- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

BAGHRABAD, Afghanistan

It’s unlikely there will be a monument for Abdullah Khan and others like him when the war in Afghanistan finally ends, but there should be. Mr. Khan is one of the country’s unsung heroes, an ordinary man who stepped from the sidelines in this counterinsurgency struggle to openly and actively support his community and government in defiance of the extremist Taliban. That cost him his life.

“You’ve always got the intimidation campaign which they [the Taliban] use quite extensively,” said a U.S. Marine officer who requested anonymity. “Dragging someone out in the village and beating them in front of their family is very effective, and so are kidnappings and murders.”

Mr. Khan was a farmer in the Nawa District of southern Helmand Province, a hotbed for Taliban gunmen until U.S. Marines in late summer pushed most of the insurgents into the neighboring district of Marjah.

Government aid is now about to begin filtering into impoverished villages, and Mr. Khan was part of that process. Although he was only in his 30s, he was so respected in the area that the district governor appointed him a community counselor. With elders, he helped identify and prioritize Baghrabad’s governance, social and economic needs, informed people of government policies and how they would affect them, and acted as an ombudsman. He also gave information on suspicious activities to the authorities.

“I’m afraid,” he said the first and only time this reporter met him. “Please help me. I think the Taliban are going to kill me and my family tonight.”

Mr. Khan told a Marine sergeant who was leaving Baghrabad at the end of an evening patrol that he had been receiving death threats - spoken directly to him by strangers or shouted out to him - every time he visited a bazaar about two miles away.

“Today men from Marjah called out, ‘Why are you in the shura [council], why are you a CC [community counselor]?’ ” he said. ” ‘We are going to kill you.’ Later I saw a man from nearby who I think is a Taliban spy watching my house.”

Mr. Khan asked the Marines for a gun, but they weren’t allowed to provide one. They offered the safety of their outpost nearby for his entire family. He declined. But he also made a promise: If he survived the night, he’d leave a marker the Marines would recognize outside the house of the suspected Taliban spy so he could be arrested. He also promised more information on suspected Taliban in the area.

Two days later, two suspected Taliban operatives were in custody and Afghan authorities, after reviewing evidence compiled, deemed them guilty of security offences. Five other Taliban-connected men detained in the next two days were similarly judged guilty after tips from Mr. Khan and other area villagers.

The full story of how Mr. Khan died is not known. He and another community counselor - Haji Mohammad Anwar - had inexplicably gone to the bazaar at dusk on a motorcycle after the second set of arrests. Goat herders said that from afar they saw the two men being riddled by bullets in an open field about four miles farther away.

Few Marines at combat outpost Sullivan knew Mr. Khan by name or sight. But when word came of his murder and what he had done to help with security, there were heads shaking, expletives muttered and grimaces made. Maybe when they return home and grouse about locals standing on the sidelines, one will say, “but there was this one guy …”

Perilous patrols

“You ride in a Humvee?” a Marine sergeant asked rhetorically of an Army corporal. “You won’t catch me in one of those. Ninety percent or more of IED blasts involving Humvees are catastrophic.”

The conversation around an open fire at Combat Outpost Sullivan in Helmand Province was prompted by a Humvee hitting an improvised explosive device a day earlier in a neighboring sector. One Marine was killed and two seriously injured. The soldier, a reservist in a psychological operations unit attached to Marines, had asked for an update on information about the blast because he rides in the same type of vehicle.

The Marine, who asked not to be named to avoid problems with his superiors, was in EOD, or explosive ordnance disposal. EOD units diffuse bombs, study their construction and materials, gather up any latent fingerprints or other evidence that could be used to identify the bomb maker and later destroy the device. EOD teams do something else: post-blast analysis, which means they see first-hand the immediate aftermath and effects of explosions on vehicles and bodies as they piece together exactly what happened.

“Humvees just aren’t designed to take a blast,” the Marine told the soldier. “They’re too low to the ground, and they don’t have a V-shaped [armor] bottom plate to disperse the blast pressure if they’re right over it.”

The Marine then warmed to the subject. The soldier quickly paled. So did Marines listening in. They soon drifted away.

Marines at this outpost patrol outside the wire on foot. They also ride in mine-resistant vehicles that are not always impervious to mines as well as Humvees.

On a weekly basis, four or five IEDs a week turn up in their sector. Last month one of their comrades in 81 Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, stepped on a 50-pound mine and died.

“Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death,” World War II Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley once said.

It’s as true today as then.

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