Wed, Jan 12, 2011 - Page 5 News List

In Afghanistan, US troops hoping for winter breakthrough

AFP, BANGI, Afghanistan

US Army Captain Aaron Schwengler removes his helmet and smiles as he sits down for tea with elders in an Afghan village.

“It’s always nice to come here, because we don’t get shot at,” he tells them.

Boys in Bangi, located in southeast Afghanistan’s troubled Ghazni Province, watch over a dirt wall as Schwengler sits cross-legged on a rug near a bleating goat, telling the elders why he is visiting.

He wants their support for a scheme which would see young men in the poor village, where unemployment runs at around 80 percent, sign up to protect it against the Taliban for a salary of US$100 a month.

This is part of US efforts to use the annual winter lull in fighting, when many Taliban retreat to Pakistan to regroup, to undermine the militants by building bridges with locals across Andar District, which includes Bangi.

Although Bangi seems relatively safe for now — elders say it is several months since they have had trouble with the Taliban — the troops accompanying Schwengler are heavily armed and ever-alert against possible threats.

Several stand guard on a nearby roof, while others stop and search passing locals or take photographs and fingerprints of young men for a database designed to make convicting militants easier.

“If you’re not Taliban, you don’t have anything to worry about,” one soldier tells a 20-year-old man as he scans his fingerprints into a handheld machine.

Meanwhile, Schwengler is making progress.

Some elders say they like the scheme, which the military calls “Community Watch” and Afghan officials term “Afghan Local Police,” adding participants will be armed and tasked with protecting villages after three weeks’ training.

However, the elders want a local canal cleaned in return for their endorsement so farmers can grow more wheat, apples and grapes on the dusty land.

Schwengler tells them this should not be a problem, explaining afterward: “It’s kind of one of those carrot in front of the donkey things.”

His men, from B Company of Third Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, have endured a tough four months in Andar, a strategically vital corner of Afghanistan close to both the capital Kabul and the Pakistani border.

They are part of Taskforce Iron, which covers two districts in eastern Ghazni and saw a 300 percent rise in significant activities against them on 2009 figures between deploying here in late August and the end of last year.

The anti-Taliban plan — part of Washington’s surge strategy announced more than a year ago — comes at a crucial time for coalition forces, ahead of planned withdrawals from July and after their bloodiest year in Afghanistan last year. However, the “real test” of whether it works will not come until April or May, when the worst fighting usually flares up again, explains Lieutenant-Colonel David Fivecoat, commanding officer of Taskforce Iron.

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