Behind Afghan Walls
January 6, 2009
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The village called Nasarkhel, as with the other settlements that dot the barren plains here, rises up from the desert like an earthen fortress surrounded by walls of sun-baked mud. Inside, each family’s compound lies in its own set of walls.
That an Afghan values the privacy of his home is at least implied by its design.
Indeed, one of the common complaints lodged by Afghan leaders against U.S. military operations here is that barging into people’s homes is intolerable for a culture that so jealously guards its privacy. Which presents something of a problem, as American troops step up their efforts to confront a Taliban insurgency that draws its strength from rural villages.
American units can’t simply stop patrolling in the villages, but they’re trying to find a middle way.
When Company C, an infantry unit from the 101st Airborne Division based a few miles from Nasarkhel, arrived to clear the village one day in late December, they brought a coterie.
A small group of Afghan soldiers and policemen was divided up among the American patrol and led the way into each home that was visited. A village elder named Mohammed Hakim was enlisted to further smooth over the particulars.
"We’re happy the Americans are coming here to help the people," he announced, though he added that the village had seen little of the Taliban.
"The only problem we have is with the Taliban coming sometimes to fight with the American guys."
Members of the American unit, part of the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, weren’t so sure that was all the Taliban did.
Taliban members were known to move in the area, and the unit, which had arrived a few months earlier from a province further north, was still sorting out where the villages stood. As if on cue, a few minutes after the Americans arrived in Nasarkhel, they began picking up Taliban radio chatter.
The insurgents know the Americans can monitor their traffic, which often takes on the character of a heckling narration. This day the Taliban wondered aloud whether the Americans had found "the weapons and the machine."
Unless they meant the struggling wheat grinding machine tended by a few old men at the center of the village, the answer was no. In fact, besides the rifles or shotguns kept in most of the homes, the patrol found very little from the age of machines. And some of the guns, like one well-preserved 1898 Enfield, barely qualified.
There is no electricity in Nasarkhel, no running water. There are no telephones, although one of the American soldiers did emerge from a house holding up a ragged and inexplicable phone book covering an area near Oklahoma City. From the group of women huddled under their veils in a corner of the courtyard emerged the explanation that the phone book came from Pakistan.
But for all that the village lacked — elders also complained of terrible roads, no jobs and problems with irrigation — Nasarkhel had nothing of the squalor common in war-torn cities like Baghdad or Kabul. There was no sewage leaking through the streets, no piles of trash blown against the walls. Instead, the patrol passed scenes of domestic life suspended by their arrival: a yellow bowl of blue and yellow beads, bright clothes hanging on a line, a small diamond of mirror inlaid above a doorway. And in almost every compound, the colorful outlines of women huddled in a corner.
A few hours of searching turned up little in the way of incriminating evidence: a couple of IV bottles, a homemade knife and a few empty bandoliers in one unoccupied house, a bolt action rifle with a suspiciously large supply of ammunition in another. The soldiers photographed the men with their rifles and gave each a weapons registration card. If any Americans come again and ask about your gun, the soldiers told them, show them the card and you won’t have a problem. But if your gun is found with the Taliban, they added, we will come looking for you.
After the patrol, the soldiers and most of the villagers gathered near the mosque for a short speech by an Afghan army officer whose subject, as one of the Americans put, involved "harshing on the Taliban." That concluded, the Americans unloaded a trailer full of humanitarian aid — tin stoves and bags of charcoal and grain, winter hats and blankets.
"It’s very austere out here. The summer’s harsh, the winter is hard," said Capt. Jeffrey Farmer, Company C’s commander.