The Afghan Diaries: Where Lightning Treads Softly

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Nate Rawlings for TIME

First Lieutenant Mark Osmack, center, and Private First Class Anthony Saunders patrol the village Mirza Mohammed Kalacheh.

A concrete tablet at the entrance to the only permanent building at Checkpoint 8-1 identifies the structure as a Hamam, a Turkish bathhouse, built by the U.N. Development program in 2004. At the top of the stairs, taped to the building's aluminum door, is another sign, a laminated piece of paper blazed in the red and white of the American cavalry. Above the crest of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment it reads, "Welcome to the Home of Thunder and White Lightning."

Forty-five soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment's Lightning Troop live in the building's large main room, sleeping on bunk beds constructed from two by fours that cover the bathhouse's white tiled floor. The troopers belong to Lightning's mortar platoon (Thunder) and 2nd Platoon (White Platoon, according to the traditions of the cavalry). They arrived in Afghanistan from Germany in July, and since October, they have been attached to 1-22.

On an overcast Sunday morning, Thunder 8, First Lt. Mark Osmack, led a platoon of Lightning troopers and ANCOP policemen to patrol the village of Mirza Mohammed Kalacheh, a squat sprawl between a towering ridgeline and hundreds of acres of checkered pomegranate orchards.

Osmack, a tall, rail thin artillery officer who studied English literature at the University of Missouri, strode through the main bazaar of Kalacheh. He greeted men in the doorways of dilapidated shops with a comically loud "Salaaaaam alaykuuuuuum! How are you?" He resembled a campaigning politician more than a patrolling lieutenant as he stopped to talk to mullahs, village elders, and shop owners. After turning onto the first street off of the market, Osmack bellowed, "Hey, there's the man!" He greeted the village mosque's 23-year old mullah who has been searching for a new elder for the village. The elders are important, Osmack explained, because they have clout with the government and can request services for the community. After making their way through the market, Osmack directed the platoon into the nearby orchards.

On the far side of the orchard, a narrow road led to ANP checkpoint 8-2. Inside of the checkpoint's Hesco wall, four policemen lounged in the sun, eating lunch on top of metal shipping containers that had been dug into the ground. The local commander, Sham Sullah, leaned against a dirt wall, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the Americans. Sullah, Osmack explained, was fired for incompetence about a month before, but was rehired within 24 hours because of his connections to higher-level Afghani commanders. Since then, Osmack and his troops have been trying to develop Sullah because they know they are stuck with him.

Sham Sullah ("the first name says it all," as one of the soldiers told me) personifies some of the most frustrating aspects of training a local security force. Throughout Afghanistan, there have been reports of corruption, nepotism, and poor performance, but the American troops are largely powerless to over ride the system. Yet as frustrating as their situation is, decades of theories suggest that they simply have to let it go. British Lieut. Col. T.E. Lawrence (as in "of Arabia"), largely considered the Charles Darwin of training indigenous forces, wrote about training Arab armies during World War II, "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are here to help them, not win it for them."

While Osmack explained to Sullah that he would be back in a few days to train with the policemen, the troops maintaining security watch in the street were slowly surrounded by children smacking the soldiers' sleeves, shouting "Kalam, kalam!" I would soon learn that kalam is Pashto for "pen," which the children know all soldiers carry and is a coveted souvenir.

The soldiers greeted the children with friendly shouts of "Salam!" (Peace) and "Singay!" (How are you?), dispensing high fives and handshakes while they tried to deflect tiny hands from their cargo pockets. It is almost impossible to ignore the children, and the troops find it hard to shoo them away. They are simultaneously adorable, charming, and filthy, covered in dust and mud and snot, many of them walking through the village's garbage-strewn streets with no shoes. But their appearance isn't as heartbreaking as the future the troops know that awaits the young girls. There is a girl's school in the village, but girls are prevented from continuing beyond sixth grade.

Only minutes after Osmack high fived a young girl with pigtails in her hair, three women in burqas walked by, covered head to toe with their faces fully masked. "I wish I could just pull a Superman," Osmack said with a painful expression. "You know, whisk them away to something better."

The following day, Thunder platoon met up with White platoon to reconnoiter two hilltop villages called Sadat Ghunday and Sinkay Ghunday. On patrols, Osmack is rarely far from his radio operator, Private First Class Anthony Saunders. A compact North Carolinian who is nearly a foot shorter than Osmack, Saunders has to take nearly two steps for each one of his lieutenant's, but showed no signs of extra effort. On breaks, Saunders always seemed to be eating: muffins, Famous Amos cookies, and chips came out of his cargo pockets right after his radio updates.

When asked about his troops, Osmack put the deployment in perspective. "Within this war, there are three, four, five wars," Osmack Said. "Divorces, family problems, financial problems, someone's dad dies. Oh, and by the way, you have to keep your mind on what you're doing or you can get killed."

On the other side of the hill, Osmack stopped to talk to another group of elderly men. In two days, Osmack met with nearly two-dozen people, asking about security, the government, and what they thought about local projects. "If I keep seeing them, if they keep talking to me, we can get into deeper things," Osmack said. "I love people and I can talk, so this suits me."

When the patrol returned to the far side of the villages, they stopped to drink water and catch their breath. Saunders sat on a footbridge over a dried creek bed munching on a muffin. He talked about his fiancee back in Germany and their plans to get married in July. "Everything's picked out and ready to go," he said. "Now I just gotta get back alive."