US and Afghan soldiers react to Obama's visit

ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — Surrounded by gravel-filled buttresses and manned 24 hours a day by alert American and Afghan gunners, Combat Outpost Kowall appears an outpost under siege. It is one of the front-line posts in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s expanded campaign to flush out a resurgent Taliban ahead of a major offensive in Kandahar expected this summer.

Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan was an opportunity to express the United States' displeasure with the Karzai government’s rampant and unchecked corruption. But for the soldiers of Alpha Company of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Kabul conference halls and money-guzzling ministries seem like a very distant place (where, reports Jean MacKenzie, Karzai seems focused on staying in power).

“The visit’s important for the big picture, I’m sure, but here on the ground it doesn’t affect us at all,” said Pfc. Justin Tatum, one of about 30 soldiers headquartered in a crumbling
school building alongside a company of the Afghan National Army.

The troops have reinforced the base and are supported by constant drone and helicopter surveillance flights. A recent machine-gun attack mounted from two directions was repelled with more than a thousand rounds, laying down “an awesome example of firepower that will discourage the Taliban from targeting our outpost again,” according to 1st Lt. Matthew
Fernandez, the commander of the base.

Obama lectured Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reduce his administration’s high corruption levels, the primary reason for the lack of credibility suffered by the government. Aside from millions of dollars in humanitarian aid squandered since the NATO-led defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the strong Tajik ethnic influence on the government saps its credibility in the predominantly Pashto southern areas, such as this one.

Locals in Kochnay Manarah, the village adjoining the base, appear of two minds about their new neighbors. In the absence of a school or medical doctor, there is crushing illiteracy. The only source of education comes from the mullah who runs a small kuttab, an informal
Islamic seminary for teaching the Quran to every new generation.

Lacking cars, running water or electricity, the locals lead a subsistence existence centered around their fields and animals. Rejection rates of the American presence run high, with locals maintaining a standoffish attitude toward patrolling troops and their Afghan National
Army counterparts.

“They hate us,” said one soldier who requested that his name not be printed.

But there are promising signs. One local offered to visit the base and divulge information and there has been a recent upswing in tips regarding improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. As part of Gen. McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency strategy, soldiers are exposing themselves more by carrying out dismounted patrols from their vehicles to engage the locals and pass out pens, notebooks and candy to the children. The American troops here are trailed by dozens of children but the Afghan adults spare them little more than the occasional smile.

Most of the Afghan army soldiers in Kochnay Manar are not Pashto, the prevailing ethnicity in southern Afghanistan and the main support base for the Taliban. Posted to the area in up to six-year deployments, their attitude toward the region they find themselves in clearly rankles.

“We tried to apply to this place the kind of laws we encountered while we lived in Iran but these people are endlessly benighted,” said Rooz Mohammad, an Afghan soldier who lived as a refugee in Iran before returning after the fall of the Taliban. “They need another 30 years to get to Iran’s level,” he said of the Pashto locals.

Even on a local level, there are clear examples of the corruption tearing this country apart on a mass scale and lethally injuring the people’s ability to have faith in the government and move away from support of the Taliban. For example, village leaders abuse seed handouts by distributing only a small percentage to their villagers and selling the rest on the black market in Kandahar.

“Obama’s come here to speak empty talk and go away again but stomachs do not fill with empty talk,” said Rooz Mohammad. The next few months will prove whether the NATO coalition can win this battle.

“He needs to put real pressure to end the corruption,” agreed Nur Yallae Rasooli. “What we need is infrastructure. What have the Americans done aside from paving a few roads that fall apart after a few years and building some wooden houses?”