Undisclosed location in Afghanistan
Meet Captain John (last name not allowed). He’s a bearded, thoughtful, and articulate young Army Green Beret. Since last summer, he’s lived in a tiny, rough compound in the remote village of Shagowlay, in the Qarah Bagh district of Ghazni Province. That’s Nowhere, Afghanistan.
John tells a story: In the dusty, scorching summer of 2012, he and 11 Special Forces colleagues showed up, wearing Kevlar vests, helmets, and carrying a lot of weaponry. The Taliban owned the village. “A young boy walked up to us and asked, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” The kid’s point was well taken. What could 12 American Green Berets do in the face of the many hardened Taliban fighters rooted into Shagowlay?
The going was nasty at first. John’s team had a fight on its hands. A vicious fight. One of his buddies suffered a head injury; another, nasty shrapnel wounds. “There was a lot of activity,” says the understated captain. “They threw just about everything you can think of at us.” I ask for specifics: Are we talking snipers, RPGs, small-arms fire, IEDs, mortars? “Yeah,” says John. Well, okay then.
John had a couple of aces in the hole. One, his team planned to stick around. And that skeptical local boy didn’t count on John and his buddies training an effective Afghan Local Police unit. John continues his story: “Totally different today. We are invited to homes. We meet with the village elders. We have friends. We eat goat together.” How about that scared kid from last summer? “Now we go out and play soccer with the kids.”
Amid the messy, violent, and untidy state that is Afghanistan today, here’s a functional story. It’s about the unlikely but profoundly strong connection between the NATO Special Ops community and its partner on the ground, the Afghan Local Police (ALP). Slowly, quietly, but with deadly effectiveness, these two groups are chucking insurgents out of Taliban strongholds all over rural Afghanistan and bringing in stability, order, and economic development.
This story, in detail, hasn’t really been told. Why not? Well, it involves those bearded, tough-as-railway-spikes dudes in the Special Ops community: Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marine Corps special operators. These guys are kicking down doors and killing hardened Taliban fighters in multiple missions every night in Afghanistan. They own the dark, and don’t normally seek publicity; in fact, they slink away from anybody with a notebook in hand. But they are doing something extraordinary now in Afghanistan. So they decided to lift up their skirts—a bit anyway—and let a journalist take a peek inside their operations. This is their story.
First, the characters. The special operators are among the best of our armed forces. They were the first into Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11, and they remain in force there—more than 12,000 boots on the ground. They hang up their battered helmets at night in discreet corners of obscure bases and don’t exactly advertise their presence.
Like Captain John, they have the intellect of Yale grads without the pomposity; the fitness of elite triathletes without the vanity; and a can-do, don’t-screw-with-me attitude. They are lean, mean killing machines but also polite, modest, and respectful to a visiting scribe over many a meal. They have spent most of the last 10 years away from loved ones but don’t complain (much). They are Type A to the hilt, but surprisingly subtle, and would dearly like to kick some Taliban arse in Afghanistan. One thing is certain: They didn’t come to Afghanistan to lose. They make little money yet wouldn’t trade what they do for any job on this planet. They operate in the shadows. They seek no acclaim for what they do. And they live, work, and train closely with the Afghan Local Police, the other heroes of this yarn.
The ALP has been ruthlessly hammered in the court of public opinion. Witness a Los Angeles Times report that the ALP has “a worrisome reputation for corruption and brutality.” Or the New York Times, whose own headline screamed of “Abuses by Local Afghan Police Forces.” Or Human Rights Watch, whose own shrill report spoke of “murderous tribal vendettas, targeted killings, smuggling, and extortion,” as well as frequent rapes “of women, girls, and boys.” Oh my.
The Special Ops community begs to differ. I spent a good chunk of time roaming around Afghanistan with the Special Ops community at a variety of secret locations that I’ve been asked not to name. I met with everybody from the enlisted ranks up to generals—Afghan, American, and coalition Special Forces partners from places like Romania and Australia. I was allowed into private sessions and shown the Joint Operations Center. The JOC, as it’s known, has some 20-odd screens displaying real-time operational data about units all over the country.
A side note here on media ethics: We have eyes-in-the-sky in Afghanistan. When our Special Ops call in a precision airstrike and a Hellfire missile conveniently exterminates a Taliban commander with no collateral damage, you can see it all on the screen. Our special operators—men and women, mind you—can also see the Taliban showing up soon thereafter and scattering kids’ toys around the kill zone, or showing up to plant other “evidence” that would lead people to believe innocents have been killed. Their intent is to trick gullible journalists from both the Afghan and Western news agencies into telling a horrific story of civilian casualties. You can’t blame the Taliban for trying, but wouldn’t you think the AP and BBC would be too shrewd to fall for this nonsense? The special operators share some blame; for reasons to some degree beyond their control, they have done a second-rate job in sharing their side of the story.
These special operators are far from perfect. Ditto for the missions they go on. War is messy. There are, at times, civilian casualties, which we fess up to. But here’s a news flash: The Taliban kill far, far more innocents than we do. These special operators are relentlessly aware of who they are and the problems they face, and are constantly trying to improve their tactics by way of protecting civilians. Two U.S. Army officers set the tone, Major General Tony Thomas and his deputy commander, Brigadier General Donald Bolduc. In charge of what? The military loves long-winded names, and these no-nonsense generals lead the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, known by its acronym, NSOCC-A.
After 48 hours of travel, I arrived at the first Special Ops base after midnight, reeking like a piglet, and ran into a distinguished gent in casual dress in the hallway. Later I learned this was Gen. Thomas. This Army Ranger has had a superlative 33-year military career, and served closely with (retired) Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Special Operations community for more than a decade. I heard a lot of nice things about Thomas from his troops in days ahead when nobody was being careful what he said; Thomas left the next day for meetings with allies in Brussels, so I can’t tell you much more of him. The focus here will be on his second-in-command, Gen. Bolduc, a fact that will no doubt embarrass a man who habitually credits others. But it’s Bolduc who fills up my notebooks.
Bolduc is unlike any general I’ve ever met. He grew up on a New England farm, was the first in his family to go to college, and traced the long arc from private to general. He seems to get by on three hours’ sleep, appears fitter than SEALs half his age, is a toe-tapping hard charger—a raconteur who never stops talking, whether the topic is his mom’s homemade maple syrup, or being caught out in a cornfield under a relentless barrage of enemy fire. He is the sort that compulsively runs towards incoming bullets. Gen. Bolduc is revered by his troops and his Afghan partners. After six hard years in country, he is steeped in Afghan culture. You can’t help but like this guy, especially after he hops up onto the StairMaster next to you, plugs in his earbuds, turns on his music, and sings loudly along to ridiculously sappy music.
Although Bolduc doesn’t much like the characterization because he doesn’t have an ounce of pretension in his slight, wiry frame, he’s something of an intellectual. He spent years reading in his hooch deep into the night, immersing himself in counterinsurgency campaigns from conflicts past—think Algeria, Oman, El Salvador, and so on. More to the point, he was part of a tiny group of warrior-scholars who figured out which doctrines worked and then developed a plan to apply these winning strategies to the dysfunctional culture of Afghanistan.
Their solution? The most effective fighting force you’ve never heard of: the Afghan Local Police. Yes, that same group that Western media and human rights agencies have weighed and found wanting. Oh yeah, there’s someone else who doesn’t like the ALP: Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar says this of the ALP, speaking in Dari, of course: “The Islamic Emirate [the insurgency’s name for Afghanistan] has made the annihilation of those social germs [the ALP] the priority of its military activities.” Explains the plainspoken Bolduc as a huge grin spreads over his gaunt face, “If our enemy says crushing the ALP is their number one priority, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign we’re doing something right.”
Bolduc and his Special Ops planners looked out over the unstable turf that’s Afghanistan and came to realize they had five massive problems to solve: (1) No Afghan ruler, ever, has been able to effectively rule the thousands of tiny and not-so-tiny villages scattered across this beautiful country. There was simply no connection between much of the country’s population and its so-called federal government. (2) The Taliban were relentless in taking advantage of this vacuum, forcing themselves into these villages and establishing bases of power. This is the same Taliban that will bury a young woman up to her head when she is merely accused of sexual misconduct, and then pelt her to a gruesome death with rocks. Make no mistake: The Taliban are cruel and awful, and widely despised. (3) The villages could best be defended by those who live there, since they would be protecting their homes and loved ones and would be the first to recognize when a troublesome outsider showed up in the village square. (4) The villages needed training, guns, and ammo to fight back. (5) Any Afghan fighting force needed to be able to stand on its own legs as coalition forces continue to pull out.
The solution Bolduc and company embraced: Village Stability Operations, or VSO, as they’re called here. These operations go hand-in-hand with the ALP. Here’s how it works: The village shura—the community elders who ran the town before the insurgents showed up—wants to get rid of the Taliban. They ask for help. If deemed to be strategically viable, the request for an Afghan Local Police unit is eventually approved by the Afghan federal governement (ministry of interior, to be exact) and by the NATO side as well. Next comes the “clearing” stage. That’s the Special Ops euphemism for a strike force going in and using all means at its disposal to kill or capture insurgents in that village. Those that aren’t whacked are detained and interrogated.
Then two things happen. The shura handpicks trustworthy men from the village to serve in their own Afghan Local Police unit. Our guys additionally vet these men—urinalysis and the whole nine yards. At the same time, a Special Operations team of 12 tough men (with a small support staff) set up shop in the village in a local compound. They eat, live, sleep, and socialize with the villagers. They drink tea. They eat goat. They make friends. They get shot at sometimes. (Often the team is joined by two American female special operators, a “cultural support team.” These are highly trained, tough women who mentor and bond with the local gals. They might help set up a rug sewing business or help deliver a baby.)
Back to the Afghan cops. Those policemen nominated by the shura go through a 21-day training program and are provided uniforms, Ford Ranger pickups, AK-47 assault rifles, and other goodies. Then U.S. Special Ops teams hump it like hell to put themselves out of a job. They train their ALP partners with the idea that within six to nine months, typically, the 12-man team can move out and the ALP can provide security on their own.
In 32 districts so much progress has been made that the special operators are just keeping an eye on their ALP colleagues from afar. Even better, 17 districts are now totally on their own. An average district will have about 300 ALP guardians. And 104 more districts have been officially approved and are awaiting an ALP force. Another sign of success comes by way of the affable brigadier general Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the courageous Afghan cop in charge of the ALP.
Gen. Ahmadzai served the proverbial three cups of tea in his modest office and explained that his biggest problem arises from the dozens of outlying districts that are lobbying him for ALP forces; with limited resources, Ahmadzai can’t come close to meeting the demand. Why is ALP so popular among Afghans? “Security by your own sons [builds] trust between you and your police,” explains Ahmadzai. “They provide security. They work in your fields. They pray in your mosque. They serve you.” What he is really saying is that the ALP is a classic—and effective—case of bottom-up security.
How does this bottom-up security work? Well, the Afghans run the ALP program. The Special Operations Command only does mentoring, a fact they remind you of about five times a day. There are 21,958 ALP guardians in uniform today. That’s enough to protect 20 percent of the population, around 5.8 million people. Plans are to grow the ALP force to 30,000 by 2015. These ALP men guard checkpoints, go on patrols, maintain a presence, and, yeah, still get attacked by the Taliban. How risky is the job? Consider that the ALP has a casualty rate of 6.2 percent, versus the Afghan National Army’s more modest 2.3 percent rate.
Afghan men of all ages and backgrounds nonetheless line up for ALP jobs, and attrition is low. To be sure, the guns and trucks are a nice incentive. So too is the $125 monthly pay, and the $65-per-month food stipend. That’s a sweet pile of change in a remote village where owning 10 goats makes a man rich. Still, the ALP is relatively cheap; it takes $6,000 a year to put an ALP cop in the field; it costs six times that to field an Afghan National Policeman. Okay, enough stats.
There are other positive signs. RAND Corp., the nonprofit that does much defense-related work, has been studying the ALP for some time. How effective is the ALP? Rand associate economist Daniel Egel, a specialist in program effectiveness in conflict-prone countries, explains: “Overall, we’ve seen consistent, modest, but statistically significant improvements in terms of the security environment, governance, and economic activity.” The RAND data show that “kinetic activity”—that’s Army-speak for the good guys and the bad guys trying to kill each other with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, snipers, you name it—generally declines within 12 months after the Special Ops teams show up in a village.
Bolduc leans heavily on RAND analysts. They sit outside his office and have been known to offer less-than-rosy assessments. Bolduc is like David Petraeus that way—bringing in smart outsiders for a fresh look at what he’s doing right, and wrong. Outside agencies have taken note. USAID now partners with ALP. The do-gooders at the International Committee of the Red Cross now provide training to the ALP in the basics of human rights law and first aid. But Robin Waudo, Kabul-based spokesperson for the ever-neutral Red Cross, said these programs “cannot be seen as a vote of confidence or endorsement by the ICRC but a necessary part of our work to protect the victims of the conflict.”
Of course there are problems. Virtually all ALP cops are illiterate. They enter the fray in nasty Taliban strongholds with only three weeks’ training. A 30-year-old Afghan male has spent his entire life in a war zone—surrounded by ruthless cycles of death and violence; he’ll never become Sheriff Andy Griffith of Mayberry. They make bad mistakes. I heard one senior ALP commander tell Bolduc proudly that his guys had “beaten the crap” out of a suspicious fellow who was writing down license plate numbers. Bolduc quickly reminded his counter-part, “You can’t go around beating the crap out of people.” The mentoring continues.
When ALP guardians step over the line, the case is supposed to be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. Last November, four unbalanced ALP cops from Kunduz Province were convicted of raping an 18-year-old Afghan woman; they were sentenced to 16-year prison terms. There have been many other documented cases of abuse by ALP guardians, cases that the New York Times and other media harp on. The Los Angeles Times further reports that the ALP has “a shady reputation” and “has been implicated in human rights abuses and criminal activity.”
Nobody at NSOCC-A headquarters will speak ill of the media. But I can. Why do the Western media fixate on the ALP’s shortcomings? Could our left-leaning scribes be just a tad obsessed with taking potshots at the U.S. Special Forces community and their Afghan partners?
Major General Thomas and Brigadier General Bolduc are well aware of the challenges, past, present, and future. The ALP’s gains are fragile. The Taliban are in Afghanistan for the long haul. The NATO military footprint in Afghanistan post-2014 is a question mark. Bolduc says the ALP is funded for years to come, but who really knows? With President Hamid Karzai, the NATO special operators are faced with the curse of the unreliable ally. Recall that the mercurial Karzai in February unceremoniously chucked all U.S. Special Forces out of the strategically key district of Nerkh, in Wardak Province. This is significant militarily since Wardak is the gateway to the capital; Wardak is often called here the “soft underbelly of Kabul.”
Why would Karzai boot out his allies and protectors? Is he already hedging his bets—i.e., cozying up to the Taliban a bit—as he looks towards the April 2014 Afghan elections? General Ahmadzai, the brutally honest top ALP commander, told me that Karzai “gets his information from lots of sources, and is about 80 percent committed to the ALP.” In the years ahead, might the ALP revert to unregulated militias, answerable to local, if brutal, warlords? Yes, real risks remain.
Still, given all the challenges, what the Special Forces have accomplished with the Afghan Local Police is awfully impressive: not perfect but pretty damn good.
Willy Stern has written for The Weekly Standard from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Mali, and other places.