The Best Defense

Travels with Paula (III): Arghandabis like the coalition reconstruction efforts

After igniting a blogostorm with her first two files, Paula Broadwell charges into the breach once more.

By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense agent provocateur

I went out on patrol this week with soldiers from the 1-320th Field Artillery Regiment, the Top Guns, to see the leveled village of Tarok Kalache and check out the new mosque under construction. Individual property stakes were neatly pounded into the ground across the small village site which was about the size of a football field. Afghan contractors were hard at work, having already dug the foundation and established walls for the ground level of the village mosque.

A tent nearby spewed smoke from the stove where the contractors cooked for themselves. Villagers walked by to peek at the construction with curiosity. Children played on the road nearby, circling their bikes, waving at the soldiers, ogling the first female ‘patroller' they'd ever seen in the area. A long line of the cash-for-work villagers, I'd guess two dozen, walked or pedaled their rickety bikes past us as we stood watching the mosque construction make progress.  

Perhaps I had a false sense of security, but everyone I passed on the patrol was extremely friendly and happy to interact with the soldiers along the way. In fact, their dusty faces were all smiles. It didn't appear to me, as Spencer Ackerman on Wired.com and others have concluded, "that popular goodwill . . . dried up" after the village razing three months ago. Ackerman writes from the U.S. that he thinks "this property destruction has likely reset the clock on any nascent positive impressions." I would have thought the same until I came here to see it for myself. But with boots on the ground, one can see that the Top Guns' efforts to rebuild and the locals' enthusiastic and engaging response run counter to that.

After my fourth cup of tea with the Tarok Kalache Malik, the elected village representative, I asked him about the villagers' perceptions of coalition efforts, especially those relating to the Top Guns' airstrikes last summer after the Taliban had driven out all villagers. How devastating had that been on their livelihood? I also wondered how the razing of a village squared within the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy. I thought the Malik might present a different story than the U.S. and Afghan National Army forces.

"We resented that the Taliban had taken our village and our livelihood," he responded. "We understand that their control of our village and the use of it as a staging ground for operations against coalition forces was what led to its destruction."

The Malik further vouched to the Top Guns that there had been no civilian casualties during the strike. He knew where all the villagers had been displaced to back when the Taliban pushed them out. I confirmed later this week that SOF team had had eyes on the small village prior to the strikes, confirming that the village was clear of civilians. Top Guns and their "enablers" had gone to great efforts to ensure there were no civilian casualties.

I asked my interpreter to explain the context of my question in a different way to ensure the Malik understood. "You don't blame coalition forces for going after a Taliban stronghold at the expense of your homes?"

"No. We do not harbor resentment against the coalition forces."

"Would you rather we leave? Has our presence caused problems for you?"

"No. We want Commander Flynn to move into our new village with us. We don't want you to leave. The Taliban will return."

The Malik went on to express his gratitude for the Top Guns' efforts to establish security in the area. He said he knew the "Screaming Eagle" patch meant something different. They had helped bring peace to this Taliban stronghold last fall. 

When I asked him if he truly believed they would finish the job, he pulled out a piece of paper with the blueprint for his new home, which the Top Guns project officer, Capt. Pat McGuigan, had helped draw up for each of the villagers. "Yes," he said, with conviction. "And the ongoing construction at Tarok Kalache reaffirm my belief," he added.

McGuigan pushed the village elders and the Malik to lead their own effort to divide and claim the land. They had spent multiple days meeting in "reconstruction shuras," drawing and redrawing property lines, using village negotiation mechanisms to achieve a fair distribution that everyone agreed upon.

In light of the Malik's input, the view from the Beltway seems skewed. Ackerman concludes that "destroying Tarok Kalache - in order, apparently, to rebuild it - has meant jeopardizing whatever buy-in local Afghans gave U.S. troops for fighting the Taliban in the Arghandab, which has been the scene of fierce fighting for months." But the village was not "destroyed in order to rebuild it." As stated in a previous post, it was an uninhabited Taliban sanctuary used for manufacturing homemade explosive devices and booby-trapped with IEDs when the air strikes were called in.

Ackerman cites Erica Gaston, an Afghanistan-based researcher with the Open Society Institute, and says that the area is now a "virtual no-go by civilian means because of the security concerns . . . limiting the ability of analysts, including Gaston, to independently assess what happened." It wasn't a "virtual no-go" when we walked there a few days ago, for me or dozens of children, or farmers and other villagers who are part of the cash-for-work program. In fact, without sounding too Pollyannaish, it was a actually a very refreshing walk by the orchards at the foothills of the rugged Afghan mountains. The highlight for me were all the giggly, curious children along the way.

After meeting with the Malik, I interviewed one of the Top Guns' soldiers who fought to secure the area near Talok Kalache. Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Lyon was awarded a Silver Star for his valorous efforts to lead his team on a dismounted assault through this area. Months ago it had been littered with IEDs roughly every 60 meters that had taken the lives and limbs of over half dozen of his team last fall. On our patrol that day, I had passed the point where Lyon had helped to gather two legs and an arm belonging to a platoon member who had stepped on a pressure plate IED on a shaping mission prior to the Tarok Kalache strike. It was the same area we freely walked through on our hike today as villagers. I was moved by this soldier's ability to soldier on and maintain his dedication to the mission after such a tragic fall.

Lyon is now engaged in this reconstruction work to "hold and build" the village. Lyon told me that in the days after contractors had begun reconstruction at the village site (a month or so after the razing), several hundred villagers per day began to pass by the combat outpost established there to maintain security. They were thanking Allah for these efforts, the translator told me, as they begin to return to their farms and orchards. Some of them had not felt safe enough to farm in this area for twelve years. Clearly, they apparently felt safe enough the past month or two.

Rather than simply disperse bulk cash compensation funds, the Top Guns have decided to oversee the reconstruction in Tarok Kalache for several reasons: to ensure accountability in the spending of funds; to demonstrate tactical success and make sure the village was rebuilt before they leave the theater, and to try to help the people return and establish their defenses before the new fighting season begins.

What has happened in Arghandab during this "build" phase is not unique. There are additional places in Kandahar and Helmand provinces where other battalions have forged good relationships with locals and have begun building efforts and measured similar signs of progress. Every mature Special Operations Task Force Village Stability Operation site in the theater (to be discussed in a forthcoming blog) exhibits similar cooperation amongst Afghan villagers, local leaders, ISAF and ANSF partners working together. 

In the Arghandab and elsewhere, the Top Guns measure progress in their area with a few salient and telling indicators, among them: the frequency and density of farmers returning to their fields, the increasing number of weapons caches exposed by villagers, and the number of Afghans applying for cash-for-work programs, the tips given to ISAF and ANA security regarding Taliban activity. Between 600 and 800 villagers now show up each week on the west side of the Arghandab to receive cash-for-work to improve their communities. The improved roads connecting the villages, and the flow of water through new canals which were built by the cash-for-work efforts is also illustrative of their efforts. It also refutes the bloggers who claim that goodwill by the villagers has dried up. Quite the contrary, at least in this village. (See OPSUM's graph on enemy activity trends.)

Gen. David H. Petraeus's counterinsurgency guidance calls on coalition forces to be first with the truth. So truth be told, U.S. forces use air strikes. Air strikes cause destruction. They are most often and preferably a means of last resort; and in most cases, as in this one, require eyes on the target to confirm no civilian casualties. All true. But another truth is that they don't necessarily lead to setbacks in the operational design or overall strategy. In fact, my analysis would be that the Top Guns have achieved a small victory here -- clearing the Taliban sanctuary, setting the conditions for the return of the villagers, providing them with a sense of security and stabilization, expanding the inkspot of security in the south, and exhibiting coalition and Afghan partner forces' commitment to the mission. An additional truth is that it is too early to tell if this small tactical victory will lead to a strategic success. But it is certainly a stretch to deduce that it has harmed the overall COIN effort.

Paula Broadwell is a research associate at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership and author of the forthcoming (Penguin Press, 2011) book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Because her idea of a good time is riling up Josh Foust and Spencer Attackerman, she will be blogging from there through February, or, who knows, maybe March.

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