Despite friendly rhetoric, suspicion abounds between Afghan and U.S. troops

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 2:25 PM

MAQUR, AFGHANISTAN- They stood at attention in the gravel lot under a bright autumn sun, 22 Afghan police officers in matching bulletproof vests. All wore helmets, chin straps fastened, as they clutched their rifles to their chests with both hands.

Col. Mohammad Daud, the district police chief, surveyed his men with evident pride. A general would be arriving soon, and they were ready.

Observing the scene from the nearby shade, an American soldier reached a different conclusion.

"They're [expletive] worthless," he said.

"I've never seen them in any formation before," he said. "They're never in uniform."

"They're a joke."

One of the Afghan war's key assumptions is encapsulated by three endlessly repeated Dari words: "shohna ba shohna," or "shoulder to shoulder," the chosen metaphor of military brass to describe the American partnership with Afghan troops: two nations side by side in the long hard march against the Taliban.

The reality is not so seamless. Early this month, an Afghan soldier allegedly turned his rifle on his American partners and shot dead two U.S. soldiers in Helmand province. Such fratricide remains an anomaly. But mutual suspicion and dissatisfaction are easier to find, as barriers of language and culture compound the daily frustrations of fighting.

A few hundred yards above Daud's police station in the deserts of Badghis province, Lt. Mirwais Safai, 29, smoked a cigarette and brooded over this partnership.

"I will tell you the truth," he began. "The Americans themselves support the Taliban."

For 52 days, Safai commanded an Afghan army platoon in Darrah-i-bum, a treacherous Taliban enclave, alongside a U.S. Special Operations team. Together they endured a string of attacks, from makeshift bombs to incoming rockets.

They began as trusted comrades in a dangerous fight, he said, but he soon grew suspicious of the Americans' secrecy. At one point, he said, U.S. troops were holding conversations with villagers in a clinic, and excluding the Afghan medic. "Spies were coming and going," he said.

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