- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

SENJERAY, Afghanistan | Over the past 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.

U.S. 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 Obama’s 30,000-troop surge.

The small brick-and-stone complex represents much of what U.S. 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.

In Senjeray, “there are teachers … and we’ve found them and talked to them,” said Army 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-led invasion.

Canadians finished the school and opened it in 2005. But in 2007, Taliban fighters attacked it, smashing windows and breaking 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. Mr. Qari said the Taliban also thought 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 Mr. Qari that some U.S. commanders say are radicalizing another generation of Afghan youths, turning them away from President Hamid Karzai’s government and the NATO coalition.

Speaking through an interpreter as U.S. troops searched a recently filled hole in his madrassa they suspected held a weapons cache, Mr. Qari said he wanted his children 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 uses to traffic arms and guerrillas through villages along the Arghandab River and into Kandahar city.

In April, U.S. 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.

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