- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

MAYWAND, Afghanistan | President Obama’s pending decision to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan weighs heavily on U.S. forces already on the ground.

A Washington Times reporter and photographer spent much of October - the deadliest month for American troops there thus far - with U.S. Army soldiers in southern Afghanistan, who spoke openly of the need for more boots on the ground, the more and sooner the better.

“We need more troops,” said Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Paul Rabidou, 24, stationed at a small combat outpost in the Maywand district. “It’s just as simple as that.”

The Blackwatch unit - Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, with the 5th Stryker Brigade - arrived at the outpost Sept. 13. Since their arrival, they have lost three soldiers and two civil-affairs officers. Bombings have destroyed three of their four Stryker vehicles.

Mr. Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday an increase of between 30,000 and 40,000 troops, as recommended by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in a plan that first became public in September.

Gen. McChrystal warned at the time of dire consequences without reinforcements.

Meanwhile, the death toll in Afghanistan continues to rise. Last Sunday, three U.S. troops were killed in southern Afghanistan - two in a bombing and a third in a separate firefight. On Monday, another lost his life in eastern Afghanistan.

Fifteen U.S. troops have lost their lives in the first half of November. In October, 59 U.S. troops were killed.

Capt. Jeffery Givens, 25, with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, Mobile Gun System Platoon, said his unit was strained but prepared to fight with the resources they have.

Like others, Capt. Givens said he would welcome more troops.

“What people at home don’t understand is that more guys would help out immensely. More troops would assist with getting the security to where it needs to be out here. There are only so many of us. Send me your poor, your hungry and your bored, I say. We’ll take anyone we can take.”

For U.S. forces providing security in the region, corruption, a lack of Afghan government oversight and a need for more international forces are making efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Pashtun people a difficult, if not sometimes impossible, challenge.

Capt. Casey Thoreen, commander of the Combat Outpost Rath, part of the Blackwatch unit, said more troops are necessary. But the unit also needs long-term “help at the provincial level in the Afghan government, and that we’re just not getting,” he said.

“We have no one to fight corruption or get leaders in the provincial level to assist us,” he said. “We can definitely use more resources and soldiers as we try to develop the needs of the people through a more responsible local government.”

Maywand district leader Abeidullah Bawali, meeting with local tribal leaders in his sparsely decorated office one recent day, appeared to share the concerns of the U.S. military.

“The worst problem for us is corruption,” Mr. Bawali told The Washington Times in an interview. “It’s not an easy job when you are doing everything yourself. The U.S. soldiers try to provide security here, and that is something we need as much as water. There just isn’t enough security.”

U.S. military officials, however, say Mr. Bawali is a major part of the problem. According to numerous military officials who work in the region, Mr. Bawali is not a resident of Maywand district, he has taken payoffs in return for favors and he is the only provincial leader representing a poor province of 55,000 people.

Mr. Bawali admitted to The Times that the Taliban’s capabilities in his district and sympathizers living among his people have made the security situation extremely difficult for Capt. Thoreen and his men. He denied he was corrupt, however.

U.S. military officials say that despite reports that Mr. Bawali takes bribes and works against security efforts in some instances, he is the only leader in the area that the commander can negotiate with in the local government.

Despite feeling constrained by new rules of engagement that limit their ability to fight the enemy, corruption within the centralized government and the need for more troops out in the field, soldiers say their mission has made a difference in Afghanistan.

“We’re doing social work with guns,” said Capt. Givens, who had just loaded three boxes filled with Beanie Baby stuffed animals for young children of the Kuchi tribe, a nomadic group of people that travel like gypsies throughout Afghanistan.

“Despite all the fighting, we know we’re making a difference here. We’re connecting with some of the people and especially the children,” he said. “You can see it in their eyes when we go out to meet with them.”

“All we need is a little more help to not let Afghanistan fall back into the hands of the Taliban,” he added.

The Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade has had to maximize its manpower and resources in an effort to destabilize a growing Taliban insurgency in the southern provincial regions. It has not been easy.

The brigade arrived in the Maywand region in September and witnessed some of the heaviest fighting in October since the start of the war eight years ago. The brigade has lost a large number of troops and vehicles. Others have been wounded and pulled from the fight.

At the brigade’s Combat Outpost Rath, near the Pashtun village of Hutal, a shortage of drivers and vehicles is something unit members have become accustomed to. However, despite the shortage of troops, unit members continue to work in an effort to provide the same security in the Taliban region.

“I’ve had to send so many guys down to [Kandahar airfield] to get new drivers,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Yost, 27, from Shelton, Wash. “We have only one original driver here.”

Sgt. Yost also reiterated the need for more troops on the ground.

“We’re soldiers, and we’re going to follow our commanders. All I can say is that I hope the people in the U.S. understand that we need some more help out here. We can really make a difference if we get the people we need.”

The lack of civilian aid programs owing to security concerns and a continuing Taliban presence in Maywand has put a strain on the members of the small combat outpost, but it has not kept them from their work.

Lt. Col. Jeffery French, with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, told The Times that despite the need for more resources, his brigade has been gathering a better picture of who the enemy actually is, “building a picture that consists of the good, the bad and the Corleone.”

Another military official in Afghanistan, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitive nature of the president’s upcoming decision, said military officials are concerned about the length of time the White House has taken to decide.

“This is a special-operations war as much as it is a war of troops on the ground,” the military official said. “The president’s decision will be just that - his decision - but the amount of time it’s taking to make that decision is detrimental to the troops who need help out there now. We are finding new ways to fight the Taliban, but we really don’t have the necessary resources and, honestly, we’re not utilizing the resources we have in the right way.”

Despite the difficult challenges that Capt. Thoreen and his men see ahead of them in the next seven months of their deployment, he said, “We can’t forget the people who’ve already lost their lives here.”

“To us, they’re not just numbers; they’re our friends,” the commander said.

“We can make a difference. … Why is there even a debate to send more troops out here? It’s what we really need. We need more troops.”

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