Afghan campaign turns to winning hearts and minds

Friday, June 21, 2002

KUCHE KAN, Afghanistan -- Sipping green tea near a mosque, an American sergeant chatted with an Afghan village elder about digging wells. Up the hill, a British military dentist pulled an ailing villager's rotted tooth.

With fewer al-Qaida or Taliban fighters to be found, this is what the war in Afghanistan is becoming.

"The line between bayonets and food hampers is getting blurred," said Col. Tim Chicken, who leads Britain's 45 Commando Group, which for nearly a month has been searching for al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts on the plains and in the hills south and east of Khost in eastern Afghanistan.

"The threat is still there, but it's changing," Chicken said Wednesday.

Rooting out al-Qaida

For weeks, British and American forces have been entering villages like Kuche Kan in southeastern Afghanistan -- not on raids, but to discuss how to bring villagers humanitarian aid and development projects.

The interaction has a military aim: Once villagers trust U.S. and British forces they're more likely to reveal any al-Qaida and Taliban movements in their area.

The task requires patience. Since March, al-Qaida and the Taliban have avoided battles with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, choosing instead to hide among locals or take refuge across the border in Pakistan.

Rooting them out could require American troops to remain in Afghanistan for 18 more months, U.S. military officials say.

And the U.S.-led coalition is soon to lose its second-largest contingent. The 1,700 British troops who have been in Afghanistan since April are to begin withdrawing from the country on July 3, Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon announced Thursday.

Hundreds of British commandos have been patrolling in the Khost region, setting up checkpoints on back roads leading in from Pakistan and searching for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. So far they have found none, though they have turned up weapons caches near some villages.

On Wednesday, Zulu Company drove into Kuche Kan, a hamlet of some 40 families, drawing a crowd of curious residents.

Under a tree by a mosque the villagers are building, overlooking rice paddies and irrigation channels, U.S. special forces Sgt. Michael France and some British officers sat for tea with Lal Mohammed Khan, the village chief.

Through an interpreter, he asked Lal Mohammed about the village's needs: the state of its wells, its medical care, its agriculture. Lal Mohammed told him the village would like a dam on a nearby river to generate electricity and a roof for its mosque.

He wrote down the requests.

"This conversation will go a long way toward allowing us to help you," France told the old man, dressed in a blue robe and a black headscarf.

At the same time, the officers asked about the Taliban and al-Qaida: Have they been here recently? Are there weapons in the village? Lal Mohammed shook his head, no.

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