Slow Roll into Taliban Country

KHAKRIZ -- Hajji Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, the district leader of Khakriz, recently sent his superiors a desperate message. Kharkiz had become like a spa retreat for the Taliban -- a place just beyond the mountains from Kandahar where insurgents could relax, hide from Western armies and helicopters, plan new assaults, stroke their beards, and generally strut like mafiosi on a holiday in the old country. Hajji Muhammad's men, a few dozen Afghan National Police (ANP), were little more than a company of unconvincing human shields.

They stayed in their compound and accepted nightly gunfire and mortars. They couldn't leave to patrol, and were therefore prisoners of the sprawling open desert of their district, capable of keeping peace only in the minute space where they lived. Send help, Hajji Muhammad's message said.

In response, US, Canadian, and Afghan militaries are creeping over the mountains toward Khakriz -- but at the speed of a Zamboni. Our convoy of LAVs, trucks, and tanks is formidable, but a lightning strike force we are not. The reason is simple. In the lead, a small group of American vehicles sweeps the road for roadside bombs, which means that every time they find a plastic bag or tin can by the side of the road, the whole convoy of dozens of vehicles has to stop until they can confirm the item isn't going to blow up. As the mountains start to rise and we hit our first mild switchbacks, we pass the one ANP checkpoint between here and Khakriz. At some point not too long ago, the ANP hit one of those plastic bags, with consequences: there is a completely wrecked police truck nearby, and four freshly dug graves, each skewered with a stick on which blows a tattered green cloth, for the policemen who died.

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Few jobs are more forlorn and pitiful than that of an Afghan police officer, and the special hell of Hajji Muhammad's force is appreciable as soon as we arrive, ten terrible stop-start hours after we started and after we finally see their compound. It is small, dirty, neglected, and strewn everywhere with trash -- mostly food wrappers from American rations, since the ANP have neither the ability to leave their compound safely nor the money to buy food if they did. Worse still, even when they stay in the compound, the Taliban have such a clear geographic advantage that they confidently taunt the police over the radio. The compound is right next to a mountain, and anyone who goes up to the mountain can snipe down at the police with a clear view. They call the compound "the Toilet," and indeed murdering ANP looks about as easy as shooting turds in the crapper.

This operation is the Afghan equivalent of sending a space shuttle to resupply the International Space Station. Khakriz is distant, with no great strategic value, and its ANP force currently barely lacks the capacity to keep itself alive. Double its numbers and it might start to be able to leave its compound and patrol. But even then, the roadside bombs would winnow the ANP's numbers a few at a time, and eventually the force would grow timid. Morale is low, and so is trust: although Hajji Muhammad requested the back-up, the Canadians and Americans refused to let him know they were coming. The police simply cannot be trusted to keep the operation secret and not to tip off the Taliban (perhaps for a modest bribe) and tell them to sow the mountain pass with bombs.

Tomorrow is day one of patrolling: American, Canadian, and Afghan forces together, combing through villages that have not seen foreign troops or police for years.