Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. soldiers from 2nd Platoon Fox Co. of 2-506th Infantry Battalion of the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division interrogate Mulik, center, a young Afghan they suspect of insurgent ties after they found two IEDs nearby in Khost province. (Victor J. Blue / USA TODAY)
COMBAT OUTPOST SABARI, KHOST PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — An Afghan soldier had spotted the tiny wire in the road, bringing the convoy of Humvees to a halt.
Soldiers trailed the wire to a 30-pound explosive device, where a second bomb had been rigged to blow up whoever came to help the victims of the first. That’s when they saw the young man running across the field off the road.
After he was caught and identified as an insurgent by a fingerprint check and retinal scan, the Afghan soldiers beat him, first with rifles and then with switches, as the Americans looked on disapprovingly.
“It’s their fight now,” said Lt. Alex Graves, leader of the platoon that was patrolling with the Afghans.
Graves did not witness the beating of the suspect, but he sees the differences in the Afghan way of doing things.
“They’re never gonna do it to the American standard, but to an Afghan standard,” he said.
The U.S-led coalition of military forces has spent years training the Afghan soldiers and police in professional conduct so they earn the respect and full support of the Afghan people. But some here worry that the Afghans, who in June took over security from the coalition, may drop some of those standards once the coalition removes most of its combat troops in 2014.
That could alienate the public and give the Taliban the opening back into the hearts of the people that they’ve been denied for the 11 years that the Americans have been here fighting.
“There is a lot of discipline and training with the Afghan National Army, but, of course, the starting level is so low that I am not sure the majority of the soldiers understand the rights of a prisoner,” said Yama Torabi, executive director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan.
This is the last fighting season for U.S. forces in this far eastern province on the border with Pakistan, where the NATO command still needs to stamp down the insurgency while getting the Afghan forces ready to take over. Sabari is one of the few combat outposts in the province that hasn’t been turned over to the Afghan National Army.
Graves, a Southerner with an easy smile and fire-red hair, is on his first deployment, as are many of the soldiers under his command. But he has already learned that a solider’s diplomatic skills can be as vital to success as his combat mettle.
“A normal infantry private — these guys they know how to be a straight-up ambassador, something that the special forces, or even the State Department, used to do,” Graves said. “We ask a lot of our guys that isn’t that traditional (fighting) role.”
The new realities hit Graves on a stormy summer afternoon as he conducted a patrol with Afghan and U.S. soldiers. Their mission was to discourage the frequent mortar attacks that insurgents mount on the outpost when a surveillance blimp, which normally watches silently, goes down.
Rallying his Afghan counterparts for a midday patrol of indeterminate length proved to be a tough sell.
“I have to be sort of indirect about things,” Graves said. “I can’t say to them, hey send your guys up that hill. I have to kind of say, you know, it might be a good idea if you sent some of your guys up that way, what do you think?”
Graves lined up his vehicles a few hundred yards from what they call Rocket Ridge, a traditional site for attacks. He conferred with the Afghan platoon leader as they scanned the area.
Minutes after he mounted up his men, two rocket-propelled grenades exploded between them and the Afghans. Machine-gun fire erupted around the vehicles. They began to drive, circling the nearby hills.
About 30 minutes later they stopped and got out because Zahid Ullah, an Afghan National Army soldier, found something dangerous and potentially deadly in a cemetery nearby — a homemade pressure plate. It was expertly constructed: two pieces of plywood with springs between them connected to wires and wrapped in yellow tape.
U.S. Sgt. Michael Villahermosa, the explosives disposal technician, inspected and then bagged it for evidence. He said that with so much tape, they could easily pull fingerprints from it and try to pinpoint its maker.
This kind of professional know-how is the way in which the Americans have been able to hobble the Taliban apart from the usual warrior way of killing them. High-tech techniques have allowed U.S. soldiers to identify suspected insurgents and remove them from the battlefield.
Harassing villagers or beating of detainees is not necessary and counterproductive if it turns the people against you, they say.
“In general, the Afghan public has a lot of confidence in the army compared with the police,” Torabi said. Police officers are alienating Afghans, he said.
“They are armed the same as the (Afghan National Army) and taking part in the fighting, but they are interacting daily with the population and we have multiples reports of incidents where police forces have been involved in extortion or terrorizing the population,” he said.
“We saw on national media incidents of rape or collective rape by police — local or national — sometimes going unpunished. In this case, I think families and communities will be alienated and join the Taliban for protection or revenge.”
Torunn Wimpelmann, a researcher in Bergen, Norway, who focuses on violence and security issues in Afghanistan, believes the public blames the insurgents more than the police or army for violence, particularly civilian casualties.
She also forecasts security problems after the withdrawal of foreign forces.
“Another massive issue facing the Afghan army is a lack of advanced weapons and equipment,” Wimpelmann said. “The Afghan National Security Forces have been taking heavy casualties since the international forces started their draw down.”
The U.S. forces may be able top help there. The Pentagon reported to Congress last week that it will need to keep a residual force in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal date to maintain security and back up the ANA.
But the end of 2014 is a ways away, and U.S. soldiers are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan despite turning over the lead of operations to the Afghans.
On one recent patrol here, Sgt. Christopher Pikalek felt a tug on his boot and looked down. A thin black kite string was wrapped around his ankle. He slowly unwound it and backed up.
It was a pull string, connected to a 35-pound explosive devise a few feet away that did not detonate. Pikalek moved off and the soldiers used explosives to blow it up, creating a huge dust cloud that lingered in the dark blue of the falling night.
When the U.S. troops do withdraw for good from Khost, Col. Valery Keaveny will be among the last to go.
He arrived here in 2003 when he helped establish the massive U.S. installation Forward Operating Base Salerno. And he will be the one who closes it.
Keaveny, commander of the Fourth Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, recalled his welcome to Afghanistan in August 2003.
“I remember rockets the first night,” Keaveny said. “We landed in C-130s, and that was the welcome rockets.
Back then Khost was known as the “Wild West.”
“It was very common to see Taliban flags, music tapes that had been ripped up and strewn across the roads, tied off to poles, as warnings to the locals,” he said.
When coaxed into talking about the differences between then and now, he mentions greater signs of material well-being today, and greater security, signs of hope for a better future.
“There is a lot of wealth that you can see in and around Khost and traveling through Khost that didn’t use to be here,” he said. “Even when I was leaving in 2004 there were untold numbers of refugees coming back — because the security situation was improving and the Taliban had been removed. It’s clearly continued over the last many years.”
One recent morning, Keaveny headed to Camp Parsa to confer with his counterpart, Gen. Mohammed Naseer, commander of the Afghan 1-203 Brigade. He said it’s up to Naseer and Afghans like him to pick up where the Americans leave off, and that the sacrifices the U.S. military made in Khost have been worth it.
“This was the home of the Arab 55th brigade, al-Qaida lived here, the cave complexes were here,” he said. “The people were just brutalized. As it stands today, that can’t happen again here.”
Contributing: Brian Bonner from Berlin