New Yorkers on the Afghan Steppe

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 8:07 PM

CHAHAR DARREH, Afghanistan -- The night before the team of National Guardsmen headed out on a mission, their base commander launched into a short soliloquy. "Be a hard target," Lt. Col. John Weber said as he looked around the room full of soldiers. He gave me a sideways glance. "Don't give the bad guys an in. Don't make it easy for them. Show them that you're a hard target."

I was traveling with the soldiers for a story about U.S. military efforts to train the Afghan police force. The soldiers were mostly from New York, where I had lived for nearly 10 years. One of the them had lived only a short distance from my old apartment in Queens. He and I used to eat at the same neighborhood pizza place.

Some of the soldiers were cops and firefighters. And after Sept. 11, 2001, some had put in time with the guard in "the Pit," the gaping hole that had been the World Trade Center, searching for fallen comrades.

We marveled at the weird coincidences of that day. I told them how I had just quit my summer job at the towers two weeks earlier, only to find myself helping to report on the attacks in my first stint as a cub reporter for a local paper there. We talked about the Yankees and the Mets and the New York that was before the United States went to war in Afghanistan. I felt very at home with them.

The morning after Weber delivered his injunction to stay sharp, our convoy of Humvees rumbled over the rocky ground through the gates of the Kunduz forward operating base, located in Afghanistan's northeast. We rolled past the charred detritus of three decades of war: rusted hulks of Soviet T-55 tanks, bombed-out armored personnel carriers, mounds of gnarled barbed wire strewn across the dusty beige steppe.

I was riding with three New York guardsmen from the 69th Light Infantry Regiment and an Afghan interpreter. The sun had barely risen, but it felt like high noon inside the Humvees. In mine, the semi-functional air conditioner behind the gunner's feet blew hot, dusty 120-degree air. I slumped down beneath the weight of my body armor and helmet, and tried fight the sleep-inducing heat.

Our convoy bounced over the dilapidated Soviet-era bridge that spanned the Kunduz River and fed onto the main road into Chahar Darreh. When we arrived at the squat yellow cement brick building that served as the district's temporary headquarters, there were only four officers waiting to greet us. The new police commander, Lt. Col. Abdul Hamid, had been on the job a week but hadn't really set up shop yet. There were four Afghan soldiers charged with defending a sprawling patch of land that was teeming with Taliban insurgents and bandits.

A few hours later, after we set our things inside the mud-brick walls of the nearby district jail, we returned to police headquarters. Dusk was just falling as we sat down to talk with the avuncular outgoing commander, Col. Abdul Halim. Halim, a hulking Afghan warhorse who once spent time in Moscow, chatted with me in Russian about his fears that his men might mutiny. He looked around the room, then said softly, "Sometimes I worry that my own troops will shoot me in the back."

"Many are undisciplined. Some are compromised, working for the enemy," Halim said. "You have no way of knowing if they've had secret connections with the Taliban."

Not long after that Hamid appeared. It was dark and the power in the police headquarters had just gone out. That's when we heard about the illegal checkpoints. A police officer sat across from Hamid in the darkness, pressing his cellphone hard to his ear as another officer at the other end of the line related what had happened. Armed men in masks were on the road nearby. The men had stopped a family on their way to a funeral service. Dressed in blue-green Afghan National Police uniforms, the masked men rifled through the travelers' things, then let them continue on their way.

Under the dim glow of a flashlight, Hamid looked across the room at Maj. Vince Heintz, the commander of the National Guard team training Afghan police in Chahar Darreh. He wanted some sense of direction. Heintz shrugged his shoulders.

"I can't tell you what to do, sir. But as your adviser, I can tell you what I would do. I would send some men out there to find out what's going on and I'd do it sooner rather than later," Heintz said. After some hesitation, Hamid slapped his knees with resolve and left with Halim to investigate.

"Seems a little weird," said 1st Sgt. Michael O'Brien, who is also a New York City police officer.

Heintz snorted and shook his head. "For all we know it could be a set up. The whole story -- it sounds to me like it could be made up to make the Afghan National Police and U.S. forces drive down there into an ambush," Heintz said.

The story of the fake checkpoint turned out to be just that -- fake. A few hours, after Hamid and Halim returned with their men, they reported that no one suspicious was found on the road. Soon afterward, Heintz, O'Brien and the other U.S. soldiers stretched out on army cots inside the jail compound.

There was no gunfire. There were no explosions. The only sound was of wild dogs baying at the half moon.

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