Afghanistan Diaries: Complacency Kills

Afghanistan Diaries: Complacency Kills

S. Jacobson: Complacency Kills

Lashkar Gah, Capital of Helmand Province, Afghanistan
August 2010

My team of fifteen Marines and two interpreters was up in Lashkar Gah to account for a battalion of Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), ensure they had all their gear, and escort them down to Marjeh for a several-month deployment. Living up in Lash is like R&R for them, and a good break from the constant action down in the districts. Their base in the capital is on the bluffs overlooking the Helmand River, with families picnicking and swimming in the water alongside the ancient ruins of the city’s army barracks. The ANCOP live in bunk beds in hardstand buildings, often pulling their mattresses outside to sleep where it’s cool. They have a few hours of electricity per day and are an alley away from the throngs of the main bazaar. Paradise.

They were in no rush to hurry down to Marjeh to relieve the unit that had been standing post and policing the village for more months than planned. Plus, it was the start of Ramadan, or Ramazan in Dari (Afghan Farsi). The ANCOP commander found ample reasons to delay the move out of Lashkar Gah. Our anticipated three days at the barracks turned into eleven. They would only work with us for a few hours in the late evening, and a few hours again in the early morning. Aside from some explosions and gunfire outside the walls of the compound, and an ANCOP officer’s negligent discharge of his rifle on the inside, the days passed slowly. We watched movies on our laptops, ate watermelon we bought in the bazaar, and called home on our satellite phone. And when the sun went down the ANCOP units lined up to be enrolled in our Biometric Automated Toolkit (BAT) machines. The BAT system provides a centralized census database; the more people enrolled—soldiers, police, government workers, locals, criminals—the more effective the cross-referencing of backgrounds. Have any of the ANCOP been suspected of criminal activity? Has the baseline changed since the last time they were entered in the system? BATs help answer these questions. The Marines ran the laptops through the inverters on our armored vehicles. They helped each policeman record an electronic fingerprint, iris scan, and photograph. Then Sammy, our interpreter, wrote down their answers to some basic biographical questions.

We ate dinner at the ANCOP chow hall. Baumiyah (okra) boiled in vegetable oil. And nan (bread). Again. “Sir, almost all the police are from the same willage as the police commander,” Sammy offered. “When I asked the police the questions on the BAT forms, except for two or three Pashtun, they all answered that they were from one of two districts in Baghlan Province.”

Units formed along ethnic lines are nothing new, but what happens when these police go to Marjeh? In terms of command and control and top-down planning, the Tajik-dominated ANCOP staff will work well with the Tajik Afghan National Army (ANA) commander already down in Marjeh. But will the police have difficulty with the locals? Is it a classic case of cops of a different color descending on a neighborhood? Can the Dari-speaking northerners communicate effectively with the Pashtun-speaking locals in Helmand?

There’s an old saying from up North: one should “trust a snake more than a harlot, and a harlot more than a Pashtun.” The newest manifestation of this ill will is the easy sentiment among many ANCOP and ANA that the Pashtun are secret puppets of “Pashtunistan,” or Pakistan. And I’ve heard Helmand Pashtuns, in turn, accuse Uzbeks and Tajiks and other Dari speakers of ultimate deference to Iran. Hazaras, who in addition to their Dari language are also Shi’a, have been persecuted especially vigorously by Taliban sympathizers among the Pashtun. These tensions are rarely at the surface, and the ANA generally does live by the motto of “Urdu-eema, Afghanistan-eema, Urdu Meelee” (“My Army, My Afghanistan, Army of All Ethnicities”). But when the brash, relatively urban northern ANCOP are posted at the intersections of Marjeh, how will they get along with the local Pashtun, who are wary, reticent, and as tired of foreign influence as they are of violence? There are questions the BATs system can’t answer.

Camp Shorabak, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
August 2010

We were laid over at Camp Bastion on the way to a shura, a meeting with Afghan officials and elders. Bastion is the largest British base in Afghanistan and is connected to Camp Leatherneck, the headquarters for all Marine Corps operations in Helmand Province, which was itself recently connected to the Afghan National Army (ANA) Camp Shorabak. Bastion is many square miles around, an instant city of connected tents, shipping containers, some “expeditionary” hardstand buildings, heavy equipment, and a runway that supports many hundreds of flights a week.

After dinner and some ice cream at the small Dyncorp chow hall on the fixed-wing flightline, Captain Amir, one of the two Afghans my teammate Luke and I were traveling with, asked to stop at Camp Shorabak to take care of some business. The four of us drove through the dusty desert streets of Bastion, then Leatherneck, arriving finally at a poorly lit guard shack and gate: “Friendship Gate,” newly built by the Marines to connect the coalition base to the ANA camp. Before, when the bases weren’t yet formally contiguous, one had to organize an armored convoy to move between them. Now, we could drive through alone in a non-tactical vehicle, an SUV rented from a logistics contractor. The two Marines on post at the gate almost stood up, saw that I was American, settled back in their chairs, and waved us through. Once we were through the gate, Capt. Amir and Sergeant Major Rashidi directed us to a big hangar of a building, and ushered us through a series of corridors and out back into a small garden, decorated with strings of twinkling Christmas lights, where I would soon be struggling to stay awake.

We met Capt. Amir’s old friends. They had been in the same army unit for a few years, farther north in Helmand, in Sangin and Now Zad. Now most of them worked as vehicle mechanics in the 215th Corps’s motor transport section. One, who spoke the best English, was the Corps’s IT specialist. Sgt. Maj. Rashidi disappeared for a few minutes and came back with his cousin, a soldier in the Corps’s garrison support unit. We sat cross-legged on some carpets under the tree, drinking chai, eating candies, and talking. The IT specialist, in his early twenties, with slicked back hair, camouflage trousers, a loose-fitting black and gold lamé–striped button down, and good English, showed me photos on his cellphone from his home life near Kabul: he and his friends flashing what could pass for gang signs, he and his friends swimming, captured Taliban. He asked me about life in America, about the cost of digital cameras, about the rumor that children do not live with parents. He could tell I was tired. “Please, take a rest.” “No, I’m OK. I want to hear more about Kabul.” And I did. But also, this early in the deployment, I was still uncomfortable letting my guard down around Afghan soldiers, as silly as it would seem months later.

Trust no one. Complacency kills. Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet. Just a few weeks earlier an Afghan soldier fired an RPG into a coalition operations tent, then picked up a light machine gun and sprayed some billeting areas. He disappeared, leaving three British dead. The warnings are often that it’s the one you’d least expect. And my new friend was certainly the one I’d least suspect. (Recall George Carlin dispelling the neighborly wisdom that it’s the quiet ones you gotta watch: while you’re watching the quiet one, “a noisy one will fucking kill you.”) I wondered whether my new friend could tell that I was standing watch over my teammate Luke, who was already sleeping soundly, his head on his folded blouse and his rifle propped against his pack.

After some more rounds of chai and talk of the beauty of Kabul compared to “this fucking Helmand Province,” some of the soldiers went off, probably to smoke hashish, and I drifted off on a sheet of plywood. I woke a few minutes later at 1 a.m.—time to go to the helicopter flightline to catch our connection. The ANA mechanics offered to drive us in their Ford Ranger, so they could chat on the way with Capt. Amir and Sgt. Maj. Rashidi, whom they hadn’t seen in many months. The previously indifferent Marines at Friendship Gate flagged us down this time on our way through. “Hey Sir, just so you know, these ANA will need a Marine escort to get back on Camp Shorabak. They’re not allowed to travel around Bastion and Leatherneck unaccompanied.” “Well, they’re dropping us off at the flightline so they’ll have to drive back on their own. It’ll be less than an hour. They know the way, and you can see exactly who it is so you know who’s coming back. If you have a sergeant of the guard I’ll clear it with him so it’s not on you.” “Sir, we’ve dealt with this before; they’re not gonna bend on this reg.” I thanked the gate guard for letting us know the rule, and we drove up to the flightline.

One of the soldiers, not having understood some of the English, asked me what all the discussion was about. I was embarrassed to explain what amounted to a double message: work with the Afghans. They are your brothers in arms. But don’t let them out of your sight. “Look, they have this rule,” I said. “It’s not the best rule, but we have to follow it. I’m going to make some phone calls to try to get someone to lead you back to Shorabak.”

“But I have duty in half an hour. I have to go now.”

“I understand, and I’m sorry.” Luke and I went into the flightline office to call our unit liaison, responsible in part for shuttling Marines around the base and providing escorts. Capt. Amir, Sgt. Maj. Rashidi, and the mechanics and IT tech waited outside. “Man, this is their fucking country, and their army, and their future, and they’re not even allowed to drive to their base without a babysitter,” Luke said.

“And why aren’t there any ANA on post with the Marines at the Friendship Gate? Why is it up to the Marines to decide who comes and goes from the ANA camp? Imagine if we couldn’t drive around our bases without an Afghan escort. Fuck no.” Trust no one. Complacency kills.

“If I were them I’d take off while we were in here, and figure out a way to get back on Shorabak.” After lots of calling around we managed to lock on an escort. He would arrive when he would arrive. Luke and I walked outside the flightline office. Capt. Amir and Sgt. Maj. Rafi were waiting for us. The rest of our Afghan friends, and their vehicle, were gone.

Camp Dwyer, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
August 2010

When someone in Marjeh is injured—whether American or Afghan, friend or enemy—the Marines on the ground initiate what is now a daily routine. The Navy corpsman—there are a couple of these medics attached to every Marine Corps platoon—begins treatment. If he determines it’s serious enough, the unit radios the standard medical 9-line report back to their operations center, which coordinates all the moving parts. In minutes, an Army Blackhawk is airborne, en route to a farm or field the Marines have marked with colored smoke or lights. The medevac pilots fly through anything, swooping into hot landing zones, knowing they’re a ripe target, braving the pings of incoming rounds impacting metal. Seeing these ungainly birds ducking and jabbing as they come in for a landing is truly one of the marvels of this war. Within an hour of the initial blast or bullet, the patient is on a bed at the Camp Dwyer Combat Assault Support Hospital (CASH), surrounded by a team of doctors, nurses, medics, and all the trappings of a modern emergency room. But in a tent. Or, actually, about a dozen long interconnected tents: one for emergencies, one for operating, several intensive care tents, and an administration and command tent. From the outside it looks like any other group of tan dusty military tents in Helmand. From the inside it looks like an urban Level 1 Trauma Center, but with a lot more trauma.

For anyone injured on the battlefield, it is probably a day of many firsts, and even more so for an Afghan: first time being shot? First time on a helicopter? First time hooked up to expensive machines? And first time in the middle of a bunch of people who don’t speak your language? The CASH has its own interpreters, but their job is to translate, not to comfort. To ease a little bit what must be a terrifying—and often devastating and life-changing—experience, I’ve encouraged the ANA soldiers at Camp Garmsir to make the drive to the CASH to visit the wounded. The ANA medics have started to make the trip often, embracing the duty of chatting and praying by bedsides with their fellow countrymen, regardless of ethnicity, rank, or station. I’m often there as an escort, hanging off to the side until the ANA are ready to leave.

And that’s how I came to be standing at the CASH one day, arguing with an Air Force sergeant seated behind the plywood front desk. I was there with two ANA medics, ANA Lieutenant Abdullah, the Marine regimental legal chief, and an uncle from Marjeh, still dirty from his work on the farm that morning.

“Sir. It’s the policy. I can’t let the uncle see his nephew in the ICU because the nephew is a detainee,” the Air Force sergeant explained for the second time. “Detainees aren’t allowed to have visitors or any other special privileges. The uncle shouldn’t have been allowed on the medevac bird with his nephew to begin with.”

“Roger, but now that the uncle is here there’s no reason not to let him see his nephew,” I said. “It’s not a special privilege for the nephew. The nephew is unconscious! We’re doing this for the uncle, who did nothing wrong.” I knew perfectly well that in Marjeh, an uncle knows what his nephews are up to. Earlier in the day, after a typical morning firefight tapered off, the Marine squad investigating the enemy position found the nephew, shot in the abdomen, outside his family compound, with an expended RPG case at his side. The Marines initiated the mechanics of the medevac. The Blackhawk snatched up the wounded nephew, but with an extra uncle in tow.

The Air Force sergeant called over her supervisor, an Army lieutenant colonel, and I pled my case: “Sir, whether this kid did anything wrong or not, and whether the uncle should be here or not, we can’t send the uncle back to Marjeh without seeing his nephew who’s unconscious right on the other side of this tent flap. He needs to be able to report back to the family that the kid is alive and being treated well. Until this kid is released, if he’s released, they’ll have no way of finding out where he is and how he is. Give us five minutes in there.”

He was OK with it. I ushered the uncle into the ICU for local nationals—coalition code for Afghan civilians. On one bed was an upbeat little girl with a teddy bear and a large patch on her side where some shrapnel had been removed. On the next bed, a sick older man. The bed after that, a man bandaged and bloody all over, his front side having taken the brunt of an IED blast. On the last bed at the end of the tent was a young man, the nephew, a large circular patch covering the remnants of a recent surgery. “He’ll live,” the Army nurse said to me, “but we removed most of his stomach. He’ll never be able to eat a full meal, which in Afghanistan will be good comeuppance for trying to shoot at Marines.”

I felt comfortable in the tent and was in no rush to leave. Neither was the uncle. “Please, let me stay here until my nephew is better,” Sammy translated.

“I’m sorry. That’s not possible. You’re going back to Marjeh on a helicopter that leaves a few minutes from now.”

“But he did nothing wrong. He left the house to bathe in the canal and the Marines shot him.”

“They’ll do a thorough investigation when he’s better. If he’s cleared, we’ll send him back to you in Marjeh. In the meantime, you’re getting on that helicopter.” It was the uncle’s best way of getting back to his family, though he didn’t know it. If we turned him over to the ANA, they’d drop him off somewhere in a bazaar and let him find his way home.

“You shot my nephew,” he said. We shoot a lot of people’s nephews, I thought.

“The Marines say your nephew was shooting at them first. Please understand that we only use force when we absolutely have to. Whatever the circumstances, I’m very sorry that your nephew is hurt, and we’re doing our best to help him get better.” I wrote out a note for him to hand to the Marines at his closest village outpost. “This paper has all the necessary information in English so the Marines in your area can find out what’s going on with your nephew.”

“He did nothing wrong. He left the house to relieve himself and the Marines shot him. I want to stay with him here.” The uncle had been pleasant the whole time, almost affectless in the midst of all the drama. I drove him to the flightline, gave him some extra bottles of water, and made sure he got on the helicopter, with an escort.

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