Special Forces Travel A Difficult Road In Afghanistan

A young boy is treated by a U.S. Special Forces medic i i

hide captionA young boy from the village of Kuhak is treated by a U.S. Special Forces medic during an impromptu clinic held for villagers. The medics try to see as many patients as they can while on patrol.

David Gilkey/NPR
A young boy is treated by a U.S. Special Forces medic

A young boy from the village of Kuhak is treated by a U.S. Special Forces medic during an impromptu clinic held for villagers. The medics try to see as many patients as they can while on patrol.

David Gilkey/NPR
Afghan commandos throw bags of rice i i

hide captionAfghan commandos throw bags of rice from the back of their truck during a humanitarian aid drop in the village of Kuhak, in Zerkoh Valley, western Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Afghan commandos throw bags of rice

Afghan commandos throw bags of rice from the back of their truck during a humanitarian aid drop in the village of Kuhak, in Zerkoh Valley, western Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Children chase after a Green Beret on an all-terrain vehicle. i i

hide captionU.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, are working closely with locals in western Afghanistan to rebuild schools, expand health clinics and build a local police force that can protect the population. Here, children from the village of Kuhak chase after a Green Beret on an all-terrain vehicle.

David Gilkey/NPR
Children chase after a Green Beret on an all-terrain vehicle.

U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, are working closely with locals in western Afghanistan to rebuild schools, expand health clinics and build a local police force that can protect the population. Here, children from the village of Kuhak chase after a Green Beret on an all-terrain vehicle.

David Gilkey/NPR

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, along with radio producer Graham Smith and photographer David Gilkey, have been in Afghanistan for weeks covering the U.S. military buildup that is part of the Obama administration's new strategy for the war against Taliban insurgents. This week, Bowman and company spent time in remote western Afghanistan with the Green Berets. The way these Army Special Forces troops work reveals much about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. They spend more time helping to rebuild villages than they do battling enemy fighters.

At a small Army outpost called Firebase Thomas, Green Berets pull on their body armor. Special Forces soldiers don't need to shave. So picture lumberjacks in uniform — they are all beards and bulk. They are armed with machine guns, grenade launchers and assault weapons.

Most of the team climbs aboard huge armored trucks. A few others hop on all-terrain vehicles. They rumble out of Firebase Thomas, named for another Green Beret killed in action near here.

On this day, they are touring Herat province's Zerkoh Valley, a 30-mile-long stretch of green that was once a Taliban stronghold.

It's not a combat mission. Instead, they're working their way to the end of the valley to check on projects to help local villagers, including a medical clinic they are expanding.

The unit is led by a Green Beret captain, a West Point graduate. For security reasons, he and other soldiers in the unit do not want their names in this report.

In the village of Azizabad, the captain points to a pair of low concrete buildings, just off the highway. Other Special Forces soldiers joke that the captain prefers building clinics to what they call "kinetic operations" — killing insurgents.

"We do the kinetic thing when we have to, but I'm not super worried about what other teams think of us. I think our performance speaks for itself and what we've done out here. I definitely think we're going in the right direction," the captain says.

The new clinic building will have a small lab for blood tests. And it will have a new birthing room. A doctor on duty says that when the clinic is completed, it will draw more doctors here. "It's really important for the people," he says.

Winning The Hearts And Minds?

The Green Berets say they've had success reaching out to the locals. But will winning the hearts and minds of the locals help win the war?

The Special Forces convoy bounces down a dirt road toward another construction project.

A minaret rises above fields. The mosque is 150 years old. Workers haul bricks and boards, part of a project to expand the mosque, paid for with money from American taxpayers.

A village elder overseeing the project stops to talk to the Green Berets and tells how the Americans helped him remove shrapnel from a wound he suffered two decades ago during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Wheat fields stretch out on both sides of the mosque. It is a vital crop here and has played a role in relations between locals and the Taliban.

The Green Beret captain explains that there is a temporary truce between the local elders and the Taliban fighters in order to protect the wheat fields.

"If something happens during a firefight, an insurgent shoots an RPG, I mean everything is so dry out here that these farmers will lose everything," the Special Forces captain says.

So, the insurgents stop the shooting to allow the villagers to harvest their crops. Perhaps that's the Taliban's plan for winning hearts and minds?

The Special Forces convoy departs Azizabad and heads farther south. To avoid roadside bombs, the Green Berets abandon the roads and cut across the desert.

The enemy is nearby, as evidenced by transmissions on the radio. It is the Taliban. They are watching the Americans.

"Hey, we're hearing some chatter on the radio," a soldier says.

"They're asking each other which direction we are going in. Those are the questions they are asking each other," a translator says.

The ATVs speed across the desert ahead of the convoy and disappear in a cloud of dust. The armored vehicles lumber behind, like elephants, until the next stop.

"There's always someone talking about getting us," the solider adds.

The Green Berets stop at a school in need of repairs, near the village of Kuhak.

A group of elders crosses an open field, a long, bobbing line of turbans and robes. Their leader lashes out in a 20-minute tirade of complaints about the Afghan government.

"If the government keep these people disappointed, I am 100 percent sure the people will turn back, and they won't be helping the government anymore," the elder says.

The Green Beret Captain assures the elder that help is on the way. But the conversation raises another question: Can Afghanistan govern itself?

"One of the things that he needs to understand is the government does care about you," the captain instructs his translator to tell the elder. "The government realizes that you have a security situation out here, and that is one of the reasons we come down here."

Where Are The Afghan Security Forces?

But the Afghan government is nowhere to be seen this day. A few Afghan army commandos stand watch. A few lounge in their truck. Another throws rocks at a plastic bottle while American medics tend to a long line of children and old men.

The Green Beret captain knows that Afghan soldiers must do more in order for the Americans to be able to leave. That's the mantra of the U.S. military: Put an Afghan face on this counterinsurgency.

One of the Green Berets scans the village, looking for that Afghan face — in this case, the Afghan National Police, or ANP.

"This is just the way it is. Have you guys seen one ANP truck out in Zerkoh now? Nothing. There is no lawful entity that's constantly around," he says.

While the Special Forces troops talk to the village elders, another Green Beret known as "Chief" drives his ATV into a field, drawing kids from the village behind him. Chief stops his vehicle and engages the children. He has three of his own back home in the United States.

"I'm trying to distract all the kids from messing with the crowds over there, so I figured I'd get out in the distance to try to give them pens and shoo them away," Chief explains. "But I ran out of pens. So many kids, so little time."

Off duty, Chief favors loud shirts and cigars. He's been assigned here, on and off, the past seven years.

Just two nights before, he was riding this same ATV on a very different mission. The Americans were out to capture a Taliban leader and bomb-maker named Mullah Faizullah. The Taliban operative tried to escape on a motorcycle.

Chief went after him but rolled his ATV. When Faizullah reached for his weapon, Chief jumped up and shot him dead.

Here's the twist: After the Green Beret killed the Taliban bomb-maker, the U.S. military command in Kabul put out a news release giving credit to "Afghan soldiers."

The incident highlights the bigger problem: Afghan forces aren't taking the lead.

"Hopefully, one time or another, in a few years, maybe more, they'll be at a point where they can actually take care of this themselves, but we'll see, we'll see," one of the soldiers says.

The Green Berets get in their vehicles and head north across the desert, back to Firebase Thomas.

At the end of the day, these soldiers say it is not enough to put an Afghan face on things.

As one U.S. commander said: It's about the Afghans getting their asses in gear.

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