NENGARACH, Afghanistan - The strangers from the other side of the world arrive in large, loud boxes of metal that run seven tons and $600,000 apiece.
The vehicles' back doors open into staircases, and the strangers, heavily costumed, descend. "Take us to your leader," they say.
Locals in outfits commonly referred to as "pajamas" stare at the strangers, who wear gloves and sunglasses, machine guns and grenade launchers, helmets and Kevlar body armor, fatigues and boots. Some, with earpieces connected to unseen radios, appear to be talking to themselves.
This is how the United States rolls into town.
ABOUT THIS SERIESA joint U.S. force mans Forward Operating Base Kala Gush, the last American presence in Afghanistan’s isolated province, Nuristan. Plagued by obstacles and filled with frustration, the troops work to rebuild the ethnically diverse area and win allies before the Taliban reaches them first.
HOW THIS SERIES WAS REPORTED
In the dusty village of Nengarach in Nuristan province, the courtship between the locals hanging out on the ramshackle commercial strip and the U.S. troops from the Provincial Reconstruction Team based nearby is as awkward as a middle-school dance. Each side looks at the other, staring, with fits and starts at communication.
One officer commands: "Everyone mingle!" That draws laughs. No one knows what "mingle" is supposed to mean.
Americans used to leave the body armor at home and drive old SUVs to places like Nengarach. And in some parts of Afghanistan where PRTs like this one operate, that's still how it's done.
But not in Nuristan, where insurgent activity keeps Americans from 90 percent of the province.
The unit's senior medical officer, Navy Lt. Douglas Gugger of Philadelphia, his M-4 rifle banging against the medical scissors strapped to his chest, would be more comfortable back at the base. But he's embarking on the other part of his job in Afghanistan: going outside the wire to provide medical support. Although not obligated to take an offensive position, Gugger still must protect himself as he walks the craters of this strange planet.
The name of this mission is, as is usually the case, whimsical: Operation Wall-Mart. The troops are checking on the construction of a wall in one village, while also shopping in Afghanistan's version of a strip mall, in Nengarach.
Some of the troops fan out to provide security as others walk onto the main drag. Crude metal-and-wood shops offer their wares in dim light because there is no electricity. With no women around, the boys and men squat in the shade, hanging out. "It's like Philadelphia in the '70s," Gugger jokes.
His PRT is made up of Navy, Air Force, and Army troops, plus a handful of civilians from the State Department and the Army Corps of Engineers, who are building roads and schools for villages that expel the Taliban. But today, the two dozen troops aren't here to offer a reconstruction project. And they're certainly not here to kill insurgents. They're here for politics and appearances.
In a few weeks, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, is scheduled to visit Nuristan, so today's goal is to stop in this town and warm up the locals. They chose a village that is supposed to be one of the friendliest, safest places for Americans.
But no one approaches. No one asks them to buy watermelons from their shops. No throngs of children beg for pens.
The locals don't appear to be in a mingling mood.
If the ambassador had been here today, he would have found a palpable gulf between two peoples who still have no idea what to make of each other nearly a decade after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Afghans stand there, hands behind their backs. Americans stand there, fingers by their triggers. In the background, armored trucks idle, with gunners' heads sticking out of turrets.
Eventually, a couple of Afghan children ask for pens. And some of the troops, like Gugger, offer a smile, a wave, a salaam alaikum - "peace be with you" - the only phrase most troops know.
Some military engineers overpay for fresh produce and naan, a delicious Afghan flatbread. The resulting lunch at the engineers' office back at the base will offer a welcome break from mess-hall food, but the real reason they drop the dollars is to show goodwill. Other troops aren't told to spend money as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, which stresses relationships. And some, like Gugger, haven't yet received monthly payments from the military, so they have no dollars to spend anyway.
This village has been friendlier in the past, the troops say. Maybe the Taliban is here, watching for Afghans who interact with the Americans - and making sure those who do lose their heads. Troops can't differentiate between the enemy and the simple laborers who work at the base for $5 a day and a case of water. Many have never seen the enemy they risk their lives to fight - or if they have, they wouldn't know it.
"It's an invisible war," says Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Doty, who grew up in Medford.NJ "We're fighting an enemy that refuses to face us."
The United States has come in peace, dressed for war. The Taliban, if it's here, has come for war, dressed for peace. So the motors turn over on the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and the Americans fly on, unsure if they accomplished anything other than not dying.
There's more to Operation Wall-Mart than shopping. There's also a wall to be checked on.
As they drive into Sunderwa village, an aroma greets the troops and elicits laughter - and some longing. Exiting the vehicles, the troops find marijuana fields as far as the eye can see. Pictures are taken, jokes are made about stoned cows, and someone sings the pothead's anthem:
I'm in love with Mary Jane,
She's my main thing.
She makes me feel all right,
She makes my heart sing.
With the birds chirping and a stream flowing beneath a dynamic mountain range, Sunderwa is serene. But just as in Nengarach, there's no welcoming party. Veiled women peer at the strangers from thatched-roof homes atop stone terraces, waving their hands. But are they saying "hi" or "get the hell out of here"? No one knows.
Gugger is the rare American to offer passing villagers a salaam alaikum, but he gets no response until a boy, sitting in a tree picking fruit, tosses him a yellowed pomegranate.
Four years ago, when the first PRT arrived in Nuristan, a remote province on the Pakistani border, reconstruction projects began in Parun, the provincial capital, and a hydropower plant was planned for Barg-e-Matal. The Taliban attacked the base in Kala Gush just once, on the last day of the PRT's first year.
But now Parun is under too much Taliban influence for Americans to visit. American money, about $16 million, funds a few dozen projects, but after the initial outlay of cash, several are being canceled.
The Taliban and possibly other local insurgent groups now attack the base at least twice a week.
One U.S. diplomat in Nuristan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that "it would be tough to say whether the bricks and mortar have really made a difference in hearts and minds." Instead, the bricks and mortar appear to have brought rockets and mortars.
But these Americans do not let up. They set out over the stream, along the path of a new, U.S.-funded retaining wall intended to protect Sunderwa's crops from flash floods. The Afghan contractors who signed legal contracts to build the structure have reported the project finished; the American engineers are here just to sign off on the final job.
That explains the engineers' annoyance upon finding people still at work. The Americans take the tone of frustrated teachers dealing with recalcitrant students, and they skip the formalities when they approach - no "hello," no salaam alaikum.
Navy Lt. j.g. Alexander Kormanos, leading the mission fresh off a rest-and-relaxation trip to Greece, believes that Afghans' "only shot at learning civil engineering is through these contracts," and that's why it's so important they complete projects on time, correctly and legally. Sharia, or Islamic law, "doesn't cover this," Kormanos says. Holding the Afghans to their signed contracts helps teach them democracy and the rule of law. The engineers even hold classes on base to teach Afghans how to bid for jobs and mix cement. The cement is given away for free for "self-help projects."
Navy Petty Officer First Class Aaron Killingbeck, a skinny and cerebral engineer with a hankering to be a doctor, snaps a picture of the wall. Three boys walk on top of it, belly-laughing. It's hard not to wonder why.
Killingbeck complains that the Afghans don't seem "appreciative" of the employment, the dollars, or the projects. When Nuristan's governor received a $30,000 armored truck from the Americans, he immediately turned around and asked for a laptop.
Still, Killingbeck gives some young boys granola bars on the way back to his vehicle. And later, when asked why he didn't first greet the workers before admonishing them, he thinks for a minute. In retrospect he feels bad, he says, and wishes he had told them they were doing good work.
"I was upset I was lied to," he says.
Later, after the mission and the ensuing paperwork, Killingbeck, Kormanos, and the other engineers retreat to the benches outside the aid station for their nightly cigars and bull session. With the aid station's daily life-and-death victories, and its positive relationships with Afghans, it often feels like the only place in this whole country that makes any sense.
Here to help, but armed
Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Bunting has only an hour.
Wrapping his torso in 13 gold-colored 40mm rounds for his grenade launcher and an additional 210 rounds for his M-4 rifle, he's ready for the mission: Offer American-funded projects to Afghans.
"I'm here to help you," he muses. "But I'm armed to the teeth."
Bunting, 37, Class of 1991 from Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, is a civil affairs officer headed to the village of Kowtaly in Nuristan for a mission called Operation Cow Tail; he will assess the security situation and promise villagers redevelopment if they kick out the Taliban. The problem is, in a few days Bunting leaves Nuristan, redeployed to another base, his departure emblematic of the rapid turnover of American troops.
PRT members rotate out every nine months; since 2006 there have been five teams. That's five different sets of relationships with Afghans, five different starts and stops.
No one thinks it's a good idea for Americans to leave just when they're starting to realize how little they understand. Inside the PRT, a civilian who works for the State Department describes turnover as "an incredible problem" because "there's no continuity, there's no familiarity." Outside the PRT, Hermann Nicolai, both the NATO forces' director of governance, calls turnover "the single most important reason why we're not as efficient as we want to be." And among Afghans, the female legislator who represents Nuristan in the National Assembly, Hawa Alam Noristani, says: "The problem with the PRT is the command always changes."
Bunting will have only one meeting, with elders he's never met in a village he's never been to. He has to figure out the village's recent history, its needs, whether it harbors the Taliban, and how the United States can solidify its support.
Bunting, who did a tour in Iraq, understands the challenge. "This is the third century," he says of Afghanistan. "Trying to bring something from the third century to the 21st century is not an overnight task."
Bunting doesn't sleep much, so he reads - 40 books, mostly thrillers, in three months. And he makes 4 a.m. calls back home to his wife, Jennifer, who runs their home on 11 acres in Elverson, Chester County, and takes care of their three children. Unlike his friend Gugger, Bunting informs Jennifer about the dangers he faces. "I tell her both the good and the bad," he says.
After an hour down a road named Route Philadelphia, Bunting reaches Kowtaly. A village elder, Abdul Wahid, invites the visitors to sit under a tree, where most of the town's male population gathers to gawk. Small packs of boys, with long, earth-toned robes, linger, amused. A crowd forms around the female soldiers, who - despite the androgynous nature of their uniforms and the headscarves underneath their helmets - never cease to fascinate. Afghan National Army soldiers and policemen dot the crowd, smoking cigarettes and lazily carrying AK-47s.
Girls - peeking out of doorways or gathering around the American women - shock the eye with their pink, green, and purple garb in the otherwise brown and gray atmosphere. To give a girl a pen, an American must throw it on the ground - she won't take it from his hand. Nearby, an older Afghan man hits a girl to keep her from approaching the troops.
A villager lays a patterned rug under a tree; the men sit cross-legged. Another villager fetches tea, and it seems everyone here has danced this strange waltz before.
Bunting takes off his helmet, lays his M-4 at his side and, unlike the other troops, even removes his sunglasses. He waits for one of the Afghans to drink the tea before he sips, considering recent intelligence that the Taliban may poison tea.
Abdul Wahid is first asked about the security situation, if the Taliban has infiltrated. "We are trying our best," Wahid says through a military interpreter. "Personally, I hate those people." He claims to have lost his leg from a Taliban-fired rocket. "Next time I might lose my life, so I don't want anything bad in my area."
He concludes: "If this was Europe or America, where there are educated people, nothing would happen here."
And that's why he wants the Americans to fix the last project they built here, the school roof, which he fears will fall down on the students. "We are thankful for the U.S. for helping us defeat the Taliban, but we ask you to go for quality, not quantity," Wahid says. "I know your group paid for it, but our people took advantage and did crappy work. We need someone to supervise them."
But who? American soldiers can't watch construction projects all the time, not only because they would be targets but also because the Afghan government is supposed to take ultimate responsibility.
And yet if the projects are poorly built, the goals of reconstruction fall apart, and the locals lose patience with the strangers who rumble into town promising stuff.
"We have expressed so many times our problems here," says another elder, Mohammed Assan. "We have submitted forms, we have done a lot."
"We understand the process is slow," Bunting responds. "We don't make those decisions. It's Afghans making decisions about what's happening in their own government. It may have worked differently in the past."
In the past the United States wrote checks, fast and furiously. Now, the military is more discriminating, and the Afghan sub-governors have a say in which projects are selected.
The elders repeatedly ask the Americans to inspect the broken school they paid for, just a 15-minute walk away. The troops say no, not now; they'll send an engineering team another time.
Walking would mean a series of radio messages to make sure everyone knew the new plan. Walking would give the Taliban more time to plant roadside bombs for the trip home. And walking would certainly take longer than 15 minutes.
Bunting promises that the Americans will continue to work with the villagers. Although he, personally, will never return.
Who will take Bunting's place? More important to Americans sick of this war, how many more Buntings, for how long, will try to rebuild?
"I don't know if anyone has that answer," Bunting says. "We're trying to work ourselves out of a job. That's everyone's goal here."
In Kabul every mode of transportation from the last millennium packs the streets: horses and donkeys; bicycles and motorbikes; Toyota Camrys and elaborately decorated "jingle trucks." Women in burkas beg, and boys in rags sell watermelons. Herds of donkeys graze in garbage, and policemen pull over foreigners. The paved roads suddenly turn to rubble on streets with deep trenches of open sewers and no traffic lights.
That's right. After nine years of American intervention, there is still no such thing in Kabul as a red light.
In the center of all that activity, surrounded by several streets closed to regular traffic by concrete blast walls and armed men, the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force carves out an oasis of order and calm. ISAF is the NATO entity that technically runs what is largely America's fight.
The decisions made here affect the lives of every military man and woman. And here a brigadier general from Canada casts doubt on much of what Gugger and his medical team are doing: treating civilians.
"We try to discourage direct patient care of local Afghans," says Brig. Gen. Hilary Jaeger, who as ISAF medical adviser is the senior doctor for the forces in Afghanistan.
Jaeger says Gugger and his medical staff undermine the country's public health system, redirect money from local health providers, and create the perception that NATO plays favorites in whom they treat.
Told that local doctors thank Gugger for his help, and refer only patients they can't handle, Jaeger remains skeptical. "In other [places] that referral has been sold," she says.
In the end, Gugger's work doesn't help win the war. "Undertaking direct care does nothing to leave the place better off when you withdraw," she says.
Many people who visit the base, in her estimation, are perfectly healthy but come for curiosity, boredom, or to "see what you can get for free." Others are chronically ill, which the medical staff can do little about anyway. And flu cases, she points out, will get better on their own.
"Our medical team is equipped for 140,000 troops, not 31 million Afghans," she says. "I just think you set people up to be disappointed, and acutely disappointed. People's hearts and minds aren't helped either."
When a top U.S. commander is asked for clarification on this, he says the military is reviewing the treatment of Afghan civilians. All care, he says, should be done in conjunction with Afghan medics, with a focus on long-term solutions.
Told of Gugger's work with Sairula Rahman, the Afghan army medic he mentors, Jaeger said "that's great." She said Gugger should also implement health-redevelopment programs.
But that's not possible either. Every province in Afghanistan contracts out its health services to nongovernmental organizations funded by international money. And some of those NGOs are downright hostile to the coalition forces. One of those NGOs, International Medical Corps, works in Nuristan, and won't let Gugger pursue much of what he wants to do.
The problem "is the military, period," says Robert Lankenau, who oversees work in Afghanistan for International Medical Corps. "It doesn't jibe with humanitarian principles."
An American military presence could make clinics a target. "What I have a problem with is the PRT going out of their base and doing work," he says. "This hearts-and-minds stuff, we don't believe it works. It's not the military's job to do that."
The NGO hires only Afghan workers and has found a way to operate in areas under Taliban control, where U.S. forces dare not go. If the PRT were to visit these clinics, the Taliban would know they received American money and support. Assassinations and bombings would follow, he says.
"I know they mean well, personally, no doubt," Lankenau says of the Americans. "But our ideologies don't jibe."
Confusion within the ranks. Disdain from the humanitarian community. As if this wasn't bad enough, the Americans in Nuristan also have a governor they don't speak with. Nuristan Gov. Jamaluddin Badr is, in the words of one PRT official, "corrupt, ineffective, petulant, immature."
Speaking from her comfortable home within a walled compound in Kabul, Nuristan's representative in the National Assembly, Hawa Alam Noristani, regrets her support for Badr's appointment by President Hamid Karzai. "He takes money from the government, the PRT, from other places," says Noristani, who was shot in the leg while campaigning in 2005.
Noristani says Badr and his "mule," the chief of police, receive enough money to pay 3,000 officers – when only 300 work in the whole province.
Speaking through a translator by phone, Badr denies all allegations and says Noristani is upset because he wouldn't give projects to her friends and family. Badr admits he has not told the PRT the names of his appointed sub-governors, because "I should answer to the government in Kabul, not to the PRT. The PRT should listen to me. . . . They're here to help us."
Badr says the feud with the Americans began when a PRT commander asked him to appoint a sub-governor whom Badr knew to be corrupt. "We should have someone who can fight against the Taliban," Badr says, "not just someone who can speak English."
Badr liked it better before, he says, when the PRT gave out money without contracts or letters or governmental transparency. And he adds that "the PRT shouldn't be the complaint center, the PRT shouldn't be working against the governor; they should be working with the governor."
Finally, he says, he's the hardest-working governor in Afghanistan: "If you can find a harder-working one, I will resign."
Just now, he killed five goats to hold a shura, or council meeting, with 400 elders from Nuristan. Feeding everyone over several days will cost $10,000 of his own money, he says.
A few days later, an Afghan radio station reports that the Afghan attorney general is investigating Badr after 40 elders alleged that he stole 1,000 bags of wheat. But as long as he remains the governor, the Americans will have to deal with him again.
Recent weeks have seen some success. The American-funded motorcycles intended to be used to supply vaccinations - only to gather dust because Afghan officials refused to register them - have finally been distributed. Driving one to the base's gate, Gugger does a wheelie.
The medical team also held a successful vaccination training program with elders from an area that has been hostile to Americans. "So that was awesome to bring them around," Gugger writes in an e-mail. "They were actually very receptive to working with us."
And the Americans continue to see patients, old and new.
The old man who visited the aid station to thank the staff now appears to have a parasitic infection. It's unclear if the aid station has the ability to treat him.
The case of the little girl, Sewella, takes a shocking turn. Gugger, the Navy corpsmen, and the Air Force medics care for her as one of their own. After she smashed her fingers in a boulder accident, infection spread throughout her body. Over several months the corpsmen and medics treated her, plying her with snacks, clothes, and school supplies, even donating $100 to send her to a hospital in Jalalabad.
Recently, though, when a PRT patrol moves through her village, someone throws a rock at the troops. They look and see it is Sewella.
Days later, when she comes to the aid station for a follow-up medical visit, the Americans, heartbroken, confront her.
The linguist, who softened the girl's lips with Chapstick on so many occasions, translates their pain. And she cries.
Nearly every night in May and June, troops fire artillery into the surrounding hills. Through July, attacks on the base increase in intensity, causing some injuries. Since then, things have been far quieter, and attacks have been rare.
One night in June, an artilleryman says he is firing "for deterrence, just to let people know that we're here." He calls it "H&I fire" - a Vietnam War-era term meaning "harassment and interdiction fire."
Firing at open expanses of land appears to be in direct opposition to the counterinsurgency's strategy of avoiding civilian casualties and using "only the firepower needed to win a fight."
Asked for clarification in August, a senior U.S. commander says troops do not shoot just to "let people know we're here." But they do use "terrain denial fires," which disrupt insurgents' ability to launch mortar shells and rockets at the base. Such fire closes off escape routes, or pushes insurgents into an area where forces can better control the ground. This kind of shooting is used carefully and deliberately, without civilians nearby and, the commander says, is consistent with counterinsurgency policy.
A serious conversation
In late June, mindful of this series of articles, Gugger comes clean to his wife, Amy. He had been keeping to himself news of the incessant attacks on the base, allowing Amy to focus on the couple's two newborns, Abraham and Micah, at home in Manayunk.
But the night before an interview in late June, Gugger tells her about the violence, the lack of sleep, the fear. She listens, cries, and immediately packs the babies up for an hour's drive to her parents.
Amy has lent her husband to the world so he can serve a higher calling. "I do want our kids to live their lives with a sense of purpose, a sense of service, and I think Doug is living that," she says. "And I couldn't be more proud that Doug is my kids' father."
But until he's home, it's "torture."
In the first few months of daily phone calls, Amy unloads on her husband about raising two kids by herself - about her lack of sleep, her fear.
Now, Doug vents, too.
"It's a relationship," she says. "It's not supposed to mean one person just protects the other. You can't really support someone when you don't know what they're going through."
Just as Gugger was an unlikely Navy man, Amy is an improbable military wife. For the first time in her 33 years, she is sacrificing for a war. "Not until you're in it do you realize . . . it's not someone else's war, it's ours."
Gugger is crushed not being there to help change diapers, to comfort his wife. "It's hard to be so helpless in taking care of your family," he says.
And Amy lives in anxiety for Gugger's safety, while her heart breaks that he's missing Abe's first steps. They are more worried about each other than they are about themselves.
"I can't do anything other than talk to her and say it's going to be OK," he says. "I think we have to learn patience."
Patience, he says, can be learned from the Afghans, who "are in it for the long haul."
Sometime in late November, Gugger will come home, hug his new family, and change some diapers. In April, he'll leave the Navy and start his medical residency in anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania. And then, as he says, "live a good and full life after that."
Contact staff writer Matt Katz