COMBAT OUTPOST YOSEF KHEL – The brief was held in the early morning in front of battalion headquarters in the shadow of a Conex box. The mission was to get the governor of Paktika Province from the capital of Sharana to a shura – a traditional Afghan meeting of regional tribal elders with government officials – at the small town of Yahya Khel 25 miles to the south. Because of the threat of small arms fire, rocket propelled grenades, and IEDs along the route, the men of the U.S. Army charged with getting the governor safely to the shura and back elected to use a convoy of four MRAPs.
Once off of the forward operating base and at Sharana's town center the American convoy was joined by a handful of up-armored Humvees from the Afghan National Army and nearly a dozen armed pickup trucks from the Afghan Uniformed Police. The Afghan governor was placed in the second MRAP in the convoy along with the American battalion commander and his interpreter (known simply as "Chewy").
As the convoy started its push out of Sharana, the battalion commander expressed concern to the governor that the sub-governor of Yahya Khel had heard about the shura from an unauthorized source, which in turn was an indicator of possible hostile activity along the route. The colonel's concerns were somewhat mitigated by a stronger than usual presence of Afghan National Army troops along the roadway, and the convoy made it through the bottleneck hotspots without incident.
As the lead vehicles made it to the bazaar at Yahya Khel – the largest in the province – The colonel suggested to the governor that he lead the meeting that would take place before the shura, thereby furthering the impression that the governor was fully in charge. The governor agreed.
Once inside the confines of the combat outpost at Yahya Khel, the parties dismounted their vehicles. While the security forces set about bolstering the perimeter, the military and civilian officials made their way to the "pre-brief," joining a handful of their peers who'd preceded them.
Inside the small room the participants sat on weathered chairs and rugs and pillows against the far wall. Sun-faded posters of Afghanistan and Harmed Karzai dotted the plaster walls. Several attendants dutifully poured milky tea into clear mugs as officials got into place.
The governor took the lead as the American colonel had suggested.
"Can somebody explain the situation to me?" he asked in Pasto. "How many of the enemy do we have?"
The sub-governor answered matter-of-factly: "The government cannot guarantee the security of the people against the Taliban." With that, the discussion grew heated, with various officials either pointing fingers at other agencies or explaining that they couldn't do their jobs because of improper resources. The sub-governor complained that the ANA didn't listen to his needs. The Afghan Uniformed Police chief said one of the ANA generals told him he couldn't have ammunition because the police force was "not for fighting."
A U.S. Army company commander, the American military officer most keenly focused on the area around Yahya Khel, added his thoughts during a brief lull in the discussion: "The main problem is a population that is willing to work with the Taliban because many of the Taliban are from the area." He also pointed to a lack of Afghan-generated intelligence fusion around Yahya Khel, which kept forces from seizing the initiative and proactively preventing attacks on the district center and surrounding areas.
After several displeased officials walked out in the middle of a discussion about cell phone tower security, the governor bemusedly declared the meeting over. The group shuffled out of the pre-brief room and walked down a dirt and gravel alley bordered by high walls and guard towers pockmarked with large-caliber bullet holes and RPG shrapnel. Inside an adjacent building the district elders had gathered for the shura.
The elders (a misnomer of sorts as some of them appeared relatively young) crouched on the dusty concrete floor in front of the governor, who stood behind a modest table at the front of the room.
"I am here to hear your problems," the governor pronounced. He considered the faces of those before him and asked, "Why are you so sad? You have to be happy. Afghanistan is not like it was 30 years ago. Other countries are spending money in Afghanistan. Don't send your children to Pakistan or Iran to work. They need to stay here."
The governor went on to outline his strategy and what he needed from the elders and their charges. He asked them to help the security forces and not work with the Taliban. He urged them to send their children to school. And, like any good politician, he reminded them of the election coming up and told them that they were a very important part of the process.
The governor finished his opening remarks by insisting that the insurgents are not as numerous as their propaganda might have indicated, and further, they were not true Muslims. "Stop an insurgent and ask him to recite one of Muhammad's speeches," he said.
The governor was followed by several government officials – the chief of police and the education minister – who shared a common theme: "Tell us your problems and we will work to solve them."
But when the floor was turned over to the elders, one-by-one those who stood up emphatically said they had asked the government for help but their requests had fallen on deaf ears.
The elders' airing of grievances was suddenly interrupted by the dull thud of an explosion in the distance followed by another and another, each sounding closer to the city than the last. There were four total. Uniformed personnel (including American forces present) hurried out of the entrance to investigate as the elders exchanged concerned glances. Governor Sameen continued the proceedings, expression underselling the potential threat the explosions might have posed to those in attendance.
The governor ended the shura with a simple sentiment: "Right people always win; wrong people always lose."
Meanwhile, as the elders and government officials sat for a traditional post-shura lunch, the American military forces were in the tactical operations center busily trying to figure out from which direction the mortars had been fired. The TOC's laptop computer screens showed images broadcast from high-powered cameras mounted on the roof. The cameras repeatedly moved side to side, scanning the surrounding fields and tree lines but came up empty.
On the roof gunners focused along their designated fields of fire. The American Army company commander explained that one of the enemy's common tactics was to lob mortars into the fields to the north as a misdirection play followed by small arms fire and RPGs from the wooded grove to the southwest. Overhead a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet awaited tasking from the radio-laden Air Force tactical air controller standing next to the Army captain.
A half hour passed without any follow-on attacks or any sign of where the original attack had emanated from. Without any coordinates to offer, the controller requested that the Super Hornet perform a "motivational pass." The carrier-based Navy jet complied, roaring loudly overhead at about 500 feet then pulling dramatically into a climb.
The post-shura lunch concluded, and the security situation was deemed stable enough to allow the convoy to man-up and move out, back-tracking along the route it had taken a few hours earlier. In the command vehicle the colonel asked the governor if he shared his sense that the elders had done a lot of complaining about those trying to help them while letting the Taliban off the hook. The govenor pushed back a bit, pointing out the stat he had put out during his opening remarks that the Taliban were killing one elder a day – 30 a month. In return the governor pronounced the shura a qualified success.
And as the convoy snaked and bumped its way north, the insurgents re-initiated their attack on Yayha Khel, this time more brazen. They pinned down a U.S. Army dismounted patrol on the outskirts of the city with small arms fire while their mortars fell into the bazaar and closer to the observation post. Reports crackled over the radio that the walls to the city had been breached. Units in adjacent areas were put on alert and made ready to assist their comrades. A Marine Corps Cobra attack helicopter answered the call for airborne firepower, but by the time it had arrived American ground forces had pushed the insurgents back into the ether from which they'd emerged.
The enemy message associated with the timing and intensity of the attack was unmistakable: Shuras don't mean peace.