BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan — Five miles from the muddy bazaar where smiling merchants offered tea to U.S. Army Col. David Haight and insisted that outsiders were making all the trouble, a deadly reception had been prepared for his five-vehicle patrol.
A U.S. pilot had spotted men burying what turned out to be a bomb by the road where Haight was stopping to ask how he could help poor farmers and jobless youths who were desperate for any kind of work, including setting explosives for the Taliban.
The stocky combat veteran from Fairfax, Va., wasn't buying what he was hearing about all the troublemakers being outsiders.
"The IED" — improvised explosive device — "that was put on the road down there? The guys are from Baraki Barak," Haight said as he and his men made their way past dingy shops and fruit carts, their fingers rarely straying from the triggers, grimy children gamboling noisily in their wake.
Down the road, U.S. military engineers found and blew up the remote-controlled bomb.
The encounter illustrates the distrust and anger that U.S.-led forces face as the Obama administration tries to stem the Taliban-led insurgency by sending more American troops to Afghanistan and ramping up a strategy to start making good on years of empty U.S. vows to better the lives of ordinary Afghans.
The region where Haight's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, N.Y., deployed six weeks ago is shaping up as one of the most crucial proving grounds for the revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
The 2,700-strong force is headquartered about 40 miles from Kabul, the first major foreign contingent to deploy in Wardak and Logar provinces, a measure of how the Taliban are expanding their presence around the national capital.
Home to more than 860,000 people, the two provinces control the approaches to Kabul from the Taliban's southern bastions. Afghanistan's main national highway — and the key U.S. supply route from Pakistan's port of Karachi — runs up Wardak's border with Logar to Kabul and connects to Bagram, the largest U.S. base in the country.
The guerrillas are no military match for the Americans, but their encroachments are fueling a perception that Kabul is being encircled, which could make joining the guerrillas increasingly appealing to dispirited Afghans who otherwise hate the Taliban's harsh brand of Islamic rule.
"Perception is a reality whether you like it or not," said Haight, who like many of the Afghans he encountered on his patrol earlier this week expects the winter thaw to bring a significant increase in violence as insurgents test the new U.S. troops in the area. Since he and his unit deployed, they've been ambushed several times, but they've suffered no serious casualties.
There was little bloodshed in the two provinces before mid-2007, when the Taliban and allied militants began infiltrating from the south.
They ambushed private trucks, beheaded drivers, attacked Afghan security forces and set up shadow governments. Their crude Islamic courts settle feuds and punish criminals, filling a vacuum created by the corrupt police and dysfunctional local authorities with whom the U.S. soldiers are associated.
"The police are just worthless," fumed Fulat Khan, 20, when Haight said his troops were backing up the local cops. "Anytime there is a fight in the community, the police just laugh and watch it. We need an organization or a number we can call so somebody can come here and help us."
Five miles from the muddy bazaar where smiling merchants offered tea to U.S. Army Col. David Haight and insisted that outsiders were making all the trouble, a deadly reception had been prepared for his five-vehicle patrol.