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Journalist Describes Army Unit Tour in Afghanistan

April 1, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, describes life for a U.S. Army company assigned to a remote outpost in Afghanistan.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Afghanistan. On Thursday, President Bush and other NATO leaders will discuss new strategies for the war. And we now get the perspective of an American Army company fighting there in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: For American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the fighting has been getting tougher. And the Taliban has been extending its reach all over the country, even into the capital, Kabul.

American casualties since the Afghan war began in October 2001 are reaching 500 dead. Afghan civilian deaths also have been increasing, and that has drawn complaints from President Karzai.

Contributing writer Elizabeth Rubin was in northeastern Afghanistan with an American military unit last fall. Her report recently appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and she joins us now.

Welcome to you.

ELIZABETH RUBIN, New York Times Magazine: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about the valley and the group of soldiers. This is Captain Dan Kearney and his men. And I noticed the title is “Captain Kearney’s Quagmire.” You really focused in on him and his men. Tell us about them.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, they’re called Battle Company. It’s one of the companies of the battalion. There’s about three platoons out in this valley.

The valley is very hostile to American forces. The tribe there practice Wahhabi Islam, which is very different than the rest of Afghanistan. And they have said they want the Americans out of there.

There’s been an ongoing cycle of attacks by insurgents against Captain Kearney and his soldiers from villages, from villagers’ houses.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the houses? And this is the problem that you write that they face all the time, right, is what to do about those attacks?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Exactly. And the reason I’ve started to focus particularly on Kearney is because he’s the commander on the ground of these forces. He’s alone out there.

He has his battalion commander back at base, but he’s making decisions every day: What do I do? Do I fire back at the house, possibly kill a civilian and anger the villagers even more? Or do I let them possibly kill one of my troops?

Taking culture into account

JEFFREY BROWN: You talked about them having to be what you called cultural anthropologists, in fact, as well as soldiers and killers. What does that mean?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, they're having to define the valley in terms of tribe, in terms of family, trying to make inroads as a cultural anthropologist would into the political and cultural factors in that valley, so that they can find friends and win the villagers over.

And in order to do that, they have to understand the economy, how marriage is based, everything at the same time. You know, Kearney is constantly having to worry about his soldiers who are going out on patrols and getting ambushed almost three times a week.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you had unusual access to these soldiers.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Yes, this particular group was very -- they're very open with journalists. I credit the battalion commander, William Ostlund, the colonel there, who takes the attitude that, if you have suggestions on how we can make this better, that's great. Come in and see what we're doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And because of the access and because of the clear openness, one can see, the reader can see the enormous stress that is on these men.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Absolutely. I mean, it's not just the captain or the colonel who's making these decisions. It's the soldiers. It's the platoon lieutenants. It's the enlisted guy. Every single day, they're out there.

And this is an unusual place. It's probably the most volatile place in Afghanistan, besides Helmand. They are in contact with the enemy, as I said, several times a week. And always the question is: What do we do when they're firing from a house where there's a family?

Protecting troops, civilians

JEFFREY BROWN: You went on one six-day mission that you described where there were several ambushes and Americans killed. Tell us about that mission and what happened.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, it was going into the -- they air-assaulted into a village they'd not been to.

JEFFREY BROWN: By helicopter?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: By helicopter, in the evening. And when they first got there, the first night, they had intelligence that there were insurgents around the soldiers who were landing by helicopter.

Kearney then had to make a decision that night, "What do I do? Do I call in air strikes to protect my soldiers? Do I let the insurgents attack?"

And they had different groups of insurgents all over the place, but it was a populated village. And he decided to attack them.

Many insurgents were killed, but civilians also were killed and injured. And that sort of set the stage for the next five days. The insurgents and the villagers decided to fight back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stop you for a second...

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... because there was a photo that I was interested in, it shows the -- I guess it's the colonel, the battalion commander, a few miles away watching the action. So this decision about whether to bomb the village is made by a number of people? How does it work?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, the way that it works is Kearney or the commander on the ground, in this particular instance, for example, will call back to the colonel, who is watching from a Predator feed. You know, the Predator is the unmanned drone that sends back infrared images of heat sources, so it can see both men on the ground and in areas where they shouldn't be.

They know the area very well. They know, if there's men in the mountains, on walkie-talkies, that those are bad guys, as they say. And so he will talk to his battalion commander and decide, "What are we going to do about these guys? And what are we going to do if they've gone into the house, which they did that night?"

And the two of them made a decision together that, "We're going to take out the house." So that's how that works, having somebody back at base watching the other intelligence that's coming in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, over the course of the next few days, in this particular case, there were a number of ambushes and American soldiers killed.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: That's right. Three days later, after Kearney met with the elders to sort of talk about what happened, why he was forced to kill civilians, and what had happened, and that there were insurgents in the area, a few days later, we were in an area, another ridge on the mountain, and the insurgents actually came up the mountainside and did a -- they attacked from one side, diverting the troops, and crawled up the mountain, and came up in close range to the American soldiers, killed one of them, injured two of them, and took their equipment, and ran back down the mountain.

Staying motivated

JEFFREY BROWN: The frustration that you describe of the soldiers themselves, Captain Kearney has a fine line, as it comes out in your piece, of keeping them motivated, but also keeping them peaceful when necessary.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Right. As he told me, actually, they sent a shrink out to the troops just to see how they're doing, because it's a very stressful situation. And half of them told the shrink that they think that the captain is playing Russian roulette with their lives and the other half thought he was too weak on sticking too closely to the rules of engagement.

What that means is that they want a little bit more leeway to be on the offensive and not always having to be on the defensive, taking fire from the insurgents. They want to go after them more.

And he's constantly having to rein them back in, because he knows the effect and the consequences of killing people in the villages, which is you just turn the whole valley against you. So he's always balancing these two things, as he says, "balancing plates on my nose."

JEFFREY BROWN: And I note there's clearly also a balance of, are they actually doing any good? They seem to be wondering that all the time.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: They do.

JEFFREY BROWN: But at the end of your piece, Captain Kearney says, "I lost seven dudes here. It's too much blood. I don't want to give this up. This is mine." He sounds determined to stay.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: He is determined to stay. I mean, he feels that we've made a huge sacrifice here and it's pride, you know? "I want to tame this place; I want to make friends with the villagers. I want to bring them around to our side to see what we're doing, that we can bring them good things. If they would side with us and not the insurgents, we can change their lives, help them."

A lot of villagers say, "We don't want American help." And it's a very, very frustrating place to be in charge of.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Elizabeth Rubin of The New York Times, thanks very much.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: And in an Insider Forum on our Web site, you can ask Elizabeth Rubin about Afghanistan and you can view photos from her reporting trip. It's all at PBS.org.