The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 6-24, 2004.
As he patrols the western outskirts of Afghanistan's capital, Sgt. Eric Proulx wears a flak jacket and helmet in the front seat of an open, jeeplike vehicle.
He's part of the Canadian contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, 6,500 soldiers who are trying to build public confidence by working alongside local forces and giving community-level reminders of a benign international presence.
How long such patrols will continue is very much at issue, however, given NATO's failure to fulfill its pledges to Afghanistan. Questions remain about whether the alliance will do so any time soon, even as President Hamid Karzai has pleaded for more troops in advance of this fall's election to bolster American forces.
The approximately 20,000 U.S. soldiers here are mostly hidden away, chasing terrorists along the Pakistani border or hunkered down behind the barbed wire of tightly secured bases, for the most part still in the business of waging war. Proulx and the other NATO-led soldiers are much more visible.
During a four-hour patrol last weekend, Proulx's two-vehicle convoy is met nearly everywhere it goes with thumbs-up gestures and shouts of "Thank you!" and "How are you?"
Women, inscrutable behind the pale blue full-body covering known as the burqa, are impossible to read. But the welcome appears genuine among children and from men of all ages. Proulx says the reception is typical of his experience over the past four months.
"They're either happy we're here or they're hypocrites," he says.
Hypocrisy might well be a charge leveled at NATO. For the past two years, its member nations have touted Afghanistan as the true nexus in the war on terrorism and a place where they were committed to fighting side by side with U.S. forces.
Yet NATO's response has been belated and small, with the United States bearing most of the burden -- half the financial commitments so far to economic reconstruction, the bulk of fighting duties on the border and three times as many
troops overall. Canada has been the exception. It has stationed some 2,100 troops here over the past year, third behind U.S. and British forces. But more than a third of the Canadians are leaving come August, as long planned, and so far there is no NATO plan for replacing them.
Missed chance? When the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban in 2001, it scored a signal victory against terrorism.
But it was also a test for NATO, an alliance that has struggled for a defining mission in the years since the Cold War ended. Afghanistan was its first out-of-Europe deployment, aimed at showing that alliance forces could meet challenges abroad before the consequences hit their citizens at home.
Last August, NATO took over command of the International Security Assistance Force from the United Nations. Then, it pledged a dramatic increase in both forces and equipment for Afghanistan, extending the international force's presence beyond Kabul to provide security through much of the country.
It hasn't happened.
Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier, the Canadian who commands the NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Post-Dispatch in an interview this week that he still hopes NATO will make good on its commitments.
"The challenge is getting nations to contribute to the force levels needed," Hillier said. "It hasn't occurred yet."
The immediate challenge facing Hillier is how to keep NATO forces even at current levels. Canada is set to pull some 800 of its troops out in early August; seasoned veterans like Proulx are not easily replaced, especially with the country embarked on an elections process that already has been accompanied by widespread violence.
In an interview this month, a U.S. official here played down the importance of increasing NATO's presence in Afghanistan. "We said it was important to have more NATO troops here for the elections," he said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "We never said it was vital."
Hillier has a different view.
"You can't underestimate the importance of presence and visibility," he said, "the psychology and comfort that brings. The people here want us present, visible, out on our feet."
That's the job of soldiers like Master Cpl. Steve Savoie. Savoie, whose hometown of Coaticook, Quebec, is just north of Vermont, leads his crew of 10 on patrols day and night through the outskirts of Kabul. Their mission is to keep the peace, and to work with local law enforcement and Afghan military forces to solve conflicts big and small among the populace.
A night mission last Saturday heads out in two armored personnel carriers. Savoie sits up top, as do the driver and two others.
"You won't believe these communities," he adds. "If it weren't for vehicles, we'd be back in Jesus' days."
The landscape at dusk is shades of brown, with high-walled houses and narrow lanes that might pass for Italian hill towns except that the walls and houses are made of mud bricks, not stone.
The first stop isn't a town at all, just a collection of tents hugging the steep slope of a rocky hill and goats picking at stray tufts of grass. It's a settlement of Kuchi nomads, the wandering thread in Afghanistan's rich ethnic tapestry.
Children in brightly colored clothes race down the hill as the armored personnel carriers pull to a stop, thrusting out their hands for the crayons and blankets and coloring books they have come to expect from the daily patrols.
The second stop is at Qalaiqazi, an old mud-walled village of Pashtuns that would be indistinguishable from the mountains that soar behind except for the pale green walls and roof of a mosque and shrine at the village's highest point.
Elder Mohammed Nasir at first says that most people here have gotten voter registration cards for the national elections scheduled for September. But then he complains that residents here must go to Kabul to register -- no easy thing in a place with no bus service and dirt roads that are barely passable.
The result, Nasir says, is that the men have gone into Kabul to register, but most of the women have not. "It's very hard," he explains. "If the wives want to go to the city, they have to walk one hour."
By the time Savoie's patrol reaches its third stop, the village of Choonghar, it is dark. On a moonless night, the mountains are an inky black, the walled village opaque save for the dim oil light of a single shop where men have gathered outside.
Here, too, Savoie goes through his practiced drill, asking the elders to let him know about any problems they face, from health care and transportation to security and law enforcement.
"Do the police come here? Do you need more of a police presence?" Savoie asks. The answer -- from several elders speaking at once -- is an emphatic "No."
"That is one of our challenges here," Savoie says when he is back at camp and preparing to write up his daily report.
"We want to work with local police to develop their skills, and to do that we need to patrol with them," he said, "but that's a problem.
"When we go on patrol without police, the people will talk to us and give us information. If we come with the police, they won't."
Hillier, the NATO force commander, acknowledges the problem, and a possible shortcoming in the German-U.S. effort now under way to train police -- which focuses on building individual skills rather than working to root out corruption and
incompetence in local police departments.
"When they come out of the training, if they go back to one of the good police forces, they help make it better," he said. "If they go back to one of the lesser units, the less trustworthy police forces, they quickly get dragged down to the level of the local force."
Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie, the Canadian who served as deputy commander of the NATO force until earlier this year, said in an interview that an expanded NATO presence was key to stabilizing Afghanistan.
"No one is as good at finding, fixing and striking bad guys as the Americans; no one can come close," Leslie said. The NATO-led security force, by contrast, "is very good at a complex blend of peacekeeping and security."
But what of NATO's failure to make good on its Afghan commitments?
"You have to understand that NATO is a coalition of the willing, too," he said, "and it's proven very tough to get nations to commit troops above and beyond what they've done already."
But with Afghanistan already supplying upward of three-quarters of the heroin on European streets, Leslie said, and the promise of worse should the country's fragile institutions shatter again, "it's in Europe's interest to do more."