Story

Handing Out Candy and Kicking Down Doors

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An American base in Maywand district that was home to the soldiers of Task Force 2-2 and members of the Human Terrain Team. Eight years into the war, the members of Task Force 2-2 were the first soldiers to deploy in significant numbers to Maywand. They built this base in shifts in the summer heat, on a barren lakebed covered with fine, thick dust.

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The view from a guard post at an American base in Maywand. The soldiers on guard duty had faced few threats – one joked that the worst thing he’d seen was a wild dog. Most attacks in Maywand took the form of improvised bomb strikes on the roads around the base.

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Children gather along Highway 1 to watch a U.S. military convoy between Maywand district and Kandahar city. The troops in this convoy delivered supplies by road to bases all over the south. For them, Afghanistan was viewed mainly through the window of an armored truck, or from the gunner’s roost on the roof.

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A family moves across a desolate stretch of land in the village of De Kak Chopan in Maywand district. The landscape in this part of southern Afghanistan, west of Kandahar and east of Helmand, is mysterious to soldiers, who spend their days walking and driving past high compound walls, the residents inside hidden from view.

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A member of the Human Terrain team in Maywand talks with an Afghan-American interpreter near an irrigation ditch in the village of De Kak Chopan. The farmers used the ditch to irrigate nearby poppy fields. In conversation with the farmers, the Human Terrain team member learned that the sap from red poppies brought a higher price than that gleaned from white ones.

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Stephen James “Banger” Lang, a member of the Human Terrain Team in Maywand, talks to a poppy farmer in De Kak Chopan. Banger sometimes played with a set of amber prayer beads, a habit that put Afghans at ease. He told the man about his own childhood on a farm in Iowa, where his family grew corn, soybeans and oats. “You don’t grow poppy?” the farmer asked, gazing at Banger in disbelief.

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Banger and Spen, another member of the Human Terrain team, talk to a farmer and a mullah they met in De Kak Chopan. Spen, a 31-year-old with a master’s in Central Asian studies, asked that his real name not be used, fearing that his work with the project might endanger him if he returned to the region.

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Sometimes the work of the Human Terrain team consists of little more than a gift for gab or an attempt at simple cultural exchange. When the farmer pulled a tin of snuff from his pocket, Banger offered him a wad of Copenhagen chewing tobacco.

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The farmer made a face when he tasted the Copenhagen, as if it wasn’t what he’d expected. Banger and his interpreter, who went by the nickname Sean, cracked up.

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The mullah stepped forward to share his small tin of snuff.

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The mullah’s tin of snuff, laced with hashish. “That’s not the real one,” the mullah said of the Copenhagen. “This is. It gives you a little bit of a buzz,” “That’s because it has pot in it,” Banger told him. The exchange lightened the mood, and the farmer offered to show Banger and Spen his tractor. The mullah stayed with the patrol for the rest of the afternoon as they visited other villagers, lending them an air of credibility.

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Lt. David Ochs finds a taker for his humanitarian aid. Here, he gives a white tube stock stuffed with peppermints and a packet of tissues to a small Afghan boy, who eyes it with confusion.

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The sun hung low in the sky, but Ochs wanted to visit one more compound before the soldiers headed back to base. They banged on the door but got no response. Ochs suspected that the compound was a base for IED makers, so he ordered the soldiers to kick down the door and search the rooms. Here, Ochs holds open a bag of white powder he found inside. He thought it must be drugs.

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The white powder might not be drugs, but Ochs did find a bag of hashish in the abandoned compound. His face said it all: Jackpot! The soldiers shoved the things they’d found – including clothes, photo albums, cassette tapes and costume jewelry -- back into the dark rooms. The search, like so much else in Maywand, had been inconclusive. Had they stumbled on a bomb-making den, or ransacked the home of an Afghan family?

One April afternoon, Lt. David Ochs, an earnest 23-year-old from Charlottesville, prepared to hand out humanitarian aid in a village called De Kak Chopan near the Helmand border. Churches and other groups had sent his platoon heaps of donated goods, but he had a hard time giving them away. At least one Afghan had begged Ochs to take his charity elsewhere, saying the Taliban would cut off his head if they learned he had accepted anything from the Americans.

By now Ochs had a giant trash bag piled chest-high with children's clothes and other donations from well-meaning Americans, so he'd come up with a new idea. A donor had sent the soldiers far too many pairs of white athletic tube socks. Ochs and the others had stuffed the socks with candy and toiletries and knotted them at the top so they looked like bulky white worms. Their plan was to toss the candy-stuffed socks to children, who were more likely to take things from soldiers than adults were. They also had some brightly colored children's fleece scarves, donated by a Girl Scout troop (some were purple with a black jungle print, and said "Cheetah Girls!" on them).

Ochs, a member of the Second Battalion, Second Regiment of the First Infantry Division, known as Task Force 2-2, acknowledged that basic training hadn't prepared him for the fight he encountered in Maywand. He'd been convinced that if the U.S. forces could just build a school and start educating Afghan children, they'd be well on their way to transforming the political landscape of the south. But in his eight months on the ground, his frustration and disappointment had grown. Most of the villagers he met were so scared of the Taliban that they didn't even want to be seen talking to the Americans, let alone accepting something as radical as a school.

As Ochs briefed his platoon before setting off for De Kak Chopan, his frustration showed. He asked the soldiers to state the patrol's aim.

"Give stuff out," one man said.

"Right, humanitarian aid," Ochs said. "What else? Try and give away a free school that nobody wants, right? Beautiful."

Ochs liked having members of the Human Terrain team along on his patrols. Too often, he said, soldiers like him would roll into a village and ask, "Have you seen any Taliban? Has anybody come in the area and threatened you? Is there anybody we can kill for you?" The Human Terrain Team members, meanwhile, asked about things like the health of crops, the water table and what tribes people came from. This approach opened Afghans up, making them more likely to speak freely and take an interest in what the soldiers were doing.

"I got to worry about whether we're going to get attacked or where we're going to get ambushed from…and so by the time we get there, the last thing I want to do is talk to some guy about how he's doing and how the crops are doing," said Ochs. "So I think [creating the Human Terrain project] was a really smart move by the Army…. You don't have Greenpeace fight your wars, you know? And you don't want the guys fighting the wars doing the Greenpeace job."