Afghanistan: Where success can bring failure

Canadian Capt. Rob Goldstein greets a child while on patrol through Haji Baba.

NAKHONAY, AFGHANISTAN—A medical clinic stands abandoned in a village on the edge of town, desert wind blowing dust through gaps in bricked up windows and empty doorways, the doctor too afraid to come anywhere near.

Taliban threats scared him off months ago. The Afghan government won’t send a replacement unless local elders make security guarantees. They refuse.

The Canadian military has made repeated offers of aid to repair the place, to repaint the two-room building’s peeling, whitewashed walls, to install doors and window panes, maybe even provide electricity and lights.

If the Canadians reopened the clinic, it would provide health care to more than 4,000 Afghans, mostly the desperately poor families of landless tenant farmers.

But their elders’ reply to overtures from Capt. Robert Goldstein, a Toronto reservist, is always the same: They change the subject.

They’ve shrugged off projects to channel raw sewage away from their streets, to dig wells for clean drinking water and almost anything else Goldstein and his team propose.

Saying yes to foreign help to save lives could get them killed by insurgents who survive on deprivation and the instability it breeds.

“For the Taliban, this is all a zero-sum game,” Goldstein said, sitting on the edge of his army cot in a dusty tent, his laptop propped up on rumpled bedclothes. “Any success for us is a failure for them.”

So in one of the most brutal parts of one of the world’s most needy countries, where one of every four children die before their fifth birthday and a woman dies every 30 minutes from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, the village clinic remains empty.

It’s a haunting monument to the struggle to persuade individual Afghans that after more than 30 years of suffering under war it’s time for the weak to stand up and take more risks for peace.

Among men full of bravado who talk guns, girls, and going home, or pump iron to the boom box blare of death metal bands, Goldstein has a quieter courage. Short, with greying hair and a quick tongue, he keeps his reasons for going to war private. Yet one thing’s plain: He’s not here to kill, but to convince.

He needs brave Afghans to salvage the village clinic, along with numerous other projects in his files that he says local elders are blocking, like ablution wells for mosques so worshipers can perform ritual bathing before prayers.

Yet he keeps extending his hand. Goldstein, 48, is not one to shrink from a challenge.

For the past seven months, he has been based in an insurgent nest, rigged with booby-trapped bombs, talking his way through social and ideological minefields.

Goldstein has had unique training. His regular job is trying to win over judges and juries as a Crown attorney prosecuting criminals in Toronto courtrooms.

He went after Tom Baker, a lawyer and former president of Pepsi-Seven Up Toronto accused in an alleged $18 million tax evasion and money laundering scheme.

But a judge ruled in 2003 that Baker was an innocent dupe of con-man accountant Michael Graye.

Goldstein also prosecuted Nicholas Ribich, a former soldier in the Bosnian Serb army, who was accused of taking two Canadian and two Russian peacekeepers hostage in 1995.

Seven years later, a judge declared a mistrial in Ribich’s case after nine days of testimony.

Now Goldstein is taking on the Taliban on their turf. His principal weapon isn’t the army issue assault rifle he carries, in full combat gear, outside the wire.

It is the power of persuasion.

Goldstein heads a five-member Civil-Military Cooperation, or CIMIC, team that includes a high school teacher, a corporate security investigator, a helicopter technician and an army signaler.

They are up against a ruthless enemy. Haji Baba’s elected village elder, or malik, seemed open to cooperation with Canadian troops until the Taliban abducted him in early spring and beat him senseless.

Now he’s too afraid to be seen around foreign troops, said Goldstein, who knows of at least three maliks, or around half the village leaders in his area of operations, who have fled Taliban threats for the relative safety of Kandahar city.

The clinic’s Afghan doctor left for Kandahar around the same time, after receiving written threats, called night letters, that insurgents tack to people’s doors under cover of darkness.

Senior NATO commanders say they need leaders to come back to villages across the Taliban’s southern heartland, to get people to work with Afghan authorities — the best chance of keeping out insurgents now on the run.

“I know it’s not fashionable to be optimistic,” Goldstein said. “But I think we can prevail.”

The town of Nakhonay, about 20 kms southwest of Kandahar city, is a strategic way station on a major Taliban transit route. Insurgent bomb makers have hit Canadian troops hard in the town’s warren of narrow, dirt streets and alleys.

Improvised explosive devices have killed at least six Canadians in and around Nakhonay this year. Sgt. John Faught, 44, of Edmonton died there in January.

Sgt. Martin Goudreault, 35, of Sudbury, Sgt. James MacNeil, 28, of Glace Bay, N.S., Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht, 34, of Wallaceburg, Ont., and Pte. Andrew Miller, 21, of Sudbury all lost their lives in, or near the town in June.

Sapper Brian Collier, 24, of Toronto, died in hospital in Germany after he was injured in a Nakhonay blast in July. He is the last Canadian to die in Afghanistan this year, but the 151st lost since the Canadian military mission began in 2002.

As American and Afghan forces complete their push into western Panjwaii district, their main base for operations against Kandahar city, Canadians are ready launch a fresh aid offensive in a race to get local services functioning before insurgents return.

In Zalahan, a respected, moderate elder named Fazluddin Agha, once Panjwai’s district governor, wants to return to his village and help the government, said Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, who commands Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

In the last two weeks, the village has grown from three families to at least 14, as once terrified Afghans begin trickling home to Nakhonay and the surrounding area, Milner said.

The town “is the toughest nut to crack,” Milner said during a visit Monday to a small combat outpost overlooking Nakhonay.

Some elders frequently gather for informal shuras with Canadian troops, but they plead with platoon Capt. Ashley Collette, 26, of Yarmouth, N.S., not to let the feared local leader, Haji Malim, know they were there.

“No progress happens because Haji Malim stop-drops it all,” she briefed Milner and Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, Canada’s Chief of Land Staff. “But other than him, the other village elders have actually supported us.”

Malim openly admits that he attends Taliban shuras, so the Canadians hope to marginalize him, by getting aid projects started in surrounding villages, hoping Nakhonay’s people soon see they’re losing out.

“We need to surround them with love, and development, and make them feel it,” Milner said.

The day before, Afghan National Army and Canadian troops protected a shura, or traditional council, of some 40 elders who defied the Taliban and met in the village of Lal Khan Qala, just west of Nakhonay.

Insurgents were spotted preparing an attack and a Hellfire missile strike killed four, perhaps five of them. Canadian soldiers recovered an 82 mm recoilless rifle, a heavy anti-tank gun.

Barely 24 hours later, Milner led Devlin on a walkabout through the village.

Some Afghan men stared coldly as the generals waved, or offered a handshake, while others cheerfully greeted and chatted with the Canadian commanders.

Sher Ali, in his 70s, stopped his battered old motorbike, raised his leg against a wall and showed the general a festering foot, apparently dislocated, which he said was being treated by the closest practitioner: the village chiropractor.

“Qalam raka!” several boys shouted at Milner from the shadows of a high, mud brick compound wall. “Give me a pen!”

“Are you going to school today?” asked the general, towering above them in camouflaged combat fatigues, flak vest and helmet.

“There is no school here, sir,” the boldest boy shot back.

“We need to build a school here, don’t we,” Milner replied, and the smiling boys all agreed.

The situation is the same in villages all around Nakhonay, where all the public schools are closed. Islamic madrassahs are the only classrooms, where boys normally learn to recite the Qur’an, and are often steeped in extremist ideology.

Just as a Canadian foot patrol was leaving the gate of their outpost Tuesday, on the way to offer repairs to mosque windows blown out when defused IEDs were destroyed in a controlled explosion, a blast struck a taxi 2 kms to the north.

The Afghan driver lost both legs and bled to death as an American medevac chopper rushed him to hospital at the Kandahar airbase.

Goldstein was back in Haji Baba the next day with a foot patrol of Canadian soldiers, stopping to chat with villagers, gently probing for any openings. Some said elders were still afraid of the Taliban. Some said they definitely wanted development.

“Everybody wants to send their kids to school, even the lowliest tenant farmer says, ‘I want to send my son to school,’ ” Goldman recalled, back in his tent, typing up a report on his laptop. “But they say that they can’t do anything until their elders agree.

“My message, and the (Afghan National Army’s) message to the elders is, ‘Look, you’ve got to put pressure on your leadership to take a stand. Somebody’s got to stick their neck out a little bit. We can only do so much

“At the end of the day, it’s up to them.”

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