Published November 17, 2014
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan (AP) — In the end, the American soldiers didn't get to burn down the wheat field. And that was a victory, much as some had anticipated the fiery show.
The mine-strewn patch could have become a flash point of resentment for Afghan villagers in the remote Arghandab Valley if the soldiers had gone ahead with their plan.
Instead, the painstaking efforts of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, yielded a surprise — the villagers cleared the field themselves, a small victory of cooperation of the kind the international force must replicate if it hopes to turn around the war in Afghanistan.
For the past few weeks, the soldiers out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, have been talking to people in the area about the wheat patch nearly as large as a football field that, suspiciously, hadn't been harvested.
This part of the Arghandab Valley, north of Kandahar city, is full of buried homemade explosives, and seven bombs had been discovered in that field in the past three months. One of them exploded, killing a child and blasting an 8-foot (2 1/2-meter) -wide hole in a perimeter wall. Soldiers found the others, including five tripwire explosives.
"We assume there's more in there," Capt. Adam Armstrong, the commanding officer for Bravo Company, had explained the day before, noting that it was the only wheat field still standing in their one-square mile (three-square kilometer) area of operations. The conclusion was that the tenant farmers who live in the area knew there were bombs planted amid the waving stalks and were afraid to venture in to cut them down.
Armstrong wanted to destroy the field but didn't want to anger local villagers, who would likely see it as an act of aggression rather than protection.
And he knew the Taliban would use the crop destruction to try to turn villagers against U.S. forces — who are trying to squeeze insurgents out of their southern strongholds around Kandahar city by winning over the population.
And that, the troops are finding, takes a long time and a lot of legwork.
The American soldiers started two weeks ago by informing the head of the district government of their plans to burn the field. He said OK. But that was only a first step.
The forces sent multiple patrols to the closest village, Bibi-Hawa, to tell the residents their plans and inform them if someone wanted to harvest the wheat they should do so soon.
On Monday, a patrol of soldiers went to another nearby village to meet with the leader of a mosque there and told him to tell the same thing to his followers. The mullah agreed the field was dangerous, saying he'd even helped defuse some bombs planted there. But he promised to pass on the message.
Then, finally, early Tuesday morning about 20 soldiers hiked out to the field, intending to burn it clean. They picked their way through watermelon patches and jumped over irrigation canals to get there — staying clear of paths that were likely spots for hidden explosives.
They were keyed up, talking over where the wind might take the flames and how to prevent casualties. As soldiers who spend most of their time rigorously watching each step they take for explosives, quite of few of them were looking forward to doing something more active, to setting something ablaze.
But when they got to the field, all the wheat had been harvested. A few piles of chaff were all that remained of the previously head-high grain.
One of the soldiers who had been tasked with executing the controlled burn was clearly disappointed. He grumbled about being stuck in guard duty instead of getting to set a fire. Others did a sweep of the area with metal detectors. They found no bombs.
"Apparently our message got across," came a shout from the other side of the field.
An old man in the village of Bibi-Hawa told the soldiers that everyone in the village had indeed heard about their threat to destroy the field. The owner of the land decided to flood it with water to help look for bombs. The water washes away the topsoil — presumably making explosives easier to spot. When he found no more bombs, he got workers to harvest the wheat on Monday.
Had the soldiers been one day earlier, they would have had a field to burn. But they would have also had to follow up with more meetings explaining again to the villagers why they burned it, and spent the next few days wary that they had damaged their standing with the locals.
Instead, they got to return to base a bit earlier than planned, before the heat of the day set in.
"That is a win right there," Armstrong said later. "We didn't have to do anything. The farmer got to keep his crop, and my men aren't in danger when they walk through the field."