On paper, the plan for the foot patrol looked perfectly safe. A stroll through a couple of villages. Introductions to a few village elders. A two-mile drive back to the guarded walls of the Afghan police headquarters. Easy.
But the first missions of a deployment have a way of going terribly wrong. And so the company commander huddled with his platoon leader in the hours around dawn, checking potential ambush points, charting evacuation routes, worrying about every possible equipment failure.
There was one variable, however, they could do little to control: the trustworthiness of their Afghan police partners.
In small groups and to themselves, soldiers from the First Battalion, 87th Infantry, quietly fretted. Were those villages really friendly, as the Afghan police claimed? Were those roads really free of mines? What would happen if a police officer tipped off insurgent fighters to the platoon’s movements?
Just a week before, a different platoon in the battalion had hit a mine while accompanying the Afghan police along a dirt road. Some soldiers wondered whether the police had led the Americans into a trap.
That possibility was quickly ruled out, because the police were in as much danger as the soldiers. But jitters remained.
One way in and out
“Everyone knows there is one way in and one way out,” one squad leader said. “I don’t like it.”
They call it a training mission, but for the soldiers of the 1-87, their work in Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan is much more than that.
Over a yearlong deployment that started in the spring, the battalion, part of the 10th Mountain Division, will not only try to hone the combat skills of the local police — a ragtag group of illiterate young men and aging fighters — but also accompany them into the most contested hamlets in the region.
The goal, a centerpiece of the American strategy to help the Afghan government stand alone, is to show skeptical Afghans that their police can keep them safe. But the unspoken first step in that strategy is getting the American soldiers themselves to trust the police.
In their first weeks in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the 1-87 would have to settle for something approaching faith.
The Afghan National Police have long been considered the weakest rung of the Afghan security forces, often lacking proper training, equipment, commitment and ethics, American commanders say. More important, American commanders worry that some police officers — whether willingly or under duress — conspire with insurgents.
Late last year, an Afghan police officer in Helmand Province killed five British soldiers with whom he had been working.
The Afghan security forces have their own trust issues with troops from NATO. In April, German soldiers fired on a truck carrying Afghan soldiers rushing to the aid of a German unit caught in an ambush in the Chahar Darreh district. Six soldiers died.
'Afraid of the Germans'
“We are not afraid of the enemy; we are afraid of the Germans,” the district police chief, Gulam Maideen, said.
So building mutual trust was crucial, and commanders with the battalion said the best way to do that was to be with the police night and day: “Live, train and operate,” they called it. That is what brought the Second Platoon, Delta Company, to police headquarters in Chahar Darreh on a four-day mission — the first step toward keeping American soldiers in the district full-time.
“Some soldiers worry about the national police doing something subversive to them,” said the platoon leader, Lt. Andrew McCarthy. “I’m convinced that these guys are working off the same page as us, that they want the same things as us.”
Soon enough, his platoon would test that notion.
The Chahar Darreh district occupies the southwest flank of Kunduz Province, where table-flat farmland fades into dusty plateau and empty desert. It is only six miles from the relatively secure bustle of downtown Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city. But it is a time zone away in terms of security.
“There is really only one bridge you can get in and out of,” said Capt. David Bell, the Delta Company commander. “So it makes for a really great insurgent safe haven.”
The district is part of northern Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt, and many villages here share the language, tribal sentiments and even Taliban sympathies of their brethren in Kandahar and Helmand.
They are not technically a combat force, but the police are expected to maintain security on a day-to-day basis — and that means fighting insurgents. Yet by all accounts, they are underequipped and understaffed to do that.
In Chahar Darreh, there are only about 50 officers to protect 63,000 people spread across nearly 500 square miles, an area the size of Los Angeles. Chief Maideen said he would need twice as many officers to begin to cover the district effectively.
But for now, the police — riding in unarmored Ford Ranger pickups and armed with little more than Kalashnikov rifles — rarely venture more than two miles from their posts, unless accompanied by German or American troops. As a result, most villages here rarely see a police officer.
After the Americans set up cots in their new barracks at the police headquarters — an unfinished concrete building with no doors, windows or electricity — they moved quickly into their first task: determining the competence of their Afghan partners.
Using packages of Meals Ready to Eat to simulate vehicles, Lieutenant McCarthy gave a lecture on convoy operations in an ambush. And then the Americans and Afghans together acted out maneuvers to counter ambushes.
The Afghans spoke no English, the Americans spoke no Dari or Pashto, and there were only two translators, neither of them fully fluent in English. Hand signals and sound effects would have to suffice. Still, the Americans came away pleasantly surprised. “These guys have definitely done it before,” said Sgt. First Class Craig Pritchard, the platoon sergeant.
Indeed, many were like the police company commander, Nyaiz Muhammad. Short, stocky and bald, with a white beard that made him look older than his 47 years, he took up arms against the Soviets in the 1980s. By contrast, his American counterpart, Lieutenant McCarthy, tall and trim at 24 with a smooth-shaven Burt Lancaster chin, was on his first deployment.
The police chief, Gulam Maideen, said what other Afghan police officers seemed to have on their minds. “I don’t want more training,” he said. “I want the Americans to fight with me.”
He got his wish. In late afternoon on the second day, a German patrol came under fire from insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades near the police headquarters. The shooting stopped and the patrol returned to the base safely. But then the Germans asked the Afghans to help secure the road to allow a second patrol to drive through the ambush point. The Afghans asked the Americans for support, and the Americans eagerly agreed. Four gun trucks rolled out behind a police foot patrol.
Barely 500 yards from the police compound a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the wheel of one of the trucks. As soldiers jumped from the smoking vehicle, the police began shooting at insurgents across a field.
American trucks maneuvered to open fire with their .50-caliber machine guns. Another team ducked under a stone wall to provide backup fire to Afghan police officers chasing the insurgents.
The firefight, the platoon’s first in Afghanistan, was over in minutes as the insurgents scattered into the woods. But the Americans were pleased that the Afghans had been eager to fight, and the Afghans seemed thrilled that the Americans had come along.
“That’s a V,” Captain Bell told his soldiers back at the headquarters. “The chief was ecstatic. I think he was absolutely shocked, in fact, that we were willing to roll down the street and fight with him when he thought it was important to fight.”
Nerves on edge
By the fourth day of the mission, the adrenaline high of the firefight had faded into edginess about the final event of their trip: a foot patrol with the police into a village not far from where Taliban fighters killed three German soldiers just a month earlier.
Sgt. First Class Joseph Mejia, the company’s top noncommissioned officer, could sense the raw nerves. A veteran of multiple deployments, he launched into a bracing pep talk during a commander’s pre-patrol briefing.
Before him stood a few seasoned soldiers like Sgt. Santiago Zapata, a native of Union City, N.J., on his fourth combat tour. But most were deployment rookies, like Pfc. Billy Moody, from North Carolina, a former bassist with a heavy-metal band who had been in the Army little more than a year.
“I am not worried about this area,” Sergeant Mejia growled, punctuating every sentence with an expletive. “And neither should you.”
The first person the Americans met was a young girl pumping water from the village well. She broke into tears at the sight of the heavily armed Americans, and all the soldiers could do was try to help her with the heavy pump. It did little to stop her crying.
But within minutes, villagers peeked out from behind mud walls and shuttered windows. Soldiers bumped fists with children. Lieutenant McCarthy chatted with a shopkeeper who told him that armed Taliban fighters had stopped in the village several weeks before to threaten any families whose sons had cooperated with the NATO troops.
“If you tell the police,” Lieutenant McCarthy told the shopkeeper, “we can come to make sure they don’t do that again. Ever.”
As they prepared to depart, the platoon made a crucial decision: to use a different return route, recommended by the Afghan police.
The road was narrow and slick with mud. One of the trucks bumped into a wall, cracking it. Less than a mile later, another truck slipped off the road and nearly flipped over in a ditch. The platoon tried to use a winch and a hook to pull the truck back onto the road, but it was too heavy. Captain Bell called for a salvage team.
Girl gives flower to soldier
At first, curious villagers, most of them Pashtun, emerged to chat with the soldiers. A little girl gave Private Moody a flower. A towering man with hands the size of catcher’s mitts posed for photographs with Captain Bell.
“We are happy to have them here now,” a villager said through a translator. “But if they kill a single civilian, people will turn against them.”
What the platoon expected to be an hourlong wait for a tow truck dragged into four, then five hours as the salvage team got lost. With each hour, the atmosphere became progressively uneasy.
An American truck accidentally knocked down a power line. The children disappeared into houses. And then the Afghan police received reports of gunmen on the bluffs overlooking the village.
The soldiers and the police crouched in irrigation ditches and behind walls. Across an open field, they could see the spot where they had been ambushed two days before.
At one point, Lieutenant McCarthy looked around for his Afghan partners. They were nowhere to be seen. Had they fled? Suddenly, Commander Muhammad appeared, strolling through the village carrying flatbread and rice for his men. They had been patrolling farther up the road.
As dusk approached, the wrecker arrived. Relief mixed with dismay. “Hey, we’re the U.S. Army,” one soldier quipped. “We knock over your walls, drive into your ditches and knock down your power lines. Now we’re going to protect you!”
But Captain Bell was satisfied. The Afghan police had stayed with them through the ordeal. The villages turned out to be safe. It was a beginning.
“There’s always something that goes slightly awry on a first mission,” he said. “Better to get it over in the first mission.”
Back at the police compound, the platoon shouldered rucksacks and loaded up for the drive back to battalion headquarters in Kunduz. Mud-caked and hungry, they grabbed packaged meals, sponged down with baby wipes and glanced once more at their spartan bunk room.
In a few weeks, this would be home.
This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.