In Khost, not naming names, but mediating blood feuds
By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 2012
YAQUBI, Afghanistan — In this area of eastern Khost province near the border with Pakistan, the Taliban are the militia with no name.
Or, at least, the U.S. soldiers who run patrols here avoid identifying the Islamist group when talking with residents.
“Referring to ‘the Taliban’ legitimizes them as a cause,” said Sgt. Garret Brunton, 30, of Lancaster, Ohio, who belongs to Company D of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment.
“It’s like with the Bloods or the Crips or the Aryan Brotherhood back in the U.S. If you put a name on them, it makes them seem like a legitimate organization instead of what they really are: a criminal element.”
Two platoons from his company and two from Company A cover a large swath of Khost in the shadow of Pakistan. One morning earlier this week, Brunton’s platoon set out before dawn from Combat Outpost Sabari for Yaqubi, 15 miles north of Khost city, the provincial capital.
They were supporting a platoon of the Afghan National Army conducting a house-clearing mission. When the soldiers reached the mud-walled compound, they learned that the target of their search — a man suspected of planting IEDs in the area — lives elsewhere. Or he did that day, anyway.
The Afghan soldiers escorted about a dozen men and teenage boys outside for the U.S. platoon to gather their “biometrics” data, a digital collection process that includes an iris scan, fingerprinting and a mug shot.
The men, members of related families, appeared unbothered by the early morning disruption as their children laughed while scurrying among the uniformed visitors.
The U.S. soldiers asked the adults if they knew anything about “a man around here who emplaces IEDs,” “individuals involved in criminal acts,” “bad guys doing bad things.”
The Taliban, it seemed, had been willfully reduced to an abstraction, something akin to the unseen creatures in the 2004 film “The Village:” Those We Don’t Speak Of.
Brunton later explained that a group of intelligence advisers who visited COP Sabari earlier this year suggested that soldiers stop calling the Taliban by name in conversations with Afghan civilians.
It’s a ploy to demystify the militia, whose tactic of claiming responsibility for any act of violence against coalition and Afghan military forces, irrespective of the truth, inflates the Taliban’s profile. The result is an aura of omnipresence.
“So you don’t say you’re looking for the Taliban who shot the mortar,” Brunton said. “You say you’re looking for the three guys in the white car who shot the mortar. That makes them sound like what they are — criminals — instead of something bigger.”
Yet while the soldiers seek to puncture the militia’s mystique, they eschew the ‘T’ word for a second reason that, in a sense, contradicts the first.
On the chance that peace talks take place and the Taliban reclaim a role in Afghanistan’s government, the troops don’t want to create a perception of sabotaging the group’s credibility — or damage their own, for that matter.
“If the local (residents) hear us saying the Taliban is bad and then there’s a peace agreement and we say the Taliban is good, it kind of looks like we’re going back on our word,” Brunton said. “It’s a fine line between what was and what is.”
The following afternoon, a Company A platoon traveled to the nearby village of Mut Khel to visit the site of a car bombing that had killed two Afghan soldiers a few days earlier. A charred, tangled heap of metal that once had been a Toyota sedan stood outside the walled yard of the home where one of the men had lived.
Capt. David Stroud, the company commander, entered the yard with two civilian advisers, an Afghan police chief and a pair of Afghan soldiers to talk with some of the victim’s family members.
Avoiding mention of the Taliban posed little problem; the attack wasn’t related to the insurgency. The two slain men belonged to a faction of the area’s Tangai tribe that, since 1984, has clashed with a rival group headed by a village elder named Haji Shazaad.
Nazir Gul, 58, an uncle of one of the victims, asserted that the dispute began when Shazaad killed one of his brothers while both families lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where they had fled during the Soviet occupation.
Whatever ignited the blood feud, the ensuing 28 years has brought tit-for-tat killings, leaving as many as 50 people dead. The bloodshed trailed the families to Afghanistan when they returned in 2005.
Gul claimed that Shazaad had recently spurned a request for a face-to-face meeting. Stroud and the civilian advisers nonetheless urged Gul and his nephew, Mohammad Karim, 21, to work with Afghan security officials to arrange a gathering with Shazaad at a government district center.
Karim, whose brother was killed in the bombing, aired his qualms.
He questioned whether the Afghan police and army could provide his family with adequate protection to and from the center, and he doubted that Shazaad would negotiate in good faith.
“His people have killed 20 to 25 of us,” said Karim, holding his hands up, fingers splayed. “How can we trust him?”
The group sat in a circle as the family members talked in one, resistant to outside parties brokering a truce. At one point, Gul asked Stroud to provide his family with money and ammunition, ostensibly to try to quash the hostilities with more violence.
“Haji Shazaad wanted money and bullets from me, too,” said Stroud, 32, of Fremont, Calif., who had met with him earlier in the month. “I’m going to tell you what I told him: no.”
The U.S. soldiers returned to COP Sabari a short time later. Inside the tactical operations center, on a large wall map, Stroud pointed out a village west of Mut Khel. Two tribes in that area, he said, have been fighting over land and timber for almost 70 years.
By that measure, sadly, the Tangai feud might just be getting started.