By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009
KONAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan The father arrived at the gate of Capt. Michael Harrison's base earlier this month cradling the limp body of his 9-year-old daughter.
A few minutes earlier, the little girl had been playing with her cousin by the rutted main road that runs through Harrison's sector. A Taliban bomb intended for an Afghan army convoy had exploded. It missed the convoy and instead struck the girl, known by the single name of Akhtarbabi.
Her face was blackened from the blast. A piece of charred shrapnel was lodged in her temple. Harrison ordered two of his medics to take the girl's cousin, who was bloody but still conscious, to the base's aid station, a plywood shack about the size of a toolshed. Other medics set Akhtarbabi on a cot in a dark concrete bunker just outside the aid station. They crouched over her, searching for a pulse.
"She's dead," Sgt. Ed Welch, the chief medic, whispered to Harrison.
It was up to Harrison, a 27-year-old company commander who oversees U.S. military operations in a sprawling, isolated and violent swath of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, to figure out how to take advantage of the opening the Taliban had given him. The question consumed and frustrated the Virginia native for most of June. It also laid bare the challenges facing the Obama administration and U.S. commanders as they try to reverse the course of a war that has grown increasingly dire in the past year.
Harrison faces two enemies in Afghanistan. The most obvious is the Taliban, whose fighters lurk in the mountains along the border. The other is the overwhelming frustration that Afghans feel toward U.S. forces. Eight years of airstrikes, civilian casualties and humiliating house-to-house searches have left the Afghan people deeply suspicious of the U.S. troops who are supposed to be protecting them.
As Harrison's medics hovered over the girl's body, her cabdriver father, Jonagha, squatted on the ground outside the aid station. A summer thunderstorm swept over the base. The father placed his face in his hands and prayed as the rain drenched his bloodstained tunic.
Harrison and his interpreter knelt beside Jonagha. The American captain draped an arm around the man's shoulders, leaned in close and delivered the news that his daughter was dead. The man sat frozen, his face still resting in his palms and the rain pelting his back.
"I am very sorry for your loss," Harrison said. "I want you to come back here whenever you want to come back. I want to help your family." He paused to let his interpreter translate. Then Harrison pressed a soggy $20 bill into the father's hands.
The Taliban had shown their brutality. Akhtarbabi was their civilian casualty.
* * *
Harrison, a native of Rural Retreat, Va., has spent more than 20 months leading troops in Konar province over the course of two tours. The West Point graduate wasn't supposed to take command of a 140-soldier infantry company until 2011. But when Harrison's commander learned that his battalion, part of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, was returning to Konar, he asked Harrison to take command early.
Between his two tours, Harrison, whose boyish face and blond hair make him look like an especially earnest grad student, had kept in touch with his interpreter and several of the Afghan leaders from his old sector via e-mail. He sent them packages of T-shirts, jeans and toiletries. Soon after he arrived in Konar for the second tour, Harrison bought mosque speakers for the religious leaders in his area.
Although his current sector is a three-hour drive from his old base, Afghans whom Harrison hasn't seen since 2007 sometimes arrive at the gates of his new base. Many show the guards scraps of paper bearing Harrison's signature, proof that they once knew him. "You cannot come to me, so I am here to visit with you, my good friend," one man told Harrison. The man wanted money to replace his car, which had been totaled a few weeks earlier, and medicine for the injuries he'd suffered in the wreck. Harrison had his medics fill the man's prescription.
A few days later, a village police officer made the long drive to visit. He had information about a cell of 13 Taliban fighters who wanted to turn in their weapons for cash. He also needed some lumber for a house that he was building. Harrison let him haul away a truckload of barriers that the soldiers use to safeguard their buildings from rockets.
It is too soon for Harrison to gauge what he gets from these interactions, which he hopes will lead to solid intelligence about the enemy.
Company commanders in Afghanistan are given more latitude to make decisions than anywhere else in the Army. In Iraq, a lieutenant colonel commanding an 800-soldier battalion can check in with all of his subordinate commanders on a daily basis. Afghanistan's rugged mountains and poor roads make such oversight impossible. Harrison, the sole representative of the U.S. government in his sector, sees his battalion commander about once a week.
"The terrain forces you to decentralize," said Col. John Spiszer, who oversees about 5,000 troops sprawled across four provinces in eastern Afghanistan. "The guy who is running things on a daily basis, who can reach out and help his guys and make things happen in an area, is the company commander."
* * *
For Harrison it has been almost impossible to find and kill the Taliban fighters who inhabit the mountains around his base. The insurgents know the area better than the Americans. They can easily hop across the border to evade capture. Harrison sends patrols up into the mountains every few weeks to scope out enemy infiltration routes from Pakistan and destroy Taliban rocket-launch sites.
On these mountain patrols, the Taliban insurgents typically reveal themselves as voices on Harrison's two-way radio. Sometimes the voices taunt Harrison in Pashto. Other times they threaten him. On a warm morning in early June the voices plotted how they were going to kill him.
"Do you see them moving now?" one voice said.
"I am getting into position," another replied.
Harrison and his men had hiked three miles to the remote village of Shirugay near the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to talk with the locals about Taliban fighters transiting the area. They also wanted to offer U.S. humanitarian assistance, but no one in the village had wanted to meet with them. So after an hour's rest, Harrison and his men began to hike down the valley to their vehicles.
As soon as they started moving, the voices returned. His interpreter translated.
"Are you in position for the attack?" the first voice said.
"I am ready," the other voice answered.
Harrison paused by a field of recently harvested opium poppies. He ordered his men to spread out so they would be harder to hit. They scanned the ridgelines around them for any sign of movement.
Suddenly the hills exploded with enemy gunfire and the Americans dived for cover. Lt. Alex Litz radioed for help. "Palehorse 6-2. This is Attack 9-6. We are in contact," he said. A Kiowa helicopter swooped in and strafed the enemy position with machine-gun fire. A rocket screeched through the air.
The soldiers, each weighed down by more than 30 pounds of body armor, leapt to their feet and sprinted down the rocky valley floor to safety. Back at his vehicles, Harrison bounded over to one of his sergeants and slapped hands with him. "They had us in a perfect kill zone," he marveled, letting out a laugh.
The morning after the firefight, the Taliban roadside bomb exploded, killing the 9-year-old girl. After the girl's father left the base, Harrison pulled his cellphone from his sleeve pocket and asked his interpreter to call the sub-governor for southeastern Konar province, an area that includes the girl's village of Barabat. "Tell him I'd like to have a shura tomorrow at 9 a.m. with the Barabat elders to discuss security in the area," Harrison instructed. "I want him to come."
The men arrived at the front gate of the American base the next morning for the meeting. The oldest members of the group had wispy white beards and wore elaborate turbans with tails that snaked down their backs. Holding hands with the sub-governor, Harrison led the group to a meeting room that he had built to resemble the ones he had seen in Afghan villages. Pillows lined the wall. The Army captain and his guests sat cross-legged on the floor.
"All of you please call me Michael," he began. "I am the commander of this area."
Harrison told the elders that he didn't expect them to fight the Taliban. "I am just asking you to tell us if you see someone who doesn't belong in your village," he said, passing out a business card with his cellphone number. "There is no reason for children to be killed by bombs."
The Barabat elders seemed reluctant to place their trust in Harrison. A year earlier, a U.S. airstrike had killed three Afghans living about a mile from Barabat. Village residents insisted the people who were killed weren't involved in the insurgency. Six months ago U.S. soldiers shot a man across the river from Barabat. Neither incident occurred while Harrison was in the province. But they were his problems now.
"Michael is different from the other Americans. He behaves like an Afghan," said Shah Jan, the provincial sub-governor, coming to Harrison's defense. "We are very happy with him."
Still, the elders said they weren't convinced that Harrison and his troops could protect them from the Taliban fighters, who planted bombs on their roads and swept into their villages at night to threaten them. "If you cannot stop [them] with all of your weapons, how do you expect us to do it?" asked one elder.
* * *
Barabat sits at the foot of a critical route used by Taliban fighters entering the country from Pakistan. In early February, Harrison had stationed one of his platoons at a police compound a couple of miles from the village, bolstering the Afghan forces already based there. "There is no question that our presence made it harder for the Taliban to infiltrate the area," Harrison said.
In May, however, his brigade commander ordered him to pull all U.S. forces from the small compound. A few weeks earlier, about 100 Taliban fighters had breached the walls of a U.S. outpost in northern Konar province, killing three American and two Latvian soldiers. It was the second outpost in the province to be overrun in a year. "Make no mistake, if you give the enemy an opportunity, he is going to hurt you around here," said Spiszer, the brigade commander.
In the days after Harrison's meeting with the Barabat elders, the Taliban began to test the Afghan troops who remained at the compound. First the insurgents attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, pushing to within 500 yards of the small, mud-walled base. Two nights later they launched an assault from even closer range, wounding an Afghan soldier in the leg. After the firefight had died down, some of Harrison's troops spotted flashlights moving around on a ridgeline. The Afghan compound had taken gunfire from the same area, his troops said.
At his headquarters, Harrison asked if there were any attack helicopters that could take a closer look at the lights, but there were none. "These guys aren't so dumb as to use flashlights when they are in the middle of a firefight," argued Staff Sgt. Richard Ehardt, who was standing beside Harrison. He cautioned against firing. Harrison ordered the artillery strike.
"Be careful how you adjust the shot or it will land off the ridgeline," Ehardt said. The cannons boomed. The flashlights never reappeared. There was no way for Harrison to know what he had hit.
* * *
The next morning Harrison shed his Army uniform and pulled on a salwar-kameez, the pants and tunic worn by most Afghan villagers, and stood before about 350 villagers, including many widows and disabled people. Harrison had received special permission from his battalion commander to don the local garb, which the Americans refer to as "manjammies."
He and local government officials had spent weeks planning the event, which was intended to show that the U.S. and Afghan forces were compassionate and caring. Harrison had put up $2,000 of his unit's money to pay for it.
Some of the villagers arrived in wheelchairs. Others were carried in wheelbarrows or on the backs of their relatives. Many were missing arms or legs. Several shook with palsy. "These people are totally marginalized," Harrison said.
The villagers sat on a concrete floor and listened to long speeches from Afghan officials. Harrison spoke last, promising the crowd that Afghan soldiers were going to distribute aid packages full of rice, flour, cooking oil, blankets and clothes to everyone in attendance. "This is to demonstrate that you are all important and that we must help you," he said.
Ten days ago, Harrison met again with Jonagha, the father of the 9-year-old girl, in a half-empty produce store in the town. About 30 villagers clustered at the store's entrance, straining to hear their conversation.
"The family is very poor and you are the commander of this area," the store owner instructed Harrison. "So it is your duty to assist them."
"That's what I am prepared to do," he responded.
He offered the father a job at the base, but Jonagha didn't seem interested. If he worked with the Americans, the Taliban would target him, he said. Harrison also said he would try to bring in a U.S. expert to help the village with the wheat harvest.
He wanted to give the family $2,000, the amount typically paid to the relatives of civilians killed by U.S. or NATO forces. His battalion commander was generally supportive of the idea. But neither of them was sure how to do it. The United States isn't allowed to use the civilian casualty fund to compensate for Taliban mistakes.
"I know funerals are very expensive, and I'd like to give you some money to help," Harrison told the father. "I can't promise anything, but I will do my best."
Two weeks had passed since Akhtarbabi's death. All Harrison had been able to provide for the family and the village so far was a $20 bill and some rice, flour and cooking oil. He shook hands with the father and waded through a crowd of children as he made his way to his vehicle.
"We can't afford to be seen as the outsiders here," Harrison said.