US soldiers ask ‘who is the enemy?’

Afp May 28, 2010

BERLANDAY/AFGHANISTAN: As Afghan village leader Gul Agha pours another cup of tea for American soldiers sitting under his grape trellis, they get to the point of their visit: they don’t want him to quit.

As the US military leads a massive build-up of forces in Kandahar the toughest job is knowing who to trust.

When 1st squadron 71st cavalry regiment arrived in the province last month, outgoing Canadian soldiers told them that as an ex-Taliban, the village head was their best source of intelligence on the bombs being laid in their path.

Unfortunately, as they tried to build bridges, Gul Agha quit.

“We have no informants right now, we’re still working on it. We have been here a month,” said Lieutenant Joe Theinert, 24. “They don’t trust you when you first arrive,” he said.

The fight for Kandahar is seen as crucial to a US strategy to end the nearly nine-year and costly conflict against the Taliban.

The counter-insurgency doctrine means that in Kandahar’s Dand district, as in countless areas of Afghanistan, troops are working on security and development in a bid to win over Afghans and leave secure structures in place.

But public support is dwindling.

US Captain Jon Villasenor, 36, said the toughest aspect is knowing who to trust.

“We don’t know who the enemy is,” he said.

“I don’t feel I’m fighting Taliban, I feel I’m maybe fighting a criminal element or maybe a disenfranchised element that may be influenced by Taliban.

“I wish he’d wear a uniform and a name plate that said ‘enemy’. Once I understand his motivations and ideology I can target that and leverage that against him.

“Until then I’m kind of fumbling around,” he said.

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai considers opening dialogue with the  Taliban ahead of a “peace jirga”, or national conference of political and community leaders in early June, Villasenor said lower-level fighters are motivated less by ideology than by money and fear.

In Berlanday village, Gul Agha tells the Americans he is on their side, but after reportedly surviving two assassination attempts, repeated beatings and death threats for working with their predecessors, he has had enough.

“I promised to support the Americans and Canadians but I haven’t done that,” Gul Agha told Theinert.

“There isn’t security, they put IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in this village, so I have to stop,” he added.

Villasenor calls a meeting of his top men to brainstorm their next move,

greeing that continuing to talk over tea is the best step.

“The only way to get left of the boom in this fight is intelligence,” says First Sergeant Ben Pingel.

“And the only way to get intelligence is to gain their trust.”

Published  in the Express Tribune, May 29th, 2010.