The Afghan army commander said the treacherous road to Marjah, in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand, was now safe. His forces had driven out the Taliban a few days earlier, he added.
"The road is open, so no problem," said Lt. Gen. Moeen Faqir. "Of course I hope you go there and find the reality and reflect it."
Photojournalist David Gilkey and I traveled to Afghanistan many times. In our trip to eastern Afghanistan last year, we found an Afghan army willing to fight, but it was taking heavy casualties and still in need of considerable help. We wanted to find out what, if anything, was changing in a war America has largely forgotten since most U.S. forces left at the end of 2014.
What my colleagues and I encountered was both a horrifying personal tragedy and a microcosm of the larger war in Afghanistan.
To sum it up, the war is not going well. The Taliban are still strong in parts of the south and east. And the Afghan army, while improving, still needs a lot of help from the Americans. One of the top U.S. trainers, Col. John Kline, said if the American troops stopped advising the Afghans in Helmand, it would be a struggle for them to do the job.
That's quite different from the rosy forecast painted in the early years of this "war of necessity" launched while smoke was still rising from the shattered World Trade Center towers.
Back then, American leaders said Afghanistan could become a stable, peaceful place where violence was curtailed, opium was no longer the leading crop, and girls, not just boys, would go to school. Instead, the combat remains intense, the poppy business still finances the Taliban, and in some parts of the country going to school is risky business.
A Taliban stronghold
Helmand province has always been a Taliban stronghold. We felt this was the best place to get a real sense of how the war is playing out today.
With assurances from the Afghan commander, we headed out in three armored Afghan Humvees for a drive with his forces from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, to Marjah, an area long considered one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
The road was clogged with traffic, including cars and trucks, donkey carts and motorcycles. Then it opened up as it ran into the countryside, but the road also brought the signs of war, including destroyed trucks and pits created by improvised explosive devices.
Suddenly, a gunshot. Then machine gun fire from the left.
Rounds fired from mud huts off in the distance began to hit our convoy. A soldier mounted on the .50-caliber machine gun in the lead vehicle returned fire. Mortars dropped in nearby. The Taliban attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
The three vehicles in our convoy became separated and lost sight of each other. No one was physically hurt in the lead vehicle, which was carrying a one-star army general, NPR producer Monika Evstatieva and me.
But in another Humvee, Gilkey, Afghan journalist and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna and an Afghan soldier were killed. Other Afghan soldiers were injured.
A sign of the wider war
This terrible moment in Helmand province reflects the current state of the Afghan war. Time and again, the Afghans, with American help, push insurgents out. Then the insurgents come back. Then the Americans increase their help for the Afghan government forces.
"When I got here, success was holding Helmand — just don't let Helmand fall. The first few weeks, it was rough," said Kline, the top American trainer in Helmand — the latest in a long line.
Kline came to southern Afghanistan with hundreds of troops from the 10th Mountain Division to serve as advisers and trainers. Their aim was to rebuild the local Afghan army unit that lost ground to the Taliban starting last year, when the situation was bleak.
The combat power of the Afghan unit in Helmand fell to about 35 percent. Casualties and desertions climbed. The U.S. had to intervene with airstrikes by F-16 fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, in a desperate effort to push back the Taliban.
In the meantime, the Afghan government replaced the top general in Helmand, accusing him of corruption involving government funds. Others were found simply incompetent, lacking a will to fight.
The new leadership is making a difference, Kline says, as American soldiers train Afghan troops to do everything from clear buildings to fire mortars.
From 100,000 to 10,000 Americans
"I think the model is actually pretty good," says Kline.
That model is for a much smaller number of U.S. trainers and advisers to help the Afghans.
At the peak of the American involvement, more than 100,000 U.S. troops were deployed across Afghanistan. U.S. combat operations formally ended 18 months ago, but nearly 10,000 Americans are still in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghans and providing support from the air.
U.S. and Afghan commanders give generally upbeat assessments, but it's clear the Taliban remain a potent force. They are able to conduct deadly hit-and-run attacks throughout the country and even took a large city, Kunduz, for several days last fall.
President Obama has authorized American commanders to use airstrikes more aggressively to help with Afghan offensives, and also for the U.S. to post advisers with regular Afghan army units, not just elite units like the commandos. Obama wanted to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces before he left office, but there's no sign that will happen.
There are signs, however, that the Afghan military is making progress.
At an American base in Kandahar, northeast of Helmand, U.S. Army trainer Maj. Kevin McCormick and international soldiers are putting Afghan troops through a specialized course in the use of mortars and indirect fire. On a recent visit in Kandahar, McCormick was pleased with what he was seeing.
"They did very well," he said. "We had a group on top of the berm identifying enemy location. They successfully called for fire and the mortar shot off three rounds that landed on target."
Indirect fire is vital for the Afghan or any army. Troops need to be able to hit and overwhelm enemies at safe ranges, often when adversaries are concealed or too far away for a mortar team to see. That means forward spotters must call in the location of the target, mortar troops must dial it in before firing, and all the troops must work together to make the next round more precise.
"It takes a long time. It is not a short process," McCormick said. "These skills are perishable. They require continuous training to be proficient."
Troops that come and go
McCormick and his fellow NATO instructors were wrapping up their seventh class of the year for the Afghan army's 205th Corps. Each one lasts 14 days, but the training can quickly evaporate. The Afghan army is suffering high numbers of dead and wounded. Many other soldiers simply quit or desert.
Another challenge is that many Afghans are illiterate — and not just the rank-and-file soldiers, said Afghan army 1st Lt. Hayatullah Froton.
"Leadership is very important," he said. "If my brigade commander ... does not know how to lead us, use us, what can I do? It is the most unfortunate problem we have in our military and our country."
A soldier's limited education can make the technical aspects of operating artillery even more difficult. A firing team must be able to calculate the correct coordinates, correct for wind, select the right fuze and other such tasks — quickly.
That's why Afghan troops need practice and instruction from allied soldiers such as Romanian Master Sgt. Mihail Costel, who has learned a few words of Dari to help with the training.
On a recent training day on the range outside Kandahar, Costel assembled his firing team of four Afghan soldiers standing in a line. The men took a water bottle and passed it from one to another until, at last, the final soldier dropped it into the firing tube to simulate a mortar being loaded.
Urgent need for skills
Costel might have time, but the Afghan government does not. The Taliban fighting season is now in full swing, and those artillery skills will be needed in the field.
The Taliban continue to have a deep reservoir of resources, financed in large part by the opium trade, which allows the group to remain well-stocked with weaponry. Despite repeated efforts by the U.S. to greatly reduce or eliminate the opium, any progress has proved temporary.
The Americans are no longer in position to prevent the country's opium production, which has been at or near record levels in recent years.
The Americans are also helping by providing the Afghan forces in Helmand with equipment that no other Afghan units have, including attack helicopters, night vision goggles and a small drone.
The new Afghan officer overseeing all this is the officer we mentioned at the beginning of this story, Lt. Gen. Faqir, a man with slicked-down hair who likes to grow rows of flowers outside his headquarters. When he arrived from his previous job as a staff officer in Kabul, Faqir found a 215th Corps in shambles.
"The morale of our soldiers was weak. They were pulling back in several parts of the province. Enemies were gaining ground with high morale," he said. "Then we finally stopped the enemies."
Faqir's troops focused first on taking control of the major highways, then the larger towns in the province. They got a lot of help, he acknowledged, from elite Afghan soldiers, the commandos, who are not a part of his unit. They've been used all over Afghanistan when local forces were not up to the task at hand.
"They're very fast," Faqir said. "I love them. ... By conducting day and night operations, the Afghan commandos have broken and demoralized the enemies so now they cannot get together in some areas. Except for one or two of them together, they cannot stay in groups."
Still, questions remain about the 215th Corps: Can the unit push out the Taliban in a fighting season that stretches all the way to October? Can they do so without help from the aggressive Afghan commandos? And can they do so without the continued help of American combat power?
Kline, the American commander, said the outlook is improving.
"I think we're in a pretty good position right now with Afghanistan to sustain or achieve a level of success," he said.
Helmand's provincial governor, Hayatullah Hayat, is another optimist. He's a graduate of George Mason University in Northern Virginia and is in his 30s. He chatted eagerly about his plans and his mandate from Kabul. The government expects him to help clear the Taliban and then build up the province with an initial seed fund of about $2 million.
"The clearance operations will be taken in a systemic way that will actually facilitate the way for people to live normally," he said, "for the schools to be open, the clinics to be open, and also all the other basic things for living."
Not everyone shares that outlook. One local official said the surge in Taliban attacks on police checkpoints in Helmand could threaten the provincial capital itself, Lashkar Gah.
Faqir brushed that aside.
"This is his personal opinion. We have a saying in Afghanistan: 'Listening is not equal to seeing something.' "
Producer Monika Evstatieva contributed to this report.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Helmand Province in Afghanistan's south is one of the most dangerous parts of the country. Most of the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan's war over the last decade died in Helmand. It's home to the district of Marjah, where Taliban fighters overlap with drug traffickers. NPR was there in 2010 during the fight to retake Marjah.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Form it up. Form it up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Form up.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When NPR's Tom Bowman returned two years later, Marjah with American presence was peaceful. He saw a busy marketplace and lots of children outside.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
SIEGEL: With the American military largely gone now, Marjah and other parts of Helmand again face threats by the Taliban.
SHAPIRO: Last month a Taliban ambush killed NPR's David Gilkey and interpreter and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. They were riding in an Afghan military convoy. Zabihullah's voice is in the report we are about to hear. It comes from Tom Bowman and was produced by NPR's Monika Evstatieva. They were in the same convoy but not injured.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The road to Marjah is clogged with traffic - cars and trucks, donkey carts, motorcycles. And it's not long before the road opens up to vast fields on either side. Then come the tell-tale signs of war.
All these destroyed trucks along the road - we just passed two of them. And we see these big pits in the road created by roadside bombs.
Driving along with us to the government center is an Afghan brigadier general. He told us his troops cleared the road of Taliban fighters just three days ago - suddenly a gunshot.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
BOWMAN: Small arms fire hits our Humvee - a Taliban ambush from the left side of the road somewhere in the mud compounds in the hazy distance - heavy machine gun fire, mortars, RPGs. The Afghans return fire, including the gunner standing in the turret of our vehicle with his .50 caliber machine gun. The Afghan general barks orders.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: The driver yells into his radio.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: The driver wheels a Humvee around back toward his headquarters. In 10 minutes, there are at least several wounded and dead, including our photographer David Gilkey and NPR's fixer, Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. The ambush shows that the Afghan military is a long way from pacifying Helmand Province.
COLONEL JOHN KLINE: When I got here, success was holding Helmand. It was don't let Helmand fall. The first few weeks, it was rough.
BOWMAN: That's Colonel John Kline, the top American trainer in Helmand, the latest in a long line. He came here last fall with hundreds of soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, serving as security personnel and trainers. Their aim - rebuild the Afghan army unit that lost ground to the Taliban starting last year.
KLINE: But I tell you, last November, December, I said, Man, I don't know if the Taliban realize how easy they could have it right now. If they were to do this, it would be a cakewalk.
BOWMAN: The combat power of the Afghan unit here fell to about 35 percent. There were casualties, deserters. So during the winter months, American drones, F-16s, Apache helicopters had to drop dozens of bombs and missiles, a desperate effort just to push back the Taliban.
In the meantime, the Afghan government replaced the top general in Helmand, accusing him of corruption involving government funds. Others were simply incompetent, lacked the will to fight. Again, Colonel Kline.
KLINE: We started taking out a lot of leaders. And when new leaders came in, they knew that the previous guy just got fired, and they needed to prove themselves. And it started making a big difference then.
BOWMAN: Since that time, those Americans have focused on training the Afghans, training that includes everything from clearing buildings to firing mortars. And there's some equipment that no other Afghan units have courtesy of the Americans - attack helicopters, night vision goggles, a small drone. And a new Afghan officer arrived to oversee all this - Lieutenant General Moeen Faqir. He's been keeping close track of his time down here.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MOEEN FAQIR: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: "Seven months, five days from today," he says. He's a burly man with slicked down hair who likes to grow rows of flowers outside his headquarters. When he arrived from Kabul where he worked as a senior staff officer, he saw a 215th Corps in shambles.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) The more our soldiers were weakened, they were pulling back in several part of the province. And enemies were getting the ground with high morale. Then finally we stop the enemies.
BOWMAN: Stop the Taliban along the major highways, the general says, then began taking back the larger cities and towns. And he acknowledges that a lot of help came from the elite Afghan soldiers not part of his unit, the Commandos. They've been used all over Afghanistan when local forces are simply not up to the task.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) They are very fast. I love them. I like them. By conducting day and night operations, the Afghan Commandos has demoralized the enemies, so now they cannot stay in groups.
BOWMAN: Still questions remain about the general's 215th Corps. Can his unit with all its new training and equipment push out the Taliban during the fighting season that stretches into October without the aggressive Afghan Commandos, without, once again, the continued help of American combat power?
Colonel Kline, the top American trainer, says the situation so far in the fighting season looks a lot brighter. On one day, the Americans helped Afghan troops learn how to assemble their weapons and to search for landmines.
BOWMAN: One Afghan soldier digs for a simulated mine using a single finger, carefully tracing for the outline of the mine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: On his last mission, he says he found 13 real mines this way in the field.
KLINE: I think we're in a pretty good position right now in Afghanistan to sustain or at least achieve a level of success. I think the model, actually, is pretty good.
BOWMAN: A model that includes small numbers of American trainers, he says, not the old model that numbered more than 100,000 American troops. Another optimist is a Helmand provincial governor Hayatullah Hayat. He's in his 30s, went to George Mason University in Virginia and eagerly chats about his plans.
HAYATULLAH HAYAT: Marjah will be cleared, and we want to stabilize Marjah and then step to the other areas which is insecure.
BOWMAN: Take back those areas, he says, then bring in government services. He has $2 million from Kabul as a start.
HAYAT: The clearance operations will be taken in a systematic way that will actually facilitate the way for people to live normally, the schools to be open, the clinic to be open and also all the basic things about living.
BOWMAN: Not everyone is so optimistic. One local official said the surge in Taliban attacks on police checkpoints means the provincial capital itself, Lashkar Gah, could fall. General Moeen just brushes him aside.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) So this is his personal opinion that we have expression in Afghanistan. Listening is not equal seeing something.
BOWMAN: So the general offers his visitors a ride to Marjah.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) From Lashkar Gar to Marjah, the road's open, so you can drive no problem. Of course I hope you go there and you find the realities and then reflect it.
BOWMAN: The reality came the following day on the road to Marjah when the Taliban mounted that deadly attack. Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.