Afghanistan: A Tale of Soldiers and a School
Thursday, 15 April, 2010
By Joe Klein
The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed ...view middle of the document...
" Ellis, a young man well acquainted with the uses of, and need for, irony when dealing with the command structure, raised an eyebrow and smiled. Later, I looked it up. A TCAF is a Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework — in English, an interview script. "Anyway, we've been asking the TCAF questions for months now. People look at us and think, 'Why do you keep asking the same questions and not doing anything? You must be one stupid bunch of Caucasians,' " Ellis continued, replaying the dialogue. "It's totally insulting: 'What do you need here?' 'Open the frigging school, just like last week.' "
No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis. He had worked on it for months; he figured it would be Dog Company's legacy in Senjaray. It fit perfectly into the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: protect the people, provide them with security and government services, and they will turn away from the insurgency. Unlike many of his fellow officers in Zhari district, and many of the troops under his command, Ellis really believed in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.
He still does, but he's more skeptical now. The past four months in Senjaray have taught him how difficult it is to do COIN in an area that is, in effect, controlled by the enemy — and with a command structure that is tangled in bureaucracy and paralyzed by the incompetence and corruption of the local Afghan leadership. Indeed, as the struggle to open the school — or get anything of value at all done in Senjaray — progressed, the metaphor was transformed into a much bigger question: If the U.S. Army couldn't open a small school in a crucial town, how could it expect to succeed in Afghanistan?
And yet, as April began, the reopening of the Pir Mohammed School seemed imminent. Ellis had gotten all the elements in place, including a Canadian bomb-removal team. His superiors at battalion headquarters thought that reopening a school in the Taliban's front yard was such a feel-good story that a reporter should be around to record it. I happened to be in the neighborhood, and Captain Ellis graciously invited me — and photographer Adam Ferguson — along for the ride.
Jeremiah Ellis is not an Army lifer. He has other plans. He has a degree in outdoor education from the University of New Hampshire that he wants to start using as soon as possible. "What I really want to do," he says, "is use experiential education — rock climbing, hiking and so forth — as a form of therapy for veterans coming home." Ellis joined the Army so he could get scholarship money for a master's degree, but he's been an enthusiastic soldier, a graduate of the Army's famed, gruelling Ranger School. "I joined the Army because it was an outdoor thing. You know, jump out of helicopters, crawl in the mud, sit around the campfire. But being a captain is the limit for that sort of stuff. Anything above this is a desk job." He is 29 years old, with quiet blue eyes and a garrulous...