[Mb-civic] Frustrated U.S. Forces Fail to Win Hearts and Minds By Declan Walsh
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Thu Sep 23 21:52:36 PDT 2004
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Frustrated U.S. Forces Fail to Win Hearts and Minds
By Declan Walsh
The Guardian U.K.
Thursday 23 September 2004
Troops hunting Taliban run into wall of silence.
Night-vision goggles pressed against their eyes and a carpet of stars
glittering overhead, the Alpha Company patrol creep silently through the
Dogs bark as the 20 soldiers pad past farmhouses and deserted almond
orchards. Swinging right, they sweep infrared beams over the mountain line
for signs of the enemy. Nothing.
Sergeant First Class Jose Aranda halts before a bridge over a creek. The
Taliban mounted a checkpoint here two days earlier, he whispers. They might
return. The scouts crouch behind a rock, train an automatic rifle on the
bridge, and wait.
By dawn, only goats have strayed into their sights. The "bad guys" have
eluded them again. "The Taliban are hard to find," says Sgt Aranda, trudging
back to base. "We need good information from local people. But some of them
are really against us."
Rooting out the remnants of the Taliban has proved a maddening task for US
forces in Afghanistan. Scattered and weakened the militia remain a slippery
foe, hidden in the crevices of the mountains. But with landmark elections
just weeks away, the hunt has gained fresh urgency.
The US military is trying to quell the elusive insurgency with a mixture
of friendship and force. One day its soldiers drill wells, build schools and
perform lifesaving medical operations. The next they go hunting for Taliban.
The American assumption that good works buy Afghan loyalty does not always
hold true. And sometimes it can go disastrously wrong.
During a medical patrol to help the sick in a remote village last Friday,
commanding officer Captain Andrew Brosnan heard gunshots and mortar fire in
a nearby valley. Suspecting bandits were attacking a truck convoy, he led an
investigating team. As they mounted the slope his soldiers spotted two
running figures in the distance. After a verbal warning and a warning shot,
Capt Brosnan ordered his team to open fire.
But when the approached the fallen "enemy", they discovered they had shot
two children, Abdul Ali, 12, who was hit in the leg, and his brother Abdul
Wali, 10, who had been shot in the head. By the time a Black Hawk helicopter
landed to evacuate the wounded boys, Wali was dead.
The Guardian did not witness the shooting and the 25th Infantry provincial
commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terry Sellers, who was visiting Uruzgan at the
time, ordered the troops involved not to speak about it.
Camp Anaconda is one of about 30 "fire bases" - small, remote military
camps scattered across southern and eastern Afghanistan - that are
effectively the frontline of the hunt for the Taliban. Ananconda is in
Uruzgan town, in the east of the restive eponymous province that was once a
Taliban stronghold and birthplace of their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The 140 soldiers of Alpha Company, whose 25th Infantry Division is based
in Hawaii, arrived early this summer. After a quiet welcome the base has
come under sustained attack in the past month.
Suspected Taliban have fired rocket-propelled grenades at the camp three
times, though most of them exploded off the perimeter wall, and planted at
least 10 roadside bombs designed to destroy passing US convoys.
Although the attacks have caused no serious injuries, they have infuriated
Capt Brosnan. His troops, he says, have built schools, dug wells and erected
latrines in the town. His medics treat the sick and call in helicopter
evacuations for patients in mortal danger.
Yet the CO is frustrated that he has run into a wall of silence about the
attacks. Even though some were launched from the busy town bazaar, nobody,
it seems, knows anything. "They wave, they smile. But someone out there
knows what's going on - and they're not saying anything," said Specialist
Melvin Krambule, a gunner atop an armour-plated Humvee.
On Wednesday morning last week - two days before the boys were shot - an
armoured convoy rumbled into the bazaar. US soldiers handed out matchboxes
bearing Osama bin Laden's photo and details of the $25m (£14m) reward for
Then, gathering hundreds of local men in a circle around him, Capt Brosnan
delivered a stern message. He had come to the townspeople "in friendship"
two weeks earlier, he said, and outlined Alpha Company's development
projects. He also appealed for information about the Taliban attacks.
Despite that, he admonished, "not one person here has helped me."
Moments later, a US jet cracked across the sky in a choreographed show of
force. "Together we can build a better Afghanistan," he concluded. The
townsmen, listening carefully as they hunkered under the morning sun, stood
up and left.
Several factors mitigate against the US mission. Many locals have vivid
memories of the brutal decade-long Russian occupation. Many are also
terrified of reprisals if they are seen as being associated with the US
For their part, the Americans, who rely on young translators flown in from
Kabul, struggle to make sense of local feuds and tribal rivalries. "People
come to us denouncing suspects, but it's usually just a grudge against an
old enemy," one sergeant said.
Their heavy-handed style can also alienate locals. Camp Ananconda is
ringed by barbed wire and sandbags, and supplied by huge Chinook helicopters
that land in a fury of noise and dust. Soldiers only leave base with full
body armour and a cocked gun, and the most common interaction with locals is
a Hawaiian hand salute that means "hang loose".
In a briefing after the shooting of the two boys, Col Sellers insisted the
rules of engagement had been followed in the "tragic accident". But admitted
it was a big setback to building relations with the already-suspicious local
On Sunday morning Abdul Nabi, the boys' father, sat nursing his surviving
son at Kandahar military hospital.
"How can this be a mistake?" he asked, holding Ali's wounded leg in his
hand. "A mistake is shooting one person. Not two. If they are shooting our
children how can we be their friends?"
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