US Army Captain Michael Kolton knows the rugged mountains of Afghanistan’s northern Kunar province all too well.
Until April, he was the commander at Combat Outpost Monti near Afghanistan’s border area with Pakistan. Kolton’s men battled many foes in the lush valleys along the Kunar River.
Among their enemies was a legendary local insurgent leader named Massoud.
The fighting didn’t deter 29-year-old Kolton who had set out to forge alliances with local leaders and reach out to insurgents.
The commander says he started that process by creating a setting where he and his men could shoot less, and talk more.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is “The World”. A modest number of al-Qaeda fighters has reportedly established operations in parts of Eastern Afghanistan. According to the Reuters News Agency, that means there’s a new al-Qaeda presence in Kunar province along the porous border with Pakistan. US Army Captain Michael Kolton knows the rugged mountains and lush valleys of Kunar province well. Until last month, the twenty-nine year old was the commander for Bravo Company at the army’s Combat Outpost Monti in Kunar. He saw a lot of combat there. Kolton lost some of his men in battles with insurgents. About two weeks after he took over as commander, he did something that seems counter-intuitive, but is something many commanders in the region are now doing. He placed a phone call to the head of a group of local insurgents his unit had been fighting. He wanted to let their commander, a man named Massoud, know that he was open to talking. He also set out to forge alliances with local elders. He invited them to his base. He set up a big wood hut, lined it with pillows, and put down a rug. When the elders came to talk, Kolton served them tea, at least in the beginning.
Michael Kolton: I kept serving tea for the first month and finally my interpreter told me, “We drink tea twenty-four hours a day. We want energy drinks and Coca-Cola.” I’m talking about 60 year old men who fought the Russians. They want Mountain Dew and not tea when they come to visit me.
Mullins: Mountain Dew and other high voltage caffeine drinks. Captain Kolton was trying to build trust and gain intelligence. Finally, Massoud, the Afghan insurgent commander he had been playing phone tag with for months, showed up at Kolton’s camp.
Kolton: He’s about 4′ 11″ which was pretty disappointing based on the legends he comes with. I thought he was going to be 6′ 5″. And he weighed probably a hundred and ten pounds, had a pretty sizable beard, had a pretty full head of hair almost to the point of like beach bum.
Mullins: Do you know how old he was?
Kolton: Yeah, he’s about forty years old. His face looks like he could be seventy, but he has a very frail body, and I was very underwhelmed I guess is the word.
Mullins: You couldn’t let on to him that you were under-impressed.
Kolton: No, he’s feeling you out. The whole experience is him trying to see how you’re going to react. You’ve got to defy every single prejudice he has against you. So his perception of Americans is that we’re aggressive, that we’re unforgiving, that we want to kill him, that we want to arrest him, that we want to punish him, that we want revenge. He knows that he’s responsible for the deaths of Americans. What should my reaction be to that? It should to be to want to get revenge, and so he’s to try to see “Is there an opportunity here for forgiveness?” Because there is an avenue in Pashtunwali which is the code of the Pashtun culture to forgive your enemy, and he’s trying to see where you’re at as a person. And so we’re sitting down at this wooden table and the conversation really doesn’t go anywhere other than, “I know your family. You know me. Let’s agree to continue to talk. As long as you call me once a week and make an effort to come see me in person, I will not hunt you.” So we came to an agreement and he called me every week that day forward, and within two weeks he was giving me the best intelligence I ever received because he was a high enough level commander. He was attending meetings with the highest level commanders in Northern Kunar. So he was still participating in all the planning of the attacks on my base, giving me . . .
Mullins: Was he part of the conducting of these attacks as well?
Kolton: Did he personally participate in more attacks? Probably not, but how much control does he have in his fighters? They’re loyal to him, but at the end of the day, the operate in a very barbaric, violent organization, and so if he lets on that he has become weak, that he has become soft, he risks losing control of his fighters. And, you know, the number of fighters he controlled were probably at around a hundred. How many of those were in his inner circle? I can tell about twenty of them were loyal to him to death, and then the rest were probably connected to him, but based on his success as a fighter. And so it’s not just about reconciling him. The goal at the end of the day is to reconcile him and those hundred guys and I made it very clear to him I don’t mind killing his enemies either. So what I told him is [??], I know, and I start naming names. You know, sometimes Afghans are a little surprised how much you can know about their culture, because I would talk about people’s uncles, second cousins, and I would know how they’re related. And I was just, “Look, I know that this guy is trying to kill you. I know that you guys are enemies. And he’s my enemy as well. He has killed Afghan civilians,” and when I say killed, I’m talking about like kidnapped them and executed them. And I said, “Help me get rid of this guy. He’s a disgrace to everything that you stand for.” And that’s one thing that is a challenge, is how do you frame this guy for yourself and your soldiers? Is he evil or is he someone that has something worth fighting for? Here I am in someone else’s country and I’m fighting to kill other human beings for a cause and then here’s a guy that’s killing my soldiers for a cause. Is he that much different than me? It’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people.
Mullins: Yeah, including some of your own soldiers. You had in your company one soldier whose brother had been killed in that very region. So how do you reconcile that? How do you talk to your soldiers about that? Were they angry?
Kolton: With Andy, the officer you referenced, his brother was a good friend of mine as well.
Mullins: The brother who had gotten killed?
Kolton: Yeah. And Matt, the officer that was killed, was killed after doing a key leader engagement with elders as a guest of the elders, meeting them in their village, and on the way out from that village he was ambushed. I think the residual angst is the fact that Matt was doing the same thing that me and Andy are doing and he was killed.
Mullins: Two things. I mean, look, he was killed. How could you and how could Matt’s brother, Andy, who was part of your company, not feel a sense of vengeance?
Kolton: Right. And, again, you stop there at the first order effect. You stop there and you say, “OK, bad guy, we need to kill him. We can’t trust him.” That’s where you stop and that’s where a lot of people stop. Let’s take it one step further. Now that you know how that feels, let’s empathize with our enemy. Let’s see where they’re coming from. Maybe that experience alone helps us not create distance, but actually connects us with our enemy. If he is willing to kill people out of a sense of betrayal and I’m willing to kill people out of a sense of betrayal and for revenge, then maybe we have more in common than we think. And that’s kind of the connection that we made.
Mullins: Is that a great leap though, Michael, when your in the heat of battle or at least under the threat of an attack? How do you convince these guys, how do you even convince yourself that you and the enemy have more in common than not?
Kolton: Yeah, I think my soldiers wouldn’t necessarily agree with that approach, that the risk was worth it, but I think that kind of where we’re at in Afghanistan, is the new definition of courage is risking yourself to protect innocent people and to reconcile fighters, and that new definition for courage is, I think, slowly changing the culture of my army. I would tell you the benefits that we gain. I mean the intelligence we got on itself. I mean it grew from one meeting to full blown reconciliation. Now him and his fighters this month are actually reconciled by the Afghan government and are going through the reintegration and getting vocational training and getting stipends from the Afghan government. I mean that’s where they’re at right now as we’re talking. That would never happen had I not taken those risks in July, 2011.
Mullins: Captain Michael Kolton, thank you.
Kolton: Thank you.
Mullins: Michael Kolton was the commander of US Army Combat Outpost Monti in Eastern Afghanistan. Kolton says that after his first meeting with insurgent leader Massoud his company never found or struck a roadside bomb on the main road again. By the way, the also says Massoud’s brother happened to be one tribal elders he had been inviting to his base for lunch and Mountain Dew. We’ve got pictures of Captain Kolton including one with Commander Massoud. They are at theworld.org. This is “The World” on PRI, Public Radio International.
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