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Afghanistan's Zhari district struggles to keep the peace (PHOTOS)
Saturday, May 25th, 2013

ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Almost every summer for the past decade, Zhari's thick-walled earth huts, used to dry the famous local sweet grapes into raisins, have become fortresses for Taliban fighters.

From April to November each year, insurgents would fire machine guns at American patrols from the structures’ ventilation slits, aiming to at least to push US soldiers back onto paths laden with homemade bombs. 

But for the past six months, Zhari’s grape huts have been clear of fighters. And this small but strategic farming district in Kandahar province has seen a dramatic drop in violence, even as fighting picks up in neighboring districts. 

An influx of US and Afghan troops has, for now, weakened the Taliban who once took amid the grape vines. The insurgent-planted mines that kept farmers from reaching their fields are largely gone. 

“The Taliban, they still scare the villagers and cause problems, but it is nothing like it was,” said Afghan army 1st Lt. Ashabudden Mokhles, a platoon leader at Ghundy Ghar, a lonely brown hill that now serves as an Afghan army outpost. “Last year at this time, there was a lot of fighting. Now, it is quiet.” 

But with US troops packing up and moving out, how long this tranquil farming community can keep the peace remains to be seen.

More from GlobalPost: (PHOTOS): Afghanistan: A tale of two districts 

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Staff Sgt. Juan Limon, a veteran of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq, pulls out his rosary beads before a patrol in Zhari.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Afghan Local Police commander Besmullah Jaan explains how the Taliban are making IEDs that focus the blast at passing police vehicles. Most of Jaan's men are former Taliban fighters, now on the Afghan government payroll as part of a reintegration program. A similar plan was carried out in Iraq during the 2007 troop surge.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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A boy stops harvesting opium from this poppy field in Zhari to watch patrolling soldiers pass by.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Afghan Local Police patrol through Zhari's notorious Senjuray village, the scene of near-constant violence in summers past. Much of the fighting was between US troops and young Afghan men like these ALPs, who are now on the government payroll.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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US troops patrol between a Zhari poppy field and an Afghan police vehicle destroyed by an IED last year.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Pvt. Caden Hermann uses a retinal scanner to enroll a Zhari man in a biometric database.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Most civilians encountered by US military patrols are biometrically scanned into a database used to track known criminals and insurgents. Here, a Zhari man has his fingerprints read.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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A soldier from 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division carefully lowers himself into an irrigation ditch in Zhari.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Afghan explosive ordnance disposal team leader 2nd Lt. Nasullah Sharif straps on his bomb suit at Combat Outpost Ahmadkhan in Zhari District. Sharif is one of only 36 highly trained Afghan EOD techs in the country, which is bristling with mines and IEDs.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Afghan EOD soldiers show off their equipment at Combat Outpost AK in Zahari District. All the equipment is American-made, as is the surveillance blimp hovering behind the wall.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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A Stryker stuck in Zhari's spring mud.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Zhari is on a floodplain of the Arghandab River, which makes it extremely fertile farmland but difficult to patrol.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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A henna-stained dog warily greets patrolling soldiers.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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The Afghan Local Police program was modeled after the Sons of Iraq, which sought to integrate insurgents into the national security forces.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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Most Afghan Local Police officers fought against Americans in the past. With unreliable pay and supply systems, it may be a matter of time before they do again.

(Ben Brody - GlobalPost)
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