Thursday, December 9, 2010

101st Airborne respond to Taliban who's highest priority was to prevent a school from reopening

The 101st Airborne, otherwise known as the " Screaming Eagles", takes the fight to the Taliban and finds that even in the warzone, there are moments of celebration and feasting with local troops....too many times, we only hear negative things about the Afghan's a bit of good news.

Fighting and Feasting: On the Ground in Afghanistan
By Joe Klein - Time Magazine

On a moonless, pitch-black but impossibly starry night in early December, I traveled with a U.S. Army patrol through the town of Senjaray, in the Zhari district of Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Our mission was to attend a dinner party at the local police station. The soldiers, members of the 1-502 regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (famously known as the Black Hearts), were led by their executive officer, Captain Cullen Lind. He, and they, assumed the dinner was a celebration of recent events in the district: after an extremely tough fight, the Taliban had been driven out of the area. The summer fighting season was over; there had been only one violent incident in the past two weeks.

When we arrived at the mud-walled police fort, the soldiers were surprised by the elaborate nature of the party. There were musicians; there was a feast — lamb and rice, fresh bread and vegetables, deliciously prepared. "We've never seen anything like this before," Lind told me. As the musicians, who were excellent, played the desultory Afghan national anthem, a ragtag row of a dozen police officers — some in uniform, some not; some with rifles, others not — stood at strict attention. "The song is good for our national spirit," said Karim Jaan, the local police chief. "It is a way to build power."

Lind and the other Americans had developed a certain amount of respect for the police chief over the past six months. He seemed a young man on the rise; he had recently served four months as governor of the Zhari district. What the soldiers didn't know was that Jaan had just been fired as governor. "Karim Jaan was not able to reach out past his tribe and build the sort of shura [council] coalition we needed," a U.S. official told me. "There were also rumors that he was close to the Taliban — although almost all these local leaders are — and Ahmed Wali Karzai [President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and powerful brother, the de facto ruler of Kandahar province] didn't like him."

In fact, this was Jaan's first day back as police chief in Senjaray —which was the real reason for the party. He wanted the appearance of a triumphant return. As with so much else in Afghanistan, the apparent victory celebration was something else entirely. And as with so much else in Afghanistan, the future rested in the hands of questionable characters like Karim Jaan.

I first visited Senjaray last April and wrote about the efforts of a U.S. rifle company, led by Captain Jeremiah Ellis, to reopen the Pir Mohammed School, which had been closed and booby-trapped by the Taliban in 2007. The school was finally retaken by Ellis' troops in late April, which touched off a fierce battle that lasted through the summer. "The Taliban actually announced that their highest priority was to prevent the school from reopening," a U.S. official in the district told me. Indeed, the school was a metaphor for Zhari, an area that both sides considered crucial strategic turf, the heartland of the Taliban (Sangsar, the birthplace of Mullah Omar, was only a few miles away), the key to controlling Kandahar province.

And so Pir Mohammed School became a fortress. There were daily mortar, rocket-propelled-grenade and small-arms attacks from the Taliban, who controlled the area to the south. The fight intensified when Ellis' Dog Company was replaced by Captain Nicholas Stout's Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne in late May. "We had a soldier shot through the chest on our second day at the school," said Lind, who is Stout's second in command. "A majority, maybe two-thirds of our troops, were wounded and received Purple Hearts during the course of the summer." (Comment on this story.)

When I'd joined the company on patrol in Senjaray last April, the locals had watched us quietly. A month later, children started throwing stones, then tossing grenades at the soldiers and racing away into the crowds. "The first grenade attack, I detained maybe 75 people," Stout said. "I told them, 'When someone tosses a grenade at us, it's going to affect you too. We're going to round you up, detain you and interview you until we find the culprits. I know this is unfair and inconvenient, but we can't tolerate this sort of violence.'"

For a time, at the urging of the local elders, Bravo Company pulled back from the school and left it in the control of the local Afghan National Army (ANA) forces — whose efforts were mixed, at best. That changed in August when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade killed a 7-year-old boy. "Lieutenant Ghafar got really exercised over that," Stout told me, referring to the local ANA commander. "He came to me with a plan. They were going to go door to door, talking to the people, asking them if they really wanted their kids blown up like that." The Americans had posters of the dead child printed and distributed. "It was the first time the ANA took the initiative," Stout continued. "They've been great ever since."

A few weeks later, the Taliban tried to assassinate Jaan — who was then the district governor — in a road ambush. Jaan fought off the attack, but one of his bodyguards was killed. The fact that he actually fought the Taliban, and repelled the attack, gave him greater stature in the town —and it gained some respect for the police, who had previously restricted their activities to protecting the local, rather supine strongman, Hajji Lala. Now the police became more active. They set up and manned checkpoints on the major roads through town; they established a substation at the Pir Mohammed School.

But the security situation really turned around in September, when a major operation — Dragon Strike, the long-awaited battle of Kandahar — was launched by the NATO coalition, moving westward from the city of Kandahar along the Arghandab River Valley, clearing the Taliban heartland. "Our command brought in teams of sappers to clear the mines and tremendous air support. We found weapons caches and blew up the 'factories' where the Taliban were building the improvised explosive devices [IEDs]," Stout told me. "When it was clear that we were really driving out the Taliban, people began coming to us — and especially to our ANA partners — with tips. Within a week, they helped us find 16 IEDs and arrest nine of the enemy." By mid-October, the locals were willing to risk participating in cash-for-work programs: improving the town bazaar, cleaning out irrigation canals for $5 a day. "We've got about 500 people working most days now," said Stout. "We're hoping to hire a lot more."

A recent ABC News poll of Afghan attitudes found that people in the southern, Taliban-dominated provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were feeling more secure as a result of the increased U.S. military presence. (The rest of Afghanistan was feeling less secure, however.) And so there is an opportunity in towns like Senjaray now — an opportunity to build support among the population before the Taliban try to retake the area next spring. "We're going to concentrate on expanding cash for work to more permanent projects," said Casey Johnson, a USAID worker in the Zhari district, "and also try to build a strong district shura across the various tribes and factions." (See more on the test troops have faced in Kandahar.)

The U.S. troops, with a strong assist from the ANA, had done a remarkable job clearing out the Taliban. But the real battle for Senjaray was now in the hands of Karim Jaan, who had emerged as the town's most important politician. He had the winter to prove that the Afghan government could provide real security, services and justice for the people. A year before, Jaan's sympathies had been opaque — but now he'd chosen a side: because he'd been targeted by the Taliban, his only hope was to fight them aggressively. The same went for the hundreds of local citizens who'd joined the cash-for-work program; their families will be targeted when the Taliban return in numbers. (There are still occasional IED, mortar and grenade attacks.)

On the night of his welcome-home feast, I asked the police chief when he might reopen the Pir Mohammed School. "It depends on the security. We are training the police. They have to be able to secure the town next spring if the Taliban return." "Where will the teachers come from?" I asked. "From here in Senjaray," Jaan said. "I know people. I will select them." And with that, he whipped out a wad of cash, peeled off a few notes and dispatched an aide to pay the musicians

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