Staff Sgt. Marcus Jimenez was pissed. On March 19, he had led a force of U.S., Afghan and Jordanian soldiers into the village of Pakhab-e’Shana, in eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, with what Jimenez considered the best of intentions. While the Americans conferred with village elders, the Jordanians and Afghans would inspect the town’s four mosques, to see if there were any repairs NATO and the Afghan government might help pay for. In addition, the Americans and Jordanians had some soccer balls to hand out.
But the elders greeted the soldiers with what looked like cool indifference. And the village’s legions of children greeted them with rocks, hurled artillery-style over mud walls. A rock struck one of Jimenez’s American gunners in the face, drawing blood. The stocky staff sergeant stormed to the nearest elder, Pashto interpreter in tow. “They hurt one of my guys!” Jimenez yelled. He demanded the elder “get control of” his people. Three minutes later, Jimenez had calmed down. He grinned. “Kids will be kids,” he said. “We can’t forget that most people here are good.”
An hour later, Jimenez would be dragged, barely conscious and badly hurt, from the twisted wreckage of an armored truck blown up by an Improvised Explosive Device just a stone’s throw from Pakhab-e’Shana. I was lucky — and so was a medic named Michael Sario. We were sitting in the very back of the vehicle, farthest from the explosion. I escaped with gashes and, later, a minor case of the shakes. Sario was rattled but apparently okay, otherwise. Jimenez, three more soldiers and the interpreter were not. They were injured in the blast, and had to be evacuated by helicopter.
The attack was a setback in a province where NATO is still hoping to win hearts and minds. Across Afghanistan, NATO has largely shifted from a “soft” counter-insurgency strategy to a more lethal counter-terrorism approach. But in many parts of Logar, COIN still rules. Two years ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal highlighted Logar’s Baraki Barak district as a model for the whole country; today, McChrystal is gone, replaced by his former boss Gen. David Petraeus. Under the more aggressive Petraeus, Logar is less a model than the exception. But even in one of the last bastions of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, the dangers remain very real. And the personal cost to NATO troops and, yes, embedded reporters — too high.