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Murder plots, theft -- we’ll get there

By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 27, 2011

SHERGAL, Afghanistan — The U.S. and Afghan soldiers who occupy a roadside outpost near this village in northern Kunar province work in buildings a half-block apart. They meet daily to discuss reports of insurgent activity and almost as often to drink tea or eat rice and naan.

Much has changed since the summer day when the Americans caught an Afghan commander conspiring to kill them.

The outpost sits above the Kunar River’s west bank and Route California, the primary road connecting villages in the north to central Kunar and Asadabad, the provincial capital.

Across the river lie Shergal and Saw, a pair of towns less than five miles from Pakistan that ascend into the terraced foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains. Both are Taliban havens.

Platoons from the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment rotate through the outpost every few days. Half the men in the on-duty platoon stay in their armored trucks parked beside the road. The other half move into a fortified stone building about the size of a two-car garage to pull guard shifts.

All of them watch for gunfire and mortars pouring down from the villages and surrounding mountains. But the attack one platoon thwarted last July was supposed to happen next door, in the building that houses a unit of the Afghanistan Border Patrol.

U.S. soldiers learned from intercepted radio calls that the ABP commander stationed there at the time intended to invite some of the Americans over for tea. Insurgents disguised in ABP uniforms would be waiting.

Before the commander could act, 1st Lt. Kevin A’Hearn and a few of his platoon members walked over to the border patrol building.

“It was a little tense on the way,” said A’Hearn, 23, of Chattanooga, Tenn. “You didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Without revealing his suspicions, A’Hearn asked the commander to return with them to Forward Operating Base Bostick, the U.S. battalion’s base 10 miles north of the outpost.

The unsuspecting man climbed into a truck, and when the doors slammed shut, soldiers ordered him to hand over his sidearm. He acted surprised but complied without a struggle.

At Bostick, U.S. officers disclosed the accusations against him. The commander responded with denials until someone played a recording of one of his radio calls with a Taliban contact.

“His head dropped,” A’Hearn said. “There wasn’t anything he could say.”

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The border patrol replaced the commander’s unit following his arrest. Not all of the trouble left with them.

U.S. soldiers noticed that, soon after the new unit arrived, equipment and gear began disappearing from the back of Army trucks parked on Route California.

A’Hearn recalled visiting the ABP building one afternoon and spotting an Afghan officer carrying a 30-gallon fuel can that belonged to the U.S. platoon.

“When he noticed me out of the corner of his eye, he tossed it away, hoping I wouldn’t see him,” A’Hearn said. He smiled. “I saw him.”

The lieutenant spoke to the officer’s commander. “I know you guys aren’t helping the Taliban, and I appreciate that,” A’Hearn said. “But you can’t be stealing from us.”

The problems persisted, and this fall, the ABP brought in another unit. The latest commander, Habib Rahim, has shown tighter control of his men, and over time, a cautious trust has grown between U.S. and Afghan soldiers.

“They seem pretty squared away now,” A’Hearn said. “We’re always going to be careful, but things seem to be improving.”

For his part, Rahim, 21, appears fervidly anti-Taliban. Over tea one night in mid-December, he told A’Hearn that a group of insurgents abducted one of his cousins in October.

The body was delivered to members of Rahim’s family a week later.

“He was killed because I work for the military,” Rahim said. “I will get my revenge.”

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The men sat in the ABP’s living quarters on beds made of sagging plywood planks supported by sandbags and large stones. An extension cord connected to a generator outside was strung five feet off the floor across the concrete room and plugged into a naked light bulb dangling from a wall.

Despite the austere setting and Rahim’s somber story, the discussion later turned lighter when he mentioned he has two wives.

A’Hearn, who is unmarried, raised his eyebrows. “Two wives? In some ways that sounds good, and in some ways that sounds bad.”

Rahim replied that his brother has four wives.

“Men here don’t have jobs,” he said. “They don’t have anything to do, so they need more wives.”

kuzm@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @martinkuz

The village of Shergal lies along the Kunar River in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Kunar province, less than five miles from Pakistan. The known Taliban haven stands opposite a U.S. outpost on the other side of the river.
MARTIN KUZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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