Good-faith effort goes bad when Afghan officials take off with donated trucks, phones, cash

By JON R. ANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 14, 2004

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Lt. Col. Scott McBride was suspicious of Abdul Ghani from the very beginning.

Ghani had been nominated by the governor of southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province to lead a district north of Qalat in an area known as the Kaki-Afghan Valley. In a gathering of regional leaders a few months ago, Ghani stood up alongside the newly selected police chief for the district denouncing the Taliban and swearing allegiance to Hamid Karzai’s central government in Kabul.

“They said all the right things,” said McBride, commander of the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Division, which is responsible for providing security for the area.

Despite the pledge, McBride said he wasn’t so sure.

He had heard reports that Ghani was secretly collaborating with Taliban insurgents in the area, he said. Still, McBride had nothing concrete on Ghani and felt like he didn’t have much choice but let him take over the key job.

“It was my call. I will trust someone until they betray that trust — and then they become my enemy.”

Double cross

After Ghani’s appointment, McBride’s troops supplied the new district leader and police chief with $100,000, four new Toyota Hilux four-wheel-drive police trucks and four hand-held satellite phones.

The money was to pay the salaries of district policemen as well as to build a school.

It wasn’t long before McBride said he was getting reports that the school was not being built, and the new vehicles were missing.

He dispatched a Company C platoon attached to an Afghan National Army unit to investigate. While the troops were there, they would also support the U.N. voter registration teams, which had been eager to get into that area for Afghanistan’s presidential elections in October.

The mission was called Operation Devil’s Backbone.

The 150-strong contingent flew aboard CH-47 Chinooks on July 21 and quickly moved into the main village.

“We couldn’t find Ghani or the police chief anywhere,” said 1st Sgt. Matthew Grucella, the company’s senior enlisted soldier. Ghani’s deputy, Zafar Khan, insisted both men would be back soon.

It soon became apparent, however, neither Ghani or the chief would return.

Finally, Khan confessed.

“I am embarrassed,” he said. “I’m ashamed. They’ve taken the vehicles and the phones.”

Khan said that Ghani had been allowing local Taliban militiamen to use the trucks.

“They had a deal where the police would use the trucks in the day and the Taliban could use them at night,” said Grucella. Meanwhile, virtually no work had been done on the new school, and most of the money was gone.

Khan said he didn’t know where Ghani was, but he thought he could find the police chief.

Khan came through, duping the police chief into the village where he soon was arrested, said Grucella.

Interrogated by the Afghan Army, the now-former chief soon told the troops the police trucks could be found in a neighboring village.

All but one was recovered.

Ready for a choice

“The problem over here is you just don’t know who to trust,” said Capt. Mike Berdy, 2nd-35th Company C commander. “A lot of these guys, even if they’re not necessarily what you’d call ‘pro-Taliban’ they’re still with the Taliban because they have no other choice.”

Many in the area, however, appear ready for a choice.

In all, the teams have registered more than 2,500 villagers to vote.

“I guess some of them have had enough of the Taliban,” said Grucella.

While far short of the U.N. goal to register 5,000 for that area, considering the region has long been a Taliban stronghold it was better than expected.

Grucella said he hopes Afghanistan’s steady plod toward democracy will make it tougher for Ghani — and men like him — to remain at large.

“There’s going to be hiccups like this until credible leaders are established,” said Grucella. “As time goes by we’ll weed out the bad guys, but we’ve gotta start somewhere.”

McBride said he’s disappointed that Ghani betrayed his trust and is concerned that the Taliban were able to get a police vehicle and the satellite phones, not to mention so much cash.

But he’s not apologetic.

“It’s obviously wasn’t the outcome we wanted,” said McBride. “It’s disappointing; it’s a setback. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It’s the cost of doing business over here.”

And he’s confident that Ghani — and the still-missing police truck — will surface eventually. Ghani will either end up dead or in an Army prison like the former district police chief, he said.

“Too many people know him. He’ll turn up,” said McBride. “We’ll get him.”

U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Division, patrol parts of the Kaki-Afghan Valley during Operation Devil's Backbone in Afghanistan.

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