Sunday, May 16, 2010

US soldiers pay village calls in Afghanistan

The platoon's visit to a riverside village was a slog in and out: hours of hiking in body armor under the sun over rock-strewn hills, through rustling wheat fields and sweltering pomegranate groves. U.S. soldiers waded across an irrigation canal, holding rifles above chest-high water and grabbing tree roots to pull themselves out of the muck.
Another morning, they called on another earth-walled settlement a short ride from their base, Frontenac. Dust billowed through the hatches of the Stryker infantry vehicles. This time, the obstacles were less physical. Afghan men appeared wary of their unannounced visitors, refusing to accept a gift of one water pump because, they said, the Americans should give six or 10 pumps instead.
"It's like night and day from the other village," said 2nd Lt. Patrick Ryan, whose men now seek rapport with civilians in a relatively peaceful area of southern Afghanistan after months of deadly combat last year.
The war in southern Afghanistan is not all fighting. In areas where insurgents have been pushed to the fringes, NATO soldiers struggle to build trust with civilians who don't always respond readily to their upbeat message of community-building. The hard, plodding outreach lacks the immediacy of a combat operation. Progress — the kind that lasts — is uneven and difficult to measure, its prospects muddied by wobbly Afghan authorities who often look like bystanders in the process.
The challenges of building local loyalty to a weak Afghan government are numerous ahead of July 2011, President Barack Obama's deadline for the start of a troop withdrawal if conditions permit.
Shah Wali Kot, a district where the 800 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of Task Force Stryker operate, encompasses 1,120 square miles (3,000 square kilometers). It has tens of thousands of residents, no Afghan army presence, just 90 district policemen and additional police patrols along part of the main artery running north, Highway 617.
The district is more of a transit corridor than a strategic prize like the contested city of Kandahar, to the south. Taliban activity has dropped, and more village elders are attending a weekly meeting led by a district chief who once felt too unsafe to visit most of his area.
Coalition forces are opening a major campaign, both military and civic, this summer in Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban, in what commanders believe will be a pivotal contest with the hard-line Islamist insurgency.
In Afghanistan, battle lines depend as much on who has the initiative as conviction. It's a shifting arena, where forces loyal to the ruling Taliban saw the tide turn in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and switched sides, and where today, many southern Afghan authorities who deal with the Americans on joint patrols, development projects and village meetings have ethnic or familial ties with the Taliban.
Ryan's commander in Bravo Company, Capt. Nick Ziemba, sees parallels with his earlier deployment in Iraq. There, the Americans undercut the Sunni-led insurgency by forming pro-government militias with some of the same Sunni Arabs who had attacked them, and they sought alliances with Shiite Arabs who had links to the Mahdi Army, an anti-American force led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"I kind of draw on my experiences in Iraq because there were a million shades of gray there," he said. "We operate fully knowing that there's an open line of communication between the police and the Taliban."
That doesn't necessarily mean Afghan police or government officials back the insurgents; rather, some are hedging their bets in a conflict whose outcome has not yet been determined. The ethnic Pashtun majority is concentrated in southern Afghanistan, the stronghold of the Taliban.
One morning, Ziemba joined men from Ryan's platoon on their march into Jaman, a village along the Arghandab river where the Americans are funding a canal retention wall that has employed dozens of men. Two Afghan policemen, one with a limp, accompanied them in a tepid show of local authority. They work for Bacha Khan, a police chief who has provided reliable intelligence to U.S. forces.
The visitors were warmly received by Abdul Wasi, a headman. Banter flowed like the river's gurgling water as the men sat in the shade.
"Are there rivers in America?" Wasi asked.
Ziemba, of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, praised the lush pocket. "A green jewel," he said.
The compliment drew an invitation to stay the night, an implausible prospect for soldiers whose base is fortified with berms and walls. Some nights, artillery guns at Frontenac shoot illumination rounds to light up surrounding desert in case of intruders.
On the east side of the river, across from Jaman, lies the village of Takatu. A week ago, insurgents killed a police informant in the village, and a firefight broke out between the assailants and villagers, according to American commanders. A U.S. helicopter evacuated a 16-year-old girl with a gunshot wound.
The area is hard to access and sparsely inhabited, less of a priority in a counterinsurgency campaign focused on nurturing ties in population centers rather than chasing insurgents in remote terrain.
"That's kind of where the dragons are," Ziemba said of the mountainous east. "It's off the map, really."
On another patrol, Ryan of Huntsville, Alabama, had a vexing conversation about a water pump with the villagers of Sadiq Kariz. His young Afghan interpreter, unarmed but wearing an American uniform and helmet, struggled to impose clarity on the discussion but got little respect from the bearded men in turbans in a culture where age is an important measure of status.
The villagers were split, insisting that the Americans deliver a pump for each of their canals because they would squabble among themselves with only one. Ryan concealed his frustration, his face an impassive mask behind protective sunshades.
"Last time we were here, they weren't real cooperative," he announced. "We'll try to build a relationship around one water pump."
The mood turned edgy. A boy hissed at a soldier to get his attention; the soldier hissed back. A youth stretched out his arms to another soldier, appealing for a handout. "We're the U.S. Army, not the Salvation Army, buddy," the American said.
As the soldiers headed to their vehicles, the elders had a sudden change of heart. OK, they said, we'll take the water pump.

Ash closes some UK airports; London stays open

A dense cloud of volcanic ash drifting from Iceland forced the closure of airports in northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on Sunday.All airports in Northern Ireland shut down at 1 p.m. (1200 GMT; 8 a.m. EDT), along with others in northern England — including Manchester and Liverpool — as well as Prestwick in Scotland, the National Air Traffic Service said.Dublin's international airport planned to close from 7 p.m. (1800 GMT, 2 p.m. EDT) until at least 9 a.m.0800 GMT, 4 a.m. EDT) on Monday.British and Irish aviation authorities could not say when or if other airports would have to close, but they expected London's airports — including Heathrow, Europe's busiest — to remain open until at least 7 p.m. (1800 GMT; 2 p.m. EDT), and Shannon, in western Ireland, to be open until 11 p.m. (2200 GMT; 6 p.m. EDT).The German Aerospace Center sent up a test flight Sunday to measure the ash concentration, and the country's air traffic control said flights in Germany would not be affected by volcanic ash before Wednesday.
Ash can clog jet engines. The April 14 eruption at Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul volcano forced most countries in northern Europe to shut their airspace April 15-20, grounding more than 100,000 flights and an estimated 10 million travelers worldwide and costing airlines more than $2 billion.
In southern Iceland, activity at the volcano fluctuated throughout Sunday, but had not particularly intensified, civil protection official Agust Gunnar Gylfason said. He blamed the closures on shifting winds.
"What really changes the situation is the weather pattern," he said.
The Icelandic weather service said "presently there are no indications that the eruption is about to end."
"No major changes are seen in the activity, the ash cloud is slightly higher than yesterday," the agency said.
Airlines complained bitterly over the air space closures last month, calling them an overreaction. The European air safety agency last week proposed drastically narrowing the continent's no-fly zone because of volcanic ash to 120 miles (190 kilometers) like the one used in the U.S. The proposal still must be approved.Virgin Atlantic's president, Sir Richard Branson, criticized the most recent decision by British authorities to impose a no-fly zone.
"The closing of Manchester airspace once again is beyond a joke," Branson said in a statement. He said test flights have "shown no evidence that airlines could not continue to fly completely safely."
A spokesman for Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said Branson's remarks were "surprising" because a meeting of representatives of airline and engine manufacturers last week had agreed to find a way to ensure planes could fly safely in the volcanic ash.
"We as an organization can't just say, 'Oh, I'm sure it's all right, go fly without evidence it's safe,'" Jonathan Nicholson said.
British Airways, facing cabin crew strikes beginning Tuesday, said it had canceled a small number of flights out of Manchester. The airline's chief executive, Willie Walsh, is to meet with Transport Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday.
Eurostar, which runs trains between Britain and continental Europe, said it was adding four extra trains — an additional 3,500 seats — between London and Paris on Monday.
Britain's weather service has said it expects the winds, blowing from the northwest, to shift midweek, which it says would redirect the ash away from Britain.
Eyjafjallajokul (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) erupted in April for the first time in nearly two centuries. During its last eruption, starting in 1821, its emissions rumbled on for two years.

Swat security situation ‘improved’: survey

PESHAWAR: A vast majority of Swat residents have described the security situation in the region after the military operation as “improved” while blaming the previous provincial government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal for “not effectively fighting” militancy, a survey released on Friday revealed.
According to the survey by Peshawar-based Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training (RIPORT), the use of illegal FM radio stations, illiteracy, religion and the new governance system introduced in 2001 had contributed to the growth of militancy in the valley where the military used full force to evict the Taliban last year.
The survey, conducted in February and March, involved responses from 384 randomly selected households scattered over 16 union councils of the district and its design had a five percent margin of error. It covers a large area of the drivers of conflict and provides a comprehensive coverage of subjects that are divided into: strategic communication, development, foreign intervention, governance, security, social tradition, religion and poverty.
Khalid Aziz, the author of the survey, said, “The survey report is a timely warning to the government to improve security and provide reforms to deal with the situation in Swat or the cycle of death and destruction that has now been brought under control will re-emerge with a vengeance once the military withdraws.” An overwhelming majority of Swat residents - 78 percent of the respondents - said the security situation had “improved” after the military deployment, while just nine percent looked dissatisfied with the current situation, the survey revealed.
The survey found 78 percent respondents agreeing that illegal FM stations helped spread militancy, while 56 percent linked communications’ effectiveness to the spread of the Taliban in the district. The survey found that 75 residents believed the Friday sermon was used for “mobilisation of support for militancy” while 19 percent disagreed.