KUZ KHADOKHEL, Afghanistan — Amid the maze of mud-walled villages and mine-laden trails of Afghanistan’s dusty high plains, Capt. Aaron White estimates that roughly half the population harbors some degree of sympathy for Taliban insurgents.
Crushing poverty, poor education, government corruption and tribal-blood relations are key factors stoking a lingering insurgency in eastern territories like the Andar District of Ghazni province, where Afghan and U.S. forces are now conducting a month- long operation against Taliban fighters and encouraging local allegiance to President Hamid Karzai’s struggling government.
It’s an environment where U.S. and Afghan military vehicles are destroyed by insurgent anti-tank mines after delivering bags of school supplies, sandals and other humanitarian assistance and where village elders balk at assisting local police for fear they will be targeted by Taliban fighters.
Yet for the first time in his Afghan tour, the 29-year-old White said he’s never been more hopeful of “turning” a village as he is now of tiny Kuz Khadokhel, a sun-seared hamlet of roughly 300 Pashtun tribe folk.
Much of the West Virginian’s confidence comes from the help of a newly established team of “cultural advisers,” who are assisting White and other Task Force 2 Fury commanders in their daily interactions with Afghan villagers during Operation Maiwand.
The unit, or Human Terrain Team, is the first of its kind in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and is composed partly of civilian anthropologists or sociologists with deep knowledge of the region and its social complexities.
One of the team’s goals is to help ground troops avoid the sort of cultural miscues and mistakes that have severely damaged U.S. efforts to establish functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It comes as the result of a lot of mistakes and a lot of pain,” one HTT member said of the unit recently.
The five-member teams, which consist of two civilians and three military personnel, were created to research the social, economic and cultural terrain of a specific area of operations, to help commanders conducting stability and counterinsurgency operations.
“I can’t tell you how beneficial they are,” said White, commander of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “They’ve got Ph.D.s in this stuff. They know all the cultural idiosyncrasies.”
Such was the case recently when White called an impromptu meeting of the village’s elders, or what U.S. officers refer to as a “street shura.”
The meeting was called over the tinny loudspeakers of the village mosque, and within moments roughly three dozen turbaned elders assembled on the plush, red carpet and floor cushions of a mullah’s home.
A civilian adviser who identified herself only as “Tracy” coached White on how to read the body language of tribal elders during the [/BODY]shura, as well as how to identify the village’s most influential elders.
Among other tips, Tracy told White that it was best to stand when addressing the shura on key points, and that conferring with fellow officers during the meeting could, in some cases, be construed as weakness and undercut the commanders’ credibility.
“Consistency is important,” she told him. “They’re tired of hollow promises. If you want something from them, you’ve got to show good faith.”
One of White’s goals in tiny Kuz Khadokhel is to reform local perceptions of the Afghan National Police, a force troubled by corruption. U.S. officers say that it is not uncommon for untrained police officers to steal household items during searches or to demand cash and other valuables at vehicle checkpoints.
White, who belongs to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, called the meeting so that he could ask village elders to offer up the names of 10 trustworthy men to enlist in the police force.
In the past, the elders have been reluctant to offer names. They worry that they will be singled out for punishment by several Taliban insurgents who have been intimidating a group of area villages.
This time, however, White hoped to allay their fears and offer the village tangible compensation for putting itself out on a limb.
This was easier said than done, however.
What the village wanted most, elders said, was a paved road connecting Kuz Khadokhel to Afghanistan’s main Highway 1.
It was a difficult request for White and members of the Ghazni Provincial Reconstruction Team to make good on. Road projects are extremely expensive (roughly $200,000 per kilometer) and involve at least a two-year wait.
What White could offer though was to grade the existing dirt roads and cover them with gravel — a temporary solution that might eventually lead to a paved road.
White said he could also provide a visit by the PRT’s mobile medical clinic and possibly the construction of a deep well for crop irrigation.
After almost two hours of discussions, translations and debate between the elders, White and local army and police commanders, they had a deal.
The elders agreed to provide White with a list of 10 police recruits.
Pleased yet somewhat wearied by the shura, White got some more parting advice from his adviser.
“You needed to show good faith and you did,” Tracy told him. “You have to remember now not to show any weakness or indecision. You’ve placed yourself as the go-to guy here, and if you appear weak they’ll say, ‘oh, he can’t do anything.’ ” Tracy also told White that the four elders who approached him to chat following the meeting revealed that they were, in fact, the key village members he would need to deal with over the coming months.
“If you develop a relationship with those four guys, I think you’ll turn this village,” she said.