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

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There is a caveat to McChrystal's rules of engagement. A soldier is always permitted to use his or her discretion in a matter of self-defense. But the overall impact of the rules has been a hunkering down, a decidedly less aggressive attitude about going after the enemy, from the air or from the ground. "Day by day, we're watching the Taliban put in IEDs, creeping up toward the town," Ellis says. "I'm losing two inches of Senjaray every day." The effect on morale has been brutal. "Maybe half the guys in Dog Company spent their last tour in Iraq, in Ramadi, in 2007," says First Sergeant Jack Robison. "That was a great tour. When we arrived, the place was a disaster. We cleaned it up. After a year, we could leave with a real sense of accomplishment." But this tour was different. They had two months left, and the tide seemed to be running against them. Robison thought that opening the Pir Mohammed School might mitigate the sense of failure, but he also had to admit that a fair number of his men didn't want to take any more risks. They just wanted to go home.

The School
Ellis began his efforts to open Pir Mohammed in late January. To get permission to reopen the school, he needed the approval of three separate command structures — his battalion superiors, the Canadians who ran Task Force Kandahar and their NATO superiors at Regional Command-South, the NATO regional command for southern Afghanistan. He also needed the approval of the local, district and regional Afghan government authorities. That part wasn't too bad. Ellis was a gung-ho briefer. On Saturday, April 3, I watched him describe the school operation to a group of Canadian generals. "That was one of the most impressive op rants I've seen in a long time," Lieut. General Andrew Leslie, the Canadian chief of land staff, said when Ellis finished — and later, he confided to me, "This is the kind of officer you really want out here."

But the logistics were a killer. To reopen the school, Ellis needed to purchase some of the adjacent land to build an access road and the police station he had proposed. Hajji Lala, the local warlord, insisted he had that covered. "I kept asking him for the names of the landowners," Ellis says. "He kept saying, 'No problem.' " But it was a problem. Most of the property in the Zhari district is owned by absentee landlords. When Ellis pressed Hajji Lala for names yet again in late February, he was told, "You're going to have to find out who owns that land yourself."

Ellis was crushed. The operation was scheduled for March 10. He had a week, at best, to purchase the property. "But I got it done," he says. "The thing is, the people really wanted the school opened and they helped me find the owners." There was one pair of owners who demanded $20,000 for their land. "I told them $2,000 max," Ellis said, but ultimately the owners — after checking around — changed their minds and decided to offer the land for free. "They said, 'We'll give it to you, but could you beat us up a little and make it look like you seized it? The Taliban don't want this to happen.' "

There were a multitude of elements to put in place. A generator was needed for the security outpost. Blast walls and Hesco baskets — the ubiquitous wire and cloth fortifications filled with rocks and soil — were needed to protect the troops who would be stationed at the school. The local police chief had to be convinced to lend some of his officers for the operation. The plans for clearing the bombs and booby traps had to be specific and plausible.

But 16 hours before the operation was to launch, the 1/12 battalion planning staff scotched it. "They said we hadn't done sufficient planning for the bomb clearance," Ellis says, "and I suppose they were right. The trouble is, there are only two American bomb-clearing units for all of Kandahar province. I managed to find a Canadian team." The operation was rescheduled for April 4, when the Canadians would be available.

When I arrived at Combat Outpost Senjaray on the afternoon of April 2, Ellis had just received terrible news. "You're not going to believe this, but they just [freakin'] postponed it," he told me. "The staff at RC-South found this regulation that says you can't build a security outpost that close to a school. It would endanger the kids." Ellis was agog. He had briefed the commanding general of RC-South, Nick Carter, on the project, and he was in favor. But General Carter was on leave — and his staff didn't want to take the risk. Regulations were regulations. "I mean, if we don't have a strongpoint there, you endanger the kids. Do you think the Taliban are just going to let us ... open the [freakin'] school?"

Still, Ellis was confident the operation would go forward. This was just a bureaucratic glitch. Everyone thought so. On April 3, I spoke with Ellis' immediate superior, Lieut. Colonel Reik Anderson, commander of the 1/12, and with the Canadian in charge of Joint Task Force Kandahar, Brigadier General Daniel Menard, who was furious about the delay. "We're going to have a letter signed by the district and provincial governors, insisting that we go ahead," Menard told me, then proceeded to talk like a general. "This is essential. It would be the first nonkinetic breach of Taliban control in the area."

Lieutenant Reed Peeples, a former Peace Corps volunteer whose 2nd platoon patrolled the area around the school, put it more simply: "For months, we've been trying to win over the people of this town — and we haven't produced anything tangible. They are sitting on the fence, waiting to see which side is stronger. We haven't had much luck with development projects. We haven't proved that we can take care of them. Reopening the school would be our first real win."

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