COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan – The Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman rides along with the Alpha Cavalry Troop’s First Platoon in search of a Taliban weapons cache.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/afghan3.jpgNuristan Province, Afghanistan
COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan – The Hooligans, officially the Alpha Cavalry Troop’s First Platoon, were on their way to interview some villagers out in sector when the call came over the radio: head back to base immediately.
New intelligence had come in about the Taliban weapons cache that the platoon had tried in vain to find on Saturday. A trusted source had said he was “100 percent certain” he knew where the weapons were –- along with other material recently hijacked off of Jingle Trucks. The troop’s trucks turned around and headed back to Zormat
Back at the tactical operations center, Capt. Chad Collins, commander of Alpha Cavalry Troop, 1-61 Cavalry, was visibly excited as he briefed his subordinates. Since the mission involved going into kalats — Afghan homes — in an obscure village called Spin Sarakalat, the Hooligans would be joined by a complement of Afghan National Police, or ANP. That meant a U.S. Police Mentorship Team –- soldiers embedded with the police to improve their performance -– were along for the mission. “This is all the crap we were after the other day,” Collins said, “except now we have pinpoint intelligence.”
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgThe intelligence came from a source I’ll call Errol Flynn. He is an Afghan who provided information to a special component of Afghan police, and who traveled from a distant city to brief Collins’ soldiers. The night before, he heard from a contact about a stash of stolen U.S. equipment at the house of a Taliban operative named Dawood. Amazingly, he investigated personally – Spin Sarakalat is at least 20 minutes from the nearest dirt road, with a paved road practically a fading memory — and “saw cables [and] a big generator” coming out of Dawood’s house. Flynn said he was so sure that the weapons were there that he’d quit his job if he led the Hooligans on a wild goose chase.
A quick lunch later, and the Hooligans met in the base’s motor pool, running through drills with their ANP counterparts.
Earlier that day, Sgt. Oscar Macias, frustrated with new rules restricting the Afghan National Army from participating on the Hooligans’ scheduled mission, remarked, “Remind me again why we need the ANA and ANP.” The platoon sergeant, Forrest Robertson, reminded him that “the mission won’t end” until the Afghan security forces are able to control the country on their own. But there was a more immediate need for the ANP’s participation on the mission: U.S. forces aren’t permitted to raid kalats on their own.
With two trucks of ANP cops rolling along, the Hooligans and the PMT set out for Spin Sarakalat, about 90 minutes from the base. At least half of the trip was off-road, over rough, dry farmland. The megaton trucks pitched from side to side, as if on open water. The cracked clay of the terrain was indistinguishable from the clay structures of the kalat houses that jutted out of it — crumbling structures that look like slouching, sun-bleached castles.
Thanks to a dirt-covered bridge, barely wide enough for the platoon’s vehicles, the Hooligans had to approach the suspicious kalat on foot — across 800 meters of wide-open field. As with the mission on Saturday night, if anyone opted to shoot at them, there was nowhere to take cover. The Hooligan lieutenant, N. Blaine Cooper, ordered the ANP to drive ahead –- their pickup trucks could get over the bridge easily -– and block off the potential escape routes from the *kalat. * Then Cooper, Staff Sgt. Rannalt Bahr, Sgt. Richard Balch and Pfc. Curtis Oakes picked up their rifles and led the march.
The kalat’s red clay walls, about twice the height of an ANP truck, was punctuated by only one entrance, guarded by bright blue doors. A family of chickens pecked around the garden courtyard, oblivious to the advance of the U.S. soldiers and Afghan police. As Cooper’s men reached the kalat, they joined the chickens in stillness.
“This is where the fun for us ends,” Cooper said. Only the ANP and their PMT partners could enter, though the lieutenant lent the PMT one of his translators, Joe. Cooper ordered his men to the perimeters of the building.
Suddenly, the inside of the kalat exploded with screaming. Joe peeked his head out the door. “They found one man in a woman’s dress!”
The ANP barreled through the door. As the police yelled in excitement, they pushed out a visibly frightened man with a thick black beard. He was wearing ornate, feminine robes of bright orange and red. This was Dawood Shadikhan, 33, whom Errol Flynn had pegged as a Taliban soldier. With the police jostling him forward, he pleaded in Pashto to anyone he could for his release –- to the lieutenant, to the stoic-looking soldiers beside him, to the reporter scribbling notes.
Shadikhan was not alone. A half-dozen elderly women, faces dotted with tribal tattoos, streamed from the kalat, wailing in sorrow and begging the police and soldiers to let Shadikhan go. Their screams were deafening. Shadikhan joined in, seemingly stoking the fracas.
An angry Afghan police officer, his flopping hair dyed red in front, picked up a wooden pole and bashed Shadikhan in the shoulder blades with it. With the blows, women’s cries reached a fever pitch. Still furious, the officer pivoted around and threatened the women with the pole, causing the oldest among them, wrapped in a black dress, to lose her balance. She took an ugly fall and started to cry.
Cooper, sensing the young ANP officers were losing control, yelled at the red-haired cop to stop and put down the pole.
“Get the women away!” Oakes yelled, as Balch pulled up Shadikhan’s dress. Balch found a 512-megabyte memory card –- evidence. Cooper took the card and told his interpreters, Joe and Massoud, “Get the ANP to relax, and not blow things out of proportion.”
Balch, accompanied by PMT members and two angry-looking cops, marched Shadikhan around the kalat’s corner, away from the women, and flex-cuffed the detainee’s hands. Stripped of his woman’s clothes, Shadikhan wore a dirty tan shirt that stretched to his knees and a tattered green cardigan. He was barefoot and afraid. Errol Flynn, behind him, beamed over a job well done.
But where were the weapons and the stolen cargo? Shadikhan insisted that men had come and moved the haul to a neighboring kalat. He gestured at it with his head. Capt. Chavez, an MPT leader, took the detained Shadikhan back into his house to make sure it was empty.
Outside, the women sat in the dirt, supplicants to the U.S. soldiers, begging that Shadikhan hadn’t done anything wrong. “We mean no disrespect,” Cooper told them. One elderly woman, dressed in black, her forehead and chin dotted with tattoos arranged in the shape of diamonds, insisted through translation, “ANP trucks came and carried all the stuff away.”
Cooper continued what seemed to be polite and calm questioning. The older woman pleaded that, two days before, “white taxis” had pulled up, depositing “a civilian guy with a big beard” who knocked the door open and took things from the kalat as well. She had piercing blue eyes. But she swore there were no Taliban in the area.
“Why did they put a woman’s dress on Shadikhan?,” Cooper asked. She said they all were scared when the soldiers arrived.
The doors to the kalat burst open again. Out sped the police officer who had beat Shadikhan, driving a new maroon-colored motorcycle, a huge smile plastered on his face. Trying not to be distracted, the woman continued, “You are better than the Taliban, they hit our women.” But the other women looked agitated at the idea of the police taking their motorcycle.
Chavez emerged with Shadikhan, the PMT and the ANP. The kalat looked empty, except for the motorcycle and a hunting rifle. Shadikhan swore that he had a license for the motorcycle. When the soldiers looked through his pockets, all they found was his wallet and identification. “He’s lying. He’s Taliban,” Joe muttered.
Balch was unimpressed with the hunting rifle. A frustrated cop told him it was hidden in some bushes. Big deal, he said, “I have one in the bushes at home, too.” Starting to look skeptically at the ANP, he told the women they could have their rifle back.
Shadikhan insisted that all the men had left the village, “scared of you, scared from the Taliban… many times ANP guys had come here and hurt us.” This time, however, he contradicted the women, saying the Taliban had been to the house two days ago. He was led to Sgt. Robertson’s truck to be taken to the district commissioner’s office for booking, and then to the Zormat jail.
The red-headed cop sat on the motorcycle, revving the engine and treating it like his personal property. Balch gave him an icy stare. If the vehicle didn’t have documentation, technically it was illegal, and it should be impounded at the district center. But it didn’t seem like the police were going to follow procedure to the letter here. Robertson agreed.
“They can’t take the motorcycle because it’s not registered,” he pleaded to Cooper. The lieutenant said that the police were, in fact, within their rights to seize the bike. “They can,” Robertson said, “but look at the situation!” That was all Cooper needed. The red-headed cop still sat on the motorcycle, and the other ANP began to get angry that the soldiers would tell them not to take it. “I don’t give a fuck who’s saying what,” Cooper told the ANP, “the bike stays here!”
He walked off. The women were still wailing. “Holy cow,” Cooper muttered to himself.
Errol Flynn had a worried look on his face. The sun was setting. “This place has too many Taliban here,” he said through one of the translators. “It’s too dangerous. We need to leave before dark. They may ambush us.”
Cooper had a decision to make. Within the hour, it would be pitch black in an open field, far from the base. They had yet to search the *kalat *that Shadikhan had identified as the place where the Taliban took the weapons cache. What should they do?
A PMT leader, Cpt. Phipps, was concerned. If the kalat was in walking distance, “Yeah, but if not, we’re throwing ourselves out here like sitting ducks.”
The kalat was about 100 meters away, Joe said. Cooper decided to check it out and then leave. But as soon as the soldiers began their march to the second kalat, their plans were overtaken by events: the ANP got into their trucks and began to head back to their headquarters.
Cooper, a preternaturally taciturn man, was stunned. Joe ran up to a police truck to find out what was happening. The ANP, he said, were angry about not being able to seize the motorcycle, and refused to continue the mission with the Hooligans. Without the ANP, the soldiers couldn’t enter the kalat — meaning they’d potentially have to leave a weapons cache where the Taliban could move it.
Oakes, marching back to his truck, said this was “pretty par for the course,” adding with a rueful grin that the police in this area were still better than the troop of the Afghan National Army. A frustrated PMT soldier said the cops were “temperamental little children.”
Cooper went to talk to the policemen, who didn’t budge. “That’s fine,” the lieutenant fumed.
There was one last thing to say. Phipps, in an angry tone, told the ANP that “the detainee is not to be beaten.” Cooper added, in vivid language, that if he ever saw a police officer hit a detainee who wasn’t a threat -– as the red-haired officer had done to Shadikhan -– there would be serious consequences.
Shadikhan was taken away by the ANP. No senior officers accompanied the police team, for they were apparently busy collecting their paychecks from the bursar. Meanwhile, Phills and Chevez ahd quickly arranged to meet with the police chief the following day to check up on the detainee.
But Shadikhan had one last thing to say for himself. Trying to straighten out his story, he first said that, two days before, the ANP had come to his home in the morning, and then the Taliban came that evening. He wasn’t home in either case, he added. Then, he bizarrely insisted that the Taliban hadn’t actually paid a visit.
“He had better pick a story,” Cooper said. On questioning, the ANP chief did concede that another ANP team had visited Shadikhan’s home. But he vociferously denied taking anything -– despite both Shadikhan and the woman’s story. Meanwhile, Shadikhan said the Taliban had taken “some electrical cables and a generator” –- though he had just said the Taliban hadn’t come to his house at all.
As Robertson said earlier that day, the police and the army are the only long-term strategy for securing Afghanistan. The U.S. troops have two missions: to hunt down the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements, and to prepare the Afghan security forces to take over security duties. Today, the second mission appeared to imperil the first.
Cooper headed back to his truck. Perhaps further questioning of Shadikhan could yield more information about the location of the weapons cache. Maybe explaining what had happened to senior police officials could get the ANP back on the same page as the Hooligans.
But for now, Cooper had to go back to base empty-handed -– again –- blocked from searching the kalat. “If they won’t do it because we won’t let them take a motorcycle…” Cooper trailed off, letting the implication hang in the setting Afghan sun.
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