Seeking reconciliation, US units meet remote Afghanistan tribes
In Afghanistan, the winter lull in fighting allows some US units to try to persuade fighters to leave the Taliban.
Qatar Kala, Afghanistan
In a small village on the edge of the war, where women cover themselves in shawls blue as the sky and where disks of cow dung are flattened to dry against the walls of the houses, Lt. Tom Goodman is being asked to leave.Skip to next paragraph
He has said his piece, made his pitch, and the villagers are wary. This is a place the Taliban visit, too.
"Thank you, we understand," a bearded elder says. "What you say makes sense. Now, it is better if you go, for your safety."
They always say that, Goodman thinks, but he also remembers that he has been ambushed many times when approaching or departing the village of Qatar Kala in Konar Province, a dozen or so miles from the Pakistani border. So the elder's words may simply express a desire to be rid of the soldiers. Or they may carry a warning.
Goodman's 3rd Platoon of the 2-12 Infantry (3rd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division) had traveled to Qatar Kala pushing the latest message US forces and their allies have tried in a faltering war: reconciliation with the so-called AAF, or anti-Afghan forces, a catchall phrase that includes the Taliban and other groups fighting against the government and coalition forces in the narrow valleys and along the ridges of Afghanistan's most violent provinces.
When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took charge of the war in 2009, he began changing the way NATO forces fought it. Instead of "bringing the fight to the enemy wherever he was," as officers characterized the previous approach, McChrystal promoted a more nuanced counterinsurgency strategy. One aspect of his approach centered on protecting the population. Another made room for reconciliation – allowing some AAF fighters to denounce violence and pledge support to the Afghan government.
It is a calculated gamble, aimed at drawing fighters who are not hardened members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda back into the fold of the nation.
Unlike in hot spots in the south, however, officers here say they don't expect to see many of the 30,000 additional troops President Obama pledged late last year to send to Afghanistan. And while the Afghan government is expected to take the lead in reconciliation efforts, its weakness means that in places like the Pesh Valley, home to Qatar Kala and dozens of other villages where AAF fighters have pushed back hard against US forces, much of the new plan will likely fall to units already in place, wedged into small bases against the flanks of the mountains. It will fall to platoons like Goodman's.
On a recent Thursday, Goodman led his men up into the hills of the Watapoor Valley, an offshoot of the Pesh. He was joined by a unit of Afghan National Army troops, who were learning the valley and its people for themselves. A column of armed men wound up into the hills, hiking along ancient irrigation channels and terrace walls lining green fields. Children, still and silent, watched the soldiers pass.