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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.

His fears grew Oct. 13, the night the parachutes fell from the sky.

The Americans recovered most of the airdropped supply crates, including water and ammunition, Safai said, but left one of them in the village. Safai and his men found it the next day, pried it open and found it packed with mortars and boxes of explosives, he said. He photographed the contents and brought the crate to his American partner.

"He was yelling at me, 'Why did you bring this here?'" Safai recalled. "When he saw the ammunition, he stopped yelling."

"I said, 'You were giving this to the Taliban,' " Safai said. "He said, 'It was just a big mistake.' "

Asked about this episode, Lt. Nicole Schwegman, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Kabul, said: "We do not, under any circumstances, provide supplies to the Taliban."

During the airdrop of 12 supply crates that night, she said, two collided, sending one container of water crashing into the wall of a villager's home. The U.S. troops apologized for the damage, she said, and offered compensation, as well as the water from the container. She said the 11 other loads were all recovered that night. "No ammunition or explosives were left unrecovered overnight," she said.

But Safai's superior, Capt. Mohammad Aref, stood by his story.

"He's describing things he's seen with his own eyes," he said.

Safai has since left Darrah-i-bum, with his photographs of mortars and a lingering suspicion about his partners.

"I'm not sure if that ammunition was put there by mistake or intentionally to help the Taliban. That's something the government has to find out," he said. "But if I'm representing the Afghan government, why are the Americans keeping secrets from us?"

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