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Afghanistan War: How not to win over hearts and minds

Essay: Trip to Afghanistan’s east exposes fault lines in US "hearts and minds” strategy.

Afghanistan War, counterinsurgency
Afghan soldiers fresh from basic training stand in formation at Camp Hero on July 25, 2010. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — When officials from Radio Liberty invited me along for a press trip to Jalalabad to watch them distribute radios to the population, I jumped at the chance.

After all the gloom and doom of previous weeks, I was desperate for a feel-good story: big-eyed children eagerly grasping their new, battery-free radios, promising to listen faithfully to Radio Liberty’s news and analysis programs.

It did not work out quite that way. What was supposed to be a five-hour media junket turned into a 30-hour ordeal, where tedium alternated with nerve-jangling conflict and a fair bit of anger.

Let me emphasize that this was through no fault of Radio Liberty. Their radio distribution project is quite a nice one, it seems to me, and might actually do some good.

The Chinese-made sets are a wonder; they receive FM, AM and short wave, and can be powered either by a solar strip set into the top, or by a crank in the back. Radio Liberty is giving away 20,000 of them in Afghanistan in a bid to get more reliable information out to a population that so far relies mainly on word of mouth and rumors spread through mosques, bazaars and mobile phones.

“We hope these radios will help to counter propaganda from the Taliban and other extremists,” said Akbar Ayazi, Radio Liberty’s associate director for broadcasting.

Quite possibly the radios will be used as most radios are: to listen to music. But given the Taliban’s restrictions on any form of entertainment, that might just be the most powerful counter-propaganda of all.

Our trip began on the Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Kabul. The first hiccup came when we realized that our 7:30 take-off was far from certain. Some high-level meeting in Kabul had forced most ANA helicopters to stand-by alert, and we spent seven hours waiting for a chopper to take us the 35 minutes to Jalalabad, a city on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.

We missed a planned breakfast with the governor; we were hoping for lunch. That went out the window when we didn’t take off until after 1:30. In the end, we had a cup of tea with Gul Aha Sherzai, the brutal but effective governor of Nangarhar province. Perhaps hunger can help explain the frayed nerves and low frustration threshold of our group as we got to the day’s main event: distribution of radios.

For some reason the main bus terminal was chosen as the venue. Just imagine handing out free technology among the indigent at, say, New York’s Penn Station, and you can figure out what happened next.

We were mobbed. The police had to wade in, beating people with the butts of their rifles. They took the radios up onto the flat beds of their trucks and just threw them out into the crowd. The highest jumpers with the most lethal elbows got the goods.

We finally cut and ran with a box of the radios still undistributed.

But the real drama came when we rushed back to the ANA base for our ride home.

Afghan choppers do not fly at night; the pilots have no night-vision goggles and must be on the ground before dark. We were instructed to be there at 4:15 and we made it with seconds to spare. The Afghan drivers who had escorted us off the base were waiting to take us out to the helicopter pad.

Then the U.S. army sergeants guarding the gate decided that we did not have the proper clearances. With decreasing patience, we explained that we had only minutes to make our chopper; that this was, in fact, an ANA base, not an American one, and that Afghan military personnel were waiting to escort us to the aircraft.

“Sorry, I have orders,” said a young soldier, whose nametag was not displayed. He had a wispy moustache and a breezy manner, and was not at all swayed by our growing desperation. “It’s just our friggin’ protocol, ma’am,” he explained.

The Afghan soldiers were frankly angry, and not shy about showing it.

“Tell them this is our base, and we are waiting for you,” one of them begged Ayazi, who is Afghan-American and speaks English, Dari and Pashto fluently.

That message held no water for the Americans.

“Let me get this straight,” I said to a young man who identified himself as “Three-striper Herbet.” ”Is this an Afghan base or an American one?”

“Technically, an Afghan base,” he said sulkily. “Ma’am.”

“But the Afghans have no control over it?”

“That’s right.”

The Afghans waiting for us were getting restless. One of them said he was a pilot by training, but had opted out when he saw how Americans treated their Afghan counterparts.

“I’d rather be a driver and work with my own people,” he said grimly.

So much for hearts and minds on this base, I thought.