The Magazine

On the Afghan Front

With the warrior-diplomats of Blackfoot Company.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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Khost, Afghanistan

TO GET A FEEL for the security situation in Afghanistan, talk to Major Noor Wahli of the Afghan Border Force. A slight man with warm hazel eyes, he has intimate knowledge of the jagged, barren hills around Border Checkpoint Four. A careful network of informants and delicate relationships forged with elders from the villages that pepper the valleys and redoubts along this frontier with Pakistan give him insight into the enemy that he and his new American allies face.

Two and a half years after the lightning U.S. victory over the radical Islamic Taliban regime that had oppressed this land for more than five years, and despite the expulsion of its al Qaeda paymasters, the United States still has work to do before Afghanistan overcomes its turbulent past.

To be sure, there are signs that the country may be on the road to lasting peace. In the immediate, however, violence is actually rising against Coalition military forces, aid workers, United Nations officials, and Afghan government representatives. The U.S. strategy has been to balance altruism and diplomacy with aggressive counterterrorism. Soldiers can, in one day, arrange for a mosque to be renovated in one village, and assault a neighboring village to capture a suspected terrorist. This "guns and butter" approach has so far served the United States well, in a country whose people are both proud and greatly in need of security. But it is in danger of unraveling, partly because the enemy is granted sanctuary in Pakistan, across the border Major Wahli guards.

One day in late April, some 50 U.S. soldiers walked up a steep rocky path to the village of Zan Shora on a mission that typifies the U.S. strategy here. The cheerful voices of two dozen boys and girls singing Islamic verse in unison wafted through the hot breezy air. Goats wandered lazily between the mud-brick huts, and chickens pecked at the rocky ground. War seemed the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

In the village, U.S. officers sat down alongside the village elder, Mohammad Janil, for some conversation. Talk ranged from the needs of the village and how the coalition could help, to the Afghan presidential elections coming up this September, to tribal rivalries with neighboring villages, to the threat from Taliban and al Qaeda holdouts and the smorgasbord of terrorist malcontents who have entered the region, striking U.S. and Afghan forces from their bastions in Pakistan.

It took a lot of prodding for Janil to accept U.S. help. The soldiers offered to buy some rugs for his madrassa--a favor Major Wahli suggested as an inexpensive way to forge good will--and said they'd send an engineering team to survey the village for a new well. At first Janil demurred. He said he was worried that terrorists from Pakistan would harass his village for receiving help from coalition forces. The soldiers assured him they weren't going anywhere and that Noor Wahli and his men, with U.S. help, would keep the village safe. He took a lot of convincing--even though he'd participated in the January loya jirga, the national tribal congress that set the stage for the elections. The soldiers were able to calm Janil's fears and build on their new cooperation to gain helpful intelligence on people filtering through the narrow valleys and along the goat paths that provide ample cover for Pakistan-based terrorists.

That's one way America is fighting for peace in Afghanistan. Warrior-diplomats like Captain Jonathan Chung, company commander for Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, build ties to local chieftains, using the all-powerful dollar in exchange for intelligence and a sliver of loyalty. Chung regularly eats a dinner of lamb and rice and drinks tea late into the night with Noor Wahli, discussing the needs of each village in the area, which elders can be trusted, and what malcontents might be passing through. The 28-year-old West Point graduate is conducting U.S. foreign policy in the remotest reaches of this country with only limited guidance and no diplomatic training. But with respect, honesty, and a sincere desire to help, Chung is getting the job done--as are senior enlisted officers, special operations forces troops, and even CIA operatives, across the country.

If only it were so easy.

On April 8, Chung got a chance to practice the counterterrorism part of his assignment. Anti-U.S. militants detonated an improvised explosive device in the dirt road that runs along the Afghan-Pakistan border in hopes of luring American troops in to investigate. A week earlier, a similarly placed IED had been detonated without provoking a firefight. This time, however, the bad guys had a sophisticated plan.