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A Statesman and a Warrior

“The biggest lesson I learned is that you have to be just as much a statesman as you do a warrior,” says Nathan Springer, Battalion Commander in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. This lesson came to him during his first deployment to Afghanistan between May 2007 and July 2008 with a little help from the Central Asia Institute.

In the Spring of 2007 Nathan found himself Captain and Troop Commander in Northern Kunar Province of Afghanistan stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Naray. Previous units had made little progress establishing relationships with local communities and had been forced to focus on measures of security. Days were filled by battles with local factions of Al Qaida and the Taliban. Most of the communities were hostile toward the US Military presence. The nearby village of Saw was considered a “red zone” based on a series of bad experiences with the army several years prior.

“We realized there was no military solution for what we wanted to do,” explains Nathan. It was time to turn traditional methodology on its head. Under the command of Colonel Christopher Kolenda the unit switched the primary focus from security to development and relationships. Colonel Kolenda began to read Three Cups of Tea and recognized the new policy of listening and diplomacy he was implementing had worked for Greg Mortenson countless times.

Under this new strategy, Nathan held district development meetings in Naray intending to listen to elders and help the community. The village of Saw still did not trust the Americans, so they sent one of the younger elders to the meetings to observe.

Eventually Nathan gained the visiting elder’s trust and sent a convoy from the Afghan National Army to meet with the rest of the elders in Saw to listen to their grievances and ask the villagers what projects they needed. When the army general returned he explained that, more than anything, the village wanted education for their children, both boys and girls.

memorial day: saw afghanistan

Saw, Afghanistan

In the morning Nathan and his unit sent the convoy back filled to the brim with school supplies for the children in the village. The next day the elders from Saw accompanied the Afghan National Army back to FOB Naray with one hundred thank you letters from the children written in Pashto.

“It went from a place we absolutely couldn’t go to a place where we were welcomed with open arms the next summer,” says Nathan. Soon they were working with the elders of Saw and the Afghan National Army to determine what kind of infrastructure projects meant most to the villagers.

Lessons Learned

By this time, Colonel Kolenda had learned the lessons of working with the local people. Listening to what they needed had made an impact. He emailed Greg Mortenson to see if CAI could build the children of Saw a school.

“We learned some great lessons from CAI,” explains Nathan. “We learned to use local people, to make sure that all the projects we do are local projects, locally supervised with men and women who are invested in and hired by the community.”

These lessons differed from the cultural norms the soldiers had learned, and their paradigm constantly changed. CAI helped pave a path of understanding and friendship for the US soldiers. They learned to work through the Afghan Military and local police departments to find projects the community needed and allow them to build on their own terms.

“The Saw school was such a great thing,” Nathan remembers. “I didn’t see it then. We were on the right track but we weren’t quite there. Even though the project was supported, we’d still do things like hold ribbon cutting ceremonies to celebrate the openings of schools. One of the lessons I learned is that we didn’t need to do any of those things for validation of being the ones that funded it.”

By trading in security tactics for diplomacy and relationship building, Nathan and his team witnessed villagers reject the insurgency in favor of working with the Americans who were now respecting their culture and keeping promises to help. “It was the most successful story we had there in 15 months.”

Building Schools

Word of the relationship with Saw spread throughout the region. Soon other villages began to connect with Nathan and his unit through their relationship with the Afghan National Army. When schools were a priority, connections were passed on to CAI to work with those communities. During that time at least three villages were connected with the non-profit organization.

“I really got to see the importance of educating women, especially in Southeast Asia, at the tactical level,” Nathan explains. “When you’re in societies with very low literacy rate without the education they can only believe what they hear, what’s preached to them. When you talk about help raising families and upping income it’s so powerful. Education opens opportunities for local people.”

Nathan has a fourteen-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter. He knows they are lucky to have access to education, and how empowering education can be, especially for women. As his relationships with the elders grew they invited him into their homes and eventually he met some of the wives.

The women were eager for their children to be educated. They would sequester themselves away from the men, but they were always listening. “There was a thirst for knowledge. The power of those moms behind the adobe walls was palpable.”

Shifting from focusing on security and fighting to diplomacy and infrastructure was an incredible success. The children of Saw got their school, fighting decreased steadily, and for a time the villages drove out the insurgency. However, the fight to accomplish these goals was not without bloodshed. The battalion lost great and honorable soldiers in clashes during the first few months. One of those men was Major Tom Bostick who lost his life on July 27th, 2007. This memorial day blog is dedicated to him for his bravery, leadership and ultimate sacrifice.