Fighting and Feasting: On the Ground in Afghanistan

A protracted battle to open a school and oust the Taliban reveals the muddle of the Afghan war

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Sebastian Meyer / Polaris

On a moonless, pitch-black but impossibly starry night in early December, I traveled with a U.S. Army patrol through the town of Senjaray, in the Zhari district of Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Our mission was to attend a dinner party at the local police station. The soldiers, members of the 1-502 regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (famously known as the Black Hearts), were led by their executive officer, Captain Cullen Lind. He, and they, assumed the dinner was a celebration of recent events in the district: after an extremely tough fight, the Taliban had been driven out of the area. The summer fighting season was over; there had been only one violent incident in the past two weeks.

When we arrived at the mud-walled police fort, the soldiers were surprised by the elaborate nature of the party. There were musicians; there was a feast — lamb and rice, fresh bread and vegetables, deliciously prepared. "We've never seen anything like this before," Lind told me. As the musicians, who were excellent, played the desultory Afghan national anthem, a ragtag row of a dozen police officers — some in uniform, some not; some with rifles, others not — stood at strict attention. "The song is good for our national spirit," said Karim Jaan, the local police chief. "It is a way to build power."

Lind and the other Americans had developed a certain amount of respect for the police chief over the past six months. He seemed a young man on the rise; he had recently served four months as governor of the Zhari district. What the soldiers didn't know was that Jaan had just been fired as governor. "Karim Jaan was not able to reach out past his tribe and build the sort of shura [council] coalition we needed," a U.S. official told me. "There were also rumors that he was close to the Taliban — although almost all these local leaders are — and Ahmed Wali Karzai [President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and powerful brother, the de facto ruler of Kandahar province] didn't like him."

In fact, this was Jaan's first day back as police chief in Senjaray —which was the real reason for the party. He wanted the appearance of a triumphant return. As with so much else in Afghanistan, the apparent victory celebration was something else entirely. And as with so much else in Afghanistan, the future rested in the hands of questionable characters like Karim Jaan.

I first visited Senjaray last April and wrote about the efforts of a U.S. rifle company, led by Captain Jeremiah Ellis, to reopen the Pir Mohammed School, which had been closed and booby-trapped by the Taliban in 2007. The school was finally retaken by Ellis' troops in late April, which touched off a fierce battle that lasted through the summer. "The Taliban actually announced that their highest priority was to prevent the school from reopening," a U.S. official in the district told me. Indeed, the school was a metaphor for Zhari, an area that both sides considered crucial strategic turf, the heartland of the Taliban (Sangsar, the birthplace of Mullah Omar, was only a few miles away), the key to controlling Kandahar province.

And so Pir Mohammed School became a fortress. There were daily mortar, rocket-propelled-grenade and small-arms attacks from the Taliban, who controlled the area to the south. The fight intensified when Ellis' Dog Company was replaced by Captain Nicholas Stout's Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne in late May. "We had a soldier shot through the chest on our second day at the school," said Lind, who is Stout's second in command. "A majority, maybe two-thirds of our troops, were wounded and received Purple Hearts during the course of the summer."

When I'd joined the company on patrol in Senjaray last April, the locals had watched us quietly. A month later, children started throwing stones, then tossing grenades at the soldiers and racing away into the crowds. "The first grenade attack, I detained maybe 75 people," Stout said. "I told them, 'When someone tosses a grenade at us, it's going to affect you too. We're going to round you up, detain you and interview you until we find the culprits. I know this is unfair and inconvenient, but we can't tolerate this sort of violence.'"

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