What happens when you ask soldiers in Afghanistan to be diplomats?

American MP's in Kandahar.
Oct. 19 2010 7:01 AM

MP Stands for Multipurpose

What happens when you ask soldiers in Afghanistan to be diplomats?

Click image to expand.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Ketterman jokes around with an Afghan policeman

Every morning at Police Substation 5, two Afghan children come in and collect the trash, presumably to resell. They don't sort out the bottles and cans. They take everything, down to the last Nutri-Grain wrapper. "They're the hardest-working people around here," says Lt. Jason Walter, the top-ranking officer in 1st Platoon. It's not so much a compliment to the kids as an insult to the Afghan police. The MPs are supposed to be mentoring the ANP, but the relationship feels strained, to say the least.

"There are four things you can swear about anybody here," says Staff Sgt. Ronald Ketterman, gesturing toward a room full of Afghan policemen. "They take bribes, they lie, they fuck each other in the ass, and they steal. If you wake up in the morning and just assume that is as gospel as the beard on your face, you're gonna do well."

I've just arrived at the police station, and Ketterman is giving me the full tour. There's the American sleeping quarters, a small room into which the two dozen MPs have been squeezing, three to a bunk, since their arrival nearly two months ago; several relatively spacious rooms for the few dozen Afghans; a rooftop, where some of the ANPs sleep; the guard towers, each manned at night by an MP; and the bathrooms—two holes in the ground for the Afghans, two outhouses for the Americans. All the facilities connect to a coverless septic tank that makes a flashlight necessary at night. And there's the door to the courtyard where the abandoned artillery shell resides. "Don't go in there," says Ketterman, as if the flimsy plaster between us and the explosion would make a difference.

Out on the porch, the American MPs are playing cards and eating a hot dinner brought over from Forward Operating Base Walton, where the MPs spend their off-nights. The MPs usually get one hot meal a day. Otherwise, it's a calorie-efficient diet of meals ready to eat, cereal bars, Chips Ahoy, Gatorade, and cans of Rip-It energy drink.

In another room, the Afghan police are spread out in a circle, drinking tea and eating flatbread. Tonight they've invited over some local musicians who play a sitar-like instrument and drums while the rest take turns dancing in the middle of the circle. A couple of MPs investigate. The Afghans offer them tea and sweets. They politely refuse. "I don't eat stuff they give me," says Spc. Jeremy Hirsch. "I don't know what's in there." Two weeks earlier, at a different station, a group of Taliban infiltrated an ANP cooking staff, poisoned the police, shot them, and stole their trucks.

An Afghan comes over to talk to the Americans. "You are a policeman?" he says to Sgt. Michael Pirog in halting English, which is still more than most ANPs speak. No, says Pirog, who in civilian life works security at an Army depot in Pennsylvania. "You are a girl?" the ANP responds. The Americans laugh. "I love you," says the Afghan. "I love you."

The overfriendly English practice  makes some of the Americans uncomfortable. "Is it Thursday yet?" asks Spc. Maurice Gonzales. To the Americans, they are known as Man-Love Thursdays. As the sun sets, ANPs will be seen holding hands, throwing arms around shoulders. The theory is that, because Friday is a holy day for Islam, Thursday night is the best time to get your sinning done. "Let 'em try," says Spc. Joshua Hill, tapping his pistol. "They'll meet my 15 friends." Actual advances are rare. Spc. Jonah Rock recalls coming down from a tower shaken after an ANP stroked his face. And there was the time an ANP tried to establish a cross-cultural connection by Bluetoothing Afghan porn onto an MP's cell phone.

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The front gate opens, and an ANP roars in on his motorcycle. "That's Captain Hook," says Spc. Francis Lacey, the platoon's medic. "We call him that because he draws dark lines around his eyes, like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean." (Captain Hook would not look out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.) He's one of the few ANPs who's earned a moniker. There's also Handy Mandy, the electrician who is always shocking himself. An overweight man whose gut protrudes from under his shirt has earned the name Snorlax, after the Pokémon who's always sleeping. Mowgli wears a bowl cut, like the protagonist in TheJungle Book. Somehow the ANP who carries nunchucks has no nickname.

The MPs are no less demeaning to each other, albeit in jest. When Gonzales walks over, Rock plucks the "Kung Fu Fighting" song on his guitar, in honor of Gonzales' ambiguous ethnicity. "What are you?" someone says. "Are you Chinese? Are you Mexican?" (He's Filipino.) Another MP gets into an argument with Hill, who is black, by contending that American slaves actually made a pretty good living.

The most social ANP by far is a young Uzbek lieutenant named Bashir, who has started taking English lessons from "Bob," an American interpreter originally from Pakistan.  (Interpreters often change their names when they're on the job.) Every night, Bashir and Bob sit with a Dari-to-English phrasebook that appears to have been written by a 19th-century vicar. Among its phrases: "Better sit idle than work for naught."

It's a lesson his colleagues have learned a little too well. Of all the cultural gaps between the Americans and Afghans, work ethic causes the greatest tension. The MPs will ask the ANP to saddle up for a patrol, only to have a handful volunteer. Late August is also Ramadan, the holiday during which Muslims fast by day and eat by night. Ramadan says nothing about taking time off from work, but many Muslim establishments reduce business hours, and the Afghan police spend much of the day sleeping. The Afghan commander of the police station has set the tone by taking Ramadan off entirely.

Still, Police Substation 5 is the gold standard of Kandahar police stations. Taliban have not infiltrated the cooking staff, as they did in District 6. The chief has not been assassinated, as occurred in District 8. No one has lobbed grenades into the guard towers, injuring a policeman, like in District 10.

This station boasts a relatively noncorrupt assistant chief. (The chief himself—the guy who's taking the month off—is both lazy and corrupt, say members of the platoon. "You can't get him to go anywhere without bribes," says Ketterman. "You give him gas, he'll sell the gas.") It has some ANPs—some—who take the job seriously. Weapons are accounted for, mostly. "This is the best station we've seen," said a Canadian police adviser when she came to visit. "They've got trainers, they've got patrol logs, they've got schedules." Walter seemed genuinely surprised. "They do?"

Click to view a slide show.

The next morning, as the platoon is eating breakfast, Captain Hook passes by looking dissolute. His arm is covered in bandages. "Tell him to cut down on the bomb making," says Ketterman. "Or maybe his boyfriend beat him. They were probably acting out a prison movie." None of this means anything to Captain Hook. Turns out he got into a motorcycle accident the night before. Lacey bandages him up, but he still needs to go to the doctor. "He wasn't doing much work anyway," says Lacey.(A few weeks after I left, Captain Hook accidentally blew off one of his toes when his gun misfired, according to Lacey.)

When the two kids arrive to gather trash, Staff Sgt. Amanda Voggenreiter offers one of them a cup of Special K Red Berries. The child takes it, eyes it, and throws it on the ground, scattering the cereal everywhere. Everyone laughs. "That's Afghanistan right there," says one of the MPs.

Many Afghans I spoke with, including police, say they're grateful for the coalition's presence. But Americans don't always get that sense. "We're sugar daddies to them," says Ketterman. "That's all we are." It's just hard to tell whether the Americans don't respect the Afghans because they're not grateful, or whether the Afghans aren't always grateful because the Americans don't respect them. Or if either group has any idea what the other is really thinking.

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"Y'all can't fuck with the police!" Spc. Leo Watkins fires up the siren on his armored vehicle and pulls onto Highway 1, the main road that runs through the city of Kandahar. Our destination: a checkpoint overlooking the Tarnak Bridge, on the road to Kandahar Airfield, southeast of the city. In March, a suicide bomber destroyed the midsection of the bridge. It took months to repair. A billboard nearby now features a photo of the smoking bridge—an attempt to dissuade future suicide bombers. You may have destroyed this bridge, it suggests, but we rebuilt it. It's also a reminder that the Taliban can, in fact, fuck with the police.

When it comes to American police, though, Watkins is correct. The Taliban have pretty much ignored the MPs in recent months and focused their attacks on the ANP. It's about hard targets and soft targets. The Americans drive giant armored trucks straight out of Transformers, the latest of which are designed to deflect and withstand IED blasts. The Afghans zip around in green pickups painted with the circular ANP logo that might as well be a bull's-eye. When a large IED explodes underneath an M-ATV—a mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle driven by coalition forces—riders can get badly hurt. When it hits an ANP truck, there's nothing left to hurt.

There are other ways to target Americans. "Is that guy standing there with his fucking dick out?" says Walter from the front seat. We pass a man on the side of the road, naked except for a turban, masturbating in the direction of the passing convoy. "I've seen it all now," says Voggenreiter, over the radio.

We pull up to the checkpoint—a small station where Afghan police inspect cars before they cross the bridge. The place looks deserted. The ANPs are inside, sleeping. Capt. Wasser, the company commander, is already there with his team. Earlier that day they found a buried stash of explosives and blew it up across the field, to the alarm of passing drivers. But that's not why they're here. They're here to pick up trash.

The checkpoint looks like a bombed-out convenience store. Wrappers, bags, bottles, cigarettes, and clothes litter the ground outside. The battalion commander is scheduled to tour the place later, and this won't do. The MPs set down their weapons, grab giant plastic trash bags, and fan out across the yard.

One refrain you hear is, "MP stands for multipurpose." The positive spin: MPs are flexible—they lead escorts, man checkpoints, train Afghan police, conduct patrols, and respond to crises. The negative: They're everyone else's bitches. Today, it's clear which interpretation applies.

Trash clean up. Click image to expand.
Spc. Frank Lacey, medic, picks up trash at a police checkpoint

"This is crazy," says Pirog. "I thought we were advisers; now we're trash men." "New headline of the day: 'MP picks up trash,' " says Spc. Amber Wardell, who just found two syringes and a bottle of brown liquid. I snap a picture of Lacey reaching down to pick up some scraps. "Make sure the caption says 'medic,' " he says. "I'm glad I went through 20-some odd weeks of school for this." Wardell spots a pair of tighty-whities caught in the concertina wire surrounding the checkpoint. She whips out a knife and cuts them down. Multipurpose, indeed.

Nearby, an Afghan man is berating a group of MPs in Pashto. They made the mistake of throwing out a pile of old flatbread, thinking it was trash. He'd been planning to sell it at the market as animal feed. When an American military truck hits a goat in the road, the driver is obliged to pay its owner $60. There is no talk of reimbursing this man.

Notably absent is the ANP. One Afghan officer shuffles by as the MPs start filling sandbags, but he doesn't offer to help. He slides behind a parked pickup truck, drops his pants, and squats down. This is the last straw. Ketterman comes around the truck. "You're here to work," he says. "This is your place." The man hikes up his pants. "I am sick," he says through an interpreter, "I am in pain." "Well, then move slowly," says Ketterman.

Ketterman marches into the ANP sleeping quarters. Four men are spread out on their beds. "Get the fuck out, let's go," says Ketterman. A couple of them groggily stand up. Someone mentions fasting. "Bullshit," says Ketterman, "I eat one meal a day. Fasting does not mean you don't work. Stop acting like a woman. Go earn your money." An ANP pulls on his uniform and stumbles out. "We're fucking paying them to sleep! That's all the fuck they do," says Ketterman. "Taxpayer money. Fucking drives me nuts."

Ketterman. Click image to expand.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Ketterman instructs  resting Afghan police to get to work

Back outside, the midday sun is set to bake. Pirog comes back from the truck carrying a case of water bottles. The rest of the MPs look up. Wasser stops him. "You can't drink in front of these guys," he says. "They're fasting. Take it back to the trucks." Long pause. "Yes, sir," Pirog says and slinks off. "These guys are working just as hard as we are," says Wasser, whose lips are by now looking pale. Near the fence, some MPs are griping. "I'm gonna take water and spit it in their face," says Spc. Steven Kircher. Wasser happens to be walking by as he says it. "Sir, I was joking," Kircher says. "Good," says Wasser, "or you would have been in serious trouble."The ANPs have started lugging sandbags up to fortify the roof. Walter pulls aside one of the interpreters. "If you catch them slacking, I want you to put a foot up their ass," he says. "Both feet," says Lacey. "They shouldn't be able to walk." "It's sad this is the only way to motivate them," says Walter."It's frustrating," says Wasser, up on the roof. "If we were doing this alone, we'd win this checkpoint. But we have to put up an Afghan front. I've been a football coach, I've been a martial arts instructor, and I still can't find that magic carrot and stick. I know I'll have an epiphany just as I'm getting on the plane home."Soon the battalion commander shows up. The 372nd just recently took over the checkpoint. Lt. Col. John Voorhees is here to make sure everything is going smoothly. Ketterman tells the MPs to stop filling sandbags. "Take a break while all the ass kissing's going on," he says. Wasser shows the commander around. Up on the roof, Voorhees sees an ANP lugging a sandbag. He turns to his soldiers and smiles. "So, you guys are watching while these guys work?" No one laughs.

Back at the base, word has spread that 1st Platoon spent the day picking up trash. In the dining hall, an MP from 2nd Platoon sees one of his counterparts and pointedly knocks an empty container of chocolate milk off his table. "Hey, can you get that for me?"

MPs are trained in cultural sensitivity. Before deploying, they learn about Islam. They're encouraged to use basic phrases in Pashto and Dari. But Trash Day tested their limits. It's one thing to let the Afghans work less during the day because it's Ramadan. It's another to forbid the Americans, who are working, from drinking water just because the Afghans, who are not working, cannot. "I was speechless when [Wasser] said we couldn't drink water," one of the 1st Platoon soldiers said later. "I wanted to punch him in the face."



At least Wasser practices what he preaches. At the end of the day, he was so dehydrated he needed an IV.



Part 3: How to build a police department from scratch.

See a slide show  about U.S. military police in Afghanistan.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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