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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    But nobody showed up for work the following week. Ellis asked the elders what had happened. There was a problem, he was told. "We need to pay the workers ourselves," he was told. "We can't be seen having you pay the workers. The Taliban will cut our heads off." That seemed decidedly implausible. The Taliban were going to know where the money was coming from, no matter who put it in the workers' hands. "I know you are all honorable men," Ellis told the elders in a scene later reported by the Wall Street Journal . "But not everybody else is. The Canadians are not always honorable, and neither are we Americans." He proposed they set up a clandestine video camera to record the daily payments, but the elders didn't want that either.

    "It turned out, the situation was more complicated than I figured," Ellis says now. In fact, it wasn't a case of local corruption at all. Within days, intelligence collected from multiple sources revealed that several of the town elders had driven across the border to Quetta, in Pakistan, to clear the canal project with the Taliban leadership. "Apparently, they made a very convincing pitch," Ellis says, and his superiors later confirmed to me. "The canal project would enrich the area. It would be there when the Americans were gone. And the Taliban agreed: the project could go ahead, but they wanted 50% of the workers' pay."

    It was now apparent that almost any development project the Americans tried in Senjaray would end up benefitting the Taliban — except one: reopening the Pir Mohammed School.

    The Rules of Engagement
    Senjaray is a warren of mud walls and unpaved streets, dust and more dust, shaped like a hornet's nest hanging from the branch of a tree. The branch is the Afghan Ring Road, a two-lane paved highway. The U.S. fort is located just north of the highway; the Taliban control the land to the south, a lush farming area, irrigated by water from the Arghandab River. The dividing line is a canal that runs along the southern border of the town; the Pir Mohammed School sits on the banks of both that canal and one other, which runs along the eastern edge of the hornet's nest. "It's a crucial strategic position," Ellis says. "My plan was to build a strongpoint next to the school that would later be converted into an Afghan police station. It was necessary to protect the teachers and students, but it was also necessary to protect the town. That intersection was the Taliban's way in, and as soon as the enemy found out that we wanted to reopen the school, they began to concentrate their forces on the area as well." Indeed, sources up the chain of command told me that the Taliban were moving forces into the Arghandab Valley, in anticipation of the summer fighting season.

    And yet, the war in Senjaray had an odd, lugubrious battle rhythm. There were few direct confrontations between the Americans and the Taliban; the usual sounds of war, the crackle of small-arms fire and thump of mortars were rarely heard. Just an occasional boom — as an IED went off. Sometimes the Taliban blew themselves up, attempting to set the bombs; occasionally, Americans were the victims. On Feb. 21, one American was killed and another severely wounded in an IED explosion just south of town. "I decided to stop the patrols down there after that," Ellis says. "Given the rules of engagement, it was just too dangerous to keep going there and getting blown up."

    In another war — Vietnam, for certain — an American officer might have cleared the Taliban-controlled area with air strikes. But that sort of indiscriminate bombing doesn't happen in Afghanistan; General McChrystal has issued a series of tactical directives and rules of engagement banning most forms of air support. There are also new rules governing when and how troops on the ground can use their weapons. "Look at these," Ellis told me, tossing a fat sheaf of directives onto his desk. "Some of these are written by freaking lawyers, and I'm supposed to read them aloud to my troops. It's laughable. We can't fire warning shots. We can't even fire pen flares to stop an oncoming vehicle. If a guy shoots at you, then puts down his weapon and runs away, you can't fire back at him because you might harm a civilian."

    The troops hate the new rules. Indeed, a soldier from another of the 1/12's companies sent an angry e-mail to McChrystal, saying the new rules were endangering the troops. The General immediately flew down to Zhari and walked a patrol with that soldier's platoon. "It was a good experience," McChrystal told me later. "I explained to them why we needed the rules. And I've been making it my practice to go out on patrol with other units ever since."

    Ellis understands the rationale for the rules — "It's what distinguishes us from the Taliban" — but that doesn't make them easier to enforce. Just after the fatal IED attack in February, a man on a motorcycle emerged from a crowd in south Senjaray and seemed to charge a U.S. patrol. "They shouted at him, tried to get him to stop, but he kept coming — faster, it seemed. Finally, they fired a warning shot into the ground, but it bounced up and hit the guy in the hip. What the soldiers couldn't see was that he had two kids on the cycle with him. The bullet passed through his leg and struck both the kids in their legs."

    None of the wounds were life-threatening. The victims were in a medevac helicopter, on their way to a field hospital within a half hour. "And in a weird way, it turned into a plus for us," Ellis says. "After they were released, we continued to treat them with antibiotics, painkillers and new bandages. When people saw how well we were treating them, they were grateful. The motorcycle driver's brother started helping us with some good information. But we had to go through an intense legal inquiry about the shooting."

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