In Kandahar, A Battle For Hearts, Minds
In Afghanistan, the battle for Kandahar may not have officially begun, but it is quietly under way.
The mission is different for every American military unit in the country. U.S. military police patrol in Kandahar city. In rural Kandahar province, American soldiers are preparing to strike at Taliban strongholds.
But building ties with villagers may prove the most difficult job of all.
A unit of U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, working outside Kandahar city is seeking to win over villagers by building schools and clinics and providing security.
The desert village of Ezabad resembles a town from a Hollywood Western. Except in Ezabad, the bad guys are the Taliban. "We really are on the outskirts of bad-guy land," says Dan, a lanky, 28-year-old Green Beret captain with dark stubble on his face. For security reasons, only his first name can be used.
Working, Living Among The Afghans
Ezabad lies just northwest of Kandahar city. It is a jumble of walled compounds set on a vast desert plain. It looks like the ruins of an old fort, its high adobe walls cracked by the sun.
Dan gestures from his walled compound to a farming village 100 yards away. Kids ride past on bikes, kicking up plumes of dust. Other children struggle under the weight of wheelbarrows. In the distance, men work the fields. "It's a lot easier to help people when you live next door than when you are on a big base," he says.
What the Americans hope to create by living next door to Ezabad is one more link in what's called the "village stability operation." The plan has several goals: provide needed facilities, such as schools and clinics, as well as security so that villagers are able to use those new facilities.
To that end, the Green Berets are helping form a village community watch, armed neighbors willing to protect the village against the Taliban. "I think this grass-roots, bottom-up approach is definitely a step in the right direction," Dan says.
Afghan-American Cooperation Key
That approach means the Green Berets work with Afghan troops, a unit of Afghan army special forces. Inside the compound, under a large green tarp, soldiers -- both American and Afghan -- sleep on cots.
"These guys are welcomed onto our team and from Day 1 treated as such," Dan says.
The Afghan army special forces are highly trained soldiers in a country where many security forces, especially the police, are corrupt. Their commander, Capt. Dost, says through his interpreter that the police were part of the problem.
"They weren't asking about people's problems. They didn't want to live with them, and they didn't want to build up relationships with the people. That's why people were complaining about them," he says.
Dost wears a scarf tied around his head; his face is toughened by the sun. He is 25 but looks twice as old.
Dost will be the one who approaches the villagers -- an Afghan talking to Afghans.
Dan says that Dost takes the lead on conversations with locals. "At first I did. But the conversation fell on deaf ears," he says.
Delicate Task Of Winning Over Villagers
On a recent day, Dost leads the way as the Afghans and Americans leave their compound and head toward the village. They cross fields, covered by small green plants with sharp, narrow leaves -- marijuana, and lots of it.
The Afghan commander waves to several farmers. They slowly trudge toward him. The Afghans -- Dost and the farmers -- sit down in the field. And Dan stands off to one side.
One farmer says he is worried that the Taliban will come and the villagers will be caught in the crossfire. Dost assures them nothing is going to happen.
Maybe the farmer believes him, maybe not. This is the critical link if the war in Afghanistan is to be won -- winning the trust of the villagers. And it's no easy task.
Dost leads the American and Afghan troops to another house, in hopes of talking to Khan, the nephew of a village elder who fled after Taliban threats. Dan and the others hope Khan will help the soldiers gain a foothold among villagers.
But there's only disappointment: With no explanation, Khan had fled toward Kandahar city six days ago. The American and Afghan patrol heads out of the village, as the sun begins to dip into the desert.
Back at the soldiers' compound, Dan says he is disappointed that Khan had disappeared. "He usually is very open with us, seemed to support out cause. So tomorrow anything could happen. It's another day," Dan says.
He turns to Dost, his Afghan partner, as they head to their bunks.
"Try and get some rest, bro," he tells the Afghan. "Good job today."
Still, it's clear that reaching out to the village of Ezabad will take time.
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