War on Terrorism

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taliban Country – Strong Point Khyber

By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs

February 22, 2010 - We’re in Taliban country. It took us eleven days, but we can now say we’re less than 150 yards from where the Taliban have heavy influence.I always assumed the closer you got to them, the more “war like” the environment would become. I imagined strong points like this to be under regular, heavy attack.

Without giving away any specifics, the Canadians live in a fort. It has huge walls and barbed wire and enough firepower to keep the Taliban at bay. They live and work with their Afghan National Army brothers and patrol with them daily.

Life is dangerous this close to the Taliban, they sneak around at night to plant IEDs and then the ANA and Canadians go looking for them. During the day, things seem to be relatively quiet. I asked a Canadian soldier who has lived here for the past five or six months and he said this place is 99 percent quiet and one percent excitement. They could go weeks without hearing a single gunshot. Granted, it is the winter months and it’s not “fighting season.” All the leaves have fallen off the nearby trees so the Taliban can’t get close to take accurate shots at the strong point. All of the soldiers expect the fighting to start up in the spring. The leaves act as war timers, fighting here grows along with them.

It is weird to sit here knowing the Taliban have heavy influence over the townspeople I see driving by and waving. The houses less than 150 yards for me are “controlled” by the Taliban. How can I sit on the roof, look over there and know that those poor people have to live with both a legitimate government and a shadow government operated by the Taliban?

The Taliban use fear to control the population. They stick letters to people’s doors in the middle of the night telling them to do this or that or we’ll kill you. They also provide basic governance to some people. If someone can’t get a conflict resolved with the Afghan government, they’ll go to the Taliban to resolve it.

I believe most Afghans just want to live a peaceful life. They just want to be left alone, raise their children and harvest their crops. If the Taliban tell them to be inside by 9 p.m., they do it because they don’t want their lives upset.

This is all happening just down the road from me. So why isn’t the coalition doing anything about it? They are, but it’s a matter of time. When you’re talking about so many different aspects of society, all having to be built up together, such as security, governance, education, development, road paving or even electricity and water, it simply takes a lot of time, money, resources and manpower. This is where the counter insurgency strategy comes in. You have to start somewhere and the dedication of resources goes to the areas with greatest impact. Large cities like Kandahar and Kabul are high on the list because so many people live and work there. Once these large areas are secured and developed has started, the Afghan Government works its way out to the smaller areas. Where I’m at now hasn’t been reached yet so although there’s troops here protecting and route clearing, it may be awhile before the coalition forces can clear the Taliban, hold the area and then start developing.

There’s not much the Taliban can do but harass and scare the Afghans, place IEDs and attack the strong point every now and then, while we sit right here. It’s just a matter of time before they’re pushed out of this area. Until that time comes, the Afghan National Army and the Canadians here will continue to build the trust, friendships and cooperation of the local people. These relationships will be important once the area is cleared of the Taliban.

Writing that sentence makes it almost sound as if you can walk down the street and point out the Taliban. In all my travels, I’ve never met anyone who can point out a Taliban. Even the people may not know who they are because all they get is some letter on their door saying “do this or we’ll kill you.”

It’s not an easy task and I don’t envy those who have to come and clear this area. But the time will come when the good guys will clear, hold and then develop this area.

For now, and for the past six years, the same group of Afghan National Army soldiers has been fighting the Taliban here. They often clear the roads and interact with the local population. I could tell a these ANA soldiers were different when I first arrived and had a chance to talk with the Canadian soldiers about them extensively.

These ANA soldiers know these roads and they know the people. Although some of their tactics may seem strange to foreigners, this is how experience has taught them to fight. To them, Afghanistan isn’t a six month deployment or a national debate about whether to stay or go – this is their life, they are fighting for their children futures. There is no going home, and there is no surrendering. They know what they want and their out here fighting for it.

As I sat down and ate dinner with the Canadian Soldiers, all three agreed they would trust these ANA soldiers with their life, and if allowed, would go on a patrol with them by themselves. A fourth soldier said “I would trust the ANA with my life, but not with my money … but I don’t trust my brother with my money or my friends with my sister either.”

This struck a chord with me because just the other day, I wrote I would only go on patrol with the ANA if other coalition forces were there to mentor them. These ANA are so professional and the Canadians had so much faith in them, I need to rethink that sentence.

Visiting Khyber was exactly what Ken and I hoped for. We’ve seen the small teams of Canadians living with and working with their Afghan partners. The Afghans proved to be exceptionally good at what they do, so much so the Canadians are learning from them. Tomorrow, we’re going to look for IEDs with all of them. It should be a fascinating experience. The ANA supposedly use their own methods to find IEDs, and while they may not be as rigged or precise as ISAF standards, they are Afghan standards and experience has been their greatest teacher.

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