27 April 2009

The battle against fear... one village at a time

U.S. Army officers held a meeting, or shura, with Afghan elders in Maidan Shahr who read a threatening Taliban "night letter" sent to a village elder warning people not to associate with American forces. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images, for The New York Times.

Earlier this month an intense meeting took place between officers of the 10th Mountain Division and elders of the village of Zayawalat in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. The subject: the new Afghan Public Protection Program, a pilot project to recruit, train and arm locals to guard their own villages. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal covered the meeting.

Young men from two of Jalrez’s main ethnic groups, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, enthusiastically came forward; both have largely supported the American presence. Several dozen Pashtuns from other villages showed up as well. Two hundred forty-three volunteers were selected, each vetted by the police, the elders and the local religious leaders. The first crop of recruits went through the three-week course — presided over by American Special Forces officers — and graduated three weeks ago. They are now patrolling the dirt roads of Jalrez.

But the village of Zayawalat didn't send anyone. They are largely Pashtun, who are more closely associated with the insurgency.

The Americans setting up the guard force waited patiently, hoping to bring Zayawalat’s elders along. They agreed to a meeting with the elders, and then another and another. At a meeting last week, the fourth, the Pashtun elders said they would make a final decision and report back this week.

But when they showed up Monday morning, the elders said they still were not ready to give up their sons. “It’s not that the people in Zayawalat don’t support the government — they do,” said Hajii Janan, the leader of the Wardak provincial council, who presided over the meeting. “But, as you can see, people are under pressure.”

Mr. Janan was not exaggerating. Last month, a local Taliban commander, Abdul Jameel, based in Maidan Shahr, came forward with 10 of his fighters and declared that he would fight no more. Wardak’s governor, Halim Fidai, accepted his surrender and told him to go home. The governor offered Mr. Jameel no protection for this act of defiance of the Taliban. Two weeks ago, Taliban gunmen entered Mr. Jameel’s home and killed him, his wife, his uncle, his brother and his daughter.

Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division reminded the elders there were now two U.S. battalions and two Afghan National Army battalions in the province to provide security - a ten-fold increase. Now it was up to them. "The eyes of Kabul, the eyes of the world, are on Wardak Province," he told the elders.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Razeq, a respected mullah as well as the commander of the Afghan National Army forces in Wardak, was blunt. "This is for you. This is for your neighborhoods. This is for your communities. This is for your sons and daughters. Stand up," he said. "You have weapons. Stand up on your own two feet."

But the talk wasn't all inspirational. If the Zayawalat elders passed up the opportunity to provide 50 recruits, those slots would go to another village. And so would reconstruction funds, medical assistance and other aid.

Both articles ended similarly.

After two hours, the elders could not decide. Once again, they asked the Americans for more time.

The Americans shook their heads in exasperation.

“This is your last chance,” General Razik told the elders. “If you don’t take it, we are just going to associate you with the Taliban.”

And they agreed to meet again.

But that's not the end of the story. Here's the rest, from someone who is there:

Several of you wondered what the results were from this Thursday's deadline - did Zayawalat produce the 50 recruits, meaning they have decided to fight back against the Taliban, or did they cave to intimidation?

The answer?

That village produced not 50 recruits... but 80.

I felt like cheering when the village elder spoke passionately about how they have decided to fight back and not be intimidated by the Taliban. How they are sick of living in fear, they want their pride back, and they are willing to take some responsibility in protecting their own villages.

Amazing changes are happening here... one village at a time.

Related and found in the Dawn Patrol: Dr. Karl A. Slaikeu's Winning the War in Afghanistan: An Oil Spot Plus Strategy for Coalition Forces. Dr. Slaikeu is a Sr. Social Scientist on the US Army’s AF-4 Human Terrain Team (HTT) at FOB Ramrod in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

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