Faith-free drama in Afghanistan

At the end of the Time cover story about efforts to reopen the Pir Mohammed School in Senjaray, Afghanistan, the commander of the 120 U.S. soldiers located there gets caught up in an all-to-common tragedy. As an American convey passed through the town, a civilian bus raced up behind it. The soldiers, fearing an ambush, repeatedly signaled for the bus to slow down or stop -- using hand signals and flares. Under revised rules of engagement, the U.S. forces fired no warning shots. The bus continued to rush toward them.

The soldiers opened fire, killing five civilians and wounding 18 more.

The troops treated and evacuated the wounded. Then Captain Jeremiah Ellis, leader of Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, guided a patrol into the tense, hostile local bazaar to meet with the village elders. Later, he sent an email to Joe Klein of Time about those meetings that ended like this:

"I explained the following. ... The thing that pains me the most is that the people killed were innocent people that were caught in a dangerous situation. You know, from our past, that my Soldiers will put themselves into harm's way before endangering your lives, because that is our responsibility as Soldiers ... to keep the fight away from your businesses and your homes.' I covered my heart and said, 'I wish to God that I could undo the things that happened this morning, but nothing ever will.' "

This is the only direct reference to religion in this entire piece, which is a gripping account of the challenges facing Americans as they try to earn the trust of the locals in a region that is at the heart of U.S. military and cultural strategies in that ravaged land. As the story says, "If Senjaray can't be won over, Kandahar won't be." Kandahar is at the heart of the Obama administration's plans in Afghanistan.

The enemy is the Taliban -- an explicitly theocratic opponent. Afghanistan is, of course, 99 percent Muslim and for generations has been known as one of the world's most uniquely impenetrable and hostile nations, when it comes to encounters with outside cultures.

One of the primary goals of the U.S. troops in this village is to reopen a school, built by Canadians, that was shut down because it represented an invasion of Western values and freedoms -- perhaps because it allowed girls to attend classes, as well as boys. The locals say they want the school to reopen, but cannot afford to assist in this process for fear that Taliban informers will see their actions, report them and that this will lead to their deaths. Heads will literally roll.

At one point, Ellis and company learn that the local elders are actually crossing the border into Pakistan to consult with Taliban leaders about which projects to allow the Americans to complete and which ones should be opposed. It's all about improving the local infrastructure for the return of Taliban rule, which will take place in a few months, years, decades or whatever.

Readers can see the big picture in the following encounter between the U.S. commander and a young local man whose family controls a crucial piece of property.

... (Ellis) asked Rahman why he thought the Americans were in Afghanistan. The boy said he didn't know. Ellis asked if he had heard about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The boy said no. He asked what Rahman thought about the Americans. "I've heard that they bomb civilians from the air," the boy said. But the Taliban bomb and booby-trap schools, Ellis pointed out. "Why would they do that?" Rahman didn't know. Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end. "Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better," he said. "The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms."

That is that.

It is one thing to say that there is a religion "ghost" in this story, a ghost rooted in the clash between the Western outsiders and the form of Islam that is proclaimed and enforced by the Taliban. Read the article for yourself and then answer this question: Where are the voices of the locals, when it comes to answering basic questions about the school and the conflicts that it represents?

Perhaps there were translation problems. I can understand that. But it is also possible that the locals talked about the role of religion in their lives and that this was not the way that the Time team wanted to frame the story. Thus, the story is dominated by columns of paraphrased material. Where are the local voices? If there are loaded questions that they cannot answer (Why are the Americans in Afghanistan?), this may provide insights into the nature of the cultural conflict in the village, the region and the nation.

But it appears that religion has nothing to do with this story about the Pir Mohammed School, nothing to do with the iron-clad belief among those living in the area that a Taliban victory is inevitable. Religion has nothing to do with it.

Nothing. At. All.

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