Saturday, June 27, 2009

Guarding War-dak

"I take you to all the garden spots," Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joked, after we had ventured to Kandahar, Farah and, finally, Wardak province.

Wardak is a beautiful but troubled place. The province lies just southwest of Kabul and, along with Logar province to its east, has become a key safe haven and gateway for insurgents, suicide bombers, and other anti-government types to Afghanistan's national seat of government. Attacks on the Afghan capital have increased in the past couple of years, with a notably large-scale, coordinated suicide bombing earlier this year: "20 Dead as Taliban Attackers Storm Kabul Offices," New York Times, Feb. 11, 2009.

For this last assignment, Soraya and I embedded with a U.S. Special Forces (which I call SF throughout this blog post) team tasked with facilitating Wardak's new program, the Afghan Public Protection Force, or APPF. It's a Neighborhood Watch-like system, Afghan-style: Afghans receive three weeks of training , radios and AK-47's, and are then dispatched to checkpoints in their own villages to keep an eye out for trouble. It differs from previous security programs, because the Afghans guarding the villages have lived in them their entire lives. The idea is to make it harder for insurgents to use Wardak province as both a safe haven and a staging ground for attacks on Kabul and elsewhere, all the while increasing the locals' trust in the Afghan government.

Special Forces was implementing the program in the three districts of Wardak immediately south and west of Kabul: Mayden Shahr, Jalrez and Nerkh.

Listen to Part 1 of Soraya's NPR series on the APPF here

Listen to Part 2 here.

Our first day with Special Forces, we attended a graduation reception in Wardak's Mayden Shahr district for the newest guardians of the APPF. It was a chance for us to become acquainted with the program, talk with some of the key players and meet some of the guardians, who busied themselves proudly marching around the grounds.

The uniforms, reminiscent of Castro's Cuban revolutionaries, actually came from China.

I wasn't allowed to photograph any of the U.S. Special Forces operatives' faces or identify them by name, a condition for us being able to come along. Having their photographs and identities out in the open can ruin their careers and also make their work more dangerous, as they sometimes must operate undercover. Soraya wasn't allowed to use the soldiers' names for the stories either, leading to some entertaining conversations about aliases and what the individual guys wanted to be called on the air.

A variety of footwear at the graduation ceremony. Everyone was issued either black or brown boots, but such gear can fetch a good price, so some of the guardians may have sold theirs.

Tor Gol, a community leader, former mujahideen commander, and one of APPF's champions weeps during a remembrance of three of his men, who were killed when a remote-controlled bomb exploded underneath their APPF truck in Nerkh district.

Recently-graduated guardians celebrate with a little traditional Pashtun dancing. (Note to self: not a good idea for the only woman present at the celebration to get too close to the men while they're dancing--they might take it as a come-on.)

After the ceremony, it was time to install some of the graduates into one of the checkpoints on the edge of a village in Mayden Shahr district.

An operative gets quick photos of all of the guardians, and another records names and phone numbers.

Checking out the new digs.

Special Forces left the guardians in their new spot...

...and checked on them later that night, realizing the electricity wasn't functioning and nobody had flashlights. The guardians were there doing their jobs though, and had set up positions around the checkpoint.

The following day we set out for Nerkh, dubbed "Dirty Nerkh" by the Special Forces operatives. (They have a nickname for almost everything and everyone. They started calling me "Lord Helmet" and "Gazoo" because my black helmet is about four sizes too big for my head and looks totally ridiculous.)

While the APPF program has been successfully received in Jalrez and Mayden Shahr districts, recruiting guardians in Nerkh has been difficult and the program has met with resistance. There are bad guys in Nerkh, and the locals are helping them. It was in Nerkh that the APPF truck was bombed, killing three guardians and wounding three more. It was in a Nerkh valley that Special Forces was ambushed and a couple guys wounded. It is in Nerkh that "Death to America" is spray-painted in Dari on the walls lining the road.

We camped at a recently-established American combat outpost (basically a name for a rustic, no-frills military base) for our three-day foray into the district.

First order of business: distributing new AK-47's to the recently graduated group of guardians.

The new guardians switch out the ammunition in their magazines before receiving the new weapons.

Tor Gol, the former mujahideen commander, lives in the Nerkh village of Khan Ezzat and is responsible for recruiting nearly every guardian in the district. He walks on crutches and wears a fresh scar on his forehead since he was injured when the APPF truck was blown up. He's one of those guys who probably could go either way: a powerful enough leader to side with either the Americans or the insurgents. For whatever reason, he's thrown his lot in with the Americans.

Nazar Gol, at 16 the youngest Nerkh guardian, and a relative of Tor Gol's.

A Special Forces convoy is seen through a hole in the wall of an Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) checkpoint in Nerkh. The team agreed that first evening to take us with them on a patrol as far as the proverbial line in the sand, a bend in the road where everything can and does change, a place where they hope new APPF checkpoints will disrupt insurgent activities.

We wanted a chance to talk to some Nerkh residents and see the area for ourselves, so we strapped on the body armor (and giant helmets) and hopped in the trucks.

After the new Nerkh APPF checkpoints are installed, they'll partner with the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. The hope is for the Public Protection guardians to be a local link between the rural population and the national government. Nerkh is dirty, uncharted territory for this experiment.

An ANCOP policeman stands on top of a house near the checkpoint.

The commander of the ANCOP checkpoints requested that the Special Forces team accompany them on a patrol up the road, past the place where the APPF truck was bombed, into a seriously sketchy area. Because part of Special Forces' goal is to back up these Afghans who are trying to secure their own areas, of course they consented on the spot.

Which, of course, was great. As journalists, we need to try to see it all--good, bad and everything in between. We wanted an honest look at what this new program is up against.

It's so strange to feel the chill when you enter a hostile area. We crossed the line in the sand and stopped at this school, where a large crowd of young men stood outside. While the SF parked the trucks in formation, the young men scattered in all directions--not a good omen.

We dismounted and ANCOP and the SF knocked on the gate of the school, which was answered by a teacher. I didn't have to understand what he was saying to know that he wasn't happy to see us. The ANCOP commander greeted everyone, then the Special Forces team leader, whom I'll call Johnny, tried to talk with the teacher.

Within perhaps 15 minutes, we learned that a couple of the children standing around had told the ANCOP guys that just a few hundred yards further, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades awaited us. The ring of truth was that one of the boys reportedly said, "We don't care about what happens to the Americans, but we don't want our fellow Afghans to die."

Uh, okay then. It was time to get out of there.

SF are fighters and, I have to say that this group impressed me with their level of sophistication, experience and honesty (not to mention their cojones). But, it was getting dark, and ANCOP just bugged out of there.

Things are always more complicated than they look.

The following day took an unexpected turn, which I guess is always possible in a war zone. We were headed back to the combat outpost, when suddenly everybody stopped. We were hanging out by the side of the road and team leader Johnny was talking on the radio away from the trucks. Something was going on, but I wouldn't find out until a few hours later what the team had in mind. I was just along for the ride.

SF received a tip on the location of a weapons cache not far from a village where a new APPF post was going to be installed. The informant also told the operatives that an insurgent ambush lined the road on the way to the cache.

Part of SF's mission is to help clear areas to make them secure enough for the lightly-armed guardians to move in and establish a foothold. Finding the weapons cache suddenly became the day's top priority.

ANCOP, the nearby Afghan police units, were supposed to accompany the Special Forces team on this operation, but they decided they didn't want a piece of the action. In short, they bailed on their American counterparts. Special Forces, however, decided that they needed to meet this threat head-on. So they set a plan as best they could, and took us all into the great unknown. (Again, cojones. I guess this is their job, but...God.)

Oh man. Out of the frying pan, into the fire I guess. The possibility of getting blown up or shot or watching somebody else get hurt went through my mind, and I said a little prayer as we ventured up the road toward the possible ambush and weapons cache. I was only comforted by the notion that, if I had to see action, at least it would be with this group of highly-trained, extremely experienced men. If anybody would know what to do in a combat situation, it would be these guys.

The trip was slow, because the team had to stop frequently to make sure the road was clear of IED's.

Late in the afternoon, we rode into a village where I swear the air crackled with tension. Some of the shops in the bazaar were closed and the men along the dirt track set their gaze upon us as we rolled through. It was like the needle on the record player scratched in the middle of everyone's favorite song. Everybody was watching us. It was downright spooky.

The soldiers stopped where they had been told to expect the ambush, at the end of the bazaar. Johnny dismounted and motioned for me to follow him. Disoriented, I stumbled off the truck and watched as the team began to clear the fields on the far side of the road.

Standing next to the truck, I nearly had a heart attack when I heard and felt a very loud burst of gunfire. I immediately flattened myself on the ground next to the wheel. It was just instinct, I didn't think about it. Then I realized that everybody else was still standing there, no big deal. Nobody was worried. It dawned on me that the gunfire was from the truck next to me (duh) as the Americans tried to draw out the ambush by firing a few bursts from a mounted 50-caliber weapon.

All I could do at that moment was laugh. And I did. A couple of the guys did too. I am a combat rookie.

Because it's what I was there to do, I followed Johnny into a field. I have never felt so exposed. I briefly thought, "What am I doing?" But then auto-pilot took over and I just tried to make pictures and stay close to the person with the weapon. I couldn't photograph his face, so I had to stay behind him the whole time.

Johnny took off running through an apple orchard. "Are you still with me?" he yelled over his shoulder. Despite the extra weight of my cumbersome body armor and the cameras swinging from my shoulders, I was determined not to be left behind, alone, unarmed in the middle of a field like a sitting duck. I just ran along right behind, like I was Johnny's little black shadow.

Johnny saw something or someone through the trees...

...fighting-age farmers.

(Deep breath. Pulse slows to normal rate.)

For whatever reason, there was no ambush. Johnny and his crew were certain there would be action just up the road (you really could feel it in the air), but it was late in the day. There was no Afghan police or army counterpart, which on any other day may not have been an issue, but the team was carrying two civilians: Soraya and me. They didn't feel right about taking us any further that day. The fight for the weapons cache would have to wait.


FWickeham said...

Thanx. So glad to know that you are still taking pictures and keeping us up to date back here in our 'Safe Zone'.
Keep your head down and be careful out there.

pohanginapete said...

Holly, your photos are as good as anything I've seen. They send shivers down my spine. So does the thought of how you got them.

Take care. I want to enjoy being surprised and delighted by your new photos for many years yet.