What not to do when an IED goes off.

American MP's in Kandahar.
Oct. 21 2010 7:12 AM

Sticks and Stones

What not to do when an IED goes off.

Blood from an IED explosion. Click image to expand.
Blood on the ground where an IED exploded

Thursday morning. We're sitting in a guard tower. Everyone is bored, which inevitably means jokes about black people.

Spc. Joshua Hill is describing his interaction with the Afghan kids. "I was telling them to get a job. J-O-B."

"Funny the black guy is telling them that," says one of the white MPs.

"I own a fucking landscaping company," says Hill.

"Why are you so angry?"

"I'm not angry. I'm annoyed. You'll know when I'm angry."

Silence for a minute. Then … BOOM.

A plume of smoke and dust rises from a city block about 600 meters away. Lt. Jason Walter and Sgt. 1st Class Joe Baird come up to the tower. "Think it was an IED, sir," says Walter. A truckful of ANPs zooms off down the road toward the blast. A few minutes later, we join them.

When we get to the site of the explosion, Afghan police are already clearing the wreckage. Apparently a cart full of grapes and tomatoes blew up on the side of the road as an ANP truck was rolling by. Three policemen were wounded. The ANPs are now tying the mangled cart to the back of one of their trucks, preparing to drag it away. Walter stops one of them. "We need to leave this fucking shit alone," he says. "You can't just come here and fucking take it away."

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The ANPs have a different conception of their role. "They don't want the public to find out about this," explains the interpreter. "It's been a long time now [since the last attack], and a lot of people are finally coming here, and also the road is blocked and they don't want that."

"I don't give a fuck what he wants," says Walter. "Let's finish what we're doing and then he can get it out of here."

Sgt. Chris Gnegy arrives with a bomb test kit and wipes down the frame and wheels of the cart. The wipes turn brown, which means TNT. Soon a fire truck arrives to spray down the road.

"I wanna know what the detonation device is," says Walter. "I bet the fuckers already took it. … Help me look for anything that looks electronic." We walk around for five minutes. Grapes everywhere. Blood is caked in the dirt. The firefighters are itching to spray. An ANP officer reminds the interpreter that they are fasting, so they want to finish this quickly.

"There it is!" says Walter. Spc. Brandon Humphrey picks up a piece of metal from a gutter and puts it in a plastic bag. "That's it." The MPs saddle up to take the evidence back to the base. We're just stepping off the road as the firefighters blast the street. The hose soaks our boots.

Military and civilian leaders like to talk about the "Afghan face" of the war. Whenever possible, they say, Afghans should be leading patrols, making decisions, and otherwise controlling operations. Americans should be advisers—nothing more. It's the wartime equivalent of teaching them to fish rather than giving them fish.

You see this play out on the micro level every day. When an ANP asked an American adviser for batteries, the adviser refused, asking how he would get batteries if the Americans weren't here. When shots rang out a block away from a traffic checkpoint, the ANP took off to investigate without waiting for American approval—a reckless move, but also a sign of self-sufficiency. When one ANP came to Sgt. Lisa Morgan complaining about his boss, Morgan told him to go through his chain of command, rather than turn to the Americans.

The Afghan face extends to public relations, too. The recent Kandahar offensive isn't called "Operation Fill-in-the-Blank." It's called Hamkari Baraye Kandahar, which means "Cooperation for Kandahar" in the Dari language. (Never mind that most Kandaharis speak Pashto, not Dari.) When the operation to push the Taliban out of District 6 began, commanders were careful to call it "Afghan-led" and emphasize that Americans played only a support role.

But the "Afghan face" is largely makeup. Any "Afghan-led" operation requires coalition approval. Afghan police salaries originate as dollars and euros. ANP organizational structures are designed on American laptops. The Afghan face is also inconsistent. Sometimes the MPs would make a point of putting the Afghans out front. Other times they'd patrol through a village on their own, with no sign of the ANP anywhere.

"This is their show. We're just here to help," says Sgt. Amanda Voggenreiter before a night patrol near the Tarnak Bridge. But when we get to the station to pick up ANPs, no one volunteers. They did a patrol earlier that day, the assistant commander explains, and are too tired to go out again. "They're using today's patrol as an excuse not to do this at night," says Baird. Is this typical? "Yes, it is," says Walter. The Americans end up going alone.

And when Afghans do take charge, you end up with IED blast sites cleaned up rather than investigated for forensic evidence. You have police taking off after criminals like a posse of vigilantes. You get unexploded artillery rounds covered by sandbags.

From the perspective of the ANP, though, it made sense to clear the IED materials right away. Bombs explode. Life goes on. Maybe one way to discourage explosions is to pretend they never happen. It's the Western approach to cordon off the area, gather evidence, and track down the bastards who did it. Perhaps it's not ideal to have a 155 mm round sitting in your courtyard. But odds are you'll be fine. To an Afghan officer who lives with risk every day, it makes sense.

As for the "Afghan face," it may be PR. But it's the only way to smooth the eventual handoff of power. Brig. Gen. Phillips, who served in Iraq and heads the MP school in Missouri, proposed a metaphor that avoids the Potemkin village implications of "Afghan face." "Sometimes you're the coach of a team," he says. "Other times you're the quarterback. And other times, you gotta be the cheerleader." In other words, you're mentoring, leading, and watching from the sidelines. MPs need to be able to shift between all three roles, he says.

Metaphors don't erase challenges; they merely describe them. And no amount of description changes the reality on the ground. Everyone I spoke to emphasized the need for more time—implying that a July 2011 drawdown isn't realistic. "It takes time," says Lt. Col. Victor Garcia, deputy commander of Task Force Raider, in charge of the city of Kandahar. "It's all about building relationships, building that mutual trust. There's still a ways to go." Ketterman put it more bluntly. "We're not gonna change this generation," he said. "We're gonna change three generations down the line." By then, the Afghan face may be the only one available.

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Kids. Click image to expand.
Afghan children gather at the foot of a guard tower at Police Substation 9

The Army is a lot like an organized religion. To serve, you have to believe in the larger purpose of your mission. But you don't always see how your day-to-day actions fit in. Serving thus requires a leap of faith that what you're doing is wise and justified.

When a FRAGO—short for "fragmentary order," or a sudden change in mission—comes in at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, it seems designed to test the faith of 1st Platoon. They've been assigned to embed at a different police station for five days while another company participates in an offensive against the Taliban.

"What's the point of this mission?" asks Spc. Seth Peacemaker as we drive through the night to Police Substation 9. Peacemaker, 19, is scheduled to head home in five days. "If I miss my son being born, I'm gonna kill someone," he says.

We get to the police station around 3 a.m. Ketterman assigns guard shifts. Later that morning, we're sitting around in one of the towers when a group of Afghan kids approaches. Every soldier in Afghanistan has a story about an encounter with children. Sometimes the kids wave. Other times they throw rocks. Often they make lewd gestures. There's no real protocol for how to respond, which means most troops improvise.

One MP throws down a dollar. "Bread!" he says. "Go get bread!" One of the boys takes the dollar, but doesn't move. "Bread!" the MP repeats. He pretends to eat an invisible piece of bread. Bob the interpreter comes by and asks the kid what's up. "He says the bread is far away, give me more money so I can buy a car to go get it."

The children are starting to multiply, and every gift from the soldiers produces a small melee. Someone drops a lollipop, and the children fight for it. To calm them, someone else tosses down five juice boxes, one for each. One of the kids winds up and throws a juice box at another kid. It caroms off his head and splatters. "I don't know how they found that girl with the pretty eyes," says an MP. "These kids are fucking ugly."

"How are you?" yells one of the kids. "English! Pepsi!" Another makes a gesture that suggests cunnilingus. One of the MPs grabs a rock and throws it at the group of kids. It hits one of them in the knee. Instead of throwing it back, the kid picks up a rock and throws it at another one of them. "Anyone feel like we're at the zoo?" says one of the MPs. "They're like little monkeys," says another. "I love my daughter, I love my son. But these kids aren't human."

The romanticism of the liberating soldier and the grateful child disappears quickly. It chips away with every pop the troops hear while driving through town—the universal sound of rock on truck. "Our interpreter says it's a game," says Cpl. Robert Daniels of 2nd Platoon. "But I don't think it's a game." Gunners are the most vulnerable. A few weeks back, Spc. Jeremy Hirsch was taking a picture from his turret when a rock shattered the camera lens. That was the same day a plastic bag full of feces sailed past his head.

Click to view a slide show.

Over time, throwing rocks at kids doesn't seem so terrible. For one Canadian soldier I spoke to, the turning point was getting struck by a flying brick. Now he says he hits kids if they come too close. "You gotta put it in perspective," he said. While stationed in Panjwaii, a district west of the city of Kandahar, his unit spent an afternoon watching local children play a game, he said. Eight kids stood in a circle. One kid in the middle held a rebar with a big piece of concrete attached at the end. He'd spin it around and, after building up enough centrifugal force, let it go. If a kid on the edge of the circle jumped out of the way, the other kids would beat him up because he didn't have enough faith in God. If he didn't dodge it and the concrete hit him, the kids would beat him up, too, because God intended for him to get hurt. At least that's how an interpreter explained it to the soldier.

The American justification for casual brutality is that the Afghans do it themselves. Yet when it comes to other dubious Afghan practices, such as corruption, Americans draw the line.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual says that "U.S. forces should show respect for local religions and traditions. Soldiers and marines should willingly accept many aspects of the local and national culture." Sometimes that means Americans have to tolerate behavior that wouldn't be acceptable in the United States. For example, one day at Police Substation 5 the ANPs slapped around a guy suspected of hitting his wife. The MPs didn't intervene.

But the flip side of cultural flexibility is, to put it insensitively, sinking to their level. Afghan kids throw rocks at police. The ANPs throw rocks at kids. Occasionally, an American will throw one, too. From a Western perspective, that's a human rights violation—or, at the very least, a bad thing to do. But for a soldier in Afghanistan navigating a different set of norms, it's just another form of cultural immersion—the juvenile equivalent of learning to say "hello" in Pashto.

Yet it's also a giving up of sorts. Does it jeopardize the United States' mission when a soldier throws a rock? If you define the mission as guarding a police station, the answer is no. But if you define the mission as changing the Afghans' behavior—whether among the ANPs or children who might one day join the ANP—you may get a different answer. Throwing a rock at a kid, while not a big deal in the moment, is a tacit admission that we're not going to change their behavior anytime soon, so we may as well join in.

Everyone eventually gets hit by a brick in one way or another. One day we dismounted near a checkpoint in District 10. I was interviewing a local elder when some kids came up and started fiddling with my camera. The strap was looped around my wrist, so I let them play with it as I conducted the interview, no harm done. They'd probably never seen a camera like this before—maybe they'd learn something. As we wrapped up the interview, I tried to take a picture of the man. An error message popped up. I opened up the camera. The memory card was gone.

See a  slide show  of U.S. military police in Kandahar.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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