Earning Afghans' Trust The 'Big Challenge' For U.S. Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan are trying to secure villages once occupied by the Taliban and laced with roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings. Security is only half the battle, however, as many Afghan villagers are fearful of Taliban retaliation.
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Earning Afghans' Trust The 'Big Challenge' For U.S.

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Earning Afghans' Trust The 'Big Challenge' For U.S.

Earning Afghans' Trust The 'Big Challenge' For U.S.

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To Afghanistan now, and an area called the Green Zone. There, soldiers from the strike brigade of the 101st Airborne Division are working on a month-long sweep for Taliban fighters. To be clear, in Iraq, the Green Zone was perhaps the safest place in Baghdad. But this is Afghanistan. And this Green Zone is perhaps the most dangerous place in the entire country - a base for the Taliban. It's a 10-mile stretch of orchards and fields along the Arghandab River to the north and west of Kandahar city.

NPR's Tom Bowman was with the same unit back in June and he returned to check on their progress.

(Soundbite of Combat Outpost Ashoque)

Unidentified Man #1: Mullens(ph).

Mr. MULLENS: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Baby Smith.


Unidentified Man #1: Sizzle.

TOM BOWMAN: It's an hour before dawn at Combat Outpost Ashoque, a little more than a one-story concrete building surrounded by sandbags and razor wire. Headlights from the armored vehicles illuminate the soldiers during roll call. Across the gravel parking lot, Afghan soldiers are assembling, too.

Sergeant First Class Ted Maust is working with a translator to get them ready, but there's confusion about how many Afghans will come on today's mission alongside the 50 Americans.

Sergeant TED MAUST (U.S. Army): So, 30 and 6.

Unidentified Man #2: We are good.

Sgt. MAUST: This is important. We got to know, so that way we don't leave anybody out there.

BOWMAN: The Afghans also want the Americans to give them milk and their days' rations. The Americans say no.

Sgt. MAUST: Huh?

Unidentified Man #3: We need milk.

Sgt. MAUST: No. We don't have enough milk. We don't have any milk.

BOWMAN: The armored convoy pulls out of the outpost and heads west on one of the few asphalt roads in the country. The Americans call it Highway One. They're headed just a couple of miles down the road to an abandoned village, hidden among the trees between the highway and the Arghandab River. It's a place the Americans have never been before. In fact, when I was here just a few months ago, this was a no-go zone. It was Taliban territory. But just a few weeks ago, the 101st swept through the area, pushing the Taliban farther and farther west, away from Kandahar city.

Sgt. MAUST: I think what they're doing is they keep pushing to the west and so we keep pushing ourselves to the west.

BOWMAN: That's Sergeant Maust again.

Sgt. MAUST: We're just going village to village to village checking them out and knocking on the front door.

BOWMAN: The problem is the Americans can't find the enemy. The Taliban are just melting into the population and watching the Americans.

Sgt. MAUST: They're just waiting for a weak spot or a sweet spot and they'll exploit it, which we don't want to provide them that.

BOWMAN: The Americans also don't want to provide the Taliban any kind of safe haven, and that includes this abandoned village called Haji Abdu Rauf. So they get ready to destroy anything useful here. Even this demolition mission is dangerous. The dirt road leading to the village is laced with roadside bombs called IEDs. And there are reports that even the houses are booby-trapped.

Captain BRANT AUGE (U.S. Army): We're basically clearing out the IEDs. So we take down the houses, clear out the IEDs, so now the IEDs are no longer a threat and the houses can no longer be used by the enemy.

BOWMAN: That's Captain Brant Auge, who's leading the mission. He says he'll use a special tool, a rocket that shoots a line of explosive charges.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man #4: 15 seconds.

Unidentified Man #5: Acknowledge, 15 seconds.

BOWMAN: The line of explosives looks like a thick white fire hose that flies. It gets maybe 100 feet in the air.

(Soundbite of explosive)

BOWMAN: And floats high above the dirt road, then drops to the ground.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BOWMAN: The American soldiers say three roadside bombs have been destroyed in this blast. The Afghan soldiers, meanwhile, seem disinterested. Many stay near their trucks, others relax on the ground. That blast was just the first one the Americans set off. It'll take make many more before this dirt road to the abandoned village is cleared of bombs.

Not far away, across the main road, Highway One, at another village, a cluster of Afghan men and children watch the American fireworks. Captain Auge turns and sees them, then crosses the highway with some American and Afghan soldiers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #6: (Speaking foreign language)

BOWMAN: He approaches a village elder named Said Gull, who squats next to a wall. Teenagers sit on the wall above him, children scurry about.

Capt. AUGE: How's everybody doing today, other than the loud explosions? I know.

BOWMAN: Through an interpreter, Said Gull complains about the explosion.

Mr. SAID GULL: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #6: He said the children were crying and the (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: Captain Auge explains there are only there to help.

Capt. AUGE: So we're just continuing to push into these areas and make them safe for you.

BOWMAN: This is crucial. The American military strategy calls for providing security for Afghan villagers like this and then winning their support for the Afghan government. But Gull's not feeling secure. He fears Taliban retaliation, and he says no one can work the fields because of the fighting and the bombs. Captain Auge says he can provide work.

Capt. AUGE: We have a lot of work that needs to be done to help rebuild some of these areas and we're looking for people to hire to do work.

BOWMAN: I asked Gull what he thinks about the Americans.

Does he think the Americans should stay and help them or should the Americans just go home?

Mr. GULL: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #6: He is saying that we do not tell you to stay here or -we do not tell you that you must leave here. He said just we need security. The safety, security, we do not need the Taliban. Also, we do not need the U.S. forces here.

BOWMAN: We do not need the U.S. forces. With that, Gull turns to an Afghan officer standing next to Captain Auge.

Mr. GULL: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #6: He's saying that this is my brother. I'm fighting with him and also he's fighting with me.

BOWMAN: Is Captain Auge your brother?

Unidentified Man #6: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. GULL: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #6: He said his religion is different, yeah. And if he was in our religion, he would be my brother.

BOWMAN: This is a continuing problem for the Americans. Some Afghans view them as occupiers and will never accept them. After a half hour of this, Captain Auge turns and crosses the highway and rejoins his unit. By now they've cleared the dirt road of IEDs and have reached Haji Abdu Rauf, the abandoned village. From a small bridge, partially destroyed by the explosives, the captain talks about why Afghans are still wary.

Capt. AUGE: They get a little antsy if we're in too much. I think it's just that deep-seated fear of the Taliban. That they've been living with it so long, everybody suspects everybody else. I mean, I had one guy tell me, you know, I don't know who they are, my son could be a Taliban. And if I went and did something with you, then he would report on me. So, I mean the distrust is that far down that they're looking at even their own family members, you know, with suspicion.

BOWMAN: So how long does it take to turn that around?

Capt. AUGE: I don't know. That's the big challenge.

BOWMAN: It's been a challenge on this mission as well. It took about 12 hours to destroy the roadside bombs on 700 yards of dirt road leading to the abandoned village. And it took more than two days to destroy the dozens of houses - some of them booby-trapped - that the Taliban left behind here. That might have been the easy part. Winning back the locals is another thing entirely.

Capt. AUGE: Later on, when the people, if they want to move back and they want to rebuild, we're prepared to support that and prepared to help them out with that.

BOWMAN: Captain Auge doesn't see that happening anytime soon.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar.

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