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US and Afghan soldiers react to Obama's visit

Kabul talk means little in Kandahar, troops and locals agree.

A squad of U.S. Army soldiers passes a shepherd's flock and a dog after the soldiers were attacked by Taliban insurgents on March 15, 2010 at Howz-e-Madad in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. A joint patrol of Americans from Attack Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment and Afghan Army troops had been on a reconnaissance mission when they were fired on. (John Moore/Getty Images)

ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — Surrounded by gravel-filled buttresses and manned 24 hours a day by alert American and Afghan gunners, Combat Outpost Kowall appears an outpost under siege. It is one of the front-line posts in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s expanded campaign to flush out a resurgent Taliban ahead of a major offensive in Kandahar expected this summer.

Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan was an opportunity to express the United States' displeasure with the Karzai government’s rampant and unchecked corruption. But for the soldiers of Alpha Company of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Kabul conference halls and money-guzzling ministries seem like a very distant place (where, reports Jean MacKenzie, Karzai seems focused on staying in power).

“The visit’s important for the big picture, I’m sure, but here on the ground it doesn’t affect us at all,” said Pfc. Justin Tatum, one of about 30 soldiers headquartered in a crumbling
school building alongside a company of the Afghan National Army.

The troops have reinforced the base and are supported by constant drone and helicopter surveillance flights. A recent machine-gun attack mounted from two directions was repelled with more than a thousand rounds, laying down “an awesome example of firepower that will discourage the Taliban from targeting our outpost again,” according to 1st Lt. Matthew
Fernandez, the commander of the base.

Obama lectured Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reduce his administration’s high corruption levels, the primary reason for the lack of credibility suffered by the government. Aside from millions of dollars in humanitarian aid squandered since the NATO-led defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the strong Tajik ethnic influence on the government saps its credibility in the predominantly Pashto southern areas, such as this one.

Locals in Kochnay Manarah, the village adjoining the base, appear of two minds about their new neighbors. In the absence of a school or medical doctor, there is crushing illiteracy. The only source of education comes from the mullah who runs a small kuttab, an informal
Islamic seminary for teaching the Quran to every new generation.

Lacking cars, running water or electricity, the locals lead a subsistence existence centered around their fields and animals. Rejection rates of the American presence run high, with locals maintaining a standoffish attitude toward patrolling troops and their Afghan National
Army counterparts.

“They hate us,” said one soldier who requested that his name not be printed.