I just saw this exchange between an American officer and an Afghan village elder. It captures one of the central dilemmas in the war.
Instead of answering directly, the old man burst into a tirade. "We are in the middle!" he cried. "We can't say anything to you, and we can't say anything to them." What he meant: Americans push education for girls. The Taliban forbid it.
Biggs handed him a stack of cards, each bearing the location and phone numbers for the local police. "If you have trouble, call these numbers," he said.
Nabib reacted with alarm. "But what if they ask about these?"
"Hide them," said Biggs.
"But they search everyplace -- more than you," said Nabib.
Aha, said Biggs. "So there are Taliban in the village!"
"Being really honest, yes, definitely they come sometimes. But we can't tell you where they are," the old man said. "After sunset they come. We don't come out of our compounds.
"We are living in fear."
"We have no power to face them or you," he complained. "We are just like a soccer ball being kicked by both sides."
"We are not here to kill insurgents or anyone," said Biggs. "We are not here for you to join our team, but just to deliver government and security to your village."
The old man snorted. "They are also telling us this same speech, that they are here to protect us," he muttered.
"I look around and I see pumps, wells, irrigation ditches – the insurgents didn't build them," Biggs retorted. "We did, your government did. The insurgents don't do that. We do. We have other projects planned, better roads. We can't do that because the Taliban have scared people away."
His voice rose in frustration. "We're just here to help!"
It's that cri de coeur, "We're just here to help," that resonates so strongly. Over and over if you talk to US troops, whether it be in Iraq and Afghanistan you can hear that same frustration and disbelief. American forces, on the whole, see their mission as helping the locals, and they just can't grasp why Iraqis or Afghans aren't more grateful for it. On the other side there is the locals disbelief that the Americans don't see that if they even talk to Americans their lives are in danger, and what they would really like, as unlikely as this is, is for everyone to just go away.
(hat tip: The Best Defense)