April 30, 2010
Posting date: 4/30/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan
Our typical mission was to conduct “Leader’s Engagements” with the populace. Basically, that meant we’d go into the villages and talk to the people, typically the head man. The idea was to get the ANA out there mingling with the populace and basically showing themselves to be present and competent. Gathering information about security developments in the area and what projects the villagers would like to see done was a secondary part of those missions.
We might have considered the actual information gathered to have been the most important part of the mission, and not of ancillary importance, if we’d been able to get relevant information about the security (enemy disposition, whereabouts, etc.) more often, or ever for that matter. Given the peoples’ reluctance to tell us anything about the enemy we’d usually just talk about happenings in the area in a general way, unless we had something specific we wanted to talk to them about. We’d always ask them about what small projects we could help them with. As ETTs with the ANA we depended on the US Army logistically for, well, everything really, so obviously we didn’t have control over the money for projects or humanitarian assistance to give to the villagers, but we could help coordinate with the US Army.
Often when the Army had humanitarian assistance to hand out, they’d let the ANA take the lead on the actual distribution of the goods. Those “HA drops” were always interesting. We’d usually try to hand out whatever it was, like radios for instance, in an organized way, but in the end it almost always became a scrap for whoever could grab what. A bunch of men with guns are no match for determined youngsters in the presence of what, for them, must be riches.
At any rate, we’d always prefer the ANA to do the talking with the villagers. We’d try to prepare the ANA beforehand on what topics should be discussed, or which propaganda pieces we’d like to mention, but it’s tough enough to get the ANA to patrol and conduct security the way you might want -- getting them to conduct “conversation ops” perfectly was not a major concern.
Whether the ANA were taking the lead on the talking or not, if you spend enough time out there you’ll have some interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s funny stuff. Sitting down and having tea in a village I’d never been in before with an old man I’d never seen before, the old man inquired who I was and whether I was new in Afghanistan. I mentioned I’d been around a little while, but had been over in the Korengal Valley before. The old man and his friend looked at each other and said something to the effect of the Korengal being “the tiger valley” (referring to the fighters in the area). I was like, “Yes, beautiful place, the Korengal, but I don’t think the locals liked us very much since they were always shooting at us.” That brought a few laughs.
Another time a village elder, when asked what help the village needed, stated they needed a well. At the time we were sitting in a kind of small village square, complete with a fully functioning well. When I pointed out the nice, relatively new well to the old man, and asked if there were some problem with it, the elder replied that the well was fine, but the village needed a well nearer his home, which was apparently on the other side of the square, a good 30 yards from the well. Those requests usually end with a “We’ll see what we can do” from our end, which I was fairly certain was interpreted on their end as I intended, i.e. as a “Not gonna happen.”
Some of the conversations are not funny at all though. The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened. The mission was to visit a particular village, known for having a huge white house. The village was not far up the valley from our base. In fact, we could see the white house from the base, though it would take a good 30 minutes to walk over there.
Upon getting into the village, we did the usual -- looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (two Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying.
Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.We stayed there for quite a while talking about a fair number of topics, and had quite a good time after we got past the initial sadness over the death of their relative. The young men were hoping to get jobs working on a base somewhere. In reply to their requests, I said my usual “I’ll see what I can do”, which I figured would get interpreted (by my interpreter and the young local men) as a polite brushoff, but apparently was not, as they showed up at the base the next day saying I’d promised them jobs. It can be tough to know who your enemy is, but in that case I think those guys were good. It’s unfortunate that many of the men who can’t find jobs end up in the welcoming arms of the Taliban, but there was not a lot that we could do about that situation at that time and place, so we had to send them away empty handed.