- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

COP CHARKH, Afghanistan

The rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) screamed in just before noon, the booms from their air bursts nearly drowning out the sound of the incoming small-arms fire that kicked up the dust in the center of the compound.

U.S. and Afghan troops sprinted to defensive positions, returned fire in the direction of an enemy they couldn’t really see and waited, waited for a possible ground assault.

The scramble has become a regular ritual at Combat Outpost (COP) Charkh, an austere and bare-bones compound southeast of Kabul where providing security for themselves and nearby villages reflects the multilevel challenge in counterinsurgency warfare.

“Don’t worry, he’s cool,” a soldier said to a reporter standing behind a shaking machine-gunner guarding an entrance to the U.S.-Afghan facility. “He always gets the shakes when this happens, but he’s good to go.”

U.S. strategy depends on identifying and countering insurgents, developing relationships with locals and carefully initiating aid projects in cooperation with Afghan forces and the Afghan government to tangibly enhance the lives of villagers and weave a sense of connection to the country’s central government.

It’s no easy task.

“The bad guys are very good at intimidating people and controlling what they do,” said Capt. Jason Wingeart, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, which operates from COP Charkh. “They come and go. Some stay, but many move back and forth to neighboring districts, which makes them hard to track and target.

“We’re new here and trying to make inroads with the local people, build relationships. But many are scared or just plain ambivalent, and building trust takes time.

“We have an issue with intelligence,” he added. “We are getting some [from local people] now but it’s not enough yet to understand all that’s really going on.”

Charkh district is in Logar province, just 55 miles from Kabul. The majority of the people are Pashtuns, with Tajiks and Hazara thrown into the mix. Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, and just about every member of the Taliban is Pashtun.

Officers said Logar appears to be a staging area for gunmen before they travel to Kabul and its environs to conduct attacks.

Between 55,000 and 60,000 people live in Bravo Company’s 178-square-mile area of operation, where dates, apples, apricots, corn and barley are grown along a river flanked by arid hills and mountains.

“Ultimately it has to be [the Afghans]” who change the security situation,” Capt. Wingeart said. “They have to make the decision for better things. They need to take a stand. People close to us are coming around, but it’s still a slow process.”

According to officers of Bravo, 1-32, there have been about 17 attacks on the COP since early May, when the unit became the first to be based in Charkh in many years. There have been about 15 attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The number of hard-core, full-time Taliban gunmen in the Charkh district is not known. Capt. Wingeart, however, thinks the resident number is “in the 30s or 40s.”

Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeiser, commander of the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, which is in charge of four main districts in the province, including Charkh, cautions against a “myopic” focus on numbers to assess security.

“Attrition warfare works in a conventional battle,” he said. “To ask how many do I have here is to imply there is a finite number, and if I kill them, the insurgency is over.

“What is good to me is how many people turn in a day to the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the government.”

To encourage a turnaround among ambivalent villagers, troops use aid as an incentive. Schools are built or refurbished, medical clinics established, roads repaired, irrigation improved and humanitarian supplies given depending on the needs and requests of village elders.

But that aid, which often entails locals performing the labor themselves so there is an income flow as a result of U.S. funding, isn’t given willy-nilly. Friendly or cooperative villages — so-called “green” settlements because of their security markings on military maps — get the most aid. Amber villages, those less friendly but starting to turn, come next.

The exception was during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, when there is an emphasis on charity. Col. Gukeiser, using discretionary military funds, provided money for refurbishment of mosques in every village in his area of command. The cost was $6,000 per mosque.

Assessment of needs in Charkh comes from daily security patrols, interaction with locals and concomitant intelligence-gathering, which may or may not result in a clear picture, or even a cloudy one.

“It’s getting better, but the [village] elders still don’t like to be seen talking to us in the open,” Capt. Weingeart said, “so they come to the COP. That may seem contradictory, but the COP is at the district center, and they can always say they came here to talk to the government about village needs if questioned later.

“Every now and then a body turns up in a field. People can get killed if they’re suspected of spying for the government or something.”

Capt. Wingeart said the standoffish atmosphere started about two weeks ago after a man briefly appeared in the nearby marketplace and preached a pro-Taliban message that also contained threats for those who cooperated with coalition forces.

In the villages of Qala-i-Sharmo Allem and Aragon, about four miles from COP Charkh, troops on a recent intelligence-gathering mission received traditional Salaam (peace) greetings from inhabitants. But the villagers had, by custom, no choice. The soldiers swarmed the villages at daybreak and knocked on the doors of the adobe houses.

“Kaka Jaan, Kaka Jaan, inja byi — uncle, uncle, come to the door,” they would call out, and once the doors were opened and residents were told information was wanted on villager needs and concerns, the questioning would start. Did they have enough food? Were there enough wells for water? Were they prepared for the coming winter? Did they feel secure?”

So, too, were questions about the identities of household residents, the answers to which were written down carefully as part of an informal census.

The intel-census mission to the two villages — both believed to have insurgent connections — weren’t without frustration.

“Because of local custom, we can’t talk to the women,” said Sgt. David Lloyd of Bravo Company’s 2nd Platoon. “When we enter a house, they’re put in a separate room, and you can’t go in, so who knows what may be hidden in there.”

The mission also had its tension.

“We’re going to get hit. You can’t go to Aragon without getting into a fight,” Pvt. Ryan Cooley said as he put extra ammunition into his pack before the pre-dawn march to the villages.

The possible ground attack on COP Charkh didn’t materialize. The rocketing and strafing were over in 15 minutes. “I guess they just wanted people to know they’re still around,” said Sgt. Lloyd. “So are we.”

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