If you haven’t seen _The Hurt Locker_ yet, don’t. Watch _Groundhog Day_ instead; it’s much better, and it will also give you a far better sense of what the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are like. That’s not an original thought; soldiers at various bases in those countries have said it to me probably half a dozen times, and they’re only partly joking. One of the strangest things about the conflicts is how quiet and calm they are most of the time – how boring, actually, and how mind-numbingly repetitive. That’s probably the case with just about every war, but particularly these ones, where soldiers can easily find themselves acting like small-town municipal officials in the morning, detectives in the afternoon, and then a really intense SWAT team times ten at night. There is fighting, and that fighting is vicious and comes out of nowhere. I’ve seen soldiers shot at point-blank range by people they thought were allies, and the threat of roadside bombs is constant and creates its own particular kind of anxious foreboding. But most of the time, it’s patrols and meetings and patrols and meetings. You drive somewhere in armored vehicles, get out and walk around, drive somewhere else, get out and meet with a police chief or a town council, drive somewhere else, walk again, do it again the next day. Maybe that day you encounter a roadside bomb or a twelve-year-old throws a hand grenade your way; maybe not. Other than that each day is much like the next.
Here is one day, a typical one, a Monday last summer in Afghanistan – specifically, at Forward Operating Base Airborne, in Wardak province. I was at Airborne, the main NATO camp in Wardak, for a brief embed with a company of the 3rd Special Forces Group. The soldiers at the camp, who had arrived five months earlier, were part of the first wave of “surge” troops ordered to Afghanistan, and their mission was twofold: to bring security to an area south of Kabul that had long been a base area for insurgents, and to establish a pilot program that blended local police and militia, to try to make up for the dire shortcomings of the Afghan National Police in the area. The bulk of the fighting in Wardak fell to conventional troops from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, a unit of about 800 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division much like the infantry battalions I’d embedded with in Iraq over the previous two years. I didn’t deal with them much this time – in fact, that Monday was the only day I spoke with their commander, the bald and towering Lieutenant Colonel Kimo Gallahue (“Colonel Kimo” to the Afghans). I was there to learn about the Special Forces troops and their pilot program, the few hundred armed locals they called the Guardians.
It was my first embed with special operations troops, and it was by turns infuriating and refreshing. The SF soldiers themselves were surprisingly open with me, particularly their predatory-looking commander, who I’ll call Major Isaiah. (Reporters are not permitted to publish SF soldiers’ names – maybe that’s why they’re so open – but he had a cool biblical one.) That morning I had breakfast in the Spartan mess hall with a group of them, including Isaiah and the unit’s first sergeant. While Isaiah mulled over his plan for the day, his grizzled, forty-five-ish first sergeant interrogated me. He joked that he was scoping me out as a potential replacement for his daughter’s no-good boyfriend; probably he was trying to determine whether the Ivy League kid in front of him would be a tactical liability to his men on missions, and whether I knew what I was talking about. Clad in a mix of civilian clothes and odd, non-standard camouflage, the SF “team guys” all sported thick beards and baseball caps instead of helmets, and they spoke about their missions with an intellectual fluency I’d rarely heard except from a few talented commanders. The two I walked over to breakfast with, a pair of tall blond soldiers who were on the young side for a special operations unit, had a convincing confidence about them that I would never have expected from infantrymen or cavalrymen their age.
On the other hand, I was also stuck with an almost unbelievably awkward and difficult public affairs officer. (Unlike conventional units, special operations forces require that you be escorted by a PAO when embedded.) This captain, whom Major Isaiah cruelly but accurately described as “thirty-nine going on thirteen,” couldn’t be shaken, and he couldn’t be kept from ruining interviews or saying inaccurate things that other soldiers then had to correct for my benefit. At breakfast that day—the two blond soldiers and I got up quietly in a vain attempt to evade him—he was jittery; he almost never got to leave the wire, he said, and he couldn’t wait to strap on his gear and get out there. That we would be going to a meeting with local elders in an area where the Taliban only fought at night did not dampen his excitement.
By the time Major Isaiah and his soldiers had gathered by their trucks to brief the mission, it was almost ten – late in the military day, but about right for the start of business in a rural Afghan day. (We lost another fifteen minutes or so when the public affairs captain showed up in full battle rattle, and had to be told to change into civilian clothes and ditch his excess body armor.) The plan for the day was to drive a few miles west into Zaywalat hawza, a small Pashtun area in the hills of Jalrez district, and meet up there with several groups of people for a _shura_, or conference, attended by several parties: Colonel Kimo and some of his infantrymen, a team of French combat advisors, commanders from the Afghan army and National Police, a delegation of elders representing the various villages of Zaywalat, and some Chinese construction workers who were trying to build a road through the area.
Zaywalat had become a sticking point in the progress of allied plans in Wardak. Except for Zaywalat, all of Jalrez district had gotten on board with the Guardian program, supplying recruits and curbing Taliban and criminal activity. Major Isaiah and Colonel Kimo suspected that the reason Zaywalat was holding out was because of its ties to two major local insurgents, named Wazir and Shah Agha. The group the two men headed routinely attacked American troops in Nerkh, the next district over, and also had a habit of coming out at night and torching the Chinese workers’ equipment – apparently just to make a point and maybe also in the hope of capturing someone and getting a ransom, since, in reality, their group would probably profit from the completion of the road. That would be Kimo’s and Isaiah’s bargaining point – the elders had familial and social ties to the insurgents, and were obviously harboring them, but they also needed that road.
The _shura_ was held at the compound the Chinese workers were based out of, a site that since February had also housed a platoon of Colonel Kimo’s 2-87 Infantry soldiers. It was a quick ride, over beautiful terrain – steep hills from which the enemy were probably watching our progress, and behind them row after row of mountains, snow-capped even though the temperatures down below often passed a hundred degrees. During the day, the area was safe as could be, the soldiers in my vehicles told me; it was only at night that it became a haunt of [for] Wazir’s men. Our small patrol of Humvees and SUVs pulled into the compound just after Kimo’s much larger group of _District 9_-type armored trucks. (The “mothership convoy,” one of the SF soldiers quipped.) Inside, Afghan policemen in Soviet-style uniforms lounged around, and Kimo’s infantrymen stood at the ready, heavily armored, peering at their Afghan counterparts through the vaguely sinister-looking protective glasses that most American troops wear in the field. Group by group, the elders trickled in, and when they had all arrived I broke off the conversation I was having with the 2-87 battalion sergeant major and followed them into a cramped room. There, panel-style, the key American, French, and Afghan leaders sat at a long table, with a roomful of about thirty white-bearded Zaywalatis and a few Chinese representatives packed inside, facing them.
The French officer and the local sub-governor spoke briefly and dully; I thought about turning off my voice recorder to preserve batteries. I was ready to sit through a long, aimless session of empty promises and hollow compliments like dozens of others I’d seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The elders offered the usual explanations. “I swear to God we are not the criminals and we are not the enemy,” the first elder to speak, a Hajji Ismailah, said. “The criminals are from Pakistan, and we are afraid of them too.” Another elder, Saad al-Din, suggested that the threat to the Chinese workers was negligible, and that Colonel Kimo should be ashamed of not being able to find and capture a handful of insurgents. The National Police chief for the area, an official named Muzaffar al-Din, barely argued, telling the assembled residents in a tired and unenthused tone that they should not let the enemy use their land. He, too, laid much of the blame for the district’s problems at Pakistan’s feet, as did the next speaker, Brigadier General Abdul Raziq Safi, a brigade commander in the Afghan army’s 201st Corps.
When Colonel Kimo’s turn to speak came, though, the mood changed, as he and Major Isaiah launched into a “bad cop, worse cop” routine that they had apparently been planning for days. In the United States, there is a view that counterinsurgency is a kind of armed social work – a hearts-and-minds approach where if you are calm and understanding with the locals, all will be well. As any sergeant knows, though, there are times – many of them – when a sterner tone is required. This _shura_ was one of those times. Kimo and Isaiah had been working with the Zaywalati elders since March, with nothing to show for it, and now they were fed up.
The colonel’s tone was more severe than I’d ever heard a commander—at least a good commander—use with local leaders before, in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Like the Afghans present, he began his remarks with “Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim” (in the name of God), but then cut to the chase: “The criminals and insurgents in Jalrez are not from Pakistan, and I believe that some of them are the sons and brothers of the villagers right here in Zaywalat hawza.” If Zaywalat did not provide recruits to the Guardians, he continued, the Chinese workers would leave and no road would be built; it was as simple as that. Anger rising in his voice, the towering, bald colonel became more and more exercised. “If this is the decision of the elders of Zaywalat, then we will fight in Zaywalat all summer,” he concluded. “I’m prepared to fight all summer. I know the battalion commander that’s replacing me. I have been in the Army for twenty-six fucking years, and if you want to fight, I’m prepared. So I will be patiently awaiting your actions in the weeks to come.” He sat down, and the room twittered with the elders’ surprise and indignation.
Major Isaiah’s tone, when he finally spoke at the end of the meeting, was not as harsh, but his words were equally damning. “I have fought in Afghanistan since 2002 and I have been all across Afghanistan,” he began. “The other night, the people of your town hid Shah Agha and Wazir.” He pointed to one man in particular as he made this accusation. “That’s okay; that’s a decision you’ve made. But when the roads and the development projects don’t happen, that’s a decision you’ve made, not a decision Muzaffar al-Din or Colonel Kimo has made.” In a calm, resigned voice, the major continued, through his interpreter Massoud, “Colonel Kimo’s soldiers have come 3,000 miles to help you, and still you choose not to help secure yourselves. That’s okay; that’s your right. You say that Colonel Kimo should be ashamed because he can’t catch these men, but really, you should be more ashamed for extorting money from the Chinese with false promises of protection.” The room was quiet. After a pause, the major finished, again suggesting that the Zaywalatis should feel shame: “When you’re ready, I will fill that school for training Guardians. Until then, we will continue to fight the enemy.” With that he and Massoud stood and walked out, leaving the room in silence. I followed them a few minutes later, as the _shura_ dissolved.
As we pulled out of the compound, I wasn’t sure what I had just heard – had the colonel and the major issued a threat? Had they played their cards right, so that now Zaywalat would come into the fold? Had they just told the elders what they knew to be true – that their local diplomacy was over, and now it was time to fight? Or had they provoked avoidable violence? That evening, over a dinner that some Afghan guards had brought in from Jalrez, soldiers from Isaiah’s SF company gave me their own interpretations, which ranged from pleased to grim.
Late the next night, I was watching _Forgetting Sarah Marshall_ with the soldiers who shared my shack on FOB Airborne. (Aside: every time I’ve ever heard soldiers discuss this movie, there’s been a preparatory clearing of the air where someone condemns the opening scene as gay – there’s male nudity in it, remember? – and everyone else agrees and then the conversation can go on.) Around midnight, the movie was interrupted when an intelligence contractor in his fifties with a skull-and-crossbones baseball cap came in with news from the operations center. A few minutes earlier, insurgents loyal to Wazir, the man Isaiah had accused the elders of sheltering, had mounted a two-stage attack on a convoy of 2-87 soldiers in Nerkh. Four of Colonel Kimo’s men died in the attack – two from the initial convoy and two from the force that came to rescue them. Both Kimo and Isaiah, the two senior officers on the base, were fighting mad; the attack was almost certainly a direct answer to their speeches the previous day. Now, the contractor said with a vicious satisfaction, “task force is going out.” He meant that JSOC, the black-ops unit euphemistically called “task force,” had been called in: after months of equivocation in which neither 2-87 nor the SF were allowed to touch Wazir for fear of jeopardizing the allied relationship with Zaywalat, the gloves were off.
The contractor came back about an hour later, as the movie was ending, with more news. Task force operators had executed the hit and seven or more people were dead, and they believed both Wazir and Shah Agha were among those killed. (It turned out later on that Wazir had only been wounded, but a third leader, Mowru Sharif, had also been killed.) Even as a civilian with no skin in the game, it was satisfying to hear; the SEALs, or Rangers, or whoever they were, had gone in and given the enemy what was coming to them, probably before they even knew the results of their own attack on the 2-87 convoy. But as I fell asleep, listening to an interpreter and an Afghan guard murmur outside the door over late-night chai, I wondered: was this the beginning of the summer that Colonel Kimo had warned about, a summer of combat? Would his troops and the people of Nerkh and Zaywalat fight all summer? And if that could happen here, in a safe province just outside Kabul, then what kind of a summer would it be on Afghanistan’s real battlefields, in Helmand and Kandahar?