Reliance on Afghan elders tests troops
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2011
BABUR, Afghanistan — In much of this longtime Taliban stronghold northwest of Kandahar City, the village elders have a credibility problem. They vouch for everyone, even those caught red-handed, say, planting roadside bombs.
But because the elders, or “spingeri” as they are called in Pashto, are the basis of local governance, the American and Afghan commanders have no choice but to rely on them as they try to create a stable security situation and build a district government.
That trust will only increase as the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program gets rolling, and the elders become probation officers of sorts, counted on to monitor the behavior of former Taliban fighters who agree to lay down their arms.
The elders’ refusal to identify Taliban insurgents in their villages exasperates the Afghan and American soldiers in the area.
At a combat outpost near the village of Babur recently, an Afghan National Army commander and a U.S. Army lieutenant sat on a carpet, holding an impromptu shura with the village elders who, as usual, were adamantly insisting that there were no Taliban in their neighborhood.
Trying to use humor to underscore the absurdity of that claim given the continued insurgent activity in the area, the ANA commander pointed at each of the village elders.
“If you’re a good guy, and you’re a good guy, and you’re a good guy, and I’m a good guy, then the U.S. must be the Taliban,” he said, laughing and pointing at 2nd Lt. Rob Frost, sitting to his left.
“We don’t know who the Taliban are,” an elder replied. “Our village is good.”
Frost, a prior-enlisted soldier on his fourth deployment, then asked why there were new roadside bombs found on the road by their village just that week, and why the Americans recently had to detain 13 residents from three villages in the area.
“This is a part of the problem with our partnership,” said Frost, a platoon leader with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment. “When you come to my base you tell us only who is good. I need you to come tell us who is Talib.”
There are some villages in western Arghandab that the military thinks are infested with Taliban sympathizers, but the elders are either being intimidated or are sitting on the fence.
“It’s a big chess match,” Frost said. “They’re unwilling to totally commit to either side.”
The elders have blinders on, refusing to look within their villages for those who are helping the Taliban, he said.
The elders will come to the military and argue for a villager’s release, regardless of the evidence the Afghan security forces have against him. Then they often get insulted when their word isn’t trusted.
“I believe you believe he is a good guy,” Frost told them at the shura, where they discussed a villager who had been detained the night before. “But it’s impossible for you to know what everybody in your village does every day and every night.”