KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Combat troops headed to Afghanistan expect tough missions hiking in rugged mountains or bumping along dirt tracks in armored all-terrain vehicles, ever wary of improvised explosive devices buried in the ground.
In Kandahar city, though, members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s Field Artillery Squadron, on missions in support of Afghan police, typically drive down crowded streets, dodging swarms of mopeds and fearless pedestrians.
Population estimates for Afghanistan’s second largest city are rough, but there could be close to a million living here.
“A city that size and not a single stop light,” mused Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Steven Fandrich before a recent mission to visit a local police commander.
Every time Fandrich or other U.S. officers visit police in the city, they take a security detail that navigates the crowded streets in massive armored trucks.
Pfc. John Colbert, 24, of Boston, found himself manning a gun in the roof hatch of one of the trucks, called an MATV, as part of a convoy through heavy traffic on a mission in late September.
“It’s my first deployment, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Colbert of the city driving, which is, typically, a cooperative effort as soldiers in the truck constantly call out warnings about traffic and obstacles in the road.
The convoy made its way between lines of battered Toyota Corollas, rickshaws and local versions of pick-up trucks — three wheeled motorcycles with flatbeds for hauling cargo.
“We all work together to ensure everyone comes home,” said Colbert’s vehicle commander — Staff Sgt. Robert Hooks, 35, of Red Bank, N.J. “It’s all in how you control your space on the road. If you just keep a straight line and let them do all the weaving, you’re fine.”
Hooks, on his second deployment to Afghanistan, said members of his unit didn’t know, before they deployed, that they were headed to a city.
“That car’s got a California license plate,” Colbert said over the radio, as a white Toyota Corolla swerved between the trucks.
The American convoy passed a billboard advertising smartphones and touting access to social networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“Younger folks here have their cellphones, and they are texting each other and using technology to communicate,” said one of the U.S. officers working with the Afghan police, Lt. Col. Jesus Garcia.
The trucks passed neighborhoods full of drab, concrete low-rise buildings set against dirt-brown hills. But their route also took them past upscale neighborhoods with orchards and gardens, irrigated with water from the nearby Arghandab River.
Spacious lawns and lush foliage sprouted behind a security checkpoint while workers in orange vests laid turf and planted trees, flowers and shrubs on traffic islands.
The city has so much water that its factories even bottle it for local consumption. But there are chronic electricity shortages, despite efforts to boost output from the nearby Kajaki hydro-power station, said Lt. Col. Abdul Qayoom, a Kandahar police commander.
The convoy passed through police checkpoints, where blue-shirted officers peered into vehicles looking for weapons. The checkpoints guard routes into town such as the highways linking Kandahar to Kabul in the north and Pakistan in the south.
The police were paying extra attention to people on mopeds. The Taliban’s latest tactic involves a drive-by shooting by a pair of attackers on a moped.
“Two young men are not allowed to ride on a moped together these days,” said Lt. Col. Abdul Sameh, another police commander working with the Americans.
Closer to the center of town, the U.S. trucks passed shops full of bloody pieces of meat on chains, groups of women in burqas and a legless beggar sitting on the road. Children carrying backpacks flooded into the street near schools.
“When we see the kids getting out of school, we automatically put the brakes on,” Hooks said.
In places, white surveillance blimps, put up by the Americans to scan for insurgent activity could be seen hovering over the city. The blimps will go, soldiers said, as U.S. forces draw down.
However, Col. Anthony Burgess, 45, a West Point professor of leadership, who is also working with the Afghan police, said the locals’ human intelligence networks are more important than high-tech gear.
Burgess said he was impressed by the response to a recent suicide bombing in Kandahar.
“They got the casualties to the hospital within minutes, got DNA from the bomber and quickly had the whole scene cleaned up,” he said of the local police.
Not all Afghan police officers are as confident about their future.
During a visit to Sameh’s headquarters in the city, U.S. soldiers stood guard while Fandrich and the police officer drank tea, ate nuts and talked shop.
Fandrich reassured the police that they’ll be alright as U.S. forces draw down in the next few months.
Sameh was not convinced.
“If they close bases and go to KAF [Kandahar Air Field], it will affect security,” he said of the Americans’ pending departure. “People will think: ‘There are no Americans in the city; we can beat the Afghan security forces.’”
Today, the Afghan police in Kandahar are strong and the Taliban are weak, he said.
“But if all ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] leaves Afghanistan, I promise you, we will have terrible issues. Each tribe will fight the other tribes. There will be 1,000 flags in Afghanistan.”
When Fandrich visited Qayoom’s headquarters, he got a more positive viewpoint.
The heavy police presence means there’s less chance of a Taliban attack in the city these days than in outlying areas, Qayoom said, proudly showing off photographs of dead insurgents on his iPhone.
Police in the city are bracing for an influx of militants over the winter, when snow forces them out of their mountain hideouts, but Qayoom promised to catch most of them.
Fandrich said his Afghan counterpart’s boasts aren’t empty. He and other U.S. officers working in the city have a high opinion of the police’s ability to take the fight to the enemy.
A junior policeman during Soviet times, Qayoom fled his station when the Taliban came to power and worked for an American charity providing building materials in Kandahar until the U.S. invasion in 2001.
“Every company had to have one Taliban with a big beard,” he said of the Taliban era. “That was a very tough time for broad-minded people. Bin Laden was here in Kandahar and there was no police or government. They were killing people, taking money, treating people like animals, and nobody could question them.”
These days, Kandahar has better security than Kabul, Qayoom boasted.
Long lines of locals were at his station on the day that the 2nd Cavalry soldiers visited. They were there to get ID cards and passports so that they could go to places such as India or Dubai for holidays or education, Qayoom said.
One of those waiting to apply for an ID card, 15-year-old Shukrullah, who, like many Afghans, goes by a single name, said he’s positive about the city’s future, despite the war with the Taliban. His goal is to study and become a doctor, he said.
The large number of people in the city means it’s virtually impossible for terrorists to lay wires to set off booby traps downtown. They’ve resorted to remote-controlled bombs and, recently, magnetic bombs targeting government vehicles, Qayoom said.
“When the Taliban comes up with a new way to attack the government, we train our people how to defend themselves against it,” he said.