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U.S. Alters Tactics in Afghanistan In Hopes to Better Relationships

By David Rohde

The New York Times -- DWAMANDA, Afghanistan

As the effort to find Osama bin Laden and uproot the Taliban intensifies, the U.S. military is shifting tactics. A mission once limited to sweeps, raids and searches has yielded in recent months to an exercise in nation building. The hope is that a better relationship with Afghan locals and a stronger Afghan state will produce better intelligence and a speedier American departure. But the tension between building schools one day and rounding up suspects at gunpoint the next makes the prospects for success far from clear.

In a village 15 miles from Pakistan, Lt. Reid “Huck” Finn, a 24-year-old Louisiana native, supervised his men as they unloaded a half-dozen wooden boxes filled with supplies marked with American flags.

Wearing helmet and flak jacket and toting an M-4 assault rifle, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound lieutenant and former West Point football star represented his family’s third generation at war. But on this afternoon his mission was not combat. It was the distribution of blankets, shirts and sewing kits to destitute Afghan villagers.

For the previous hour, American Army medics had doled out free antibiotics, asthma medication and antacids. Finn sipped tea with Muhammad Sani, a wizened village elder, and offered to pay for a new school or well.

In a new American tactic, Finn’s platoon and two other 50-soldier platoons are expected to patrol and get to know every detail of a 15-to-25-mile chunk of Afghan territory that runs along the border.

The area holds more than 300 villages, three major ethnic Pashtun tribes, countless subtribes and a smuggling route used by Taliban and al-Qaida to slip from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The troops’ mission is to win the trust of Afghans who have seen the Soviets, then the mujahedeen and the Taliban sweep through this area promising a better life. Now it is the turn of the Pentagon and a budget of $40 million earmarked for such projects as village schools and wells. American soldiers are offering major reconstruction and relief aid in an area parched for it.

“The more they help us find the bad guys,” Finn explained, “the more good stuff they get.”

Both desperation and promise appeared abundant in the isolated border areas during a three-day patrol by the company Finn’s platoon is part of. In one village, a brawl broke out over the free American blankets and sewing kits, with one man hitting another with a shovel.

In another, a teacher announced that after offering only religious lessons under the Taliban, his school now taught 400 students subjects like chemistry, physics and English. Another man said he had re-enrolled in school to become the village’s first doctor. At the age of 33, he is an eighth grader.

The Americans hope their new approach will pry information about militants from reluctant Afghans. The battle, said Capt. Jason Condrey, Finn’s company commander, centers on winning the allegiance of the population, which he called al-Qaida’s “center of gravity.”

But the same American troops still use the standard tactics of military power to achieve their aims: intimidation, overwhelming force, hands tied behind backs and faces in the dirt. Over the course of the three-day patrol, it was not clear whether they had won, or lost, more hearts and minds.