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.

Neil Shea
Peaceful contact: Lt. Tom Goodman (c., in sunglasses) meets with the elders of Qatar Kala, a small village near the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan. Sitting across from him is US State Department employee Will Hall (in black shirt), who came to listen to elders air their problems and grievances. Sitting next to Goodman, with his back to the camera, is an Afghan interpreter.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

In the center of Qatar Kala, Goodman, a tall, thin young man from Ellicott City, Md., sat beneath a bare tree on a stone polished smooth with use. Four or five men appearing twice his age or more sat before him draped in shawls, their faces deeply lined, their heads covered in wool caps. Through an interpreter Goodman told the elders he wanted peace. He wanted the shooting to stop.

"We really want these fighters to reconcile with us," he said. "Please spread the word, get these guys to come down out of the mountains."

Above the valley, snow shone on the high peaks and clear, cool air washed down through passes commonly used to transport weapons, drugs, fighters. Winter was creeping in. Cold and darkness have traditionally slowed wars in Afghanistan, lent a seasonal pause to fighting as fighters withdraw into Pakistan to rest and resupply. US officers use the season to enlarge their "inkblot," their area of influence.

"This is the best time of year for us," another 2-12 officer had said a few days before Goodman's march. "Because it's less kinetic. Which means we can get out there, see the people. Work our magic."

But so far the reconciliation program hasn't seen much success, at least here in the Pesh Valley. Few fighters have shown interest. The program is so new it doesn't have a name. And the details – such as who can reconcile and what they'll get in return if they do – are even now being carved out.

Still, officers point to a recent shura, or council, that local leaders convened to discuss reconciliation. It attracted elders from some of the most violent areas in the Pesh Valley. This, the officers say, is promising. In villages like Qatar Kala, its loyalty sought by NATO allies and the Taliban, the winter lull could provide the best chance for reconciliation, a kind of winter crop sown during quiet months.

For Goodman, though, the promise of winter weakened beside memories of the many battles he'd fought recently near Qatar Kala, of attackers hiding among the rocks.

His unit had been patrolling and fighting in Watapoor Valley for some six months, emerging most days from a combat outpost set at the mouth of the valley and called Honaker Miracle, a combination of the names of two soldiers killed in combat. The patrols were long, ambushes routine, AAF fighters sniping at them from the mountainsides.

But Goodman's platoon had fought its way out each time, and as combat faded with winter's arrival, they were able to visit settlements throughout the Watapoor more to talk – and to spread the word about reconciliation. Elsewhere in the Pesh Valley, other soldiers were doing the same.

Above the village, two dark-green attack helicopters circled in wide, thumping arcs, reassuring the soldiers of 3rd Platoon but offering residents of Qatar Kala, who watched impassively from rooftops and mud-slick alleys, only the threat of violence.

The elders heard Goodman out. They said they would consider what he had said. Then they asked him to leave. After a while, he and his men did. Intelligence reports, along with experience, warned of a possible ambush on the return hike. Goodman chose an alternate route out of the valley.

"Now's when we usually get hit," he said. His men scanned the mountainsides with their rifle scopes, waiting. Intelligence reports warned them to expect an attack.

But no hit came. The platoon walked the edges of different fields; traveled along channels of boulders by the river; passing houses with stone walls a foot thick and children with fierce, beautiful faces.

Back at base, 3rd Platoon dropped their sweat-stained helmets and armor and gathered outside their headquarters. Goodman congratulated them.

"It's huge that we didn't get shot at today," he said. "It means we're making progress. It means what we've been doing here for the last six months is paying off."

Or, it could merely be winter. No one can say just yet.


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