Soldiers Try To Trade Tech Support For Intel

Captain Christian Balan shows holding a spool of Cat-5 cable, eager to play tech support. If he can get the computers running in this relatively-prosperous town of 4000 people, maybe the platoon will get some tips about local insurgent activity.

Captain Christian Balan shows up to the computer lab holding a spool of Cat-5 cable, eager to play tech support. If he can get the computers running in this relatively-prosperous town of 4000 people, he figures, it'll pay dividends in goodwill. Maybe the platoon will get some tips about local insurgent activity.

His fellow soldiers are skeptical. You go to talk to the Afghans and you help them if you can, but all you typically get back is a laundry list of complaints and a Stop Snitching posture of silence when it comes giving up the bad guys.

So there's some tension within this small unit, the 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company Sappers, 1-172 Cavalry, with whom Balan, the overall squadron's communications chief, is riding along today to assist. The soldiers' ultimate goal is to take down insurgents and stabilize the two districts of Parwan Province in which they operate. They understand that in a counterinsurgency campaign, that means listening to villagers' gripes, shelling out for the odd development project and even sending out a makeshift geek squad every now and then. But here in Parwan, just outside Bagram Air Base, they're not seeing enough return on their investment.

But then there's Balan, a sunny Vermont National Guardsman who teaches digital forensics at Burlington's Champlain College in civilian life. Since Tokchi requested computer help, he's psyched that his techie skills may come in handy for 3rd platoon: "We finally get to do what we like to do!" If he wasn't in Afghanistan, he tells me, he'd have gone to Def Con. Would've grown a beard and everything.

Now, Balan (pictured, above and left) is out in the baking heat, waving to kids who don't wave back. He steps into the computer lab, a small cement box maintained by a social organization called the Bagram People Sultania Foundation. The room has nine black Dell desktops, looking maybe five years old. They're running Windows XP Home Edition, got USB drives, optical mice – matter of fact, they wouldn't be out of place in an American public school. Balan thought he'd be working on total dinosaurs. "I could teach off these!" he beams.

He takes off his helmet and armor and talks to an elderly man in the hope of finding out what's wrong. His fellow geek, Specialist Steve Torrey, squats down and starts taking one of the towers apart to inspect. More good news: clean motherboards. As it turns out, the computers run fine; they just need power. The nearby generator that feeds the lab – something the U.S. helped provide - is out of juice. Balan and Torrey go back to the platoon's trucks to get ten gallons of fuel.

Next door, Staff Sergeant Jon Bruce and Lieutenant Willie Spears are having more difficulty unlocking their problems. They're parleying with the local leader, known as a malik, a leathery-faced guy in a white dishdasha named Abdul Habib. And it's not going so well; the soldiers and the malik seem to be talking past each other. Bruce and Spears want information about insurgents in the area. Abdul Habib asks the troops to patrol more often, to keep the village safe. They remind him that they came by to fix the computers. Abdul Habib tells the soldiers that they promised to give him a second generator for the lab. "We didn't promise that," Bruce answers.

Bruce, a gruff 55-year old National Guardsman from Rutland, Vermont who reenlisted in 2007 after first serving in the Army in the late 70s and early 80s, knows these meetings are important. "You can't just kick in doors and shoot people," he says. And Bruce considers Abdul Habib one of his more trustworthy maliks. But in general, he doesn't like these so-called "key leader engagements." After serving in 2008 up north and in Helmand Province, he's come to learn these chats are often frustrating wastes of time.

"You ask for intel," Bruce says on the drive down, and what you typically hear back is, "‘There are no bad guys here. We do our own security.' They clam right up. It's like a broken record.'"

Recently, gunmen boarded a bus in the village shuttling locals to their jobs a few miles away at Bagram. The militants beat a bunch of them up and stole their gear. Bruce and Spears want to know what the malik knows. "We're investigating," is all Abdul Habib says at first. He'd rather discuss the wells that he wants dug.

Bruce's team turns the subject back to the bus attack. "The issue is not actually there now. It's for the elections," the malik replies. Huh? They press further, even as Abdul Habib looks apprehensive. Finally, speaking in a code that the interpreter understands, the malik gives Bruce and Spears two names. One of the people he singles out is a candidate for parliament in next month's elections. According to the malik, the would-be parliamentarian has 200 untrustworthy armed individuals under his command. "That's a decent intel piece right there," Bruce says, vowing to follow up. Abdul Habib adds another: last night, another guy loyal to the same candidate threw a hand grenade near the police station. "I'm concerned that this is escalating," the malik says.

It could be what the platoon is after. But it's also possible that Abdul Habib is trying to get the U.S. to rid him of a political rival. (I was asked not to name the candidate.) Bruce considers the malik trustworthy. Apparently it's not the first time they've heard that this particular politician has been doing dirt. They're ready to ride out.

A few miles down the road, in the smaller village of Dasht Opian, the next key leader engagement goes worse.

The platoon doesn't just need tips about insurgents from the village – it needs remedial information, too. Its repository of data on Dasht Opian, Lieutenant Austin Barber, broke his hand in a gym accident a few weeks ago and had to be sent home. Spears is Barber's replacement. Given his inexperience, the 42 year-old Illinois National Guardsman takes his cues from Sergeant Kenneth Whittington about what to ask the malik, a gold-toothed, even-tempered man named Abdul Raqeeb.

They ask Abdul Raqeeb apologetically to reiterate some basic information now that Barber is gone. Solicitously, Abdul Raqeeb replies that he's the malik of five villages, one of three who represent a total of thirteen Parwan localities in the area. He gets up to excuse himself, heeding the platoon's request to introduce a few of its female soldiers to his wife, the leader of a women's shura.

Whittington considers it a positive sign, since the platoon hasn't had the opportunity to speak with her before. But it leaves him and Spears in a room with random villagers who've streamed in to talk with and gawk at the soldiers. Out comes a Christmas list of demands. There's no school in Dasht Opian, so local children go to nearby Charikar for their education. There aren't any hospitals or clinics, either. One guy pipes up that the "biggest need is electricity," pointing to the energy-efficient spiral light bulb on the malik's ceiling. The village has two wells and one of them is nearly dry.

But if Whittington's going to talk community development, he needs something in return. "Up the road, not long ago, we had a truck get rocketed," he says. He's referring to an ugly incident on July 24, when insurgents sent a rocket-propelled grenade through 2nd Platoon's lead armored truck and sprayed the platoon with AK fire about two miles from the town, badly injuring six soldiers. Does anyone know anything about the attack?

A keyed-up farmer named Abdul Gafoor begins pawing at his brown shirt collar, trying to show off his neck. "I was shot a long time ago by the Taliban," he says. "If I see anyone suspicious in my area, I will handle it. I'll kick his ass before you know. But I'm not responsible for other villages."

That's not really what Spears and Whittington want to hear. They'd rather get information about the insurgents, not villagers vowing to take matters into their own hands. (Ironically, General David Petraeus might consider Abdul Gafoor a candidate for new effort to get villagers to provide their own security.) The team tries again, telling the men that if they give up intel on the Taliban, they can make some money.

"We will kill them with shotguns!" Abdul Gafoor proudly vows. And speaking of: could the Americans give him any guns?

Spears gestures to the interpreter. "Tell him his mouth and his phone are the biggest, best weapons he has."

The malik returns, and team goes back and forth with him about maybe getting a job fair going in the area, followed by a long exchange in which Spears can't quite get clear answers about which villages are under Abdul Raqeeb's control. As everyone says their goodbyes, the unit's interpreter – who's been ribbed by the Tajik villagers for being half-Pashtun – concludes, "They're not being honest. It's pissing me off."

As the team rides out, without much solid information about the insurgency, Bruce reflects that such treatment is pretty much par for the course. "We have some trustworthy maliks, but most are not. This is a land of illusions," Bruce says. "I've got almost two years of my life invested in Afghanistan. The cultural ways, the moods out here are not comparable to the U.S. Most of the time, they're not giving us the straight story." Separating rumor from fact, he reflects, is "up to us."

Balan, true to form, thinks it was a good day. He's got big plans for the computer lab. He wants to network the computers so they can print to a single printer – maybe add some speakers, too; oh, and he'll need printer cartridges – so he says he'll write home to solicit donated equipment. After the platoon rolls back to Bagram, he hangs out in front of its office on some picnic benches and talks about the new software he wants to install. Maybe something about learning English. Or, hey: what about that Mavis Beacon program, the one that teaches you how to type?

Oh yeah, Bruce says – he remembers that program. Balan's eyes indicate that he's already musing about all the cool stuff he can introduce to the Tukhchi computer lab. Whether his tech upgrades will be useful as a counterinsurgency tool may require some more imagination.

Photo: Spencer Ackerman


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