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

  • 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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    That task is more difficult because the 1/12 battalion hasn't exactly had a terrific rotation in Afghanistan. "We've been asked to do a lot of different things," says Major Korey Brown, the battalion's executive officer. "They detached us from our brigade, which is headquartered in eastern Afghanistan, and sent us out here to Zhari district to be storm troopers — that's what General Vance called us — and that's what we were trained for, that's what we like to do. To find, fix and finish the enemy." But the mission changed with the arrival of General Stanley McChrystal, as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in the summer of 2009. "It's not about how you engage the enemy so much now. It's how you engage your district governor," says Brown. "That's a huge change for guys like us — call us knuckle draggers or whatever, but we weren't trained to do COIN."

    The 1/12's problems were compounded by a practically nonexistent local government, led by a district governor who insisted on keeping his office at the battalion's forward operating base, rather than among the people. "And then the Afghan army regiment we were supposed to partner with was diverted to Helmand province, for the battle in Marjah," says Brown. And the so-called civilian surge — the civil and economic development component of the offensive, led by the State Department — arrived late and weak. "So the 1/12's been out there, pretty much alone," a State Department official based in Kandahar told me. "No Afghan military partner, a lousy relationship with the local government and not enough help from us."

    And yet, Zhari is strategically crucial, the gateway to Kandahar city from the west, the staging area for most Taliban activity in the region. It is a largely rural district straddling the Afghan Ring Road and the Arghandab River. It includes the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's hometown of Sangsar. The Taliban aren't outside agitators here; they are neighbors — not exactly beloved neighbors, given their propensity for violence and peremptory taxation, but more trustworthy than a deeply corrupt Afghan government and much more familiar than the foreign troops. Senjaray is the largest population center, a town of somewhere from 8,000 to 12,000 (there hasn't been a census), at the eastern end of the Zhari district. If Senjaray can't be won over, Kandahar won't be.

    As it became clear that the 1/12 was more comfortable with traditional soldiering than with counterinsurgency, the skepticism about its efficacy grew in the higher ranks of the military command. The 1/12 was hunkered down at its headquarters, a remote outpost called Forward Operating Base James Wilson, and the brass wanted it out securing the populace. Since the populace was concentrated in Senjaray, that seemed a logical place to start — and Jeremiah Ellis seemed the perfect candidate to lead the way. "He's one of the smartest officers we have," one of Ellis' superiors told me. "But he can take that enthusiasm a fair distance past the limits of standard Army procedures."

    Actually, the captain's enthusiasm was fed by a series of briefings from various humanitarian and economic-development agencies. "They made it seem like Senjaray was the most important place in the world," Ellis says now. "They promised us everything. We were going to get in there and really deliver the goods."

    The Canal
    And so, Ellis went into Senjaray in December of 2009 with a real head of steam. He gathered the town elders for a series of shuras and told them about all the goodies that could be headed their way if they agreed to stand with him against the Taliban. By mid-January, he had a written document in English and Pashtu, signed by 12 local elders, promising cooperation and listing the various programs they would soon see. There was the school, of course, and a new medical clinic, and a renovation of the bazaar; there were new police stations, solar-powered wells, paved highways, bridges and irrigation canals.

    Actually, the elders — as opposed to the people of Senjaray — seemed more interested in the irrigation canals than anything else. In fact, the two most important leaders — the rather flaccid local warlord who was named Hajji Lala, and the police chief, whose 40 cops were dedicated to the protection of Hajji Lala — were interested in one specific canal. Unfortunately, it was not the canal Ellis wanted to refurbish on the poorer, north side of town. It was on the south side. "O.K., let's walk down there and check it out," Ellis said.

    "We can't walk," the local police chief told him. "We have to drive." And so they drove — 20 km west of Senjaray and then south. They were nowhere near town. "You might well ask, Why there?" Ellis says. Well, as it happened both Hajji Lala and the police chief owned farmland just south of the proposed canal. "But who was I to stand in the way of progress?" Ellis adds, dryly. "I could put hundreds of people to work, pay them 600 Afghans [$3] a day." It was the beginning of a partnership. Ellis wanted to prove he could produce. The project would begin the following week.

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