Originally published in Macleans.

NATO forces patrol Afghan villages, seeking intel on rebels ahead of polling

August 19, 2005


TANGEE SAIDAN, Afghanistan (AP) – Pickup trucks carrying heavily armed Afghan soldiers, a U.S.
military Humvee and Italian combat vehicles rumble into a village of mud-brick houses on a mission to
flush out an elusive enemy -rebels intent on intimidating voters.

As the convoy halts and the troops fan out, Italian army Sgt. Gabriel Cecchini summons the village
leader and starts reeling off questions: “Have you noticed any strangers around?” “Do you know the
candidates in your area?” “Have you received any threats concerning the elections?”

They are part of the multinational NATO force helping to secure Afghanistan. The Italian troops from
the 9th Alpine Regiment who motored into Tangee Saidan village earlier this week regularly patrol the
mountainous region south of the capital, Kabul. Information gleaned from residents is becoming
increasingly valuable as historic legislative polls near and violence flares.

About 1,000 people have been killed since March, mostly in the south and east of the country, amid
a wave of attacks blamed on suspected Taliban insurgents, whose hardline Islamic regime was
toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

Afghan and U.S. officials have warned that political violence is likely to intensify in the run-up to the
Sept. 18 polls, when about 6,000 candidates will compete for seats in a new national legislature and
provincial assemblies. A quarter of seats have been reserved for women, who face particular risks
while campaigning in conservative Islamic communities.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, plans to add 2,000 more troops to its
current force of 10,000 to tighten security ahead of the vote. In some regions, candidates have been
too frightened to campaign in public because of intimidation and threats from militants.

Tip-offs about rebel plans to sabotage the elections “will be one of the things we’ll be looking at,” said
an ISAF spokesman, Maj. Andrew Elmes. “With the elections coming up, we will be interested in
getting all the ground information we can.”

In Tangee Saidan, a village of 1,800 people, headman Sayed Aliqallah assured the Italian troops
that “we haven’t had any problems with plans for the election; all our people are going to vote.”

He spelled out the names of the area’s two candidates for parliament -Mohammed Qhair and
Mirshakeer, who uses only one name -and expressed appreciation for the presence of international

But Aliqallah had an urgent question of his own: Could they help him secure the release of his
brother from American custody?

U.S. troops had surrounded the village last January, he claimed, and wrongfully arrested his brother,
who has since been imprisoned at Bagram Airfield, the main U.S. military base for the more than
17,000 American forces who are deployed in Afghanistan to hunt for Taliban and al-Qaida rebels.
“He has no ties to the Taliban,” Aliqallah pleaded.

A U.S. Army officer accompanying the NATO patrol, Lt. Col. Al Bloemendaal, said he “felt bad” about
the purported arrest and would check on it later with U.S. authorities.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Cecchini finished scribbling the villager’s answers on a notepad before the troops
climbed back into their vehicles and roared down a bumpy dirt track that led out of the village to
complete their four-hour patrol.