Doug's Newspaper Work
These articles appeared in "The Daily Oklahoman," September 2006.
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By Douglas Grindle
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Staff Sgt. William Ellis of Muskogee is getting impatient.
He and his patrol of five Oklahoma soldiers are waiting outside the operations office of the Afghan National Army's Central Afghanistan Corps, based in Kabul.
Ten Afghan soldiers are 45 minutes late. Ellis, 29, makes a decision.
"Let's go," he snaps and walks forward. He leaves the Afghan soldiers behind.
These Oklahoma National Guard soldiers take the Afghan soldiers out with them as often as they can.
"We try to get them out so they can pick up some of our techniques," Ellis said.
Eventually the soldiers will have to take control, so they need to go on patrol.
"We could probably do it by ourselves," said Capt. Kevin Roland, 37, of Shawnee, commander of Charlie Company, 180th Infantry, which Ellis belongs to. "But without the ANA and Afghan National Police, it will not be sustainable."
The sun is coming up behind the mountains as the patrol moves out. Charlie Company is protecting Camp Black Horse, a small American base tucked inside this larger Afghan base.
The base has large training ranges and is surrounded by small towns and villages on the outskirts of Kabul.
The patrol will walk past the ranges, through a refugee camp and into the town of Pol-i-Charkhi.
This is a presence patrol, intended to show the Taliban and the locals that the United States is active here.
Charlie Company cannot protect Camp Black Horse without controlling the surrounding towns, so the Oklahoma soldiers patrol regularly.
They are trying to push the Taliban out, but it is a slow process.
The refugee camp is a mass of mud huts built on a hillside.
Children mob the soldiers, who hand out pencils and candy. Women in blue burkas walk past, with not even their eyes showing. Other ragged kids hang back, standing and watching.
"You've got 3- or 4-year-old kids carrying a 1-year-old around here," says Sgt. James Smith, 23, of Stratford.
The children follow the soldiers to Pol-i-Charkhi. The soldiers say kids here are pushy from extreme want. If a soldier hands over a pen, a dozen hands reach out for more.
It frustrates the solders, who like to help but become alienated by constant shouts of "mister" and "pen, pen."
The soldiers walk into the high school at Pol-i-Charkhi, and the gate watchman chases the children away with a stick.
Children's faces poke out of the classroom windows of the yellow buildings.
The soldiers want to help the school. They are ready to help improve the well, build a wall and make other improvements. But Ellis is here to tell the headmaster that it is all on hold if the Americans cannot get some information.
The Americans know there are bomb makers working inside Pol-i-Charkhi. The soldiers believe a bomb maker or bomb-making team is making the explosives here and sending them to other parts of Kabul. It is quiet in the town, and even that is suspicious.
Ellis sits down with the headmaster and lays out the problem.
"We can't give any more money until we find out about the bomb maker in Pol-i-Charkhi," he says. He runs through the projects the Americans would like to do to improve the school and suggests the village elders or parents could gather information.
The headmaster seems to understand. He smiles and nods and the soldiers get up and depart on good terms outwardly, at least.
"It might work, it might not," Ellis said. "Usually if you put pressure on them they'll give a little bit." He said it could take months.
Classes have let out and the soldiers are mobbed again as they walk toward the gates. Hundreds of small children in this school of 4,000 cry out, asking for handouts. The soldiers look relieved as they get away through the back gate.
The military has good relations with this community. As they walk out the gate, a boy offers to show them where an old unexploded munitions lay. They follow the boy 150 yards along a drainage ditch. The munitions looks to be the nose cap of a grenade. The soldiers pocket it and take it back to their base. It is risky to carry but better than leaving it for the kids to handle.
The soldiers arrived in June, and after three months the people are just now getting comfortable enough to talk to them. They expect it will take about six months before they offer good information. There is no way to root out the Taliban without that information.
The refugees come into the area from Pakistan, which makes it easier for the Taliban to settle in. It is easy for insurgents to hide in a transient population.
Roland said the area should be more or less under control by Jan. 1. He expects that by then the Taliban will be pushed out of Pol-i-Charkhi. The ultimatum at the school is part of that strategy.
"We're hoping education is worth more to them than a bomb-making team," he says.
Searching for bombs
The company patrols on foot most days. They also get in their Humvees and move farther from their base. This is good practice, as locals who never see security forces are easier prey for Taliban influence, which is spread through persuasion and coercion.
But that is complicated by the fact that the area to the south is controlled by America's Turkish allies, which are being replaced by German soldiers. Neither is known for patrolling outside their vehicles, which is risky but most valuable for building local trust and contacts.
Early the next morning, two Humvees wind through Pol-i-Charkhi and head south along a road that leads through the mountains to Jalalabad. The soldiers had to get permission from the Turkish unit to drive on this road. The soldiers drive for 25 minutes before climbing out of their Humvees.
The Taliban have been coming out of the mountains and laying roadside bombs. The Americans walk in the ditch, trailed by their protective Humvees with machine guns mounted in the turret.
The soldiers look for IEDs or anything suspicious, such as wires or signs of recent digging. The insurgents hide behind rocks a half-mile away and detonate the IEDs by radio, using telephone poles beside the road as aiming stakes.
The soldiers walk about half a mile. They have found nothing except an old tail assembly for a mortar bomb. Recent rains probably washed it up. Land mines are another hazard made worse by rains.
Despite the danger soldiers say they like this duty, out in the villages, away from their base.
"I'd rather be out doing that than stuck doing tower duty," said Sgt. David Williams of Purcell.
As they drive back through the villages, the soldiers wave to the locals and keep an eye out for anyone acting suspiciously. One teenager who runs away gets special attention. Running in Afghanistan is suspicious.
They drive back on base, through the main gate manned by Afghan soldiers and then through their own gate manned by Oklahoma soldiers. They take off their helmets and bulletproof vests. It's a hot day about 95 degrees.
The soldiers have another nine months or so to spend here. Camp Black Horse houses advisers who train the Afghan National Army battalions that live on this huge post.
Soldiers say they are glad to be here doing a mission similar to what they are trained to do, which is infantry work. They say they would prefer to be out where the fighting is heaviest, east near Jalalabad or south near Kandahar or Helmand province.
"A year is a long time but it's worth it," says Spc. Richard Mathews, 20, of Ada. "I've been here three months, and I've seen stuff I'll always remember."
By Douglas Grindle
KABUL, Afghanistan - Soldiers from Oklahoma's 180th Infantry take up positions in the courtyard of a high school in the Udkeyl neighborhood of Kabul. It's a poor section of town and has a reputation as a security risk. About 3,500 students go to school here in two shifts. The soldiers have come to hand out school supplies.
A line of 15-by-30-foot wooden huts is set up around a central building. Most students take classes in the huts. Girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon. The compound is facing a fuel tower with four large holes blown in its side by rapid-fire artillery.
There is heavy security here. Before coming here, the soldiers were told there is a factory in the area making roadside bombs and that Taliban sympathizers live nearby.
The neighborhood is a collection of mud-walled compounds. Some alleys have streams of sewage water running through them.
The names the soldiers gave the alleys tell their own tale: To get to the school, go down Jalalabad Road, turn right onto Mogadishu Lane, turn right again and the school is down that alley.
A handful of the soldiers are from Oklahoma, the rest are from another state's unit. Once at the school, the soldiers go from hut to hut. The Oklahomans hand out knapsacks to the two students in each class the teacher tells them are the brightest.
The teachers don't like this arrangement and would prefer the knapsacks go to each student, but there aren't enough to go around.
Maj. Mark Roper, 48, of Durant is in charge.
His job is handing out aid to the communities in this part of Kabul. Superiors give him the needed money, and he spends it.
Roper says he has wrestled with not being able to give supplies to every child.
"I finally had to realize there is no way to help everybody," Roper said. "I can only touch so many but the ones I do touch, I make their lives better."
Students and teachers say the school is well-run, and a 16-year-old boy named Jamsheed says he takes 17 subjects in his 9th-grade classes. The students do without most supplies, like pens and notebooks.
"We don't have any papers. They don't give us any," he said. His teacher, Ghulam Gestagher, 47, agrees. "It is very difficult. There are many poor people."
As the soldiers make the round of the huts, students pour out of the classrooms for a 15-minute break.
The soldiers are dismayed as the children, ages 6 to 18, surround the two pickups filled with knapsacks and school supplies asking for handouts. It becomes difficult to drive the pickups. The teachers chase after the students with sticks, but the students disperse and then quickly surround the trucks again.
The soldiers prefer a more orderly setup. They say they were stoned a month ago by students at another school, when they drove off with supplies still visible in the truck beds, heading to another destination. No one wants rocks thrown at them.
Within 25 minutes, the soldiers pack up and push out of the compound. They have not distributed everything because they will take the rest to another school tomorrow. No rocks are thrown this time. Most of the soldiers start walking back to their base at Camp Phoenix, almost a mile away.
The soldiers are upbeat. It went well, despite the mob of kids. "It's nice to know people do appreciate us being here and helping them," says Spc. Brian Wade, 26, of Edmond.
The soldiers walk back down the alley and turn onto Mogadishu Lane. Rundown stalls and a few small shops line the road. A few heavy trucks rumble up and down. The people generally are friendly toward the Americans. Soldiers say about half the locals show a positive sign, and the other half ignore the Americans.
"I have been surprised by how thankful they are that we are here," Wade said. But he admitted it is difficult to gauge the locals' true feelings. "Whether it's a sincere smile it's hard to tell. And you're not going to see the people who don't like you."
Soon the soldiers reach Jalalabad Road and 10 minutes later they are back at Camp Phoenix. Almost every day, the soldiers of the Oklahoma National Guard go out on missions like this. They also run projects at a refugee hospital, another high school, a middle school and are giving money to rebuild a mosque. The mosque project could improve security in the area, Roper said.
"During Friday prayers, the message will go out that the mosque will be helped and that will make us more secure," Roper said. He said it will be a long process before the country is fully rebuilt.
"You can't install a democracy in a couple of years," he says. "It's going to take a generation."
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