Efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds

Sometimes, war comes down to the sunglasses.Lt Chuck Anderson carefully removes his, as well as the bulky helmet that also obscures his face. He extracts his own wire rimmed glasses from somewhere inside his body armour as drops of sweat trickle down his head in the blazing heat of the day.
A US soldier chatting with an Afghan youth in Kandahar Province, Southern Afghanistan.
A US soldier chatting with an Afghan youth in Kandahar Province, Southern Afghanistan.

Sometimes, war comes down to the sunglasses.
Lt Chuck Anderson carefully removes his, as well as the bulky helmet that also obscures his face. He extracts his own wire rimmed glasses from somewhere inside his body armour as drops of sweat trickle down his head in the blazing heat of the day.

The face of 24-year-old Chuck from America emerges, beaming a big smile at white bearded Haji Rahmatullah and a gaggle of curious Afghan children who scurry to the apple orchard to inspect the strangers in camouflage gear.

The rest of the American patrol take up positions along the stream meandering through the picturesque village of Tesha in Wardak province, just west of Kabul.

‘Decisive terrain’

Lt Anderson is one of the many faces of the new military mantra in Afghanistan. And that’s the point - it’s face to face as soldiers from foreign armies try to win over the population.

From foot soldiers living closer to Afghan villages, to the general now heading the command, everyone seems to be talking about counter-insurgency.

The new approach comes eight years into a war that’s costing a growing number of Afghan and foreign lives and costing public support in Afghanistan and in nations supplying the troops.

“The war is about the people. If you think of decisive terrain, it’s not a hill, it’s not a town, it’s not a road. It’s the people themselves,” Nato commander Gen Stanley McChrystal explained in a recent interview in Kabul.

On the wall facing his desk in his wood panelled office, Gen McChrystal has a photograph from the latest major offensive by American and British troops in Helmand province.

He proudly points to the scene after a major battle: “There was no visible damage to the area, no civilian casualties.”
Gen McChrystal vows to measure success not by the number of insurgents killed or captured, but by the numbers of Afghans that are protected.

‘Early stages’

Some of the new ideas are being piloted in Wardak province. About 1,500 more US troops were sent there earlier this year amid mounting concern that districts close to Kabul were now Taliban strongholds.

“We’re in the early stages of COIN,” explains the commander of the 2nd Battalion, Lt Col Kimo Gallahue, using the lingo for counter-insurgency.

But he already sees success. “We have changed the conditions in which the Afghan government is operating here which is allowing more access to the population.”

When Lt Anderson gets down to business with the village elder in Tesha, Haji Rahmatullah’s broad smile disappears as he lists promises broken by other visitors - Tesha still has no school and no well.

Lt Anderson also frowns in disapproval. In careful observation of his ground rules, he avoids making any new promises but says he will do what he can to help provide a well.

It’s the start of a new relationship, but only the start.
Earnest discussion about a village well also includes hard questions about some wanted insurgents. Counter-insurgency also has its dark side.

“Protecting the population” also has to be balanced with protecting the troops. Wardak’s main roads are still littered with IEDS, the improvised explosive devices laid by the Taliban that are one of the biggest killers of foreign and Afghan forces.

When American soldiers take to the roads of Wardak, they travel in heavily armoured convoys.

Tribal history

“When we come down the ramp, we look like from men from Mars,” admits Col Gallahue. But we are trying to live among the population to build their trust so they understand we are human beings too.”

The officers on the front line of this strategy speak with near religious fervour about these new approaches. They pore over books on Afghan tribal history and try to learn some of the local Dari or Pashto language.

They know that for counter-insurgency to succeed, it needs an Afghan face.

A new militia is being piloted in Wardak province to fill the gap still left by the Afghan army and police.

The Afghan Public Protection Force is meant to be drawn from the community it protects. But at one check post, a sandbagged watchtower along a dirt road in Nerkh district, we find a motley unit of men from Nangarhar province to the east.

Abdul Sattar tells us local people wouldn’t join. Moving his finger across his neck, he says the Taliban threatened to slit their throats.

He says security has improved, but warns if salaries don’t improve, as promised, they’ll all go back home.
Eight years into this war, the Taliban can also exploit dissatisfaction with government inefficiency and corruption, making it harder to “separate the people from the insurgents”.

“In a family of 10 sons, one son is with the Taliban and two are unemployed. If they join this new force, that means it will be brother against brother. Who will accept this?”

declares the feisty member of parliament from Wardak, Dr Roshanak Wardak.

“We need to be a learning organisation,” says Colonel John Goglia, the director of the Counter-insurgency Training Centre at a military base in the west of Kabul.

He says he first worked on counter-insurgency in Iraq but jokes his first insights were gleaned growing up on the streets of Brooklyn.

At the centre, soldiers and civilians from Nato nations and its allies, including Afghanistan, attend a mock village meeting which teaches etiquette ranging from drinking tea, not asking about the women in the family, and taking off sunglasses.

Other classroom sessions involve animated exchanges about the basics of counter-insurgency. It’s a steep learning curve for conventional forces more familiar with an army that used to talk about the overwhelming force of “shock and awe”.

“I wish they had learned about all this before they came to Afghanistan because neither side of us would have suffered all these losses. But it’s still not too late,” one Afghan police officer comments after a class.

“It’s common sense,” says Col Goglia, “but it’s extremely complex. It needs resources, strategy and understanding from the highest level to the lowest level but we’ve started to put all that in place over the past year.”

And there’s an urgency now. “We’re working against history, we are working against time,” explains Col Kimo Gallahue.

To make it work, they’ll need more time and more troops and its still not clear they will have either.


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