We split into two groups. Our group will make contact with the village while the other circles around to provide cover. Above us, on the hill, the Afghan military have their armored vehicles with heavy guns trained on our positions. That morning the marines had called in a U.S. fighter jet to fly as low as possible over the valley at ear-shattering volumes. "Force projection," Simmons calls it. "That way they know what will happen if they engage us."
The "carrot and stick" approach is to build rapport with the locals by providing basics – something akin to the conquistadores bringing shiny trinkets for the Mayans. The big stuff like wells, schools, and roads are held back until the area shows a willingness to work with the Americans. If the locals remain hostile they get the "stick," which can be anything from being ignored to suffering an air strike.
The initial intel said that the situation was potentially volatile, with 40 armed insurgents, a car bomb, and a high potential for an ambush, but when we get there it's just locals working in the fields. Our group leader, Sergeant Aguilar, holds us up while we wait for the other half of our group to get in place. Upon hearing this command, the Afghan soldiers immediately flop down and start to nap. Aguilar scans the opposite bank for movement or glints. Despite the bucolic setting, the feeling is tense – and then a cell phone rings. It's Aguilar's. "Hey, master sergeant, can I call you back? I am in the middle of a patrol? Yeah... Thanks. Bye." He turns to Jones: "I get calls all the time during firefights."
The radio crackles. "Move forward." Crossing the river we reach the outskirts of the village. It doesn't take long for a gaggle of kids to gather around. One red-headed tyke, who looks like an Afghan Opie, carries a slingshot and cups a tiny frightened sparrow. "Cute," says Aguilar, as he hands out Bic pens from a bag.
Opie proudly pulls over a young friend with a swollen right eye. "You did that?" Aguilar asks, then points at the slingshot. "With that?" Opie nods eagerly. They pose for pictures, and then Opie starts trying to twist the sparrow's neck. "Hey," Aguilar says, "don't kill the bird."
Opie hunts around for a rock, breaks it against another rock, then uses the sharp end to decapitate the sparrow.
"Jesus, he just cut the bird's head off," says Aguilar. "No pens for you." Opie shrugs. He holds up the freshly severed head for photos.
The kids are tasked to get the elders. Soon four very old men shuffle down the path. The Afghan soldiers drive a pickup truck into a shaded square and before they hand out any goodies, the marines coach them to ask whether there are any Taliban here. "No, no, no... no problems here," one toothless old man mutters as he scans the sacks of rice and tea in the bed of the truck. The Afghan intel officer reports that the elder's biggest complaint is: "We never get anything from the government."
As the Afghan soldiers smack the kids away from the truck with branches, a marine has to remind his Afghan counterpart to keep asking questions and to write down the answers. What do they need? The elder, not taking his eye off the truck, rattles off a practiced list in a dull monotone, "Security, electricity...a well...and a road." Where are all the fighting-age males? "Most of the men are working in Iran."
What the marines fail to grasp is that rural conservative Pashtun elders are, by any definition, Taliban themselves. And the Karzai government they complain about is exactly what the Taliban is seeking to destroy. Any Afghan who has survived to the ripe age of 40, let alone 70, has learned to not only get along with all sides but to play those sides against one another, which is precisely what makes mapping the human terrain here so tricky. It is completely normal for an Afghan to support both the Taliban insurgents coming over from Pakistan and the occupying forces at the same time. These villages will still be here after both groups have long disappeared.
Finally the villagers are given 500 grams of Vietnamese tea, two kilos of rice, a prayer rug each, and odd bits of Pakistan-made clothing. Jones busies himself by asking the marines questions about the Afghans asking the Afghans questions.
Sergeant Aguilar carefully hands out the rest of his Bics, one to each boy or girl, but quickly the pens start to consolidate under the control of Opie and his gang. Aguilar then calls for the medic to come in and look at the older people, which he does for a while, but then the Afghan interpreter gets hungry. "Oh, come on," he says to Aguilar. "Let's go. Stop bullshitting with old people. Let's go before we get swamped with more fake sick people."
As we pull out of the village, Opie knocks down another bird with his slingshot. Elated, his Bic-rich gang make cutting motions across their necks and dance around. Clearly Opie's generation will require either a larger carrot or a bigger stick.