Villagers in Barabat home to a girl who was killed by a Taliban bomb, gather… (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The…)
KONAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan The father arrived at the gate of Capt. Michael Harrison's base earlier this month cradling the limp body of his 9-year-old daughter.
A few minutes earlier, the little girl had been playing with her cousin by the rutted main road that runs through Harrison's sector. A Taliban bomb intended for an Afghan army convoy had exploded. It missed the convoy and instead struck the girl, known by the single name of Akhtarbabi.
Her face was blackened from the blast. A piece of charred shrapnel was lodged in her temple. Harrison ordered two of his medics to take the girl's cousin, who was bloody but still conscious, to the base's aid station, a plywood shack about the size of a toolshed. Other medics set Akhtarbabi on a cot in a dark concrete bunker just outside the aid station. They crouched over her, searching for a pulse.
"She's dead," Sgt. Ed Welch, the chief medic, whispered to Harrison.
It was up to Harrison, a 27-year-old company commander who oversees U.S. military operations in a sprawling, isolated and violent swath of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, to figure out how to take advantage of the opening the Taliban had given him. The question consumed and frustrated the Virginia native for most of June. It also laid bare the challenges facing the Obama administration and U.S. commanders as they try to reverse the course of a war that has grown increasingly dire in the past year.
Harrison faces two enemies in Afghanistan. The most obvious is the Taliban, whose fighters lurk in the mountains along the border. The other is the overwhelming frustration that Afghans feel toward U.S. forces. Eight years of airstrikes, civilian casualties and humiliating house-to-house searches have left the Afghan people deeply suspicious of the U.S. troops who are supposed to be protecting them.
As Harrison's medics hovered over the girl's body, her cabdriver father, Jonagha, squatted on the ground outside the aid station. A summer thunderstorm swept over the base. The father placed his face in his hands and prayed as the rain drenched his bloodstained tunic.
Harrison and his interpreter knelt beside Jonagha. The American captain draped an arm around the man's shoulders, leaned in close and delivered the news that his daughter was dead. The man sat frozen, his face still resting in his palms and the rain pelting his back.
"I am very sorry for your loss," Harrison said. "I want you to come back here whenever you want to come back. I want to help your family." He paused to let his interpreter translate. Then Harrison pressed a soggy $20 bill into the father's hands.
The Taliban had shown their brutality. Akhtarbabi was their civilian casualty.
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Harrison, a native of Rural Retreat, Va., has spent more than 20 months leading troops in Konar province over the course of two tours. The West Point graduate wasn't supposed to take command of a 140-soldier infantry company until 2011. But when Harrison's commander learned that his battalion, part of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, was returning to Konar, he asked Harrison to take command early.
Between his two tours, Harrison, whose boyish face and blond hair make him look like an especially earnest grad student, had kept in touch with his interpreter and several of the Afghan leaders from his old sector via e-mail. He sent them packages of T-shirts, jeans and toiletries. Soon after he arrived in Konar for the second tour, Harrison bought mosque speakers for the religious leaders in his area.
Although his current sector is a three-hour drive from his old base, Afghans whom Harrison hasn't seen since 2007 sometimes arrive at the gates of his new base. Many show the guards scraps of paper bearing Harrison's signature, proof that they once knew him. "You cannot come to me, so I am here to visit with you, my good friend," one man told Harrison. The man wanted money to replace his car, which had been totaled a few weeks earlier, and medicine for the injuries he'd suffered in the wreck. Harrison had his medics fill the man's prescription.
A few days later, a village police officer made the long drive to visit. He had information about a cell of 13 Taliban fighters who wanted to turn in their weapons for cash. He also needed some lumber for a house that he was building. Harrison let him haul away a truckload of barriers that the soldiers use to safeguard their buildings from rockets.
It is too soon for Harrison to gauge what he gets from these interactions, which he hopes will lead to solid intelligence about the enemy.
Company commanders in Afghanistan are given more latitude to make decisions than anywhere else in the Army. In Iraq, a lieutenant colonel commanding an 800-soldier battalion can check in with all of his subordinate commanders on a daily basis. Afghanistan's rugged mountains and poor roads make such oversight impossible. Harrison, the sole representative of the U.S. government in his sector, sees his battalion commander about once a week.