Afghan Commandos Try to Persuade Countrymen to Turn Against Taliban

The village is little more than a handful of mud huts surrounded by wheat fields, but the runway at NATO's main air base in Afghanistan's south is visible from the town center. There, the Afghan commando, his beard still youthfully scraggly, tried to persuade a small audience of countrymen to turn against the Taliban and rebuild their country.

Aziz once hoped to be a doctor, but instead found himself in uniform, offering a formal speech carefully printed on folded white paper, as NATO cargo jets rumbled overhead to and from the Kandahar base. A surface-to-air missile in hostile hands could wreak havoc on the stream of flights.

Trained by a U.S. Special Forces team, 22-year-old Aziz and others like him are now among the best hopes for winning over people in the Taliban's southern heartland — especially in strategic towns and villages like Ghows Kalay. The crowd's gaze was fixed on the young man, the men nodding assent and the children trying not to fidget in the dust as they awaited the soccer balls and other gifts they knew would follow.

"We are a very powerful people, but we are sending our sick to Europe and India. Why? Because we don't have good doctors. We don't have engineers and teachers," said Aziz, who addressed the group with a megaphone tucked under his arm.

In the past, American psychological operations teams would have conducted the kind of meeting led by Aziz. The U.S. spends millions of dollars printing leaflets and funding radio stations in Afghanistan, but few of these programs have been as effective as the visits by the Afghan commandos, American trainers said.

The Afghan Information Dissemination Operations program is still in its infancy. Created eight months ago, American trainers are working to train teams for all six Commando Kandak units, hoping they will draw more respect than the troubled Afghan police force or army.

"They are the bridge between us and the target audience," said a Fort Bragg-based sergeant among the trainers. A native of Puerto Rico, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. "We are always in search of key communicators. What better kind of key communicator than a local."

At a class Wednesday at a base near Kabul, a half-dozen commandos from the 1st Commando Kandak sat in two rows, learning how to distribute aid. The outlines of their task can be learned in the classroom — with some difficulty.

"There is no word in Dari for body language," the instructor from Puerto Rico told The Associated Press. "I wasn't prepared for them not to understand what body language was."

But it is up to the Afghans to tailor the message, explain to locals how destructive the Taliban have been and show them the promise of an Afghan government. In the region of Kandahar, where the Taliban hold sway and have their own shadow government, delivering that message will be a challenge.

Col. Farid, deputy commander of the Afghan Commando Brigade, said a Taliban mullah near Kandahar once warned that international forces would not let the Afghan troops pray. Farid and his men prayed at the mosque that Friday, then Farid visited the mullah and prayed with him as well. That was all it took, Farid said, for the villagers to give him information about roadside bombs and enemy fighters.

"The enemy was using my religion, history and culture against me," Farid said. "We have to offset insurgent propaganda."

Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said persuading a foreign culture is always hard for soldiers.

"You can't win the information battle because fundamentally it is fought with local values," he said. "Even with good communications skills, they are going to be treated differently. The host country has to take the lead because nothing we do is going to be convincing."

Sgt. Abdullah, a 25-year-old from Bamyan Province in northern Afghanistan, passed the university entry exam and was going to study agriculture before he joined the army. Now a squad leader in the 1st Commando Kandak, he understands that force might not be enough.

"Commandos can show the people that they are here to win hearts and minds," Abdullah said. "The help we give to the people is the message we have for the people."

The program can be almost as hard to sell to the commandos. The men, trained to capture and kill bomb makers and insurgent leaders, are sometimes less interested in acting as messengers.

"The commandos consider themselves a lethal force," the instructor said.

But in Ghows Kalay, the benefit of commando teams seemed evident.

Aziz urged the villagers to warn the commandos or NATO troops about any Taliban in the area. He told them to watch for men firing rockets.

"We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to build up again," said Aziz, who is from eastern Afghanistan hundreds of miles away. "This country is our mother and our father. Fighting does not benefit us."

When he was done, the commandos backed up a tan Ford Ranger full of soccer balls, prayer rugs and backpacks. The special operations sergeant watched in amazement as the villagers walked to the truck. In 10 minutes, most of the village was kicking a soccer ball or running home with a prayer rug or hygiene kit.

A special operations sergeant working with Aziz's unit near Kandahar looked on with a wide grin.

"Sometimes in the class I don't think they are getting it, but seeing them in action blows my mind," the sergeant said. "You put a local in there and the words go straight to their ears."