Real World: Kandahar
The soldiers of the 372nd MP Company have one of the toughest jobs in Afghanistan: fixing the Afghan National Police.
Training host nation security forces is a slow and painstaking process. It does not lend itself to a 'quick fix.' Real success does not appear as a single decisive victory. — The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
The Americans found the artillery shell in early August. It was sitting on the wall of a police station on the east side of the city of Kandahar. No one was sure how long it had been there or who had brought it. All they knew was, someone had to do something about it.
The 1st Platoon of the 372nd MP Company had just rolled into Police Substation 5, where the couple dozen military police would be spending the next nine months sleeping, eating, defecating, and standing guard alongside their Afghan counterparts, the Afghan National Police. Sgt. Matthew Montag, a noncommissioned officer with the 372nd, was finishing a routine search of the station when he spotted the shell, right there on the wall, next to one of the American trucks. Montag walked over to Staff Sgt. Ronald Ketterman, who was sitting in the truck.
"Look out your window," Montag said. "What is that?"
"Oh, that's an artillery shell," Ketterman said, as if identifying some local fauna rather than a bomb 10 feet away. The explosive device in question was a 155 millimeter projectile round. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have used 155s for decades to shell enemies at distances of up to 30 kilometers. Packed with TNT and launched out of a howitzer, it's not the most accurate weapon. But with a blast radius of 100 meters and a kill radius of 50 meters, when it hits, it hits. The fuse of this particular round was still intact. Look at it the wrong way, and it could wipe out the whole police station.
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Baird, the platoon leader, got on the radio to Explosive Ordnance Disposal, also known as the bomb squad. They're the guys you call when you find an improvised explosive device on the side of the road—or, say, in a police station. Usually they come out, defuse the ordnance, and maybe take their picture with it. In this case, though, EOD didn't come. Their rationale: The Afghan police found it; it was their responsibility.
Baird got off the radio. "What the fuck," he said. One of the Afghan policemen smiled at the MPs. "Boom," he said, miming the word with his hands.
The shell became a hot potato of responsibility. An Afghan villager had apparently found it and brought it to the cops, expecting them to take care of it. The ANP expected the American MPs to take care of it. The MPs expected EOD to take care of it. And EOD expected the Afghans to take care of it.
In the end, the ANP did—sort of. The Afghans laid it on the ground near the wall and piled a half-dozen pillow-size sandbags around it. If it had exploded, the sandbags might as well have been cotton balls. But at least it made everyone feel like they'd done something. When I left Afghanistan four weeks later, it was still there.
By then, the mix of miscommunication, buck-passing, and lack of resources that characterized the 155 incident was no longer surprising. The 372nd MP Company, a Maryland-based military police unit operating under the 504th MP Battalion, had arrived in Kandahar city in June. Its task: to train and mentor the Afghan National Police. Since then, MPs had witnessed incompetence of all kinds and at all levels. Their job wasn't so much to improve life in their slice of Kandahar as to create the conditions for improvement—in this case, a competent police force.
That job had previously fallen to the 82nd Airborne Division, an active-duty unit from Fort Bragg, N.C. To foster trust between the Americans and Afghans, the 82nd would spend maybe two nights a week at the police station where the ANPs sleep (most of them are from outside Kandahar). When the 372nd arrived in June, military leadership wanted to expand the experiment, with MPs living at the station five nights a week. The Americans had been occasional visitors, training the ANP in police tactics, helping them set up checkpoints, and accompanying them on patrols. Now they would be dorm mates: The Real World with AK-47s.
The ANPs could use the help. They have a reputation as the delinquents of the Afghan National Security Forces. Schooling levels are low. Corruption abounds. Drugs and misbehavior are commonplace. It's no secret why: When the Taliban fell to coalition forces in late 2001, the new government's priority was national security, which meant beefing up the Afghan National Army. The ANA thus got its pick of Afghanistan's best warriors. Unlike the Army, which has a long pre-Taliban history, the ANP was starting from scratch. And in many ways, it still is.
The Taliban have had little trouble infiltrating the Afghan forces. In 2009, five British soldiers were killed when a Taliban infiltrator opened fire at a police compound in Helmand Province, where the British had been living with the ANPs. A similar incident occurred in August, when an Afghan trainee shot and killed two Spanish soldiers and their interpreter in Badghis Province. The 372nd was thus encouraged to get comfortable around the trainees—but not too comfortable.
The stakes could not be higher. The coalition can't stabilize the country without securing population centers like Kandahar. It can't stabilize Kandahar without a strong police force. And it can't create a strong police force without proper training. To say the fate of the war hangs on the MPs of the 372nd Company would be an exaggeration. But if the 372nd can't succeed, it's hard to see how Afghanistan can.
I spent nine days in August embedded with the 372nd—eating the same food, sweating in the same trucks, and sleeping on the same cramped cots. My view of the war, like theirs, is blinkered. What I saw doesn't equip me to evaluate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But I can see the daunting obstacles that stand in the way of a functioning Afghan police force: the ANP's motivational shortcomings, conflicting notions of policing between the Afghans and their mentors, and the frustration, boredom, and in some cases ignorance of the Americans.
It's Tuesday, Aug. 24, and Capt. Fred Wasser is worried. A new operation just began to push the Taliban out of District 6. Firefights erupted in the early morning, and a group of MPs needed to be resupplied with ammo at 4 a.m. Wasser himself is just recovering from severe dehydration. Plus there's that dang artillery shell in Police Substation 5 that still hasn't been taken care of.
Worrying is pretty much his assignment. As the man in charge of the several dozen members of 372nd MP Company, Wasser is the guy who gets blamed when something goes wrong. "There's people in every land, every place who'd say, 'Don't worry about it, you're a worry wart, you're a pessimist.' I'm a realist," he says. "Because for 25 years I've seen tragedy at every level." Wasser joined the Army out of high school in 1982 and served active duty in Korea for three years. After leaving the military and working as a police officer in Altoona, Pa., he rejoined, this time in the reserves, after 9/11. His own job description is simple: "When people start letting their guard down, it's my job to bring their guard back up."
Wasser's aggressive nature—some might call it paranoia—has become a running joke among his troops. Behind his back they call him "Captain America," a reference to the Chicken Little character from Generation Kill who sees disaster around every corner. There was the time he drove to the police station from Forward Operating Base Walton, the large American camp just down the street, in a John Deere tractor outfitted with a machine gun—no armored convoy, no nothing—in order to chew them out for not posting enough guards in the towers.
Then there's the infamous time Wasser reprimanded one of his soldiers, Spc. Eric Shank, for leaving his pistol unattended. It was the last in a series of goofs by the platoon. First someone had lost a radio while on a mission, which reflected poorly on Wasser. Then someone dropped a .50-cal, the giant machine gun they mount on atop the trucks, and one of the rounds exploded. The unattended pistol sent Wasser over the edge. "Why are you trying to fuck me?" Wasser shouted, according to Shank. "He was under a lot of pressure," Shank later conceded.
Wasser's job isn't easy. Name a hierarchy, and the reserve MPs of the 372nd Company are at the bottom of it. There's the hierarchy of military rank—the 372nd takes orders from the 504th MP Battalion, which in turn answers to the 4th Infantry Division. Then there's the unofficial power structure of infantry versus military police. Best known for issuing tickets on military bases, MPs are often derided as the meter maids of the coalition forces. And finally there's the status gap between active-duty troops and reserves. Active-duty soldiers generally regard reserve units like the 372nd the same way grizzled detectives see rookie cops—as newbies who are necessary to the mission but lack the commitment or fortitude to complete it on their own.
Adding to his stress is that MPs have one of the toughest jobs in Afghanistan. Training police in an aspiring democracy where corruption abounds is already difficult. Doing it in a war zone is near impossible. It doesn't help that some members of the 372nd famously botched their last job: Supervising prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. None of the soldiers Wasser oversees was involved in Abu Ghraib, but the reputation of the 372nd still suffers.
The hardest part is that Wasser's men have to be diplomats, too. Since 2006, the U.S. response to asymmetrical warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan has been counterinsurgency doctrine as articulated by The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Instead of simply attacking the enemy, counterinsurgency, or COIN, aims to win over the people, too. That means reaching out to village elders, building up local infrastructure, and minimizing civilian casualties. "Our role is not to shoot and blow stuff up," Wasser tells me.
One evening, 1st Platoon visited a police checkpoint. The chief of the checkpoint, an Afghan named Aqa, greeted us outside and asked if anyone wanted tea. Lt. Jason Walter, the top-ranking officer in 1st Platoon, turned to Baird. "Do you want some tea?" "No," said Baird. Walter asked the interpreter, "Do you want tea?" "No," he said. We went in anyway. The commander sent someone to scoop out watermelon in the moonlight. Walter asked routine questions—How many men do you have on guard? Do you need anything?—and we left with bundles of grapes.
Not all soldiers relish their diplomatic role. "I'm a Christian," says Ketterman, a 32-year veteran. "I don't want to kill. But if some guy wants to go see Allah, I'm happy to help him. I'm a Muslim pimp: I'll get him his 40 virgins." At this rate, Ketterman may not get that chance. "I just wanna leave as a warrior," he says, "not a fucking bitch."
Most soldiers are trained to fight, not to conduct diplomacy. Asking a grunt to drink tea with local officials is like asking an Army engineer to write music for the marching band. He's not just ill-equipped—given his background and training, he's anti-equipped. The kind of person who signs up for the Army infantry is probably not the kind of person you want handling low-level international relations. "I've heard infantry leaders in meetings say, 'We're not trained for this, we're not prepared for this,' " says Wasser.
Military police, by contrast, are built for diplomacy, he says. They work in police departments back home. They're used to community policing—going on patrols, maintaining a presence in the neighborhood, asking folks what the police could be doing better, and generally getting to know the people they're protecting. In theory, they're ideal counterinsurgents.
And whereas active-duty infantry spend their lives in the military, reserve MPs come from all corners of life. The 1st Platoon includes security guards, volunteer firefighters, a state trooper, a Subway sandwich artist, and an art-restoration expert.
Military police have a sense for the "human dynamics" of war, says Brig. Gen. Dave Phillips, who trains MPs at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. While infantry may be tasked with destroying the enemy, for example, MPs are trained to respond along a "sliding bar scale" of force depending on what the situation calls for. At the same time, because they need to be self-sufficient, a squad of MPs carries more weaponry than a squad of infantry. MPs also stay close to their intelligence networks, says Wasser. "We talk to people. There's intelligence value in that handshake, looking [an Afghan] in the face, and them remembering, 'Hey that guy treated me well.' " It's no coincidence that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have relied heavily on MPs. Even after combat troops left Iraq in late August, MPs remain.
In other words, the 372nd and Afghanistan are perfect for each other. That's the theory, at least.
Part 2: What happens when you ask soldiers in Afghanistan to be diplomats?
See a slide show of U.S. military police in Afghanistan.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.