Talk is new weapon in war against insurgency

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KHOST, Afghanistan — Now that military operations have eased in Afghanistan, American soldiers are fighting the enemy by talking with ordinary people.

One example is enticing mid- and lower-level insurgents to take up peace in return for amnesty.

“We advertise the program,” said Sgt. Matt Veenstra, a 23-year-old Minnesota native.

“And if somebody comes up to us saying that they want to lay down their arms and return to peaceful life, we will personally escort them to the governor. We guarantee them safe passage and that they won’t be prosecuted,” Sgt. Veenstra said.

As a specialist in psychological operations, also known as psyops, Sgt. Veenstra spends his days in eastern Afghanistan chatting with shop owners, sipping tea with elders and distributing leaflets in the bazaars.

“Our job is to spread the message,” he said during a patrol in downtown Khost. “Keep the Afghan people informed about what we’re doing and monitor al Qaeda. We, psyops, are not intelligence gatherers; we just make the initial contact.”

On one particular day, Sgt. Veenstra, his partner, Spc. Isaac Schmeling, 21, and their Afghan interpreter, Faraz, who uses just one name, stopped in downtown shops to pass out their “product”: two leaflets printed in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two official languages, calling on Afghans to support the government and to inform coalition forces about the activities of Taliban insurgents and the remnants of al Qaeda.

Despite a shootout between U.S. soldiers and a group of anti-coalition militias in the middle of Khost last month, Afghan shopkeepers seemed friendly, smiling and waving greetings to the passing patrol.

Sgt. Veenstra and Spc. Schmeling are part of the 13th Psychological Operations Battalion based in Minnesota, but they are attached to a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Camp Salerno, near Khost.

They go on patrols with the members of the 82nd, but they can do only so much.

“We don’t have enough people and that becomes a problem,” Spc. Schmeling said. “We’re just two people for the entire battalion.”

Ideally, a psyops team should accompany every platoon on a mission, but the U.S. Army doesn’t have enough soldiers trained in such operations, Sgt. Veenstra said.

About four months of training are required to become a psyops specialist, he said.

As curious onlookers peered through the gate, Sgt. Veenstra relaxed in the relative safety of the governor’s compound and described his latest patrol.

“We mostly had quick conversations telling them basically that shooting is bad for business.”

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