Iflew to Kabul in a blatant attempt to be relevant. If my newspaper wanted local news, I planned to deliver. I would follow the Illinois National Guard as soldiers attempted to train the Afghan police, which was suddenly seen as critically important. Everyone had realized that the Afghan police were corrupt, incompetent, and often high. And only when they and the Afghan army got their act together could anyone leave.
This was my seventh embed, my seventh time hanging out with U.S. soldiers, my seventh version of the same drill. We met for a briefing in a plywood hut in Camp Phoenix, on the outskirts of Kabul.
“So can we shoot if they have a remote control?” one soldier asked.
“If that remote control looks like a pistol aimed at you, then I would say, light ’em up,” replied the first lieutenant in charge, who then listed hot spots for roadside bombs. “Pretty much the whole downtown area.”
“Awesome,” another soldier replied.
Light ’em up. Awesome. Let’s roll. Get some. Over the years, I had learned the lingo of the U.S. military and slipped into it easily, as familiar as a Montana drawl. I had also figured out different categories of U.S. soldiers—the Idealists, the Thinkers, the Workers, the Junkies, and the Critics. This first lieutenant was an Idealist, a true believer who thought that he and America could make a difference here. In a way, I found his situation report—or “sit rep”—funny. They were talking about Kabul, a city I had driven around for years, a downtown I had walked around. I never wore body armor in Kabul. I only worried about my security in Kabul when I saw a military convoy because of suicide blasts, overeager NATO gunners, and Afghan drivers who disobeyed warnings to halt.
So this would be my first time seeing Kabul from a Humvee, my first time seeing Afghans as the other. The first lieutenant warned of a white Toyota Corolla without a license plate—a potential suicide bomber, who by the looks of repeated security warnings I had seen, had been haunting Kabul for three years. It was a running joke with longtimers—highly paid security companies fixated on a potential suicide bomber with a long beard, wearing a turban, and driving a white Toyota Corolla, which described pretty much half the men in Kabul.
Our mission was outlined: Drive through the mean streets of Kabul and north to a rural district to train the police. It seemed like a fairly obvious mission, but more than seven years into the war here, the U.S. military had only recently gotten serious about the Afghan police. And the police were a serious problem. Police chiefs were often illiterate thugs and sometimes drug lords who ran their departments like fiefdoms. Some paid big money for their posts, even $100,000, and they made their money back by being on the take. Most low-level police were paid little money and given little training. They took bribes often because they had no other choice. But the police were crucial to any counterinsurgency. If Afghans did not trust their police, they would naturally turn toward the Taliban. The police were also increasingly on the front lines—more Afghan police had died in Taliban-led attacks than soldiers, Afghan or foreign.
Both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama one stressed that Afghan police and soldiers were essential to solving the morass here—but clearly not enough troops had yet been devoted to the task. The Illinois National Guard ran three police-mentor teams in Kabul Province with thirty soldiers altogether, responsible for about six thousand police in thirty police districts. The Afghan police faced similar numerical challenges—in the district we were going, Mir Bacha Kot, which meant “collection of boys,” eighty-five police were supposed to serve about a hundred and twenty-five thousand people living in thirty-six villages.
A trainer from DynCorp tried to explain what the U.S. soldiers would see with the Afghan National Police (ANP), using an example from Paghman district, in the western part of Kabul Province.
“We talk about how things are,” the trainer said. “Yesterday in Paghman we had a situation with a guy. He’s a mullah by day, Taliban by night. ANP is not gonna do anything about him. Don’t trust a lot of the things that you’re seeing and hearing.”
We climbed into our Humvees. I sat behind the driver, wearing a helmet and flak vest that made me feel somewhat ridiculous. We put on headsets so we could hear one another and barged into a traffic jam on Jalalabad Road. Through the window, I watched the panic start. The Afghan drivers did not wave or smile at the U.S. soldiers. They tried to get out of the way, fear written on their craggy faces. But sitting in a Humvee instead of out in traffic, I felt nervous for the American soldiers. They saw every Afghan, every car as a potential enemy, even though they had been here only for a few weeks and Kabul was a relatively safe city compared with the south. But little wonder: Days earlier, a bomber had attacked another U.S. military base in Kabul, injuring five soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, one of whom later died. Everyone was on edge.
“This is nothing,” the first lieutenant announced as we sat in traffic. “Traffic yesterday, we didn’t move for forty-five minutes. Jackknifed fuel truck, leaking fuel. We just had to sit there and wait. But I’ll take traffic with a lot of vehicles and cars over being stopped in a crowd of people. I didn’t like that at all. A crowd of people can turn ugly.”
The gunner agreed, mentioning one crowd that had uglified recently. “You could tell their attitudes have turned negative toward us. You’re not getting the smile and a wave.”
This was educational. If people in Kabul reacted this way, how did they feel in the provinces? And if U.S. soldiers felt this way, what chance did anyone have to turn this war around? Years into this, I was still hearing the same comments from U.S. soldiers, the same gripes about Afghanistan. We had learned so little. Most of these Illinois soldiers had only found out after arriving here that they would be training police. They had been told they would be doing something else, like briefings, PowerPoint presentations, and administrative work. And much of their training in the States focused not on the police, not even on Afghanistan, but on Iraq.
The soldiers continued to dissect the traffic of the capital.
“All and all, my personal favorite is the left blinker, and then they turn to the right,” the first lieutenant said. “Half the people do that.”
“Traffic rules don’t exist,” the gunner agreed. “Just like everything. No laws. I don’t care what everybody says. This place never gets old.”
The discussion then turned to me.
“So you’re normally just out there, without any protection?” the first lieutenant asked.
“Yep. In a white Toyota Corolla,” I joked.
“Aren’t you nervous?”
“I’m actually more nervous sitting in this Humvee,” I admitted.
We pushed through the traffic jam, toward Massoud circle, the ugly monument where I had covered the massive attack on a U.S. convoy more than two years earlier. The first lieutenant started to worry at the circle because the Afghan police had set up a checkpoint. He told the gunner to get his head down. “I don’t want my guys to get shot in the head,” he said, picking up the radio. “All gunners, get down.”
The gunners complied, ducking down as we passed through the circle. Someone in our Humvee put on the singer George Thorogood, music to get macho to. We drove past fruit markets and Afghans on motorcycles. One nearly fell over in its attempt to get away.
“A white Toyota station wagon with Toyota written in the windshield,” the first lieutenant said, looking out the window. “That’s nice. I feel safe.”
We drove past a donkey, past a dozen white Toyota Corollas, past Soilstone Laboratory, past the beige huts on the outskirts of Kabul, toward our destination: Collection of Boys.
“It’s like fourth world here,” said the gunner, surveying the bleak countryside. “Dirt walls, blankets for doors. That guy’s got one shoe, he’s saving up for a second shoe.”
The song “Bad to the Bone” came on. The gunner tapped his boot. Within the hour, we pulled up to the police station at Mir Bacha Kot. Two Afghan officers guarded the road into the parking lot. Neither had a weapon or gloves. One had the wrong boots. The American soldiers first took an inventory of the weapons to make sure none had been sold. They had already seen the corruption here—in another district, U.S. military discretionary money had bought a powerful generator for the police station. The district governor then took the generator to his house.
In the parking lot, basically a pile of rocks, the Americans then lined up fourteen Afghan officers. With all their equipment, the Americans looked like superheroes. The Afghans looked pathetic. Six did not have weapons because they were not qualified to have weapons. Of the other eight, only three said they had been to the main police-training center. And one was probably mistaken; he grinned wildly and raised his hand to every question.
The Afghans mimicked the Americans raising their weapons. The Americans ducked.
“They’ve had training, right?” one soldier asked. “They could have shot everyone.”
The police officers without weapons aimed their fingers and laughed hysterically. They leaned back as they pointed their guns and fingers. A U.S. soldier started going apoplectic because an Afghan soldier wouldn’t bend his knees. Another police officer stuck his rifle butt between his knees, pointed the weapon at his head, and started yanking on something inside his empty cartridge.
“Tell him, never stick his hand in his weapon,” a U.S. soldier said. He turned away and muttered, “Takes every fiber of my being.”
One Afghan officer jumped over razor wire, his finger on the trigger. Another, finger also on the trigger, leaned on his loaded weapon, muzzle on his boot—in years past, I knew of at least one Afghan police officer, nicknamed “Crazy Eyes” by U.S. soldiers, who had shot a hole in his foot that way. On a walk through the village, an Afghan police officer waved his gun at a baby. Another held his gun upside down with his finger in the trigger loop.
At one point I had to turn around, I was laughing so hard. The photographer was laughing.
“These guys are the best Afghanistan has to offer?” he asked.
“The Afghan police make me laugh,” I admitted.
Probably not the best attitude, but it was true. I also kept a video of the Afghan army trying to do jumping jacks, which resembled a really bad dance or an incurable disease. I often showed the video to Americans who thought we could train the Afghans quickly to take care of their own security and then get out. The Illinois soldiers would visit this police station once every few weeks for a couple of hours at a time. And then, in another nine months, they would leave.
The soldiers gave the police some concertina wire—apparently, they had done a good job—before heading back to Kabul, listening to Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning.” At a debriefing back at Camp Phoenix, some of the Illinois soldiers were frustrated. Training was inconsistent; none of the fifteen rolls of razor wire donated the last trip had been used; new AK-47s were still in boxes; all the police demanded flashlights. The police officers had to share the district’s only pen, that is, the ones who could write.
“What struck me is how these guys are supposed to be trained,” one soldier said. “Are you kidding me? These motherfuckers can’t even pivot. Don’t they all have jobs to do? I know at the last police department, we asked them, ‘Do you ever arrest anybody?’ ‘No.’ ‘What do you do?’ They’re like, ‘Eating, sleeping, nothing.’ I mean, what are they policing? This is another brick wall we’re running into. They aren’t doing anything.”
Everyone griped. Then the first lieutenant made a proposal.
“I was able to talk to the chief. He wanted to take one kilometer of wire up to the cell-phone tower. Then they can have twenty-four-hour electricity.”
Everyone looked at him, silent.
“You can’t do that,” the DynCorp guy finally said. “We’re trying to teach them about corruption. You can’t help them steal power.”
The first lieutenant was unrepentant. “It makes sense. It’s an easy thing we can do that will really help them.”
“You can’t be serious,” the DynCorp guy said.
He was. Quick fixes, fast turnarounds, an easy bang for the buck. That pretty much typified the international approach. But the only thing that would make a difference with the Afghan police was a whole lot of training, for a whole lot of years, with a whole lot of money. This was a largely illiterate country wracked by thirty years of war, a place where young men from the provinces didn’t know how to lace their boots because they’d never had boots. It’s not like Afghans couldn’t fight—of course they could. But the only recruits willing to earn so little money to be cannon fodder were not the best and the brightest. Mostly, they were the no-hopes.
While on this embed, I wrote at least one good story for the Tribune about local soldiers helping in a foreign land. But I also wrote a few embarrassing clunkers to appeal to my new bosses, including one about the delivery of Chicago-style pizza to the soldiers, just in time for Super Bowl Sunday. The last time I had written anything that so reeked of jingoism and free advertising, I had just entered puberty. Even so, I got mocked by colleagues at the Associated Press and was sent a piece of hate mail because I quoted a soldier who criticized the pizza. I could not win.
Starved for the relative normalcy of Kabul, I soon left the soldiers. A friend who worked as a UN adviser to the Afghan-run Independent Electoral Commission came to town. Over lunch, he described the election fraud he had witnessed in the southeast. Already Afghans were registering to vote for the upcoming presidential election. But my friend had caught Afghan election workers creating thousands of fake registration cards. Women had also registered in unprecedented numbers in the conservative southeast—numbers that were likely inflated. In one province, when asked about registration, a top election official bragged that his province not only was registering a lot of women but was also registering children. My friend reported the suspected fraud; his UN superiors said they would send a committee to investigate but never did. I was not entirely surprised. The previous fall, Karzai had named loyalists to run three ministries—Interior, Education, and Tribal Affairs. Interior ran the police. Education ran the teachers. Both ministries had people everywhere. Tribal Affairs worked with the tribes, crucial to any election. By that point, the fix was in. UN officials and Western diplomats started distancing themselves from the election, referring to it as “an Afghan process” and “Afghan-led.” It wasn’t too difficult to decipher their meaning—they were absolving themselves of any responsibility, even as the UN put its hat out to raise more than $300 million to foot the bill.
A few weeks later, I flew to southern Helmand Province to watch Illinois soldiers posted there help eradicate poppies. This was part of NATO’s new approach to drugs, the first time that any foreign troops had been involved in eradication, even if they only guarded the Afghan police riding tractors that ripped up the poppies. The soldiers’ surroundings were stark, and they certainly didn’t get any Super Bowl Sunday pizza. Instead, they were attacked almost every time they left the base—by the Taliban, the farmers, the villagers. Outside the base, fields of newly planted poppies stretched forever, beautiful carpets of green. People in Washington sometimes tried to portray poppy farmers as small guys, eking a living from the land. In Helmand, at least, these were corporate drug farms.
The Afghans and their international guards made a show of clearing a patch of poppies right outside the base gate—a patch they had been saving to show off for the media and top Kabul luminaries, a patch with limited risk of attack. A man from the U.S. embassy, thrilled to be outside, wore a patch on his flak vest: AMERICA, FUCK YEAH, it said, quoting the movie Team America. Was there a better description for what we were trying to do here? If so, I had yet to hear it.