U.S. Soldiers Continue to Gain Trust of Afghan People
By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 8, 2007 By living among the people of Afghanistan and gaining their trust and respect, U.S. troops are winning in the eastern part of the country, a U.S. commander there said today.
“We’ve defeated the enemy every time we’ve met him over the last 16 months,” said Army Col. John Nicholson during a news conference from Afghanistan. “We feel genuinely appreciated by the Afghan people.”
The 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, commander said that although his troops have been in the war-torn country for 16 months, their morale is high because they feel gratified by what they do and know they are making a difference for the people and government there.
The Army announced Jan. 25 that the division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., was to extend 120 days past its yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. The fact that his troops have spent 16 months on the ground is an advantage, Nicholson said.
“In many cases, our soldiers have more experience than the enemy fighters they are facing,” he said. “As a result we are defeating them soundly every time they show themselves.”
Although the unit’s extension in Afghanistan was unexpected, Nicholson said he believes his troops “were the right ones to extend” to accomplish that mission.
In a shift of methodology from past efforts, soldiers today are living and working among the rural-based population of Afghanistan to create tighter personal connections, Nicholson said. In some cases, the platoon-sized elements are living in mountain villages at 8,000 or 10,000 feet elevation that are only accessible by air in order to develop relationships with the people.
“When we move in (to an area), the enemy moves out,” he said.
Although this initially leads to an increase in fighting and potential increases in casualties, the fighting declines as the enemy sees the U.S. troops are unwilling to back down.
Nicholson’s troops are working to build capacity within the Afghan government and security forces.
“Our objective is to get the Afghan people to believe that their own government offers the best hope for the future and to buy into the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as their choice for the future to provide for their families,” he said.
The colonel said his troops are fighting an enemy broadly defined as anyone who opposes the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. “That would be terrorists, insurgents, drug lords, criminals and anyone who would benefit from instability on the part of this government to gain personal profit,” he said.
Basic counterinsurgency efforts in the country first aim to separate the enemy from the people and then to positively affect the population.
While “kinetic operations,” such as killing the enemy or forcing them to flee, are options, changing people’s minds about the government would be even more successful, Nicholson said. “Because that builds a momentum of its own and helps these people to reconcile after many, many years of civil war,” he said.
Once the enemy is driven out or reconciled with the government, the population’s number one need is a sense of security from the government, Nicholson said.
“They need to know that if the government is here, the government is going to stay or going to secure them from the enemy,” he said. “Otherwise they will be punished by the enemy for cooperating with us.”
Such punishment could range from robberies to mutilation or even death, he said.
Once the people feel secure, they will then feel free to express their needs for things like food, good health, electricity, roads and jobs. This will result in a permanent transformation of the environment in tangible and intangible ways, Nicholson said.
The life expectancy for Afghans is less than 43 years. One in every five children will die before reaching the age of 5. Eighty percent of the population is illiterate, and 60 percent are unemployed. And, as Nicholson put it, “the public health situation is worse than a country with an AIDS epidemic.”
Even though the country has some very bleak statistics, Afghans are still pressing on, he said. “In spite of all of this, they have a deep faith in God,” he said. “We are daily impressed with the way they can persevere through this hardship.”
“Eighty to 90 percent (of the population) see this opportunity with international communities being here as the best way to turn fortunes around and have a better future for their children,” Nicholson said.
After 30 years of war, Afghans have “seen into the abyss,” Nicholson said.
“They have seen it as bad as it can get, and they don’t want to go back,” he said. “They are genuinely appreciative of us being here.”