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Last Updated: Monday, 27 June, 2005, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Letter from Afghanistan: US forces dig in

Nick Bryant
BBC News, Camp Salerno, eastern Afghanistan

The BBC's South Asia correspondent reports from the dusty plains of eastern Afghanistan, where US forces - with the help of the caterers - have carved out a little chunk of America.

US soldiers stage a party in Afghanistan
The base provides US troops with a home away from home

Walk into the Green Beans coffee bar - with its Pavoni espresso machine, stainless steel bar stools and fake fireplace that looks like a prop from a Bing Crosby Christmas special - you pay your dollars, and take your choice.

Care for a Mocha Frappe? Full-fat or skinny? Or perhaps a Triple Latte or Macchiato? With chocolate sprinkled on top?

How about a blueberry muffin - or even a more morale-boosting double chocolate or banana nut?

A CD from the counter-top "Travel the World" collection, perhaps? "Nuevo Latino" with its Cuban overtones does not quite hit the right note. "Arabic Grove"? I do not think so. As for "Euro Lounge": is that "Old Europe" or "new"? The packaging does not say...

For Michael Jackson you will have to try the convenience store, just over the way.

There you will find shelves heaving with everything from beef jerky to baby wipes, Leathermen knives to lip balm, vitamin supplements to video games.

Taleban hazards

Magazine racks are filled with an eclectic range of reading matter. "Muscular Development", "Soldier of Fortune" or "Street Chopper"? Or, for those with more delicate sensibilities - the lip balm types - there's "Vogue" or even "Yoga Journal".

As for souvenirs, how about a t-shirt? "Kill Osama for Mamma".

US soldier in Afghanistan
Some GIs say they are reminded of home

Supper time means "Surf and Turf'" (steak and lobster), T-bone steak, ribs, hot dogs, chilli dogs, barbeque beans and meat loaf. Breakfast offers up a cholesterol-stoked menu of hash browns, French toast - surely "Freedom Toast"? - streaky bacon, pancakes with maple syrup and Coco Pops.

Fox News is on the television, punctuated by advertisements made especially for the Armed Forces Network, warning about the dangers of smoking, chewing tobacco or careless driving.

The more immediate hazards posed by the Taleban and al-Qaeda go unmentioned.

Pointing towards the jagged mountains on the horizon, one GI told me it reminded me of his Arizona home, which presumably is the aim. Parts of Camp Salerno could just as easily be Portland, Pittsburgh or even Peoria.

In America's war on terrorism, this is home from home.

Camp Salerno, a forward operating base in the forefront of the fight against the remnants of the Taleban, reeks of America's post-9/11 fortress mentality. But that is only part of the story.

Better contacts

Just as striking is how the US military mindset in eastern Afghanistan is slowly evolving. For the unrivalled masters of mechanised warfare are confronting their deficiencies at fighting an insurgency.

Hunkering down is out. Glad-handing the locals is very much the thing.

Bombs and bullets are still very much in evidence. But since last October's presidential election - which US commanders view as marking the moral and psychological defeat of the Taleban - there's been much greater emphasis on winning hearts and minds.

American soldiers are getting out of their armoured Humvees and exploring the terrain on foot - building better contacts, gleaning better intelligence, and trying to nurture trust. As one senior commander explained it, they are trying to be "more ideologically attractive" than the Taleban.

On one mission, US Army Rangers ventured into the mountains to settle a land dispute between two warring tribes - an operation which, at one point, involved bringing in Apache helicopters in an intimidating show of force.

But it relied much more heavily on a skill not normally associated with the US military: sitting down with tribal elders and consuming lots of freshly-brewed tea.

On another occasion, we watched a white-bearded State Department official named Chris Mason stand before a tribal shura - a group of tribal elders, seated cross-legged on the floor before him - and deliver a mesmerising speech addressing allegations over the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

Those reports might be true, he admitted candidly, he had no way of knowing. But they should not be how America is judged.

"With my last drop of blood I would stop this thing from happening," he shouted with marvellous theatricality.

"If there was a Koran on this stand today, and the devil came to set fire to it; I would throw my own body on the Koran to protect it from the devil's fire."

US air attack in Afghanistan
Camp Salerno offers a distraction from the fighting

Just before his arrival, an American B52 had soared overheard, to remind local elders who really is in the chair. But it was the redemptive power of Mason's oratory that made a much more lasting impression than the vapour trails of America's most terrifying bomber.

US commanders point to a barrage of statistics to show how these new strategies are improving: from an eight-fold increase in the destruction in arms caches between 2003 and 2004; to a 30% reduction in the detonation of roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). On both counts, US commanders cite increased local co-operation.

The Americans are accused still of human rights abuses at the Bagram detention centre, and of over-aggressive soldiering elsewhere - while we were at Salerno, an elderly man was shot dead during a raid on a house by US special forces, seemingly because he did not understand an order to raise his arms above his head.

US commanders concede they still have lessons to learn. But the simple fact an increasing number of personnel are not only saying 'Salam Alaikum' - Peace be upon you - but actually know what it means is a sure sign of progress.

But then, if you can negotiate your way around the menu at Green Beans coffee, it really should not be that difficult.

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