U.S. troops keep their distance from Afghan neighbors

Soldiers are ordered to be polite, but stay constantly cautious

January 22, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KANDAHAR AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Army Pvt. Justin Lambert has been in this country two weeks without yet meeting a native of Afghanistan. That's exactly as his commanders wished, but they gave him instructions should a chance meeting occur.

"Be polite," drawled the 21-year-old soldier from Florida, remembering his orders and keeping a watchful eye from his sand-bagged dugout on the perimeter of the air base. "Try not to use your left hand. No thumbs-up" - gestures considered exceptionally rude. "Our mission was not to have much contact with them."

Pvt. Martin Warren, 20, from Baltimore, said: "I've never talked to, like, an Afghan. I've just seen them."

If all goes according to plan, most of the several thousand U.S. soldiers will leave Afghanistan after six months without ever getting to know or even meet Afghans.

Some soldiers have caught only a fleeting glimpse of the 100 Afghan laborers who arrive at the base each morning and leave each evening.

Others have seen Afghans only through night-vision goggles, when sensors detect a dark figure against a milky background - would-be intruders attempting to breach the barbed wire fences.

Commanders have given soldiers mixed messages, recommending that the soldiers be polite, converse with Afghans when the opportunities arise but also exercise caution.

"Don't trust anybody over the age of 12, unless they're deploying with you," Brig. Gen. Ben Freakley told some members of the 101st Airborne contingent as they prepared to board their planes at Fort Campbell, Ky. "If al-Qaida paid them more, they'd work for them." His index finger punctuated each word.

And the soldiers' chaplain, Capt. Denny Villarrea, a Pentecostal preacher, offered them a crash course about Islamic fundamentalism as well as cultural differences. When talking, Afghans "never point fingers at each other. They don't do thumbs-up or thumbs-down," he said evenly.

Commanders have tried to impress upon their soldiers that they are in a war zone. When U.S. military commanders met with local leaders for a friendly lunch, marksmen were on the roof.

The Afghan workers who come to the base are frisked before they enter and are required to wear badges. All the men were approved by the local military commander, Haji Gulali.

Army Col. Frank Wiercinski, commander of the 101st Airborne brigade stationed here, maintains contact with Gulali, whose men patrol beyond the base fence, sometimes in concert with American forces. And Green Berets continue to meet with local leaders.

"It'd be cool to get out and see the people," said Capt. Frank Gasca of San Antonio, pondering the 25-minute drive to Kandahar. "I do want to take back some souvenir hats."

And how will he accomplish that?

"Who knows?"

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