At Kandahar outpost, US soldiers have built trust with Afghan counterparts
Afghan National Army soldiers greet each other at the summit of Combat Outpost Ghundy Ghar on Sept. 26 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
COMBAT OUTPOST GHUNDY GHAR, Afghanistan — The toughest part was having to lay the concertina wire.
A few weeks ago, the order came down to the American soldiers manning this windswept outpost that they must fortify the barrier between themselves and the Afghan soldiers with whom they work. An alarming spike of insider attacks across Afghanistan prompted NATO commanders to abruptly scale back joint efforts with the Afghans and boost defensive precautions.
For many of the 2nd Infantry Division soldiers here, being forced to distance themselves from their Afghan partners was actually disappointing.
“I recognize that it’s a necessity,” said Sgt. Kurtiss Erickson, of Company A, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment. “We’re NCOs, we’re good soldiers. If we’re told to do something, we execute it, period. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve gone to great lengths to break down the walls and barriers between ourselves and the ANA, and it disappoints me that the policy says we have to rebuild those.
“We’ve held them so close that if one of them were subversive, or had Taliban leanings or was being intimidated, they’re our brothers; if they’re going to knife me in the back, they’re going to be killing their brother at this point,” Erickson said. “That’s how close we’ve made them.”
In this spot just a few miles west of Sangesar, the birthplace of the Taliban, the Americans and their Afghan partners are doing something many people back home believe is no longer possible: They are working side by side.
Despite the recent order to suspend some joint patrols and other partnered operations, and a flood of media reporting on the lack of trust resulting from insider attacks, these soldiers say partnering can and does work. In fact, they believe that pulling the Afghans closer can actually reduce the frequency of inside-the-wire attacks.
“We see a lot of statistics about how many green-on-blue incidents there have been,” said company commander Capt. Devlin Winkelstein. “That’s led to a narrative in the news that, somehow as a whole, we don’t trust each other anymore, and that all the steps that we’ve taken to make ourselves safer, mean that that partnership, the shoulder-to-shoulder, which I saw in an article today used kind of sarcastically, is no longer the case, and that’s just patently untrue.
“We are just as close to them as we ever have been,” Winkelstein added. “The only difference is we have physical barriers established between us, and that was very difficult to do.”
Last week, as U.S. and ANA soldiers returned at dusk from a patrol through an IED belt northwest of Ghundy Ghar, an Afghan National Army soldier named Abdulrazaq stood near the foot of the mountain.
Like a shepherd tending to his flock, he waited as each man passed through the safety of the wire, pausing at times to shake hands or high-five them. Several Americans hugged him.
“I feel they are my brothers,” Abdulrazaq later said through a translator. He also said he would defend them against any threat, even if it came in an ANA uniform.
“If someone tries to harm an American, I’m going to shoot him,” he said.
Ghundy Ghar, an isolated and dusty mountain with no trees or vegetation, rises nearly 3,000 feet above the agricultural plains of western Zhari. Firmly planted on its north face is a massive Afghan flag, tattered and worn, a third of it missing. The ANA soldiers said they intentionally tore away the green stripe of its tri-color pattern because it denotes peace, and they want to be certain their enemy knows they are at war.
“This is key terrain from a military perspective; we can see everything,” Winkelstein said. “It’s been continuously occupied by some military force since Alexander the Great, and since then, the British, the Russians, the Taliban, the ANA, the Canadians, now us — we’ve all held the top of this hill. And whoever holds this hill really controls the area.”
The surrounding fields are littered with nests of Taliban who protect their battle positions with belts of improvised explosive devices. The enemy shoots harassing fire almost daily; organized and sustained attacks occur weekly.
While the ANA have the edge in terms of troop numbers and local knowledge, the Americans bring a sophisticated intelligence apparatus and air superiority to the fight. According to U.S. and Afghan soldiers, their partnership is a potent mix against an aggressive enemy whose members are fighting to keep a foothold in their sacred homeland.
Recently, as soldiers from both countries mourned the loss of an ANA soldier who lost both legs in an IED attack and later died, Erickson sat with Abdulrazaq, an Afghan to whom many of the Americans have grown especially close.
Language barriers mattered little as Erickson tried to comfort him.
“You could just see how crushed he was,” Erickson said. “He just sat there in the tower and sobbed with me. It was a bad day. There isn’t an easy way to describe how much you love the people that you work with.”
A few days after the rolls of concertina wire went up around the American camp, Winkelstein talked about the difficulty of building barriers on their small outpost.
“This has nothing to do with you and me,” Winkelstein remembered telling the Afghans. “This has to do with things happening elsewhere. We’re all soldiers, we have to do what we’re told and, by the way, would you mind helping us?
“We put up the wire together,” he added.
Despite that implicit trust, the commander said, “We’ve added some procedures when we plan operations to make sure that the soldiers we’re going out with have been vetted.”
While U.S. soldiers may seem altruistic, their resolve is anything but naive.
In mid-August, as another company in their battalion stood in formation for a promotion ceremony at Forward Operating Base Siah Choy, an ANA soldier opened fire, seriously wounding two U.S. soldiers before being killed.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Tim Davis fired on the attacker, then helped treat a wounded suspected accomplice.
“The green-on-blue, it’s an enemy tactic,” said Davis. “If you don’t continue to partner, then that tactic is effective. If you continue to partner, and do it responsibly, that’s the way to operate. That’s how you’re effective here.”