Big chip gamble in Afghanistan

September 17, 2010

I’ve witnessed the U.S. military’s interaction with Iraqis and Afghans during several embeds with different units both in Iraq and Afghanistan, my latest embed with the U.S. Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Helmand province was quite an experience.

I was told by an officer that they had a mission the next day to deliver snacks to a village called Deveelak on the second day of Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

Before leaving the camp, I saw soldiers loading boxes of chips, muffins and milk onto their armored vehicles. Each of the Marines practiced how many stacks of boxes they could carry for the upcoming trek.

U.S. Marines from 1st Light Armoured Reconnaisance Battalion, Alpha Company carry boxes of snacks for residents of Deevelak village in Helmand, Afghanistan September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

We traveled in a convoy of armored vehicles from the camp to a location less than an hour away.

I anticipated seeing a crowd of people waiting for us to distribute the snacks.

We arrived in a remote place and the Marines carried snack boxes and hiked approximately 30 minutes to a location beside a small mosque where two elderly Afghans sat.

Marines sit with elderly Afghans in Deevelak village in Helmand, Afghanistan September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

There was no crowd in the area to receive the snacks.

There were children and villagers passing by. As they were checked for suicide bomb vests they looked at us, but showed no excitement and ignored the food the Marines were bringing to them.

A Marine conducts security checks on villagers in Deevelak village in Helmand, Afghanistan September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

I overheard the translator telling the officer conducting an outdoor meeting on a carpet near the mosque, “the people in this village did not arrive to receive your gift for fear of reprisal from the Taliban if they learned the residents were receiving food from the Americans”.

After an hour long meeting, the Marines picked up the boxes again. “The mission was a failure” ran through my mind. Suddenly, I saw one of the elderly Afghans carrying stacks of milk and signaling to the Marines to follow him. I noticed that the marines reluctantly carried the boxes again. This time we hiked another 30 minutes to another part of the village. As we were hiking, some negative thoughts ran through my mind: “What if this is an ambush?” “What if this is set up?” “What if the Taliban have placed bombs on the foot paths we are traveling on?” I comforted myself in the knowledge and confidence that the Marines know what they are doing.

As we neared a cluster of mud brick compounds, I glimpsed a small crowd of mostly children. I was elated to discover our efforts were not in vain and I was going to have pictures.

Children collect bags of potato chips from Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, September 11, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

I saw only young boys show excitement over the food being distributed. There were no women and the men and a few girls in the area just looked at us.

I watched as they opened bags of chips and after tasting them, most threw them away. I concluded that the taste must be too foreign for the villagers.

There were too many snacks for the small group in the area so the Marines took some of the boxes and distributed them to villagers we encountered on our way back to the armored vehicles.

I thought that at least the Marines tried to reach out to the locals, even though their chips and food were not welcomed by some of the Afghans.

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