Shortly after 1 p.m. on a searing hot, dusty day, three armored trucks begin a trip out beyond the security of the 12-foot concrete walls surrounding their military base.
Just before the convoy turns onto a rutted dirt road into bad-guy country leading to the village of Charkusa, an alert sounds on the radio.
“IED. East of the Delta canal,” a voice crackles.
Inside one of the trucks, nicknamed “Batman,” five troops have wordlessly heeded the pre-mission warning from the team sergeant.
“Buckle up. Most casualties come from lack of wearing seat belts.”
With four team members strapped into seats and a fifth standing in the machine gun turret on top, the soldiers adjust their helmets and settle in for the bumpy ride.
For this Operational Detachment Alpha - or A Team - of the Florida-based 7th Special Forces Group and the men and women supporting them, it has already been a tense 10 days.
An Afghan Local Police leader they've worked with, Sultan Mohammed, was gunned down by the Taliban. The assassination was retribution, and a warning to others. Days later, four U.S. soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device near the base.
Now it's time to visit the checkpoint Mohammed patrolled, in the province where the Taliban was born — one of the most restive places in Afghanistan. The plan is to drink some tea with the commander there and find out what he needs.
“The ALP are very centralized,” says the A Team captain before climbing into the lead truck. “Once the head falls off, the rest of the body is likely to fail.”
During the next several days, the team will visit with dozens of Afghan Local Police leaders in several villages across two districts, each leader with a different level of skills, interests and commitment.
Along the way, members of the A Team will help determine in what shape the U.S. leaves Afghanistan. Their mission reflects the motto “you can't surge trust” — a reference to the wave of additional troops sent into battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan and coined by Adm. William McRaven, who heads the Special Operations Command in Tampa.
The clock is ticking on them.
More than a decade after American forces arrived with their NATO allies, hunting the masterminds of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the A Team and teams like it have just 18 months to make sure the Afghans are ready to defend themselves.
The armored trucks used by the team are named “Batman,” “Joker,” “Bain” and “Riddler,” “because it's easier to remember those names than the serial numbers,” says the team sergeant. The military keeps secret the names of commandos in the field.
The team is setting off on what has become the last major U.S.-led objective. While special operations and conventional forces are now serving in an advisory role on most combat missions, they are still taking the lead on programs to train Afghan security forces.
The small team of commandos and support staff who left the base in Kandahar are working with Afghan villagers to make sure the local population can resist the Taliban once the majority of U.S. and NATO troops pull out next year.
The goal is to create a patchwork of areas across the country where indigenous forces — made up of members of the local tribes and clans — make it difficult for insurgents to operate.
Called Village Stability Operations, it's a classic role for special operations forces and one that could work in different places around the world as Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa develops a new global doctrine for those forces.
In this case, the nearly three-year-old program is designed to teach the Afghans security, governance and development. It is seen as a success by U.S. military leaders and by many Afghan government leaders, too.
It is not without its problems.
Some of the 22,000-plus Afghanistan Local Police have brutalized villagers. They have turned on their U.S. trainers and even each other with deadly force. And there was initial objection to the program from the government of President Hamid Karzai, who feared that the local commanders — now armed and trained by commandos — would become warlords uncontrollable by the nation's capital in Kabul.
About a half hour after leaving the base, the armored trucks stop in front of a compound surrounded by 15-foot-high mud walls in a valley about a half mile from a row of jagged rock hills.
After a few last-minute instructions, the A Team gets ready to dismount. Slowly, the rear doors of the trucks open.
The first person out is a Navy bomb squad technician, who carefully emerges from the truck with his metal detector and begins sweeping the ground. Those entering the compound fall in line behind him while others take up security posts by the trucks.
“Make sure you follow the footsteps of the soldier in front of you,” the team sergeant says with a matter-of-fact calm that belies the potential consequences.
As the team walks slowly and deliberately behind the bomb tech, a man in a round, woolen pakol hat tilted upward on his balding head emerges from the compound.
His face, covered in a thick, bushy beard, breaks into a smile as he greets his visitors. He is the local police leader, Haji Rahmatullah.
Uttering a warm greeting in Pashtu, Rahmatullah beckons to the troops with a wave of his arms, turns and bounds back down the path to the compound.
Still in single file, the team stays behind the bomb tech.
“He definitely needs to check for IEDs,” one of the soldiers says as Rahmatullah disappears around the corner of the high mud wall.
The troops, M-4 rifles at the ready and still in single file behind the bomb tech, follow him into a shaded courtyard.
Some members of the team post up on the perimeters. A couple climb a steep set of mud steps and set up an overwatch at the top of the wall, scanning the valley through their rifle sights for Taliban.
Rahmatullah squats on a red and gold carpet spread out against another mud wall, under the leafy branches of a mulberry tree.
As a villager prepares to pour cups of yellow-green tea from silver pitchers into small, clear glasses, the captain places his rifle, barrel down, against the wall, takes off his helmet and squats to join his host.
There are smiles all around, but it doesn't take long before the captain senses a disconnect between the village leaders and their Afghan commanders back at district headquarters.
One of the topics the captain came to discuss was an upcoming shura, or meeting, of 40 local police commanders in the district.
“I talked to some of the commanders and they are interested in coming, but they are not sure of the date and time,” Rahmatullah says through an interpreter.
“I am surprised to hear that,” the captain responds, saying he talked to District Police Chief Masum Khan “the other day and he is planning on having the shura tomorrow.”
But there is good news to share, as well. The captain thanks Rahmatullah for working with local police commanders from throughout the district.
“I appreciate the fact that you don't only care about your own village, but you care about the whole mission,” he says.
Given that Rahmatullah is sticking his neck out to work with Americans, the captain orders up a surprise for him.
Shortly before his team packs up to leave Charkusa, a Navy F/A-18 Hornet roars overhead in a show of force.
“Now everyone can see he has our support,” the captain says.
Seeing the jet, Rahmatullah laughs with joy.
“This is my village,” he says, proudly showing off his Afghan Local Police identification card. “There was no security here before. Now that we have a checkpoint, we keep the Taliban out.”
Taliban or no Taliban, some things remain the same. As the troops leave the compound, some notice patches of marijuana growing along the pathway.
“You know what that is on the ground?” asks Naz Khalid, who translates for the team. “Hashish. They have so much hashish that they use it to cover the path.”
A short ride to another checkpoint, this one at the village of Zendanon, reveals more mixed results about how the Village Stability Operations Program is working.
Once again sitting on a carpet to drink tea, the captain congratulates the checkpoint commander, Tor Yalay, for making sure his area is constantly patrolled.
“This area's not very good,” Yalay says through an interpreter. “If I sit down here at my checkpoint, the enemy is going to come over, so I have to be doing my patrols all the time.”
“That's why I like your checkpoint,” the captain says, “because you guys take a proactive approach as opposed to being reactive.”
Yalay, a wiry man with a mop of dark black hair, laughs.
“You don't have to worry,” Yalay says, chain smoking. “I think my checkpoint is in the best shape and my patrols, to my knowledge, are the best my government approves.”
The captain asks Yalay if he knew anything about the four Americans killed by an IED a week before while on foot patrol. Yalay offers his condolences but says he doesn't know who was behind the attack.
“If we knew what was going on, believe me, I would have been the first one to be there,” he says.
The conversation changes to another topic. Yalay complains that many of his men are not being paid and he worries they may defect.
“These poor guys are soldiers, they have families to support and kids to take care of,” Yalay says, “It's kind of difficult.”
The captain sympathizes but says he can only do so much.
“I understand, but we oversee a lot of different villages in a lot of districts,” he says. “Zharay is not our only district. We respect your guys' issues so much we bring them up on a personalized basis.”
Yalay takes another drag off his cigarette.
“This is a very big issue,” he says. “Guys are quitting. Guys are leaving. This is not what they want. This is not what I want. If this can be solved immediately, that would be great”
The captain fiddles with his sunglasses.
“Well, nothing is immediate in this world,” he says.
Yalay brings up other issues. His men want heavier weapons — machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. And like the commander of the checkpoint in Charkusa, Yalay had not heard about the shura called for tomorrow.
The Afghan Local
Police, essentially an armed neighborhood watch, have borne the brunt of Taliban retribution: More than 400 of them have been killed since the program began.
That's the highest percentage of forces killed in action among any Afghan security element, according to Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which oversees all special operations missions here. The death rate is five times as high as the Afghan army's and twice that of the national police, according to the task force.
“It's a sign that the Taliban feels threatened by them,” the captain says.
Still, Afghans continue to join the local police and take action against insurgents, according to the Special Operations task force.
The Afghan Local Police, which reports to the Ministry of Interior, has so far recruited about half of the approved 40,000 police slots. They are in almost half of Afghanistan's districts, similar to counties, spread across 33 of its 34 provinces. They create a “security umbrella” over about 6 million Afghans, more than a quarter of the nation's population, according to the task force.
They have killed more than 300 enemy soldiers , wounded more than 400 and captured nearly 200.
In areas including those overseen by the Army's 7th Special Forces Group, whose home base is Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, the program is in a second phase. The team members now provide what is called “tactical overwatch,” meaning they have taken a step back from day-to-day training missions in the villages and now work to have Afghan district and provincial leaders play a greater role.
As part of this evolving mission, a second team from the 7th Special Forces stationed at the Kandahar base has created a provincial training center. It is a spartan place — a large open tent erected over a cement slab floor with one small, wooden classroom and a few benches. But it's also ground-breaking, says the Green Beret in charge, a lanky captain who jokes that his entire team consists of tall soldiers.
For the first time in Afghanistan, the Afghan Uniform Police — which has had friction in the past with the Afghan Local Police — are now training the local police, the tall captain says.
The provincial training center offers a three-week residential course. Recruits undergo several layers of background checks to guard against potential insider attacks. They learn everything here, including basic hygiene, marching skills and the elements of community policing.
A major emphasis, the tall captain says, is human rights and the rule of law.
Events like a rape of a young woman by four local police in a northern province last year highlight the need for training, he says.
Such incidents “are always at the forefront of our mind,” he says. “But the process hasn't changed.”
Traveling over a
paved road choked with trucks, cars, donkey carts and men and women in flowing robes on motorized bikes, the A Team's armored trucks head north to the Arghandab District Center.
The journey is considerably longer, and more scenic, than the trip two days earlier to Charkusa and Zendanon.
The convoy rolls past mosques and villas and garish roadside shops made of corrugated metal. And farms.
Lots of farms. All against the backdrop of mountains in the distance.
“They just got done with the poppy harvest,” says an Air Force senior airman who serves as the combat controller for the team, lugging heavy radio equipment to stay in touch with air patrols.
The airman is riding in “Bain,” the convoy's lead vehicle, which is fitted with a large roller extension in front that can detect and explode IEDs. He opens the plastic foam container holding his breakfast and grabs a quick bite of waffles and eggs.
The farther the convoy pushes, the lusher the scenery grows.
“Those are pomegranates and grapes,” the airman says, pointing out the flora rolling past.
As the convoy turns off the highway onto a dirt road that wends up a hill, the airman is both awed and troubled.
“This is gorgeous,” he says. “It's also the best opportunity for us to get hit.”
Shortly before reaching the district headquarters, the captain, sitting in the left front seat, offers a prediction.
“I bet they will be there waiting for us,” he says. “Usually, we arrive at around 9 a.m. when the meeting starts, but I bet there will be ALP waiting.”
After more than an hour, the trucks lurch to a halt just in front of the center. Troops step from the trucks, some heading up a hill to a long, one-story slab meeting room. As the door opens, the captain sees he was right.
Sitting on red velvet cushions atop a red carpet, along the room's pink walls, about two dozen local police checkpoint commanders wait for the meeting to start. Some are wearing uniforms, others shalwar kameez, a traditional dress worn by men and women. Some heads are topped by ornate fezzes.
“They run things differently here in Arghandab,” says the captain, referring to all the police who have already arrived.
Precisely at 9 a.m., a man in a crisp blue uniform and uniform hat walks in. The men along the walls stand and salute.
“He runs a pretty tight ship,” says the captain, speaking of Lt. Ahmad Fazil, the district police commander who bears a striking resemblance to Capt. Renault in the movie “Casablanca.”
Unlike the commander in Zharay, “who wants to be friends with everyone, they look up to Fazil here,” the captain says.
After shaking hands with his guests and conferring with a few police in small groups, Fazil opens the meeting. One by one, the checkpoint commanders stand and give a quick update on activities in their region.
Next, they talk about what they need. The requests are similar. More and heavier weapons. Ammunition. Gasoline.
“They just don't have the logistics,” says the captain. Supplies are hard to come by, he explains, and difficult to ship to checkpoints when they are available.
Most of the men in the room express confidence that they can fight the Taliban after the Americans leave. Still, there is a consensus that the U.S. presence has been beneficial and would continue to be so.
“You are like the mechanic,” says one checkpoint commander. “When our vehicle is broken, you come and fix it.”
When the meeting breaks up, the A Team gets back in the trucks and heads out to shuras with two Arghandab checkpoints.
For the captain, it's more tea and conversations. For much of the team, it's more standing guard in the hot sun.
During the second stop, the captain and Lt. Fazil get into an extended conversation about a new plan to hire local police to help identify IEDs. The conversation comes after their host lays out a typical Afghan lunch of kabobs, naan bread and a yogurt mixture called doog.
As the conversation drags on, the troops outside in the hot sun grow restless.
“I am so over this shura,” says one.
The meeting finally over, the team gathers up to leave.
Fazil, through an interpreter, says he is not looking forward to the day when the departure is permanent.
“I don't want them to leave,” he says. “I still need their support. We want them to be here long term in this country.”
Fazil will only
see a small part of his wish come true.
“The Village Stability Operations mission will go away in December 2014,” says the man who created the program, Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc, deputy commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. “We are planning for that very closely with our Afghan partners. We see that as a very doable objective.”
Bolduc, who rushed back to his office at a base in Kabul from a local police ceremony in the eastern city of Mihtarlam because of threatening weather, says the plan is to turn the keys over to the Afghans. They will be “fully in control, of the training, logistics, sustainment, education, pay, and quality control of the Afghan Local Police.”
Though the White House and Pentagon have yet to say how many troops will remain beyond 2014, when President Barack Obama wants most U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, Bolduc has a vision for what special operations forces will be doing.
“Our role will be two-fold,” Bolduc says in an interview.
The first will be ensuring that regional training centers, like the one run by the 7th Special Forces Group team, “are functioning properly. We will do that for a period of time.”
The second role will be “mentoring here in Kabul at the national level, for both the deputy minister of security as well as the commander of the Afghan Local Police. That's what I see.”
Looking back, Bolduc says that despite initial skepticism and controversy that has cropped up, the Afghan Local Police program has been a success.
“The Afghan Local Police program is not a perfect program,” says Bolduc, referring to, among other issues, the Kunduz rape and an insider attack earlier this year when one Afghan Local Policeman killed 17 of his colleagues.
Bolduc arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 and is leaving to become deputy director of operations for U.S. Africa Command.
What bodes well for the future, he says, is how the Afghans have handled those problems, creating the equivalent of an inspector general department to investigate misconduct.
“The thing that is very important,” he says, “is that the Afghan Local Police headquarters here has a Control and Assessment Team and they investigate every single allegation of Afghan Local Police misconduct.”
So far, since the team was created in summer 2012, it has investigated 96 reports of misconduct, 77 of which were substantiated. Former police are either sitting in jail or were kicked off the force.
This adds to his confidence, Bolduc says, that in their 18 months left, U.S. forces will be able to turn over responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the people who live here.
“I am very confident,” he says. “As a matter of fact, we are on a glide path to do just that.”