Jason Motlagh / Chronicle Foreign Service – 2008-12-31 13:16:56
DILA, Afghanistan (December 18, 2008) — The Chinook helicopters surged toward a landing zone where a scout had sighted a band of suspected Taliban fighters; gunfire was expected.
“There are at least 20 guys down there. It could be a good day” to engage the enemy, said Lt. Chris Dewey, a wad of tobacco bulging from his lower lip.
Moments later, two US Army platoons from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry charged into the open, heaving themselves to the ground, rifles forward, as the helicopters pulled away and a dust cloud whipped up by huge twin rotors settled back on the uncertain terrain of southeastern Paktika province.
The US operation is part of a campaign to protect residents who want to register to vote in a presidential election to be held sometime in the second half of 2009. It is one of a host of similar “disruptive” maneuvers across Afghanistan that aim to separate the local population from Taliban and other insurgents, who have a permanent presence in nearly three-quarters of the country, according to a recent report by the International Council on Security and Development, an independent security think tank with offices in Paris and Kabul. NATO and Afghan government officials have rejected the findings.
The voter drive began Oct. 14 and has already registered some 2 1/2 million voters, according to government figures. Millions more are expected to register in coming weeks to choose the successor of President Hamid Karzai.
In an e-mail message to local media early this month, Taliban leader Mullah Omar cautioned Afghans not to be “deceived by this dishonest election announcement. In reality, the choice will be made in Washington,” he wrote. Omar then warned coalition forces that “current armed clashes which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundreds of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up in to the thousands.”
The Americans landed at Dila, a village of about 2,000 residents. Like many Paktika province communities, it is a patchwork of crumbling mud buildings situated in a sparsely populated moonscape bereft of roads, economic prospects and the rule of law.
Such circumstances favor the Taliban and their allies, who have made inroads deep into the region from rear bases in Pakistan just 50 miles away by attacking coalition and Afghan security forces and critical transport lines, according to the US military.
Dila’s police post has been abandoned since the summer, giving militants freedom to maneuver in the area. Capt. Jeff Farmer, the field commander of the operation, says he hopes the Taliban “will be confused by our presence, worried about it enough to carry us through voter registration.”
Since September, Farmer and his troops have been based at a base in the town of Kushamond – a 13-minute helicopter ride away. Built by American engineers shortly after the US-led 2001 invasion, the Kushamond base was originally a staging area for the construction of a road network to integrate the back country. The highway project, however, never got off the ground and the base fell into disrepair.
Charlie Company has since reinforced its dirt-packed blast walls with wire fencing, constructed wooden barracks with piped heating, and is now boring a well for water, which is currently air-dropped daily by Russian civilian pilots.
Such improvements mean more attention can be paid extending security “outside the wire” where fear of the Taliban is widespread, Farmer says.
Back in Dila, Afghan interpreters monitoring Taliban radio traffic quickly picked up conversations that showed militants were monitoring the Americans: “We are watching to see what they do next, be ready,” said one, and “Don’t worry, I’ll give you everything you need,” said another.
For the next two days, Charlie Company went door-to-door, documenting residents, and searching for weapons and insurgents. They followed outdated maps that numbered each home, finding only two undocumented residences.
In dozens of conversations with residents, the frequency of Taliban visits and their current whereabouts were impossible to pin down. Some said they last visited four months ago while others said they had come just four days before. There was only one consensus – the Taliban had all gone to Pakistan to spend the winter, a line the Americans did not buy.
Haji Azrat, a tribal elder with a long, white beard, finally broke from the village script. With the confidence of someone who has lived long enough to speak his mind, he denounced the Taliban in colorful terms. “When the police were here, we at least had some security, but then they left,” said Azrat. “Can you bring them back?”
Lt. Dewey assured him: “This we can do for you.”
Later that day, Dewey’s platoon uncovered a small weapons cache at a home in a far corner of the village. It contained loose rounds from a Russian PK machine gun and Dragunov sniper rifle, a rusty handgun, sleeping bag and an old Red Army belt. A next-door neighbor said the owner, a former mujahedeen who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s, had gone to Pakistan.
The next morning, a shura, or meeting, was held in front of a mosque at the center of the village. Abdul Ahad, the chief of police of Kushamond, announced a plan to raise a village police force. When he asked aloud why so few young men were in the crowd, he was told they had gone to Kandahar, Pakistan and Iran to find work.
Malik Mohammed Mazir, a local patriarch, however, could not hold back his frustration.
“You are wasting your time,” he shouted at the police chief, saying past attempts to empower local authorities had failed. “Millions of dollars have come into this country, and Kabul (government) doesn’t even look at us,” he said.
The shura ended when US soldiers began distributing food and clothing. Elbows flew when a box of children’s jackets was unpacked.
While some soldiers doled out goods, others scanned surrounding rooftops. The Americans were told a suicide bomber dressed in an Afghan police uniform might strike. At the same time, insurgent voices again crackled over radios held by the Afghan interpreters. Taliban lookouts are watching, the interpreters said.
Word soon got back to the Americans that two men had been found in a field with radios. Some squad members then gave chase but the weight of their body armor kept them from catching the suspected militants. “We should have just shot them,” an American soldier later said.
As Charlie Company prepared to leave for the short helicopter flight back to base, the owner of a home that had been commandeered by US officers as a temporary command post began to protest.
The militants were surely angry with him, he said, in what seemed to be an attempt to receive extra payment. He was then given clothing and food, including Army-issue Meals Ready to Eat.
“The bottom line is they have no government, no police,” said Farmer. “It’s just hard to convince these people we’re the side they need to support when they’ve never even seen the government.”
Meanwhile, voter security for next year’s election is expected to be mostly handled by Afghan security forces. When a reporter asked a group of men in the town center whether they would vote in next year’s election, they replied in unison: “What for?”
E-mail Jason Motlagh at email@example.com.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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