Obama called his strategy “Af-Pak”, meaning Afghanistan and Pakistan were intertwined. Pakistan, with dozens of nuclear weapons, toleration of terrorists and enmity toward India, was more important than the backward tribes of Afghanistan. It was daunting to deal 30 million unruly Afghan tribesmen. The challenge became much greater when 300 million Pakistanis were thrown into the equation.
The president promised to defeat the cephalous fundamentalists and to aid Pakistan in gaining control over its western frontiers. Afghanistan, Obama said, "will see no end to violence if insurgents move freely back and forth across the border". The border was a 1400-mile-long trace on a map that followed the natural contours of massive ridgelines in the Hindu Kush in the north down through the fabled Khyber Pass and into the deserts of the south. Regional Command, or RC East was charged with controlling 150 districts in seven provinces that encompassed 300 miles mountains and valleys stretching from Kabul northeast along the Pakistan border. There were 12,000 US soldiers in 90 patrol bases inside the populated flat farmlands called qalangs, and another 35 bases in mountain outposts like the Korengal. The 125 posts were intended to separate the population from the fundamentalists.
The east was the wild thing that had fascinated Kipling and Churchill, a setting for romance and slaughter. It was in the blood of those Pashtuns to fight. When there were no outsiders to fight, they turned against each other. Each decade witnessed at least one local war. Had the Soviets studied those blood feuds, they may have thought twice before they invaded Konar Province in 1979 and united the tribes along the Pakistan border against them.
Beginning in 2002, the US poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Konar to persuade the tribes that the US was their friend. In June of 2009, a supply truck from US Battalion 1-32 blew a tire on the main road running through Asadabad, the provincial capital. With nothing better to do, a few hundred loiterers clustered around to watch the soldiers change a tire. One passerby was filming the event. Suddenly, an explosion buffeted the crowd, killing and maiming scores.
Within hours, A-Bad resonated with accusations that the Americans had lured innocent Afghans to gather into a crowd, and then set off a bomb. Cries of “Kill the Americans! Protect Islam!” rang out across the bazaar. Fortunately, the video showed a man at the back of the crowd lobbing a grenade toward the truck, and after a few days, the ruckus subsided.
The incident illustrated the pervasiveness of the Islamist narrative. The Taliban provincial radio mocked the governor, who was a decent sort, as a gaudagai, or puppet. Taliban radio broadcasts referred to the US battalion commander “the Christian occupier”. In the A-Bad bazaar, farmers sought out Taliban agents to settle land disputes, because the Taliban decided quickly, while the government procrastinated. Without making arrests for sedition, the Afghan government could not achieve internal stability.
For three years, the Provincial Reconstruction Team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. Over the course of two years, I had repeatedly embedded with 1-32. They were disciplined and well-meaning. They tried to help the people. The PRT had paid over ten million dollars to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a US platoon patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of the US soldiers – whom they knew personally – suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.
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