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.
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
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."