By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 8, 2009
BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan -- It started out as a mission of diplomatic outreach, a get-acquainted visit to a village school principal. It ended with a far less comfortable encounter, as U.S. soldiers and Afghan police poked through haylofts and chicken coops, searching in vain for hidden weapons in a farmhouse full of silently staring people.
The five-hour patrol in Logar province two weeks ago, conducted by Army Lt. Steve Nepowada and his squad of 17 men, encompassed both the contradictory goals of the expanded U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and the mixed messages it is sending out to a jittery, confused populace that is not sure whom to trust.
Army commanders in Logar described a daunting list of objectives for the operations they are setting up in two rural provinces south of Kabul, the capital: bring security, reduce support for Taliban insurgents, improve Afghan police and army forces, establish good governance, boost the economy and improve infrastructure such as water and roads.
On all fronts, military leaders here readily acknowledged they have an extremely difficult task. The most obvious dilemma they face is how to protect themselves and hunt down insurgents without further alienating the inhabitants of this quiet but strategically located agricultural province.
"We don't need people to like us, but we need them to trust that we're here to help them make progress," said Col. David Haight, regional commander of 3,000 new troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, stationed in Logar and neighboring Wardak province. "The enemy can't outfight us, but we have a major challenge to convince Afghans that their own government is here to help them."
The job requires a tricky balance between suspiciousness and sensitivity, as Nepowada's afternoon patrol made clear. Before heading out from Forward Operating Base Altimur to Baraki Barak, a sleepy-seeming district that has been heavily infiltrated by the Taliban, he instructed his crew to be extremely vigilant and prepared to shoot at all times but to avoid giving offense to civilians. He also told his men to employ "shout and shove" tactics with any hostile individual before using force.
As the patrol set out in a convoy of armored vehicles, one sergeant in a turret with a 50-caliber machine gun shouted down to a buddy, "Hey, who's got the candy for the kids?"
Moving out onto the highway, the convoy straddled the middle, a technique for avoiding buried explosives, and flashed at every oncoming driver to pull over. Most dutifully obeyed, but one trucker who remained in his lane got an obscene earful from the sergeant with the candy.
When the patrol entered the district center, the soldiers climbed down and fanned across the bazaar, guns ready. A few handed out goodies to children while others flagged down taxis and motor scooters for security checks. Everyone around the dusty displays of oranges and flashlights and shawls stopped to watch. Although the soldiers were accompanied by two interpreters, there was little small talk.
In side conversations with a journalist that afternoon, residents expressed conflicting opinions of the American forces in their midst. Some said they fear the Taliban and are grateful for the U.S. military presence. Others said they fear that the heightened activities of foreign forces will draw more insurgents to the area.
"We need help. The Taliban comes at night and burns our fuel trucks, and the government people here just stay in their offices and don't dare go outside," said Mohammed Kabir, 40, a laborer. "But we are not happy about the Americans being here, because the Taliban will attack them and we will suffer more."
One police officer said the country would collapse into civil war among militias if the American and NATO forces abandoned their mission. He said he had sent his wife and children to Kabul for safety while he was deployed in Logar.
"The Taliban want to rule like they did before, but the people don't want this kind of oppression again," said the officer, Lt. Mahmad Ismael. "If the foreigners leave, there will be chaos. People with personal feuds will fight, and thieves will rob using the name of the Taliban."
Members of the national police, such as Ismael, are often the only security forces people see in rural regions such as Logar. Some residents said they would prefer to have the police -- fellow Muslims and countrymen -- search their homes and deal with criminals than the Western troops with whom they cannot communicate.
But U.S. military officials said the police are poorly trained, badly equipped and notoriously corrupt. One of the most difficult goals of the expanded American military mission is to improve the police corps' performance so that it, along with the Afghan national army, can eventually protect the country alone.
"The hardest nut for us to crack is to build faith in the institution of the police," said Haight, the regional commander. During home searches for weapons or insurgents, he said, Afghan police often "shake down the house like criminals." In terms of training and morale, he said, the police are about five years behind the army. "We have to show them what right behavior is, to secure the people instead of being corrupt and victimizing them," he said.
To that end, all U.S. patrols that involve searching civilian homes are supposed to be carried out with the police. Nepowada's planned visit to the village principal, to discuss education needs and create goodwill, would have been low-key and American-only, except for an Afghan interpreter.
But just before the convoy rolled out of Altimur, there was an abrupt change of orders and approach. A suspected weapons cache had been reported in a farm compound, which needed to be searched at once. This meant adding several specialists with metal and explosive detectors, and picking up a truckful of police to put an Afghan face on the search.
As the Americans waited in the market for police to arrive, they passed out handbills in the Afghan Pashto language that showed a smiling Afghan officer and said, "For a better Afghanistan, the security forces are ready to serve you." The flier included a number to contact with information about a crime, a bomb or any other emergency. "If you call, we will help," it read.
After a slow, jolting climb into the hills, the joint patrol crossed a muddy fallow field and circled a cluster of farmhouses. Girls watched from the roof, boys stopped playing soccer, dogs barked. Nepowada reminded his men that the insurgents often hid weapons inside piles of animal fodder or under latrines. "Make sure the ANP [Afghan national police] go in and do their job right," he said.
For the next two hours, the Americans and Afghans went from room to room in one mud-walled labyrinth, then another. Women and girls hid; men and boys watched wordlessly. The Americans ran their detectors across dung heaps, lifted covers off wells, crawled into chicken coops and cowsheds, and burrowed inside storage caves full of fodder. They did not find a single weapon.
"We are happy and calm. They are here to bring us peace," said an elderly man in muddy farm clothes and rubber boots, glancing nervously toward the troops as he spoke to a journalist outside his home. A young man, watching from behind a pen full of munching cows and donkeys, was a bit more candid.
"Everyone is a little worried and bothered by this," said the man, 21, who gave his name as Salahuddin and said he was a student home on vacation. "There are no Taliban here. We don't need the foreigners to come and search our homes. They should let the police come alone. They are Afghans and Muslims, and they respect our families."
But U.S. officials in Logar said there are also frequent complaints about Afghan police stealing valuable items during house searches. They also said it is hard to teach and motivate the officers, many of whom are poorly paid and may see the job mainly as an opportunity to extort money from travelers, merchants and suspects under arrest.
A recent discussion between a U.S. Army officer in Logar and two Afghan police officials about improving security made it clear how far there is to go. The American, Maj. Todd Polk, noted that truckers and passengers on the highway were often threatened by thieves and insurgents. He asked why police rarely leave their roadside checkpoints to patrol the road at night.
The officials responded that their men need more equipment and training, although Americans and Europeans have spent millions to improve the force's professionalism.
"You have many more soldiers than I do and much bigger trucks," said one Afghan officer, Capt. Mohammed Wahidullah.
"Well, we have a lot more people now, and we will do all we can to help you," Polk responded. Then he broached a more delicate topic. "When we go to villages, some people tell us they think the police are corrupt." Wahidullah laughed uncomfortably, and the other officer spoke up.
"When you go to talk to the village elders, they complain about us. When we go to talk to them, they complain about you," Capt. Mohammed Nadir said.
"Well, we all have a lot of work to do," Polk replied.