US fights to open school in Taliban area

TODD PITMAN - Associated Press
The Associated Press
In this photo taken Sept. 10, 2010, an Afghan soldier looks out from a guard tower at an outpost beside the Pir Mohammed school, in Zhari district,  Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Over the last six months, U.S. troops have wrested the school away from insurgents. They've hired Afghan contractors to rebuild it, and lost blood defending it. But the tiny school has yet to open, and nobody's quite sure when it will. (AP Photo/Adil Bradlow)
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In this photo taken Sept. 10, 2010, an Afghan soldier looks out from a guard tower at an outpost beside the Pir Mohammed school, in Zhari district, Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Over the last six months, U.S. troops have wrested the school away from insurgents. They've hired Afghan contractors to rebuild it, and lost blood defending it. But the tiny school has yet to open, and nobody's quite sure when it will.

Over the last six months, U.S. troops have wrested the school away from insurgents. They've hired Afghan contractors to rebuild it, and lost blood defending it.

But the tiny school has yet to open, and nobody's quite sure when it will.

American commanders have called the Pir Mohammed primary school "the premier development project" in Zhari district, a Taliban heartland in Kandahar province at the center of President Barack Obama's 30,000-man surge.

The small brick and stone complex represents much of what American forces are trying to achieve in Afghanistan: winning over a war-weary population, tying a people to their estranged government, bolstering Afghan forces so American troops can go home. But the struggle to open Pir Mohammed three years after the Taliban closed it shows the obstacles U.S. forces face in a complex counterinsurgency fight — one whose success depends not on firepower, but on the support of a terrified people.

Similar battles are taking place across the country. In Marjah, for example, a former Taliban stronghold in neighboring Helmand province, several schools have opened since American-led troops overran the district in February. But many parents are still too afraid of violence and Taliban threats to let their children attend.

In Senjeray, too, "there are teachers ... and we've found them and talked to them," said Capt. Nick Stout, a company commander from the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. "We say, 'When the school's built, do you want to come teach?' And they say, 'No, no, I don't, not at all.'"

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Perched amid majestic mountain crags at the base of a fertile river valley, the village of Senjeray resembles a walled fort, 10,000 people living in a labyrinth of steep, hardened mud walls.

Pir Mohammed sits at the southeastern edge of the village, a pair of modest, single-story buildings that once served hundreds, maybe thousands of children. A small plaque at the entrance engraved with black words on light gray marble indicates U.S. troops refurbished the school "in friendship with the People of Afghanistan" in November 2002 — one year after the American invasion.

Canadians finished the school and opened it in 2005. But in 2007, Taliban fighters attacked it, breaking windows and busting doors off hinges. They took away a dozen students, cut the fingers off some and killed the parents of others, said Bismallah Qari, a 30-year-old black-bearded mullah from Senjeray.

The Taliban opposes Western-style education, and apparently saw the school as a symbol of government authority. Qari said the Taliban also believed children would be forced to study Christianity there.

Since then, Senjeray's children have had only one place to go: a handful of Islamic madrassas run by conservative mullahs like Qari that some American commanders say are radicalizing a new generation of Afghan youth, turning them away from President Hamid Karzai's government and the NATO coalition.

Speaking through an interpreter as American troops searched a recently filled hole in his madrassa they suspected held a weapons cache, Qari said he wanted his kids to attend Pir Mohammed, too, but "we can't do it."

"The Taliban won't allow us to go there," he said. "They'll kill us, they'll kill our children."

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Pir Mohammed occupies ground highly valued by the insurgency — part of a corridor the Taliban use to traffic arms and guerrillas through villages along the Arghandab River and into Kandahar city.

In April, American troops seized the school in a military operation backed by Afghan troops. They found it in ruins, its rooms reduced to toilets littered with needles, apparently for drug use.

When Stout's unit arrived in May, he deployed two platoons to protect the school round the clock. On their second day, a U.S. soldier was shot in the lung, but survived.

For weeks, firefights erupted almost daily.

U.S. engineers knocked down walls and trees nearby where insurgents hide. Afghan security forces set up checkpoints on surrounding roads. And armored American trucks stood guard to defend the school's crumbling outer walls.

The school itself was turned into a de facto military base: Stout's men stacked sandbags in the windows and installed machine gun nests on the rooftops. They filled rooms with metal boxes of ammunition and anti-tank rockets, and slept on cots inside it.

The American occupation drew the ire of village elders. In mid-July, more than 300 turbaned men from Senjeray urged the provincial governor to pressure the Americans to leave Pir Mohammed. Stout said that in meetings afterward, elders told him the Taliban had pressured them to do so. Nevertheless, they reiterated the plea — and made a crucial promise in return.

"They were saying, 'Look, if you get out of the school, we'll protect the school,'" Stout recalled. "They said, 'We got it. We'll keep attacks from happening. And people will go there.'"

Withdrawing, in fact, was exactly what Stout wanted. It fit with the wider strategy of letting Afghan forces take on security, and freed Stout's troops to secure more ground elsewhere.

So the American platoons pulled out in mid-August, leaving their Afghan counterparts in charge.

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Instead of the peace the elders promised, attacks actually increased, Stout said. Within days, the school suffered two grenade assaults and a pair of shoulder-fired rocket strikes, one of which killed a seven-year-old boy playing outside.

At meetings that week with mullahs and elders, Stout's team displayed a poster-sized photo of the wounded boy just after the explosion, his face bloodied with shrapnel.

"We said, 'Look, how does this sit in your stomach? Does this bother you?'" Stout recalled. "We told them: 'These people clearly don't care about you, your family, or your livelihood.'"

The elders agreed, and Stout made a proposition: "Come bleed with us and defeat the bigger problem, help drive the insurgents out."

At that, the elders drew back.

Some said they didn't know who had carried out the attack. Others said there were no insurgents in Senjeray. Most said they were mere farmers, and if they cooperated with the Americans, the Taliban would cut their heads off.

Stout rebutted with a grim warning: "As long as you guys tolerate this, as long as you turn your backs, your children are going to continue to suffer."

The elders nodded. They promised to escort American troops through Senjeray, where attackers hidden on rooftops tossed grenades at U.S. patrols nearly every time they passed by.

But in the weeks that followed, nobody ever turned up.

Qari, the local mullah, said Senjeray's residents were caught in the middle and could not control the insurgency.

"We told the Taliban we don't want your support, and we don't want the support of the U.S. Army," he said. "We told them: 'We can ensure our own security, just leave us alone.'"

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Part of the difficulty of winning over people in Afghanistan is that NATO-led forces are trying to do it in full body armor.

American troops live in fortified bubbles surrounded by blast walls and dirt-filled barriers. Their window onto the country is often an alien landscape that's hard to see through inches-thick bulletproof glass covered in dust.

On the ground, American strategy often rests on fragile agreements between two groups worlds apart: young muscle-bound troops with crew cuts and tattoos and conservative white-bearded elders in turbans.

There may be no place tougher to win hearts and minds than Zhari. Here is where the Taliban movement was founded 16 years ago. A few miles to the west is Singesar, where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar once ran an Islamic school.

"Obviously there's a lot of Taliban sympathy out there," Stout said. "These people don't give a damn about us ... and quite frankly, why would they? We're strangers, we've been here for a few months, we walk around the town with guns, 40 pounds of body army and (a lot of) grenades."

Afghan troops, too, acknowledge the cold reception in Senjeray, where they are seen as foreigners trying to finish off an old war. Much of the Afghan army's rank and file here is drawn from the north — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara — who fought the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban in the 1990s.

"The people in this town hate us," said Lt. Said Abdul Ghafar, an ethnic Tajik soldier based at Pir Mohammed. "The Taliban tell them we're not real Muslims, that we're infidels. So the children throw rocks at us and won't even say hello."

Ghafar said 12 of the three dozen Afghan troops at the school were wounded in their first three months there. Eight others never returned from leave.

On Sept. 6, just after midnight, U.S. soldiers inside a truck pulling security at the school spotted someone turning a flashlight on and off in a nearby orchard. The Americans fired a yellow illumination round that fell gently from the sky.

Suddenly, a silhouetted figure stood up and ran, and the gunner on the American truck opened fire. Within seconds, the entire undergrowth lit up with muzzle flashes. Red tracer rounds crisscrossed the sky. Orange rocket trails streaked by.

After about 20 minutes, U.S. mortars ended the battle.

The next day, Stout made a decision.

U.S. forces would occupy the school again. The elders had proven incapable of protecting it and the Afghan troops couldn't do it alone.

That night, two American soldiers at Stout's outpost grabbed drinks from a dining hall.

"I really don't want to go back down to that school," one of them said, shaking his head. "Why do we have to do the ANA's job for them?" — the Afghan National Army.

His colleague, equally frustrated with the struggle to open Pir Mohammed, spat a few words of dark humor back.

"We should just drop a J-DAM on it," he said, referring to a bomb weighing up to 2,000 pounds.

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Sitting on a step behind his plywood office, Stout dug his combat boots into the dirt and pondered the war. The captain was part of the 2007 surge into Iraq, and said it took 10 months before things turned around there. Senjeray, too, will take time, he said.

Despite months of fighting, the Americans have readied the school to open. They hired Afghan contractors to paint stone walls and install new windows and latrines that together cost around $70,000. They also spent some $150,000 on security, building the shell of an adjacent police post.

But building a school like Pir Mohammed "is not just putting in windows and whatnot," Stout said. "Building is people actually buying into it."

American commanders no longer speak of military victory. The goal is to push the Taliban far enough away so teachers and children and can attend without fear of firefights or reprisals.

A recent U.S. operation has accomplished much of that: many Taliban fighters have fled Zhari, along with thousands of residents — some of whose abandoned homes were bulldozed or destroyed because they were booby-trapped by insurgent mines.

But convincing residents the school is truly safe is going to be "another battle," Stout said.

"If we can create an environment where neither of us interfere with their lives, that's winning for us," he said. "And that's what the people want. They don't like us. But they don't like the Taliban either."

For now, the American strategy appears to be working. Hundreds of people line up daily at the U.S. hilltop outpost for a cash-for-work program, something they would not have dared do just a few weeks earlier.

But the Taliban are not gone. On Nov. 1, a motorcycle bomber blew himself up at the entrance to Stout's base, killing two American soldiers.

The school was attacked the same day.

It has yet to open.