Sunday, June 30, 2002

Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Afghan People

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – The kids on the side of the street come up to you and speak the three phrases of English that they know well.

“"Hello Mister!"” one shouts from his rickety bicycle

“"How are you?!”" another says as he gives me the thumbs up sign.

Another kid selling black market CD’s makes a simple request “"Water!"”

The elders sit back and watch them, breaking in every now and then to keep them in line by shouting “"Burru!"” which means, simply, go away.

The streets are bustling in Kabul. The shops along Chicken Street, a popular shopping area in town, are filled with goods ranging from ancient muskets to the famous Afghan carpet.

It seems like a typical scene out of a movie about the Middle East, complete with busy bazaars and bustling activity. Burquas (traditional Afghan shroud) and beards pass us as we make our way through the masses. But there’s a new element in the Kabuls scenery.

On this day, a stationery store just off Chicken Street is filled with customers looking for school supplies. They’re not wearing the traditional burqua or shalwar kameez (traditional male Afghan outfit), they’re outfitted with helmets, bulletproof vests, and M-16’s.

They’re members of the 345th Psychological Operations Company out of Dallas, Texas. Most are reservists called to active duty in Operation Enduring Freedom, and they are some of the few soldiers the people of Kabul come in contact with.

They’re not just in Kabul. The guys at PSYOPS are everywhere in Afghanistan, fighting an age-old battle not unfamiliar to the United States -- winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Operation Enduring Freedom isn’t a war just being fought on the battlefield. There’ is more to it than finding Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar. The U.S. military wants the Afghans to also know that there’ is more to their stay here than bombs and bullets.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. troops engaged local villagers throughout the country to encourage them to turn in Vietcong guerillas or hostile forces in return for peace, stability, and development. Ultimately, that mission in Vietnam failed. Here in Afghanistan, it’s a different story.

Major Patrick Flanagan is an officer with the U.S. Army’s 345th PSYOPS Company. He’'s the one in charge of purchasing the goods at the stationery store.

“"Look at this - you’'ve even got designer staplers!”" he says to the Afghan merchant, who understands and speaks near fluent English.

Flanagan’'s mission is to buy schools supplies from local merchants, and then donate them to a local Afghan school outside Bagram Air Base, some thirty miles to the north.

The illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is staggering. Some estimates put it at 64 percent. That means two out of every three Afghans can'’t read. For the last several years under Taliban rule, women were not allowed in the schools that did exist. UNICEF estimates the illiteracy rate among women to be above 85 percent. By helping the Afghans educate themselves, soldiers like Flanagan are helping reverse years of poor education.

Granted, school supplies are only a small step in the education process, but the benefits of donating the goods goes a long way. Soldiers like Flanagan who participate in these humanitarian missions hope it puts the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a positive light.

Flanagan looks over the supplies, most of them new and imported from countries like Germany, and barters with the merchant.

“"Tell him we’re buying a lot here, so give us a good price,"” he says to his translator.

The shopping lasts a half hour, and at the end of the exchange, Flanagan shells out close to $700. As I videotape the exchange, the merchant gives me and my colleagues, as well as the other soldiers standing by, cold soft drinks. It’s a welcome relief in the sweltering midday heat.

It’s interesting to watch diplomacy in action. Even though they are foot soldiers of the U.S. Army, these PSYOP guys are also ambassadors for the United States. Dozens of people approach the soldiers standing watch by the Humvees, and carry on a conversation. Most of the Afghans that talk with the soldiers speak English. It’'s pretty mush just small talk, some of it involving the Afghan views of the Taliban, or their support for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Major Flanagan tells us any conversation with the locals is a good one. “"They feed off any information.”"

Just as the sun reaches it’s highest point in the Kabul afternoon, we wrap up the shopping trip. The friendly transaction complete, the goods are packed up and the Afghan locals filter out. We board the Humvees and head out of the Afghan capital city. The next stop on Flanagan’'s goodwill mission -– outside Bagram Air Base, where the supplies he just picked up will go to students at several area schools. Many of the students that will get the pens, pencils, and papers, are just as eager to learn as other Afghans are to talk with the Americans that now dot the Afghan landscape.

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