US unleashes new anti-Taliban weapon: charm

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The Independent Online

Colonel Scott McBride had gathered together the villagers of Daychopan, a Taliban stronghold in the mountains south of Kabul, to make them an offer they could not refuse.

Colonel Scott McBride had gathered together the villagers of Daychopan, a Taliban stronghold in the mountains south of Kabul, to make them an offer they could not refuse.

The villagers were on edge. Two hours earlier the Americans' had arrived in terrifying style. Three giant Chinook helicopters, each the size of a bus, had dropped out of the sky at dawn and landed in boiling clouds of dust and sand thrown up by the rotors. Startled farmers emerged blinking from their mud fortress-homes to see what was happening.

Assault guns pointing in every direction, young American soldiers began methodically searching for arms caches and Taliban suspects, barging into homes and training machine guns on the streets as their radios crackled out instructions.

"The Taliban aren't here," said one surly shopkeeper. "Perhaps they are up in those mountains," he said, pointing to spectacular ranges of sun-baked jagged rocks in the middle distance beyond the valley's almond fields.

The morning before two teenagers with AK-47s had been shot as they tried to make a run for it during a raid on a village in a neighbouring valley. One boy's head was blown apart by a burst of gunfire.

So the atmosphere across the cups of green tea and plates of banana creme biscuits was tense at first as the American officers sat awkwardly cross-legged on the carpet in kevlar helmets and bullet-proof jackets addressing a collection of anxious-looking men in huge turbans.

What happened next left the villagers bemused. What did they want the most, Colonel McBride demanded - a new school, a well to be dug, a doctor for the derelict clinic? "Just tell us what you want and how we can help you," he urged while the villagers furiously stroked their long Taliban-style beards and stared as if unable to believe their luck.

"Have you come to build or come to destroy?" one of them had nervously asked before the meeting. They remember Soviet soldiers whose policy was to carpet-bomb villages, not build schools for them.

On the roof above were snipers in position, watching the scruffy bazaar where GIs in sunglasses tried smiling and waving at scowling tribesmen in a charm offensive. The soldiers have been warned to tone down the raids and ensure fewer doors are kicked in and suspects handcuffed. The military is here to make friends as well as hunt down enemies.

The days of "smoke 'em out" must seem like long ago for the 17,000 US combat troops still scouring Afghanistan for Al-Queda and the Taliban, whose insurgency refuses to die and is probably growing. The military, overstretched in southern Afghanistan's endless barren mountain ranges and facing often hostile populations, accepts that it will never by itself beat the Taliban, a stubborn if disorganised enemy.

They are still fighting a vicious war 235 Charlie Company has suffered 11 casualties since it arrived in April and the tactiturn FBI men who took charge of blindfolded suspects were evidence of the ongoing hunt for Al-Queda and the Taliban.

But now the emphasis is on building up Afghan security forces and winning over the conservative Pushtun tribes who have always been the Taliban's main supporters.

The hope is that development projects funded by the US government - the Vietnam-era phrase Hearts and Minds is meticulously avoided - will win friends while security sweeps force the Taliban into the high mountains.

The guerrillas' hold is based on fear, the Americans insist. Villagers sick of war and Taliban banditry are increasingly tipping them off about hideouts, ambush plans and arms caches - usually of weapons supplied to anti-Soviet guerillas by the CIA's 1980s covert operation and now turned against American boys in scrappy firefights.

In the complex world of Pushtun tribal politics, however, where hedging your bets and saying what your listener wants to hear are strategies for survival, finding the right people to make friends with does not always prove easy.

District police chief Mohammed Wahid was the man chosen to do business with in Daychopan, although the meeting with him and the other villagers was a case of American can-do spirit versus Afghan inertia.

Mr Wahid was doubtful that any doctor would dare to come to his village, deep in lawless Zabul Province, and he was sure that teachers would be killed by the Taliban. He liked the idea of a new well but didn't think the Americans would find a contractor brave enough to dig one.

Outside his delapidated headquarters the soldiers inquired about bullet holes sprayed in the police chief's pick-up truck, obviously the result of a kalashnikov magazine being emptied into the vehicle from dead ahead.

It was a Taliban ambush that killed one of his twenty men, Mr Wahid said vaguely. The Taliban had also killed a man last week, a government employee.

Exactly how Mr Wahid managed to survive in such a Taliban-afflicted area was not explained. One of the American's Afghan translators didn't like the village and wasn't taking any chances. He kept his checked scarf wrapped around his face at all times, even while conveying the colonel's generous offers of help.

"The people here are scary motherfuckers," he said later in Afghan-accented GI-speak. "I have a nice life in Kandahar city. If they come there and recognise me, I'm dead." The US officers admit that four months in-country they can rarely be sure who is a friend, who is an enemy, and who can be both at different times.

Last month the American's difficulties were graphically exhibited when a police chief and district chief in the nearby Khak-e-Afghan valley were caught playing both sides of the street, lending four US-provided cars to the local Taliban to use at night.

When rumbled the administrator fled with most of the USD 100,000 cash he'd been given for building a school and paying the salaries of his men, presumably over the border to Pakistan, while the policeman is now in jail pleading that his survival required an accommodation with the enemy.

"Even these guys who aren't pro-Taliban, they are still with the Taliban because they have no choice," said Captain Mike Berdy. One of the grunts put it another way. "They smile at you in the morning, and at night they might be planting a mine in the road or firing a rocket at your ass."