As winter set in, my battalion hit its stride. Months of forced hand-in-hand cooperation with the Afghans had led to the establishment of joint outposts at almost all of the district centers within the districts we controlled. My compound now looked like a rear-echelon paradise, even though it had recently been the most forward-deployed site in the area we owned. Pushing out to the communities wasn’t a new idea—it had been done before in Iraq during the 2007 Surge—but the sheer acreage of what we had to cover made it daunting. At that point, Afghanistan still had fewer soldiers than had been deployed at the height of the Iraq war, and it is a much larger (and more inaccessible) country.
It was a necessary shift. If we didn’t have a permanent presence in the districts, we had no idea what was really taking place within their confines. A platoon could patrol from one village to another every day, but whatever information they received from the elders or townspeople was a snapshot of that particular day—not anything all that helpful—and most conversations were at best guarded. People didn’t trust us because they had no reason to believe us, and everyone knew that as soon as we left the village, the insurgents would pay a visit and identify the most helpful and receptive people for corrective training.
It didn’t matter that there were always police stations or Afghan National Army outposts in those communities. The soldiers lived in mortal danger at all times and knew it. A patrol for any other purpose than to shake down locals was rare; mostly they spent their time smoking hash. Out of a desire to inhibit local corruption (not to mention the intimidation of the families of Afghan soldiers and policemen), the Afghan government’s policy was to assign northerners to the south and vice versa. However, given the mutual distrust among ethnic groups and the profound language barrier, the police were most often seen as outsiders. They were symbols of an exotic and unrepresentative government in some faraway land called Kabul. Many of the enlisted soldiers did not speak a word of Pashto, just as most of the villagers did not speak a word of Dari.
Which isn’t to suggest that we were any better in their eyes; we were outsiders, non-Muslims and, if you asked the elders in some of the most isolated villages, not even really Americans: a friend of mine recalled a conversation he had with an old man in some mountain hamlet. At the sit-down shura that was taking place, the old man didn’t want to talk about security, about issues in the community, about anything. He was indignant.
“We’ve been telling you Russians the same things for years—we don’t want communism,” then man said.
“Sir, we’re Americans,” my friend said through his interpreter. “We’re not Russians.”
“You have blond hair and blue eyes,” the man said. “You’re a Russian. Stop lying.”
However, when we lived with the Afghan police and patrolled with them, they weren’t stealing people’s money and cell phones anymore. We had a better link to the community than before, if only for the fact that a villager with a problem could now visit the district center and have the chance to talk to an American leader. Granted, the leader was most likely a peach-fuzzed, 24-year-old American lieutenant, but it was better than the wall of silence and intimidation that he would have received from the Afghan police or, worse, the district government. Plus, we had interpreters.
Afghan district governors were appointed by the provincial governor, who was himself appointed by President Karzai. District governors were tribal figures or leaders within the community, but their appointment didn’t guarantee that they would do much of anything besides collect a paycheck. Some took their jobs very seriously; others were completely in collusion with the insurgency. Some of them held out in Kabul on permanent vacation. It was not a representative democracy.
If nothing else, the presence of US soldiers meant that we were in constant communication to our headquarters. If the outpost got attacked, we could respond and give accurate reports. It may seem like a miniscule improvement, but it resolved a huge problem. We wanted to give the Afghans as much support as possible, and so when we would receive late-night radio calls claiming that they were under attack, we would immediately attempt to get whatever air support we could—be it a plane, a drone, a helicopter, whatever was around—and direct it to their location. It was a leap of faith, but we weren’t going to let them get overrun.
The problem was that more often than not it was a sham. The aircraft would get within range and determine that the police were just firing off bullets wildly from their towers, shooting at moon shadows and nocturnal animals. Sometimes they weren’t even shooting. It got to the point where we were chastised by the joint command in eastern Afghanistan—they basically told us that we had cried wolf too many times and that they weren’t going to send aircraft. This was a difficult concept for me to explain to my Afghan counterparts when I got word.
There was an ulterior motive for the deceit: the commanders of various district police stations were allotted a certain number of soldiers based on the perceived level of danger. Commanders would keep ghost soldiers on their rolls—soldiers who existed in name only—and pocket the salaries that they were supposed to receive. They were already filching a percentage of what the physically real soldiers were earning. If their outpost was declared dangerous enough to warrant more soldiers assigned, that would equal more wages they could pocket. And then again, they were also a bunch of scared, cold and stoned soldiers left out on some windy precipice. One time we had to medically evacuate a bunch of them because, in an effort to keep warm, they had huddled inside a shipping container and lit a fire, leading to them all getting carbon monoxide poisoning. Their life was unenviable in the extreme.
Not all the graft was malignant. Commanders sometimes used money to buy food, ammunition and gear for the soldiers—items that were supposed to be provided through the Afghan supply channels but weren’t. However, the majority were stealing the money for personal gain. The system was corrupt and broken. It’s not the kind of problem that can be fixed from afar, with no oversight or checking-up. When I read about money wasted on projects in Afghanistan—be it reports from the Special Inspector General’s Office or from Jon Krakauer’s work describing the truth behind “Three Cups of Tea,” there seems to be a common thread: no one stayed behind to make sure things work out. Rich Uncle Pennybags shows up, builds a school or a community center or something, a big concrete statement, and then disappears out of the wilderness patting himself on the back. With the new push towards keeping a permanent presence in the districts, I hoped we might do something to remedy that.
During the summer, one of our companies had constructed a joint outpost in an area particularly dangerous for roadside bombs. It worked; after a few successful ambushes, the insurgents stopped trying to lay bombs in that area, and the resulting pressure had forced them to a new location. Another area became a hotspot for explosions; in December and January we conducted operations with the Afghan National Army to build outposts along that newly contested route. The ANA had significant amounts of construction equipment and a capable engineer unit. The only reason why it hadn’t yet happened up until that point was the fact that no one had asked them to. They would give obsequious reports of forward progress, but their plan was to hole up inside their reinforced bases and do as little as possible—maybe they were following the example that other American units had set. One cycle of laziness and ambivalence begot another.
There was very little enemy contact during the mission to take that route. Once the redoubts were built, we established a rigorous cycle of patrolling alongside the Afghan police. It wasn’t sexy, and very little dramatic events took place. It was basically like being beat cops. It reminded me of the examples I had heard of the Philippine Constabulary stationed in the bundaks—the origin of the word “boondocks”—keeping the peace in unexciting ways. Some nights they took indirect fire. Some days there were threats of suicide bombings and direct attacks. Most days were either dry or snowy, and it was always cold. The villages were endless successions of adobe houses with rough-hewn windows and doors; the windows were covered with decorative curtains and the doors were painted with a variety of motifs: variations of the Arabic calligraphy for “Allah,” drawings of birds or drawings of pierced hearts. The Afghan rendition of a pierced heart seems slightly more brutal than our heart-and-arrow image: in theirs, the heart has been pierced by a dagger and a bowl is placed below it to catch the dripping blood.
I was a skeptic when I first arrived in country, and the mounting frustrations of the hot season had first created a bitter acceptance of the situation and then, subsequently, an enraged rejection of that acceptance. Afghanistan seemed to be the perfect place for an idealist with altruistic intentions to totally and completely lose his mind and faith. However, in that part of the winter I saw us beginning to turn things around in Paktika. I saw local power brokers coming forward to request that we build outposts to assist them and their fighters to keep bombs off the roads and insurgent threats out of the marketplace and schools. I saw local citizens volunteering information that led to the discovery of weapons caches and bomb-making workshops. This wasn’t the kind of thing we could make up out of thin air.
I wanted it to succeed. I didn’t want the work we did to be in vain. I knew that some of my soldiers’ and many of my friends’ feelings towards Afghans ranged from dismissive to brutally contemptuous. I knew that there was going to be friction when we decided to start living together like a big family. In my mind, I felt like it was the only way to improve the situation in our province, and maybe—even if it came later than we would have wanted—it would serve as a testament of what we had wanted to do from the beginning. That we weren’t just spinning our wheels and burning gasoline in this dust bowl province.
To see the operations succeed and the zone of effective governance expanded was a blessing. I was doing my part as a liaison and getting better at Pashto every day. My battalion commander told me that, with my permission, he was going to recommend to the next chain of command that I stay in country longer (maybe as long as possible) and continue to help out. I agreed enthusiastically. I told him I would stay forever, and I meant it. The next two months would find me putting that statement to the test.