Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Winning Hearts and Minds!

Yesterday was a good day! For the first time since we have been here we essentially engaged in combat tourism. For the past week we have had a reporter embedded with us, and to help him out we decided to take him outside the wire with us to view some of the sights of Mazar-e-Sharif. Previously every time that we have left the wire, we have headed directly our destination. Yesterday was a bit different as we incorporated into our travel plan to actually stop our vehicles, get out and interact with some people. Unfortunately due to security concerns not all members of our team were able to get out and interact with people as our drivers and gunners had to stay with the vehicles. I was one of the lucky few that were able to get out at each stop.
Our first stop was near a market a couple blocks north of the center of the city. With the assistance of my terp I walked through the 'farmers market', along three other guys on my team, a couple more terps, and our reporter. It was very refreshing me to get out and wave hello to the many people who were selling their wares. It seemed like kids appeared out of the woodwork when we appeared. I was more than happy to shake as many hands with as many of the kids as I could. Much to my surprise and satisfaction many of the kids could speak a few words of conversational English. One of the funniest moments of the day was while I was walking the street I noticed a kid who appeared to be about 9 or 10 who was wearing a baseball cap that said, "I Love Jesus". I doubt that he or any of the people around in the market could actually read any enough English to understand what he cap says. As an aside I don't know how many people would be truly offended as Muslims believe that there was a profit named Jesus Christ, they just don't believe that he was the son of God and savior of man.
None of the other guys in my group were making an effort to interact with any of the people in the market. I was of the opinion that just walking through and not interacting will turn into a staring contest. The locals starting at us, wondering what the heck we are doing, and we staring at them making sure that none of them are doing anything that might hurt us. I hope that I made a bunch of down payments in future good will with the smiles and the few pieces of candy I had in my pockets to hand out. I was smiling, rubbing heads, shaking hands, and even showed a couple kids what a high five is. I don't know if I or we made a difference in the lives of the group of kids, however my thought is that in our short 20 minute walk through their area we potentially reduced some fear that those citizens may have of US Soldiers.
After the farmers market we drove to the east side of town to a round about which a game of Buzkashi monument. This was just a short stop to actually take some pictures of the monument that we have driven by several times but never able to get a descent photo through the thick armored windows of our moving vehicles. Once again I took a couple minutes to toss some snacks to some young kids, who were literally covered in oil, who had been helping their father's work on vehicles.
Upon departing the Buzkashi monument we headed back to the center of town, and did a slow drive by of the historic Blue Mosque. Due to rules of engagement, that says no US soldier may enter a mosque it was not worth effort to try and a place to stop our vehicles to try and walk around the courtyard of the mosque.
Our final stop of the day had us swinging through what appeared to be a very poor village on south end of town. I got out my small plastic bag of remaining snacks and toys. Bringing my bag out at the beginning of our time there was a mistake. I stepped out of my truck, and it seemed like I was immediately surrounded my 30 little hands grabbing at the goodies in my hands. I was trying to pass out candies one at a time in an effort to try and make sure that everyone would get something. That wasn't fast enough for the kids, as some of them jumped up and grabbed at the plastic bag in my hand tearing it open. Candy and snacks fell all over the ground, and it quickly turned into a fish feeding frenzy. That quickly solved my problem of making sure that everyone got something. The quick ones got something, and the not so quick ones didn't. While our reporter spent time talking with a couple local village elders, who appeared to be in their mid to late 30s but wore those years as though they were in their 60s. During that time I spent talking with about 30 kids. Once again mostly simple pleasantries like Hello, How are you. Some of the preteen boys new a few words of English. Many of the boys told me that their names was that of WWE superstar John Cena. This gave me a good laugh. I attempted to demonstrate John Cena's signature hand waving in front of his face. As our time ended in this small village area, there was a bit of concern to make sure that no kids ran underneath our large vehicles.
The one thing that he has me confused about being here in Afghanistan, which was reinforced yesterday, is what is the force protection standard when we are outside the wire. Throughout our training at Ft Polk and Camp Hohenfels prior to coming Afghanistan, that as part of the counter insurgency effort we should be trying to would through areas and neighborhoods without our body armor on. Essentially we should be saying that if the are is safe enough for the people of Afghanistan to live there, it is also safe enough for the US Army to walk through there without body armor. I beginning to think that was just lip service by our instructors. I have yet to hear or see of anybody who was gone outside the main gates of our base not wearing body armor. RC North, where I am, is widely considered the safest region in Afghanistan. If there is anywhere in which soldiers should be able to take their body armor RC North would be the area. I don't know that if I wear a commander here that I would authorize or allow my soldiers to take their body armor off, because there is such the fear of the unknown here when it comes to safety. But it makes me wonder that if there is such an unknown about threats of violence, is the area safe. If the area still is not safe, are we winning the war in Afghanistan.

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