LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Last summer, an Army sniper tried to kill Ajab Khan as he was directing mortar fire against an American base, according to military officials. The sniper missed.
But on a brilliant day last week in the rough-hewn, high-mountain village of Shaykhan in eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, Khan was smiling as a platoon of U.S. soldiers trudged toward him.
With the coalition’s focus on counterinsurgency, troops must act as diplomats first and fighters second, and the line between enemy and potential ally is increasingly blurred. In this country, loyalty is fickle and surviving often means playing both sides.
“I’m so glad you came,” said Khan, whose long beard is dyed Kool-Aid red. “Please come to my house for tea.”
In a meeting room adorned with psychedelic murals of mountain scenes, the influential former mujahedeen welcomed Army Capt. John Williams and his men into his compound to chat over flat bread and green tea.
Khan, the elder of the village of Shaykhan in Logar province’s Kharwar district, is known to coalition forces as an insurgent sympathizer. But gaining his influence in this violence-prone corner of Afghanistan, a collection of poor villages perched at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet in rugged mountains, is worth the risk of leaving him free, Williams said.
“I could Flex-Cuff [and arrest] him and probably get a congratulations … but then I lose the village,” said Williams, who is with the Troop C, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
In another example of the delicate balance of interests, the arrest in February of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, in Pakistan created a diplomatic stir between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Some in the Afghan government said the arrest hurt their secret peace talks with the Taliban.
Dealing with militants and fence-sitters is necessary, but inherently risky, said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
“At some level it’s hard to tell and we don’t really know who will be dependable and who will not,” he said.
But O’Hanlon said NATO forces can limit their risk by maintaining good intelligence on militants willing to negotiate, monitoring their activity for evidence of double-dealing, and making sure any deal made with insurgents seeks to break up any cells.
Sitting on pillows across a rug covered in snacks, Williams and Khan joked and talked of common goals of peace and development, Khan voicing the common complaint that the Afghan government has ignored villagers in the area.
“People are upset, because for eight years no one has helped the Kharwar people,” he said.
Khan led the soldiers on a walk through the main bazaar, where they were mobbed by children and greeted with smiles and friendly conversation by shopkeepers.
He shared the Americans’ hope for the spring and summer, when violence tends to spike in Afghanistan: “I hope there is no fighting this year.”
Williams, a 39-year-old veteran of both gulf wars and Afghanistan, has embraced the “talk first, fight second” mentality. He dropped his body armor and helmet during tea with Khan to show trust, but he said he has no illusions about his host’s continuing connections with insurgents.
“He’s a bad guy,” Williams said, adding, “Anyone that makes things happen in this country has connections on both sides.”
Coming to this village was a gamble: Williams’ soldiers had never been there and Khan warned them at a meeting several weeks before that he would not be responsible if the platoon was attacked on a visit to the village. Indeed, on the way back to their base, intercepted Taliban radio chatter and images caught by the base surveillance cameras indicated that insurgents were furiously trying to set up an ambush for the platoon.
The soldiers made it to base before the ambush could take place, and for one day they felt they had made a dent.
“We were expecting to get shot at today,” said 1st Lt. Timothy Miller, “but instead we got greeted by 100 kids.”