For the past four months, the forecasts for the nightly patrols of the U.S. Army’s 4-73rd Cavalry’s Bravo Company have been shockingly consistent: quiet, clear and well below freezing. Last Friday, March 23, was no exception. Patrolling deserted dirt roads in a four-Humvee convoy in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province, the soldiers passed a few mud houses before stopping at an Afghan police checkpoint to ask about suspicious activity in the area. In exchange for telling the Americans where the bad guys were, the Afghan officers asked for money and porn. The U.S. troops ignored the pleas for cash but promised to search their barracks for magazines they could pass along next time. “We’ve had only one exciting patrol,” says Lt. Tim Brooks. “We went to go investigate an IED, and our truck got stuck in the mud.” All the others blend together into an endless evening of driving in the dark.
While Afghanistan as a whole has seen continually increasing violence—particularly from Iraq-style suicide bombings and IEDs (2006 was the worst year in terms of attacks since 2001), Paktika, a province roughly the size of Vermont, has stayed relatively quiet. Because the 4-73rd’s main base in Sharona, home to around 1,200 troops, is about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border, the unit’s encounters with the Taliban have been few and far between. In the past year, it has suffered just one rocket attack. But the Americans have kept busy. As part of a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses more on political than military maneuvering, the United States has been working closely with both the police and the Afghan National Army (ANA) to hand over an increasing amount of responsibility for the area’s security. The base’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has also been working with local leaders to build new schools, clinics and district centers.
S/Sgt. Mark Wong says he knows some of his soldiers are restless because of the lack of enemy engagement. “They don't feel like they're defending their country. They feel like they've come to the other side of the world, and they should be [fighting].” Instead, the troops spend most of their days working on base, testing their mortar fire, repairing the Humvees (which are easily damaged by the rocky desert terrain) and preparing themselves for whatever the expected Taliban spring offensive might bring. When days drag on for Wong, he gets out his golf club and practices his swing.
Even for those working off base, things can get dull. Sgt. Ben Weber didn't see much fun in delivering backpacks, volleyballs, desks and chairs on the first day of school in Jani Khel. As he watches children from the local village trek on a kilometer-long foot path through the desert landscape to their newly built school, he says, "It's not our job, but it's what we're stuck doing." While desks are off-loaded from trucks, the children spike volleyballs with the soldiers in front of the single-floor cement structure. Others take their free backpacks, turn around and head straight back home. Notably, all the children are boys. When asked where the female students are, Weber shrugs and says he thinks he heard about a girls-only school in a neighboring district. "It's their culture," he says.
Though most of the soldiers didn’t join the Army to “nation-build,” according to Navy Cmdr. Michael Varney, leader of the PRT, it’s just as important as fighting. And because Paktika is unusual in its level of support for American forces, compared with the rest of the country, Varney says the progress he's seen has been impressive, with districts that were controlled by the Taliban as recently as last year now backing Coalition forces. In the past 12 months, with more than 750 missions completed, his team has yet to fire their weapons, a fact he points to as evidence that Americans have the trust and respect of these Afghan communities.
But just because the area is relatively secure doesn't mean the troops do not suffer from their own particular anxieties. Baptist Chaplain Dustin Rodriguez says about a quarter of the several hundred troops he oversees have come to him for spiritual support, which Rodriguez—just 24 years old himself—offers in a mostly informal manner. He says the main issue the men struggle with is separation from their spouses, particularly since most of the soldiers are between 18 and 22 and many are recently married.
Conveniently, Rodriguez's wife, Hilary, lives at Fort Bragg, the 4-73rd’s home base, which means the couple sometimes works together to get the perspectives of both spouses. Rodriguez recalls one soldier who came to him because his wife was talking about leaving him, but he didn't know why. Rodriguez asked his wife to investigate. She did and found out the wife's family was against American involvement in Afghanistan. With the permission of everyone involved, the Rodriguezes helped the couple communicate their doubts to each other, and as of now, they're still together. "What gets them through is that pretty much everyone here has something hard they're dealing with back home," says Rodriguez.
Also discouraging for some of the troops is the lack of attention Afghanistan gets back home, compared to the war in Iraq. Capt. Sean Kelly completed two tours of duty in Iraq between deployments to Afghanistan and believes that Iraq has had a negative impact on the situation here. "When the war in Afghanistan started, we had everything: the money, the resources, everything we needed," says Kelly. "But when Iraq kicked off, all the attention was diverted over there. It degraded the Afghanistan mission by shifting the focus." As a result, both operations have been lumped together in U.S. popular opinion. "I guarantee they don't know about the school opening up downtown [in Sharona] right now."
But local leaders know. And being aware that Americans are their only shot right now at developing local infrastructure, they express interest, at least to a NEWSWEEK reporter, in continued American assistance. Paktika's governor, 33-year-old political rising star Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, stresses that Afghans need more help from the international community to achieve the peace, democracy and reconstruction most of them want. "There are some poor people; there are some angry people," says Khpalwak. But after 30 years of war and last year's droughts, the rural community—basically the entire country outside of Kabul—is in desperate need.
Afghans are also certainly aware of the American presence; it would be hard to miss the heavily armored Humvees bullying their way though the local bazaar, where nearly everyone else arrives on foot. In Sharona, a shopkeeper who refused to give his name for fear of being targeted by the Taliban, said he appreciated the help and donations his community has received from the Americans, but deemed projects such as the cobblestone street they built in the town center "a waste of money." (He predicts that within two to three years, it would be too worn down to use.) He said he'd like to see a new school, a clinic and better irrigation systems instead. Momen, an Afghan translator who has worked with the U.S. military since 2003 and only gives his first name, says he’s confident the Americans will not leave until the job is done. After all, the United States’ reputation is on the line. "If anything goes down here, America's name goes down with it," says Momen. And that’s what the 4-73rd is really fighting for.