Over the last six months, U.S. troops have wrested the school away from insurgents. They’ve hired Afghan contractors to rebuild it, and lost blood defending it.
But the tiny school has yet to open, and nobody’s quite sure when it will.
American commanders have called the Pir Mohammed primary school “the premier development project” in Zhari district, a Taliban heartland in Kandahar province at the center of President Barack Obama’s 30,000-man surge.
The small brick and stone complex represents much of what American forces are trying to achieve in Afghanistan: winning over a war-weary population, tying a people to their estranged government, bolstering Afghan forces so American troops can go home. But the struggle to open Pir Mohammed three years after the Taliban closed it shows the obstacles U.S. forces face in a complex counterinsurgency fight — one whose success depends not on firepower, but on the support of a terrified people.
Similar battles are taking place across the country. In Marjah, for example, a former Taliban stronghold in neighboring Helmand province, several schools have opened since American-led troops overran the district in February. But many parents are still too afraid of violence and Taliban threats to let their children attend.
In Senjeray, too, “there are teachers … and we’ve found them and talked to them,” said Capt. Nick Stout, a company commander from the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. “We say, ‘When the school’s built, do you want to come teach?’ And they say, ‘No, no, I don’t, not at all.'”
Perched amid majestic mountain crags at the base of a fertile river valley, the village of Senjeray resembles a walled fort, 10,000 people living in a labyrinth of steep, hardened mud walls.
Pir Mohammed sits at the southeastern edge of the village, a pair of modest, single-story buildings that once served hundreds, maybe thousands of children. A small plaque at the entrance engraved with black words on light gray marble indicates U.S. troops refurbished the school “in friendship with the People of Afghanistan” in November 2002 — one year after the American invasion.
Canadians finished the school and opened it in 2005. But in 2007, Taliban fighters attacked it, breaking windows and busting doors off hinges. They took away a dozen students, cut the fingers off some and killed the parents of others, said Bismallah Qari, a 30-year-old black-bearded mullah from Senjeray.
The Taliban opposes Western-style education, and apparently saw the school as a symbol of government authority. Qari said the Taliban also believed children would be forced to study Christianity there.
Since then, Senjeray’s children have had only one place to go: a handful of Islamic madrassas run by conservative mullahs like Qari that some American commanders say are radicalizing a new generation of Afghan youth, turning them away from President Hamid Karzai’s government and the NATO coalition.
Speaking through an interpreter as American troops searched a recently filled hole in his madrassa they suspected held a weapons cache, Qari said he wanted his kids to attend Pir Mohammed, too, but “we can’t do it.”
“The Taliban won’t allow us to go there,” he said. “They’ll kill us, they’ll kill our children.”
Pir Mohammed occupies ground highly valued by the insurgency — part of a corridor the Taliban use to traffic arms and guerrillas through villages along the Arghandab River and into Kandahar city.
In April, American troops seized the school in a military operation backed by Afghan troops. They found it in ruins, its rooms reduced to toilets littered with needles, apparently for drug use.
When Stout’s unit arrived in May, he deployed two platoons to protect the school round the clock. On their second day, a U.S. soldier was shot in the lung, but survived.
For weeks, firefights erupted almost daily.
U.S. engineers knocked down walls and trees nearby where insurgents hide. Afghan security forces set up checkpoints on surrounding roads. And armored American trucks stood guard to defend the school’s crumbling outer walls.
The school itself was turned into a de facto military base: Stout’s men stacked sandbags in the windows and installed machine gun nests on the rooftops. They filled rooms with metal boxes of ammunition and anti-tank rockets, and slept on cots inside it.
The American occupation drew the ire of village elders. In mid-July, more than 300 turbaned men from Senjeray urged the provincial governor to pressure the Americans to leave Pir Mohammed. Stout said that in meetings afterward, elders told him the Taliban had pressured them to do so. Nevertheless, they reiterated the plea — and made a crucial promise in return.
“They were saying, ‘Look, if you get out of the school, we’ll protect the school,'” Stout recalled. “They said, ‘We got it. We’ll keep attacks from happening. And people will go there.'”
Withdrawing, in fact, was exactly what Stout wanted. It fit with the wider strategy of letting Afghan forces take on security, and freed Stout’s troops to secure more ground elsewhere.
So the American platoons pulled out in mid-August, leaving their Afghan counterparts in charge.
Instead of the peace the elders promised, attacks actually increased, Stout said. Within days, the school suffered two grenade assaults and a pair of shoulder-fired rocket strikes, one of which killed a seven-year-old boy playing outside.
At meetings that week with mullahs and elders, Stout’s team displayed a poster-sized photo of the wounded boy just after the explosion, his face bloodied with shrapnel.
“We said, ‘Look, how does this sit in your stomach? Does this bother you?'” Stout recalled. “We told them: ‘These people clearly don’t care about you, your family, or your livelihood.'”
The elders agreed, and Stout made a proposition: “Come bleed with us and defeat the bigger problem, help drive the insurgents out.”
At that, the elders drew back.
Some said they didn’t know who had carried out the attack. Others said there were no insurgents in Senjeray. Most said they were mere farmers, and if they cooperated with the Americans, the Taliban would cut their heads off.
Stout rebutted with a grim warning: “As long as you guys tolerate this, as long as you turn your backs, your children are going to continue to suffer.”
The elders nodded. They promised to escort American troops through Senjeray, where attackers hidden on rooftops tossed grenades at U.S. patrols nearly every time they passed by.
But in the weeks that followed, nobody ever turned up.
Qari, the local mullah, said Senjeray’s residents were caught in the middle and could not control the insurgency.
“We told the Taliban we don’t want your support, and we don’t want the support of the U.S. Army,” he said. “We told them: ‘We can ensure our own security, just leave us alone.'”
Part of the difficulty of winning over people in Afghanistan is that NATO-led forces are trying to do it in full body armor.
American troops live in fortified bubbles surrounded by blast walls and dirt-filled barriers. Their window onto the country is often an alien landscape that’s hard to see through inches-thick bulletproof glass covered in dust.
On the ground, American strategy often rests on fragile agreements between two groups worlds apart: young muscle-bound troops with crew cuts and tattoos and conservative white-bearded elders in turbans.
There may be no place tougher to win hearts and minds than Zhari. Here is where the Taliban movement was founded 16 years ago. A few miles to the west is Singesar, where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar once ran an Islamic school.
“Obviously there’s a lot of Taliban sympathy out there,” Stout said. “These people don’t give a damn about us … and quite frankly, why would they? We’re strangers, we’ve been here for a few months, we walk around the town with guns, 40 pounds of body army and (a lot of) grenades.”
Afghan troops, too, acknowledge the cold reception in Senjeray, where they are seen as foreigners trying to finish off an old war. Much of the Afghan army’s rank and file here is drawn from the north — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara — who fought the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban in the 1990s.
“The people in this town hate us,” said Lt. Said Abdul Ghafar, an ethnic Tajik soldier based at Pir Mohammed. “The Taliban tell them we’re not real Muslims, that we’re infidels. So the children throw rocks at us and won’t even say hello.”
This report is remarkably depressing. The irony is that there is not a single problem discussed above with the U.S. campaign in Kandahar that couldn’t have also been said of the U.S. campaign in Fallujah or Baghdad in 2007. We weren’t loved in the least.
But note what the focus of the discussion is not. It isn’t about wasting time, resources and blood defending an inanimate object that can neither hurt you nor love you (i.e., the school). It isn’t about the need to chase the insurgents and kill them. It isn’t about force projection of U.S. troops.
Note now what the discussion is about. The problem, says Stout, is that our boys are wearing 40 pounds of body armor and carry grenades. The problem is that they don’t “give a damn about us.” Stout’s focus is not on the legitimacy of U.S. troop actions, but of the ANA.
Is this the depth of strategic thinking among our officer corps? We are failing in Kandahar because we are wearing 40 pounds of body armor and carrying grenades?
In Fallujah in 2007, the IPs are the ones who didn’t give a damn about what the population thought of them. The fact that they knew they had the backing of the U.S. Marines made all the difference, and force brought legitimacy for the IPs. The notion that body armor separates the Soldiers from the people is patently absurd. What are we supposed to think about this? That the solution to winning their hearts and minds is to jettison the body armor and grenades? How many unnecessary deaths would that cause and how laughable would the U.S. Army appear to the population? How does it say “we’re here to win” if we get rid of our weapons and allow ourselves to be shot?
This wasn’t just SOF. This was everyone. This posture is what I don’t currently see in our campaign for Afghanistan.