U.S. Troops Face a Tangle Of Goals in Afghanistan

U.S. troops patrol Baraki Barak. "We don't need people to like us, but we need them to trust" us, the commander says.
U.S. troops patrol Baraki Barak. "We don't need people to like us, but we need them to trust" us, the commander says. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 8, 2009

BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan -- It started out as a mission of diplomatic outreach, a get-acquainted visit to a village school principal. It ended with a far less comfortable encounter, as U.S. soldiers and Afghan police poked through haylofts and chicken coops, searching in vain for hidden weapons in a farmhouse full of silently staring people.

The five-hour patrol in Logar province two weeks ago, conducted by Army Lt. Steve Nepowada and his squad of 17 men, encompassed both the contradictory goals of the expanded U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and the mixed messages it is sending out to a jittery, confused populace that is not sure whom to trust.

Army commanders in Logar described a daunting list of objectives for the operations they are setting up in two rural provinces south of Kabul, the capital: bring security, reduce support for Taliban insurgents, improve Afghan police and army forces, establish good governance, boost the economy and improve infrastructure such as water and roads.

On all fronts, military leaders here readily acknowledged they have an extremely difficult task. The most obvious dilemma they face is how to protect themselves and hunt down insurgents without further alienating the inhabitants of this quiet but strategically located agricultural province.

"We don't need people to like us, but we need them to trust that we're here to help them make progress," said Col. David Haight, regional commander of 3,000 new troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, stationed in Logar and neighboring Wardak province. "The enemy can't outfight us, but we have a major challenge to convince Afghans that their own government is here to help them."

The job requires a tricky balance between suspiciousness and sensitivity, as Nepowada's afternoon patrol made clear. Before heading out from Forward Operating Base Altimur to Baraki Barak, a sleepy-seeming district that has been heavily infiltrated by the Taliban, he instructed his crew to be extremely vigilant and prepared to shoot at all times but to avoid giving offense to civilians. He also told his men to employ "shout and shove" tactics with any hostile individual before using force.

As the patrol set out in a convoy of armored vehicles, one sergeant in a turret with a 50-caliber machine gun shouted down to a buddy, "Hey, who's got the candy for the kids?"

Moving out onto the highway, the convoy straddled the middle, a technique for avoiding buried explosives, and flashed at every oncoming driver to pull over. Most dutifully obeyed, but one trucker who remained in his lane got an obscene earful from the sergeant with the candy.

When the patrol entered the district center, the soldiers climbed down and fanned across the bazaar, guns ready. A few handed out goodies to children while others flagged down taxis and motor scooters for security checks. Everyone around the dusty displays of oranges and flashlights and shawls stopped to watch. Although the soldiers were accompanied by two interpreters, there was little small talk.

In side conversations with a journalist that afternoon, residents expressed conflicting opinions of the American forces in their midst. Some said they fear the Taliban and are grateful for the U.S. military presence. Others said they fear that the heightened activities of foreign forces will draw more insurgents to the area.

"We need help. The Taliban comes at night and burns our fuel trucks, and the government people here just stay in their offices and don't dare go outside," said Mohammed Kabir, 40, a laborer. "But we are not happy about the Americans being here, because the Taliban will attack them and we will suffer more."

One police officer said the country would collapse into civil war among militias if the American and NATO forces abandoned their mission. He said he had sent his wife and children to Kabul for safety while he was deployed in Logar.


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