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Article totally tells it like how it was.  Sounds like things have not changed at all.  If anything, these troops are even less motivated and more spirit-crushed than we were.


A trying day of searching an Afghan village
By C.J. Chivers
Published: November 25, 2007

ESPANDI, Afghanistan: First Lieutenant Aaron Childers stood before a doorway inside a mud-walled compound while an Afghan and American patrol searched behind him. Paratroopers swept metal detectors over the dusty ground, looking for buried weapons and ammunition.

A middle-aged woman, one of the compound's residents, faced the lieutenant, speaking emphatically and waving her arms. A young woman beside her hid her face beneath a shawl. The lieutenant's Afghan interpreter also hid his face, concealing his identity.

"She says there is no Talibs," the interpreter told the lieutenant. "They have no Talibs here."

"Tell her we are going to be very respectful with the search, and the ANP are going to be with us," Childers said, referring to the Afghan National Police. "If anything comes up missing while we are searching, please let us know."

Childers is a platoon commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, engaged in the long, slow counterinsurgency campaign that the Afghan government and the United States hope will marginalize the Taliban and make Afghanistan capable of self-rule.

On this day, the platoon's mission was to cordon off part of the village and capture Mullah Shabir, a low-level Taliban commander, and to search for caches of rockets or mortar rounds. In recent months, many had been fired from the village toward the command post of the platoon's parent unit, the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry.

The paratroopers also hope to teach Afghanistan's indigenous security forces, still an inconsistent lot, to work effectively and with each other. Of the 58 people in the patrol, 12 were Afghan soldiers, 5 were Afghan police officers and 7 were agents of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service.

Under American tutelage, Afghanistan's army and intelligence service have shown signs of improvement in recent years, U.S. officers say. The police remain beset by incompetence, corruption and sloth. The Americans watched the officers closely, aware that they might steal.

After the police did a cursory walk through the compound, the paratroopers conducted a more determined search. Staff Sergeant Matthew Allen, the leader of the platoon's second squad, moved through a dim stable, illuminating his way with a flashlight attached to his M-4 rifle. The air smelled of urine and dung.

He picked a path through the manure and searched stacks of firewood. Finding nothing, he returned to the courtyard and pulled off the black mask he was wearing on the frigid November night.

He inhaled the clean air, and watched the paratroopers pacing on the compound's roof, absorbing the rays of the rising sun. The first search was over. No sign of Mullah Shabir. Allen's eyes twinkled with mischief.

"Funny thing is, I don't think we've ever found the Taliban," he said to the platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class David Banks.

"They seem to do a good job of finding us," Banks answered.

In its eight months in Afghanistan, 2nd Platoon has been ambushed several times, and in about 10 firefights. "You'll be driving down the road, and be like, 'Was that an RPG that just flew by?' " Allen said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade.

The 2nd Battalion occupies small firebases and outposts in Ghazni and Wardak provinces, a region of mountains, high desert and steep-sided valleys between Kabul and Kandahar.

The area is split by Highway 1, the principal road of Afghanistan. It contains a patchwork of villages, some friendly to the paratroopers, some apparently neutral, others heavily populated with insurgents and criminals who attack American and Afghan units and prey on passing traffic.

Lieutenant Colonel Timothy McAteer, commander of the battalion, said in an interview that the groups operating against the battalion showed signs of tactical coordination, using spotters with cellphones to tell the Taliban and bandits the direction of American patrols, or alerting them to trucks carrying valuable merchandise on the roads.

The paratroopers often move on foot at night, hoping to evade the spotters. On this patrol, they had approached Espandi after a two-hour walk in the blackness, stopping just outside the village and sending teams to block escape routes. Then the Afghans and Allen's squad moved toward compounds where they had been told Mullah Shabir had been seen. A dog had been barking madly as the platoon approached.

Now the paratroopers moved to a second compound. They found nothing there, too.

Outside a third compound, Private. Joseph Wheeler spotted a small metallic cone in the dirt. It was the fuse to a 107-millimeter rocket, the sort that had been launched at the battalion command post.

Had it been dropped before dawn, as insurgents spirited their weapons away ahead of the platoon's advance? Or it had been sitting in the open for weeks? It was impossible to tell.

Inside the compound, an old man was patting a fresh layer of a mud against a wall. He was Hajji Tahir, the father of Shir Agha, a fighter for the Taliban.

"We'd like to ask you a few questions about your son," Childers said. "We're not going to hurt you in any way. You don't need to be afraid."

Hajji Tahir said he was not afraid.

"Do you know where your son is?" the lieutenant asked.

"No," the man answered.

"When was the last time you saw your son?"

"Some men came and took him and he joined them," he said. "I am old, and I am alone. My son does not help me."

"I have not seen my son," he added. "But if I see him I will arrest him."

Childers was polite but unconvinced. "We don't want his son to get killed in the fighting," he said to the interpreter. "Can you ask him to call us when he sees his son?"

Hajji Tahir agreed. Then he said he would make chai, or tea, for the platoon. He excused himself and walked away.

Allen had paced near the conversation with Hajji Tahir while his squad searched the yard. He cradled a rifle. The hand grip of a 12-gauge shotgun jutted from his backpack.

"You know, right now he's gone to another house to tell his son to run," he said, then flashed a grin.

Hajji Tahir returned with tea.

At the next compound, which contained a house surrounded by a withered vineyard, a woman approached the paratroopers after the Afghan police walked through. She said that she had found that she was missing 500 Pakistani rupees, worth about $8, from the box where she kept her money.

News of her accusation spread through the patrol; Afghan Army soldiers appeared disgusted. One chambered a round in his Kalashnikov rifle and strutted menacingly toward the police officers; another leveled his rocket-propelled grenade launcher at them.

Childers intervened, and he herded the police officers back inside the compound. They stood against the wall.

"This can't happen," Childers said. "We can't have the police stealing from the people."

He made an offer: return the money and continue on the patrol, or face a search and a report to their supervisor. The police officers said they had not taken the money. They looked less humiliated than insolent and bored.

The patrol was held up for about 30 minutes while Allen led the police officers around a corner and searched them. He found nothing; the lieutenant had 500 rupees given to the woman at his own expense.

Then he jotted down each of the officers' names, to put in a report later.

The police rejoined the patrol.

"This wasn't in my job description," Childers said.

"Tell me about it," Banks said.

Uneventful patrols defy ready measurement. Mullah Shabir had not been found. The Taliban's local leader could be watching calmly from a window, under the village's protection, or he could be far away.

The patrol's ambition was shifting from hunting for him to seeking intelligence and potential allies. But which of the villagers were potential allies? Which were foes? Were most of them simply pragmatic - saying whatever they needed to say to men who stood before them with guns? No one knew.

The patrol found its way to the village's bazaar, where a group of small shops was clustered around a mosque. The American officers began to interview shopkeepers and elderly men.

"We are here today in Espandi to make it safer," Childers said.

A man with a white beard nodded after the sentence was translated.

"Thank you," he said.

"There are reports of people bringing rockets and weapons here," the lieutenant said.

"We don't know about this," the old man answered.

"We heard they come from outside the village and fire them and leave," Childers said.

"If we hear of anyone bringing rockets and weapons here, we will capture them and bring them to you," the old man said.

The man told the lieutenant that the village could use another well. Childers said he would see if could arrange to have one dug. He thanked the group and stood up and gave a signal to the patrol.

The paratroopers stood and filed away down the alleys.

A short while later they slipped out of the village and into the barren flatlands, where old habits of the infantry took over and they dispersed into a wide formation and began the long walk home in the fading light, to wait for the next job.