G.I.'s in Afghanistan on Hunt, but Now for Hearts and Minds

Posted in Broader Middle East | 31-Mar-04 | Author: David Rohde| Source: The New York Times

WAMANDA, Afghanistan — Standing in a bleak, dust-covered village 15 miles from Pakistan, Lt. Reid Finn, a 24-year-old Louisiana native known as Huck, supervised as his men unloaded a half dozen wooden boxes with American flags on them.

Wearing helmet and flak jacket and toting an M-4 assault rifle, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound lieutenant and former West Point football star represented his family's third generation at war. But on this afternoon, his mission was not combat. It was the distribution of blankets, shirts and sewing kits to destitute Afghan villagers.

For the previous hour, American Army medics had doled out free antibiotics, asthma medication and antacids. Lieutenant Finn sipped tea with Muhammad Sani, a wizened village elder, and offered to pay for a new school or well.

"The more they help us find the bad guys," Lieutenant Finn explained, "the more good stuff they get."

As the effort to find Osama bin Laden and uproot the Taliban intensifies, the United States military is shifting tactics. A mission once limited to sweeps, raids and searches has in recent months yielded to an exercise in nation building. The hope is that a better relationship with local residents and a stronger Afghan state will produce better intelligence and a speedier American departure. But the tension between building schools one day and rounding up suspects at gunpoint the next makes the prospects for success far from clear.

In a new American tactic, Lieutenant Finn's platoon and two other 50-soldier platoons are expected to patrol and get to know every detail of a 15-to-25-mile chunk of Afghan territory that runs along the border.

The area holds more than 300 villages, three major ethnic Pashtun tribes, countless subtribes and a smuggling route used by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to slip from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The troops' mission is to win the trust of Afghans who have seen the Soviets, then the mujahedeen and the Taliban sweep through this area promising a better life.

Now it is the turn of the Pentagon and a budget of $40 million earmarked for projects like village schools and wells. American soldiers are offering major reconstruction and relief aid in an area parched for it.

Both desperation and promise appeared abundant in the isolated border areas during a three-day patrol by the company that Lieutenant Finn's platoon is part of.

In one village, a brawl broke out over the free American blankets and sewing kits, with one man hitting another with a shovel.

In another, a teacher announced that after offering only religious lessons under the Taliban, his school now taught 400 students subjects like chemistry, physics and English. Another man said he had re-enrolled in school to become the village's first doctor. At the age of 33, he is an eighth grader.

The Americans hope their new approach will pry information about militants from reluctant Afghans. The battle, said Capt. Jason Condrey, Lieutenant Finn's company commander, centers on winning the allegiance of the population, which he called Al Qaeda's "center of gravity."

But the same American troops still use the standard tactics of military power to achieve their aims: intimidation, overwhelming force, hands tied behind backs and faces in the dirt.

Over the course of the three-day patrol, it was not clear whether they had won, or lost, more hearts and minds.

Day 1: Arrests

Lieutenant Finn's platoon and three others — the Comanche Company of the First Battalion of the Anchorage-based 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — had gathered at 2:40 a.m. to set out on their three-day field mission.

Under a blanket of silence and bright stars, the Americans prepared to venture from a familiar enclave into a confusing Afghan mosaic.

On base, the Americans watch N.B.A. games live via satellite in a morale hall, and the latest episodes of "The Shield," "C.S.I." and "The Sopranos" on pirated DVD's in their tents. On Fridays, they have "surf and turf" — steaks, crab legs and corn on the cob — in the new chow hall operated by the Halliburton Corporation.

Out in the field, they wear 40 pounds of armor and equipment in sweltering heat. Their skin, clothes and equipment are caked with dust so fine that one soldier compared it to talcum powder. At night, they sleep in the open in 40 degrees, risk rocket attack and wake up soaked with dew.

Before departing, Captain Condrey, a burly, soft-spoken 28-year-old Alaska native, briefed the soldiers. The unit would first try to arrest four brothers believed to be members of a local terrorist cell. Two days of "village assessments," where soldiers distribute aid and meet elders, would follow.

Across Afghanistan, the Taliban have in recent months shifted their attacks from American forces to Afghan officials.

Continued attacks with mines and improvised explosive devices here in Khost Province, meanwhile, have prompted most aid groups to refuse to work in Khost, slowing reconstruction projects. That, in turn, has bolstered a Taliban propaganda effort that says the United States is not committed to Afghanistan and will soon abandon the country as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The convoy arrived at 6:30 a.m. In a display of overwhelming force, an A-10 attack jet circled overhead and dozens of American vehicles surrounded seven mud compounds spread across a barren hillside.

A squad of scouts, led by Staff Sgt. David Jarzab, a tall, lanky 26-year-old native of Pennsylvania, raided one of the compounds and quickly found one of the wanted brothers.

American soldiers threw that brother, Rashid Rahman, a small, bony man who appeared to be over 60, to the ground, pushed his face in the dirt and tied his hand behind his back with plastic strips. His 30-year-old son, Abdel Malik, was also bound and left face down in the dirt.

The Americans ordered all women to leave the compound so it could be searched, a tactic that angers conservative Pashtun tribesmen who generally ban women from appearing in public and abhor having strangers enter their houses.

Searches of all seven compounds yielded only a handful of century-old Lee-Enfield rifles and Kalashnikov assault rifles, standard household fare in Afghanistan, and large amounts of opium and hashish. The Americans concluded that the raid had been the product of a bad tip, not uncommon in an area where feuding tribes use the Americans to settle old scores.

A 16-year-old named Muhammad Rahman, meanwhile, was caught in a lie. He told the Americans that he had no weapons, then later showed them where he had hidden two Kalashnikov rifles and a Chinese-made mortar round.

Visibly angry, the Americans tied the teenager's hands, placed a burlap sack on his head and pushed him down a steep hillside. As an American soldier knelt on the boy's back and pushed his face into the dirt, Sergeant Jarzab demanded to know if there were more hidden weapons.

"He's a liar, and he's going to Cuba," the sergeant shouted, although he later ordered the boy freed. The boy insisted he had found the mortar and planned to sell it.

As watching Afghan women wailed and recited prayers, one sergeant placed the mortar round on the teenager's back, and another held the captured rifles in the air. A soldier snapped a souvenir photo of the Americans and their quarry.

After his release, the boy did not complain about his treatment. Instead, as the soldiers stood nearby, he praised the Americans for stabilizing Afghanistan "I am very happy they came," he said. "I just request that they build a school for us."

Day 2, Morning: Helping

The next day, the patrol visited a police station, one of several newly established posts on the main road. In recent months, masked gunmen had stopped cars on the road and berated Afghans for listening to music, a practice the Taliban consider blasphemous.

Faiz Muhammad, the 44-year-old police chief, wore a flowing Afghan robe, dark turban and long beard. After inviting the Americans in for tea, he quickly agreed to Captain Condrey's request to hand over a large stockpile of mortar rounds and mines discovered by the scouts the previous day. But he sheepishly explained that he had no car, no phone, no radio and no way to make contact with his superiors and get their permission.

Flagging down a taxi on the main road, he said he would go to the nearest police station — at a cost of $10 to himself — and return in 20 minutes. "If this police station gets attacked," Captain Condrey said, "they have no way to call for help."

The captain toured the station. Its four crumbling mud-brick buildings seemed to epitomize the half-finished effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Signs of the Afghan government are slowly appearing in the border region, but it is a skeleton state.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban, construction work on the key road the men guarded — a jumble of crumbling asphalt, yawning holes and dirt ruts — had finally begun. The station had a generator and roll of barbed wire given to it by Italian soldiers who once patrolled in the area. It had winter police uniforms and two desks issued to it by the provincial government. Six of the station's 14 policemen were even in a nearby city receiving nine weeks of American-financed police training.

But the station's equipment was archaic. It had 66 rocket-propelled grenades, but no launcher to fire them. Each policeman had a Kalashnikov rifle, but only 120 rounds of ammunition.

Mr. Muhammad was the third police chief to be assigned to the station in five months. Policemen complained that they had not been paid their monthly salary of 800 Afghanis, or $16, in three months.

They also complained that the Italians had promised the village a new school and clinic, but that nothing was built. The last group of American soldiers to patrol the area said they would repair the police station, but nothing happened.

"Where is the help America promised?" Muhammad Rasul, a 37-year-old former farmer who is now deputy police chief, asked the Americans.

Mr. Rasul said the village needed a new school and hospital. Lt. Brett Sheats, a 25-year-old West Point graduate from central Pennsylvania, said aid workers had refused to come to the area because of the poor security. "That's where we need your help," he said.

"We can build a clinic, but it is just a building," the lieutenant added. "You need doctors to put in the building."

"There are no doctors," Mr. Rasul admitted. The conversation ended.

When Chief Muhammad returned, Captain Condrey said he would look into the purchase of radios, a satellite telephone and uniforms for the station. He gave the chief several hundred rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition that the Americans had confiscated the previous day.

Before the soldiers left, the chief asked to speak to the captain out of earshot from the station's officers.

Mr. Muhammad explained that the previous police chief had feared that some of his own officers were Taliban. Mr. Muhammad also said he was from the Mangal tribe, while most of the policemen were members of the local tribe, the Zadrans.

The chief is part of a nationwide Afghan government effort to create a police force that mixes tribes and ethnic groups. But Mr. Muhammad said he felt vulnerable.

"I am by myself and don't have any gun," he said. "Is it possible to provide me with a gun?"

Day 2, Afternoon: Danger

That afternoon, the Americans set out on the most dangerous leg of their three-day mission, an overnight patrol down the dry riverbed used by suspected Qaeda and Taliban members to sneak into Afghanistan from Pakistan. No conventional American unit had ventured into the area in seven months.

Recent Pakistani military operations on the other side of the border had apparently forced some Taliban and Qaeda fighters to flee into Afghanistan up this very riverbed, Captain Condrey said. But without the aid of local residents, he and his men struggled to spot the militants, who tend to operate in teams of three to five men.

"We can't pinpoint the enemy," he said. "They don't wear weapons."

There were also questions about the sincerity of the Pakistani effort. During a December patrol near the border, a group of Taliban or Qaeda fighters positioned between two Pakistani military posts fired a rocket at Captain Condrey and his men from inside Pakistan.

"There is no doubt that our enemy knows that we can't enter Pakistan, and they use it," he said.

The narrow one-lane dirt road that snaked along the riverbed appeared to present a perfect opportunity to ambush the Americans. Wherever they drove, an Afghan on a hilltop or in a riverbed seemed to be silently staring at them, tracking their movements.

Thirty minutes into the drive, the convoy's lead platoon passed through a small village. A teenage boy whispered into a walkie-talkie as the Americans approached, and ran. In the past, the Taliban used walkie-talkies to relay the movements of American forces and time ambushes.

Within 20 minutes, a platoon of American soldiers had surrounded the village. The leader of the initial patrol, Sgt. First Class Donald L. Thomas, 33, of Houma, La., took an aggressive stance.

The 6-foot-2 sergeant, who wears a New York City Police Department baseball hat while on patrol, told villagers that if they "want this village to stand like it is," they would voluntarily produce the radio, the laser pointer and every weapon in the village within 20 minutes.

"I will destroy these houses if they lie to me," he warned.

Yet villagers seemed more bemused by the Americans than frightened, smiling at one another as the Americans blocked them from returning to their homes.

Everyone, it seemed, was lying. While looking for the boy, a sergeant found a blue bag holding hundreds of rounds of ammunition tucked behind a woodpile.

As the deadline approached, men produced hundreds of rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, some of it armor-piercing, but no Kalashnikov rifles. The Americans staged house-to-house searches.

Exhausted and caked in dust, the Americans scoured dilapidated mud houses, haystacks and woodpiles using metal detectors, but found no weapons. Instead, one squad discovered 2,000 pounds of raw hashish in the house of a village elder. Captain Condrey ordered it burned.

The boy who had run with the radio eventually appeared, giving conflicting accounts about whom he had been speaking to. A village elder who was questioned — at gunpoint — about more radios insisted that there were none.

Five exhausting hours after they had arrived in the village, the Americans departed. That night, they camped in the riverbed six miles from the Pakistan border, posted guards and braced for a Qaeda or Taliban attack. Nothing happened.

Day 3: Outsiders

At 6 the following morning, Captain Condrey and his soldiers woke up in the riverbed. Within an hour, 80 curious Afghan villagers were sitting on the riverbank staring at them.

The moment seemed to epitomize the overwhelming power the American military wields in Afghanistan, but also how separate it remains from Afghan society. With the support of Afghans, there appeared to be few limits to what the Americans could do. But Captain Condrey said that until Americans proved to Afghans that they will, in fact, give them a better life, he and his men would be another group of outsiders.

"These people have seen military forces for 30 years," the captain said as he stood in the riverbed that morning. "Nothing is going to change until they see schools built and wells dug."