US troops reassure Afghan elders worried by withdrawal
By Thibauld Malterre (AFP)
NARANG, Afghanistan — Ghulam Nabi has a problem: for the last year he has worked with US soldiers to improve livelihoods and security in his district of Afghanistan. Now he worries they will leave.
President Barack Obama's strategy for bringing peace to the country eight years after US-led troops ousted the Taliban may involve sending 30,000 extra troops into battle. But it enshrines July 2011 as the start of their withdrawal.
"Why does he want to pull out soldiers from Afghanistan in a year and a half?" says Nabi, head of the eastern district of Narang. "I'm really worried."
Sitting opposite, Lieutenant Colonel Mark O'Donnell tries to reassure Nabi, an Afghan elder on whom the Americans depend in the battle for hearts and minds that is part and parcel of the struggle against Taliban insurgents in Kunar province.
"I want him to know our commitment is going to continue for a long time," O'Donnell explains through his interpreter.
Obama says there should be no debate about his date for the start of the US drawdown and transfer of responsibility to the Afghan people.
The timeline may not be well known in Afghanistan, where 70 percent of people are illiterate and only a minority have television sets. But elders and governors who have been empowered by the US-led invasion and subsequent alliances with the Americans are worried about the future.
"I'm happy if you're staying here longer," says Nabi, who knows his alliance with the Americans in an area so close to the Pakistani border and infested with Islamist extremists could cost him his life.
Reassured, at least temporarily, he leads O'Donnell into a gathering of local tribal elders, a shura, where influential men of the area hold steaming glasses of tea and thrash out the problems of the day.
About 30 elderly men with beards, snuggled in blankets to keep off the cold, discuss deteriorating security, drug trafficking, smuggling and road accidents.
O'Donnell shows respect: he takes care to remove his helmet, bullet-proof jacket and sunglasses, which give American soldiers an almost inhuman image in the eyes of Afghans, and says a few words in Pashtu.
After a year on the ground, his 1st Batallion, 32nd Regiment, 10th Mountain Division are preparing to leave and hand over to fresh soldiers arriving on the cusp of the new strategy, which has building bonds with Afghans at its heart.
"What I have learned this year: the power is in the people, the power is in the tribe. They are stronger than the coalition and much, much stronger than insurgents," O'Donnell tells the gathering.
"I look at the insurgents like a spider. When a spider comes at an ant, there is nothing the ant can do against the spider.
"But if the spider comes at an ant hill, all the ants together will kill the spider. The ant hill is the people, the tribes," he says, to nods all round.
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