THE constant and extremely serious dilemma NATO forces face in convincing Afghans that they are here as helpers, rather than an “occupying foreign force”, as they are described by the Taliban, became acutely clear on my first foray outside of Camp Holland here in Uruzgan province.
I was invited by a Dutch police mentoring team to join them on a patrol to downtown Tirin Kowt.
The purpose of the mission was to visit an Afghan police post at the major roundabout in the centre of the city to check on the cops’ ability to direct traffic.
I joined the two Dutch police mentors and eight soldiers for the jaunt. Sporting body armour and a helmet, I was shown my assigned seat in a German-made armoured personnel carrier, one of two tasked with the trip. Both carried imposing 50-calibre machine guns on the roof. A heavily armed jeep rounded out the three-vehicle patrol.
We left the NATO base and rumbled into town, a Dutch soldier from the top hatch of the lead APC motioning on-coming traffic to stay out of the way.
Circling around back streets with mud-walled compounds, we pulled up in front of a house near the traffic circle. Five men were standing in a yard, where they were building a new front wall for their small abode.
A Dutch sergeant, armed and wearing tinted sunglasses, got out of the second APC and said to his Afghan interpreter, “Tell the men we want to search them for weapons.”
A look of consternation crossed the five men’s faces, as two of them pulled IDs out of their pockets. One spoke to the interpreter, who in turn told the sergeant, “They say they live here.”
There was a pregnant pause and I wondered to myself, “Shit, where’s this gonna go?”
A cooler head prevailed. The Dutch sergeant then said, “OK, tell them to stay inside their compound.”
One Afghan now had his hands on his hips – not a welcoming stance.
The interpreter relayed the message, and back came, “He says they are building a new wall.”
It was obvious the wall construction, extending outside their home and up along a gutter along the street, meant they needed to move around outside their compound.
Another pause. Then the Dutch guy said, “OK, tell them to keep the children from going between the vehicles.”
That was it. Brief cultural exchange over.
We got out of the APCs and walked two by two, patrol-style up to the roundabout and chatted with the cops for about 40 minutes.
The cops said they wanted new windows for their two-storey post. They were told the NATO-led provincial reconstruction team was – inshallah – going to build a new one soon.
With handshakes and warm smiles exchanged, we marched back to the APCs and left.
But what if, back at the house, the reverse had happened? What if some foreign, non-English-speaking troops had come to my house and without even a “Good morning, fine day isn’t it, sir?” had asked to search me for weapons?
More than a few “F” words readily come to mind.
NATO says from top to bottom that this war cannot be won militarily. Even so, the hearts-and-minds front is going to be a terribly tough nut to crack.