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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A Conversation
It was unimaginable that the higher-ups — those in "echelons above reality," as Ellis liked to say — would actually stop the Pir Mohammed project. He figured it would be delayed a day or two and decided to move ahead with his plan. He needed to have some troops in place, in an observation and listening post near the school, on the night before the operation took place. On Sunday, April 4, Ellis joined the 2nd platoon on a patrol to scout locations.

There was a two-story house across the eastern canal from the school that Ellis thought would be perfect, and we proceeded there carefully, in the dusty golden haze of late afternoon. The soldiers handed out pencils, plush toys and cheese crackers to the local kids, who gathered as the patrol snaked slowly through town. The kids, who had seen all these offerings many times before, weren't satisfied. "Qalam," they shouted, surrounding me. "Qalam."

"They want your pen," Ellis said. "Most of them can't write. But they know the difference between a pencil and a pen."

Ellis knocked on the door of the compound in question, and a young man named Habib Rahman answered. We entered a remarkably pleasant courtyard, surrounded by windowed rooms, shaded by grape arbors and balconies. It was clearly one of the more prosperous homes in town, but the source of the prosperity was a mystery. Rahman said his grandfather, who built the place, and his father were both dead. He lived there with his mother, grandmother, aunt and two sisters.

We sat on thin rugs, beneath one of the balconies. Ellis took off his helmet and deftly, gently, always smiling, questioned Rahman. He didn't ask anything very direct, like how Rahman — who said he was 17 — earned a living, and the boy didn't volunteer any information. Ellis asked who the most powerful person in town was, and Rahman answered, "Hajji Lala." He asked who the most powerful Taliban in town was, and the boy said he didn't know. "Yeah, I wouldn't know, either, if I were you," Ellis said.

He asked if Rahman could give us a tour of the property. He didn't reveal the purpose of the exploration; he didn't want to give the Taliban advance warning of his intentions. But, as Ellis expected, the roof of the compound was a perfect observation post. When the tour was done, he asked Rahman why he thought the Americans were in Afghanistan. The boy said he didn't know. Ellis asked if he had heard about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The boy said no. He asked what Rahman thought about the Americans. "I've heard that they bomb civilians from the air," the boy said. But the Taliban bomb and booby-trap schools, Ellis pointed out. "Why would they do that?" Rahman didn't know. Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end. "Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better," he said. "The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms."

Later, as we headed back to the outpost in the gathering darkness, Ellis said, "Well, at least he knew we were Americans. Some of them still think we're Russians.

That night, Ellis learned that his superiors had, once again, briefed their superiors at RC-South about the Pir Mohammed School operation. "They want to sleep on it at RC-South," Ellis said, rolling his eyes. "And battalion said they don't want me calling up, trying to convince them."

The next afternoon, Ellis received word from battalion: there would be another delay, ostensibly of five days, but Ellis knew it would be longer than that. The Canadian bomb-disposal unit couldn't wait around. It had to go on to other projects. "This is becoming a joke," said one of the troopers who escorted me out of Combat Outpost Senjaray the following day. "It ain't gonna happen."

Disaster
A week later, Ellis was still waiting for the operation to be approved, when disaster struck — and a signature Afghan disaster at that. At about 5 a.m. on April 12, an American convoy passing through Senjaray on the Ring Road slowed on the curve in front of Dog Company's outpost. A passenger bus came up behind the convoy, traveling at a rate of speed the Americans deemed suspicious. The convoy tried to signal the bus to stop; the soldiers apparently used hand signals and pen flares, but fired no warning shots according to the McChrystal protocol. But the bus didn't stop and the Americans opened fire; five civilians were killed and 18 wounded. Outraged Afghans poured into the streets in Kandahar to protest. Their support for the upcoming battle was becoming more tenuous, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had said he wouldn't approve the U.S.-led campaign in Kandahar unless the people wanted it. The fate of Barack Obama's new Afghan strategy hung in the balance.

After the wounded were treated and evacuated from Senjaray, Ellis led a patrol into the local bazaar. "The initial mood of the population as we went into the bazaar was hostile," Ellis e-mailed me that night. "We asked them to follow us to a meeting place so we could talk, but they were not willing. I then went stall to stall in the bazaar and met with groups of elders. I explained the following: 'I have fought for many years now and seen my own Soldiers and the enemy killed and it never has affected me as much as this event this morning. The thing that pains me the most is that the people killed were innocent people that were caught in a dangerous situation. You know, from our past, that my Soldiers will put themselves into harm's way before endangering your lives, because that is our responsibility as Soldiers ... to keep the fight away from your businesses and your homes.' I covered my heart and said, " 'I wish to God that I could undo the things that happened this morning, but nothing ever will.' "

Ellis said he thought he had gotten through to the elders. Two days later, he received word that the Pir Mohammed School project was finally approved.

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