GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan — The message addressed to the teacher and posted on the door of the new school was direct: “If you keep teaching here, you are going to die and we won’t be responsible for your death.”
At the bottom of the handwritten missive was the unmistakable stamp of the Taliban.
A village elder recently found a note stuck to the door of his home that said he had been seen visiting the nearby U.S. Marine base. “If you keep going, we’re going to kill you,” it said.
Yet another message found on the door of a local mosque was somewhat more conciliatory: “This notice is to the Afghanistan National Army. The IED we emplaced is for the Americans. You guys are Muslims and just have no choice being with them. Salam, from Taliban.”
The Taliban is infamous for trying to exert its will here through roadside bombs, drive-by shootings and murder. But one of the more subtle and effective ways it makes its presence known is through “night letters” — threats written on simple pieces of paper, sometimes bearing the Taliban stamp, which are posted on doors across the country under the cover of night.
U.S. military officials here say they are not aware of the Taliban following through on any of the recently posted threats. Nonetheless, the night letters — examples of which were released, and translated or paraphrased by the Marines — do have an impact, and coalition forces want to find a way to stop their delivery.
“They do have an effect on the psyche of the people,” according to Capt. Ryan Christ, intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines in the Garmsir district of Helmand province. “One of the main parts of what we do here is bring security, and if somebody can put a note on your door, it does kind of show how close they can get to you.
“We would like to see the night letters end.”
The most common targets of the nocturnal missives are schools, teachers and contractors, said Christ, 38, of Bay Village, Ohio.
“They don’t like the kids going to school, they don’t like the teachers teaching at the schools and they don’t like contractors … who are making money through contracts with” coalition forces or the Afghan government, he said.
Word travels fast
Word of the written threats travels fast in what Christ calls the “gossipy culture” of Afghanistan, “and they will have an effect on attendance at the schools for a week, or maybe 10 days. Fifty percent of the students won’t show up for a while, and then gradually it builds back up and people start sending their kids to school again.”
Sometimes a road project will be delayed, or a contractor will quit, Christ said, “but eventually another contractor will take up the contract.”
Capt. Robert Christafore, commanding officer for the 2-1’s Company E, said whenever Marine officials here meet with area village elders, they always bring up the night letters.
“If we start to get a pretty positive path and some information flow — just a pretty good working relationship with some of the elders of the villages — then a night letter happens and it snaps them back” to fearing the Taliban, said the 30-year-old from Oceanside, Calif.
Christafore said the impact of the letters is frustrating, “but I guess I can see it, when they wake up one morning and all of a sudden there’s a letter nailed to their door … saying, ‘You do this again, we’re going to take action against you.’ ”
Christ said night letters are found two or three times each week in the Garmsir district.
“Sometimes, you’ll see a few more for whatever reason,” he said. “Perhaps there is word pushed out through the enemy to get the message out.”
The tone of the letters run the gamut, Christ said, from sympathetic to direct threats, but the Taliban usually tries to distance itself from responsibility for whatever might happen.
“More are like, ‘These schools are not sanctioned and we will attack these schools, so don’t send your kids to these schools. We won’t be responsible for what happens if the school gets attacked, or if a school gets burned down … or if your kid is going to school and he steps on an IED,’ ” Christ said.
“They are trying to mitigate how much backlash and blame they’re getting for this stuff by covering their butts.” he said.
Christafore said the night letters are a sign of desperation on the part of the Taliban.
“I don’t think they’re confident enough in the power they have to be able to just walk around and have no one report on them or tell them ‘no,’ so they just resort to the night letters with their seal,” he said.
Christ said he sees the letters as evidence of the difficult position Taliban leaders find themselves in as the two sides battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
“They are stuck in a Catch-22 situation, where they are trying to win over the population to do what they want, but they don’t have anything to push them to do that,” he said. “They can’t offer these road projects. They have no ability to counter with teachers or to set up buildings to run schools.
“So, they have no carrots to offer, and the stick, they can only take so far … because if they go any further and kill anybody, then they’ve crossed a line and they are going to lose people.”
“Threatening kids going to school?” he said. “In any society, that’s just wrong.”