In Afghanistan, it’s all about the pitch

This artwork by Mark Weber relates to soldiers in Iraq counting the days until they can come home.
This artwork by Mark Weber relates to soldiers in Iraq counting the days until they can come home.
Posted April 29, 2010, at 6:48 p.m.

I think we had a small victory in Afghanistan the other day, but only time will tell. We were on our way to visit a construction site for the new Afghan Border Police 2nd Kandak Headquarters. Several hundred meters from the new headquarters, 50 young males between the ages of 6 and 12 from a local school threw rocks at us.

When I say they were throwing rocks, I mean these guys could be future Red Sox pitching prospects. One rock cracked a vehicle’s ballistic window. I’m not a professional baseball scout, but in my unprofessional opinion these kids threw much too hard to be future New York Yankees.

We couldn’t stop right then, but at that moment I decided to stop at the school on the way back. I was going to make these kids not hate us or die trying. When a soldier says things like that while deployed in Afghanistan, the rhetoric is significantly more profound.

On our way back to the combat outpost the boys were no longer at recess. They were back inside the school’s walled compound. We stopped. I went to the gate and asked for the headmaster. He immediately came out to meet me and invited me inside.

Before entering his school, I dropped my body armor and helmet and wrestled with the thought of leaving my weapon. After a quick reality check, I realized that the Afghan version of Pedro Martinez could be on the other side of the wall, and that having my rifle with me was prudent, although I must admit I still felt outgunned.

The meeting went well, better than I expected. The school’s headmaster spoke decent English and was very thankful to our country. Americans had helped build the school. He still kept in contact with one of the Americans he worked with on the project and talks to him fairly regularly.

When we sat down in his office, I saw sincere embarrassment on his face and a trace of shame. There was no need to embarrass him any further. His hands shook when he spoke, a result of old age I suspect, and quite possibly they shook a bit more from the uneasiness of the situation.

My intention was not to make him uncomfortable or intimidate him. I wasn’t mad. I just wanted his boys to stop throwing rocks at my soldiers and wanted to know why they were throwing rocks in the first place. Were they just boys being boys or did they really hate us?

I left the school 95 percent convinced that the kids did not hate us and feeling pretty good about the whole situation. You always have to leave a 5 percent fudge factor — it is Afghanistan, after all.

The headmaster and I stood at the gate for several more minutes. I shook and then held his hand as he continued to apologize. As we parted, he gave me a big hug as if we were long lost friends. We went our separate ways, fully expecting to meet again.

No American action is insignificant in Afghanistan. Word spreads faster here than Twitter gossip at a U.S. high school campus. Because of my visit, I now have an inroad with a school in my area of responsibility. If the headmaster’s boys stop throwing rocks at us, Bravo Company can work with them and set up arrangements to help with school supplies and deliver much coveted ink pens.

Don’t let the “feel good” nature of this column mislead you; winning in Afghanistan involves killing, capturing and reintegrating Taliban. The solution also involves expelling and killing foreign fighters. Take me at my word as Maine’s only infantry company commander, my men and I are more than capable of doing our mission.

The key to our mission is the Afghan people, especially the kids. If we can convince them that we are truly here to help, we will win. If not, we will lose. It’s that simple and that hard.

Convincing them will be no small feat, but we had to start somewhere. My meeting with the headmaster may prove itself to be a small victory, but only time will tell. We have been here for just over a month now and I have come to the conclusion that large victories are not the key to our success. Small victories will matter more.

Capt. Paul A. Bosse of Auburn is commander of the B/3-172 Infantry (Mountain) Company, a Maine Army National Guard company headquartered in Brewer. He is an Old Town High School and University of Maine graduate.

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