In Ghaziabad, outside the protection of an American base, Lt. Lauren Luckey’s commander, Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, tries to build relationships with Afghans amid violent clashes with insurgents. Mark Schapiro talks by Skype with journalist Mimi Wells on assignment for CIR in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Mark Schapiro: Nice to see you again, Mimi. Last time we left, you were inside Forward Operating Base Bostick. Now tell us what life has been like outside of the base with the troops you’ve been embedded with.
Mimi Wells: The last two weeks have been very kinetic here. They just finished a huge operation, which they called, “Closing the Ghaziabad Gap.” They killed over – estimates right now are between 150-200 insurgents. It was a two-part mission. One was to construct two new outposts – one was already there, they were fortifying it; the other was Outpost Shal. It was in the Shal Valley, which was one of the Taliban’s main routes for smuggling weapons and fighters from Pakistan. So to get this whole mission done, they had to construct this new outpost that would provide more protection to the road.
And the thinking here is if they can secure the road, which goes north-south through the whole province, right along the river, that will thwart the insurgents, connect these people, these isolated people. The villages are so remote that the guys I’m with, when they got there, the villagers actually thought they were Russians.
Schapiro: They thought they were Russians from the previous war?
Schapiro: Give us a day in the life outside of Forward Operating Base Bostick.
Wells: The first time I went out was with the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Dan Wilson. He has his personal security detail. And we were a convoy of four gun trucks. So for us to go, you don’t travel on the road during the day. You don’t travel on the road if you can avoid it – most of the time, they use helicopters to get all over Kunar. But for this operation, we were going to the district center, which was the government center, in the heart of the Ghaziabad Gap. So we drove there. We arrived just before daybreak, I think it was, and then pulled into the district center and were there for five days of the operation.
The job of 227 particularly is to empower their local counterparts. So we’re living on the compound, which is basically the district center, so the police, the army – everyone who is dealing with the government and security for this little area – is here. We’re all living together for five days.
The colonel was doing a lot of chai diplomacy: building up relationships, holding shuras in this district center. He calls the Afghan national army and police commanders that he works with, he refers to them as his brothers. He has tried to learn Pashtu. When I walk on a foot patrol with him, he is stopping to meet everyone.
Every night, he would have dinner with the Afghan colonels and the Afghan police all eating out of bowls together, sharing chicken and rice. It’s unheard of for someone of his stature to go and live in the heart of this territory for that amount of time.
In the American interest, of course, the more people he can convince to stop shooting at his soldiers, who are currently building the outpost on the side of the mountain while all this is going on, the better.
Lt. Col. Dan Wilson: We came down to help build a better Ghaziabad, and we’re just walking around and saying hello to everybody.
Wells: And the outpost is actually going to be handed over to the Afghans, the idea being, “Look, you guys have to provide your own security for your own road.”
Schapiro: You’re there as he’s meeting with these local village leaders. What is he offering to them?
Wells: During the shura, it was quite fascinating; you know, he stood up and told them: “Listen, we won’t be here forever, we’re on our way out; now is the chance to take advantage of the resources we have to offer you. Are you on board with this project or not?”
So it’s very complicated on the Afghan side. They are negotiating family dynamics, they are negotiating tribal dynamics, they themselves obviously are suspicious; they’ve seen other foreign armies come and go, they’ve had promises made and broken. I think understandably so, the Afghans are sort of … hedging their bets.
Wilson: I think what we’ve seen here in Afghanistan is that people are naturally suspicious of anything: outsiders, change, new things. So what you have to do is let them kind of chew on it and develop their own belief in what you’re saying. The best way to deal with the Afghans that I’ve seen, you kind of give them a thought and you walk away. When they see that there is benefit to them, their families, their tribes, they will commit to it 100 percent.