Taking the Handoff

Arafat, 29, is a patrolman in charge of the checkpoint at Shembawat, a village in southeastern Afghanistan. A lanky, tousle-haired father of four earning about $100 a month, Arafat wears an Afghan National Police uniform with a cheap Chinese thermal vest and white running shoes. He doesn’t stand up straight, and he has hennaed fingertips and two fake gemstone rings on one hand. He is not a leading man, does not radiate authority, yet he is brave, responsible and loyal. So it is on him – and men like him – that the success of the US missions in Afghanistan and Iraq lies.

“He’s only been working here a week and already they have tried to kill him twice. That shows he’s doing his job,” says Lieutenant Todd Wisman, a 24-year-old West Pointer from Harrisonburg, Virginia, who leads 27 American soldiers assigned here in February.

In this part of the country, Khost Province, historic support for the Taliban runs deep and counterinsurgency is in its early stages. It’s difficult to get members of the ANP to keep the peace. Lieutenant Colonel Scotty Custer, Khost’s maneuver commander, is milder than many of his subordinates when he describes the typical ANP approach: “You lie on a cot all day and you lie on a cot all night and when there’s a boom you go out and see what it is. Explosion. It already happened so you go back inside. The concept of active patrolling is new to them.”

So Custer tried something new – “embedding” his troops with the locals to teach men such as Arafat how it’s done. He moved his men out of Khost’s big Salerno base to the district centers – like American county seats – to live in Force Protection Centers alongside the district sub governors and detachments of ANP. American troops create zones of security that are gradually expanded outward to include all of the province.

By living beside and mentoring the ANP, Americans can improve this notoriously ill-trained force. “If I live with Afghan security forces for a week, they’re looking like American paratroopers by the end of that week,” says Captain Derrick Hernandez, 30, of Lodi, Ohio.

The first attempt on Arafat’s life was on the night of March 21, when he came upon an IED-in-the-making on a routine patrol. In this area, improvised explosive devices are often planted in stages, first explosives, then fuses, then detonators. They are sometimes turned in to the police by kids who come upon them in pieces, when they can be safely handled. Wisman recently paid 3,000 Afghani ($60) to a couple of boys who found two fuses and half of a rocket in a field near the police checkpoint. But other children aren’t so lucky. Many explosives aimed at the ANP or Coalition forces kill or maim kids instead; just a week ago, one boy lost his leg nearby.

The second attempt on Arafat’s life came on the morning of March 23, when an IED exploded just after he drove past the stone wall where it was planted. Arafat and his US-provided Ford Ranger pickup truck escaped unscathed. The IED was remote-controlled and detonated by line of sight – typical now in Khost as a refinement of pressure-sensitive bombs. While American Humvees can jam mobile phones and prevent remote detonations, the ANP doesn’t have this capability yet.

Wisman spreads his men out over the area. One obvious location for Arafat’s potential murderer is a mud brick farmhouse across a field – in the line of sight for detonating the IED. Arafat knocks on the gate, and a woman answers from inside. Her husband is away, but she agrees to let the ANP and US forces search the house.

It’s a daunting task: one room is filled with bales of hay that could hide weapons, and the building closest to the explosion site is a vast storage shed filled with construction materials and more hay.

“Generally they don’t store stuff inside the house,” explains Staff Sgt. Glen Svebek, of Belize. “They put it outside, wherever we don’t want to look, under manure, or a pile of stones. That way they can say it wasn’t theirs.”

One of the interpreters, “Lloyd”, emerges with a half dozen unlabelled homemade cassettes, which he said were Taliban motivational tapes. They were duly confiscated. (They will be returned if they are proved to be innocent.)

The tapes were easy to spot, since the family’s consumer goods are limited to a couple of changes of clothes hanging on pegs from the walls, the simplest of cooking equipment, hand mirrors and storage jars, some school books and two religious texts.

Wisman decides to take his men into the bazaar, which they patrol four times a week. The four Humvees roll along a narrow asphalt road finished by the Army in early 2008 as part of a vast effort to connect every district in Khost to the main highway and provincial capital.

“They don’t like us very much here,” Wisman says. “They’ve never seen much from the Afghan government. When we built this road, they complained that they had to knock down some walls of houses on the side. But we think the real reason they were upset was because it made it faster to get into their village.”

The bazaar lines the road as it branches in two and then into more dirt lanes. The ground is covered with refuse from the simple consumer goods that make it this far, from candy wrappers to soda cans to scraps of cloth and paper and, everywhere, thin pastel-colored plastic bags. Children with dirty faces and dirtier clothes stare as the soldiers walk past.

Wisman goes from one rudimentary wooden store to another, calling out a robust greeting in Pashtu and exchanging a few words with the shopkeeper. Then he gets down to business, speaking through an interpreter.

“This explosion was very close to your policeman. He is here to bring security and help you. If you see anyone planting a mine, you have to tell him.” Everyone nods yes, with various degrees of apparent sincerity.

Later on, Wisman and Svendek visit the local sub governor, Jihadyar, and ask him to promote Arafat to checkpoint commander. This will give him a pay raise to help compensate him for the risks of the job. Jihadyar is a former jihad commander, but the consensus among the American troops is that he is more bluster than substance. Indeed, he excuses himself to don a bandolier and turban when told that this journalist wants to photograph him.

Returning to his office after his change, Jihadyar listens to the Americans’ request. “But Arafat is illiterate, ” Jihadyar objects. “How can he fill out reports?”

“I will teach him to read myself if necessary,” responds Svebek, a quiet, intense man. “He’s doing his job. Would you rather have someone who can read and doesn’t do his job? That’s what we had before.”

Jihadyar reluctantly agrees to name Arafat checkpoint commander, warning Wisman, “But don’t complain to me if there are problems with him.”

Two days later, on March 25, a third attempt is made on Arafat’s life. While four checkpoint cops are conducting a dismounted patrol, a man on a motorcycle comes up from behind, heading straight at them. Some of the men think the rider was wearing a suicide vest. Arafat fires and hits the rider on the leg, but he speeds off.

“We were trained by the Americans to shoot like this, to capture him alive,” Arafat says at the district center as the American team debriefs him about the incident. Sub Governor Jihadyar and a handful of other ANP look on. One of the other cops is Arafat’s brother; he explains that of seven brothers in his family, two are ANP, two are Afghan National Army and one is in the Afghan Special Forces. When asked why he perseveres despite the constant threat to his life, Arafat replies, “Because it is my country and I should serve.”

“We’re getting intel that even Haqqani knows that Arafat is the new checkpoint commander,” Wisman says, referring to the leader of an insurgent group specializing in terror attacks in eastern Afghanistan.

When told that Jihadyar has said he is illiterate, Arafat stiffens and says, “I have completed eleventh grade. I attended the Police Academy”. Then he laboriously writes his name – in English.

Arafat’s men didn’t have cameras – ANP aren’t issued them due to concerns about the force’s honesty – so they were unable to get a picture of the attacker. Captain Hernandez gives Arafat his own small digital camera, explaining that he should take photos of suspicious people and any IEDs they find; Hernandez, the father of two young daughters, will be ending his 15-month deployment in just a few days and had planned to give his camera away.

Arafat drives back to his checkpoint. A few days later he’s promoted to sergeant.

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