A land of isolation, frustration

Author: Tony Leys

Des Moines Register; Des Moines, Iowa; 01 May 2011



[...] many have little contact with folks living 15 or 20 miles away.

Societal structure is looser than in Iraq.

Ted Callahan, an anthropologist who has worked

for the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan,

confirmed Bradley's assessment of the situation.


Full text:

A land of isolation, frustration


Gardez, Afghanistan - Of the dozens of Iowa National Guard troops

I talked to during three weeks in Afghanistan, Sgt. Roger Bradley

probably did the best job explaining why this war is taking so long.


The key thing to understand, Bradley said, is that many Afghans

are loyal only to their local clans and their villages.

"This country has no identity," he said.


The bulk of the population lives in rural areas, and many have almost

no contact with the central government. In fact, many have little contact

with folks living 15 or 20 miles away. You have to win over the Afghan

people village by village, Bradley said. That could take years.


On the map, a violent, Taliban-dominated town often appears to be

right down the road from a peaceful town except there's no road,

or not much of one. Mountains of 10,000 to 14,000 feet separate the

two towns, and there's no easy way to travel from one to the other.


It's hard to convey how rugged much of eastern Afghanistan is.

The best way to get a feel for it is to ride a helicopter and peer down

at mile after mile of rocks, snow and sand. Every once in a while,

you see a patch of green where a stream allows a knot of families

to irrigate wheat and vegetables and to graze sheep.

Modest houses are surrounded by tall walls,

which send the message that the occupants want to be left alone.


The helicopter flies on, thumping through mountain passes because

it can't fly high enough to clear the peaks. You see more miles of

emptiness, then another spot of green and the mud-walled homes of

another clan. When you were back home, 100,000 American troops

sounded like enough to control a country smaller than Texas.

But from a helicopter, you can see how all those troops

can be spread thin.


Even though the United States has nearly quadrupled its forces

in Afghanistan over the past four years, many villages rarely see

an American soldier. Many lack schooling, but 'aren't stupid'


The isolation also helps explain why so many Afghans are uneducated.


Nearly three-quarters of adults are illiterate, and they have little

knowledge of the outside world. Bradley said many don't understand

that American soldiers came to their country because al-Qaida used

Afghanistan as a base from which to launch the 9/11 attacks.


Bradley serves out of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, which is a

turbulent, dry area that borders Pakistan. The sergeant emphasized that he

respects Afghans' ability to scratch out a living in such a harsh place.

"There's a difference between ignorance and stupidity," he said.

"These people aren't stupid."


In Iowa, Bradley, 38, lives in Altoona and works as a

correctional officer for the women's prison at Mitchellville.

He has been deployed five previous times with the Marines

and the Guard, including a year-and-a-half stint in Iraq.


He noted that in Iraq, the United States benefited several years ago

from a sudden swing in allegiance by Sunni groups that had been

violent opponents. He warns against banking on a similar swing of

support in Afghanistan, because the millions of people who either

back the Taliban or are neutral have no strong leaders.

Societal structure is looser than in Iraq


Ted Callahan, an anthropologist who has worked for the

U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan, confirmed Bradley's

assessment of the situation. He said Iraqi Sunnis tend

to belong to large tribes controlled by powerful sheiks.

Afghan society is much more loosely organized, he said,

and individual family leaders tend to be independent.

"So, in Iraq, if you co-opt the tribal leader, he brings with him

all his men, almost without exception," Callahan said.

"In Afghanistan, if you co-opt the leader,

you get him and whoever feels like coming along with him."


Callahan, who is finishing work on a doctorate at Boston University,

was hired by the Iowa National Guard last spring to help lead

an Afghanistan seminar for officers and top sergeants.


He said most civilians in eastern Afghanistan are ambivalent about

the two sides of the war. "I would call them, almost to a person,

fence-sitters. They're hedging their bets," he said.


You'd be hard-pressed to find an Iowa Guard member who believes

that the war will be won quickly or that the Afghan army is nearly

ready to take the lead. You'd also be hard-pressed to find a

Guard member who's ready to give up.


"There's not a soldier here who wants to be here for nothing,"

Bradley said. He believes everyday Afghans are moving away from

the insurgents and toward the Americans and Afghan troops who

are providing roads, schools and at least some security.


"A lot of the villagers are getting sick of this war," he said.

"They're sick of IEDs, and they're sick of their people getting killed."