"Hearts and Minds" in Afghanistan
One of the biggest difficulties faced in Afghanistan is the remoteness of the country. By this I mean that with the country as spread out and isolated as many of the people are, and with the difficulty in even getting to many of these remote villages, it has been extremely difficult in getting the coalition message out, in helping those people, thus, in "winning their hearts and minds." Several times in '03 and again in '05, we arrived in villages that had never seen a US, Canadian or any other coalition soldier before. Of course, I can understand why. We had to drive about 5 hours to get to a point where we only had to hump another 3 hours through the mountains to get to the village. But this is truly a very real, and in my opinion, a very major problem with bringing democracy to the country.
In several of these villages, the interpreter told us that the villagers had been told by Taliban insurgents that we had invaded the country because we wanted to destroy Islam, because we wanted to murder Afghani's, because we wanted to destroy their country. In these isolated enclaves, they have no radio, no television, no newspaper. So it's all word of mouth. And if no one has told them otherwise, why wouldn't they believe the people that come to their village, that look like them, that speak their language? I actually saw an old woman break down and begin to sob because her son had believed we were invaders there to destroy them, and he had gone away to fight against us with the Taliban. She felt that her son would never return, and for what? For a lie, for propaganda.
How do you combat this problem? You really can't without getting boots on the ground. But many of these villages don't even show up on a map. They're way up in the mountains or in some valley that even the helicopters never see. And really, getting boots on the ground in all of these places would require more soldiers, which honestly doesn't seem forthcoming. Certainly there have been increases in troop strength. But how many of these are soldiers that actually go out on patrols and missions, and how many of them are support troops that never leave Bagram and Kandahar, or troops from other countries that have been told by their countries that they are not to leave the bases? There are far less boots on the ground in Afghanistan than most people actually realize.
I honestly have no solution to this problem. I wish I did. How do you get the word out to these severely isolated areas? How do you convince people you're there to help when they see coalition forces actually face to face and giving them aid once in four years? This isn't an indictment of the way the war has been handled. I'm not trying to say what should have been done. I'm simply saying that it's a very difficult problem to tackle. We are certainly winning the war in Afghanistan. And even with this problem facing military planners, make no mistake, the war will be won, and Afghanistan will be a better place for it. We will reach our goal. We may simply have to take a longer path to get there.