Destroying booby-trapped Afghan towns to save them

AP News
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Posted: Apr 09, 2011 1:29 PM
Destroying booby-trapped Afghan towns to save them

Two aerial photos tell the story of this tiny village in the southern province of Kandahar. One shows a deceptively bucolic collection of mud huts amid pomegranate orchards. The second shows a field of dirt and shorn tree stumps _ the same hamlet after being pulverized by 25 tons of explosives.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Flynn, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 1-320th, called in airstrikes to level Tarok Kolache in October after spending 100 days fighting for control of the Arghandab River Valley, a fertile farming area and Taliban bastion.

Seven of his men were killed and dozens wounded in orchards and towns the Taliban laced with improvised bombs. In one small area, Flynn said, his men encountered about 200 bombs _ or one every 40 yards.

"We were fighting in a veritable minefield," Flynn said.

While the bombardment in October ended the battle for Tarok Kolache, the battle of perception had just begun.

The village was deserted at the time of the bombing, but criticism of the strikes was intense.

Afghan government officials said destroying the village was excessive. Human rights activists compared the strike with Vietnam-era carpet bombings and said it smacked of collective punishment. At best, it deviated from classic counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes politics and development aid, rather than spectacular violence.

Flynn defended the strikes _ at one point writing a lengthy post on the Foreign Policy blog, Best Defense _ as a necessary evil due to the Taliban's use of Afghan homes as fighting positions. Flynn said defusing the village house-by-house would have put troops at risk unnecessarily.

But NATO feared such justifications would be lost on people in Kandahar, where the Taliban has staunch support.

So Flynn decided on what he hoped would be a more persuasive response.

On a recent spring day, Flynn arranged a helicopter trip to Tarok Kolache for reporters to see the opening of the village mosque and construction of 14 homes that will replace all the buildings destroyed in October, at a cost of $500,000.

Construction of about 200 more homes is under way in the region, including three other Arghandab valley villages that were extensively damaged _ Lower Baber, Kosher Safla, and Charcolba. The U.S. military is also planning to fund the planting of 300,000 pomegranate trees to restore damaged orchards in the region.

The U.S. routinely pays compensation to individuals whose homes are damaged in fighting.

However, the destruction in Arghandab valley _ where villages of mud and straw were often caught between the Taliban's improvised explosives and NATO's 500-pound bombs _ has given rise to a novel method of compensation.

The devastation was so extensive that Flynn's unit decided to act as community development consultants and pay claims on a collective basis. In each village, they are consulting with landowners, tenants and government officials about the rebuilding.

NATO officials say the approach has enabled them to restore ruined villages that the Taliban would have used for propaganda. The method helped NATO demonstrate its good will to communities harmed by intense fighting last year. The process also linked remote villagers with Afghan political bodies they viewed with suspicion.

Flynn says U.S. troops have effectively disrupted insurgents' movements in southern Afghanistan by setting up new Afghan combat units and a chain of combat outposts in Kandahar province.

But as the spring fighting season begins, it remains unclear how deep or lasting the military's efforts will be, or whether the people of Arghandab valley will shift their loyalties away from the Taliban.

About 70,000 people live in the valley, along the 250-mile-Arghandab river.

Tarok Kolache farmer Asadullah Alkozia, 25, was unimpressed by the American efforts.

He said the new trees would not replace his losses because it can take up to five years for them to bear fruit.

"We grew those trees for 35 years," he said. "They (the Americans) will give us a little money and some new trees to replant, but where will we find the money we have lost as we wait for these trees to mature?"

Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate for the International Crisis Group, said it will be difficult to gain the villagers' trust after the large-scale destruction in the valley.

"Even if they restore everything perfectly, there's all the months that all those people were internally displaced and the trauma involved with that," she said. "I don't know that they can go back to zero at this point in terms of perception."

Going back to zero wouldn't help the U.S. military much in Kandahar province, where some of last year's bloodiest battles took place.

In 2009, a U.S. military survey found that most Kandaharis trusted the Taliban more than they did government security forces. Storied mujahedeen battles against the British and the Soviet Union took place here. Mullah Mohammad Omar's house sits nearby. Taliban fighters use the valley as a base and supply route.

At Tarok Kolache's mosque opening, villagers, politicians and U.S. soldiers sat on new cushions and leaned against the freshly painted walls as they listened to Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa give a speech _ a somewhat courageous appearance in a province where the Taliban has dramatically increased assassinations of public officials.

"The opposition put explosives here, so this area was cleared, but people were unable to even go to their farms and vineyards," said the governor. "Now you can see the mosque here and houses behind it and we will have other development projects."

Wesa said that residents displaced by the fighting have returned to the valley. Sixty schools have reopened and more than 40,000 students have returned, he said.

The U.S. military will pay about $6 million on damage claims in southern Kandahar where about 200 homes were destroyed last year, according to Canadian Army Col. Acton Kilby, director of stability for NATO's command in southern Afghanistan.

Most of the residents of Tarock Kolache and other villages damaged in the valley last year were tenant farmers, renting land from landlords who did not live in the towns.

NATO officials decided they needed to compensate both parties, but worried if families that were paid directly they would take the money and leave their ruined hamlets behind.

"One of the reasons we're going about reconstruction this way was to take away the Taliban's ability to point to these destroyed villages," said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "If we just gave the people compensation money, the people scatter and you still have a village that's been destroyed here."

Still some villagers remain conflicted about the bombing of Tarok Kolache.

Kilby, the Canadian officer, acknowledged that the rebuilding process is not an unalloyed success. Not all the villagers could be found after their homes were destroyed. Some wanted to take the money and move away. A small number rejected compensation, either because they were opposed to the U.S. or because they believed taking the money would make them an insurgent target. Others complained the compensation was too little.

Yet even some villagers who lost everything said they bore no grudge against the Americans.

As Flynn led a phalanx of reporters to the new mosque, Abdul Majid and his young son stooped over the blown apart pomegranate fields trying to nurse scarred roots back to health.

"We are not in our own homes because they were destroyed. My trees have also been destroyed," Majid said. "But it was necessary because the Taliban came here to fight and this area was full of mines."

But Kareemullah Jan Taraki, 38, a landowner in Tarok Kolache, said the bombing and rebuilding of the village was a pointless exercise.

"The Taliban came to our village and then the Americans destroyed our village," he said. "Then Taliban go to another village, and the Americans strike that village, and then a third village. The Taliban is here in Afghanistan. Will the Americans destroy Afghanistan?"