Reporting From Afghanistan

Charkh, Afghanistan – The young Army captain lit a cigar, inhaled and took in the night sky. It had been a vexing week. His outpost had been attacked by extremists using rocket propelled grenades, a platoon had been fired upon while on an intelligence-gathering mission and people in the nearby market place, once friendly, were unusually stand-offish following an earlier pro-Taliban harangue by an unidentified visitor.  

“The bad guys are very good at intimidating people and controlling what they do,” he said in reply to a reporter’s question. “They come and go. Some stay but many move back and forth to neighboring districts which makes them hard to track and target.

“We’re new here and trying to make inroads with the local people, build relationships. But many are scared or just plain ambivalent and building trust takes time.”

Jason Wingeart was speaking of Charkh, a 178-mile swatch of riverside orchards, desert, hills and mountains in Logar Province. It’s located 55 miles from Kabul, the national capital, and is illustrative of the central challenge U.S. and international troops face nationwide in the counter-insurgency war to blunt extremism and weave cooperation between the people, coalition forces and the national government.

“… It has to be them (the Afghans) who change the security situation,” he said. “They have to make the decision for better things. They need to take a stand.”

According to U.S. military officers there are 30-40 hardcore extremists operating full-time in Charkh District, which is part of a staging area for attacks on Kabul and its close-in communities. About 100 others in the district commit occasional acts of violence for ideological purposes or financial gain and 5 to 10 times that number provide some sort of assistance to the extremists.

Wingeart and the men of Bravo  Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, have been rocketed 17 times since establishing a combat outpost (COP) in May. Patrols to nearby villages west of the outpost are regularly attacked by snipers.

About two dozen extremists have been killed — mainly from the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network — but “just killing is not the way to win it (the war) although it’s what the Afghans understand since it means fewer people intimidating them,” Wingeart said. “We have to turn them, the non-hardcore fighters and civilians, to work with the government.”

Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeiser, commander of the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, Bravo Company’s parent unit in Afghanistan, said the same: “Attrition warfare works in a conventional battle,” he said. “To ask how many do I have here is to imply there is a finite number and if I kill them the insurgency is over.  

“What is good to me is how many people turn in a day to the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the government.”
The lure to turning is self-interest — the humanitarian aid and civil affairs projects that give the local populace tangible benefits from cooperation.

In Charkh that translates to nearly $1 million in projects since May. Schools and medical clinics have been refurbished, water flow for fields improved, and roads repaired. The aid is given with an Afghan government face on it to show its commitment to improving lives.

The aid is provided on the basis of a village’s level of cooperation with Coalition Forces and the government. Those deemed cooperative get more projects of their choosing and which help produce jobs than those that are seen as still wavering or holding back.

The exception was during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which there is an emphasis on charity and good works. U.S. troops provided materials for refurbishment of mosques – paint, carpeting, loudspeakers for calling people to prayer — in all villages in their area of operation, including villages believed to have ties to extremists.  

“For us the mosque stuff was crucial,” Capt. Wingeart said. “It showed we respected their religion. Since then, things have started to change.”

The change has been an increased flow of information from villagers that helps identify extremists and their activities.

Wingeart said the flow is a dribble, but compared to when his unit first arrived a dribble is an improvement. Nevertheless, “it’s not enough yet to understand all that’s really going on.”  

Village elders, although still reluctant to be seen meeting in public with Coalition Forces, increasingly come to Bravo’s combat outpost for talks on security and aid. Since the COP is located in the Afghan government’s district center, the elders can later deflect questioners by saying they went to the center to meet with local officials.

“Every now and then a body turns up in a field,” Wingeart explained. “People can get killed if they’re suspected of spying for the government or something.”

Daily security patrols through the district with some of the 45 government troops based on the COP helps gauge villages’ level of tension that could indicate extremist presence and also identify possible future projects and monitor those already in place.

Others are more pointedly intelligence oriented. Those missions involve knocking on doors, recording the names and personal details of residents and then matching those details to aerial maps of village buildings.

Casual conversations are started, personal relationships initiated for further development. But the missions are not without frustration even in the friendliest of circumstances.

“Because of local custom, we can’t talk to the women,” said Sgt. David Lloyd, of Bravo Company’s 2nd Platoon. “When we enter a house they’re put in a separate room and you can’t go in, so who knows what may be hidden in there.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, has underscored the importance of leveraging the Afghan people in the counter-insurgency battle and the patience and commitment needed to do so. Whether the United States and other nations with troops in Afghanistan, tired of nearly eight years of war, still have that commitment and patience is an unanswered question. The Obama administration is still dithering on the general’s request for more troops, troops to quash a resurgent Taliban and create a security situation in which soldiers like those of Bravo Company can stitch ties between the people, Coalition Forces and ultimately the Afghan government.

There’s this “you’re here now but you’ll soon be gone” attitude among the people in Charkh, Wingeart said of the ambivalence and almost studied indifference of local people. “Trust comes over time.

“It doesn’t matter that this (war) has been going on 8 years,” he added later. “We’re the first Americans in Charkh."