Policemen's Revenge

SHERGAH -- The village of Shergah is near the police headquarters in Khakriz. In a long afternoon, the police could march there, search the multiple suspected Taliban hideouts, and have enough time left over to laze and nap amid the vineyards and pomegranate orchards, next to babbling canals, before a hike back for lunch at the station house. The police would like very much to do exactly that, because it knows members of the Taliban live there. But lack of resources has made the police visits rare: when officers step into Shergah at dawn this morning, they will be there for the first time in nearly four years.

Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, and Canadian Forces

This is a mission of vengeance. If yesterday's trip into the mountains above Darvishan suffered from lack of motivation, today's suffers from an excess of it. The Afghan National Police has had to cower in its compound for a long time, and now that Americans and Canadians are there to support the ANP, Afghan officers know they can storm into their antagonists' homes fast and pitilessly. When they walk around the mud-walled houses in Shergah, they search every male big enough to stand up to the recoil of a rifle. They tied the ones they recognize as fighters with their own turbans, very tight behind their backs, and make them squat in the sun until a truck arrives to take them to jail. The police relishes this: officers kick the detainees and slap them around, until Capt. Joseph Hardigree, the American leading a mentoring team, notices the mistreatment and threatens to lodge his combat boot swiftly and passionately into the rectum of any Afghan policeman who beats a detainee in his sight again.

Deputy police chief and other Afghan National Police

Khakriz deputy police chief organizes detention of suspected Taliban.

I have written elsewhere about how Hazara police has proved highly effective, in the short term, at patrolling Pashtun areas, because Hazara policemen are difficult to co-opt and are all too eager to settle scores with former oppressors. Here in Khakriz many of the ANP are local, and they show the virtues of a police force drawn from the community it polices. The police knows the villagers. And whenever policemen see someone unfamiliar, they assume that an insurgent has come to Khakriz to hide. At one point, they nearly shoot a disheveled man in a purple robe because they see him try to duck into a house. I have rarely seen Afghan police react so fast. The officers smash through the rickety door and have the man on the ground, subdued, in thirty seconds flat. I sit with him during his interrogation and notice the stupid grin he wears as he answers their questions, as if elated to be taken seriously enough to merit arrest and possible shooting. In time, the police determines he is not a Talib, just crazy, and he is released.

Another detainee -- a man with a short crusty beard, a broad pixie face and unenviably large ears -- is judged to be a keeper. The Afghans say he is a renowned bomb-maker. Clearly miffed that they can't rough him up while Hardigree is around, one policeman scowls and pinches his cheek, hard.

What happens to him next? Hardigree has an official answer and a candid one. Here the virtues of a Pashtun police force are less apparent, and the vices possibly fatal. Hardigree's official answer is that the pixie and the other detainees will be scanned biometrically, interrogated, and kept in prison if judged a threat. More frankly, he says, "they'll probably be kept around, and then someone will come around to buy them out." In effect, the insurgents pay a fine, and then go loose to plant more bombs.

About halfway through the morning, the ANP finds another usual suspect, who protests that he is just a farmer. His house, like all houses in Shergah, looks very plausibly like a farmer's house, with a pile of goat-droppings in a courtyard and little other than a few mats on the dirt floor for sitting and resting. But the ANA look not only unconvinced but furious, even a little insulted at being lied to so brazenly. The turban comes off and they move to restrain the suspect. But he breaks away and sprints out the front door. The police don't catch him, and when a few minutes later someone from a few hundred meters away shoots at us, he is a prime suspect.

The operation's goal -- to provide support for the Afghan security forces to swoop in, strike back, and confirm a presence in a place known to harbor Taliban, has been achieved, and no one is more gleeful than the police officers themselves. At one point they actually sit in the middle of an orchard, where they huddle around a teapot for a celebratory chai, not even concerned that someone might poke a rifle barrel over the mud walls and kill them all in five seconds flat. The cavalierness about their own lives makes the Canadians shake their heads, Hardigree swear, and me remember never to rely on them, ever.

I last saw the detainees when the Afghan police loaded them into the backs of trucks to be taken for detention and questioning. The photo is of Hardigree, and the video is of police pushing the suspects around.

Afghan National Police detaining suspected Taliban in Shergah and Zaylabach villages, Khakriz, Afghanistan

Unfortunately for some of the policemen, I never saw some of them again, either. A police truck left Shergah, and--either out of haste or carelessness--drove along the short stretch of highway between Shergah and the police station. I was still in Shergah, eating grapes in the shade, my back pressed firmly to a mud wall, when I heard the explosion echo through the valley. It sounded distant, almost gentle, like a roll of spring thunder. The police truck carrying the chief of police and four other policemen hit a roadside bomb. It obliterated the front of the vehicle and shredded the passengers. A helicopter arrived soon after to take the wounded to Kandahar for surgery.

The operation was at best a bittersweet lesson, then, for the Afghans. After a week with NATO's support they knew they could go anywhere, at any time, and that they might even bag a master bomb-maker. But even with the support of armor, of helicopters, and of soldiers with the strength and training of the Canadian and US militaries, the day ended with a larger bang for the Taliban than for the Afghan police. Whether this means the operation left them with more or less confidence than they had before is a question none was ready to answer.

Afghan and NATO forces assemble at dawn outside Shergah.