60II: Mission Impossible

Winning Hearts And Minds

Small units of American commandos are spreading into Afghanistan’s forbidding deserts. They are trying to convince a suffering people that help is on the way, and that Americans are not the evil that the Taliban told them about.

These small special operations units are trying to rebuild a place that’s known only chaos. Scott Pelley reports.

This may not be the top of the world, but you can see it from here. In the north of Afghanistan, the Shamali plain rises to the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

A U.S. Army major named Simon is leading his small team of commandos to check out the critical bridges that used to link Afghanistan. There are four people on the team, including, Mack, the second-in-command. He is a veteran special forces; he provides security for the team,

Also on the team is Byron, an experienced paramedic, and Luis, a special forces engineer. “I don’t know if he’s better at blowing things up or building them up, but he can do either,” says Simon. “I’m the team leader. My job is to just bring these guys home with all their fingers and toes.”

They’ve been ordered out of their uniforms and into their beards. No helmets or humvees. It is easier to meet the people that way. Their mission is to measure the misery, find the gaps that leave Afghanistan on the wrong side of the modern world, and help repair the breach. They are troubleshooters, matching resources in the army or relief agencies to the needs of a destitute people.

The idea is to make the world less hospitable for terrorists. By rebuilding, by helping these people improve their lives, the U.S. automatically denies safe haven for a terrorist, says Simon. “A terrorist is looking for a place in utter chaos and we’re just trying to deny them that safe haven, so for me its purely a military operation, you know, and if we help some people along the way, that’s great.”

They call themselves special operations civil affairs. We agreed to use only first names to protect families back home. They’re not your average GIs. They speak multiple languages, many have advanced degrees. Most are combat vets. They’re known as the A-Team

Is this war? Luis says it is. “Part of special forces is doing hearts and minds and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

“That’s our job - to connect the haves and the have nots,” says Mack. “I think if people have food and water, they’re not gonna be as apt to go out and create disturbances around the world."

They are often the only Americans within 100 or 200 miles. They have to be careful. They have weapons and high-tech communications. Everywhere they go, they have a plan for getting in and getting out. In the Afghan hinterlands, there’s often no way to know who their friends are.

The team is often interrupted by the sound of gunfire. The Americans are on a journey through a very different world Byron was finishing a survey in a clinic when a 16-year-old boy came through the door. Like a lot of kids there, he just got hold of a landmine. Byron helps out, but they can’t do surgery. The clinic has everything it needs except electricity. Before the next boy finds a mine, they’ll try to get a generator here.

“I kind of crave it,” says Byron of the challenge. “I’m very good at it. I want to be the guy who does it. Anything i can do, whether it’s holding something or watching or being an extra set of hands, or being the guy who does it, it makes no difference to me. It all adds up and it’s all very constructive.”

On the street, they’re still trying to figure out which way that change is blowing.

For more than a decade, the country has been locked in an anarchic struggle. After they kicked out the Russians in 1989, Afghan warlords started fighting for control. They fought until there was very little left to fight for. That same volatile mix of tribes and cultures exists today. The civil affairs teams are trying to show that the new government is legitimate.

Afghanistan is a very dangerous place to be. It’s at least equivalent to maybe the wild west in the 1860’s,” says David Kratzer, commanding general of civil affairs.

There are about 10 civil affairs teams across Afghanistan. One in Kabul is working to rebuild schools shelled during the civil war. Many of the schools have been decimated.

Part of it is in danger of collapse. American engineers are trying to figure out how to make it safe. But there’s no keeping the kids out; they’re all girls, banned from class by the Taliban. The female students are happy to be able to learn. Many of the girls say they want to be doctors.

Greg, who is leading the school team, says that he never expected to get into civil affairs. What’s the attraction? “This is a job with a great deal of frustrations, but the level of satisfaction is higher than I could ever have imagined. When you’re able to sit down in a restaurant and you’re eating dinner by candlelight because there hasn’t been power in weeks and the power kicks on and everybody in the restaurant, a fairly small place, looks at you and stands up and claps, I mean you can’t compare that to some of the stuff I’ve done in the military before.”

Back on the Shamali plain, Major Simon’s team are searching for a refugee camp, where people may be starving. Simon finds 70 families in tents. They returned to their village a month ago to find it ruined by the Taliban.

There are no houses left, and no medicine. Ten have died in four weeks. In Afghanistan, one out of four children is dead by the age of 5. The average adult is dead at age 46.

In his report, Byron asks for help. “I keep it very simple, very articulate on the key things and I underline that if it's not done, people die every day and I can telthem this is what we got, this is what we have to do. I don’t care what you give me, give me something… as soon as they can, because there’s no more tomorrows. If these people don’t get it, they die day by day.”

A few days after the visit—the team got clearance to dig a well here—the first clean water the camp has had.

But Simon says that the job is only half done. “Maybe 25 percent, because again, President Bush told us that we’re gonna deny safe haven. And why, if we just eradicate the immediate threat, and then allow it to all come back in five or ten years, we’ll be back here again. Now the military’s not going to fix it. I mean you’ve seen that this country is just obliterated. But it is up to the U.S. military to make sure we got a good start.”

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