From the district-office roof, an Afghan Special Forces (ASF) team stared into the dark that had fallen over Sangin's mud compounds. They were pulling overnight guard duty for a peace-and-reconciliation meeting and listening to a captured Taliban radio. Ranking officer Bashir swept a forearm against the starry horizon.
"They are close."
He turned up the volume. Taliban fighters were discussing safe areas, movements, a car bomb, who would bring the blankets. It was a chilly night.
"Mostly it is propaganda," said Bashir. His men remained vigilant.
It had been a long day. That morning, they had driven from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Their convoy included an array of security forces--ASF, Afghan Border Police (ABP), Afghan National Police (ANP) and National Directorate of Security (NDS). All had come to secure the area in advance of the Nov. 20 peace meeting, or jirga. Word was that Helmand Governor al-Haj Mohammed Naeem, High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani and several other notables, including U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, would be attending. Sangin is a famous Taliban stronghold, but according to Afghan officials, significant gains have been made there. The meeting occasioned the release--and intended reintegration--of 20 insurgent prisoners.
Bashir and his team had more immediate concerns. Their convoy had taken fire on the way up. They escaped unscathed, but in the governor's convoy, a few hours behind, two ANP officers were killed, with a third officer injured.
The location of both attacks--Fatikhan village--was unsurprising to Bashir. Fatikhan is distinguished by a fertile bend in the Lashkar Gah--Sangin road. An Afghan National Army base overlooks the road, and Afghan National Civil Order Police posts line it. These forces, however, have not driven the insurgents from the surrounding cornfields and poplar groves. Several ANCOP officers simply looked on as rounds zipped into the first convoy.
Still, on the morning of the jirga, some attendees were optimistic. Haji Malim Showali Khan, chairman of the Lashkar Gah Peace and Reconciliation Council, sat beneath a wall of banners whose words he agreed with: "Peace is life, war is death; make unity for a better future and join the peace."
Khan is a turbaned old man with a grand gray beard. He quoted the Koran: "The love of country is the love of faith." While he conceded some obstacles to peace with the Taliban--"hostility between the tribes, poverty, the neighbor countries"--he insisted that compared with 2009, there was much less violence now in Sangin. International reports bear out his assessment, citing decreased attacks since U.S. Marines arrived in September 2010. As one U.N. report notes of the area, however, "there is a high likelihood of underreporting."
Above the banners, Bashir patrolled the mezzanine. Pashtun elders filled the courtyard. Sitting cross-legged in the corners, Afghan journalists traded notes. Explosions in the distance did not unsettle them. "When the insurgency started, it started here," said Helmand Khamosh, a reporter with Shamshad News. "This is why when the peace starts, they want it to start here. This is why they are coming here: to make the point."