Roving checkpoints keep an eye on Afghan-Pakistan border activity
Staff Sgt. James Baxter, left, and 1st Lt. James Whitler, with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, work with Afghan Border Police officers to set up a checkpoint on Highway 4 between Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK — Standing on a sodden roadside in southern Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class James Henderson did a double take when he heard a man utter “We are Taliban.”
Noticing Henderson’s reaction, an interpreter raised a calming hand: “He means he studies at a school.”
The word’s literal meaning in Pashto is “students.” But “Taliban” is also used to designate the militant anti-Western Islamic movement that was initially composed of religious students when founded in the 1990s.
Henderson, the interpreter, and the man who declared himself to be a Taliban, or student, stood huddled against a cold February rain on a stretch of Highway 4, also known as A75, a busy thoroughfare that runs more than 60 miles from the Pakistan border to Kandahar city.
Like another two dozen men on that day, the young student was questioned for a few minutes, recorded in a system that tracks fingerprints, photos, even retinal scans, and then allowed to continue on his way. The religious students were the only “Taliban” the soldiers found that day.
The soldiers of 1st Platoon, Blackfoot Company, were wrapping up two weeks of roving checkpoints, during which they partnered with Afghan police to search vehicles and talk to people along the two-lane highway that connects a border crossing handling around 30,000 people per day, and Kandahar, the economic hub of southern Afghanistan.
The highway cuts right through an area known as the “birthplace of the Taliban.” On the Pakistan side of the border, the road runs straight to the city of Quetta, which has a reputation as a hideout for exiled Taliban leadership.
American officials hope the efforts of Afghan police along the border will be able to stem a flow of fighters, money and arms that could help fuel the insurgency long after international troops leave by the end of 2014.
The drill went like this: The platoon rolled up to a Hesco-and-concertina-wire police base in a convoy of Stryker armored vehicles. Quick greetings were exchanged and the Americans proposed setting up a checkpoint. Sometimes the police officers grumbled, but rain or shine, even on Friday, the traditional Muslim day of prayer, they walked onto the highway to face down speeding cars that didn’t brake until the last second.
The two-week operation yielded nothing notable; a few men with bogus passports being deported to Pakistan were the highlight. This rainy day was no exception. One man admitted to traveling with his brother’s identification papers, and another young man was questioned after soldiers thought he was taking pictures of their Strykers.
But the mundane events were themselves seen as a victory and a sign of progress, the soldiers and police said. Their presence on the road was a visible deterrent to smugglers and insurgents, according to Henderson.
“This is all about making it harder for them to move,” he said. “Make people think twice before trying to come up the road.”
Like other NATO efforts in the area, the multiple checkpoints are aimed at bolstering Afghan security forces ahead of the allied withdrawal.
They were set up to thwart the busy supply route before the summer fighting season begins. As the potential for more fighting looms, Henderson and his platoon leader, 1st Lt. James Whitler, said they hoped the operation would not only deter would-be smugglers, but encourage Afghan units to continue such checks when they take over.
The three or four Afghan police officers who usually flagged down and searched the cars were greatly outnumbered by the American platoon that provided security and conducted more in-depth interrogations. Despite efforts to minimize the American presence on the road, the cluster of Strykers and heavily armed Americans was impossible to miss. But the Americans now strive to support more than lead.
“We just kind of see how they do it, and then we sort of adapt to their methods,” Whitler said. “If we come in and just totally tell them how to do it, and it’s not sustainable for them, then it’s not something they’re going to continue to do once we leave.”
These roadside partnerships have become a rarity since Army officers now consider the area relatively quiet, thanks to a strong local economy and effective police efforts.
Afghan police from border and local units have taken over responsibility for area security. And with checkpoints established at regular intervals along the highway, and fewer and fewer illicit activities discovered at the border, Afghan police leaders want to expand their influence along the border of the sparsely populated Registan Desert to the west of Highway 4, and into a series of mountainous valleys that run parallel to the Pakistan border to the east.
The police units don’t have the heavy weapons or major logistical resources available to the Afghan National Army, making it impossible for them to mount lengthy operations.
But Lt. Col. Thomas Feltey, commander of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment based at Spin Boldak, insisted the police will be able to face future threats.
“[Insurgents] don’t really do too many bad things in this area because it’s not in anyone’s interest because the economy is booming,” he said. “All of the forces in our area are capable of conducting almost damn near independent operations.”
Lt. Col. Sarafuddin, executive officer of the 4th Afghan Border Police Kandak at Spin Boldak, said coalition training has saved lives and reduced casualties among his officers. Now international advisers are focusing on training the trainers, so police units can become self-sustaining.
“My men are often uneducated, so they must be trained before they can train others,” he said through an interpreter. “But once they learn, they remember.”
Now coalition efforts are shifting focus to higher-level training for staff officers, and providing specialized training in areas such as counter-improvised explosive device actions and improved medical practices. Other challenges include illiteracy, which can be overcome in small units but greatly complicates efforts to lead larger contingents.
“Our goal is to not partner below the kandak [battalion] level, so we’re not out there partnering on patrols,” Feltey said. “And this is exactly what we should be doing. We are really putting the finishing touches on these Afghan forces.”