FORT BRAGG, N.C. - In a sandy clearing in the pine woods, Special Forces soldiers and civilians are struggling with the riddle of Afghanistan.
Why is the United States, seven years after it invaded and threw out the Taliban, still falling short in the war?
From their varied backgrounds - infantryman, farming expert, foreign aid officer - they work under U.S. Army doctrine: You can't beat insurgents with military force.
For years, everyone from politicians to generals have advocated "more troops," and the Pentagon is deploying about 4,000 additional soldiers and Marines during the next two months. Some 20,000 more are likely to be deployed this spring and summer.
But military officers acknowledge that pure force can be counterproductive, especially in regions already hostile to outsiders, where civilian casualties and destruction inevitably accompany combat operations. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates observed recently about Afghanistan, "We cannot kill or capture our way to victory."
Instead, counterinsurgency experts here say they believe the U.S. must focus on building stability into the lives of ordinary Afghans. That sounds simple and obvious - but it's a 180-degree turn from the current strategy. And it requires sending to Afghanistan Americans skilled not just in war-zone work, but in meticulously fitting development to local needs.
The United States can't "fix" Afghanistan's poverty, illiteracy and other causes of instability. But Special Forces counterinsurgency experts say they believe they can stem the rising Taliban insurgency by refocusing the U.S. effort. Instead of just chasing insurgents and heaping development projects into a district - such as roads, schools and health clinics - first determine the causes of local conflict. Then work to fix those specific problems.
Listening carefully to local people, they say, can help determine why a particular village or town is dominated by the Taliban, who are often disliked for their harsh methods. Probing further can determine what can be done about it.
This bottom-up strategy reverses the entrenched U.S. approach: attacking insurgents where they gather, and determining in Washington where to build schools and roads. Then measuring "success" by checking off project lists - not by measuring gains or losses in local stability.
"Our approach ties your actions to the root causes of instability," said Thomas Baltazar, a retired Special Forces colonel who heads the Office of Military Cooperation at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Baltazar's team, in a series of training sessions here, taught this new approach to soldiers and development experts who deployed to Afghanistan last month.
But it's an uphill battle. Figuring out the causes of conflict can be a frustrating process of talking again and again with local villagers. Taking action on causes of instability - whether that means training local cops and judges, or helping local governments learn to budget and manage contracts - can require long-term investments whose success is hard to measure with the kind of specific numbers sought by skeptical politicians.
This kind of work is also dangerous.
"If you are helping people build stability, you are taking power away from the insurgents," said a Special Forces officer who just returned from Afghanistan, who asked not to be identified because he is not an authorized spokesman.
"Mother Teresa would have been beheaded out there."
Simply building a school or health clinic is safer, quicker and an easier sell to bureaucrats and congressmen who control funding.
"This is new warfare," said John Mott, a Montana-bred cowboy who works on livestock management with a local government in eastern Afghanistan. "This is not the Peace Corps, it's a counterinsurgency. If it were as simple as shooting bad guys, I'd be all for it. That's easy to do.
"This other," he sighs, "is slow and frustrating - everything Americans hate to do."
Americans were proud of a new school recently opened in Paktika Province in eastern Pakistan. But conflict flared immediately. Fighting broke out, and the Taliban arrived to threaten the teacher with death. It turned out that unpopular and corrupt police assigned to protect the school were extorting bribes from villagers, and the Taliban became heroes for chasing the cops away.
Afghanistan "is a complex environment, and you got to ask a lot of questions and peel back the layers," said Jim Derleth, senior adviser on conflict and stabilization at the U.S. Agency for International Development. In general, he said, "We are not doing that.
"But if we don't understand what is going on with the local population, how can we be effective?"
In this case, American dollars would have been better invested in helping the local government select a new police chief and remove the corrupt police. That would have won the villagers' good will, especially if some of them were hired as cops - and would have kept the Taliban away.
A critical piece of this new approach is to set goals and carefully measure results.
Special Forces soldiers monitoring the school-police conflict, for instance, might judge their success by counting the number of violent incidents, attendance by local Afghans at village meetings or the number of tips about insurgents received from local villagers.
Derleth teaches soldiers and aid officials to first meet with villagers to ask some basic questions. Has the village population changed in the past year (to determine changes in security)? What are your greatest problems? Who do you trust to resolve them? What should be done first?
"If you go into a place and ask, 'Would you like a school?' Well heck - sure! Everybody wants a school," Derleth told a group of soldiers. "You want to know what their priorities are."
Ask questions, take action and measure the results. Adjust, act and measure again.
It's a repetitive process that requires time, patience and manpower. All are in short supply.
This year in particular, sharp-eyed budget analysts at the White House and in Congress will be looking for demonstrated results of foreign aid. Building a school is a measurable result. Working to build an honest police force: not so easy.
U.S. development aid programs are designed to provide measureable results. USAID recently boasted that it has paid for more than 680 schools and 670 health clinics throughout Afghanistan and distributed more than 60 million textbooks. It did not provide evidence that any of that investment helped build long-term stability.
This approach reminds some experts of what happened in the 1950s and the 1960s in Afghanistan, when the United States and the Soviet Union poured millions of dollars into development projects, building dams, roads, bridges, schools and health clinics across the country.
Then came 30 years of war, reducing the development to rubble.
This time, Washington has spent $3.4 billion on development in Afghanistan. The war has gotten worse.
A shortage of manpower is another problem. Local development in Afghanistan is done through Provincial Reconstruction Teams, an American concept to dispatch groups of 80 soldiers and a few civilian experts to work with local governments. There are 28 PRTs at work in Afghanistan. Sixteen are manned by Europeans; 12 are led and staffed by the U.S. military.
These teams have been led by experienced Army civil affairs officers, but they are in such short supply that the military is taking volunteers from the Navy and Air Force. During training recently, one new PRT commander hadn't yet shown up at Fort Bragg. "He's still on his submarine," an official explained.
The civilian jobs are filled by volunteers like 54-year-old grandmother Kathleen Dobler, a water management specialist with the Agriculture Department in Portland, Ore. At Fort Bragg, she gets weapons familiarization training and learns combat first aid. In her job at home, she said, "I'm a paper-pusher. I go to Afghanistan so I can actually make a difference with my 28 years of experience."
But there are too few such volunteers. "We need more civilian agency expertise," said Army Maj. Jim Rice, on temporary leave from his job on a PRT in Afghanistan to help train new team members here.
The personnel shortage, Gates said after a speech in September at the National Defense University, is because the relevant civilian agencies, especially USAID, "have been gutted over the last 15 years."
In addition, the military has run out of active-duty troops to send as the security element of the PRTs. National Guard troops are deployed instead. But they can serve only nine months, not long enough to master the environment - putting them out of sync with the civilians who serve a year.
"Working effectively in Afghanistan requires long-term friendships," Rice said. "Nine-month rotations make that difficult."
Money is short as well. Washington has poured 10 times more into military operations in Afghanistan since 2002 than it has into all development aid, diplomacy, police training and information to counter Taliban propaganda.
The PRTs receive only 6 percent of non-military aid to Afghanistan, a total of $156 million over two years. PRTs can tap into a $63 million USAID fund for local development, and they have access to about $100 million in Defense Department money allocated to local military commanders.
By contrast, USAID has budgeted $763 million in Afghanistan just for road-building.
The idea of stability-based development is beginning to percolate into Washington's policy circles. The idea has been adopted in the U.S. Army's stability doctrine, even if it is not widely known or practiced. The Special Forces have a foothold within USAID, where they are pushing the idea hard.
"We are moving fast - but the enemy is moving even faster," Derleth said.
"I worry that we are not moving fast enough."
Read David Wood's blog about military affairs at baltimoresun.com/militarywatch