A Terrain's Tragic Shift

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

With its mud-walled houses and narrow lanes, Chehel Gazi looked like a hundred other dusty villages that Paula Loyd had visited in southern Afghanistan over the years. She greeted villagers with the same forthright, friendly concern that she had always displayed during her past stints as an aid worker, U.N. staffer and member of civil affairs teams for the U.S. Army.

But Loyd, 36, a blond woman with a strong resemblance to the actress Daryl Hannah, was also a startling sight as she strode into the village market one morning last November, wearing combat fatigues and circled by armed guards. They were in the heart of ethnic Pashtun territory, a traditional region where the Islamic Taliban movement was born in the 1990s and women are still hidden from public view.

Loyd's mission this time, as a researcher on contract to the Pentagon, was to get to know the villagers and their problems, to help the military map out what it called the "human terrain" of Afghanistan and thus improve its ability to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. With two interpreters at her side, she began to ask shoppers about the cost of fuel. One Afghan man, carrying a jug of gasoline, lingered to chat and thanked her for the visit. It was a bright winter day, and the mood in the market seemed relaxed and cordial.

Suddenly, the calm was shattered: According to court documents and government accounts, the man holding the jug abruptly hurled the gasoline at Loyd's face and chest, set her on fire and bolted. She fell to the ground in a fetal position, groaning, in flames. One guard took off after the attacker while the other rolled Loyd into a stream to douse the flames. Police began firing their guns in confusion. One guard, Don Ayala, had cuffed the man and pinned him to the ground when an Afghan interpreter ran over, screaming hysterically that Loyd was burning to death. Ayala turned and shot his prisoner in the head.

That brief flurry of violence has left a lingering trail of tragedy. The attacker died instantly, unable to shed light on his motives or possible conspirators. Ayala, one of three people in Loyd's tight-knit field team, was charged with murder in U.S. federal court and could face 15 years in prison. And Loyd, who had become deeply attached to Afghanistan, died 10,000 miles away in a San Antonio Army hospital, finally succumbing to her burns Jan. 7.

The horrific events of Nov. 4 have also taken on a larger strategic significance as the Obama administration prepares to commit up to 30,000 troops to a new civil-military campaign to win over the Afghan populace and defeat the insurgents. The fatal attack on Loyd has aroused new criticism of the program that hired her to help the U.S. military understand Afghan society -- and it has highlighted rising worries about the increasingly treacherous human terrain that awaits those who follow her.

'Don't Worry About Me'

Given her cheerleader looks, winning personality and pedigreed education, Texas-born Paula Loyd could have chosen virtually any career. She attended boarding school in Connecticut, majored in cultural anthropology at Wellesley and obtained a master's degree in conflict resolution and diplomacy at Georgetown. When she told her family she wanted to join the military, everyone presumed she would apply for Officer Candidate School.

But Loyd, her mother said, always wanted to be "on the ground, close to the people." Restless and driven, she had a lifelong desire to help those in troubled foreign lands. She also had a horror of offices and a rebellious indifference to title or class. She enlisted as an Army private and became a heavy-wheel-vehicle mechanic. She served briefly in South Korea, but once she was posted to Afghanistan in early 2002, shortly after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime, she knew she had found her niche.

Although she left active service after one tour, Loyd immediately shifted to a succession of jobs aimed at rebuilding the war-ravaged country, and often at bridging the gap between civilian and military agencies. She worked as a reservist with an Army civil affairs battalion, bringing medical aid and supplies to villages like Chehel Gazi. She worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development at a military reconstruction outpost, helping to resolve local disputes. She worked for the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration. All the while, friends and colleagues said, she deepened her love and knowledge of Afghan society.

"She cared about my country as much as I did," said Faridoon Barakzai, her former translator, who now works with a consulting firm in Arlington. In a recent interview, he recalled how the two drove to countless southern villages in 2002 and 2003, speaking with people about their needs. "She especially loved to be in the south," he said. "She found the people more friendly, and she felt comfortable. She knew the rules of the culture well, and she was careful not to hug or shake hands with men, but she felt safe."

Other friends and colleagues from Loyd's time in Afghanistan described her as a woman of extraordinary energy, empathy and personal force, who worked around the clock and battled blizzards and bureaucracy to bring help to others. Their stories have poured out at tearful memorial services in Texas and Washington, and in hundreds of messages on blogs and Web sites since her death.

"She had a passion for the people of Afghanistan, and it was all we could do to keep up with her," Ray Short, an Army major who served with Loyd in 2002 and 2003, wrote on a memorial Web site. "She died doing the work of bringing peace to a people she loved and respected. Her work will touch generations of Afghans. . . . I am a better person for having lived and served with her."

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