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Portrait of an Afghan Assassin

No one is sure what made a 17-year-old poetry-writing cop gun down four Marines. But somewhere in his story is the key to whether we'll ever get out of Afghanistan.

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The week before Christmas, Greg Buckley Sr. pulled his moving van onto a New York City street teeming with holiday shoppers. On each of the van's rear windows was a poster with a photo of a young Marine in his tall, white dress hat, a kid with olive skin and soft, handsome features. "Greg Buckley Jr.," the posters read. "21 Years Old From Oceanside, NY. Never Forget."

Buckley got out and fed the meter. He isn't tall, but there's a solidity to his frame, and he stabbed a callused palm at me in a handshake. We walked into a burger joint and sat down at a table with a red-and-white-checkered cloth. There were plastic wreaths on the door, and a techno version of "Jingle Bells" played on the radio. It would be the family's first Christmas without Greg Jr.

The boy was out of place among the illiterate police. He sometimes called into radio stations to recite his poems "about loneliness and love."

Buckley has a blunt forehead and deep-set blue eyes; he talks with a Long Island swagger where profanities seem a natural part of speech, especially when he's angry. Buckley feels his son's death could have been avoided if the Marines had taken more precautions and hadn't been living among the police; he says that's why the Marines haven't responded to his repeated requests for a copy of the investigation into Greg Jr.'s death. (According to a spokesman, the Marine Corps gave Buckley a preliminary report, but it has not received a copy of the full inquiry, which was conducted by Navy investigators.)

Buckley never wanted his oldest son to join the Marines—he hoped he'd someday work for the family appliance delivery business. The family lived in Oceanside, a well-off Long Island suburb of two-car garages and wide lawns whose social life revolves around the school, sports field, and shopping mall. Greg Jr. was nine when the September 11 attacks happened, and afterward he started talking about joining the Marines. His father never took it seriously. Then one evening in 2009, during Greg Jr.'s senior year in high school, Buckley came home to find a recruiter sitting in his kitchen. "Your son wants to join the Marine Corps, sir," the sergeant told him.

"Do me a favor, no disrespect, but pick up all your shit and get the fuck out of my house," Buckley replied, furious that the man had come into his home without his permission.

But Greg Jr. wasn't going to be a child for much longer. He turned 18 that summer and, with his father's reluctant blessing, joined the Marines. The deal they struck was that he would stick with some safe and useful trade, serve his country for a few years, and then come home to Oceanside.

Aynuddun's diary, in which he wrote about running away from home Photograph by Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini

After boot camp, Greg Jr.—Buck to his Marine friends—was sent to Kaneohe Bay to work in a warehouse for a supply and logistics unit. It was a shock to have his son so far away, but Buckley's doubts were somewhat assuaged when he flew out to Hawaii to visit his son and found that he was growing into a man, confident and respectful. Then, in early 2012, Greg Jr. informed his dad that he was being deployed to Afghanistan. Buckley was devastated—he thought his son's enlistment contract precluded combat tours—but there was nothing he could do. Buckley assumed Greg Jr. had been ordered to go. The truth was, his son had volunteered when space opened up on a Police Advisor Team, or PAT. His best friend Richie Rivera was going, and Buck didn't want to miss out.

After finishing their training, the PAT arrived in Garmsir in April 2012 for a six-month rotation. They had barely moved in to the police headquarters when a new wave of insider attacks began.

Understanding why the sudden spike of insider attacks began in 2011—well after the peak of the surge had passed—requires revisiting the compromise made by the Obama administration two years earlier, when it bowed to the requests of American generals, including David Petraeus, for more troops to support their ambitious counterinsurgency campaign. The administration's caveat was that the surge forces had to be out by 2011, and that all combat operations had to cease by the end of 2014, with only an undefined training and advisory mission to continue thereafter.

Once the surge troops had beaten back the resurgent Taliban, the second half of the strategy called for ISAF forces to train their Afghan counterparts to take their place, allowing the United States and its allies to pull back from an increasingly costly and unpopular war. Given the timeline, that meant going big quickly—the size of the Afghan security forces would have to more than double in just a few years, increasing from 150,000 at the start of 2009 to 350,000 by the end of 2012—in a country whose institutions have been destroyed by decades of war, and where the attrition rate was so high that a third of the entire Afghan army had to be replaced every year. At the peak of this recruiting frenzy, the Afghan military and police were signing up 15,000 men per month. Virtually anyone was accepted, no questions asked, and units were often headed by officers who had paid bribes for their positions.

Embedding special-forces trainers with local units has long been a basic part of counterinsurgency doctrine, but this was different. The short time frame and huge ambitions of the Obama administration's strategy called for close-contact "partnering"—not just involving experienced trainers, but other troops as well—on a scale never seen in Iraq or Vietnam. ISAF's motto became "shona be shona" ("shoulder to shoulder" in Dari), and the bulk of ISAF combat troops were ordered to live cheek-by-jowl with Afghan forces, so the local recruits would learn by example. To keep up with the pace of recruitment, ISAF training teams were padded with enlisted men who specialized in maintenance and logistics—tasking inexperienced Americans with training inexperienced Afghans.

Buck's PAT, for instance, was composed of a hodgepodge of volunteers from different units, thrown together to meet the sudden demand for trainers. Some were military police, but others were supply clerks and forklift drivers. "They were like, 'Hey, who wants to go to Afghanistan?'" said Oliver, the team's medic.

The whole partnering exercise was a combustible recipe for cultural clashes. Beneath the rhetoric of cooperation, the assumption that armed Afghan and American 18-year-olds would benefit from each other's company was wildly optimistic. Among smaller units in areas of heavy fighting, where Afghans and US soldiers relied on each other daily to stay alive, the bonds of combat tended to dissolve these differences, but tensions flared on midsize bases where there was frequent but shallow contact. With vastly different social norms, hygiene habits, and mannerisms, Afghans often found Americans disrespectful and arrogant, while the Americans could be openly contemptuous of their counterparts. "I thought Iraqis were the worst people in the world, and then I came here," one young soldier with the 101st Airborne told me in Kandahar in 2011, expressing a sentiment typical among the troops.

The friction correlated with the rise in green-on-blue violence. In 2009, only 10 percent of Afghan army units were partnered, but in early 2012, when insider attacks peaked, that figure was close to 90 percent. (A spokesman for ISAF says it is "not correct to link the two" and that ISAF's partnering strategy "began long before the increase in insider attacks in 2012.")

Buck and his unit worried about their safety almost from the start. Insider attacks were happening all over the country, and the Taliban was stepping up efforts to infiltrate the Afghan army and police. In April 2012, a member of the Afghan Local Police—one of the US-backed militias that proliferated in southern Afghanistan as part of the counterinsurgency strategy—walked into a police station in southern Garmsir wearing a suicide vest and killed 10 Afghan police officers and civilians.

In June, while Buck was on guard duty, he asked an Afghan cop for his ID, per standard procedure, and the man refused. They ended up in a shouting match, and when Buck was later ordered by his Marine superiors to apologize, the Afghan policeman refused to shake his hand. Buck was badly rattled by the incident. "He just had this feeling," Oliver recalled.

Back in Oceanside, Greg Sr. noticed his son sounded increasingly worried in their weekly phone calls. "I don't feel safe here at all. I want to come home," Buck told his father during one conversation. "I'm telling you, something's going to happen to me here."

Then he asked, where is your brother Mohammad? He replied, he is at home. Then the boy became very happy. He will accompany me, he thought, and we'll start studying together. Then he told the younger cousin to go and ask his brother to come, and tell him that I'm waiting here.

Convinced that the answer to Aynuddin's mystery lay in the time he spent as a runaway, I visited the Lashkar Gah Training Center. Its low-slung barracks look out onto a wide gravel lot, where Afghan police recruits and their ISAF trainers were practicing mock Taliban ambushes, each side pointing empty weapons and yelling, "Bang, bang." Mohammad, a cousin of Aynuddin's, was halfway through the two-month police-training course.

"He was a good person and a dear friend," Mohammad said, folding his chunky army boots under himself as we sat down on the gravel. He had the faintest wisp of a mustache, but claimed that he was 19. "He was having problems at home and couldn't live there anymore," he told me. "First, we joined with the local police."

On the day he ran away from home in early 2012, Aynuddin stayed the night in a park. He spent the next day walking 20 miles to Mohammad's house in Marjah, where he convinced his cousin to join him. It's not uncommon for runaways to end up with the police, who are desperate for recruits. The day after leaving Marjah, the teenagers joined a band of Afghan Local Police militiamen.

At first, it seemed an exciting adventure. They smoked hashish with the older policemen, cruised around in American-supplied pickup trucks, and fired automatic weapons in the nearby desert. Aynuddin was a good shot, Mohammad recalled, strong enough to handle a light machine gun. Once, he even took part in a gunfight with the Taliban.

But the boy's bookishness was out of place among the illiterate police, and he longed to continue his education. At night, he sometimes called into local radio stations to recite poems that he had written. "They were about loneliness and love," Mohammad said, laughing. "What else is there to write about?"

Aynuddin also confided to him that he had been physically abused by Isamuddin and his other older brothers, who treated him like a servant. (Perhaps that, not the traffic accident, was the real reason for his violent temper.) Normally calm and friendly, Aynuddin sometimes grew bizarrely aggressive, particularly after smoking hash. Once, fed up with being ordered to feed a dog that lived outside the Marjah police station, he shot the animal dead with his AK-47.

A couple months after he ran away and joined the Afghan Local Police, Aynuddin's family found him and pressured the militia to send him and his cousin home. Initially, he was calmer with his family, though he wouldn't speak of his experiences with the police and sometimes stared into space, as if recalling troubling memories. One night, as he slept next to Shamshad, Aynuddin awoke and told his younger brother that he had just dreamt that he was a corpse, and that the people standing over him were about to take him to the graveyard. After a few weeks, the anger spells returned, and after another fight with his mother, he left home again.

This time, he headed south alone to Garmsir, where he joined another US-backed police unit for around two months. In early August 2012, Aynuddin arrived at the Garmsir police headquarters with the entourage of the newly appointed police chief, Sarwar Jan, several Afghan cops told me. The Marines had pushed Jan, a distant relative of Aynuddin's, out of at least one previous posting for his alleged corruption and suspected dealings with the Taliban, but he was well connected politically. He was also rumored to be a sexual predator. "Some of the stuff with pedophilia and chai boys made the Marines sick to their stomachs," one Marine officer told me. "His nickname was 'OJ,' because he was such a criminal."

Afghan police at Garmsir told me that Aynuddin was always at Jan's side, fetching tea and anything else the commander required. At night, they said, he slept in Jan's room. (When I tracked him down, Jan, who is serving a one-year house arrest sentence for allowing Aynuddin's attack to happen on his watch, denied having any corrupt dealings or fondness for teenage boys.)

Around the same time that Aynuddin arrived in Garmsir, Buck's unit got word that they would be leaving on August 12, two months ahead of schedule. The countdown started. A week before their departure, Oliver took a video of Buck lying shirtless in his bottom bunk, staring at the plywood above his head where, like a prisoner, he had drawn lines counting off the days they had spent in Garmsir. He placed his finger against them, ticking off the legs of their journey home, via Helmand's Camp Dwyer and the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. "Seven days…Dwyer," Buck murmured. "Ten days…Manas. Fourteen days…Hawaii! Oh, yeah!" he cried, wriggling in the bunk.

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