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Combat Generation: Trying to work with an Afghan insurgent

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; A01

NARAY, AFGHANISTAN -- Last November, Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown received an enticing offer from a mysterious enemy.

The entreaty followed a devastating insurgent assault on a small base under Brown's command in eastern Afghanistan. More than 300 fighters had attacked the outpost, killing eight of his soldiers. For the first time in his 19-year career, Brown had serious doubts about his future in the military.

The offer came from an insurgent known as Mullah Sadiq, who had been on the U.S. kill-capture list since 2005. Brown assumed that some fighters aligned with Sadiq had taken part in the assault.

Sadiq wanted 50 assault rifles, $20,000 and a promise that U.S. forces would not kill him. In return, he promised to turn against more-radical Taliban insurgents and to begin to work with the Afghan government.

Sadiq's proposition gave Brown a chance, however tentative, to achieve a victory of sorts in his corner of Afghanistan and redeem the loss of his men.

"This has the potential to work," Brown told his commander.

It has become a given within the U.S. military after nearly a decade of grinding battle in Afghanistan and seven years in Iraq that U.S. forces cannot kill their way to victory. Enemies must be persuaded to lay down their weapons through a mix of negotiation and force. Grievances must be understood and wherever possible addressed. These principles are at the core of the military's coming campaign in Kandahar, which U.S officials are touting as the most important battle of the nine-year war.

Brown is a firm believer in this new American way of war, one that has forced him to puzzle through dauntingly complex tribal feuds and to overcome a fractured Afghan government that often prefers to fight enemies, such as Sadiq, rather than cede influence to them.

Brown, 41, has struggled to make sense of Sadiq, who insists on dealing with the Americans solely through intermediaries. Some Afghans describe Sadiq as a religious scholar and brave commander. Others maintain that he is a warlord and extremist.

"The bad guys aren't bad because they were born bad," Brown said from his base in Naray. "What no one ever teaches you is how to get to the bottom of the story. No one ever teaches you to ask, 'Why is Mullah Sadiq the way he is?' "

A stirring speaker

Sadiq grew up in a poor family in Kamdesh district, an isolated valley of about 22,000 people. His parents sent him at an early age to be educated at a free religious school in Pakistan.

A bright student and stirring speaker, Sadiq was tapped as a regional commander in the anti-Soviet insurgency, his brother-in-law said. He fought with Hezb-i-Islami, or HiG, a group led by Gulbuddin Hemkatyar, a hard-line Islamist who served briefly as prime minister during the chaotic years after the Soviet withdrawal.

Sadiq's battlefield exploits and knowledge of Islam made him a power broker in the region, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. In 2004, he met regularly with a U.S. Special Forces officer known to locals as Sean.

"Sean was transfixed by Mullah Sadiq," said Col. Shamsu Rahman, a border police commander and Sadiq's brother-in-law. "He said he knew everything -- geography, politics, religion."

Sadiq's relationship with subsequent American officers deteriorated, and in 2005 U.S. forces tried to kill him with a Hellfire missile. His history with HiG, which was labeled an international terrorist organization, may have set off alarms. Sadiq's brother-in-law insisted that the U.S. commandos were acting on bad intelligence from a rival who had accused Sadiq of murdering his father a decade earlier.

Brown has no idea why previous U.S. commanders sought to kill Sadiq.

"We spent the first five or six years in Afghanistan making enemies, because we were used to settle political, economic and historical conflicts," he said. "We were pretty credulous."

On Brown's first combat tour in Iraq in 2004, he and his fellow officers were under orders from Washington to stay out of tribal politics. The approach made it impossible for officers to understand the forces propelling the insurgency, which was driven more by political discontent than religious extremism.

"What I thought I knew coming out of East Baghdad, I laugh at today," Brown said.

In 2007, he returned to the Iraqi capital as a military planner managing the influx of 30,000 fresh forces in Baghdad. U.S. commanders began organizing tens of thousands of Sunnis, some of them former insurgents, into informal watch groups to safeguard their neighborhoods from extremists. The defections, fueled by huge influxes of American cash, led to a stunning drop in violence in 2008 and helped reverse the course of a war that looked hopeless.

For U.S. military officers, the experience in Iraq forever altered their view of the enemy. It also changed the way the war would be fought thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

This account of the negotiations with Sadiq is based on meetings observed by a Washington Post reporter and interviews with U.S. and Afghan officials.

Last December, Brown quietly asked Commander Youssef, the police chief in a district near Kamdesh, whether he should help Sadiq.

"Working with Mullah Sadiq is like handing a snake to your enemy," Youssef told him. Sadiq might drive out the Taliban, but he was still dangerous and unpredictable.

"So, should we work with him?" Brown pressed.

"At the present time we have no other choice," Youssef recalled saying. "We really need him."

An American telephone

After the attack on Combat Outpost Keating, Brown and the local Taliban leadership went through similar rituals.

Brown had petitioned the top brass in Afghanistan to close Keating two months before the attack, and family members wanted to know why it had taken senior commanders so long to approve the U.S. withdrawal. U.S. troops left Kamdesh a few days after the battle.

"We should know the names of the officers who made the decisions," the mother of one of the dead soldiers told the Philadelphia Inquirer in late February. "They should feel the pain that we feel."

Brown had little to offer in the way of solace. Most of the dead men's possessions had been destroyed in the attack. His troops gathered up what they could -- a prized Yankees cap, a watch, a wallet, a pair of broken eyeglasses -- and shipped them to the families.

The Taliban faced similar questions from angry fathers who demanded to know why their sons had been ordered to storm a base that the Americans were leaving. More than 75 local fighters had been killed in the battle. U.S. intelligence officials tracked the two top Taliban commanders in the area, Dost Mohammed and Haji Usman, as they attended funerals and made payments to grieving families.

The Taliban and Sadiq had long competed for the allegiance of fighters in Kamdesh, and the U.S. withdrawal heightened the split. Sadiq wanted to allow long-stalled development projects to resume. The Taliban vowed to attack such efforts as part of a campaign to discredit the Afghan government.

The two groups exchanged emissaries and argued. "I am not supporting the U.S.," Sadiq told the Taliban, according to his brother-in-law. "There are no Americans in Kamdesh. I am supporting myself, my village and my people."

In December, the Americans gave Sadiq a few thousand dollars to organize meetings with the Kamdesh elders, and an Afghan official passed him some guns. As a gesture of good faith, Sadiq sent a photo of himself using a U.S.-supplied satellite phone.

In a 2002 picture taken by U.S. commandos, Sadiq had dark, piercing eyes and a chiseled face. By 2010, he was older and grayer, with softer features.

Every few nights, one of Sadiq's deputies telephoned Brown to work out the terms of the deal. By March, the insurgent commander had assembled an informal police force of about 230 locals, some of whom had probably taken part in the Keating attack. Brown arranged for the United States to pay the men about $25,000 a month until the Interior Ministry formally accepted them as police.

Dante Paradiso, the senior State Department representative in the area, worked with Afghan officials to replace the weak Kamdesh district sub-governor with one of Sadiq's backers, who also had the support of the tribal elders in the area.

Brown could only guess at Sadiq's motivation for approaching him. Sadiq's religious education and his exploits as an anti-Soviet commander had helped him gain acceptance among the wealthy landowners in Kamdesh.

"If the Taliban were to dominate the area, Sadiq would lose prestige and his position," Brown hypothesized. Brown also hoped that Sadiq understood that Taliban rule would be a disaster for Kamdesh.

"Honestly, I am speculating about the motives about someone I have never met or talked to," he said.

In mid-March, Col. Randy George, Brown's immediate commander, met with Brig. Gen. Mohammad Zaman, the local Afghan Border Police chief, to discuss how to move ahead with Sadiq. Zaman's relationship with the insurgent leader went back to their days together in the anti-Soviet insurgency.

"Mullah Sadiq has no help from the government," Zaman told George. "He is not sure he can trust us."

Zaman offered to dispatch more than 500 Afghan troops to link up with Sadiq's fighters. The U.S. and Afghan officers made plans for a reconciliation ceremony at which Sadiq would declare his support for the Afghan constitution, Zaman would announce the return of Afghan government forces to Kamdesh and the provincial governor would pledge $150,000 in new development projects.

George and Brown planned to stay away from the event. "I don't see us saying a word," George told Zaman.

The Afghan general disagreed. Sadiq needed public assurance that the cash for reconstruction projects was going to arrive.

"Everyone knows we don't have anything," Zaman explained. "All the money comes from the Americans."

Signs of progress

In early April, the deal with Sadiq began to fall apart. Senior Afghan officials in Kabul banned Zaman from sending any of his forces to meet up with Sadiq's fighters.

"They are worried that we are trying to give Kamdesh district to the HiG," Zaman said. "They don't want us to give these guys a say in the government."

The hedging in Kabul also unnerved Sadiq, whose representatives immediately called Brown. "We are surrounded by 1,000 Taliban, but our government doesn't accept us!" one of Sadiq's deputies screamed over the satellite phone. He demanded Brown's help in acquiring 600 assault rifles, 16 Ford Ranger pickup trucks and two dozen machine guns and grenade launchers for the new Kamdesh police force.

Brown explained that the weapons had to come from the Afghan Interior Ministry, which was refusing to send any arms to Kamdesh. Sadiq's representative hung up on Brown in mid-sentence.

To get the deal back on track, Brown and George pressed the Afghan officials to write a letter to the central government in Kabul detailing the need to move forces into the valley and to better arm Sadiq's police force.

"After much cajoling, we have gotten all the Afghan players supporting the resources for the police in Kamdesh," Brown wrote in an e-mail in early May. Sadiq didn't get all the weapons he wanted, but he got some.

A new U.S. unit was scheduled to replace Brown's cavalry squadron at the end of May. He knew the next U.S. commander wouldn't have the same incentive to close the deal with Sadiq. Brown also had ample reason to question Kabul's commitment to working with Sadiq.

"We want this to happen more than the Afghans do," he said he often worried.

The reconciliation ceremony has not been held, but in recent days hundreds of Afghan army and police forces have been inching along the perilous road to Kamdesh to link up with Sadiq. Taliban commanders have been assembling a force to stop them.

Brown said he does not know exactly what to make of the maneuvering, although he detects signs of progress. "The momentum change has been significant," he wrote in an e-mail.

He expects to be home in Colorado in about two weeks. Kamdesh will be a new commander's fight.

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