Editor's Note: As part of an ongoing series “A Soldiers Story,” CNN's Jason Carroll follows Sgt. Randy Shorter and his unit as they head into Afghanistan. Catch their stories on our AMfix blog, CNN.com and CNN's American Morning in September.
Even before the day came, several soldiers warned me ahead of time, it might not happen for me. "The elders might not agree to see you..." I took my chances and headed out with Sgt Randy Shorter, First Lieutenant William Weber, second Lieutenant Chip Evans and at least a dozen other soldiers to attend the Shura. The Shura is a gathering of village elders. In basic terms, the elder is much like the unofficial leader of a village and he holds a great deal of influence often having the final say on important matters facing a village. In the battle over winning the hearts of the Afghan people, one must get the support of village elders. A meeting with one is an important step. A meeting with a room filled with village elders from across Paktika Province is a giant leap toward diplomacy.
I headed out with Sgt Shorter and his unit on guard. We walked outside the protective perimater of Foward 0perating Base Rushmore and headed for what looked like a rundown strip mall about ten minutes away. I waited outside with Sgt Shorter, while Weber and Evans headed inside for the initial greeting. Evans had attended several Shuras in the past and wanted to introduce weber to the group of elders. Then came the word, Weber waved me in. I walked in with my photographer, Dominic Swann and humbly introduced myself saying Salam Alaikum. Everyone sits on the floor.. Weber immediately warned not to show the soles of my feet (a cultural insult). I then sat and listened as the elders voiced their concerns and needs to the two representing US forces. The elders main demand, focused on releasing several people arrested on suspicion of being affilitated with the Taliban. The elders argued their innocence stressing if they were guilty, the elders would be the ones to punish them. Their way.
Sgt Evans patiently took it all in, while making sure not to promise to release them. Later telling me, a man's promise here is like a binding contract. Telling me, "never make a promise to an Afghan you cannot keep."
Finally, after much back and forth he explained through his intrepreter he would bring their request to his commanding officer. Then I had the opportunity to speak to the elders. I told them who I was and why I was in Afghanistan explaining I followed a soldier here for a story I was doing for CNN. They smiled and stared. I took it as a cue to pose a question asking, who was doing a better job at reaching out to the Afghan people, U-S forces or the Taliban?” The response was overwhelming. The elders said the Afghan people had suffered under both.
Given their response, clearly, US forces have their work cut out for them in this region. Still this was progress. The elders did agree to meet U-S soldiers, and engaging the Afghan people is a major part of how coalition forces hope for success here. The thought is if US troops can help meet the concerns and needs of the people here maybe they won't turn to the Taliban for those same needs.
In the end, the elders ended the meeting by agreeing to meet U.S. troops again.
We walked back to forward operating base Rushmore and I asked Weber and Evans how they felt about the Shura. Both expressed frustration saying it was hard to hear the elders mention US troops and the Taliban in the same sentence. I could see their disappointment. But could also see the resilience in them. Giving up for them was not an option.