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Originally published October 14, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified October 15, 2012 at 7:11 PM

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Brush with death for young Afghan linked to bomb

A new surveillance balloon gives American troops the ability to identify and target Afghans who are setting and tending deadly makeshift bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But the balloons, part of a high-tech military campaign against the Taliban, have complicated the effort to win the trust of villagers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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COMBAT OUTPOST MUSHAN, Afghanistan — Inside the plywood-walled Tactical Operations Center, several Apache Company soldiers gathered around a video screen to determine the fate of an Afghan man whom surveillance cameras depicted squatting in a nearby field.

He was young, dressed in white with a colorful knit cap on his head. And oblivious to his perilous position.

Soldiers earlier that morning watched the Afghan, Nader Shah, checking on buried bombs, and then monitored him as he continued his morning walk. The soldiers were reviewing evidence and deciding whether to kill him.

There would be no need to call in a helicopter gunship. Shah was so close to the base that he could be taken out by a rifleman perched on a perimeter wall.

Apache Company's commander, Capt. Paul Brown, reviewed the surveillance information. This was not the first time Shah had been seen working with the improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Brown gave the go-ahead for the killing.

Sgt. Derik Gamez, of Ripon, Calif., happened to be in the command center and volunteered for this mission. He fetched his M-4, and took a perch on top of a sand-filled barrier.

"Tell him to engage," a soldier said.

Gamez peered through morning haze, fixing the Afghan in his rifle sights.

Since arriving in Afghanistan in late March, Gamez had seen plenty of the carnage wrought by IEDs. His platoon sergeant had lost three limbs to an IED, and his team leader had died.

He said the morning mission was not about revenge.

"I'm not on a hunt. It's a chance to protect people."

Gamez squeezed the trigger.

High-tech tracking

The videos of Shah were captured from cameras hanging from a helium-filled balloon known as the Aerostat, which first went aloft from this remote base in late July.

The Aerostat helped transform the battlefield for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment who arrived at this outpost in the spring.

From the confines of their fortified base, the soldiers — working with contractors that operate the cameras — can track in detail and set in motion the killing of Afghans who plant and tend to IEDs or attempt to ambush soldiers on patrols.

The surveillance balloons are part of a high-tech military campaign that has penetrated deep into Taliban strongholds such as Panjwai.

But the Aerostat has complicated another goal of this campaign — trying to win the trust of the villagers here and turn them against insurgents.

That already is a big challenge in Panjwai, where the Taliban first launched their movement and where their conservative Muslim teachings have widespread support. The task of building trust gets even harder when helicopter gunships, acting on evidence gathered by the Aerostat, kill a villager's husband, son or neighbor.

In some villages, soldiers face hostile stares, or repeatedly come under attack when they venture out on patrols.

In others, soldiers say they have worked hard to gain support, creating what they call "white spaces," where road-building and irrigation projects can move forward. Even in one of these villages, an anguished woman spoke to the soldiers on a September patrol about her son's death from a helicopter attack.

What draws villagers to the high-risk IED work?

Soldiers say some, struggling to feed their families, are tempted by several hundred dollars in payments that may be offered by insurgents.

Others face threats of violence to their family if they refuse.

Some are motivated by a sense of duty.

"He could be someone who felt obligated to kill the infidels because that's who we are, and he feels he is defending his home," said 1st Sgt. Michael Robinson, Apache Company's senior enlisted officer.

Not always successful

The helicopter killings unfold under strict, but confidential, rules of engagement.

When the threshold for action is met, an officer on duty at the operations center is able to approve the use of lethal force. But the operations don't always succeed.

On one occasion witnessed by this reporter, two Army helicopter gunships swooped low, kicking up dust as they opened fire on an Afghan whom cameras had captured checking on five IEDs.

After the attacks, the man lay in a field. He was on his back, bleeding from his chest, but with his knees up. He was clearly alive as a woman ventured forth and knelt by his side.

For the soldiers at the operations center, this Afghan was now an injured combatant in need of rescue.

An army medic on a morning patrol reached his side and administered first aid.

Another helicopter was called in, this one a medevac, to transport the man to a hospital at Kandahar Airfield for treatment.

Tough questioning

Shah was luckier. Gamez's shot was a tad high, entering and exiting the young man's cap.

Shah jumped up, reached his hand to his head, and scurried away.

Inexplicably, he quickly returned to the field with another man.

Soldiers hustled out from the base, and detained both Afghans for questioning.

That afternoon, Apache Company and Afghan forces had scheduled a meeting with villagers inside a tent at the combat outpost.

More than a dozen men showed up, many of them eager to submit requests for reparations of property damaged in the war.

Capt. Brown also brought Shah. Clean-shaven with a thick shock of black hair, Shah gave his age as 15, although he appeared a few years older.

Brown had decided to release him, a show of clemency in front of these villagers.

First, he sought a confession.

"What will it take for you to stop working with the Taliban? You bring dishonor to your father and family. Do you want your neighbors and friends to lose their legs to IEDs?"

Shah stared back at Brown with a stoic expression, and said he had only been working in the fields.

Then the villagers began to talk. They complained that Americans were wrongly killing local people, merchants and farmers who did not mess with IEDs.

"I am an old man. Even I am scared of the helicopters," said a gaunt, gray-bearded man who said he was Shah's uncle. "I am scared they might shoot me. They shoot innocent people."

Brown said U.S. soldiers don't go after innocent people.

"I can't even go to pray in the mosque," the man replied.

"Yes you can. You know you can," Brown declared.

The uncle presented his nephew's bullet-pierced cap to an Afghan Army officer who attended the meeting.

At one point in the meeting, a frustrated Brown strode to the center of the tent and dropped an IED trigger mechanism formed of wood, foam and wires. He said that the Taliban were afraid to put them in the ground, so they were recruiting local people to do the job.

"They're everywhere in your villages."

"Does it help you farm your fields or does it help you dig your wells? No, it ruins your lives. Your family's lives. What do you guys think about this?"

The villagers said they had never seen such an IED trigger.

By the time the meeting ended, Brown had freed Shah and even offered him a parting gift — a radio, powered by solar cells and a hand crank that would broadcast messages from the district government.

In the days that followed, the soldiers watching videos saw no sign of Shah messing with IEDs.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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