FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALA GUSH, Afghanistan - On the American unit's 100th day, 14 visiting tribal leaders sit at a well-polished table in a wooden hut, eating fried chicken and trying to make sense of a PowerPoint slide on an overhead projector.
Considering the political instability, the violence, the lack of electronic communication, the crawl of life, it's a remarkable moment to have representatives from six of the seven valleys of Nuristan's Nurgaram District in one room. The Afghans wear long beards, flowing earth-tone robes, and beretlike woolen pakul caps cocked to the side. The Americans are clean-shaven, crew-cut, and in camouflage. And there they all are, in that crucial diplomatic moment of sitting together, looking one another in the eye, talking things out.
Through an interpreter, the maliks, or elders, introduce themselves and then look stone-faced at a small camera as Army Capt. Tommy Glynn, a detective in the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department back home, takes their pictures. For identification purposes, they're told.
Figuring out just who the political leaders are presents one of the main challenges for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) troops in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan. Some influential elders do not have official positions with the Afghan government, and therefore their names, let alone responsibilities, are not written down anywhere. And the official ministers and district subgovernors are fired, killed, or quit all the time. The governor won't even tell the PRT the names of some of his appointed subgovernors.
Add to that the Taliban's shadow government – with its own governors and subgovernors – and the Americans have a hot mess on their hands, with only nine months in country to figure it all out and build relationships with the right people.
For this shura, or council meeting, someone forgets to offer the visitors tea, even though it's hot and ready to go. Fortunately, the fried-chicken lunch from the mess hall, served with rice and cauliflower on Styrofoam containers, appears to be a big hit, and everyone has a Mountain Dew or a Pepsi.
How strange it must be for these tribesmen to find themselves in this room, on the only land their people have ever known. They look curious, interested - and disoriented.
Until they speak.
Abdul Rachib stands up and waves his hands dramatically. He's talking loudly, emphatically. It's hard not to wonder whether he's declaring death to America. Then the linguist, to great relief, translates: "All the people here agree to support you in your quest to bring peace and stability to the area!"
The Americans try to explain President Obama's new counterinsurgency strategy, which even the Americans don't always understand. Using the PowerPoint presentation and handouts, with text-filled boxes and arrows that explain the plans in both Pashto and infographic, the Americans walk the elders through the new requirements for obtaining reconstruction projects.
Instead of being a "red" Taliban area, they must "go green" and expel the Taliban from their valleys; they must use the governmental process to submit proposals for projects; they must support the subgovernor, Mehrullah Muslim, who helped convene the meeting and is currently the Americans' most trusted partner in Nuristan. Muslim gained favor recently when he took up arms to save an Afghan contractor working for the Americans who had been kidnapped by the Taliban.
Upon hearing the "go green" requirements, though, the first objection arises from Muslim himself. "If five people in a village support the Taliban, the Americans shouldn't stop the projects," he says.
But, the Americans explain, if an area isn't free of Taliban, they can't safely check up on work to ensure that their money is being used properly. They want to use reconstruction projects as an incentive for people to turn against the Taliban. "We're not going to reward bad security," says Navy Lt. Andrew Jones, beginning to get frustrated.
The tone in the room darkens. The engineers had little training for situations like this. Jones, who leads the team, is an English major the Navy trained to be a nuclear engineer. In Indiana before his deployment, the PRT training program barely covered Nuristani culture and history - let alone how to bid out construction jobs or find the best price for hauling cement on a donkey.
The Afghans in the room have been at this game longer than they have. If the Americans don't provide projects, "you give opportunity to our enemy," says Abdul Aziz, the deputy subgovernor. "Bring some jobs to the area."
The Afghans don't realize that they can't negotiate. People in suits and uniforms in the Washington Beltway have already made these decisions.
The Americans: Security first, projects second. The Afghans: Projects first, security second. The discussion goes back and forth like this, the translator sounding as though he's arguing with himself.
The Americans know the potential: A $300,000 road keeps 100 fighting-age males occupied, builds a trade-based economy among disparate villages and increases access for humanitarian aid and security. Jones offers instructions that are shocking in their obviousness. "Do not make death threats on contractors from other villages," he says, knowing full well that one man in the room had recently done just that.
The Afghans' motives seem identical to those of any pork-loving U.S. congressman: But what can you do for my people? Such chutzpah ultimately drives one of the Americans, a Navy engineer, to rise and slam the door on his way out of the room.
During a break, Glynn is asked whether it is easier to deal with gangs in Cambridge or elders in Nuristan. "It's a whole other level of frustration [here]," he says. "I mean, 'Wow.' " He can't read them; he can't figure out their motives.
The meeting lasts four hours. The issues - are they disagreements, miscommunication? - go unresolved. The hope of having the Afghans prioritize "failed spectacularly," Jones says.
But there's good news. Muslim agrees to bring back a list of prioritized projects, and sure enough, a few days later, he does.
"It's a start," says the PRT commanding officer, Navy Cmdr. Raymond J. Benedict.
Philadelphia's Navy Lt. Douglas Gugger, the PRT's senior medical officer, who is "more humanitarian than soldier," as his wife says, wants to tackle these large-scale reconstruction projects that his civil-affairs and engineer friends get to do. He came to Afghanistan expecting to work on medical-development projects to heal the country's broken public-health system. Afghanistan, he knows, has the second-worst infant mortality rate on earth. And in Nuristan, most villagers rely on traditional healers, who, for example, treat a broken bone by wrapping a filleted fish around it. There are no hospitals in the entire province.
But Gugger can do little to tackle any of these larger challenges.
He wants to start a water-filtration program, because unhealthy water causes disease and death, but the military has yet to provide the money. He wants to start a strong-foods program, in which dietary supplements are distributed to stave off malnutrition and diarrhea, but in Nuristan, the government's official health contractor won't work with the Americans. The health contractor is a nongovernmental organization based in California, and the director of operations in Afghanistan rejects the idea that a military waging war can also perform reconstruction. Even associating with the Americans can put the NGO's health-care workers in danger.
So Gugger lowers his sights. He wants to at least provide motorcycles so Afghan health workers can reach remote villages and offer immunizations. But the governor refuses to sign a contract or legally register the vehicles. Without written guarantees that the motorcycles will indeed be used by the Nuristani health ministry for immunizations, the motorcycles sit, gathering dust, in a garage on the base.
Gugger presses this issue with Dr. Ismail Stanikzai, the acting director of Nuristan Public Health, who arrives at the base on time for his 9 a.m. meeting – uncharacteristic in a country with disregard for punctuality. The men sit at a conference table in a tent used to receive Afghan leaders. With the Afghan flag and pictures of unsmiling Nuristani politicians on the wall, the Americans try to create an Afghan government office in the middle of a U.S. base in the mountains.
In conversation, Gugger is a dream audience. He ingests every word – raising his eyebrows, squinting, scrunching his jaw, rubbing his newly shaved head.
Stanikzai doesn't wear traditional headgear, giving him a slightly Americanized look, and he is considered one of the most reasonable Afghans to deal with. But he doesn't understand why in the world Americans would care whether the motorcycles were registered. No one in Afghanistan goes through the trouble of registering motorcycles; his own motorcycle isn't registered. If he were to register the motorcycles, he would have to go to the only government office that handles such matters, in Kabul, and get a hotel for a night or two. And then wait.
"Our government is slow," he says, with evident understatement.
But Americans can't do slow, not when Obama has indicated to the world that military boots will start walking away next summer.
"We're not trying to be difficult; we're trying to make this a legit process," Gugger tells Stanikzai, pausing for the translator. "Please bear with us."
In other words: For the last several years the United States has thrown cash around, and that meant roads were built without money for maintenance, hospitals were built without money for doctors, and volleyball courts were built without any purpose whatsoever.
Now, under a new president and new general, David H. Petraeus, the United States is trying to be more careful with its money while teaching Afghans how to operate a government the American way – with written contracts, accountability, transparency, long-term planning. And that's why Gugger - notepad in hand, eager for information - has questions about the coveted motorcycles: How will the vehicles be maintained? How will the fuel be paid for? How will the immunizations be kept cold on the bikes?
"After you deliver us the motorcycles, we will find the money," Stanikzai says.
The Navy petty officer first class working closely with Gugger on this project, Benjamin Pong, jumps in, saying his government needs assurances that the motorcycles are not being used for the personal purposes of some corrupt leader.
And then Pong delivers a line that would garner a big amen back home: "Because the money we give to you is the money Americans pay for taxes."
Stanikzai is unconvinced. "Please," he says. "Find another way."
Gugger doesn't dwell on this. "I came across an Afghan proverb today that says a river is made drop by drop," he says.
That's his new approach. When he first got here, he asked: "What's going on? No one wants to work with me." Gugger is now "much happier" because he's flipped his perspective, focusing on the "relationships you build with people." He's not trying to win the war single-handedly anymore. He's just trying to treat as many Afghans as he can, stay alive, and get home to his wife and their two babies.
Still, Gugger is sensitive to overextending his role. He doesn't want to become the new village doctor.
In fact, at a meeting with a doctor from a nearby village, Jan Mohammed, Gugger's first question is: "Do you have any problem with the way we're working together?"
The doctor seems befuddled by the idea.
"I wanted to make sure we're not stepping on your toes," Gugger says.
"As long as we can help the people," responds the doctor, gently smiling through a thick, short, black beard, "that's all that matters."
Mohammed apologizes for referring so many patients to the Americans, "but I want you to have a good relationship with people in this area."
Asked whether he thinks the U.S. efforts at treating Afghan civilians are helping to win the war, Mohammed says: "A human being, if he gets lots of care from another human being, and a human being gives him a lot of support, then he or she will appreciate it and remember it for as long as they live."
But can that appreciation help to defeat the Taliban?
Mohammed is less clear about that. "The people who are taking Taliban's side, they are already brainwashed," he says. "It takes a while to change their minds."
For Navy Lt. Kyle Burditt, who runs the aid station at the Kala Gush base with Gugger, it's simpler than that. Helping Afghan civilians "comes with the territory."
Besides, "I sleep better at night. These are the stories I'm going to tell when I go home."
If the medical staffers were to look up from their day-to-day jobs, they would find a weird world war.
At a NATO base in Kabul, there are brick-and-mortar Thai restaurants with Thai waitresses, Buddha decorations, and plastic menus. At the U.S. base in Nuristan, Tibetans work the overnight shift, cleaning the troops' toilets. At an American base in Jalalabad, south of Nuristan, local Afghan villagers perform menial jobs but are restricted from certain places: "Local nationals are not allowed to use this bathroom."
More than two-thirds of the 120,000-strong International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO troops are officially known, are Americans, with the rest coming from 46 countries, ranging from 9,500 Brits to three Austrians. Yet private business has more boots on the ground than many countries, with tens of thousands of contractors who handle cooking, equipment repair, security, and even the transportation of soldiers. A bunch of happy Canadian helicopter pilots – working routes like bus drivers for a company dubbed "Molson Air" - keep the war moving. When they're not working, they're playing hockey on the runways.
When the American troops aren't working, they're watching $1 knockoff DVDs bought at the Afghan-run bazaars attached to many bases. They're Facebooking, playing video games, shopping online, chain-smoking, reading books, throwing cards, or CrossFit training.
Distractions, whatever they may be, make the days go by. For Air Force Sgt. Brayan Jimenez, a polite, industrious medic from Los Angeles, installing a TV antenna on a bunker next to the Kala Gush aid station the day before the U.S.-England World Cup match is as much about survival as anything else.
Booze is hard to find, except at larger bases with more officers, so troops rely on nonalcoholic Beck's "near beer." The Beck's is available cold in the fridge at the mess hall, but it's not nearly as popular as energy drinks, which double as currency at the bazaar.
And yes, according to many troops, some service members are having sex, which is either totally illegal or sort of allowed, depending on whom you ask. Women are integrated into almost every layer of the military, but there are still moments when they stand out. An Afghan street-sweeper at one base lost all focus on his job as he watched a curvy blond American woman walk out of a gym in a tight military T-shirt and military-issue shorts. Jaw dropped, he stopped working. He had never seen anything like it.
The smaller, Afghan version of Gugger hangs out in the aid station, wearing a U.S. Navy patch on his Afghan National Army camouflage blouse. Underneath his uniform is a black "Bold" T-shirt, part of a gift package that Starbuck's sent over. "Rahman, bold!" he says, turning his thumps up.
This is Sairula Rahman, a 21-year-old Afghan National Army medic, proudly wearing the gifts from his American friends.
His mentor, Gugger, wears a pin with the U.S. and Afghan flags waving together, and a bracelet made from Afghan army bootlaces. Both are gifts from Rahman.
Rahman links the world's last superpower and one of the poorest places on earth. He begins each conversation with a greeting in Pashto, and is relentless about teaching his language to the medical staff: "Doc Gugger, speak good Pashto!"
As Gugger works on patients, Rahman drinks it all in. He asks questions about the procedures and the injuries, listening to Gugger's explanations from a translator. When Rahman gets a chance to burn a wart off an Afghan soldier, Gugger watches and pats him twice on the back. "Good job," he says.
Gentle and smiley, Rahman consumes new English words daily and affectionately mimics Gugger's sayings ("Niiice!") and stance (arms crossed, feet on the outer edges of combat boots). When Rahman comes in with a pile of medical paperwork and prescriptions for his mother, who has been sick for a year, Gugger and his medical team review them and offer advice. When Rahman returns from an arranged meeting with his future wife in Kabul, they grill him for details. Is she cute? What did you talk about? How much does her father want for a dowry? 400,000 Afghani bills! What?
And when Rahman shows off the aid station he is setting up at the adjoining Afghan army base, Gugger and Burditt go out of their way to say how impressed they are with the barren space. There's no furniture, or much of anything just yet, but Rahman already has a picture of Gugger with his family on the wall.
Things weren't always like this. The previous PRT wasn't as willing to treat Afghan civilians, and the medical staff would condescend to Rahman and the linguists. In the first three months since Gugger arrived in March, his team had already handled more traumas (20) than the previous American unit did, records show, in its entire nine months. Female villagers arrive in increasing numbers for treatment.
Perhaps most significantly, Rahman is now being trained. "They tell me, 'We will not be here forever, so we want to help you treat your people,' " he says.
In Rahman, Gugger has found "something we're definitely going to be able to pass on to this country."
The materials that the medics and corpsmen provide, like bandages, help Rahman engender goodwill for the Afghan government and coalition forces. "I do this so they talk good about us," Rahman says. "They will see we are helping my people, not hurting people."
The medical team even occasionally goes over to the Afghan army's compound for long, large dinners. Counterinsurgency strategy recommends eating with Afghans, in fact, but it happens rarely in Nuristan with anyone other than the medical staffers.
They have taught the Afghans how to chlorinate water and sterilize their cooking equipment. And they have explained that the cooks shouldn't sleep and live in the kitchen.
The makeshift dining room where the Americans come to dine still has a few cots set up when the Americans arrive. The Afghans fall over one another with a hodgepodge of greetings, dropping everything from "salaam alaikum" to "what's going on?" An ebullient and busy translator, brought by the Americans, handles most of the interaction.
There is no direct reference to politics, but sensitive issues are addressed in good-natured, if sometimes uncomfortable, jokes. Like the offer to sell the two American women at the table to the Afghan men, with the women playing along and gauging how much they would be worth in goats. Or when Gugger says he has a son and a new daughter, and an Afghan jokes: "Take my son for your daughter!" Or the Afghan soldier who wraps a scarf around his head to impersonate the Taliban, with Gugger mugging for the camera while pretending to punch him in the face.
The troops in slightly different colored camouflage find common ground in the same things soldiers have long had in common: politically incorrect humor and appreciation for a home-cooked meal.
The Afghans serve the largest bowl of rice the Americans have ever seen, along with chunks of succulent goat meat, borani bonjon (a sweet and savory dish of deep-fried eggplant with yogurt and tomato sauce), massive pieces of naan flatbread, and the Afghans' favorite fruit, watermelon. "Eat like an Afghan!" the hosts implore.
An Afghan music video is turned on and a soldier from Tora Bora demonstrates some traditional dance moves. Everyone in the room stuffs their smiling faces with large chunks of watermelon, and the Afghan platoon commander gears up for a big night: Whiskey? Beer? Hash? Anyone?
The Americans respectfully decline. Disappointed, the commander lights a cigarette and offers some green tea.
Gugger takes a sip. "Oh that's awesome," he says, eyes widening. "Wow."
But in Nuristan, tea and conversation go only so far.