Today's lead Page One article in the Washington Post -- three columns wide down the top middle -- is headlined "A Personal Touch in Taliban Fight." It features two photographs of US Army Capt. Michael Harrison, described in the headline as "a company commander [who] strives to gain the trust of frustrated villagers." Besides the main picture of the captain with a villager, which is available online, there is a secondary picture, which is not available online. Maybe that's because it was taken by the writer of the piece, Greg Jaffe, and not a Post photographer; I don't know. This smaller photo shows the American officer, on duty, in a war zone, dressed in a sky-blue salwar-kameeze, the native Afghan dress US soldiers refer to as "manjammies." The caption reads: "Harrison, dressed in a salwar-kameez to seem less like a foreigner, talks with an Afghan family after meeting with villagers."
Don't know about you, but that kicked my pulse rate up a notch or two. Trading the uniform of his country for Afghan native dress sends so many wrong messages to the non-literate Afghans for whom symbolism is everything that it's hard to sort them all out: Capt. Harrison has no attachment to his uniform, has no attachment to himself, has no attachment to his mission, has no attachment to his country .... otherwise he wouldn't shed his identity -- that uniform -- like so much cast-off clothing and dress up like an Afghan in the name of "cultivating trust." The article says: "Harrison had received special permission from his batallion commander to don the local garb...." I wonder what else Capt. Harrison is permitted to do to cultivate "trust" in Afghanistan? Convert to Islam?
Seems the US military hasn't thought of that (yet) -- although Harrison, the article notes, did buy "mosque speakers for the religious leaders in his area." This means the US is now buying speakers to amplify any exhortations to jihad that may emanate from these Afghan mosques. Separation of church and state would be nice here, but even better would be a little military know-how on what is in that now-amped Koran.
Of course, providing mosque speakers isn't all Harrison, bless his heart (as they say in his native Virginia), does for the locals. The West Point grad sends "packages of T-shirts, jeans and toiletries" to his former Afghan interpreter and Afghan leaders from his old sector, he has his medics dispense medicines to locals on request, he even gives away "a truckload of barriers that the soldiers use to safeguard their buildings from rockets" to an Afghan who, having told of 13 Taliban who want to "turn in their weapons for cash," has also asked for lumber to build a house. Harrison hopes such loose generosity "will lead to solid intelligence about the enemy." So far, it's not working.
In the course of this long piece, Harrison and his men hike into the mountains to talk with villagers about Taliban transiting the area, and to offer them humanitarian assistance. They are rebuffed on both counts. In fact, not only are they rebuffed by the villagers, they are subsequently attacked by Taliban on their way down the mountain (hmmm...connection?). The next day, a Taliban roadside bomb explodes, killing a nine-year-old girl. Indeed, this is the tragic incident that frames the piece, as the bereaved father comes for medical attention to the US post, and Harrison "presses a soggy $20 bill into the father's hands." Still, the US, our leaders say, must fight on to win that ever-elusive Afghan "trust"....
The Post story continues:
The morning after the firefight, the Taliban roadside bomb exploded, killing the 9-year-old girl. After the girl's father left the base, Harrison pulled his cellphone from his sleeve pocket and asked his interpreter to call the sub-governor for southeastern Konar province, an area that includes the girl's village of Barabat. "Tell him I'd like to have a shura tomorrow at 9 a.m. with the Barabat elders to discuss security in the area," Harrison instructed. "I want him to come."
The men arrived at the front gate of the American base the next morning for the meeting. The oldest members of the group had wispy white beards and wore elaborate turbans with tails that snaked down their backs. Holding hands with the sub-governor, Harrison led the group to a meeting room that he had built to resemble the ones he had seen in Afghan villages. Pillows lined the wall. The Army captain and his guests sat cross-legged on the floor.
"All of you please call me Michael," he began. "I am the commander of this area."
Harrison told the elders that he didn't expect them to fight the Taliban. "I am just asking you to tell us if you see someone who doesn't belong in your village," he said, passing out a business card with his cellphone number. "There is no reason for children to be killed by bombs."
The Barabat elders seemed reluctant to place their trust in Harrison. A year earlier, a U.S. airstrike had killed three Afghans living about a mile from Barabat. Village residents insisted the people who were killed weren't involved in the insurgency. Six months ago U.S. soldiers shot a man across the river from Barabat. Neither incident occurred while Harrison was in the province. But they were his problems now.
But didn't the Taliban bomb just kill a little girl? The point is, or should be, if these people have insufficient volition to rid themselves of jihadist maurauders (for any number of cultural and religious reasons), there is nothing we can do to buck them up. This whole "trust" game is a a con game of epic proportions. But back to the real story of "Michael" going native:
"Michael is different from the other Americans. He behaves like an Afghan," said Shah Jan, the provincial sub-governor, coming to Harrison's defense. "We are very happy with him."
Still, the elders said they weren't convinced ....
The next morning Harrison shed his Army uniform and pulled on a salwar-kameez, the pants and tunic worn by most Afghan villagers, and stood before about 350 villagers, including many widows and disabled people. Harrison had received special permission from his battalion commander to don the local garb, which the Americans refer to as "manjammies."
He and local government officials had spent weeks planning the event, which was intended to show that the U.S. and Afghan forces were compassionate and caring. Harrison had put up $2,000 of his unit's money to pay for it.
So, in addition to fighting Taliban and sometimes dying on these helpless peasants' behalf, dispensing medicine, lumber, T-shirts, jeans, mosque speakers, even money to those who ask while in US uniform counts for zip....
Some of the villagers arrived in wheelchairs. Others were carried in wheelbarrows or on the backs of their relatives. Many were missing arms or legs. Several shook with palsy. "These people are totally marginalized," Harrison said.
The villagers sat on a concrete floor and listened to long speeches from Afghan officials. Harrison spoke last, promising the crowd that Afghan soldiers were going to distribute aid packages full of rice, flour, cooking oil, blankets and clothes to everyone in attendance. "This is to demonstrate that you are all important and that we must help you," he said.
How do you say Great Society in Pashto?
Ten days ago, Harrison met again with Jonagha, the father of the 9-year-old girl, in a half-empty produce store in the town. About 30 villagers clustered at the store's entrance, straining to hear their conversation.
"The family is very poor and you are the commander of this area," the store owner instructed Harrison. "So it is your duty to assist them."
Such hectoring. Wish they US captain had said, "Hey, Bub -- it was a Taliban bomb that killed this child. It is out of the goodness of my American heart -- and my country's fantasy-"trust"-seeking policy -- that I am helping this family." But no. Capt. Harrison said:
"That's what I am prepared to do," he responded.
He offered the father a job at the base, but Jonagha didn't seem interested.
Not good enough!
If he worked with the Americans, the Taliban would target him, he said. Harrison also said he would try to bring in a U.S. expert to help the village with the wheat harvest.
Howz about a US expert just bringing in the wheat harvest?
He wanted to give the family $2,000, the amount typically paid to the relatives of civilians killed by U.S. or NATO forces. His battalion commander was generally supportive of the idea. But neither of them was sure how to do it. The United States isn't allowed to use the civilian casualty fund to compensate for Taliban mistakes.
Up next: US compensation to Afghans for Taliban "mistakes."
"I know funerals are very expensive, and I'd like to give you some money to help," Harrison told the father. "I can't promise anything, but I will do my best."
Two weeks had passed since Akhtarbabi's death. All Harrison had been able to provide for the family and the village so far was a $20 bill and some rice, flour and cooking oil. He shook hands with the father and waded through a crowd of children as he made his way to his vehicle.
"We can't afford to be seen as the outsiders here," Harrison said.
Believe me, far worse is to be seen as the insiders. Let Afghanistan Go.