Take a look and let me know what you think.
The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed the school in 2007, breaking all the windows and furniture, booby-trapping the place, lacing the surrounding area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), daring the Canadians to reopen it. But the Canadians were overmatched, and it wasn't until December of 2009, when the Americans came to Senjaray, that people began to talk about reopening the school.
It was, in fact, a no-brainer, a perfect metaphor. The Taliban closed schools; the Americans opened them. That this particular school was located deep in the enemy heartland, in a district — Zhari — that was 80% controlled by the Taliban, an area the Russians called the Heart of Darkness and eventually refused to travel through, in a town that will be strategically crucial when the most important battle of the war in Afghanistan — the battle for Kandahar — is contested this summer, made it all the more perfect.
"From the start, the people here said they wanted better security and the school," said Captain Jeremiah Ellis, the commander of Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, the 120 soldiers who represented the American presence in Senjaray. "We are required to ask certain questions on patrol: What are your problems here? What do you need? It's called a TCAF interview, for some reason." Ellis, a young man well acquainted with the uses of, and need for, irony when dealing with the command structure, raised an eyebrow and smiled. Later, I looked it up. A TCAF is a Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework — in English, an interview script. "Anyway, we've been asking the TCAF questions for months now. People look at us and think, 'Why do you keep asking the same questions and not doing anything? You must be one stupid bunch of Caucasians,' " Ellis continued, replaying the dialogue. "It's totally insulting: 'What do you need here?' 'Open the frigging school, just like last week.' "
No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis. He had worked on it for months; he figured it would be Dog Company's legacy in Senjaray. It fit perfectly into the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: protect the people, provide them with security and government services, and they will turn away from the insurgency. Unlike many of his fellow officers in Zhari district, and many of the troops under his command, Ellis really believed in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.
Friday, April 16, 2010
I don't have time to provide a whole lot of commentary on this new piece by TIME's Joe Klein, but I encourage you to read it. There are a lot of interesting details that we can hopefully discuss in the comments; in general it just shows exactly how difficult it is to execute COIN and development at the company and battalion level, even in what's considered to be a priority area.