Photos by Tuen Voeten

The first democratic elections in the history of Afghanistan will be held this October. While reconstruction is in full swing in Kabul, the capital, most other parts of the country remain uncontrollable. Together with the newly formed Afghan National Army, U.S. troops are trying to restore law and order. Photojournalist Teun Voeten recently spent 10 days there, embedded with U.S. troops.

Charley Company, a 50-man U.S. Army unit, is camping out in a dusty orchard in the middle of the Kak Afghan district, some 100 miles northeast of Kandahar in Zabul Province. This is Pashtun Central, the traditional home base of the Taliban. Coalition forces may have driven them from power, but in these remote areas, the Taliban still rule. So far this year, guerrilla-style war has taken the lives of around 50 foreigners and close to a thousand locals.

“We are here to catch the bad guys,” says commanding officer Captain Michael Berdy. “But more important is to create a stable environment for the elections.”

The Taliban are working hard to sabotage that event, intimidating potential voters into not registering. In one incident, 16 people were kidnapped and killed by Taliban forces after they were found carrying voter registration cards. By the end of June, only half of the 10 million people who are eligible to vote had registered. Charley Company is assisted by 70 soldiers of the newly formed Afghan National Army (ANA), which is staying in a compound at Kak village. Helped by embedded U.S. army trainers, who sleep under the same roof as the Afghans, they conduct joint operations.

GIs gather an old Taliban ammunitions stockpile of RPGs and mortars, which is then blown up.

“They are a highly motivated group. With the limited resources they have, they do a fantastic job,” says Sergeant John Digby, one of the U.S. trainers. “In the new Afghan army, all ethnic groups are represented. It is a symbolic start to the reunification of the country.” The commander of the Afghans, Major Noor, is a good example. Twenty years ago, he was in the pro-Soviet Afghan army, fighting the mujahedeen. Now he commands Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Pashtuns in his unit, some of whom are his former enemies.

At the entrance to the voting registration center, ANA soldiers search everybody. Before Charley Company arrived, the center was empty. But over the last 10 days, some 2,000 people have registered, says Captain Berdy proudly. Some of them traveled for a day on foot or donkey. No women have come, Berdy admits: “Theoretically, they should also register. But as long as there are no female assistants at the registration center, they won’t come. It’s sad, but it’s a man’s world out here.”

A GI searches a man’s suspicious package, which turns out to be an old radio.

Securing the voter registration is relatively easy. More complicated is hunting down the so-called ACMs — Anti-Coalition Militants. At the moment, the most wanted man is the district chief, Abdul Ghani. A month ago, coalition forces gave him a large sum of money to build a school and a clinic, but so far, not a stone has been lifted. When Charley Company arrived, Chief Ghani disappeared. Villagers rumor that he doubles as a Taliban commander.

The Americans have more luck with Police Chief Abdul Ali. He is apprehended quickly and asked what has happened to the money he received to pay his policemen — none of whom got any. Also, Captain Berdy has problems with the fact that Police Chief Ali rented out his American-donated police vehicles to local Taliban. Berdy repossesses most vehicles the same day and hands them over to the ANA.

A detainee, above, and members of Charley Company, below, are about to be transported to the main U.S. Army base in Kandahar.

Over a week’s time, the Afghans and Americans carry out cordon and search missions in most villages in the area. Some Taliban sympathizers are arrested, but Chief Ghani is never found. After having heard that the fugitive chief is hiding in a village eight miles away, a heavily armed convoy with Afghan and American soldiers sets out in the night. After two miles, there is an ambush. Rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire erupt from a small valley down the road. C Company and the ANA open up, and soon the attackers seem to have disappeared. For most of the American soldiers, it is their first taste of combat. Except for one soldier whose leg was run over by a Humvee, nobody is seriously hurt. The Afghans laugh off the attack. “Child’s play,” one of them says.

Was the ambush a setup? “We don’t know who to trust,” says Captain Berdy. “Many local people provide contradictory information. Only if the story is confirmed five, six times, we take it seriously. But then again, never forget that half of the people here still support the Taliban.”

ANA soldiers guard villagers who have come from around the district to register to vote in the upcoming elections.

After 10 days, Chinook helicopters arrive to pick up C Company and the ANA soldiers. Total results of the operation: Seven high-ranking Taliban supporters are arrested. They are handed over to the local authorities in the provincial capital Qualat. Three thousand pounds of ammunition, RPGs and mines are collected and destroyed. Three pounds of opium are confiscated. Two thousand five hundred voters are registered. The construction of the school finally begins. A corrupt police chief is discharged. Major Noor, the ANA commander, has urged the locals to organize a meeting of all tribal elders to elect a new police chief. The tribes are supposed to supply men to form a representative police force.

Captain Berdy is realistic. These are positive, but small, developments. The big Taliban commanders are still at large. “We cannot clean the whole area,” says Berdy. “But at least we gave them a clear signal. If problems start again, we will be back in no time.”

The GI at left broke his leg during an ambush by Taliban, when he fell and was run over by his Humvee; behind him, Captain Michael Berdy talks to base camp on the radio.
A soldier, above, searches a villager while the anguished detainee below waits to discover his fate.

LA Weekly