TOKCHI, Afghanistan -- The 82nd Airborne paratroopers rolled out at dawn, on what was to be a simple mission that lies at the heart of the war strategy: protect the Afghan people from extremist insurgents.
The failure of their mission – the paratroopers' tactical withdrawal from a howling, stone-throwing mob in this dusty farming village – speaks volumes about the difficulty and likely duration of the war in Afghanistan.
Under the war strategy adopted by the Obama administration this spring, "protect the people'' means training the Afghan army and police and helping them enforce the rule of law by working alongside them on counter-insurgency operations.
That concept "briefs well – it looks good on PowerPoint and it sounds good if you're standing behind a podium and the cameras are rolling," said Capt. Booker T. Wilson, the company commander who led the mission. "But doing it is like a football game in the mud. There's nothing pretty about it."
(Note to White House staffers drafting "benchmarks" to measure progress in the war: Keep reading to see how you would grade the situation in Tokchi, and hundreds of similar villages. Do you see lots of gray areas?)
On this mission, Afghan police were to accompany about 40 paratroopers into Tokchi, a village suspected of allowing rocket attacks against forces and harboring participants in an IED network. Random searches of houses and targeted searches of some suspected arms caches were the core of this mission, in part to demonstrate that Afghan and authorities are keeping an eye on places like Tokchi.
Keeping the insurgents "off balance," unsure where they can safely operate and whom they can trust, is a high priority in the days before the upcoming Afghan elections scheduled for August 20. Tokchi is typical in this respect: most villagers seem to support the Afghan government and the presence. But some might agree to look the other way if a pair of insurgents on a motorcycle comes through with a rocket launcher; a few may accept money to store explosives in their compound overnight. As one paratrooper obseerves: "Fifty American dollars goes a long way around here.''
Dealing with such mixed motives and social nuances would be difficult for any law enforcement operation. They are more difficult still for American combat soldiers and Afghan police struggling to become a professional force after decades of war and corruption.
Under the new strategy, all military missions must include either Afghan National Army (ANA) or Afghan National Police (ANP). Involving the Afghan police raises difficulties, Lt. Col. Chris Eubank, who commands the 82nd Airborne Division Special Troops Battalion, told me. Eubank's troops prepare meticulously for such missions, poring over intelligence reports and maps, selecting the village, and even the specific houses to be searched, planning the precise timing and movements of each squad.
Should they share all that with the ANP guys? "Because there is a lot of corruption across, when we tell the Afghan police anything, we risk having them tell the village,'' Eubank said. Suspects and weapons will be long gone when the troops arrive. On the other hand, the Afghan police confer an aura of legitimacy for U.S. troops among suspicious villagers. In theory, at least, the presence of Afghan authorities tells the villages: It's okay to let these Americans in here, they're with us.
Eubank leans toward cooperation. "My approach is to tell them everything, and see what happens,'' he said. "Because I am trying to get them to do their job.''
Duly alerted that the target was the village of Tokchi, eight members of the ANP mustered for the mission, in two pick-up trucks – a token presence, "but at least they sent somebody,'' a paratrooper observed. Three days earlier a similar mission was scrubbed when the ANP never showed.
With the ANP following, paratroopers hit the village at 7:30 am, their big armored MRAP trucks growling into the village outskirts in clouds of dust. Dismounted soldiers, weapons at the ready, warily stepped along beaten-earth paths squeezed between eight-foot mud walls that form a maze of courtyards, shuttered adobe rooms and small plots of grapes and sunflowers. Brown water gurgled along irrigation ditches.
Within minutes, a radio report: The ANP refuse to participate in any searches of homes. Twenty minutes later, another report: The provincial governor says it's okay to search homes. In the rising heat, chickens and goats nose the dirt beneath mulberry trees. Small boys watch solemnly from doorways. Sweating paratroopers scan rooftops and alleyways for snipers. Teenagers watch sullenly or turn their backs.
No women, of course. They're all inside and out of sight. Afghans are extremely sensitive about keeping their women away from Westerners and non-Muslims and unrelated men (and the paratroopers are all three). Anticipating this problem, the paratroopers brought women soldiers to assist in the house searches. That gesture will not help.
Soon the village "elder'' arrives, a bearded man in his mid-thirties. With a broad smile he gestures Booker Wilson, his interpreter, and me into his large adobe and stucco home; the three of us settle on red cushions in an airy second-floor meeting room which soon fills with a crowd of bearded and turbaned men. For 90 minutes, the legal, political and religious justifications for the Americans' presence are hotly debated, and the arguments go nowhere.
"If there are any weapons or explosives here we will take care of it ourselves,'' insists Asadullah, the elder. "If we find these things we will burn the house down, but we will do it ourselves.''
Wilson: "I know there are individuals moving around your village who are responsible for rocket attacks and IEDs. I know this,'' he stresses.
"It is legal for me and the ANP to search houses. We don't need your permission,'' Wilson adds, a pronouncement that, when translated, provokes a fresh burst of objections.
"I am the village elder and if I had known you were going to search houses I would not have let you in here,'' Asadullah fumes, fingering a string of worry beads.
Things calm down with the arrival of more senior police and district officials. A deal is struck: The ANP will lead the searches. Women soldiers will lead all Afghan females into a separate room which will not be searched.
One wizened old man worries that suspicion will fall on any family whose house is searched. He is assured the searches are random, although the paratroopers have a list of six houses they suspect hold weapons. Back out on the dirt paths to begin the searches, the paratroopers find a crowd of noisy youths has gathered, blocking the way. "Tell them to calm down – if anything happens in this village, it's your fault,'' Wilson shouts at Asadullah, the elder.
Now there's a full-blown confrontation: Angry kids yelling and throwing rocks, ANP looking on helplessly, village elders trying to intervene, and the paratroopers watching warily. In the crowd they spot a bearded young man on their list of suspects. He is also leading the mob in angry chants of "Allahu Akbar!''
At a nod from Wilson, two soldiers move to get him, a tussle ensues and they wrestle him to the ground in a cloud of dust and kicking limbs. As they secure his hands behind his back, the crowd roars and presses forward.
"The ANP is egging them on!'' Wilson cries in disbelief.
"Allahu Akbar!'' the crowd screams.
Now a crucial decision: The paratroopers are well-armed professionals and not really threatened by a few rocks. They could take down this crowd and restore order.
But that would be messy, and the cost in bruised village pride would be high.
"Okay let's go!'' Wilson orders. "Get a head count on the way out!''
Later, he muses that the entire scene may have been a set-up: the village elders seeming to agree to house searches while slipping word to the town's rowdies to start a disturbance to prevent the searches from actually happening. Was that because the village was hiding insurgents? Or from local pride and determination to protect their privacy? Or a mixture of both?
In any event, the day was far from a total loss. The paratroopers came back with one suspect in custody, and they picked up other intelligence on suspected weapons caches and insurgents' movements.
"As ugly as it was, we were able to confirm there is anti-coalition sentiment in Tokchi,'' Wilson told me as we headed back to base. "In everything you do, there's always a measure of gain,'' said Wilson, his voice reflecting the cadence and wisdom of his
Jackson, Mississippi upbringing.
"Sometimes you have to struggle to find it.''
POSTSCRIPT (added 8/11/09, 8:31 am) That evening, village elders from Tokchi got in touch with Lt. Col Eubank, the battalion commander: could they come to his headquarters for talks? Eubank immediately agreed. Polite words were exchanged, regrets were offered by the elders over what had happened.
They asked if the detainee could be released; Eubank agreed.
The elders left with the detainee and a list of four names of suspected troublemakers. Latest word is that the local police had the four in custody.
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