The Jelawar Village of the Argendab River Valley in Kandahar Province is small and quaint, though poverty runs rampant. The pomegranate fields stretch only as far as the naked eye can see, followed by thousands more acres of marijuana and poppy crops that finance both the town’s economy and the Taliban. My Platoon was responsible for setting an observation post on the north side of the village. North of our position was the Jelawar Police Department, so I decided to link up with the local police chief beforehand to see if there was any expectation of enemy contact in the area. His name was Al-Noor. Though his appearance was anything but professional, his eagerness to offer hospitality and cooperate with U.S. forces was hugely welcomed. Perhaps there was hope for some cooperation between our two countries after all. Al-Noor seemed like an officer I wanted on my side
The children of the village weren’t shy at all about running up to our vehicles and begging for…well, everything. Food, water, pens, pencils, paper, napkins, glasses, watches, and hats were just the beginning of their wish list. It was good that children were around. It usually meant no one was going to hurt us or compromise our security. At the same time, I grew concerned. After spending the previous 48 hours on rather dangerous missions, I wasn’t sure how my soldiers would react to the demanding Afghan children.
“Hey Sir, check this out!” I saw SGT Espy in the back of my vehicle tossing out MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) accessories one by one at the kids, watching them trample each other to claim their prize. “Isn’t that awesome!?” He cried. “That kid just dove into the dirt for my Tabasco sauce!”
On the other flank, I found Private Hoff pointing his rifle out of the Stryker down to where the kids were playing. “Hoffman, what the fuck are you doing?! Stop pointing your weapon at those kids, dude!”
“No, Sir! You gotta see this. This is hilarious.” I peered over to Hoff’s position and saw the laser from Hoff’s rifle shining a bright red dot on the ground and moving it from point to point as a playful flock of Afghan toddlers chased after it like confused house cats. I told him to take the laser off the rifle, just to be a little more considerate.
“Hey guys,” I heard SSG Koontz, my senior tanker, laughing over the radio. “Bernie took a piss in a bottle and put it on the side of the Stryker, and some kid picked it up!”
“Oh my god.” I thought to myself. I popped up out of the Stryker to look at Koontz’s position. I saw CPL Bernie, our MGS gunner, standing straight up on the ledge of his vehicle, pleading with a 4 year old Afghan boy. Talk about the ultimate charades challenge: how do you convey to a child who doesn’t speak English that he is about to drink a bottle of your own urine? Whatever your imagination comes up with is exactly the show CPL Bernie put on for the Afghan child. Thankfully, Bernie grabbed a bottle of Gatorade and was able to arrange a trade before anything too disgusting happened.
Around 1400, the police department north of our position started going crazy. Dozens of police trucks lined the streets. About a hundred soldiers were surrounding the compound. Something was going down. They were expecting contact, and I needed to know what it was. I again took my security detail to their compound to investigate.
We met the leader of the security team, Master Sergeant Khan. Before I could ask about the coming violence, he noticed I was Indian and began 40 minutes of tangential discussion on Bollywood trivia. I grew frustrated, but played along…when in Rome. It was possibly the best decision I’ve made thus far in my tour. After winning Khan’s friendship, he finally informed me that the police had captured 12 Taliban fighters today. “You are Indian, a brother of Afghanistan. You can come inside and see.”
I was ecstatic! Not only was this a huge loss for the Taliban, but I was going to be on the cutting edge of it. My security detail and I passed through a hole in the compound wall, certainly not built for grown men, nor ones carrying 80 lbs of armor on their bodies. As we entered in, Khan led the way through a raucous of people into the compound’s holding area. And there I saw the most invigorating sight I’ve ever seen.
Tied up and lying on the floor, covered in dried blood, were 8 Taliban fighters. They were weak, petty, and emasculated. But their eyes screamed of evil. Their eyes ran deep black, pupils dilated from apparent drug use. They weren’t scared. They remained blindly determined for their cause. Chills went down my spine as I thought the lengths to which these eight men would go to kill for their religion.
One of the captured Taliban spat on Khan’s boots as he walked by. “Oh you think that’s funny,” Khan said, just before he pummeled the detainee in the face with his metal-toed boot. The Taliban’s head hung low, blood dripping down.
“Khan, wait,” I yelled, “Where are the other 4 prisoners? You said there were 12 captured.”
“The other four were double agents as ANP police officers. We are holding them in another area. Let’s go see the Chief.”
We exited the holding area and found the Chief; but not just the Chief of Police for Jelawar whom I had met that morning. Instead, we found Colonel Faisal Ahmed Sherzad, the Chief of Security for the Kandahar Province, followed by his 40 man entourage. Then it hit me. As a 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of West Point, I was now the highest ranking American officer at the scene of one of the biggest Taliban captures of the Afghanistan surge. The Colonel approached me and greeted me in English. I replied in Pashtu, as a good ambassador would.
As we walked out, I asked Khan, “where are those other four Taliban? The ones who doubled as Police officers?” Khan pointed to the edge of a wall, where I saw none other than Al-Noor, the Chief from this morning, squatting in the corner. Who would have thought? Just that morning, I had spoken to, shook hands with, and passed up intelligence to my higher headquarters fed to me from a Taliban fighter. I was embarrassed. I was furious. What if an American had died because of something he told me? I wanted to go over there and kill him myself…but I restrained…not sure how though.
When I got on the radio to tell my company and battalion leadership about interacting with Colonel Sherzad, they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. They had no clue that a Taliban capture had even happened. The battalion was oblivious to the ANP’s activities. As I put down my headset I thought to myself. Is it not bizarre that a Taliban capture of such huge proportions was not on the watch list of the American Army? Why were ANP and US Forces not sharing notes? McCrystal’s new doctrine is heavily focused on implementing the ANA and ANP as the face of our coalition tactical operations. But clearly, there was no cross-talk nor trust between the leadership of our organizations. I was reminded of Bernie trying to act out his story to the child. I was reminded of Al-Noor, a Taliban fighter, acting like a loyal ally. It appeared that the United States Army is simply going through the motions, playing a game of charades with the rest of the world, to convey a genuine resolve to cooperate with Afghan security forces.
Implementing Afghan forces on the ground level is a good start. I see great societal benefit coming from Afghans, not Americans, clearing the houses in this country. Though, often times, it becomes difficult to do so because Afghanistan’s security forces lack the discipline of a western military.
On the other hand, coordinating with the ANP and ANA solely on the tactical level does nothing for the longevity of the country’s security. We cannot win this war if the Operational and Strategic level leaders of Afghanistan’s security forces have no exposure to successful mentorship. We cannot win this war without the local expertise that ANA and ANP leaders have to offer. Granted, it is true that much of the ANP, and some ANA leadership, are corrupt just like Al-Noor. We certainly do not want to expose our sensitive information to them, and we must always remain wary of the information they pass on to us. But no one can successfully rear an ill-behaved child by neglecting it. If we ever hope to see a trustworthy Afghan Police Force and Army in this country, we must train them, nurture them, and incorporate their local expertise at all levels of command.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy that the ANP successfully captured 12 Taliban that day, but who knows how much quicker it would have happened with a little more American support? Who knows how many more lives could have been spared if we had caught them just one day sooner? It is time to stop going through the motions of cooperation, and start talking business with the ANP and ANA so we can get our soldiers home and out of securing a foreign country, or we’re going to be stuck here for far longer than we are expecting. I don’t mind serving in Afghanistan, in fact, I’m proud to do it. But I’ll be pretty damned angry if my children and grandchildren still have a war to fight here.