NATO "protection" plan means little to Afghan village

GURGAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In Afghanistan’s Taliban heartland, U.S. soldiers walk a short distance from their camp into a village in mourning with a daunting offer: protection from the insurgents that live in the area.

A roadside bomb killed a father and son and the Americans have come to urge people to turn to them for protection, an offer that few Afghans in this area dare accept.

“The Taliban could find out we talked to you and kill us when we work in our fields,” said 75-year-old farmer Haji Abdul Rahman, after describing how villagers had to retrieve the body parts of the father and son, who were riding a motorcycle when they were blown up.

The U.S. army patrol through Gurgan reflects how NATO’s efforts to improve security to enable the Kabul government to provide better services to Afghans are making little headway.

NATO commanders say the Taliban cannot be defeated by military force alone so they have launched a comprehensive plan to isolate insurgents, who have been fighting tens of thousands of Western forces for nine years.

The strategy can only succeed if ordinary Afghans are convinced that siding with foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai won’t be too risky. The Taliban have made it violently clear they will not tolerate any contact with Western forces.

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While Dand District, where Gurgan is located, is relatively peaceful compared to other parts of the Taliban’s birthplace, Kandahar Province, few Afghans believe they are safe.

Just a few kilometers (miles) away, Taliban fighters frequently attack other international troops. Retaliatory artillery can be heard in Gurgan and surrounding villages.

Lt. Matthew Bennett, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, stopped every few minutes and spoke with Gurgan residents on the patrol, shaking hands with elders and handing out pens to excited children.

He wanted to know if pro-Taliban cleric preach at any of the village’s mosques, if militants had come around lately and intimidated anyone.

As night fell, Bennett sat down in the light of a kerosene lamp with a group of villagers at a small shop. The questions kept coming.

“You said you want to help, us but what about roads and schools?” asked one man. Another man said he felt threatened when U.S. helicopters flew overhead.

Aside from dealing with the Taliban’s military tactics and ferocity, NATO soldiers have to contend with a range of other issues in order to win over Afghans.

Villagers told Bennett they appreciate American efforts to secure the area but said troops had to pay closer attention to cultural sensitivities.

Soldiers manning machinegun turrets on the tops of armoured vehicles had a view of women in houses and something had to be done, they said.

Writing by Michael georgy; Editing by Miral Fahmy