In Afghanistan, US troops tackle aid projects – and skepticism
MIRDISH VILLAGE, AFGHANISTAN — The white-bearded Afghan police chief is not pleased with his village "force" of 15 rag-tag cops. They have no radios, just two AK-47 assault rifles, and a single pistol with 9mm ammunition that jams.
Afghan officials have also not paid police salaries for months in this remote eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan on the Pakistan border. An officer is said to be collecting funds now – the proverbial "check is in the mail" – but the delay is hampering US plans to start police training this week.
"Of course it's a good idea to train," chief Nur Mohamed tells the US Military Police platoon leader, as they meet under a rock overhang. "The day they pay us, we will be there."
Money talks in Afghanistan, particularly in this undeveloped region. Whether training local police or getting tips on insurgent positions, success for US forces depends on fulfilling promises of aid and reconstruction. That's the logic behind a new fight-and-build strategy that arms the US military with millions of dollars to spend on projects to convince Afghans, one village at a time, of the benefits of opposing Taliban-led militants.
But obstacles abound here. In the wilds of Nuristan, sheer rock cliffs and mountain run-off rivers leave few options for roads. US Army convoys have been attacked nearly every time they set out in recent weeks. The terrain not only makes ambushes easier but also frustrates logistics, like getting money and supplies flowing to Mr. Mohamed's police.
Mohamed tells the MP that his unit only patrols a few hundred yards down the road to the graveyard – "where you were ambushed the other day."
"The [insurgents] couldn't come here, but we see a lot in the mountains, and they [are armed with] everything," says Mohamed. "That is why we are so afraid. How could we attack them?"
"It's been pretty frustrating," the MP, 1st Lt. Candace Mathis from Rome, N.Y., says later. "It's hard because they do not have the food, ammunition, and blankets – all the stuff they need to be successful. All I can do is pat them on the back and say security is important."
So far, the Army has signed more than a dozen contracts in a string of villages. Work has begun on popular road building, water pipe schemes, and micro-hydro projects to bring electricity.
So when troops join the police chief and mullah for a visit to Mirdish village, there is a cautious welcome, and even gratitude. More information about militant movements is coming to the Americans from such villagers. More elders want projects for their areas.
"We like you Americans here, and want to work with you," the police chief tells the MP, before adding a warning. "We appreciate when you take care of us. But when you fire [into valleys] with women and children, they are so scared."
While officers deem these to be positive signs, the US strategy is long-term, and envisions keeping militants on the run throughout a cold winter – depriving them of shelter in the villages – as progressing projects convince people to side with the government.
But there have also been two high-profile killings in this district in the past month, of one cooperating elder and a border police chief, both claimed by the Taliban.
The Islamist militia has historically had little presence in Nuristan, but use it as a route to Kabul from Pakistan and an out-of-the-way area for training grounds. The murders have shocked and intimidated elders, and the 200 fledgling police recruits.
"In counterinsurgency, you can't lead with a rifle," says Lt. Col. Mike Howard, who commands the 3rd Squadron 71st Cavalry from Fort Drum, N.Y., in Nuristan. "You must lead with actions, with reconstruction."
"The elders have bet on reconstruction, and ending this stupid fighting," says Colonel Howard, who is on his third Afghan tour. "You've got to come and stay, and plop down in the middle of [insurgent territory], and make them choose to work with you, or fight you, or leave."
Nuristan's extreme isolation once earned it the name "land of infidels" because it was the last Afghan region to accept Islam, a little more than 100 years ago.
US forces are fighting two enemies here: the insurgents, and local skepticism that they will stay and deliver on promises of projects that will improve their lives. For two years, one elder carried a letter and business card from a US State Department official – and his unfulfilled promise to build a road.
The 3-71 Cavalry has so far approved $1.33 million worth of projects, contracted $966,000 of that, and disbursed some $250,000 in the long-neglected Kamdesh District alone.
It is one element of the US Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, that is spread across 19 forward bases and several outposts in eastern Afghanistan. It is fielding 13 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which include two civilian engineers each, civil affairs personnel, and military police, in areas under US control.
An initial $200,000 road project to Kamdesh – though tangled because of an Afghan contractor from a distant city – whetted local appetites for more work. Building a five-classroom school building in Naray, a basic $23,000 effort, prompted more local requests and a better welcome across the district.
"They don't trust anybody," says an Afghan-American translator named Pali, who visits villages with US patrols and PRT teams.
She remembers the first visit to Mandagal village, when "people were so afraid of the Americans, and women and children were crying. They told us: 'We thought you were just like the Russians' " who occupied Afghanistan during the 1980s, says Pali. "I told them: 'the Americans are different.' " In Mirdish over the weekend, children trailed the soldiers, laughing, and watched from high rooftops.
"The only thing to convince them is to build something and pay people. They are sick and tired of insurgents," says Pali. "They say: 'For heaven's sake, if you are here to build for us – promise and do it. If we see one or two projects, all Nuristan is with you.' "
Though still in its early stages, the US effort is sparking a violent reaction. Before moving into the district last July, officers held meetings and killed a goat with elders, and signed contracts.
But forward bases were attacked daily for weeks. The first 30 days at Kamdesh outpost, as construction got under way, no one took up the US offer to hire base guards for $153 per month. Last week they reached their goal of 60 guards, requiring just two critera that recruits be at least 18 years of age, and have a rifle. But many have aged rifles, or appear too young to grow beards, or both.
Radio chatter indicated that insurgents planned to "attack [Americans] like the Russians." Then insurgents switched to going after convoys on the single-lane dirt road that winds along the river – and invites ambush.
In the past month, this unit at Kamdesh has earned eight Purple Hearts. One soldier lost a hand to a rocket-propelled grenade round – the only one to make a direct hit out of 30, says Capt. Matt Gooding, commander of Alpha Troop, 3-71 Cav, which is building Kamdesh outpost.
The unit moved here from Helmand Province in the south, where the fighting was intense, but conducted in a by-the-book manner across a desert battlefield.
"In Helmand, you knew when you cleaned house; you knew when you had a good day," says Capt. Gooding. "I don't feel that here, and it's frustrating."
But this unit has become adept at fending off an attack for an hour, then they "transform – you can see it in their faces," says Gooding, when they continue on to a village visit. But still the attacks continue.
On Saturday night last week – during a storm and with no moonlight at all – three groups of 10 to 15 men moved toward the Gowardesh outpost, but were spotted and hit with US mortars and dispersed.
A few days before that, officers called in a 2,000-pound bomb 10 minutes after an ambush. For days after, insurgent radio traffic all but stopped.
"I haven't attacked a thing up here, but I killed a lot of bad guys because they can't bear me being here, putting in water pipe," says Howard, of the frequent ambushes. "Now if [soldiers] go into a village, and enter every home and go through their underwear, who has the high ground then?"
But the Taliban is making its mark. On Aug. 29, a well-known elder from Gowardesh village, Haji Younis, was kidnapped, tortured, and dumped near the Pakistan border. He had signed a US Army contract three days before, and was on the road to get it ratified by the sub-governor when he was abducted.
A note pinned to his clothes said: "Don't work with coalition forces. This will happen to you." It was signed in the name of Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader.
"Haji Younis was a friend of mine," says Howard. "But his killing backfired. Instead of being intimidated, people were outraged."
A blood feud between families has now erupted, a tradition in Nuristan. Such feuds can last for decades, and often end in further revenge bloodshed.
Ahmad Shah has been another victim. A colonel in the border police, he was killed by a roadside bomb on Sept. 13. The Taliban claimed responsibility, sending "shock waves" that "completely intimidated" the untrained police force, which one US officer says has gone from "extremely awful to just bad."
"Realistically, it will take three to five years to be where we want to be with the police," says Col. John "Mick" Nicholson, who commands the 3rd BCT. "This is a counterinsurgency; it's going to take 15 years.... What we're looking for is buy-in."
Some results may be emerging, judging by the number of roadside bombs discovered and turned into US or Afghan forces for cash. Only two of 21 on the main Kamdesh road have exploded, US officers say.
Elders have come to this outpost four times in a week, asking for projects. And Afghan police – green as they are, out in this wilderness – have been passing on tips about the insurgent presence.
"I see indications that we are being successful," Lt. Col. Anthony Feagin, the Kamdesh PRT commander, tells his projects team. "But we've got to make sure we don't make any tactical blunders."