Winning hearts, minds and firefights in UruzganKABUL - In the south of Afghanistan, American and Afghan units continue the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, taking prisoners and trying to win over the hearts and minds of the population. It is an effort that is often in vain. There are simply not enough soldiers to create a durable presence in remote and rugged areas like Uruzgan.
"Fire mission," screams a voice. The call immediately causes a strained tension in camp. American and Afghan soldiers jump out of tents and temporary dwellings and throw on their flak jackets and helmets. Artillery gunners jump to their weapons. American scouts hidden in the mountains around the US camp have discovered Afghans with radios who have been observing the camp and passing on information about US troop movements.
American army specialists intercept the radio messages and confirm that they have come from Taliban hidden in the mountains. The position of the fundamentalist holy warriors is quickly ascertained and the coordinates immediately passed on to the infantry and howitzers. "Fire!" The command is barked three times. In turn, the guns erupt, letting off three successive rounds of 105-millimeter shells. Thundering explosions echo in the mountains, in the distance white smoke spirals from the ground, marking a point of impact. A sergeant gives the thumbs-up sign, confirming that the rounds have hit their target. "Two satellite phones less for the bastards," a soldier shouts in the direction of the infantry. That means also two Taliban less. In Sergeant Jose Zambrano's face, warring emotions of pride and doubt battle. "Now I am a killer," says the infantryman from New York.
Zambrano belongs to the 2-5 Infantry Division from Hawaii. A battalion of this division has been operating with soldiers of the Afghanistan National Army for the past three weeks. They have orders to search the extremely poor mountainous areas of the Afghan province of Uruzgan, before withdrawing to base in Tirin Kot. The joint aim: to kill and arrest Taliban and al-Qaeda militia, to increase security and lay the foundations for the reconstruction of the country.
Rumors abound that one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar is in the area. "Osama, Omar? Who cares?", says the commander of the battalion, Colonel Terry Sellers, in reference to Osama bin Laden. "These are mystical figures. It's not only about them. This war is about the people who share the same ideology." Nevertheless, there is a reward of US$50 million for the capture of bin Laden, dead or alive. If US troops succeed in killing bin Laden, the Islamic world would have a great martyr and President George W Bush the biggest success of his political career. As the Americans would say, a classic "catch 22" situation.
Thin brown line
One of the major challenges for US troops is that the 20,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are not sufficient to establish durable bases in the mountains. "The Taliban will probably return as soon as we abandon the area and everything will go back to the way it was," says Sellers.
This sentiment is shared by Afghans. Many, therefore, are unwilling to support the Afghan or US armies out of fear of retaliation by the Taliban. "The Taliban have forbidden us to help the soldiers," says a village inhabitant. "If we do they will punish us as soon as the soldiers take off."
"That's why we have to win the minds and hearts of the population," says Sellers. "The tribal elders know where the Taliban are. If they do not want their asses whipped, they will have to start cooperating with us." In order to garner the support of the local populace, the US army helps with the building of new wells, mosques, schools and roads, in addition to providing medical assistance wherever it is needed.
"Only last week we flew out a little girl with malaria. She would have died otherwise," says Sergeant Ralph "Doc" Mendez proudly. The almost inaccessible mountain region has hampered the delivery of much-needed medical supplies, to the extent that mortality from disease is catastrophic. Tuberculosis and malaria rage, with almost a third of tick bites resulting in fatalities.
Hearts and minds
The big question, though, is whether uniformed armed doctors and engineers can win over the trust and confidence of the local population. "We want to establish security here, so that the UN and relief organizations can help those in need," says platoon leader Lieutenant Gonzales. For simple and uneducated mountain peasants it is difficult to understand how one day soldiers come armed with candy and medicine and build wells and schools, and then the next night raid houses, searching for weapons, contraband and militants.
The fact that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Uruzgun have a large and loyal base of supporters represents a far larger problem. The conservative interpretation of Islam in this area is fertile soil for fundamentalists. Suspicion of strangers and the Pashtun code of ethics, which states that guests must be protected against enemies, contribute to hostility against foreigners. The mountains, with innumerable caves, hideouts and escape routes, provide the Taliban with optimal conditions to escape their trackers. "It is like voodoo," says Specialist Shawn Gibbs. "Once they are in the mountains they simply disappear."
Information about suspicious persons comes not only from American military espionage, but also from the Afghan population. The information received by the local populace is not always accurate or indeed truthful. In many instances old feuds result in enemies being imprisoned by US troops, or presumed Taliban turning out to be Central Intelligence Agency informants - embarrassing setbacks in the fight against terrorism.
Friday, 11pm. Several Humvees and trucks are silhouetted in the bright moonlight. The vehicles slowly maneuver along the difficult terrain, often becoming stuck in dry river beds. Six hours after leaving camp, the convoy arrives at a village. The soldiers are covered in thick layers of dust and dirt. In the distance the outlines of buildings suspected of harbouring militia are barely visible.
Lieutenant Gonzales gives the troops instructions. The soldiers stealthily make their way towards a compound. Suddenly they storm and kick in the doors of a building. Men flee. Warning shots are fired. The fleeing are overwhelmed. Three suspects are arrested, their hands are tied behind their backs and they are loaded onto trucks. They are referred to as "persons under control" (PUC). Conversation with the prisoners is strictly forbidden. Jute bags are placed over the heads of the PUCs. "Bagging" is used as a means to prevent escape attempts and also serves as a tool to intimidate PUCs prior to questioning. More houses are searched, from village to village, into the next day. The soldiers find suspicious documents and army supplies. There are further arrests.
Meanwhile, heart-tearing scenes take place before the convoy. Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the PUCs throw themselves into the dust, wailing incessantly, begging for the return of their men. They do not know what will happen to the men arrested, or if indeed they will ever see their fathers, husbands or brothers again. Interpreters try to calm the women down, in vain. The next day, however, brings the release of some of the prisoners. They are sent home with a few hundred dollars in compensation. The remaining prisoners are sent to a US airbase. Their next destination: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Journalists are not permitted at the US airbase during medical investigation and interrogation of prisoners. The shock of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq is still fresh in the memory of the US military.
The distrust felt by the US soldiers against the native populace is widespread. Who is a friend, who is an enemy? A majority of the soldiers are convinced they are waging a fair war and are proud of what they are doing - even if they are killed for it or have to kill. "The Afghani people have suffered enough. We are here to give them a chance at something better," says one of the soldiers. Another says in rage, "I am here to hunt the Taliban. The pigs attacked my country." The fears and emotions ignited by September 11 are still pervasive, and have been instrumental in many young men joining the US Army.
Saturday, 4am. The Taliban are due to meet in a mosque. Again a convoy makes its way into the mountains. A helicopter drops off a platoon in a valley. Immediatetly the soldiers face bombardment and are encircled by the Taliban. The enemy are very well equipped, possessing satellite telephones and night-vision devices. Reinforcements hurry over steep mountain slopes to provide assistance to the soldiers under attack. Men with long beards are among the enemy forces. Special Forces forbid any photography. They are also under attack. Apache combat helicopters fly air raids on hostile positions.
For hours, machine-guns fire and rocket explosions can be heard, then the fundamentalists dissolve as if into thin air. A soldier is wounded, several Taliban have been killed. The meeting in the mosque did not take place. It did not have to. The Taliban have time. This was the last large operation of 2-5 Infantry in this region. The next day they withdraw and head back to base.
Carsten Stormer is a freelance writer and journalism student from Germany. He has worked in Burma and Cambodia and studied in India. He plans to specialize in foreign and war correspondence when he finishes his studies this year.
(Copyright Carsten Stormer 2004)