Friend of the blog Paula Broadwell is knocking around Afghanistan, checking out operations, and visiting some West Point buddies, and will be filing occasional dispatches in the coming weeks. Here's the first installment.
By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense Afghanistan correspondent
It was early October and Combined Joint Task Force 1-320th was licking their wounds. A week earlier, 1-320th had just lost several KIA and WIA soldiers from heavy fighting in the Taliban-infested Arghandab River Valley. After suffering the tragic losses and the horrific daily amputees throughout week, the men were terrified to go back into the pomegranate orchards to continue clearing their AO; it seemed like certain death. The Taliban had planted IEDs in a dense pattern throughout their AO, and even the commander, LTC David Flynn, was concerned about the potential loss of life, but they could not afford to lose momentum.
The artillery unit, acting as a provisional infantry battalion, went on the offensive to clear a village, Tarok Kalache, where the Taliban had conducted an intimidation campaign to chase the villagers out, then create a staging base to attack 1-320th's outposts. The village of Tarok Kalache was laden with IEDs and homemade explosives (HME) comprised of 50-gal drums of deadly munitions. Special Operations forces conducted a successful clearing raid on the village. Then Flynn introduced the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), a rocket-projected explosive line charge which provides a "close-in" breaching capability for maneuver forces. The plan was for one team to clear a 600-meter path with MICLICs from one of his combat outposts to Tarok Kalache. "It was the only way I could give the men confidence to go back out."
On October 6, Flynn's unit approved use of HIMARS, B-1, and A-10s to drop 49,200 lbs. of ordnance on the Taliban tactical base of Tarok Kalache, resulting in NO CIVCAS. Their clearance of Babur, Khosrow Sofla, Charqolba Sofla, and other villages commenced October 7, aided by USSF, ABP, and an additional infantry company from B/1-22 IN. Not long after, Flynn shared one insight into the burden of command: "I literally cringed when we dropped bombs on these places -- not because I cared about the enemy we were killing or the HME destroyed, but I knew the reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life."
Flynn had received immediate guidance from his chain of command in November that there was a full-scale push to rebuild the villages. GEN Petraeus had visited the site in December and told Flynn he could approve up to $1 million projects. The DCO for 4th ID, LTC Vic Garcia, was able to rally support from the PRT, USAID, district governor, provincial water and land officials, Afghan Civilian Assistance Program (ACAP), and 1-320th to discuss the rebuilding effort.
Flynn's "build" approach was an inclusive one. Flynn also wanted a true GIRoA solution, demanding that all the Afghans from the village work this issue together, led by their malik. His concern was that the Afghans would run away with CERP funding and no homes would be rebuilt with the funds they had handed over. The build and compensation initiatives required careful oversight.
Compensation for "clearing" operations is not simple. Land ownership is a complex issue in Afghanistan, especially land purchased from the government. Very few landowners or tenants in the rural areas have deeds, and the provincial ministries will not issue a deed unless there is proof the owner paid taxes in the past.
The Task Force's reconstruction team had already spent hours in meetings in October and November with the people of Tarok Kalash and on the ground staking out the property lines and garnering consensus on who owned what. "We've had all the people vetted by the District Governor to verify that they are the true landowners." Second, land valuation is another challenge across the theater. Contractors exhibit a propensity to shoot for the moon on their estimates, gouging coalition forces unless the commander is wise enough to vet those sources as well. A third constraint is that ISAF law dictates that units can only compensate up to $10K per person for battle damage. The challenge with this is that there is unequal land and property distribution across nearly all villages in Afghanistan; one Afghan may own eight village compounds, while the majority of others own one or two. Flynn sought inputs from the villagers in Reconstruction Shuras to try to ensure they felt ownership in the rebuild effort.
By mid-December, Flynn's team had also evaluated and assessed damage to the ditch irrigation, the roads, the mosques, and the homes. During the December visit with GEN Petraeus, they had discussed planting pomegranate seedlings and alternative (faster-generating) commodity crops such as saffron to replace the pomegranate fruit trees destroyed in the process. He recognized that the villagers needed to regain some form of livelihood and incorporated the crop regeneration into his overall rebuild plan.
On that December visit, Petraeus commended Flynn's efforts and relayed to MG James Terry, the RC-SOUTH commanding general, to take a similar approach to what 1-320th was doing on a grander scale as it applies to the districts north of Arghandab. Flynn was confident in his unit's measures: "As of today, more of the local population talks to us and the government than talk to the Taliban, who provide no services to the people," claimed Flynn. "My goal now is to ensure we rapidly show some evidence of new structures or else the Taliban will nuke us with the 'information operations gun' in the spring and we have the potential to face additional fighters unnecessarily." Reconstruction for a mosque and groundbreaking for a new house begin this month.
On January 1, Flynn spoke with his biggest doubter in the village, "Mohammad," and re-emphasized that he "will not rest until his village is built." Mohammad, who in a fit of theatrics had accused Flynn of ruining his life after the demolition, acknowledged as he witnessed the groundbreaking that he did not believe the rebuild would happen until that very moment.
Earlier this week, a GIRoA delegation led by President Karzai's advisor, Mohammad Sadiq Aziz, said Afghan and foreign forces caused unreasonable damage to homes and orchards and displaced a number of people. Indeed, clearing operations are a necessary evil to weed out the Taliban, and they often leave devastating destruction in the wake. But what Aziz failed to note is the tremendous effort some units, like 1-320th, have made to rebuild his country. As of today, reconstruction efforts are well on track for Tarok Kalache and others in his AO. Mosque construction is underway, the irrigation canals and culverts are being restored, and the local government has been an active participant in the process of assisting the people of the village in rebuilding their homes. Just last week, the district governor, Shah Mohammed, signed land deeds for all 14 landowners of the village which will set the conditions for future land titles to be issued -- something that only happens in Kandahar City now. In the coming days, the villagers will be compensated and meet with local contractors approved by the district governor to begin rebuilding the homes. As Flynn likes to say to his troops, "Time to 'getterdun.'"
Paula Broadwell, a research associate at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership, is the author of the forthcoming (Penguin Press, 2011) book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. She will be blogging from Afghanistan through February.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.