http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/world/asia/05afghanistan.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all PASHMUL, Afghanistan â€” If the commander of coalition forces, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has sounded triumphant lately â€” telling his officers they have their teeth in the enemyâ€™s jugular â€” this newly conquered patch of southern Afghanistan is one reason for that. This district, Zhare, is the heartland of the Taliban insurgency, the historical birthplace of the Taliban movement, and the ancestral home of many of its top leadership, including Mullah Muhammad Omar, the onetime ruler of Afghanistan, whose family lived not far up the road. Three months ago the area was an uninhabited war zone where Taliban fighters roamed freely. A Taliban flag flew over the village. But since mid-November the Taliban have retreated, punched hard by the influx of thousands of American and Afghan forces into the area, and Zhare has enjoyed more than two months of calm. American and Afghan forces are setting up joint bases across the district, in a strategic and deeply symbolic victory that they hope is part of a turning point in the war. Zhare now stands as one of the most important tests of the gamble President Obama took more than a year ago in adding 30,000 American troops to what had been a failing war effort. The question on everyoneâ€™s minds is whether the American and Afghan forces can hold on to their gains. This is not the first time NATO forces have cleared the important districts around the city of Kandahar, which lies just east of here, but it is the first time they are staying with such a strong presence â€” thousands of troops. There are now about 10,000 American and allied forces in the Kandahar area, the heaviest concentration of the war. So far that has made all the difference, though how much will not be known until the spring, when the fighting season resumes and the Taliban are expected to attempt a comeback. Meanwhile, units of the 101st Airborne Division deployed in Zhare are taking no chances and are urgently using the lull to build support among local residents. So far, the effort seems to be working, American officials and many Afghans said. One measure is that after a tentative start, hundreds of people are swarming around this combat outpost for handouts of assistance and compensation payments for war damage, and to take part in a daily cash-for-work program â€” regardless of Taliban intimidation and retaliation. Villagers say the insurgents were so convincingly routed in the fall that while American troops remain in the area, the Taliban will not venture back. The fear many villagers had of the Taliban has melted away, at least here close to the military outpost. â€œGenerally, you have a population here who are going to be on the side of who is in charge,â€ said Lt. Col. Thomas McFadyen, the commander here. â€œSecondly, they are tired of Taliban control. They are ready for a change.â€ â€œI think the fear is beginning to subside,â€ he added. â€œThe Taliban have tried to intimidate, but it has not reduced the numbersâ€ of local residents coming forward for work. About 1,200 men have turned up daily for the cash-for-work programs organized by the military in Pashmul and nearby Sablaghay. They have already reopened one of the main irrigation canals bringing water to the area that, Colonel McFadyen hopes, will resurrect local agriculture. â€œThat was a significant emotional event for the elders,â€ he said. Well versed in counterinsurgency strategy after two tours in Iraq, Colonel McFadyen sees the village work force as his main tool against a Taliban resurgence. The program has already absorbed a number of local Taliban fighters â€” the Afghan project managers estimate that there are 100 former insurgents among the 1,000 workers in Pashmul, who are now working for the $6 daily wage. â€œWe are giving these people immediate benefit to bridge the gap on the claims process as well as this winter, as there are not a lot of jobs,â€ the colonel said. â€œThen take the young Afghan male, he can provide for his family, he can provide for himself a higher quality of life. Really, we are giving them an honorable way of life where they are not so dependent on others.â€ The work program will help them develop a neighborhood watch group or local police force, he said. The workers have already organized their own guards to prevent insurgents from disrupting the work. On a recent morning, one worker turned in an antipersonnel mine, which the insurgents use to set off larger and more deadly improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.â€™s. At the same time, the military has started gathering elders at weekly meetings to start some form of grass-roots decision-making process and to resolve local grievances. â€œIt will be more difficult for the Taliban to return,â€ said Capt. Brett Matzenbacher, commander of the Pashmul outpost who has organized the expanding work program. â€œWe are going to have many more people informing on them.â€ The Afghan and coalition forces have also come to know the Taliban and their habits. â€œWe know where they are going to fire from,â€ Captain Matzenbacher said. â€œBefore it was just ghosts we were fighting.â€ Indeed, the troops of the First Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, part of the Second Brigade Combat Team from the 101st Airborne Division, spent two months training with their Afghan counterparts and gathering intelligence before moving into Pashmul in September. That way they had a good idea of the location of Taliban positions and strongholds. Then they went after them in such a way as to keep the Taliban off guard. â€œWe did not target a specific area over and over. We went to many areas, in what appeared to be random times, and really flushed them, and they fell back southwest,â€ said Capt. Matthew Crawford, the squadronâ€™s senior intelligence officer. Still, the troops were surprised that after the first ferocious resistance, the Taliban quickly folded. It was not an easy fight â€” over all, the brigade lost 60 men in six months fighting around Kandahar â€” but the careful preparation paid off. Nevertheless, Captain Crawford and his fellow officers fully expect the Taliban to try to return and have tracked some, moving in ones and twos, carrying weapons into the area or planting I.E.D.â€™s. Two suicide bombers got through into the western part of Zhare in November and December, killing a total of nine American soldiers. People are crossing the Arghandab River at night, traveling north, possibly insurgents who want to avoid the police checkpoints on the roads, Captain Crawford said. Two white balloons, holding video cameras aloft, are part of an extensive surveillance operation in the area, and the military is expanding roads and building a three-mile concrete blast wall along a critical route through the district to block the insurgentsâ€™ reinfiltration from the south. Another wall and tank berms block access from the west, which remains less secure. Soldiers patrol the orchards and vineyards relentlessly and methodically remove I.E.D.â€™s and demolish insurgent bunkers, tunnel systems and weapons depots they find threaded through the fields. They are mapping every homestead, including the erstwhile home, mosque and madrasa of Mullah Omar in the village of Sangesar. But if the Taliban are mostly gone, their influence remains, particularly in outlying areas. The mosque and the home of Mullah Omarâ€™s father-in-law beside it remain abandoned, ringed with I.E.D.â€™s, said the American commander in Sangesar, Capt. David Yu, 28. Villagers, he said, are too scared to go near. Ruhullah Khapalwak and Taimoor Shah contributed reporting.