FORWARD OPERATING BASE BOSTICK, Afghanistan, June 10 (Reuters) - I t has just one phone line and broadcasts from a plywood hut safe within a U.S. base, but Nari Radio is proving an unlikely hit in one of Afghanistan’s most troubled regions, with a talk-back caller base that counts even the Taliban.
Nari was set up in the northeastern province of Kunar, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, to reach far-flung communities in the valleys beneath soaring passes beside Pakistan, including insurgent strongholds in Nuristan, about 30 km (20 miles) to the north and rarely visited by U.S. forces.
But with its mix of music and unvetted politics in a poverty-stricken area where radio still counts as new media, Nari has been an unexpected success for U.S. troops trying to counter an insurgency that remains strong, just months from a handover of security to Afghan forces.
Seated with Afghan district government and security officials in front of Nari’s single microphone on a dining table, U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Green is on the defensive as an anonymous caller fires off complaints.
“Why do you keep shooting cannons and mortars onto the ridge over your base. Are you trying to dig a well? Are you looking for spring water?” quips one youth, only half-joking as Green - the commander of U.S. forces in the area - gives a wry smile.
“I think that one might be Taliban,” says one of Green’s Afghan interpreters, clutching a cup of pale yellow saffron tea while a pair of officers from 1-12th Infantry Regiment sit on the floor against the wall, listening in.
Nari’s sole reporter, Ziauddin Burhani, says the station has won a name for impartiality, with people choosing what they want to discuss, be it religion, politics or anything else, as well as the music they listen to.
“We have a programme called Peace, on how we can bring peace to our community. They give us their opinions and we broadcast it,” he says.
There have been few answers for a region historically split along tribal and ethnic lines, and through which insurgents move men and supplies from bases in Pakistan or inside a 4-km (3-mile) border buffer off limits most of the time to NATO forces to prevent sporadic cross-border clashes.
But Green, a wiry former Ranger from South Dakota who first came to Afghanistan at the beginning of the war in 2001, says the station has let people for the first time to phone from the safety of their homes and express opinions anonymously.
“It is a challenge because I never know what they are going to call and ask about. It’s probably the most nerve-racking thing I do, and I’ve done almost 20 years in the army,” he says.
The format of the station is only possible because of improved phone reception in Kunar’s rugged north, as well as in the Nuristan village of Kamdesh, abandoned by U.S. troops in 2010 after a base was overrun and eight soldiers were killed.
The majority of people ring in to complain about Taliban encroachment into remote valleys barely touched by Afghan security forces or Green’s soldiers, who will be the last U.S. combat forces based permanently in northern Kunar, with a pullout underway and scheduled for completion in October.
“The Taliban have started searches of our houses and they don’t discriminate between fit or unfit people. They are asking everyone to join the Taliban forces,” says a caller from Baz Gal village, to the south of Green’s battalion headquarters at Forward Operating Base Bostick.
“They are not even real Taliban. They are Pakistanis. They do not even speak Pashto,” the caller says, raising a frequent accusation by Afghans. “We ask the Afghan security forces and the coalition to come and take action. We fully support you.”
Burhani and station manager Gulam Rahim say about 80 percent of callers raise worries about growing insurgent reach and worsening security, or to complain about the failure of authorities to provide schools, roads and clinics.
“The Taliban also contact us by telephone and share their questions via their own phones. The Taliban are using this radio station as a means of warning the local people of what they are doing, or what solutions they have, and to compare them with the solutions the ANSF and the coalition have,” Rahim said, referring to Afghan security forces and their NATO allies.
The station’s success has prompted U.S. troops to distribute wind-up radios to get the message out. It has also made it a target for insurgents who mount regular rocket attacks on Green’s base from surrounding ridges.
After a May 18 attack hit stored howitzer ammunition and triggered a big explosion that killed two U.S. soldiers, intercepts showed insurgents discussing whether the radio station had been destroyed in the fireball.
“The fact that they consider it important enough to talk about it with respect to wanting to destroy the radio station, means that from my perspective we’re having the effect we want, which is we’re connecting with the people,” says Green.
But Rahim said people in the area were worried about NATO’s accelerating drawdown plans ahead of a near-total withdrawal of foreign combat troops to be completed in 2014, fearing a new cycle of violence between Kunar and Nuristan’s divided tribes.
“We expect the world community to impress upon NATO not to leave too soon. If they leave again, we will have more fighting. Different groups will start killing opponents again,” he said.
“It is clear from history that the Afghan people take revenge among themselves.” (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Robert Birsel)