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US soldiers sit in on local Afghan councils

Low-level Taliban urged to disarm

CHINAR, Afghanistan -- The US paratroopers sat down with Afghan elders and police to a shared lunch meant to foster relations. But even before the roast lamb had been mopped up, the Americans made an unnerving discovery: a cache of rocket-propelled grenades , mortars, and a land mine.

Soldiers, suspicious that the weapons could belong to militants, removed them from the police storage facility. The pleasant mood fostered over a meal was shattered. Even as Lieutenant Colonel Brian Mennes ordered his 82 d Airborne paratroopers to calm down, he acknowledged the problem.

"I think the fact that they have mines and mortars is a little suspicious," Mennes said. "We're going to take the dangerous stuff. Otherwise we're going to be in for a long couple weeks," indicating the weapons might have eventually been aimed at US positions just outside town.

Mennes and the other Americans sat down for the meal knowing some of their hosts were their enemies. To get a foothold in the area, the Americans have to talk with the Taliban.

"When you roll in here with 800 heavily armed men, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Until you [talk with them] they're real standoffish," said Mennes, who leads the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

US and NATO soldiers are increasingly holstering their weapons and attending traditional Afghan lunches and tribal meetings known as shuras, embracing local customs in a land where conversation over tea is a national pastime.

The goal: to gather intelligence, advertise the aid and development that NATO and the Afghan government can bring, and talk transitory Taliban fighters into disarming. The counterinsurgency strategy is based on weeding out what NATO calls "Tier 2" Taliban -- poor farmers or jobless villagers who are enlisted by hard-core, ideologically minded Taliban.

"We don't actually want to kill the Tier 2 people. We want them to be a part of the country," said Squadron Leader David Marsh, a spokesman for the NATO-led force.

"We think if people trust us they will share intelligence with us that will help them in the long run," Mennes said. "The economy has to grow. Security has to grow. If I come in and kill everyone it does nothing."

But the American-Afghan lunch showed how tricky such get-togethers can be.

The US paratroopers discovered the weapons this month after meeting with dozens of Afghan elders in this isolated mountain town on the border between the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, a place where US or NATO troops had never been. The area is known as Taliban country, and US and NATO officials know local police cooperate with the militia.

This village in particular will prove difficult in the short-term because troops are staying only a few weeks. Their primary mission is to watch over a key route the Taliban is using to ferry fighters and equipment into Helmand, site of NATO's latest mission.

NATO's top commander in the south, Major General Ton van Loon, let it be known to provincial-level officials that troops planned to arrest the district police chief for his ties with the Taliban, so he fled, leaving a deputy police chief to meet with Mennes.

"The Taliban is there. There's no doubt about it," said Zach Khan, Mennes' s cultural adviser and translator.

A s Mennes' s soldiers helped inventory the weapons, a grumble spreads through the troops, many of whom feel talking to residents isn't the way to go.

"I'm all for respecting culture and negotiations, but we should have just come in here and cleaned up," said Specialist Joshua Burrell.