Routing out the Taliban through talks

U.S., Afghan officials meet with local leaders to build path toward stability

By LES NEUHAUS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2007

PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — As a three-week Afghan-led sweep of Taliban forces wrapped up in the country’s east on Sunday, U.S. military leaders and Afghan officials sat down with civilians to discuss snuffing out insurgent influence in the area.

During the operation, more than 6,000 Afghan and U.S. Army soldiers searched Afghanistan’s rugged Paktika province, and more specifically, Charbaron district, where Taliban rebels have put up stiff resistance to coalition forces.

“We’ve had tremendous fighting since I’ve been here,” said Capt. John Gibson, 30, who commanded a company from the 173rd’s Airborne Brigade Combat Team throughout Operation Attal.

“The Taliban’s influence was to the point that they were threatening to kill people who didn’t support them.”

However, Operation Attal netted just 12 detentions for what Afghan Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq, commander of the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps, called suspicious links to possible terrorist leaders in the province, which Gibson, a Shreveport, La.-native, also confirmed.

Roughly 5,700 of Khaliq’s troops led the Paktika operation, along with the help of another 400 U.S. soldiers from the 173rd.

Gibson said that many villagers in the area had told him that some Taliban lurking in the district had run away to neighboring Khost province, or even Pakistan, which continually serves as a thoroughfare for insurgents coming and going to Afghanistan’s restive southern quarters. Both Khost and Paktika provinces border Pakistan.

At the meeting, mullahs, imams, parliamentarians and provincial leaders took turns speaking, repeating their pleas for the citizenry to stand up to Taliban influence.

“The Taliban can’t stay here unless someone is helping them, and they are getting help,” Afghan parliamentarian Khaled Farouqi said over a microphone to the elders, who were huddled under large tents. Farouqi represents portions of Paktika.

American military officials are hoping Afghan residents living in Charbaron are ready to cooperate with them and stop supporting the Taliban.

That’s what Sunday’s shura was meant to accomplish: trust and security.

After that comes more development projects, Farouqi said. It’s a classic baiting technique, but U.S. military officials are banking on it working.

Dancing Afghan men is a sign that it could work. Under the Taliban, there was no dancing. Central government officials from the capital, Kabul, are reaching out to the once-abandoned rural areas.

National officials want stability so that development dollars will flow to those needing it the most in the areas they represent.

“This is government in action, at the local level,” said Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade, from the sidelines of the conference.

Schweitzer was asked to sit with the Afghan VIPs front and center, but politely declined. It is part of his continuing bid to push attention on to the Afghans themselves, so that the U.S. military can step back, and start letting the Afghans step up.

The 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, a 173rd unit, serves under his command. The men of the 503rd, normally based in Italy, undertook much of the responsibilities for the U.S. in Operation Attal.

At the shura, U.S. Air Force jet fighters screamed low above dancing Afghans kicking up dust as others beat drums. The mood seemed upbeat, even though more than 20 snipers were perched on ridge tops surrounding the heavily fortified tent complex set up for the conference.

Though 2007 has been the deadliest year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, commanders remain focused on the long-term goals.

“This shura represents the passion for nationalism that Afghans have in their country,” said Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel, 40, from the meeting.

Fenzel, commander of the 503rd’s 1st Battalion, said some of the 1,600 at Sunday’s meeting had walked nearly 20 miles to get there.

Charbaron district’s center, a communal building that has been burned down seven times by the Taliban — or by those under pressure from the Taliban — has struggled to serve as the epicenter of a loosely knit community.

The U.S. Army’s provincial reconstruction program has helped fund the rebuilding of the center, claiming that this time will be the last time it is brought back from the ashes. They have moved in forces until a new Afghan police unit totaling 35 to 40 men can be brought in to reclaim the area on their own.

But the police will need help, say officials.

In an area that has been essentially lawless, coalition forces want security established.

No police outpost previously existed in Charbaron, and the barren hills served as a staging area for the Taliban for operations into other areas of the province, U.S. military and Afghan officials said.

U.S. Army Capt. John Gibson, 30, from Shreveport, La., escorts Afghanistan Paktika provincial parliamentarian Khaled Farouqi off a military helicopter.

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