Be Nice To America
Be nice to America… or we will bring Democracy to your country. At least that’s what we did in Afghanistan. As I write this entry, I am tired, hungry, and filthy. About 7 days ago, my company’s executive officer rattled on my bunk bed at 10pm. “Hey Srini, we’ve got a mission tomorrow. It’ll last about 6 days, we leave tomorrow at 0400. The operations order is at midnight.” Throughout our operation, I averaged about one or two hours of sleep a night, if I slept at all. I ate rations, not out of hunger, but out of the impulsive need to occupy my nerves to keep from falling asleep. Hygiene became a relic of normalcy left behind with our circadian rhythms.
Afghanistan’s second presidential election mobilized more troops over the course of 7 days than the country has ever seen before. In all parts of the country, NATO coalition soldiers spread far and wide to ensure that no Taliban would have the opportunity to infringe on the voting rights of the constituency. The ballot had over 40 candidates (read bios of the top 3 candidates here), but in the eyes of most of us here in Afghanistan, there were no candidates, just competing ideals. This was an election between the ideals of democracy and the Taliban itself. No one knew who would win.
My unit was responsible for securing the Khakrez district in the Northwest of the Kandahar province. On election day, I received a platoon mission to setup an Observation Post along a major north-south road in the district leading into three separate villages in the area. I had a squad of dismounts attached to me from 1st platoon and an interpreter to help me control the flow of people into and out of the area. The villages were all ghost towns. They were almost completely empty. We came into Khakrez intending to make enemy contact frequently as it was rumored that Taliban overflow from Helmand had been in the area. This district was home to several thousand people, and for it to be almost completely vacant could only imply a handful of situations.
Perhaps the Taliban had intimidated the villagers out of participating in the elections causing everyone to disperse? Maybe the locals knew about coming violence in the area and decided to flea. The absence of people often means the presence of danger. Dust storms kicked up, the sun burned our skins, and we were the new sheriffs in town. Scenes from old Western movie show downs kept replaying through my head and for the first time in my deployment, I felt alone. It was me, my platoon, and whatever was out there in the middle of the desert.
My wingman, SSG Kunkel, was on the Mobile Gun System vehicle scanning into the town. His optics could pick out the freckles on a baby’s face from 10 kilometers out. He came over the radio to let me know that a motorcycle was speeding down the road from the village to our north and was heading for our direction. The biker was carrying a young man as a passanger. Kunkel examined the wheels, the engine, and the gas tank. He looked for suspicious wiring or cargo strapped to the bike. He looked for weapons. Most importantly, he stared down the driver looking for his intent. What was this guy in such a hurry for, speeding down a highway with no one else around?
“He’s clear” said Kunkel. But no sooner had the words left his mouth that he screamed “DUDE that kid on the back just flicked me off!” We just laughed. At this point in the tour, kids throwing rocks, flipping us the bird, and screaming profanities at us are commonplace.
About an hour went by. We stopped a few suspicious people, handed out some water to the few brave voters still walking around the area. It was a slow day–“SLAP” My gunner, SGT Cook hit me on the leg as I was standing in my commander’s hatch, “Sir, we got that bike coming back into the town.” I called it up to the rest of the unit, and held up my binoculars to check out the situation…no change. “Hey SSG Kunkel, let him back in,” he was still about 1 km out though. I put down the binos and just took a sigh and thought to myself, “what the heck are we doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” Out of sheer boredom and happenstance, I picked back up the binos as the bike came within 100m of our position. “Holy shit. 1st Squad, pull that guy over now! The kid on the back has got an AK47 and they’re hauling ass into that town.” I’ve seen plenty of people carrying weapons in Afghanistan, but this duo was flaring with purpose. They needed to be checked out.
Without hesitation, SFC McComie, 1st platoon’s Platoon Sergeant and the leader of the squad of dismounts in my patrol, started up his Stryker and started chasing after them. They honked, flashed lasers and lights at them…the driver kept on. The boy gripped his rifle tightly by the pistol grip as he looked back at SFC McComie, prompting him to lift his weapon to prepare to defend himself. As the Stryker began to catch up to the bike, the driver began to slow down and finally pulled over to the side of the road. By this time, I had brought my Stryker down to the bike with my interpreter and security detail to check out the situation. SFC McComie popped out of his vehicle with his weapon ready to engage. “Drop the gun!” My interpreter relayed, but the boy, who now appeared to be a young man in his early 20s, didn’t let go. The squad of dismounts finally jumped out of the Stryker, and formed a perimeter around the area. The driver yelled something to the boy and he put down the weapon and stepped away.
We searched, cleared, and separated the two men and their bike. I questioned each of them separately about their stories. Why did they have a weapon? Where were they going, where were they coming from? Why didn’t they pull over when we told them to? Their answer? “We’re Afghan police! We were going to go get our watches from home!” No uniforms, no ID, and uncooperative to our orders? My bullshit meter was going off the charts. These guys looked pretty shady.
On the other hand, this is a poor country, and we were in one of the poorest districts in Kandahar. Maybe uniforms were just too expensive for them to afford. I knew the concept of carrying photo identification completely evaded the majority of the country in the first place.
I felt I had two options. I could either over react and detain these guys, potentially creating a confrontation between us and the local police force; or I could let them go, potentially putting dangerous people back on the streets. After talking with SFC McComie, we confiscated their rifle and ammunition and told them to get the local police chief to claim it back from us. As the men started walking off, SFC McComie had an epiphany. “Hey, I want to see that watch you were going to get.” The elder of the two men paused, then grabbed his left wrist, unbuckled his watch, and gave it to McComie. Without saying a word, he looked at the watch, looked at me, and held it in front of my face. I grasped the band to get a better look. It was a metal G-Force digital watch and GPS, often worn by American soldiers on patrol. This one was easily worth $100. They had either stolen the watch or bought from someone who had. SFC McComie took the watch giving it the same reclaim criteria as the rifle as we let the two men go. As they went off, part of me felt foolish. “We shoulda just detained those guys!” They just screamed trouble with their every move.
As it turns out, the Police Chief eventually came out to see us to reclaim the watch and weapon. He was fat and dressed in a silk pajama curtha and a thick, groomed and washed beard. He was easily one of the wealthiest men in the area and traveled with a convoy of policemen and armed guards. He came to us with a politician’s grace apologizing for his two soldiers’ behavior and thanking us for securing their country and elections. We knew the Police force in Afghanistan is brutally corrupt and we didn’t trust this guy, but having little choice but to do so, we handed back the weapon and the watch.
As we received the Intel update that night, we learned that the voter turnout in Southwestern Afghanistan (Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabol, and Farah) was dismal at best. The Taliban had won here. A democratic Afghanistan would not include the voices of the people in Khakrez. Kabul, on the other hand, had one of its deadliest strings of violence, but people seemed to be voting. We will not know the value or implications of this election until even preliminary results are in, which could take several days (ballots travel slower in this part of the world).
I ask myself if it is possible that these elections would fail, not in spite of our presence, but due to it? We gave them the power and security to vote, and they didn’t take ownership of it. Moreover, Afghans appear insulted at our presence; insulted their 4,000 year history said nothing of their ability to govern themselves. All I know is that we brought democracy to Afghanistan, and it came locked and loaded. I am not sure if this was the package the Afghans intended.
The next day, our interactions with the Afghan citizens were almost entirely negative and disdainful. The rocks grew bigger and were thrown harder; the gestures more disrespectful and blatant. “What the hell is up with this country?” We had slaved away securing elections for these people, elections they didn’t appear to trust nor want. We had put ourselves in harm’s way on missions for the past month with no positive return of favor with the people of Kandahar.
My head jerked back, and a smile of realization came over my face. We were driving through the ideological hub of the Taliban in the early evening after a hotly rediculed election…and the holy month of Ramadan had begun. As the call to prayer sounded over a purple sunset, my concerns for the strategic objectives of the United States went straight out the window. I gripped my rifle and my radio because the only thing I cared about now was keeping my men safe on this ride through downtown Kandahar. I don’t know what we’re doing here…but it’s clear we’re just beginning.