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Reporter's Notebook

Despite atrocities, wartime life rolls on in Afghanistan

KARMIDAD, Afghanistan - Muhammad Tahir jutted his bearded chin toward a U.S. military vehicle idling on the dirt road that cuts through this tiny village’s open-air market. The gunner’s hatch rose above the rooftops, and most of the shops looked small enough to fit inside the 15-ton armored truck.

“The Americans are occupiers,” said Tahir, 30, a truck driver who has never lived anywhere but Karmidad, about 45 miles southwest of Kabul in northern Wardak province. A dark wool-knit cap covered his head and he had sharp blue eyes.

“We want them to go,” he said. “They burn our Qurans. They shoot our people.”

The village’s children showed less disdain for the soldiers in their midst. Dozens of youngsters formed a knot around 1st Lt. Alexandra Oberoi, a member of the 54th Military Police Company of the 42nd Military Police Brigade.

Oberoi, 23, of Severna Park, Md., chattered at them in English, and though few, if any, understood her words, her bright tone and smile breached the language barrier.

When she taught one boy, perhaps 6 years old, how to high-five — a tutorial punctuated with a smack of palms — the group’s laughter created fleeting clouds in the cold afternoon air.

I thought of both exchanges — mine with Tahir; Oberoi’s with the kids — when news broke three days later that a U.S. soldier had gone rogue and gunned down 17 Afghans in Kandahar province. Nine of the victims were children.

It seemed certain the murders would only fortify Tahir’s scorn. The effect on Afghanistan’s youth is harder to measure. How will they respond to the atrocities of war?

‘You just keep doing what you’ve been doing’

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Military officials identified Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as the suspect in the March 11 massacre. The killings occurred less than three weeks after U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Field burned several copies of the Quran. The desecration of the Muslim holy book ignited protests across the country that left 30 people dead.

The shooting rampage and burning of the Qurans have frayed relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, and polls show dwindling support among Americans for a war that began in 2001. A growing chorus of political leaders and pundits has called for a faster withdrawal of troops.

Yet for Oberoi’s unit and Company A of the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, stationed fives miles from Karmidad at Combat Outpost Nerkh, little has changed.

“All you can do is worry about what’s in front of you,” said Spc. Lance Hagan, 22, of Gillespie, Ill., who belongs to Company A. “People can speculate, but our job is still the same.”

In other words, if the rampage in Kandahar marked the conflict’s nadir, the battle against the insurgency grinds on — much as it did after a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May, the war’s putative pinnacle.

“You just keep doing what you’ve been doing,” said Spc. Christian Marchand, 29, of Tampa, Fla.

The outlook among soldiers that the near future will resemble the recent past may be the only patch of common ground between them and the likes of Tahir and his friend, Omar Paudkihriel, another lifelong Karmidad resident.

“We do not want anyone else here,” Paudkihriel said. “If there are others here, then there will be fighting.”

‘This is all they know’

A trader by vocation, Paudkihriel, 29, believes the children of Karmidad will find peace by the muzzle of a gun.

“We want the HiG here,” he said, referring to the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an Islamist paramilitary group and Taliban rival headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of Afghanistan.

“They support us, they are training our children to fight. We don’t want the Americans. We don’t want the Afghan (security) forces.”

In this area of northern Wardak province, an unbounded tableau of mountain summits and valleys, a smaller war between the HiG and Taliban simmers within the country’s larger conflict.

Karmidad acts as a dividing line of sorts in the region. The HiG exerts greater influence to the east; the Taliban predominates to the west.

Paudkihriel considers the HiG an ally of the people, more so than the Taliban, U.S.-led NATO coalition and Afghan military.

“The Taliban are from Pakistan and Iran. The Americans are from America. The Afghan forces are working with the Americans,” he said. “We want our children to fight with (the HiG) so the others will leave us alone.”

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and peace has since evaded this nation. Afghans of Tahir’s and Paudkihriel’s age have yet to experience life without bloodshed.

“It is a warring culture,” Oberoi said. “Their entire thought process has been affected by having fought for so many years. This is all they know.”

The question is whether the violence will cease before another generation of children grows old.

kuzm@estripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @martinkuz

 

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