Mideast edition, Sunday, July 15, 2007

FIRE BASE NARAY, Afghanistan — For some in the military, getting the local population to trust them seems impossible. But for one unit in eastern Afghanistan, it’s actually working.

The counterinsurgency operations plan run by Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda and soldiers from 1st Battalion, 91st Cavalry Squadron — part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team — and Task Force Saber is finding success with the 70,000 Afghans in the northern Kunar and eastern Nuristan provinces.

Kolenda calls the area in which the task force works — approximately 925 square miles — “a classic insurgent environment.” In close proximity to the porous Pakistan border, enemy militia can thrive in the area, capitalizing on economic depression and a 40 percent literacy rate.

His operation has three elements: separating the enemy from the local populace; bringing the local people and the local government together; and transforming the living environment in that section of the country.

Nationally, 42.2 percent of all Afghans are under age 15, Kolenda said from his office Friday, and so a major focus for the task force is working with the thousands of children in the region.

“The guys are doing a tremendous job, whether it’s interacting with the Afghan kids one moment or defending them the next,” Kolenda said of his troops, most of whom deployed from Schweinfurt, Germany.

“We want to give the people a hope for the future. We focus on getting the [Afghanistan army and police] with the kids.”

By surrounding children with adults fighting for a better Afghanistan, Kolenda hopes that the youth will emulate the pro-government forces as they grow up.

Establishing a relationship of trust with people who’ve known war for more than 30 years is difficult, Kolenda acknowledged. Having survived communist forces, divisive warlords and strict Taliban rule, the population is understandably skeptical of another group coming in and saying it wants to help.

One reason public opinion has been favorable through much of the region is the number of reconstruction projects, some of which, like the road linking the cities Asmar and Kandesh, have been going on for years.

“When that becomes asphalt,” Kolenda said of the 50-mile stretch, “when you can drive it in a couple of hours as opposed to a daylong trip … that will have a tremendous economic impact on the area.”

Another reason is a locally created newsletter and radio programming broadcast from Fire Base Naray. With a staff of local Afghan reporters, Capt. Kevin Calkins, battalion public affairs officer, is continuing a project that 10th Mountain Division soldiers began nine months ago.

“It’s developed by locals without any prompting. If we’re late on our production, we have locals coming to the gate wanting to know why,” Calkins said.

Titled Ulose Arman, or “Voice of the People,” the newsletter’s 3,000 weekly copies are delivered to 26 sites throughout the region.

Radio news programs reach even the more remote areas, and are broadcast in at least five languages, Calkins said. When generator problems caused a disruption, people lined up at the gate asking why their radios were silent.

In another recent incident, an insurgent rocket attack on the American presence took the life of an Afghan child. More than 300 people from 46 villages attended the funeral, expressing outrage at the local insurgency and the attack.

“We’re forcing the enemy to change, to acknowledge that they’re losing popular support,” Kolenda said.

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