- 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.

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.”

The elders nodded. They promised to escort U.S. troops through Senjeray, where attackers hidden on rooftops tossed grenades at U.S. patrols nearly every time they passed.

But in the weeks that followed, nobody turned up.

Mr. Qari, the local mullah, said Senjeray’s residents were caught in the middle and could not control the insurgency.

“We told the Taliban we don’t want your support, and we don’t want the support of the U.S. Army,” he said. “We told them: ‘We can ensure our own security. Just leave us alone.’ “