When the fighting finally ended, the Taliban insurgents were gone from this farming village in southern Afghanistan.
But the village was gone too.
Tarok Kalache, a hamlet of mud-brick compounds and pomegranate groves northwest of Kandahar city, was razed five months ago amid fierce combat between Taliban fighters and U.S. and Afghan forces. Its three dozen farm families were scattered, its mosque flattened, its orchards reduced to rows of blackened ghost-trees, its irrigation canals choked with debris.
U.S. military officials say that by the early autumn of 2010, Tarok Kalache, which had long been used as a Taliban base, was so saturated with bombs and booby traps that reclaiming it house by house had become impossible.
After the families were safely evacuated, Tarok Kalache was bombed into oblivion. At the time, the drastic step seemed to evoke a bitter Vietnam-era catchphrase: destroying the village in order to save it. But before the powder-fine dust had settled, U.S. military officials and Afghan leaders here in the Arghandab district were delivering a message to the skeptical Pashtun tribal elders of Tarok Kalache: We are going to rebuild.
The outcome of reconstruction efforts like this one may prove a crucial barometer of coalition success in southern Afghanistan, a pivotal region in a war now in its 10th grinding year. Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Most of its fighters are the ethnic kin of the villagers eking out a living here.
If U.S. and Afghan troops can win the confidence of enough people in enough villages such as Tarok Kalache, the thinking goes, Afghans may begin to believe that the deeply unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai is a viable alternative to the insurgency.
A flourishing Tarok Kalache, U.S. officials say, would stand as a monument to promises kept, to a future worth sacrificing for. But the pitfalls are great. If rebuilding efforts bog down in corruption, tribal infighting, squabbling over damage claims or a fresh outbreak of violence, the strategic districts surrounding Kandahar city could once again prove a nurturing ground for the Taliban.
On a bright but chilly winter’s day, 14 village elders hunkered down in the dirt with a few U.S. troops. Surrounding them were wooden surveyor stakes and chalk outlines of homes and farm outbuildings that are to replace those destroyed in the bombardment of Tarok Kalache.
Patrick McGuigan, a 28-year-old Army captain from Scranton, Pa., was fielding questions, soliciting suggestions and weathering the occasional outburst. An agitated elder named Abdul Hadi complained that the building plans didn’t reflect the full extent of his former holdings. McGuigan courteously told him it would be looked into.
The exchange illustrated an uncomfortable truth: Across Kandahar province, physical reconstruction is the least of the challenges. Far more complicated is the task of untangling the truth of the nearly 1,200 damage claims stemming from fighting over the last six months.
Troops who took part in the chaotic battles that raged in Arghandab in September said the combat was as tough as any they’d seen, with insurgents using thick foliage for cover while they hammered away at U.S. and Afghan forces. Ambushes and firefights were daily occurrences. Roads and footpaths were laced with improvised explosive devices. It was almost impossible to tell innocent farmer from Taliban fighter.
Commanders said that in the two months leading up to the decision to destroy Tarok Kalache, seven U.S. soldiers were killed and more than 80 were wounded, some of them losing more than one limb, in an area measuring just 1 mile by 3 1/2 miles. More than 200 of the IEDs were discovered.
On Oct. 6, after what U.S. forces described as extensive consultations with village elders, Tarok Kalache was obliterated by 25 tons of explosives. During the aerial bombardment, secondary explosions rang out — a sign, the U.S. said, that some of the buildings were so IED-laden as to have essentially become house bombs. The rubble was pulverized with mine-clearing charges.
Abdul Hamid, a 51-year-old Pashtun elder with an extended family numbering more than three dozen people, said he felt like crying at his first sight of the destruction. Some villagers scrabbled through the remains of their homes until their hands were bloodied, searching for some treasured possession.
“It was hard to believe at first that everything was gone,” Hamid said, shaking his head. “But it was.”
From the high emotions of those early days, encounters among troops, villagers and district officials have settled into the endless hashing out of mundane matters that are nevertheless deeply evocative of the rhythms of rural Afghan life, such as a protracted dispute over the theoretical yield of a particular pomegranate tree. Agricultural specialists were brought in to make sure that 5,000 replacement trees would grow well in the soil.
Outside the hearing of the Americans, some villagers questioned whether the wholesale destruction was really necessary. Others told of hardships arising from a winter of exile in tents, in the already crowded homes of relatives, or drafty and overpriced accommodation in Kandahar city.
“My kids are sick, and my goats are dead,” said Akhtar Mohammed. “If I want to go to the place where my home was, I am afraid of being arrested and sent to the American base. And if the Taliban come back, they will kill us, because they will say we helped the Americans.”
The narrative of military and villagers diverges too on the question of just how oppressive the insurgents’ presence was. Several farmers said the Taliban would allow them to tend their crops, warn them where explosive devices were planted and even help settle local disputes. “They didn’t bother us, and we didn’t bother them,” said one.
Others insisted that their claims had been unfairly pushed aside. Farmer Lal Mohammed used a calloused finger to sketch an invisible map in the dirt-creased palm of his hand: here his orchard, there his home, here his well.
“They destroyed everything, and I’ve received nothing,” he said, slapping his hand angrily against his tunic.
Across the province, battle damage estimates have varied wildly. In January, a government delegation said coalition forces had caused more than $100 million in damage to homes and crops late last summer and in the early autumn, just as the harvest season would have begun.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force and Kandahar’s pro-Western provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, have called those claims highly exaggerated. Shah Mohammed, the Arghandab district governor, said some people had registered claims dating back to the Soviet occupation.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, the southern region’s deputy commander for support and stability, said that nearly $5 million in compensation had been paid out, and that the claims process was “winding down.” About one-tenth of the money was earmarked for Tarok Kalache and two nearby villages.
Agha Lalai, a Kandahar provincial council member, sighed when asked about conflicting claims. “If someone loses 10 trees, they might tell the Americans they lost 100,” he said. “And maybe the Americans will pay for two, or three.”
In Tarok Kalache, the first structure to be rebuilt, by unanimous agreement of the elders, was the village mosque.
On a recent day, the nearly completed mosque was a beehive of activity, with laborers hired under a government work program mixing cement and laying bricks. In addition to new homes, work has begun on rehabilitating the battered roads and irrigation canals.
The rebuilding of the village is to take about three months, a time frame that stretches into the traditional spring fighting season, when battlefield confrontations traditionally intensify. Dahl, the U.S. commander, said he did not believe the Taliban would return in sufficient force to disrupt the reconstruction.
“I don’t think they can reclaim this area now,” he said.
A new U.S.-Afghan forward operating base, still raw and temporary-looking, now straddles one road leading into the village. The protection it offers is a mixed blessing for the villagers, many of whom do not like having to encounter soldiers in order to reach their homes.
A grizzled local police commander recounted pitched battles that had taken place not only last autumn, but during the epic struggle against the Soviets, who failed to subdue the Arghandab. “Here, I was shot!” the commander said cheerfully, peeling back his turban to show a dent in his skull.
Asked if the Taliban would be back, he looked bemused.
“So many are from here — they are part of this place,” he said. “It isn’t a question of whether they are here. It is a question of when they decide to fight again.”