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Troops disillusioned in Wardak

Some stories come full circle. Back in February, we saw that the people of Wardak, located just south of Kabul, "were completely, 100 percent against the arrival of foreign troops," according to a local member of parliament. The Taliban in the area were said to be entirely comprised of local men.

By July, there were reports that children took candy from soldiers only to hurl it back at the invaders. We also saw last month that locals in Wardak are feeling increasingly under threat from both the Americans and the Taliban insurgents, prompting an exodus of those able to leave.

In light of this, current developments in that province are quite revealing. The Times reports on what US Army chaplains in Wardak are hearing from the troops lately:

American troops in Afghanistan losing heart, say army chaplains
By Martin Fletcher

WARDAK, Oct 8 - American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban...

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not...

Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.

“We’re lost — that’s how I feel. I’m not exactly sure why we’re here,” said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday...

The only soldiers who thought it was going well “work in an office, not on the ground”. In his opinion “the whole country is going to s***”.

The battalion’s 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people’s allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taleban.

They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability...

Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne’s mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state — especially those in scattered outposts — and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “They’re tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go,” she said.

Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87’s Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common...

The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers...

The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. “The soldiers’ biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taleban, because that almost seems impossible. It’s hard to catch someone you can’t see,” said Specialist Mercer.

“It’s a very frustrating mission,” said Lieutenant Hjelmstad... "There’s no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It’s hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here.”

The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. “You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they’re still going to lie to you. They’ll tell you there’s no Taleban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again,” said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia...

Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87’s commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised...

He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it... (link)

So US troops introduced early this year, who were not welcomed by the population, have seen continued civilian hostility, and many are now demoralized. Their Taliban opponents, largely composed of locals fighting what is to them a foreign occupation, have stepped up the fight and dug in - on home turf.

Note that the troops have apparently been targeted by some 300 roadside bombs, 180 of which have exploded. While it is not clear what exactly these figures refer to, this seems to represent an improvement in insurgent capabilities. Normally, troops discover and disarm a larger proportion of overall IEDs.

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