Sorting friend from foe in Taliban country
Soldiers patrolling an Afghan village seek trust, and trust suspicions
MAMA KAREZ, Afghanistan — The American soldiers move into a small village of about 40 people, stopping to chat with a village elder outside a sprawling mud-brick compound that is typical for an extended family in the Afghan countryside.
The old man greets the soldiers cordially, inviting two of them and an interpreter to sit and talk with him on the cold ground, packed hard by the sporadic winter rains.
The soldiers of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment call the elder "the Godfather." He owns all of the land around the village, including the spot about 500 meters away where U.S. forces have recently built a new camp. His brother is the village mullah.
"They’re both very pro-American," says Sgt. Jamie Stein, 25, of Pekin, Ohio, a squad leader in 2nd Platoon. "His two sons were killed by the Taliban. He says he has no choice but to help the Americans."
The soldiers usually stop by every few days to talk to the old man. He’s been a reliable source of information since they started operating in the area. Today is no exception. As soon the elder finishes with his greetings, he warns the soldiers to stay off the roads.
"It is dangerous," he says. "There are mines on the roads."
Staff Sgt. Aaron Lewis, 27, of New Middletown, Ohio, the 2nd Platoon sergeant, assures the elder they will be careful. "We don’t go on the roads," he says.
Company A learned that lesson the hard way. During their first operation here in September, two of the company’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were struck by bombs. Both vehicles were badly damaged, but no soldiers were killed or seriously wounded.
Lewis asks about security. The elder replies that security has improved since the American soldiers arrived. But it’s impossible to know if he’s just saying what he thinks the soldiers want to hear.
Lewis inquires about the old man’s health. The elder suffers from a mysterious stomach ailment that is possibly a tumor. The soldiers have given the old man money, but for some reason he hasn’t sought treatment.
Lewis promises to bring blankets; the nights are already freezing. He promises to bring wheat seed for the village. The old man lies down, complaining that his stomach hurts. Lewis and the other soldiers prepare to leave.
Tip from a teen
While Lewis has been with the elder, Stein has been talking to a teenage boy who warns of a black car that he’s seen prowling around the village.
"He says he sees it all the time," Stein tells Lewis. "When we leave, the car comes through and puts in [roadside bombs]."
First Lt. Dan Grant, 25, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., Company A’s executive officer, believes the black car belongs to the Taliban’s local bomb cell commander.
Recent raids have targeted several bomb-making cells in Maiwand, including one last week that the U.S. military said left 11 Taliban militants killed and two captured. It is unclear if the owner of the black car was among those killed or captured.
The soldiers fan out across the fields, skirting the narrow dirt tracks that pass for roads in this remote area. They’re looking for wires, fresh soil and other signs that might indicate a buried bomb.
Nestled against the Arghandab River, Mama Karez belongs to a string of villages known as Band-e-Timor; it’s located in Maiwand District in western Kandahar province.
A towering wall of red-hued sand rises across the river, a rolling, trackless expanse that stretches south into Pakistan. For all practical purposes, the Arghandab marks the southern limit of inhabited areas in this part of Kandahar province.
U.S. and allied forces believe Band-e-Timor serves as an important hub for the Taliban, whom they say use the Arghandab valley to move fighters, weapons and supplies between Zhari district in the east, where Canadian forces have been locked in daily combat against the militants, and Helmand province in the west, the epicenter of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan.
U.S. forces moved into Maiwand last August. Their job is to secure Hutal, the district center, secure Route 1, southern Afghanistan’s only east-west highway, and try to drive a wedge between local villagers and the insurgents.
An elusive foe
So far, the Taliban have proven to be an elusive, wily foe.
"We’ve had very little direct contact here," says Maj. Cale Brown, 37, of Eufaula, Ala., the battalion executive officer. "We find that people are very reluctant to stand and shoot at us. It’s been primarily an IED battle."
Brown estimates the Taliban have carried out 60 to 70 bomb attacks in Maiwand since the battalion arrived in August. Most have targeted commercial trucks, called "jingle trucks" because of their garish decorations and metal baubles, which are often used to supply U.S. and allied bases.
Additionally, about 20 military vehicles have been hit.
But the MRAPs have saved lives, says Brown. The battalion has suffered only one death so far and three seriously wounded, and those casualties occurred when a bomb hit a Humvee in September. Most subsequent injuries have been minor.
"Thank the American people for funding the MRAP," he says.
After months of traveling 60 kilometers a day just to patrol for a few hours, Company A finally established a camp just outside Mama Karez three weeks ago. Their constant presence now has made a difference against the Taliban, says Lewis, the 2nd Platoon sergeant.
"We’ve put a big dent in their operations out here," he says. "They can’t move through here anymore. We’ve forced them to use the desert."
About 20 minutes later, however, there’s a huge explosion in the distance. A jingle truck hauling gravel to the camp has been hit by a bomb. The driver is unhurt, but it’s the second attack in two days on the four-kilometer stretch between the camp and the highway.
Company A has been unable to catch the bombers.
The patrol continues for another hour. The soldiers soon encounter a teenage boy walking alone. Stein asks through an interpreter if he’s seen the Taliban putting down any mines. The boy says he doesn’t know anything about the Taliban. He says he’s going to visit an uncle in the village beyond Mama Karez. He’s clearly nervous.
Out in the middle of Taliban country, it’s impossible to tell friend from foe, and Stein regards his answers with suspicion.
"That was shady as hell," he says, as the boy walks away. "Did you see how he was shaking when he was talking to us? He had some bad juju vibes going there."