.

The young guns

The scene would have been unimaginable five years ago, when the Taliban held power and women were allowed outdoors only if covered head-to-toe in the shroud called a burka.

Today, two young women, newly trained members of the Afghan National Police (ANP), are tearing up the firing range with their semi-automatic weapons, quite comfortable alongside their male counterparts, at a police facility in Kandahar.

Masoma and Saqeena look tough in their police uniforms as they shoot at targets. They wear headscarves, but the only covering on Saqeena's face is a pair of sunglasses that would do any L.A. motorcycle cop proud.

They tell us about their commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. Both are patriotic in their sentiments, but also realistic.

The Taliban, Masoma says, have a free hand in and around Kandahar. "The security situation is really bad in Kandahar and the Taliban are everywhere in this city."

A day after we talk to the two young women, a Taliban suicide bomber tries to attack a Canadian military convoy. He misses his target, but kills three Afghan civilians along with himself.

The ANP is a key part of the counter-insurgency strategy. U.S. and Afghan officials say the ANP will be on the front line in the rural villages after the Operation Mountain Thrust military mission is complete.

At least that is the plan. But according to Americans training these recruits, only half of the police officers are properly trained and equipped.

The ANP's performance during the recent Kabul riots didn't inspire confidence. Some officers were overpowered and had their weapons taken from them by an angry mob; others could be seen on videotape firing into the crowd.

Kabul's police chief was sacked. U.S. officials say the ANP's leadership is being overhauled nationwide to remove corrupt and incompetent officers.

The rose garden

The roses are in full bloom in the courtyard of the governor's palace in Khost. Gov. Meraj Pattan takes justifiable pride in his gardening skills, even as he plays host to a meeting of U.S. and Afghan officials.

He is optimistic about the situation in his province.

start quoteI believe strategically, al Qaeda is defeated.end quote
-- Meraj Pattan, governor of Khost province

"The rapid development in this region you can see here. It is almost 20 years done in two years. People are very happy, they are supporting the government. It is much, much [more] peaceful than it used to be," he says.

Minutes later, Pattan takes a walk through the city of Khost with Gen. Eikenberry. They talk to shopkeepers and get in an armored convoy to look at new construction at Khost's university.

Signs of the new construction the governor has mentioned are all over Khost. As we fly over the valleys around the city, it is evident that the harvest here has been abundant this year.

All this is certainly a change from eight years ago, when just a few miles from here, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri held a news conference to announce their war against the West.

Now, at least during our brief visit, Khost appears to be peaceful.

"I believe strategically, al Qaeda is defeated," Pattan says.

There was a military operation here, similar to the one now under way in the south, and the U.S. believes it captured or killed many anti-government fighters.

In their place, the U.S. hopes the Afghan National Army and ANP will fill the void.

As we get closer to the Afghan-Pakistan border, we hear stories of firefights between U.S. patrols and insurgent fighters. In one incident, after a patrol managed to fight its way out of an ambush, the insurgents fled across the border, less than half a mile away.

In this case, "insurgents" is a more accurate designation than "Taliban." There are also al Qaeda fighters in this area, according to patrolling members of the 10th Mountain Division.

More likely to be encountered, the military says, are fighters associated with either Gulbeddin Hekmatyar or Jalaluddin Haqqani. These are powerful warlords who have at times allied themselves with al Qaeda and the Taliban, but who were originally involved in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

It will be years, says the local military commander, before the counter-insurgency campaign will end. As one route through the mountains is cut off from insurgents -- the term includes smugglers and criminals -- another route appears.

You can conquer one valley and make it safe, says Gen. Eikenberry, but another valley is just over the next hill.

A reminder of that comes days later, as I am headed home. News catches up with me that three soldiers in a U.S. convoy from the same base where we stayed had just been wounded on the road near Khost, by a roadside bomb.

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