Kharwar Flood: Supporting the rule of law in a distant insurgent haven
Stars and Stripes August 16, 2009
LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Afghan intelligence officer Fida Mohammad listened with agitation to the enemy radio chatter.
The insurgents were congratulating one another for planting a bomb that had killed three Afghan National Army soldiers. In the distance, the smoke from the explosion was still dissipating.
“Do you think we’ll get into a fight tonight?” asked Capt. José Vasquez, C Troop commander for the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, who was sitting beside him on the hard, dusty earth.
“No, they are too scared,” Mohammad replied.
Along the mountain ridge, hundreds of U.S. and Afghan soldiers were perched with their guns by their sides, part of a three-day mission called Kharwar Flood held in early August. The aim was to reinforce that the rule of law had finally reached distant Kharwar, a desolate region near the Pakistani border. The soldiers watched villagers harvesting wheat far below them and waited to see if the enemies among them would rear their heads.
With no government, no development and no outside help for as long as anyone can remember, Kharwar district had a near-mythical reputation as an insurgent haven when the Americans established a permanent presence here in May.
This was where a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in July 2008 — passengers and crew made it out alive — and where the Russians were beaten back in the 1980s. Vasquez and his men thought they’d be fighting the battle of battles. Instead, they found a loose network of operatives with little leadership structure and nothing like the fighting force they’d imagined.
“This was bogeyman country,” said squadron commander Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen. “Everyone was scared to go down there and once they did, they realized it wasn’t so bad. … Everyone thought it was the training ground, the hub, the root of all evil. But they are nowhere near that. They are isolated people who had no alternative.”
The 10th Mountain’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team took over this battle space in January and the 3-71 has spread out over three districts in southern Logar province. As they moved south from Baraki Barak to Charkh and finally to Kharwar, the areas grew more remote and agrarian, the people less educated.
The district was known as the wild, uncharted frontier where never-paved roads kick up a kind of moon dust and where contractors and road builders dare not venture. Except for trucks carrying out wheat and motorcycles, which the insurgents often favor, this southernmost district in the province looks much as it did centuries ago.
‘Like pickup sticks’
When the Americans moved into an empty school building in May, they warded off insurgent attacks three days in a row, then got into firefights during patrols over the next three days.
But afterward, American patrols met far less resistance and slowly began breaking the ice with villagers. Locals said insurgent leaders had fled Kharwar, leaving a leadership vacuum.
“It’s not like Charkh, where they are organized, preplanned,” Gukeisen said. “It’s like pickup sticks — whoever shows up to fight.”
Attacks are now less frequent. Vasquez says he’s established a 10-kilometer security bubble and persuaded one tribe to declare that they will no longer tolerate fighting in their village. Even in the remote western areas, where the insurgency is deeply rooted, Vasquez believes his men are slowly winning support.
Despite military successes, the Americans have yet to convince road contractors that Kharwar is safe enough to work in. Even some soldiers are not sure what to make of the gains.
“Some people believe they [the insurgents] ran of out money, out of materials, that they don’t have the support they did,” said Staff Sgt. Tony Sunday, leader of a team from the Texas National Guard’s 6th Battalion, 36th Military Intelligence Brigade, which is attached to the 3-71. “The next day proves completely wrong.”
“They are like ghosts,” said Sgt. Ricky Stanfield, 29, from Houston, who is part of Sunday’s team. “We will be marching down the road and they will be like ‘How are you?' Then the next day they’ll be shooting at us.”
Vasquez takes a more relaxed view. The three-day operation in early August, led almost entirely by the Afghan National Army, was a victory in itself, he said. The Taliban had warned that if the combined U.S. and Afghan forces kept patrolling the villages, the insurgents would send rockets or suicide bombers into their patrols.
“The fact that we came here despite Taliban threats makes a point,” Vasquez said. “The fight here is not the bad guys. The fight here is the people. There is no way we are going to kill or capture our way to victory.”
Governor flies in
Just days before the beginning of the operation, in which more than a thousand men fanned out over the district, Logar Gov. Atiqullah Lodin flew to Kharwar by helicopter.
He urged residents to seize control of their region and promised them that government representation in Kharwar was here to stay.
“I am not saying that Kharwar people are bad, but there are bad people here,” Lodin told the crowd that gathered under a tent at the mud-and-dust complex of the regional police station.
Coming just ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential and provincial elections, the shura was momentous.
“This is the most important official in Logar,” said Col. David Haight, commander of the 10th Mountain’s 3rd Brigade. “They wouldn’t come here before and now they are here.”