Afghanistan: A Tale of Soldiers and a School

Deep in the Taliban heartland, U.S. troops try to win hearts and minds by reopening a school. The obstacles they meet show how tough it will be to win the war in Afghanistan

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Adam Ferguson / VII Mentor for TIME

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's Charlie Company walk through a wheat field while performing a presence patrol in Pashmul, Afghanistan

The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed the school in 2007, breaking all the windows and furniture, booby-trapping the place, lacing the surrounding area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), daring the Canadians to reopen it. But the Canadians were overmatched, and it wasn't until December of 2009, when the Americans came to Senjaray, that people began to talk about reopening the school.

It was, in fact, a no-brainer, a perfect metaphor. The Taliban closed schools; the Americans opened them. That this particular school was located deep in the enemy heartland, in a district — Zhari — that was 80% controlled by the Taliban, an area the Russians called the Heart of Darkness and eventually refused to travel through, in a town that will be strategically crucial when the most important battle of the war in Afghanistan — the battle for Kandahar — is contested this summer, made it all the more perfect.

"From the start, the people here said they wanted better security and the school," said Captain Jeremiah Ellis, the commander of Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, the 120 soldiers who represented the American presence in Senjaray. "We are required to ask certain questions on patrol: What are your problems here? What do you need? It's called a TCAF interview, for some reason." Ellis, a young man well acquainted with the uses of, and need for, irony when dealing with the command structure, raised an eyebrow and smiled. Later, I looked it up. A TCAF is a Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework — in English, an interview script. "Anyway, we've been asking the TCAF questions for months now. People look at us and think, 'Why do you keep asking the same questions and not doing anything? You must be one stupid bunch of Caucasians,' " Ellis continued, replaying the dialogue. "It's totally insulting: 'What do you need here?' 'Open the frigging school, just like last week.' "

No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis. He had worked on it for months; he figured it would be Dog Company's legacy in Senjaray. It fit perfectly into the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: protect the people, provide them with security and government services, and they will turn away from the insurgency. Unlike many of his fellow officers in Zhari district, and many of the troops under his command, Ellis really believed in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.

He still does, but he's more skeptical now. The past four months in Senjaray have taught him how difficult it is to do COIN in an area that is, in effect, controlled by the enemy — and with a command structure that is tangled in bureaucracy and paralyzed by the incompetence and corruption of the local Afghan leadership. Indeed, as the struggle to open the school — or get anything of value at all done in Senjaray — progressed, the metaphor was transformed into a much bigger question: If the U.S. Army couldn't open a small school in a crucial town, how could it expect to succeed in Afghanistan?

And yet, as April began, the reopening of the Pir Mohammed School seemed imminent. Ellis had gotten all the elements in place, including a Canadian bomb-removal team. His superiors at battalion headquarters thought that reopening a school in the Taliban's front yard was such a feel-good story that a reporter should be around to record it. I happened to be in the neighborhood, and Captain Ellis graciously invited me — and photographer Adam Ferguson — along for the ride.

The Terrain
Jeremiah Ellis is not an Army lifer. He has other plans. He has a degree in outdoor education from the University of New Hampshire that he wants to start using as soon as possible. "What I really want to do," he says, "is use experiential education — rock climbing, hiking and so forth — as a form of therapy for veterans coming home." Ellis joined the Army so he could get scholarship money for a master's degree, but he's been an enthusiastic soldier, a graduate of the Army's famed, grueling Ranger School. "I joined the Army because it was an outdoor thing. You know, jump out of helicopters, crawl in the mud, sit around the campfire. But being a captain is the limit for that sort of stuff. Anything above this is a desk job." He is 29 years old, with quiet blue eyes and a garrulous informality that is explosive, intense and distinctly American.

Ellis did one tour in Iraq, and that was enough — for him, but not for the Army, which stop-lossed him (the term of art for officers is involuntary re-enlistment). He seems to have stowed any anger or resentment he may have had; his devotion to the mission in Senjaray seems absolute. "We're down to the last few months of our deployment — and that's a dangerous time," Ellis told me, sitting in his office, a rude plywood cabin at Combat Outpost Senjaray. "The natural tendency is to get careless and defensive. To keep them safe, I need these guys to stay focused and on top of the mission."

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