The Afghan Diaries: How to Get the Police to Respond

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Nate Rawlings for TIME

Staff Sergeant Jason Paredes talks to Afghan national policemen at a checkpoint in Afghanistan's Kandahar province

About an hour after dawn, Staff Sergeant Jason Paredes led the Punisher Platoon's 1st Squad to the Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint on the outskirts of the village of Panjab. Their mission sounded simple: to patrol the village on foot, meet and talk to 10 residents and collect their basic information. But because few missions in Afghanistan are unilateral, the squad's first challenge was persuading the ANP to come along.

In order to ensure that the ANP can eventually handle security by itself, American commanders in many parts of Kandahar have ordered that every patrol except resupply convoys must be a joint mission. In the Punishers' area, that means at least four members of the ANP must join patrol, and ideally there will be one Afghan policeman for each American. While this order is important to the Punishers' mission, it created the first headache of the day for Paredes.

The Panjab checkpoint is spartan: two large metal shipping containers that have been converted into makeshift living quarters sit inside a ring of Hesco barriers. The containers have hanging blankets rather than doors; there is no heat, and most of the Afghan policemen have only light jackets and wear slip-on loafers with no socks.

Paredes asked to see the Panjab station chief, and a few minutes later, Naem Mohammed stumbled out of his metal container, wrapped in a pink fleece blanket. Before Paredes could ask for police to accompany him on his mission, Naem complained that he needed more fuel. Paredes explained that he could not give him fuel without authorization but that he would check with his commanders, and in the meantime, he needed four policemen for a joint foot patrol. "Fine," Naem said. "If I get no fuel, you get no policemen."

Less than 30 seconds into the conversation, the two leaders were in a staring contest, and Paredes seemed to hold almost none of the cards. If he gave the ANP fuel, he would ruin weeks of work trying to improve its logistics process. On the other hand, he needed the ANP to join him on the patrol, or he would lose ground in training. After almost no hesitation, Parades took a different tack and said he would have to talk to Faiz Mohammed, Naem's boss, and tell him he wasn't getting enough cooperation.

After a minute of thought, Naem relented and said Paredes could take some policemen. Even though he won the argument, Paredes then added a carrot to the stick, clasping the diminutive Naem on the shoulder and saying, "I don't think the headquarters knows how much you're actually doing on your own. We will talk to our commanders and see what we can do about getting you more fuel. Don't worry."

As we walk out of the small compound, Paredes explains that the situation was more complicated than it appeared. The ANP conducts patrols on its own as well as with the Americans, and it receives only 30 L of fuel each week, which can be used up in one busy day of patrols. "There's two kinds of ANPs," Paredes explains. "The kind that take a bribe to get their job done, and the kind that pay out of what little money they make to make it happen." To try to prevent the former and help the latter, the American units use their official discretionary funds to help the ANP where they can, and in leaner months, U.S. soldiers have used their own money to buy the ANP things it needs.

"This is one of the better checkpoints, so we work with them as much as we can," Paredes says. "I think Naem just woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."

The tête-à-tête between the American and ANP leaders illustrates one of the largest challenges facing the U.S.-ANP partnership. It took years for American troops to train the Iraqi police, most of whom had completed high school. The Afghan police recruits, by contrast, have little formal education. Civilian police trainers in Kandahar told me that in some areas, up to 70% of the recruits are illiterate. Once the recruits enter training, there is a bottleneck in the official police academy, which can train 330 recruits per eight-week class. More than 5,000 recruits are waiting to enter the academy.

Faiz Mohammed, the local ANP commander, is waiting for some of those recruits to fill out his force but says that once he gets them, he thinks he will be able to keep security in the fighting season. "When they finish the scademy, they have the basics down," says Sergeant Chayne Williams, one of 1st Squad's team leaders. "From there, we conduct medical training and work on the investigative piece, but they generally have the law-enforcement skills down pat."

After Paredes collected the two Afghan policemen Naem could spare, he moved his squad into Panjab. Walls made of mud and hay gave way to brick constructions as the troops moved from Highway 1 up a hill, deep into the jumble of small, squared-off courtyards. The troops stopped the first few men they saw; while one soldier got their information, Williams asked about local security.

This sort of mission, known as Human Terrain Mapping, is slow work, but it is one of the most important tenets of American counterinsurgency doctrine. A unit must assume responsibility for everyone in the area and, according to the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual, "feel the pulse of the local populace, understand their motivations and care about what they want and need." The goal of these missions, Paredes explains, is to meet and learn about everyone in the area, 10 locals at a time.

The squad moved up and over the crest of a hill, taking a left at the next opening in the mud walls. A narrow alleyway snaked around the hill, falling off on two axes, forward in the direction of the road and to the right toward the shallow valley. The troops stepped gingerly over breaks in the ground, occasionally leaping to avoid raw sewage seeping underfoot. Within three hours, they had made their way back to the vehicles.

Before returning to the base, the members of 1st Squad needed to check on construction at the Saiachap checkpoint, one more task before their thoughts could drift to families at home. Before leaving on the mission, the Punishers said goodbye to their platoon leader, First Lieutenant Brandon LaMar, who was headed home to Nevada on leave to get married. Private First Class Curtis Blaisdell talked about his wife, who is pregnant with their third child. He is scheduled to go on leave later this month, eight days before she is due to give birth. While he hopes he will make it in time, he knows the baby will be the one determining that. "It'll be a race to see who gets there first," Blaisdell says before moving on to the next of many tasks at hand.