The conversation between Captain Allen McBroom of the Marines’ 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance and a villager from San Banadar in Afghanistan’s Southern Helmand Province was floundering. McBroom was fishing for information about improvised explosive devises (IEDs) planted in the area, but to every question the villager replied with the same flat denial of knowing anything. Just as the conversation was drawing to a close an explosion tore through the morning air: an IED blowing up some 200 meters down the road.
Over the coming days this scene, of Marines’ questions being met with villagers declining to comment, was repeated time and again in what resembled a rather dangerous game of ‘hide and seek’ between the United States military and the Taliban, with both attempting to leverage the locals. Roughly a dozen IEDs were being found daily; pressure plate devices buried in the road designed to detonate as the victim passes over, and therefore utterly indiscriminate.
Some villagers must have known the location of the IEDs and warned the others, given that no locals had been harmed by the explosive devices that were scattered around the outskirts of the village and along the main thoroughfares leading to it. In one location different sets of motorbike tracks had all veered far to the fringes of the road, around the exact point where the Marines found a 70 pound IED and detonated it in a controlled explosion, leaving a crater eight feet deep and 20feet wide.
On the surface, at least, there was plenty of support for the demining. One farmer told the Marines, “We’re scared to go out with our animals, [the IEDs] are meant for us, not for you.” Despite this, nobody in this village, unlike others the Marines had visited, was willing to offer information on the IEDs, even though this often included are ward equivalent to more than what the average local made in a month.
One reason was because of the Taliban operatives in their midst. The Marines monitor Taliban communications on wide band receivers that have a maximum range of only 800 meters. After an IED was discovered by Marines, their Afghan translator heard “chatter” of disappointment on the lines. He then volunteered that the worst thing he had personally heard was in the next village to the north, when someone said over the line: “If you get a chance, shoot the translator in the mouth.”
The Marines estimated there were only some 20 Taliban in the immediate vicinity of these villages, which is why Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Kassner, in charge of the coalition’s most southerly conflict area in Afghanistan, warned his men: “Don’t go looking for the 10-footTaliban.” That said, the Taliban’s IEDs have taken their toll; the most recent Marine casualty in Southern Helmand Province was Corporal Eric Tolbert, killed by an IED in late December some 10 kilo meters south of San Banadar.
The villagers’ reluctance to support the Marines in their attempts to locate the IEDs is not necessarily an indication of their sympathies but of their fears. While some may support the insurgency, many had bitter experiences under Taliban rule and would be happy to see proper government control established in this area, where currently next to none exists. Despite this, they are terrified of being seen taking sides with the US forces, to the point that they wouldn’t accept the smallest of gifts for fear that “if they [the Taliban] find out we’ve accepted a radio we will be in big trouble.”
Of course, the Taliban would have found out, since they were there. It is a murky game, each side watching the other; the Marines from their patrols and from a balloon above their main base which can see out some 40 kilo meters, and the Taliban from their positions on the ground, often blended among the villagers who are caught in the middle and whose every move stirs the suspicions of one, or both, of the warring parties.
ADAM PLETTS is a freelance journalist embedded with coalition forces in Afghanistan