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Special Operators at Work

Training the Afghan Local Police

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By WILLY STERN
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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. 

Afghan Local Policemen receive certificates

Afghan Local Policemen receive certificates after completing a 21-day training program run by NATO Special Operators.

SOJTF–Afghanistan / Richard Rzepka

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.

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