Afghan Diaries: The American Strategy in Winter

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Nate Rawlings for TIME

Soldiers from 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, 552nd Military Police Company patrol on Highway 1 outside Kandahar city

The Alpha Company command post lies at the foot of a towering Soviet grain silo just off Highway 1, west of Kandahar city. The silo's tower is capped with the shards of a former roof, the result of a JDAM bomb dropped by the U.S. Air Force. No one seems to remember when or why Americans bombed the silo; some say it must have been a Taliban stronghold, while others argue it was merely a thumb in the eye of Afghanistan's former occupiers.

A few kilometers down Highway 1, the 3rd Platoon "Punishers" of the 552nd Military Police Company, a platoon from Hawaii attached to Alpha Company, shares a tiny compound called Police Substation 7 with members of the Afghan National Police (ANP). The name is something of a misnomer: while the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) is a national-level organization, the ANP are the local police, the equivalent of neighborhood cops who are the front line of security in Kandahar city. Consequently, the training of the ANP is perhaps one of the most watched missions at this stage of the war.

One thing was clear even before I arrived last week: it is a fascinating time to be in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration's recent review of the war outlined the near-term U.S. strategy in the country. It set the ambitious goal to begin transitioning security to Afghan National Security Forces in July and pegged 2014 for final troop withdrawals. In December, a report from the Washington-based think tank the Center for a New American Security outlined ways of adjusting that strategy and advocated maintaining a presence beyond 2014 to ensure achievement of Americas' strategic goals. The report sparked a spirited discussion inside and outside the blogosphere among analysts, policymakers and others in the national-security community.

The recent strategic examinations align with the Afghan winter, during which, historically, there has been less fighting. In Iraq, violence generally occurred year-round. In Afghanistan, however, fighting is more cyclical; the winter months usually see the Taliban retreat to sanctuaries across the Pakistan border, giving NATO troops time and space for what are known as "nonlethal" efforts in counterinsurgency.

In that nonlethal category, several missions could compete for the title of most crucial: strengthening the local government; building infrastructure such as roads, schools and sewers; and training and developing the local police. Like most units, 1-22 is tackling each of these and several other missions simultaneously, but the word I've heard most this week is partnership. Each of 1-22's four companies works closely with ANCOP policemen, while the Punishers have the job of developing the ANP.

On a Thursday morning, Staff Sergeant Jason Paredes led the Punishers' 1st Squad to meet with Faiz Mohammed, the local ANP chief. The night before, Faiz's policemen had been attacked at their checkpoint in the village of Saiachap, one of several checkpoints in 3rd Platoon's area.

Paredes and his troops met Faiz at his headquarters, Police Substation 14, a short drive down Highway 1. In a bombed-out courtyard, Faiz gathered the American troops around a plastic table in the blazing sunshine to discuss the attack. Paredes asked questions while Sergeant Chayne Williams took notes, trying to answer the standard five w's he would need for his battalion report. "I've got everything but the why," Williams said to Parades after only a couple of minutes of discussion. "We're not going to get a why," Paredes answered. "We never do."

After the courtyard summit, the 1st Squad members hopped back into their large vehicles for the short drive to Saiachap. They turned south off Highway 1 onto an almost hidden street between flat, brown houses and wound their way slowly through a narrow labyrinth flanked by mud walls. After a few minutes, the corridor opened to a graded hillside.

The Saiachap checkpoint was still a work in progress. Midway down the hill, a backhoe scooped dirt to fill Hesco barriers — wire-mesh baskets that are packed with dirt to give policemen cover from enemy fire. At the checkpoint, Hescos were stacked two high to form a ring from which the ANP could see the entire valley below. At the bottom of the hill, where the ground becomes flat, begins the adjoining village of Mir Bazaar. Squat, rectangular compounds are arranged in no discernible pattern, something between a haphazard grid and a completely chaotic sprawl. The village stretches southeast nearly a mile across the flat plain, abutting the foot of a ridge that rises in a sheer cliff from the valley floor.

Faiz led Paredes and Williams into the Hesco ring to question policemen about the attack. Shortly after dark, the policemen said, two or three men fired machine guns at the checkpoint from the first alleyway in the village. The policemen pointed to the south, in the direction of a cemetery next to the Mir Bazaar mosque.

Paredes assembled a squad for a foot patrol, and Faiz gathered four policemen to accompany the Americans. They moved straight downhill into the village, skirting the cemetery to the east, until they reached the outer wall, where they turned to move around the mosque. Faiz walked in the middle of the column, wearing the ANP's dark turquoise dungarees and untied combat boots, pointing out landmarks as if he were a tour guide.

A hundred meters down the road, the ANP stopped at what appeared to be the ambush site — a break in the village's outer wall where an unpaved road led up the hill toward the checkpoint. The position had a clear field of fire to the ANP base. Paredes and his troops were trying to encourage the ANP to treat the area as a crime scene and search for spent shell casings and other evidence of the ambush. When no evidence was found, the Americans figured that the children of the village might have made off with the spent brass.

After receiving Parades' report, First Lieutenant Brandon LaMar, the Punishers' platoon leader, decided to send out another squad that night to watch the Saiachap checkpoint on the off chance that the attackers would return. Two hours into the mission, the squad got a call on the radio that an IED had exploded on an American resupply convoy moving on Highway 1. They moved to the blast site to investigate with the ANP and patrolled the neighborhood south of the highway looking for the perpetrators. But by the time the squad arrived, as is the case in most IED attacks, the triggerman was long gone.

At Saiachap, there was no repeat of the previous night's theatrics; Thursday night passed quietly, allowing the ANP to keep watch over the village until first light. The Punishers planned to return the next day to ensure that construction on the checkpoint would continue.