Winning in Afghanistan may hinge on power of persuasion

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2010 

Lt. Col. David Flynn meets with residents of Babur.

DION NISSENBAUM/MCT

BABUR, Afghanistan — The American Army had arrived. Taliban fighters had been pushed on the defensive with surprising ease. With U.S. attack helicopters zipping by overhead, Babur elders gathered alongside swaths of red grapes drying in the southern Afghanistan dirt to hear from the new village rulers.

"You must make two decisions," Lt. Col. David Flynn told two dozen men who ventured out last week amid sporadic fighting to take part in the first town gathering under American military control. "Who will lead your village? And do you want to live under the Taliban or the government?"

The elders stroked their beards and fingered prayer beads as U.S. and Afghan soldiers waited for a response.

"We are not strong enough," one of the village elders finally said.

"If you allow us into your village, we will stand with you side by side," Flynn assured the men, who appeared unpersuaded.

As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division's "Top Gun" forces in Kandahar province's turbulent Arghandab valley, Flynn's ability to win over these anxious villagers in the coming months will help shape the outcome of President Barack Obama's military push to change the trajectory of the nine-year-old war.

Across southern Afghanistan, commanders such as Flynn are at the forefront of Obama's military surge, which is reaching its apex as U.S.-led forces make a crucial push to dislodge Taliban insurgents from their spiritual heartland.

American and Afghan forces are methodically targeting Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Taliban forces are responding by planting ceaseless swaths of deadly roadside bombs that are growing harder to detect. Insurgents are killing Afghan leaders who dare to join forces with the United States. They've also started to attack the newest American bases rising in their midst.

Flynn's soldiers began arriving in Afghanistan last spring as part of Obama's surge of 30,000 forces dispatched to target southern Afghanistan in hopes of putting the Taliban on the defensive and forcing insurgents to capitulate in peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Almost immediately, the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment faced fierce resistance from a mix of Afghan and foreign fighters that long have used the lush Arghandab Valley as a favored base of operations.

When Taliban forces staged relentless attacks that pushed one small base — Combat Outpost Nolen — to its limits, Flynn's soldiers put the insurgents on the defensive. Late last month, Flynn's men pushed north to set up a new base in one of the more punishing battlegrounds along the Arghandab River.

After taking more hits as they set up Combat Outpost Stout, Flynn turned his attention to Babur, a desolate village that anti-American insurgents use as a staging ground for attacks.

Last week, Flynn set out to establish a new base and checkpoint to give the U.S. military a permanent presence in Babur for the first time in recent memory.

After deadly battles at Stout and Nolen, the soldiers were bracing for their biggest fight of the summer. Instead, the Taliban forces ceded ground with little significant resistance.

The insurgents retreated to a dense redoubt known as the "Green Zone" where they could regroup and wait to see what the Americans had planned for Babur.

Relics of the West can be found in the village, where the bullet-scarred shell of a health clinic — built by outsiders and ravaged by the Taliban — waits to be refurbished.

"People in America think they have health care and education problems," Flynn quipped as Afghan soldiers who were taking cover inside the clinic opened fire on unseen militants who were peppering them with volleys of grenades.

Flynn, who also served in Iraq, is a solid advocate of America's counterinsurgency strategy, which places as much emphasis on wooing Afghan residents as it does on decimating anti-U.S. insurgents.

He eagerly accepted a command in southern Afghanistan, learned some basic Pashto so he could greet Afghans and views the valley's small contingent of American civilian strategists as key to U.S. success.

"We've killed hundreds and thousands of Taliban over nine years, and killing another thousand this year is not going to be the difference," Flynn said in an interview in an Afghan school that had been transformed into the "Top Gun" command center at a military base in the upper reaches of the Arghandab Valley.

On this scorching afternoon, using a smattering of Pashto spoken with a Massachusetts accent, Flynn was making his case.

"If we don't put a camp here, things will never get better," Flynn told the men sitting alongside him in the unsheltered dirt. "We'd like to stay here — at your invitation."

One after the other, the Afghan men challenged Flynn. They didn't want to get caught in the crossfire. They were trapped and powerless. Americans had come and gone before and left them to fend for themselves.

Flynn suspected that some of the men who were taking part in the meeting were Taliban sympathizers, so he tailored his message as much for the insurgent allies as for the ambivalent village farmers.

"We respect your opinion," he told the men. "And the Taliban should respect your opinion, too, as the graybeards of the village."

Flynn and his men already had a spot in mind for their newest outpost. Before the meeting, the 41-year-old commander from Norwood, Mass., had scoped out a modest mud-walled compound nearby. He just needed the elders to give their blessing.

Reluctantly, in an apparent breakthrough, the tribal elders eventually agreed to let the Americans set up a base in their village. They led the entourage off to show the soldiers where they could put it.

When Flynn and his men realized that the Afghans were leading them off to a remote corner of the village where they'd just faced a sustained Taliban attack, they stopped.

"They're afraid of each other," an Afghan army commander told Flynn as the men resumed their animated discussion. "The Taliban are always coming and going."

With no agreement in sight, Flynn led the entourage back to the compound his men had staked out as the best option.

"The people are not united," Flynn told his officers as they waited to see whether the persistent Afghan commander could persuade the elders to accept the base.

More men from the village arrived and joined the argument.

"If you want to put the checkpoint here, we will leave the area and go," one businessman warned Flynn.

Flynn was resolute, however.

"We think this should be the camp right now," the American colonel told the Afghan.

Eventually, an Army interpreter emerged from the scrum with a private message: Some of the men would tacitly accept the base, but they couldn't come out and say it because the Taliban were watching.

Assured of some detente, Flynn called in the construction crews.

"You know what this was like?" Flynn joked as he wrapped up the negotiations. "Buying a car in the United States. Back and forth, back and forth, and then you drive away."

Flynn's new car is Combat Outpost Babur, one of the newest American bases popping up across southern Afghanistan.

"They don't have any good options right now," Flynn said before heading back to his command center for more updates on the relentless skirmishes in the valley. "But they have to endure some pain for things to get better."

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