See a photo essay about the teams of Afghans who risk their lives to disable explosives here.
MAJOR JIM CONTRERAS was awaiting his marching orders. Literally. Stuck in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Afghan province of Helmand, he was supposed to take his troops, along with a unit of an elite Afghan police force known as ANCOP, to secure the area around Nawa, so the people there could vote. It was part of the past year’s biggest US offensive against the Taliban. But he couldn’t leave, because his Afghan counterparts hadn’t gotten their official order from the Ministry of Interior. The order had been signed five days earlier, but it had to be delivered to the commander, Colonel Gulam Sakhi Gahfori, by courier, with its seal intact. Then again, Colonel Sakhi had also not gotten basic supplies like fuel, ammunition, and radios. Contreras and Sakhi spent a fair amount of time discussing how the Afghans were to refuel at Nawa. Nobody knew if there were any gas stations there.
Contreras is a small man with a big grin who served in Bosnia, Haiti, and the first Gulf War. He was excited about his work in Afghanistan. He believed he was fighting to protect the American way of life. His wife had been working near the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11. “This is in its infancy,” he said. “We’re beginning to see the military might that we as a nation can bring.”
That evening Contreras’ men, an Illinois National Guard unit dubbed Team Ironhorse, sat waiting to be briefed by their CO. The dozen men were all scouts, and some were snipers, all trained by their recently killed first lieutenant to be “meat eaters.” But the months of daily operations and shitting in bags had taken a toll. They resented being sent on missions that weren’t theirs, the neglect they felt, the lack of progress. One sergeant’s parents owned a hardware store and sent the team four tow straps to pull their vehicles out of sand and mud because their request through military channels had gone nowhere.
Major Contreras said Ironhorse’s mission was to escort the ANCOP to the Nawa area, which a Marine unit was trying to secure so Afghan authorities could take over. He also said guys in police uniforms were harassing civilians. Whether they were impostors or Afghan National Police (ANP)—the ordinary and often corrupt cops that Ironhorse’s ANCOP partners looked down on—was anyone’s guess. He told his men to plan for seven days in the field. “The reason why we’re going down is to put an Afghan face on the mission,” he said.
The men looked skeptical. “Duration of mission and number of legitimate police in Nawa and how will ANP get along with ANCOP?” Staff Sergeant Robert McGuire tersely asked without moving or looking at the major. Staff Sergeant Tim Verdoorn complained that Team Ironhorse would be doing the Marines’ job. As the major concluded his briefing, McGuire loudly muttered, “It’s a cocksuck.” After Contreras left, McGuire added, “That was very well thought out.” I asked him to elaborate. “Fuel will be the biggest issue,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re gonna live. We’re not taking tents.”
Contreras had his own worries. The Marines had chosen a school as their base, and British forces in the area had warned against occupying schools. “The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and fucking charge,” he told me later. They might not be suited for counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency, or COIN, has been in vogue at the Pentagon since the success of the Iraq surge, and its dominance was cemented when President Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, former head of special operations forces and a recent convert to counterinsurgency, as his commander in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Obama promulgated his new strategy “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The primary tool would be COIN.
Counterinsurgency theorists obsessively study “small wars,” such as the British war in Malaya, the French war in Algeria, and the wars in Vietnam. The emphasis is on using the least amount of violence against the enemy, familiarity with the local culture, and painstakingly removing popular support for the insurgents. This involves using proxy forces to kill those who cannot be “reconciled,” and searching for political solutions that tempt the civilian population away from the insurgents.
In some ways, COIN and the related “stability operations” doctrine are a rejection of the neoconservative focus on military might as the key tool of foreign policy. Just as the neocons ruled the Pentagon under George W. Bush, so it seems that the proponents of “population-centric” fighting now have a preponderance of influence in the Obama administration.
To liberals, these COINdinistas, as they are dubbed, might seem kindred spirits. They emphasize nonlethal means, humanitarian aid, development work, and protecting the civilian population. They recognize that military force alone cannot solve conflicts, and that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military did not know how to operate in a war where “the terrain is the people.” But the end result is still a foreign military occupation—which is not America’s stated goal in Afghanistan.
CONTRERAS AND I drove to Sakhi’s office at the ANCOP headquarters (the acronym stands for Afghan National Civil Order Police). There was a marijuana plant in the garden, and inside a picture of President Hamid Karzai was flanked by some plastic flowers and a map of Helmand. Sakhi was wearing an ornate shalwar kameez, cream with shiny embroidery, and watching a Bollywood movie. He had thick eyebrows and a short, well-groomed beard. He brought out a pile of kebab and bread and bantered with his guests through Bariyal, a thickly muscled translator known as Shotgun. He was the 2002 weight-lifting champion in Pakistan‘s North West Frontier Province, and like most translators who spend enough time with the Americans, he had adopted their argot. “ANCOP are fucking bad-ass people,” he told me. Colonel Sakhi and Team Ironhorse shared the same warrior culture, and the language divide proved easily surmountable.
Sakhi strongly believed that most Taliban were locals, working on farms, firing when they had a chance, then throwing down their weapons and taking up a shovel. He warned that the Taliban had planted at least 100 IEDs in Nawa. IEDs had been responsible for the majority of American and British casualties in Afghanistan and a few months before had claimed Team Ironhorse’s lieutenant and a staff sergeant, as well as an interpreter and an ANCOP officer. It happened last February when First Lieutenant Jared Southworth and Staff Sergeant Jason Burkholder went to examine an IED the ANCOP had discovered. They asked for an ordnance disposal team to destroy it because they worried civilians would get blown up, but were told to mark the location and move on. The ANCOP officer dismantled the IED anyway, but a second one beneath blew up. Ironhorse spent an hour picking pieces of their friends off the road and out of a tree.
First Lieutenant Southworth had been very passionate, his men told me. He believed he’d come to give Afghan kids a better future and he loved what he was doing. He paid Afghans $150 for pointing out IEDs. A rich aunt sent him the money. It was unusual but it worked, his men said. Back in Illinois, they had been told they would be on a large base in a safe job, but Southworth knew different. He informed them they were going into the shit. He spent more than a year preparing the team as best he could, sending them to sniper school, scout school, combat lifesaver school, mountain warfare school. He gave a speech to the men just prior to deployment, warning that some of them wouldn’t make it back.
Mindful of IEDs, Contreras told Sakhi that Ironhorse would go through the desert to avoid the main road. The Marines would meet them to guide them to the schoolhouse base. But Sakhi had still not received his written orders. He asked Contreras to tell the American police-training headquarters in Kandahar to email the deputy minister of interior. The next day Contreras went to see Sakhi again. “The Marines are giving me a lot of problems because of the delay,” he said. Sakhi was still waiting for supplies. One of the major operations of the year, the military’s big push to ensure Afghanistan could hold its election, was being held up by red tape.
TWO DAYS LATER they finally got the order to go. Sergeant McGuire was in command of the lead National Guard Humvee. The gunner up top shot pen flares that went pop like a gun at cars that got too close. McGuire asked if I was sure I wanted to be in the first vehicle, which would be the first one to get blown up by IEDs. Sakhi asked that the Americans’ armored vehicles take the lead because his vehicles would be blown to shreds.
As we drove south the ANCOP stopped in front of every culvert to search both sides. It was slow progress. Some of the police trucks got stuck in the deep, soft sand. When we reached the Arghandab River, the ANCOP drivers started playing NASCAR, speeding around each other, nearly crashing. Two of them got into an argument about the driving and one raised his rifle. This had happened before, Sergeant Verdoorn later told me. Once, on the base, two of the ANCOP had drawn their pistols on each other. “There was blood in their eyes,” Verdoorn said.
Two Marine Humvees met Ironhorse across the river. We were in a thickly vegetated area of farmland, trees, and narrow canals. Helmand is the wealthiest province in Afghanistan; it has an irrigation system, some electricity and paved roads, and some of the best agricultural land in the region. It is the world’s largest producer of opium poppies and a great place for a self-sustaining insurgency.
Sandbags lined the top of the schoolhouse. Hundreds of Marines wandered around shirtless wearing green shorts and kicking up dust. They slept on the ground outside or in classrooms that smelled of sweaty feet. A Marine captain thanked Contreras for bringing the ANCOP. The lack of an Afghan face had been their weak spot, he said. Nawa had been quiet for a few days. “The Taliban left to lie low,” he said, “but this is their breadbasket, so they’re not likely to give it up.”
The next morning Contreras met Marine Commander William McCollough at Patrol Base Jaker, a partially constructed brick building that was a short but tense walk from the schoolhouse. McCollough told Contreras that in the town of Aynak, 14 miles away, they had discovered a “rogue” police unit that was extorting the locals. Nawa’s chief of police, Nafas Khan, sat in on the meeting. He had a long beard and a long, nervous face. The Marines described him as a local mafia boss. Team Ironhorse suspected he was keeping his men’s salary for himself, forcing the police to steal for a living. Khan denied that the police in Aynak were under his authority.
After Khan left, McCollough told Sakhi that he should supplant the rogue police. The Marines might have to fight to get to Aynak, but once there, McCollough said, they would meet with locals in a shura, or council. Team Ironhorse’s Staff Sergeant Randy Thacker was dismissive. “These shuras are just a bitch session,” he said. “They’ll complain about cops shaking them down. The major will make promises and the ANP will come back and go back to the same ways.” He’d seen it before: When Ironhorse and the ANCOP came in, towns that had been abandoned would slowly repopulate, and when they started to hand things back over to the ANP, residents would flee once more. The ANP were the only face of the Afghan government most people saw, and it was often an ugly one.
The three units prepared for departure the following morning. The Marines gave Ironhorse and ANCOP enough fuel for another day or so. What might happen after that, no one really knew.
THE NEXT DAY the coalition command for Helmand informed Contreras that the Aynak police were indeed under Khan’s authority. We departed at 5 a.m. and rumbled slowly along a canal green with vegetation. Marine minesweepers walked ahead of us. By 9 a.m., we had gone maybe three miles—a numbing pace that allowed any Taliban to flee well in advance.
Children tended cows and sheep in fields. At 10:30 we linked up with a group of Marines who would take us the rest of the way to Aynak. Dozens of their vehicles were parked off the dirt road on plowed fields, crushing cornstalks. “This farmer is not gonna be happy,” one corporal said. The Marines had paid damages to farmers in the area. Today they accidentally set one field on fire, then ran around trying to put it out. The shura in Aynak was canceled because it was clear we would be getting there too late. Marines lay about in the shade. A young specialist sat atop a Humvee. “We came, we parked, we relocated, then we parked,” he beamed.
A Marine captain named Andrew Schoenmaker arrived and told Contreras that when his men had first asked people in Aynak about the Taliban, they got only complaints about the police. He estimated that there were about 150 cops. “It was uncomfortable when we met them,” he said. “They were all high.”
We wouldn’t be leaving for Aynak until 4:30 in the afternoon. That concerned Sergeant Verdoorn: “It seems like the Marines want to get in a firefight—5:30 p.m. is the beginning of fighting time.” I asked Contreras about the delay and he said, “Because it is fucking hot.” The Marines had to walk, and in the past few days dozens of them had collapsed from heat exhaustion.
We finally began to plod along once more, the Marines in front of us. Kids stood motionless in front of homes and glared at the Americans. Men with black beards and black turbans also stared, expressionless, standing ramrod straight.
A boy emerged from behind a metal gate and mud walls to talk to the ANCOP, but none of them spoke Pashto and he didn’t know Farsi. The Americans’ interpreter translated. There was an IED on the road up ahead, the boy said. His father came out wearing a green shalwar kameez and nervously fingering red prayer beads. The IED was planted near their house. Several days before, Taliban had been hiding in a house about a few hundred feet away, he said, pointing to it. He worried locals would inform the Taliban that they had warned the Americans. McGuire walked right up to the IED and saw it partially buried and concealed by shrubs. The minesweepers ahead of us had missed it. A robot was dispatched to destroy it; the explosion sent up a huge cloud of smoke and debris. Rocks rained down on us hundreds of feet away. The men speculated whether it would have been a catastrophic kill. McGuire thought it would have just tossed us up a bit in our armored vehicle. But it would have obliterated the ANCOP.
We made it to Aynak after nightfall. It had taken an entire day to go 14 miles. We slept under the stars, the men taking turns on guard shift. We heard explosions and gunfire in the distance. The next morning the police used an abandoned mud compound as a bathroom, and so did I.
Colonel Shirzad, the ANP commander for Helmand, showed up. Like every other chief of police in Helmand, he had bought his post from officials at the Ministry of Interior. Police were known to release prisoners for bribes ranging from $500 to $15,000. I hitched a ride back to Lashkar Gah with Shirzad, sitting in one of the four Ford Rangers in his convoy. It took us 30 minutes. The trip from Lashkar Gah to Aynak had taken Ironhorse three days. Shirzad’s men did not stop to check for IEDs, which could shred their Rangers. I scanned the road desperately.
The next morning, I learned, Ironhorse went out on patrol with the ANCOP and found five IEDs placed on the road I had just taken. One had been hidden by their invisible adversary just after they had passed; they found it on the return trip. That day a 20-vehicle Marine convoy from a base in the desert tried to go to Aynak to resupply Ironhorse. The convoy was attacked by the Taliban so fiercely that it turned back.
COLONEL BILL HIX is an experienced Special Forces officer with extensive COIN experience who until July led the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command in Kandahar—he was in charge of training and mentoring the Afghan police and army. I met him there just before he shipped home. His wall featured portraits of 41 Americans from his command who had been killed, all but 2 by IEDs. He would have needed a much bigger wall for the Afghans. From January 2007 to April of 2009, he had lost 2,096 Afghan police and 949 Afghan army soldiers.
Hix believed that the Taliban’s disappearance in the face of an American operation was a sign not of weakness, but of strategy. They would slide their Kalashnikovs under their beds and bide their time, watching their enemy. It had happened with a major operation in another part of Helmand the year before; as soon as the Americans left, the Taliban were back. Hix had spent 21 months in Afghanistan, and he enjoyed his job. In his view it was the Afghan army’s job to push the Taliban away from the population, while the police should be protecting the people where they lived. Hix did not believe more American troops were needed, just an “adequate” police force and army—about double the present number, which had taken eight years to build up.
Control is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist and civil war expert whose book The Logic of Violence in Civil War is very influential among counterinsurgency theorists, “The higher the level of control exercised by the actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor—and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection.” But by that logic, the Americans will never have enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve control. A generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency is roughly 1 cop or soldier per 50 civilians. That would mean 600,000 troops are needed to secure Afghanistan—fewer if part of the country is assumed to be secure already. The Afghan army and police between them have about 189,000 members, and there are an additional 42,000 international (mostly NATO) troops in the country. Obama has raised the US total in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. McChrystal’s much-debated request is for an additional 40,000, but even that would bring the US troop total in Afghanistan to about 68 percent of the number in Iraq, a smaller country, at the peak of the surge.
Meanwhile the Taliban are seamlessly embedded within communities, a British security expert in Helmand told me. They are the locals. They do not need Kalashnikovs; a simple knock on the door can be just as effective. At night the Taliban controls the villages, undoing whatever the Americans tried to accomplish during the day. It does not matter if here and there the Americans are effective. “Emptying out the Titanic with a teacup has an effect,” the Brit told me, “but it doesn’t stop the ship from sinking.”
COIN is a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Colonel Patrick Lang, who has done counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Latin America, and the Middle East. There are insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, he says, and if the Americans don’t plan on owning the country, why waste time on it? “It is only worth the expenditure of resources if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while.” There are 28 million people in Afghanistan, and they are widely dispersed in small towns. “You have to provide security for the whole country,” Lang told me, “because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and a massive multifaceted development organization that covers the whole place. COIN advisers have to stay in place all the time. If you’re going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for the nation builders.”
His point was that the Americans will bail on Afghanistan no matter what. It will be tragic when that happens, whether it’s six months from now or two years from now. Andrew Wilder, a longtime aid worker who has spent years working in Afghanistan and set up its first think tank, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, told me there is no way to “fix” Afghanistan. “It may be more realistic to look for ways to slow down the descent into anarchy.” Another way to look at it came from a retired American military officer working in security in Afghanistan. “Every time our boys face them, we win,” he told me grimly. “We’re winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for 20 years?”