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Talk is new weapon in war against insurgency

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

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."

The soldiers had been greeted warmly and invited for a cup of tea at several shops.

"It's really good for shopkeepers too," Spc. Schmeling added. "They get a lot of business when we are around."

The bagful of leaflets they distributed is part of an Afghan reconciliation program called Takhim-e-Sohl, or Strengthening the Peace.

Spc. Schmeling said he and Sgt. Veenstra had trained in psychological operations and basic infantry skills for patrols and combat operations.

Most important, he said, they were taught how to understand different cultures, how to interact with people and how to tailor messages for a particular culture.

"What we do is going to be more and more important, especially now that things have calmed down and it's a peace and reconstruction mission," Sgt. Veenstra added. "Eventually, we'll do more of it, but right now our army is trained for more kinetic operations."

Militias have stopped fighting the coalition in large formations that could be discovered and identified easily using traditional military reconnaissance means, Sgt. Veenstra said.

To find and destroy the elusive enemy, U.S. forces need the cooperation of the local population because they supply the best intelligence, he said.

"We need to convince the Afghans that what we are doing here is going to work."