A school not opened, a U.S. battle not won

Troops struggle to earn support of wary Afghans

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When Capt. Stout’s unit arrived in May, he deployed two platoons to protect the school around the clock. On their second day, a U.S. soldier was shot in the lung, but survived.

For weeks, firefights erupted almost daily.

U.S. engineers knocked down walls and trees nearby where insurgents hide. Afghan security forces set up checkpoints on surrounding roads, and armored U.S. trucks stood guard to defend the school’s crumbling outer walls.

The school itself was turned into a de facto military base: Capt. Stout’s men stacked sandbags in the windows and installed machine gun nests on the rooftops. They filled rooms with metal boxes of ammunition and anti-tank rockets, and slept on cots inside it.

The U.S. occupation drew the ire of village elders. In mid-July, more than 300 turbaned men from Senjeray urged the provincial governor to pressure the Americans to leave Pir Mohammed. Capt. Stout said that in meetings afterward, elders told him the Taliban had pressured them to do so. Nevertheless, they reiterated the plea - and made a crucial promise in return.

“They were saying, ‘Look, if you get out of the school, we’ll protect the school,’ ” Capt. Stout recalled. “They said, ‘We got it. We’ll keep attacks from happening. And people will go there.’ “

Withdrawing, in fact, was exactly what Capt. Stout wanted. It fit with the wider strategy of letting Afghan forces take on security, and freed Capt. Stout’s troops to secure more ground elsewhere.

So the U.S. platoons pulled out in mid-August, leaving their Afghan counterparts in charge.

Instead of the peace the elders promised, attacks increased, Capt. Stout said. Within days, the school sustained two grenade assaults and a pair of shoulder-fired rocket strikes, one of which killed a 7-year-old boy playing outside.

At meetings that week with mullahs and elders, Capt. Stout’s team displayed a poster-sized photo of the wounded boy just after the explosion, his face bloodied with shrapnel.

“We said, ‘Look, how does this sit in your stomach? Does this bother you?’ ” Capt. Stout recalled. “We told them: ‘These people clearly don’t care about you, your family, or your livelihood.’ “

The elders agreed, and Capt. Stout made a proposition: “Come bleed with us and defeat the bigger problem. Help drive the insurgents out.”

At that, the elders drew back.

Some said they didn’t know who had carried out the attack. Others said there were no insurgents in Senjeray. Most said they were mere farmers and that the Taliban would cut off their heads if they cooperated with the Americans.

Capt. Stout rebutted with a grim warning: “As long as you guys tolerate this, as long as you turn your backs, your children are going to continue to suffer.”

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