What We May Be Doing Wrong in Afghanistan

By Sadie Bass

Oct 7, 2009 10:34am

ABC's Nick Schifrin and Matthew McGarry report from Kandahar, Afghanistan:

Eight years after the war began, violence in Afghanistan against both troops and civilians is at a peak. It is always dangerous to use one moment in time to try and explain why, but here's one that we think reveals what's going wrong for the United States.

At 8:00 am one recent morning, Capt. Michael Thurman, an eloquent Military Police commander out of Ft. Stewart, Ga., escorted us from a small base inside Kandahar City to the sprawling and overcrowded Kandahar Air Field, about 30 minutes away.

On the Airport Road that separates the bases, Thurman's convoy of four Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles skidded to a stop on the side of the road. Across the two lanes of traffic, an empty fuel truck had toppled onto its side, its belly just a few feet from a badly damaged van that had been nearly hit in some kind of accident.

Thurman and his driver/medic hopped out their truck as the other MPs stood guard.

For 30 minutes the two examined the large, bleeding gash on the truck driver's head and the dozens of cuts on the van's driver. They handed out water. They talked with the children who were nipping at their heels, and they engaged with the elders who had congregated on the scene. Thurman at one point even took off his ballistic glasses and helmet — something he's technically not supposed to do — so he could better engage with people who had crowded around him.

And when they left — after the cuts were bandaged up, after two dozen water bottles had been distributed, after two members of the United States military stopped at a traffic accident in the middle of Kandahar city to help the wounded — not one person shook Thurman's hand. Not one person said thank you to him. In this country guests are royalty, and not shaking their hands is the equivalent of a slap in the face.

"They still don't like us," Thurman responded when we asked him why he had been snubbed.

"We haven't spent enough time engaging with the people," he said. "So often we've just stuck to timelines… Twenty to 30 minutes of our life is nothing, but usually, troops just roll on by an accident because they're sticking to their schedule."

He noted that a truck full of Afghan police and Afghan army had passed the scene that morning and failed to stop. So did two trucks full of Dutch soldiers, as well as a convoy of American Stryker soldiers.

"If the ANP, the ANA just drive by — how much faith do you think Kandaharis are going to have in their local security forces?" he asked, using the acronyms for Afghan police and army.

He told the story of the last time he and his men stopped at a scene of domestic violence. A man's face had been split open by a crowbar. On that occasion, after the medic bandaged the wound up, a local elder said something to Thurman as he left: "The local elder said it was the first time in five years that he'd seen a foreign soldier on the ground, out of their vehicles."

Thurman admitted the foreign forces in Kandahar – mostly Canadian up until recently — had largely failed to engage with the people enough. They ride around in their armored trucks and they don't get out as often as they should, he said.

And that creates a divide between the people and the men who are supposed to be their protectors. Because Kandaharis have no armor against deteriorating security. The Taliban campaign of intimidation is as high as ever. Threats are delivered regularly, and threats that are ignored are often met with assassination. And inside the city, residents told us their lives hadn't improved in the last few years. There's only four or five hours of electricity every day.

"We got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in," Thurman quipped.

He dropped us off and continued on his day: a patrol inside the city, mentoring Afghan police.

About 6 hours after Capt. Thurman stopped by the side of the road to help out, his truck was hit by an IED. Dozens of fighters started pelting his vehicle with small arms. He had driven into a L-shaped ambush, in the middle of Kandahar. (He and his men all survived without any wounds).

It is, perhaps, too simple to suggest that the reason why none of those Kandaharis shook Thurman's hand is the same reason that insurgents tried to kill him.

But clearly, Western troops have failed to prove in Kandahar that their presence actually helps. As Thurman put it right after he left the scene of the road accident: "When I took my helmet off, a kid jumped away from me. We built ourselves up to be robots. What we've been doing has not been working."

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus