By Army Spc. Jaime' DeLeon
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 1, 2009 - Coalition forces in this eastern Afghanistan province have learned that outreach to local residents can make a big difference in their ability to accomplish military operations and exercises. U.S., Czech and Afghan soldiers recently made a trip to Altimur village in what has become a routine way of building relationships with local residents that officials say is mission-critical.
Dozens of children rushed to their doors and windows to look out at the two lines of troops walking cautiously up the sides of the dirt road leading into their village. As the troops approached, their uniforms stood out against the lush green backdrop of the fields. Most of the soldiers veered off the side of the road and knelt in a security posture while a few went ahead to find the village elders. They had important matters to discuss and goods to give away.
Members of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, along with Afghan National Police officers and Czech soldiers, made the trip to the village outside of Forward Operating Base Altimur to distribute humanitarian aid, speak with elders about the village's needs and warn of the next day's artillery exercise, in which the troops would shoot rounds onto a nearby mountainside.
As word spread that the visitors were there to speak with the elders, old men with long beards and crisp, white clothes slowly made their way out of their homes. With the elders obviously not wary of the visitors, children quickly descended from their perches and circled the crowd.
At the sight of so many small children, many carrying their even smaller siblings, Army Staff Sgt. Dwaine Hood, a squadron team chief, dropped to one knee and carefully pulled some candy from his bag.
"My family sends me so much, I figure I can at least share some with the children," said Hood, a Kansas native whose wife was due to give birth to their second child any day. "Seeing the kids here reminds me of my daughter back home."
The children reached out with eager hands and shouted,
"Manana!" the Pashtu word for "thank you," along with an occasional "Thank you!" sprinkled in by some familiar with English. While the children swarmed around Hood, Army 1st Lt. Barry Klinger, a platoon leader with the squadron, discussed more serious matters with the village elders.
"How do you get your water? Do you have wells, or do you use the surface water?" Klinger asked with the help of an interpreter.
Potentially improving the village's water management was only one of the many future projects considered during the day's trip to Altimur. After a quick discussion, the elders excused themselves and went into a nearby field to pray.
Klinger took the opportunity to speak with the children, who took an interest in the Colorado native.
"How many children go to your school?" Klinger asked with the interpreter's help. He listened patiently to the absurd answers served up to him with mischievous smiles.
"Four hundred," one child shouted in perfect English. The small village appears to have maybe that many total residents.
Realizing questions of numbers probably were best left for the elders, Klinger taught his captive audience how to shake hands and give high fives. Initially shy boys soon anxiously awaited their turn to slap the American's hand after the interpreter demonstrated.
Following prayers, the elders took the American, Czech and Afghan soldiers on a tour of their well-maintained village, where the centrally located mosque and school stand side by side. The school was locked, and the man with the key far away, so the elders offered to break the lock.
"No, no, that's OK," Klinger assured them as they gathered in front of the building's porch instead.
Children were sent away so the adults could discuss the village's needs. The elders were excited to talk about possible improvements, but they were sceptical, citing past experiences with foreigners promising grand things and not producing.
"I understand how they feel," Hood said. "But I know our [head of civil affairs] personally, and I'm sure he'll win them over."
After distributing supplies, the soldiers discussed with the elders their plans for the next day's fire exercise.
"We have to make sure our neighbors know what's going on," Hood said. "We not only want to make sure they are not afraid when the artillery rounds start to hit, but we want to make sure there are no people or livestock accidentally in our impact area when the rounds start to hit."
In the past, wars have been fought with an emphasis on fighting and battle readiness. In today's war, nonkinetic lines of effort are just as important as shooting artillery and killing the enemy. The support of the population can be invaluable when fighting against an enemy like the Taliban.
"Lots of Afghans are still afraid of the Taliban and what they may do to them if they find out they support our efforts to help," Klinger said. "We have to work hard to gain their trust, which is why we go to such great lengths prior to an exercise. Telling them we will be shooting is a common courtesy we extend to neighbors, but it's important we go the extra mile by handing out humanitarian aid and assessing their needs."
(Army Spc. Jaime' DeLeon serves with the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)