Looking for the Good Guys in Afghanistan's Badlands

American forces try out new approaches against insurgents in forbidding Kunar province.

Master Chief Petty Officer Jesse Slothower (left) and 1st Lt. Alexander Thurman talk with young Afghans in a remote area of Kunar province.

Master Chief Petty Officer Jesse Slothower (left) and 1st Lt. Alexander Thurman talk with young Afghans in a remote area of Kunar province.

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Why they fight. That is one reason for the new focus in Kunar on gaining a better knowledge of the "human terrain." Called back to military service just as he was preparing to begin doctoral studies in anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Staff Sgt. Justin Faulkner is now assigned by LeGree to learn about the personal ties, customs, and culture in the Korengal Valley, where the U.S. military is facing a protracted military engagement. "There really hasn't been much ethnographic work done here since the British back in the 19th century," says Faulkner. "I'm assigned to try to meet with elders and try and understand why they fight us," he adds. "We are finding out that it has a lot to do with tribal differences and geographic isolation."

A U.S. government report on Kunar province warns that officials and soldiers must try to avoid "another Korengal" in other isolated valleys of the province by promoting more economic development. To achieve that, LeGree is stressing stronger ties between U.S. soldiers and the local population. He is also trying to crack the nut of geographic isolation. As he hikes up a new road snaking into the violent valley where dozens of American soldiers have perished, a crackle comes across the radio and a lieutenant warns of movements by enemy fighters. "As we push up this valley and into higher terrain, we will be effectively encroaching upon them and taking away their population base," says LeGree, who pays the Afghan road workers a daily wage just above what al Qaeda is known to give its own fighters.

In time, he hopes there will be less to see on Kill TV. "To win in Afghanistan, you have to separate the insurgents from the population," he says. "That has more to do with assisting in an economic struggle than any role we have as combatants."