In Afghanistan surge, soldiers negotiate complex web of local loyalties
As forces of the 10th Mountain Division have poured into Wardak Province to combat the Taliban, they've also had to battle a cool reception.
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Suddenly, a dull thud resounds in the vehicle. Then another. "They are throwing rocks at us!" shouts one soldier over the radio.Skip to next paragraph
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Children by the roadside scurry into the shops, while the adults avert their eyes.
Soldiers here recount instances when they have handed out candy to children, only to have it hurled back at them. When they recently killed a leading Taliban commander in the area named Mohebullah, a nearby town closed its bazaar for hours in remembrance of the fallen insurgent.
When they ask locals for information about insurgents operating in the area, they often get evasive answers or lies.
"I don't know why, but people there just don't seem to like us," says Pfc. Christopher Sues. "Maybe they are happy with the way they live."
In the absence of government, Taliban rules
According to locals, US intelligence officials, and analysts, the troops are facing local resistance for a variety of reasons.
"In Wardak, most of the insurgents are locals," says an American intelligence officer associated with the forces here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Every second or third house has a son or a brother in the Taliban," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Sayadabad district of Wardak.
Even when locals don't support the insurgents, they are often reluctant to side with the troops out of fear of Taliban reprisals, she continues.
"Sometimes we'll meet some locals on a patrol and they will be very friendly," says Pfc. Jeremy Grimm. "But we'll come another day and those same people will be very cold to us – because someone is watching."
Over the years, the central government has been nonexistent in most of the province.
"The government sphere of influence is limited to Maydan Shahr [the provincial capital] and Jalrez [where the insurgency has weakened this year]," says the American intelligence officer. The Taliban has enjoyed a de facto control of such districts as Sayadabad, Chak, and Jaghatu for more than a year. During that time they established a parallel government, which dealt with local disputes and sometimes even collected taxes.
Some locals viewed this as the lesser of two evils when compared with the distant and corrupt Kabul administration.
In one recent shura held in Sayadabad district, elders asked the Americans to leave, saying that they were happy with Taliban rule, which limits crime, and complaining that the troops "cause the price of everything to increase," according to one participant of the meeting.
Insurgency limited by ethnic appeal
"The Taliban's appeal is limited to their own ethnic group, and also has a strong tribal dimension," he says.
In some areas in the east, for example, there are anti-Taliban tribes that regularly cooperate with Western forces. Parts of Wardak made up of the Hazara minority, for example, are strongly in favor of the troops. And most in urban areas such as Kabul don't identify with the rurally based insurgents.
But here in Wardak, and in some of the places farther south where US troops will be heading this summer, the insurgents often share the same ethnicity, tribe, culture, and worldview as the communities in which they are embedded, says Mr. Rafeh.
• Tomorrow: The US strategy for gaining Afghan trust and winning the war.