By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 14, 2010 - As time for their pre-mission brief drew near, route-clearance crews here began to gather around Army 1st Lt. Chris Johnson, their platoon leader. Dawn had begun to break, and as the sun peeked over the horizon, the cloudless, star-choked, purple sky promised once again to transform itself into a sea of brilliant blue by mid-morning, coupled with pleasantly moderate temperatures – a staple of the region this time of year.
At this early hour, however, a winter chill still hung in the air during this late-December morning, evidenced by the visible breath of the troops, who warmed themselves with gloves, hot coffee, and sea-foam-colored fleece caps pulled low over their heads.
As Johnson prepared to speak, a senior noncommissioned officer waved the crews closer. They responded by forming up in a semicircle facing the junior officer.
"Intelligence says there was a cache found [nearby] containing quite a bit of bomb-making materials, but other than that, there is nothing new," Johnson, of Basehor, Kan., began. "We'll be the first mission down this route in a few weeks."
Johnson went on to provide further details of the mission that would be carried out by crews belonging to the 41st Engineer Company, an Army component based at Fort Riley, Kan., and the 5-3 Field Artillery Company, which is based at Fort Lewis, Wash. He discussed the routes, the destinations, and the mission's goals, which included many of the same objectives these route-clearance troops have been accomplishing regularly during their six months in Afghanistan.
But Johnson outlined some additional components that, when added to the big picture, could contribute as much toward defeating extremism here as any offensive military action, and with greater approval from residents.
While the primary focus of the 41st's mission was to clear key routes of improvised explosive devices, a large public-relations aspect applied, as well.
"At tent city, we'll hop out and drop off the boxes of clothing to the residents there," Johnson told his crews, referring to a tented community called Chamtala, where the unit planned to distribute clothing donated by U.S.-based charities.
And later, at the end of the route, the crews would rest overnight at an Afghan National Police compound, Johnson said.
Less than a half-hour later, crews sat anxiously in their vehicles waiting for the command to move out. When it came, they moved out one by one, their lumbering mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles roaring to life, leaving diesel fumes and thick, roiling dust in their wake.
As the column made its way toward the base entrance, Afghan soldiers fanned out across busy asphalt streets to halt traffic so the convoy could proceed unimpeded and remain together. Once clear of the base, the tan-colored column weaved methodically through Jalalabad's crowded thoroughfares, passing through various market districts clogged with cars, three-wheeled carts and shoppers.
It was nearly 20 minutes before the convoy finally broke free of the downtown congestion, but once clear of bustling Jalalabad, the convoy steadily increased its speed, taking advantage of the rare stretch of paved road.
Shortly before 9 a.m., the column of MRAPs eased into Chamtala and ground to a halt, disgorging soldiers and boxes of clothing.
Within seconds, the troops were inundated by residents, mostly children, who streamed out of nearby tents and plywood-built shops in a mad dash to greet the soldiers bearing gifts.
In a sort of controlled chaos, children of all sizes – and all smiles – clamored for the clothing, and the soldiers distributed the contents of all three large boxes in moments. By any measure, the public relations "mission" was a resounding success, evidenced by the satisfied smiles and abundant laughter from the scores of kids who continued to mob the soldiers and compete for their attention.
But the children weren't the only ones enjoying themselves. Each member of the 41st and 5-3 took great pleasure in those few moments playing Santa Claus. For many, it may even have been the highlight of their day, if not the entire mission.
The mission continues
For the remainder of the day, the convoy plodded along its route, stopping occasionally to investigate potential IED finds but, fortunately, coming up empty-handed.
Once, the column halted to investigate the sighting of what appeared to be a young man armed with a rifle. Upon spotting the individual, Johnson ordered a half dozen soldiers to dismount up the side of hill dotted with agricultural plots to investigate. In the end, the soldiers rounded up a small group of teenage boys who were armed only with a dilapidated BB gun – hardly a threat to the convoy or the surrounding community.
On this day, the route-clearance mission still was the primary focus for the crews, but the part with the most impact thus far clearly had been the distribution of clothes at Chamtala.
"I think public relations missions, in conjunction with [the primary] mission, are important," said Army Capt. Reggie Rice of Lee, Maine, commander of the 41st. "If I can hand out candy and school supplies, great, [but] that stuff lasts only a short time. If I'm handing out a message that convinces the [Afghans] that my soldiers are here to protect them from IEDs and allow them to travel the roads safely, that will have lasting sweetness for the people of Afghanistan and my soldiers."
At the police compound
Around 4 p.m., after hours of sitting in cramped MRAPs being jostled and choking on dust, the weary crews pulled into an Afghan National Police compound overlooking a small community in Nangahar province – not far from Tora Bora, the region believed to have been a temporary sanctuary for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The compound was in rocket and mortar range of insurgents, who often launched attacks from a small mountain range to the east less than a half a mile away, said Army Staff Sgt. Cody Newby of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a vehicle truck commander.
That would be a concern for Johnson and his men, who deployed their MRAPs strategically within the compound to guard against any attack, but it was important to be seen as sharing the responsibility for the defense of the base with the Americans' Afghan partners.
As crews powered down vehicles and dismounted for a much-needed stretching of legs, many broke out packaged meals along with bottles of electrolyte beverages, water and energy drinks – the latter of which were largely shared with the Afghan police who quickly gathered to observe the Americans as they set up to spend the night.
They were not alone. Local Afghans gathered at the compound's perimeter, sitting in groups of a dozen or so while observing the Americans and the Afghan police as they went about their business. As American soldiers walked by, they stared curiously but remained silent.
Meanwhile, though temperatures had been very moderate throughout the day – warming up into the mid-60s – a chill once again filled the dusk air as the dazzling yellow-orange sun began to fade below the western horizon.
Soldiers, inquisitive about their surroundings, began touring the compound's administrative buildings and its observation posts. They exchanged some conversation and laughs with their Afghan counterparts, made possible by Afghan interpreters traveling with the crews.
By 6 p.m., the sun had set completely and temperatures had fallen well below 30 degrees, as a brilliant full moon began to rise in the night sky, highly visible against a backdrop of billions of stars.
Soldiers gathered wood for a small fire they started in an earthen recession away from the convoy's vehicles. Throughout the night, the Americans and their counterparts intermingled, shared laughs and chai tea – a favorite drink among Afghans – around the flames. By midnight, most had peeled off to catch some sleep, the Afghans fading into their compound and the Americans either spreading out by the fire, bundling up in sleeping bags or curling up inside their MRAPs.
Perhaps dissuaded by the heavy American presence, there were no rocket or mortar attacks overnight, allowing the camp to rest in relative tranquility – a welcome development for the tired, haggard soldiers.
The following morning, crews began stirring just before daybreak, going through their rituals of personal hygiene, stowing sleeping bags and cots and seeking nourishment. By sunrise, some had migrated back to the fire pit, where a combination of U.S. soldiers and Afghan police were taking the edge of the early chill by soaking up heat emitted by the crackling flames.
One police officer brought a large pot full of chai tea that he then shared with the Americans. Soon after, another brought a stack of warm, steaming flatbread, a staple in the diets of many Afghans.
The Americans flocked to the flatbread, each of which resembled a 12-inch pizza crust, devouring it with enthusiasm. The consistency of breadsticks, the balmy treat had a hint of sweetness and an inner consistency of a pancake. It didn't take long for the large stack of flatbread to disappear, along with the entire pot of robust, orange-hued tea.
Rejuvenated, the American crews prepared to move out next, gathering once more around platoon leader Johnson as he briefed the day's mission to return to Forward Operating Base Fenti. Not much had changed from the initial brief given the day before; crews were to remain vigilant as they concentrated on clearing the route of IEDs.
Before mounting up, the Americans bid their hosts farewell, thanking them for their hospitality and taking with them memories they will no doubt carry for a lifetime. Perhaps equally important, the camaraderie shared may have contributed toward fostering the kind of long-term relationships necessary to build trust, confidence and cooperation essential to keeping Afghanistan free from extremism over the long run.
The next mission
Two days later, crews from the 41st and 5-3 departed Fenti once more, again primarily to conduct route clearance but also to make another deposit into the Afghan bank of good will. Three hours later, traveling on largely paved roads, the convoy turned around then halted in a small village southwest of Fenti. Crews dismounted, and again, children mobbed them.
The eyes and smiles of the children grew even larger as they watched while soldiers produced bags of candy and treats. Anticipating the giveaway, they grew ever noisier and more animated, their arms outstretched toward the towering soldiers, their hands groping the air, hopping up and down.
For the next 15 minutes, soldiers gave away bags of candy and treats, each bag received even more boisterously than the previous one. As the bags grew smaller, the smiles grew larger.
Other kids were satisfied just to be interacting with the soldiers. One boy in particular pulled Army Command Sgt. Major Steve Steunkel of the Missouri Army National Guard's 203rd Engineer Battalion, who was accompanying the route-clearance patrol for the day – off to the side to show him he was learning to write the English alphabet.
The boy, perhaps 9, immediately was surrounded by his peers as he proudly showed off his skills to Steunkel by scratching letters out in the dirt.
Other children offered to exchange Pakistani currency – 10 rupees – for American dollar bills, while still others just seemed to want to be close to the Americans.
At times, Afghan adult men would show up to shoo the children away from the Americans, but within minutes after the adults left, the children began to crowd the Americans and their machines again. Soon the men would return and the process would repeat itself.
An hour later, the order was given to mount up and, as the crews took up positions inside their MRAPs, the children instinctively backed off and kept watch several feet away, safely off the roadway. As the convoy pulled out, they waved and cheered, flashing "thumbs-up" signs and always, always smiling.
A successful mission
By the time the convoy reached Jalalabad, it was well past sunset. Snaking through downtown, the MRAPs passed scores of shops lit up like nightclubs, their multi-colored lights shining brilliantly in the darkness, as throngs of people continued to choke the streets and sidewalks.
A thick, dust-and-fumes-laden cloud hung over the streets, churned by thousands of people and cars and illuminated by a combination of lights from businesses, streetlamps and vehicles. The combination of elements – people, vehicles, donkey carts and open-air markets – made Jalalabad at night seem almost surreal, said Plano, Texas, native Army Spc. Brian D. Miller of the 5-3, an MRAP crew member.
As the convoy eased into Fenti, the low growl of the MRAPs nearly drowned out by the bustling sounds of the surrounding city, the end of a long day was near. As vehicle systems were powered down and weapons unloaded, crews policed up their trash and belongings as they waited in line to refuel.
And while the convoy had not found any IEDs, the mission commanders were nonetheless calling it a success.
"With [public relations] efforts that convey a relationship of trust between soldiers and local [residents] we don't have to [find IEDs to be successful]," Rice said. "In addition, the PR missions can demonstrate that we are providing a hand to get local communities on their feet, and not an oppressive thumb to crush them under."
Allegiances in Afghanistan can be fleeting unless they are continually nurtured and developed, some analysts have observed. But a people hungry for peace and prosperity – and an American and NATO force visibly dedicated to laying the necessary groundwork to achieve such goals – won't have to be convinced to buy in.
(Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves with the 203rd Engineer Battalion.)