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Afghan Diary, Part Three: Mystery And Suspicion In Zabul

On patrol in a Romanian Humvee (RFE/RL) RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas, spent a week with NATO-led troops in Afghanistan this month. The trip was organized by NATO for European journalists to show them the reality on the ground for troops in the International Security Assistance Force. In his five-part Afghan diary, Lobjakas takes us from Kabul to Kandahar and two other southern provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and opium-poppy cultivation hardest to eradicate.

The day begins with an early morning helicopter jaunt from Kandahar Airfield to Forward Operations Base (FOB) Lagman, 160 kilometers away, which takes us under an hour. The scenery variously consists of yellowish-gray desert welted with innumerable track marks, isolated mud-walled compounds, beer garden-style nomad tents, camels, nomads themselves, impossible-to-date traces of habitation, and agricultural activity. The vista, with the occasional mountain jutting out of an otherwise apocalyptic plain, is reminiscent of something out of J.R.R. Tolkien.

(Incidentally, ferrying my group around involves considerable NATO outlay at an hourly cost of about $2,000 per Black Hawk, of which we need two.)

The trip passes uneventfully, not counting an interlude when both machine guns appear to fire short bursts at targets on the ground. These, we are told, were apparently provoked by ground fire. This is later contradicted by others who suggest that test firing is standard practice for Black Hawk crews.

At Lagman, I furtively witness a commemoration ceremony for a U.S. soldier killed the week before, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

MORE Afghan Diary: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five

The Romanians then take us on a 25-kilometer patrol between FOB Lagman (500 men) and the smaller and fairly isolated FOB Masoud (50-strong). ISAF traffic along the road apparently attracts improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and small-arms fire. That very morning, a seven-ton Afghan National Army truck was hit by an IED on the other side of FOB Masoud. The trip to Masoud and back therefore takes twice the usual time -- two-and-a-half hours.

As we set out in Humvees for Masoud, the commander of my vehicle instructs us in how to release machine-gun cartridges from their storing place and asks us to pass them to the gunner should he start firing. The commander also shows us where the handguns are kept, asking us to pass them on too, if necessary.

It reminds me of a story making the rounds of ISAF media circles, about a Western TV journalist who reportedly came under fire when embedded with NATO troops last year. The story goes that, after he ran out of videotape, he grabbed a submachine gun and started firing at insurgents himself.

The incident sparked a lively debate in Western media circles in Afghanistan, and the consensus appears to be that the man brought the trade into disrepute. As journalists, we lay claim to -- and depend on -- our neutrality. Also, as a civilian, the TV reporter may well have been culpable under Afghan law. ISAF enjoys negotiated immunity, but that does not extend to all Westerners.

And so, sitting next to the cartridges on that Romanian Humvee, I couldn't help thinking, "What if? Where to draw the line?"

'Farm By Day, Fight By Night'

ISAF justifies countryside patrols with the need for "visibility" -- to win the hearts of the presumably friendly locals, but more importantly, to strike fear among the Taliban. Zabul is a notorious transit corridor for foreign militants.

In Kandahar and Helmand a similar logic applies, with an even stronger emphasis on intimidation. This, however, may be counterproductive.

Much of the anecdotal evidence I have come across suggests the Taliban is a grass-roots phenomenon, better understood in terms of perceived local grievances than highly organized jihadist ideology. Estonian troops fighting in Helmand told me in February that the enemy "farms by day and fights by night."

A local elder from Dand district near Kandahar insisted that NATO, as much as Pakistani-based militants, is to blame for stoking up resentment among the locals. Every aggressive armored foray into a local neighborhood, every "collateral" death, the very evidence of an ill-understood Western presence, is a challenge to the local community, its age-old ways, fierce traditions of self-sufficiency, and unbending autonomy. Here, "visibility" can easily give offense. The Dand elder said that fighting the Taliban will only make it stronger. Instead, NATO must talk to the Taliban, he said.

A U.S. soldier at Lagman (RFE/RL)

It is striking how little NATO professes to know about its enemy. It routinely distinguishes between "Tier One" militant "irreconcilables" and "Tier Two" foot soldiers, motivated by greed and a list of other mundane concerns. But officials concede most of this is no more than guesswork.

Things appear more complex. Much of the backbone of the unrest in the Pashtun south seems to involve a "Tier Three" of the Taliban -- locals who are simply ignorant of ISAF's goals. One ISAF officer tells me that after ISAF first arrived in 2006, many locals believed "the Russians had returned." The Dand elder says local people still don't know "if the foreigners are coming for cooperation and rebuilding, or just to fight and get the country in their hands."

This suggests ISAF must do more to explain itself. ISAF is now trying to do this, and the Dand elder is part of a cutting-edge outreach project to coax durable self-governing structures out of the existing "informal networks of authority" in the region. ISAF offers development aid, but the locals decide where, what, and when.

The problem is this requires time. Meanwhile, aggressive ISAF "visibility" undoes the long-term good work on a daily basis. Every car which does not stop to let an ISAF convoy pass is in real danger of being fired upon. A little boy propelling a wheel on the roadside causes serious consternation in the Humvee that took me around in Zabul today. You can't argue with the consternation. The Romanians lost a man last week in an IED attack. But something needs to change.

Because there were no friendly faces among the locals as we drove through Zabul. There were, however, little boys miming the pulling of triggers and explosions. I had seen the same mimics in Kandahar the day before. There, a rock thrown by a child landed in my vehicle in a minuscule act of defiance.

The absence of elementary welcome in a society where everything traditionally revolves around the notion of hospitality is worrying.

Part Four: 'You Can Go From Being Smiled At To Being Shot At'

The Afghan Insurgency

The Afghan Insurgency

A U.S. military vehicle damaged by insurgents near Kandahar (epa)

HOMEGROWN OR IMPORTED? As attacks against Afghan and international forces continue relentlessly, RFE/RL hosted a briefing to discuss the nature of the Afghan insurgency. The discussion featured Marvin Weinbaum, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 83 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


RFE/RL's coverage of Afghanistan.


For weekly news and analysis on Afghanistan by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."