COMBAT OUTPOST SENJARAY, Afghanistan — It’s not every day that U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Sanchez of the 1-12 Infantry Battalion’s “Dog Company” finds good cilantro in Afghanistan.
But on a recent patrol through the southern Afghan village of Senjaray, a local grocer had a variety that met the sergeant’s requirements for homemade salsa. He intended to make the dish as a garnish for that night’s taco dinner back at the unit’s combat outpost.
Outfitted in body armor and with automatic rifle at the ready, Sanchez picked up a delicate green cilantro sprig and sampled it as if he were in a gourmet kitchen and not a combat zone.
“This one looks the best,” he said to a fellow soldier as he handed over faded Afghan currency to the shopkeeper in exchange for a plastic bag full of green leaves. “Who would have thought you could find cilantro in Afghanistan?”
Sanchez and his fellow soldiers are the only unit from their battalion of the U.S. military’s 4th Infantry Division who buy produce from the local market. They make it part of their daily patrols in this village of 10,000 people that lies west of Kandahar City. The goal is to show the local population in the once violent and still Taliban-infested town of Senjaray that American troops are here to secure the area, and the population.
Securing and protecting the population is a key element in the new counterinsurgency strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition in Afghanistan, has said will now be used to win the war here. He said that success should not be measured by how many enemy were killed, but how well the coalition separated the Afghan people from the Taliban and other insurgents.
But accomplishing that task is easier said than done, especially in an army that has trained its troops in conventional warfare during the last 60 years. Now, every day in Afghanistan, the noncommissioned and commissioned officers on the ground, and the enlisted men under their command, are trying to turn strategy into reality. It’s not easy.
“We are foreigners and we don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are,” Lt. Reed Peeples, one of Dog — derived from “D” — Company’s young platoon leaders, told five turbaned and bearded Afghan men at a street corner through an interpreter. “So, in order for us to provide security to you guys, we need your help and we need the help of the people to let us know what your concerns are so we can work with the police and the army to fix them.”
The men nodded. They said security was good. They weren’t especially engaging — but they weren’t rude either.
Peeples has a good sense for counterinsurgency operations; he volunteered for two years in the Peace Corps in nearby Kyrgyzstan, giving him valuable cultural and linguistic experience not often found in the U.S. military.
But Peebles says Dog Company’s soldiers are a different story, and have a hard time dealing with the low-level conflict they are currently involved in. The soldiers in the 120-man company expected some serious combat when they first heard they were destined for this violent Taliban stronghold west of Kandahar, called Zari. The smaller Canadian units based here over the last three years took heavy casualties. Now, with a more robust American presence, the Taliban lays low, frustrating U.S. infantryman whose job the U.S. Army says is to “capture, destroy and repel enemy ground forces during combat.”
“The enemy is there, and they won’t shoot at you, won’t engage you,” Peeples said. “It’s frustrating for the guys because a lot of them had it in their head about these mythical Afghan fighters, who fought the Soviets, and everybody else. And we’re going to come out here and duke it out every day. But the reality of it is that it’s a lot more about building and maintaining relationships, than fighting.”
But playing nice is not exactly what these soldiers have been trained to do. Counterinsurgency, with its heavy emphasis on protecting the population rather than attacking the enemy, can be confusing and downright boring.
“Your job is to kill and do all this badass shit, but now, all you do is just sit behind a gun for going on six months now, and you can’t use it,” said Pvt. 1st class Andrew Jay, 23. “You want to do your job. And right now we’re really international policemen; we’re trying to keep the peace.”
“Most of us are pretty much winging it half the time, trying to compensate for differences about how we usually operate,” said another soldier, Pvt 1st class Aurelio Reese, 19.
Reese says he’s been told by his unit’s leadership that counterinsurgency means being “nice” to the local Afghans, but to “not take any crap.”
It may sound simple, but it’s a delicate, and sometimes deadly, line to walk. The U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine seeks to not just protect the civilian population from insurgents, but also its own soldiers.
The strategy says military units should avoid civilian casualties at all costs and be willing to take more risk than they normally would to protect and secure civilians. The most basic way the Army takes on this risk is by issuing restrictive rules of engagement and conservative escalation of force protocols to its soldiers.
The soldiers complain about the rules of engagement constantly. The U.S. military restricts embedded reporters from revealing the specifics, but one soldier, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed the basic gripe.
“I have to get shot in the hip before I can return fire,” he said.
Not really. But Reese gave a general idea of the restrictions.
“The [Afghans] have to do a lot more to us than they usually would,” Reese said. “In Iraq, little things would escalate to violence. Here we have to take a little bit more from people.”
It also means having fewer tools at their disposal in confrontational but non-lethal situations, like rock-throwing. Kids throw rocks at Dog Company’s patrol almost every day.
The soldiers have started using a paintball gun or slingshots to disperse the rock throwers. Sometimes they get the urge to do a little more. Pvt. Carl Sherer, 19, was the turret gunner on his armored vehicle on a recent patrol when local children started throwing rocks.
“I had huge rock hit my shield and I wanted to spray like 50 rounds over their heads, but I can’t do that,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Escamilla, 30, also has urges to use his weapon more than he does now. He thinks counterinsurgency means “getting rid of the bad guys.” He was part of the surge in Baghdad in 2007, and says that his unit’s aggressiveness helped lower the violence there. But on the current mission he says he’s forced to behave more like a policeman. He’d rather play a little rougher.
“Being a cop, that’s not me,” he said. “What we do need to do is get aggressive with [the insurgents], flush them out and let these guys know we’re going after the Taliban and we’re going to get them. Being proactive instead of reactive. Because we are doing more reactive stuff right now.”
Escamilla deals with not being able to be more aggressive by hitting the gym more these days.
Still, some basic problems remain that the U.S. military hasn’t corrected that could lead to problems or alienation of the local population from its infantry troops. For example, some soldiers still use the clenched fist, pushed up into the air, to tell Afghans to stop, a signal unique to the U.S. military that even most American civilians wouldn’t know the meaning of. Others seem a bit too aggressive when patting suspicious Afghans down, or when ordering a car driver or motorcycle rider to shut off his engine. Other soldiers do seem to get it, and were seen telling their own colleagues to relax or to not be so aggressive with the local people.
Dog Company’s commander, Capt. Thomas Lamb, admits counterinsurgency is a foggy concept when implementing it on the ground, and admits his troops get frustrated.
“It’s hard,” he said. “[Counterinsurgency] is like doing a puzzle. One guy is doing one piece, another guy doing another piece, you don’t see the fruits of your labor until all those pieces come together. Then you see what you made.”
Lamb says his soldiers joined the army for action. And most of what they do in counterinsurgency is “zero action.” He says that’s boring, but it’s OK with him. Lamb spent a year in Iraq and did plenty of fighting there.
“In my mind, the more boring the better,” he said. “Better not to shoot and [not] get blown up and win hearts and minds, as much as that’s not fun.”
Peeples says his troops are “getting” counterinsurgency warfare, and Dog Company has been praised by other infantry officers for their good relations with the local population. However, Peeples warns about the flip side of the coin: complacency.
Troops who go months without firefight could drop their guard. That could prove disastrous if they were attacked. So he says his troops’ mission in Afghanistan requires striking a balance — between protecting the population, and maintaining the ability to protect themselves.