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

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For a time, at the urging of the local elders, Bravo Company pulled back from the school and left it in the control of the local Afghan National Army (ANA) forces — whose efforts were mixed, at best. That changed in August when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade killed a 7-year-old boy. "Lieutenant Ghafar got really exercised over that," Stout told me, referring to the local ANA commander. "He came to me with a plan. They were going to go door to door, talking to the people, asking them if they really wanted their kids blown up like that." The Americans had posters of the dead child printed and distributed. "It was the first time the ANA took the initiative," Stout continued. "They've been great ever since."

A few weeks later, the Taliban tried to assassinate Jaan — who was then the district governor — in a road ambush. Jaan fought off the attack, but one of his bodyguards was killed. The fact that he actually fought the Taliban, and repelled the attack, gave him greater stature in the town —and it gained some respect for the police, who had previously restricted their activities to protecting the local, rather supine strongman, Hajji Lala. Now the police became more active. They set up and manned checkpoints on the major roads through town; they established a substation at the Pir Mohammed School.

But the security situation really turned around in September, when a major operation — Dragon Strike, the long-awaited battle of Kandahar — was launched by the NATO coalition, moving westward from the city of Kandahar along the Arghandab River Valley, clearing the Taliban heartland. "Our command brought in teams of sappers to clear the mines and tremendous air support. We found weapons caches and blew up the 'factories' where the Taliban were building the improvised explosive devices [IEDs]," Stout told me. "When it was clear that we were really driving out the Taliban, people began coming to us — and especially to our ANA partners — with tips. Within a week, they helped us find 16 IEDs and arrest nine of the enemy." By mid-October, the locals were willing to risk participating in cash-for-work programs: improving the town bazaar, cleaning out irrigation canals for $5 a day. "We've got about 500 people working most days now," said Stout. "We're hoping to hire a lot more."

A recent ABC News poll of Afghan attitudes found that people in the southern, Taliban-dominated provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were feeling more secure as a result of the increased U.S. military presence. (The rest of Afghanistan was feeling less secure, however.) And so there is an opportunity in towns like Senjaray now — an opportunity to build support among the population before the Taliban try to retake the area next spring. "We're going to concentrate on expanding cash for work to more permanent projects," said Casey Johnson, a USAID worker in the Zhari district, "and also try to build a strong district shura across the various tribes and factions."

The U.S. troops, with a strong assist from the ANA, had done a remarkable job clearing out the Taliban. But the real battle for Senjaray was now in the hands of Karim Jaan, who had emerged as the town's most important politician. He had the winter to prove that the Afghan government could provide real security, services and justice for the people. A year before, Jaan's sympathies had been opaque — but now he'd chosen a side: because he'd been targeted by the Taliban, his only hope was to fight them aggressively. The same went for the hundreds of local citizens who'd joined the cash-for-work program; their families will be targeted when the Taliban return in numbers. (There are still occasional IED, mortar and grenade attacks.)

On the night of his welcome-home feast, I asked the police chief when he might reopen the Pir Mohammed School. "It depends on the security. We are training the police. They have to be able to secure the town next spring if the Taliban return." "Where will the teachers come from?" I asked. "From here in Senjaray," Jaan said. "I know people. I will select them." And with that, he whipped out a wad of cash, peeled off a few notes and dispatched an aide to pay the musicians.

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