RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the keys to America's war effort in Afghanistan is preventing civilian causalities. In May, warplanes mistakenly killed dozens of innocents in a rural village in western Afghanistan. Last summer, it happened in a different village called Azizabad. Then an American plane fired on homes and dozens of civilians were killed.
NPR's Tom Bowman paid a visit to that village to find out how people are faring nearly a year later. At a clinic Tom met a group of young children and he asked them if they remembered what happened that Friday night last August.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, when they drop bomb (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: He said we couldn't sleep at night.
TOM BOWMAN: Do they know anybody that was killed in the explosions?
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: He was my cousin.
MONTAGNE: Now, as Tom reports, a small team of U.S. soldiers are struggling to win back the people's trust.
BOWMAN: We're driving away from the clinic in a convoy with American Special Forces. The kids chase after us.
(Soundbite of shouting)
BOWMAN: We're heading south to another part of the village, a place where low, mud brick walls shield one-story houses. A line of goats is trailed by a boy. A road, really just a sliver of dirt, curls into the compound. That's where Hadji Abdul Rashid walks among the rubble of a house.
Mr. HADJI ABDUL RASHID: That's my brother's compound, the next one.
Unidentified Man #2: And he says this was my cousin's compound.
BOWMAN: The roof is caved in, steel girders angled into the earth amid piles of brick. Plastic wrap offers some protection from the elements as it flaps in the breeze.
His brother and others were killed here when the American bombs hit. Rebuilding these homes and relations with these villagers is a mission of the American Special Forces. This team arrived five months after the bombs fell on Azizabad.
Unidentified Man #3: One split second tactical on the ground call makes, you know, strategic implications - has strategic implications.
BOWMAN: It's nearly a year later and people still talk about it, still remember it. And as we talked to the kids up there at the clinic, still are afraid of the Americans sometimes and the bombs that may come.
Unidentified Man #3: Right. I mean, it's, you know, you have long-lasting effects from whatever happens. That's why it's a very, very difficult job.
BOWMAN: The captain is just 28, a West Point graduate, a military brat who trailed his soldier father around the world. And for the past five months the captain has worked among the survivors, meeting with tribal elders for countless cups of Chai tea and listening to their complaints and their needs. For security reasons, he asked that his name not be used. Here are some of the kinds of stories the captain hears.
Mr. RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: Hadji Rashid tells us that ten days after the bombing last summer, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, came here to apologize, along with him Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The village received payments for the people who had been killed and injured as well. Rashid says he forgives the military for what happened.
Mr. RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: But he can't forget what he lost.
Mr. RASHID: (Through translator) My brother, sons and kids, they were here in this compound. Sometimes they were coming here. We had tea. We were sitting together. We were talking to each other. I can never forget those moments we had together.
BOWMAN: Hadji Rashid says there is still a debt to be paid. The Green Beret captain listens while Rashid talks. What happened in this village last summer tightened the rules about the use of air strikes. They should only be used in life or death situations. So far this captain has been lucky.
Unidentified Man #4 (U.S. Army): I've never since I have been here used (unintelligible) air support with, you know, ordnance, but I've never been in a situation where I've needed to.
BOWMAN: These new rules were not followed to the letter during last month's firefight in Farah Province that killed dozens of civilians, an American military investigation found. The bombing here in Azizabad last summer led to another change. President Karzai halted all U.S. military operations in the area for a time, say these soldiers. That decision allowed the Taliban to re-group and move into the void. Coalition forces call them anti-Afghan forces, or AAF.
Unidentified Man #4: A normal elder can't repel an AAF person because they don't have guns, they don't want to start a war, they don't want their families killed. So if there is no legitimate presence in an area, they can move in and do whatever they want.
BOWMAN: Among those moving in was a man named Mullah Kareem, a top Taliban operative and experienced bomb maker. The Green Berets tells us he's responsible for a bomb we heard tear through the air one night injuring seven policemen, two of them seriously. To be able to defeat and kill enemies like the Taliban bomb maker, these special forces troops say they must first win the confidence of the villagers back, especially after what happened here last summer. Part of that effort by these soldiers includes rebuilding a mosque, a school, and that clinic where we met the children.
Unidentified Man #4: You don't watch action movies that have, you know, Green Berets doing civil affairs, humanitarian assistance, shuras. But again, this is what works and this is the long term and this is what Afghanistan needs.
BOWMAN: Fighting among civilians, winning a counterinsurgency, takes a particular patience, these soldiers say, and a willingness to make sure your weapons are precise, helping the people, killing only the enemy. Those who fight here recall the words of an officer from another era, T. E. Lawrence, the British colonel who organized the Arabs against the Turks during the World War I. The ideal weapon is the knife, Lawrence wrote, the worst is the airplane.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Azizabad, Afghanistan.