For Lewis-McChord troops, restoring Afghan sovereignty means locals make decisions

The (Tacoma) News TribuneApril 13, 2012 

When U.S. forces depart this rural district, home to the tribe of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, they’ll leave behind small monuments to their shifting strategies in 11 years of fighting here.

They tried the soft-handed approach, building a school soon after the war started. It’s a single-story building in heavy use with some 400 students. But it’s cracked and deteriorating. A U.S. team is overseeing the development of a two-story schoolhouse next door.

They sometimes brought a harder fist. The last Special Forces team that fought out of Forward Operating Base Sweeney sought to build an outpost in the middle of a town without first consulting elders. The locals rejected the idea. They’re still smarting at troops who refused to operate within the bounds of local customs.

The newest push calls on a company from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to take a middle path. These 100 or so Stryker soldiers are trying to solidify gains made in a decade of combat while boosting confidence in an Afghan government most villagers rarely see.

They have less than a year to make headway. If they fail, Shinkai District could revert to its historic place as an easy trafficking point for Taliban fighters and supplies.

Capt. Joe Mickley, who leads Lewis-McChord troops out of FOB Sweeney, makes his case when he walks local villages and bazaars. He chats up everyone who will talk to him and plays on their concerns for the future.

“It is too late for you and I to know peace,” the Lacey resident told the Shinkai school headmaster Tuesday. “It’s not too late for the children to know peace in their lifetimes.”

Mickley’s message was shaped in part by a team of social scientists at another NATO base in Zabul Province. The so-called Human Terrain Team is advising the 3rd Brigade on the roles U.S. forces should carry out as they leave the country and restore Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

“The security doesn’t come from killing a bunch of insurgents. It comes from giving people hope and something to identify with,” said Mark Southard, a member of the Zabul Human Terrain Team.

Mickley and his soldiers move toward that goal by steering requests for assistance to the Shinkai District governor and the local Afghan National Army unit. They cannot solve problems on their own anymore.

“It frustrates soldiers because you can’t just jump in and save the day like you used to,” Mickley said. “You’ve got to see the bigger picture.”

Sometimes supporting the governor and local leaders means accepting a choice Americans would not make.

“You’re handing off to them their own sovereignty,” Southard said. “If you’re too controlling, there won’t be that handoff.”

Mickley has been trying to build a checkpoint near the spot where the Special Forces team offended villagers. It’s an important trafficking hub, and the Afghan National Army wants to keep eyes on the road.

He and Afghan army leaders proposed a spot just above the village of Menden Kheyl on high ground that would afford them a view of the town. The villagers protested, and they were encouraged to challenge the proposal by a police commander named Maj. Mohammed Zahir.

Zahir’s actions undermined the first plan and frustrated Afghan army leaders. The compromise wound up being about the same distance from the town, but in a less secure location that could be assaulted or avoided with little effort by the Taliban.

Mickley privately called the spot “nuts.”

Shinkai District Governor Noor Mohammed was steadfast.

“The checkpoint is very important for us. It will be very effective,” he said in asking Mickley to accept the compromise.

Mickley did, and he’ll supply construction materials and soldiers to secure it initially.

“If you want the checkpoint here, we will build it here,” he told Noor, the police commander and an Afghan army commander. “It is a symbol of your power to build the checkpoint, and a symbol of our cooperation.”

The Taliban deal in different symbols.

A year ago, they invited elders from around the Shinkai District for shura. The elders were compelled to go to the meeting so that their villages would be protected.

The Taliban slaughtered the three elders with the most prestige and the greatest willingness to support American forces.

The deaths shocked the district.

“All the tribes are scared of the Taliban,” said Col. Gadan Mohammed Dost, who leads the Afghan army’s 1st Kandak here.

Villagers don’t talk openly about the Taliban to American soldiers. Instead Mickley and his soldiers look for clues that might help them gauge the activity of insurgents in the villages the U.S. troops visit.

Lt. Matt Domenech, 24, of Lacey, on Monday led a platoon on a foot patrol through a Shinkai village and was greeted warmly by children seeking candy and elders who wanted to talk over tea.

Their greatest concern was getting too comfortable.

“It’s easy when the kids are swarming and everybody’s looking at you to lose focus and get complacent,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Schoonover, 31, of Olympia.

He reminded his platoon after the patrol that they need to keep their guard up even in friendly encounters.

The elders teased Domenech and asked for his watch. One called him handsome and encouraged him to become a Muslim. The lieutenant gave the joking talk back to the Afghans.

“Perhaps when I am wise like you I can grow a beard like you,” he said through a translator.

The Afghans all laughed. He made a good impression.

“The Special Forces never came and sat down with us like you guys,” said elder Sardarjon.

“We are not troubled, we are very happy you came,” said elder Abdul Salam.

Domenech didn’t ask them directly about the Taliban. Instead, he offered Sardarjon a gift as he prepared to leave.

He stripped off the Indianhead patch all Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers wear on their left sleeves, the one that shows they belong to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division.

“This is from my tribe. I want you to have it,” he said.

“I cannot take it,” Sardarjon said. “The Taliban will kill me.”

And with that, Domenech understood the village was not as friendly as it looked.

To read more, visit www.thenewstribune.com.

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