QALAT, Afghanistan - The broken-down fortress that looms over this provincial capital hardly seems like the place to find hope for Afghanistan's future. The mud walls are crumbling. The vehicles are crumpled and rusting. A bent artillery piece, one wheel missing, tilts toward the sky.
But Maj. Mohammed Issaq, commander of the unit that moved into this decrepit base last month, is full of confidence. Clean-shaven, well-muscled, wearing an olive T-shirt and camouflage pants, Issaq projects the image of the new Afghan National Army, the rigorously trained and disciplined force that is designed to be loyal to the central government rather than to local warlords.
"We were sent here to create stability," said Issaq, reciting a list of tasks his unit had accomplished since it arrived in Zabul province. "We're here to protect the road-construction crews that were under attack."
They have their work cut out for them in Zabul, as Afghanistan approaches the two-year anniversary of the Oct. 7, 2001, U.S.-led assault to overthrow the Taliban.
Bordering the Pakistani tribal areas from which the Taliban has infiltrated with ease, the mountainous, impoverished province is one of the most contentious regions in Afghanistan. Zabul is so dangerous that even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which specializes in working in war zones, won't come here.
Issaq was deployed to Zabul in the aftermath of Operation Mountain Viper, an offensive that saw some of the most severe fighting since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. His assignment is to help establish a government where one barely exists.
Issaq's unit - the First Battalion of the First Brigade - is the vanguard of an army that is projected to eventually number 70,000 troops. The U.S. government has budgeted $400 million to train and equip the new army. French and British trainers also are helping out.
The new army is the centerpiece of a complex nation-building enterprise here. So that they may be imbued with a national identity, the military units are designed to include a mix of soldiers from different ethnic groups and regions. Afghan militias traditionally are organized around local commanders and are affiliated with political parties headed by religious leaders. It's one of the reasons Afghanistan has been at war for so long - none of the militias has been able to vanquish its rivals.
President Hamid Karzai's government envisions that the new professional army will gradually replace the militias. The local warlords, who often finance their operations by extracting bribes or protecting opium traffickers, are just as likely to engage in grudge matches with rival militias as to combat the Taliban. Some are even suspected of being Taliban sympathizers.
But creating the Afghan National Army takes time. Thus far, only a few thousand soldiers have received the green berets that distinguish the new force. About 9,000 soldiers will be in place by next June, when elections are scheduled to take place. For the next few years, the new army will work side by side with the Afghan militias, gradually supplanting them.
"Our concentration is on creating quality vs. quantity," said Col. Mark Milley, who heads the Kabul Military Academy where the new units are being trained. "We're not being held to a time production. You can't build institutions quickly, or in the end you have to undo them."
The need for the new army was painfully evident in Zabul province this past summer, when the Taliban was reorganizing and nobody stood in its way.
Residents of the mountainous region increasingly spotted pairs of bearded men riding new Honda motorcycles on the trails along Zabul's deep, treeless valleys. The men carried new Kalashnikov rifles. Their motorcycles were equipped with chargers for handheld satellite telephones. The riders warned local officials that if they valued their lives and those of their families, they'd best keep quiet.
"The Taliban were even able to come to Qalat and buy things," said Zabul Police Chief Mohammed Ayub, who arrived at his post in August and discovered the Taliban controlling more of his new domain than anyone had dared imagine. The local governor, police chief and militia commander have now all been replaced.
In villages such as Dai Chupan, in northern Zabul, the Taliban members built bakeries to feed their forces. They held town meetings to denounce Karzai and his Western advisers, who, they said, intended to destroy Islam. There was no one to rebut the claims. The local police, unpaid for six months, were long gone.
"The Taliban actually ruled like a government in Dai Chupan," Ayub said. "People went to the Taliban with their problems, not [to] the government."
In late August, the central government finally responded with Operation Mountain Viper.
Commanders in neighboring Kandahar province dispatched hundreds of troops to Zabul. Coalition forces joined in, lending American air support and some ground troops.
The forces encircled the Taliban on a plateau riddled with caves that, in the 1980s, had protected the mujaheddin who resisted the Soviet invasion. After two weeks of battle, the troops claimed that they had killed as many as 200 Taliban fighters and that the enemy was on the run.
The action was unusual in that the Taliban typically operates in groups of eight or fewer soldiers, occasionally firing rockets at coalition bases but mostly avoiding contact with the well-trained and well-equipped Americans.
"We like them to form in large groups so we can kill more of them at one time," said Col. Rodney Davis, the spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.
American officials said the Taliban forces were more of an annoyance than a serious military threat.
"The coalition enjoys freedom of movement," declared Col. Joseph D. Celeski, the group commander of the Third Special Forces Corps. "I have the capability and the tools to do actions at the time and place of our choosing."
But to Afghans, the experience in Zabul demonstrated the government's vulnerabilities. For every village like Dai Chupan, there are dozens of other undefended districts neglected by Karzai's fragile government.
"There's a lack of good administration on our part," acknowledged Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan's national security adviser. "We're trying to build up, but it takes time."
Unlike other provinces that have their own tax base, Zabul is largely undeveloped. It has no factories and no lucrative customs posts to provide the government with cash. Farmers grow poppy for opium production, but the money tends to corrupt government rather than support it.
Ayub, a career police officer, said Zabul received little support from the capital before his arrival. Only 15 of 650 officers under his command have any formal training. The paltry police salaries - $16 a month for new officers - were six months late. Ayub is even operating the department on credit: He owes local merchants $36,000 for fuel and supplies. "I'm sure the central government will support us," he said.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Operation Mountain Viper, Kabul seems to be paying special attention to Zabul. The new provincial governor, Hafizullah Hashem, created a commission to work with elders in Dai Chupan and other districts to determine what services they need. In return, the local elders pledged allegiance to the central government rather than the Taliban.
Perhaps the most important step the government took was to dispatch Issaq's army unit to Zabul. Though the battalion of a few hundred troops is small and can't guarantee security for the entire province - it is still unsafe for outsiders to drive through Dai Chupan - its presence sends a message to communities.
"The Taliban told people the national army is nothing, that they'll push us out," said Issaq, whose unit is accompanied by a U.S. special-forces trainer who has planted an American flag in the middle of their base. "Well, here we are."
He is brimming with ideas to implement if only he had the resources.
"If we had a radio station in this province, we can tell people what the government is doing for them," he said. "As it is now, the Taliban can get the word out and tell people whatever it likes."
Ultimately, improved security - the absence of the Taliban and warlords - can provide an environment in which people are free to improve their lives. But it seems like a distant dream.
"The province needs lots of things," Issaq said. "We need to get a lot more trained police in here. We need to get humanitarian organizations in here. The base and root of all problems in Zabul is poverty."