U.S. troops work to aid villagers and build a new trust
By Dave Tobin, Newhouse News Service
SHAHR-E SAFA, AFGHANISTAN — Rabbit has them covered.
Belly to the ground behind his sniper rifle, Cpl. Jeffery “Rabbit” Raby, of Lewiston, N.Y., is perched on Sniper Hill, which overlooks this village of 500 people in southern Afghanistan.
Nearly a quarter-mile away, eight soldiers of his police mentoring team — “Viper,” part of an Army National Guard unit — head out on a foot patrol.
Like every Viper team mission, it’s a joint operation with the Afghan National Police, which is trying to increase its ranks rapidly and establish itself in parts of Afghanistan that have never had a national police presence.
The soldiers are joined this time by eight Afghan police, three Afghan intelligence officers and an interpreter.
They will fan out across the desert community, rifles in hand, in a show of counter-insurgent force and to get a read on the village mood.
Through a parched field of low, spiny bushes, they walk toward a girls school being built with U.S. money.
Violence and the Taliban
Capt. Odelle Means, the team’s commander, stops midway to point out a 4-foot-deep crater.
Two weeks before, insurgents fired four rockets toward the municipal compound, which includes a boys school, a medical clinic, an Afghan police station and Viper’s tiny base. Guard soldiers responded with grenades and machine guns and called in air support. Shooting stopped after an F/A-18 dropped two bombs.
The Taliban are a real presence here. They’ve coerced the local cell phone company to shut down phone service each night at 7 p.m. by exploding cell towers and torturing the cell phone company’s employees. In the past year, they’ve killed seven of 25 police officers based here, wounding others. Police morale can sink after casualties, and some just leave their post.
The patrol checks a girls school and two wells, all newly built with U.S. money. Solar panels from one well were recently stolen. Afghan police, monitored by Means, will try to learn what they can about the theft.
Before the team even crosses the road, Means gets a radio call from Raby, the sniper. Through his rifle scope, Raby can look inside village compounds, and he sees solar panels. Means, through his interpreter, tells the Afghan police commander they have specific houses to search.
As the patrol climbs toward the village, women duck inside compounds, babies in arm. In front of a door, Means radios Raby and waves to confirm they’re at the right place.
Like neighborhood cops
Afghan police knock, push open the door and enter. A minute passes, and Means enters, followed by soldiers.
Solar panels are mounted on a wall. Means has a soldier photograph them.
Each well is secured behind a 6-foot concrete wall. It’s the second well that has panels missing. So Means has soldiers and Afghan police scale the first one to see if solar panels there match the ones discovered in the compound. They don’t, but this well’s faucets have been stolen.
The whole patrol heads toward a second house in which Raby sees panels. Young boys tag behind. A man cleans wheat seeds in front of his house.
Means, 30, an Army Ranger with a wife and two small children back in Columbia, S.C., works these villages like a cop works a neighborhood beat. His breezy Southern charm connects — with American officers and, when needed, with Afghan village elders. A local leader is likely to be met with a big smile and a Pashto version of “How goes it?”
His manner and effectiveness work here. He’s going home in December, but on this day, an elder asks Means to talk his superiors into letting him stay here with the New York Army National Guard 27th Brigade Combat Team. For Means, the walk-through is an exercise in multitasking. Keeping an eye on his own soldiers’ positions, he watches how Afghan police set up security and coaches the Afghan police commander in directing his men.
As they near the second well, a village elder appears. Means greets him warmly in Pashto, and they embrace. Means tells him through the interpreter about the missing panels and asks the elder to help. The elder leads the way to the next house. Afghan police and soldiers enter. Wrong panels.
Means and the elder talk more through the interpreter.
“Tell him thank you for letting us walk around your compound,” Means says. “We didn’t disturb anything, and if we did, let us know and we’ll get it fixed.”
A mentor for many
Means says he learned early that his job wasn’t just about mentoring the Afghan National Police, but about mentoring Afghan interior, educational or highway officials, too. He’s trying, in these small villages, to help change a vengeful, mistrustful culture built on centuries of hard feelings. Anyone antagonizing any faction risks betrayal to the Taliban.
In that climate, it can be hard to measure progress. Steps forward followed by steps back.
But Means is pleased with the day’s patrol.
“It’s always successful when the ANP are slowly starting to do it themselves,” he said. “The end state for me is they plan the mission. We go along with them, but they do the whole thing by themselves.”