Crazy Joe: How Afghan officials ignored warnings and a policeman murdered two GIs
The American soldiers never learned the strange Afghan police officer’s name, so they started calling him “Crazy Joe.”
They had no way of knowing how apt a nickname that was, or how many people had warned that arming Crazy Joe and sending him out with U.S. troops would be a terrible, treacherous idea.
On Oct. 2, 2009, during the final hours of a three-day joint U.S.-Afghan mission, Crazy Joe sneaked up behind the U.S. soldiers who had trained him, trusted him and worked with him.
He opened fire on full automatic with his Hungarian-made AK-47. In little more than the time it took to empty the clip, two U.S. soldiers were dead and three others seriously were wounded. Crazy Joe got away.
Training effective Afghan security forces is central to the NATO strategy that is supposed to clear the way for a withdrawal of all western troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
But the effort has been marred by an increasing number of incidents in which Afghan soldiers, police and security guards have turned their weapons on NATO troops. There have been at least 15 such attacks since March 2009, killing 46 NATO personnel and an untold number of other attacks in which the victims survived.
Top NATO officials say these incidents are isolated, and they point to new efforts to screen Afghan recruits and identify those with Taliban ties or psychological issues.
However, a Stars and Stripes investigation reveals that in the case of Crazy Joe, Afghan officials had ample warning that he was a danger to American soldiers. They simply didn’t do anything about it.
The Afghan police ignored Crazy Joe’s father when he cautioned that his son was “not right in the head.” They failed to heed a written warning from his academy trainers that he should never be allowed to carry a weapon. They took no action after the senior Afghan police official who vouched for Crazy Joe was later implicated in an attack on a U.S. security convoy and investigated for his ties to a noted Taliban leader.
Those failures, almost as much as the attack itself, further frayed the essential trust without which NATO and Afghan forces cannot work together.
This article is based on interviews with most of the surviving U.S. soldiers who witnessed Crazy Joe’s murderous attack and on the report of an official Army investigation into the incident, which Stars and Stripes obtained after a Freedom of Information Act request.
‘Not allowed to carry a weapon’
Crazy Joe’s real name was Said Kabeer, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command learned after the attack. He had joined the Afghan National Police in November 2007 at a recruiting office in Wardak province, where he was vetted by a more senior police officer identified in the report only by the single name Jamaludin.
But after he vouched for Crazy Joe, the Army investigators learned, Jamaludin was in turn implicated in an attack on a security convoy run by the U.S. contractor Four Horsemen International that killed 11. He also was suspected of having links to the Taliban. He “abruptly left the ANP” in December 2008, the Army report said.
When Crazy Joe returned home with his new blue police uniform, his father was horrified, according to the report. Held for questioning by the Afghan government after the shooting, Crazy Joe’s father denied knowing anything about his son being affiliated with the Taliban, but explained that his son had been in a car accident years earlier and “had not been right in the head ever since.”
In fact, the father said he would “hide any weapons in the house at night,” out of fear that his son might hurt the family. He said he “approached the mayor of the area and requested his son not be issued a weapon.”
According to the report, the mayor agreed to assign Crazy Joe only to administrative duties.
Regardless, Crazy Joe spent more than a year working as a regular police officer, and in July 2009 he was sent to a two-week police training program. The international trainers there, who were most likely Turks, wrote a warning in Dari on the back of his graduation certificate.
A translation included in the Army report reads: “According to international adviser’s guidance he is not allowed to carry weapon. His honourable commander should be aware of this issue.”
Shortly afterward, Crazy Joe was working as a police officer again, carrying his black, folding-stock AK-47.
More amusing than threatening
None of the U.S. soldiers working with Crazy Joe knew anything about his background. Even by the usual standards of cross-cultural miscommunication, however, he struck them as particularly bizarre.
They pegged him in his 40s or 50s, older than most of the other police officers. He was tall and skinny, with a bushy black beard. Crazy Joe would walk alone on patrols, away from the other Afghans, talking and muttering to himself, and he often wore dark goggles that completely hid his eyes. Sometimes he’d show up for work without his rifle. Unaware of the warnings, the Americans assumed he’d forgotten his weapon or that it hadn’t been working.
Still, his odd behavior was more amusing than threatening. He’d crowd around the U.S. soldiers, using the only English words he knew to ask for cigarettes. He’d dance boisterously when they played rap music. He was a decent police officer, in that he’d pay attention when the Americans demonstrated things like how to use handcuffs or clear a room. The Americans also knew he’d been wounded in late August or early September in a fight against the Taliban.
Two U.S. soldiers, Staff Sgt. Tony Orlando and Sgt. Christian Hughes, had been among those who comforted Crazy Joe in the aid station afterward.
“I looked him in the face, and although he didn’t understand me, it was me telling him, ‘You’re going to be all right. You’re going to be OK,’ ” Orlando recalled.
Orlando was with the 118th Military Police Company. Hughes was with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. Their units had been working together, training and patrolling with Afghan police and soldiers for months. When they set out on the joint mission that would end in tragedy, they noticed that Crazy Joe still walked with a limp from his injury a month or so before.
Led by Capt. Tyler Kurth, an infantry platoon leader, the group at the time included 10 U.S. soldiers and an interpreter, plus Crazy Joe and three additional Afghan police officers.
Their mission in the first days of October 2009 was in a village called Andar, and it was part of a broader effort by the rest of a U.S. infantry company. Their team was to stay in the village day and night to ensure the main road nearby remained clear of IEDs.
Kurth and his men set up a patrol base near the edge of the village in an abandoned building, called a qalat, that had a courtyard surrounded by a wall. Two U.S. soldiers stood guard at the entrance with an armored security vehicle. Another team of soldiers, Marines and a Navy corpsman stood watch from an elevated position on a nearby mountain.
Things went smoothly and quietly into their third day in the village. The U.S. soldiers had been especially impressed by the Afghan police first sergeant, known as Azim, who spoke decent English and tried hard to lead his officers. By late morning on Oct. 2, the Americans received word that the company mission was wrapping up and that they should wait for the order to “exfil” — to pack up in preparation for leaving the village.
The skies were clear.
“I remember thinking that morning, ‘What a beautiful day,’ ” Hughes recalled.
The interpreter told investigators later that Crazy Joe asked him a lot of questions that morning. Where was he from? Why did he work with the U.S. Army? Did he pray?
None of this struck him as terribly unusual at the time, the interpreter later said. He was physically small, doing a dangerous job, and it seemed to him that Crazy Joe was asking out of concern for his safety.
Still, he gave a fake hometown, said he prayed and added that he had to work to support his family because his father had died.
Crazy Joe then asked what time the Americans would be leaving. The answer was sometime between 3 and 3:30 p.m.
“Right after that I saw him put on his body armor vest and he then exited the area,” the interpreter told investigators. “I didn’t think much of it at first.”
With an hour or so until they expected to leave the village, Kurth and another soldier, Spc. Justin Chavez, were inside the qalat.
In the courtyard outside, Hughes, Orlando, the interpreter and three other soldiers — Sgt. Aaron Smith, Pfc. Brandon Owens and Spc. Sean Beaver — were preparing MREs and playing cards.
Confident that they were in a secure area with the two guards and the armored security vehicle at the gate, they had taken off their helmets and body armor.
Crazy Joe walked into the courtyard. Orlando said a quick hello and turned his attention back to the card game.
Then, without warning, Crazy Joe started shooting.
“I remember it like it was today,” Hughes recalled. “Gunfire. Seeing a muzzle blast in front of my face. Seeing gunfire from three feet away. He was right on top of us spraying AK-47 rounds. He just lit us up quick.”
Hughes tried to stand, but he felt an intense burning sensation in both legs. Unable to reach his rifle, he leapt over the wall at the edge of the courtyard. The structure had been built into the side of a hill and it was a 12-foot drop to the ground outside. Hughes landed with a thud.
Orlando rolled to the ground and onto his back. He jumped over the wall, too.
Owens, Smith and Beaver had all been shot. Crazy Joe kept firing. The interpreter fell to the ground — unhurt, but playing dead, he later told investigators.
Beaver was badly wounded, but he couldn’t process what was happening at first.
“I stood up and I started — honestly, I want to say I was dancing to try and dodge [bullets],” Beaver said. “I didn’t feel anything. All I knew was that I couldn’t breathe.”
Crazy Joe faced the qalat and aimed his rifle at Kurth, inside. Kurth stood in front of Chavez, shielding the younger soldier from the bullets.
His clip finally empty, Crazy Joe turned and ran.
The soldiers in the observation point on the hill watched him flee. Not realizing that he had been the one doing the shooting, they held their fire.
‘It was my guy’
Orlando had landed next to Hughes, who couldn’t stand because of his leg wound. Neither soldier had his weapon. Orlando dragged Hughes toward an Afghan police pickup truck, remembering all the times he’d admonished the police for leaving their keys and weapons in the vehicle and hoping that they’d done so now.
Up above, in the courtyard, two other Afghan police officers came running toward Kurth. He aimed his pistol at them and they ran away. He dragged Beaver inside the qalat and told Chavez to perform basic first aid.
Back outside, Kurth saw two of his soldiers lying in the courtyard.
Owens, of Memphis, Tenn., was motionless. Smith, of Manhattan, Kan., was alive but bleeding badly.
“I ran over to Pfc. Owens to check for a pulse,” Kurth told investigators.
“He was already dead.”
He threw a tourniquet down to Hughes and Orlando, then turned to help Smith and to call on the radio for help.
For the first time, Kurth realized that he had been shot in the chest and leg.
“I fell to the ground and started throwing up,” Kurth said in his sworn statement. “That’s about the time when the rest of the guys showed up.”
Down below, the Afghan police first sergeant, Azim, came running toward Orlando and Hughes with his weapon. Orlando put his hand up as a warning, ready to fight, unsure which side the first sergeant was on.
Azim dropped his rifle and approached more cautiously. He started helping to tie a tourniquet on one of Hughes’ legs while Orlando did the other one.
“It was crazy to me that one guy in an Afghan police uniform just tried to kill me, and another guy in an Afghan police uniform is sitting here saving my life,” Hughes recalled.
I remember him apologizing to me, putting the tourniquet and saying, ‘I’m sorry. It was my guy. It was my guy.’ He looked pissed. He was not happy.”
One of the U.S. sergeants from the overwatch reached the village. He grabbed Orlando and tried to get him to focus on finding Crazy Joe.
“I kept asking for Owens,” Orlando recalled. “Where is Owens? Where is he?”
The sergeant looked at Orlando but didn’t say anything.
“I knew what it meant,” Orlando recalled. “I looked past him and I saw the other guys hauling out two body bags.”
Owens and Smith were both dead. Hughes, Beaver and Kurth were raced to an Afghan National Army Humvee and then taken to a helicopter for a medevac.
Other U.S. soldiers arrived and they combed the village, looking for Crazy Joe.
“After considerable effort from ground and air [we] failed to find him,” said Marine Lt. Col. Guy Coursey, who was a mile or two away from the village when Crazy Joe attacked.
As daylight faded, the soldiers headed back to the larger combat outpost where they were based.
What prompted Crazy Joe to open fire? The U.S. Army still doesn’t know.
“It was not determined whether or not the shooting was personally motivated or related to insurgency activities,” the investigative report says.
While NATO officials say these attacks often arise from combat stress or altercations between NATO troops and Afghans, there is nothing to suggest that Crazy Joe ever had any problems with the Americans before he shot them.
Afghan authorities interrogated his father and brother. They learned about the father’s claim to have warned the “mayor of the area” and learned the news about Jamaludin — the senior police official who had vetted Crazy Joe, but who was later implicated in an attack on a U.S. security convoy.
Crazy Joe was only 30 years old, according to the report, although the Americans had thought he was at least 10 or 20 years older. He was married and had lived in Iran for three years. The report speculated he might have fled to that country.
Afghan officials also said they found that another police officer had recently warned Crazy Joe’s commander that he was “not right in the head.”
In a separate interview with investigators, Col. Salangi, the officer in charge of the police in the area, identified by only his last name, said he “could offer no explanation” and that he was “unaware of any caution” not to give Crazy Joe a weapon.
The U.S. soldiers were left to guess. They wondered whether insurgents might have kidnapped his family and forced Crazy Joe to carry out the attack. The idea that he might have been biding his time for weeks or months waiting for a chance to attack was worse to contemplate.
The three wounded survivors — Beaver, Hughes and Kurth — were evacuated to the United States. Kurth recently left the Army. Hughes is still assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Drum, N.Y. After seven surgeries, he is able to walk with a brace, although his left foot is paralyzed. Last month, he competed at the 2011 Warrior Games in Colorado, winning a medal in seated volleyball.
“Being wounded is being wounded,” Hughes said, but added, “To be betrayed by somebody you’re supposed to trust, to be literally shot in the back by them, it made it a lot harder to deal with.”
Beaver eventually recovered enough to volunteer to rejoin Orlando and the other soldiers in his company in Afghanistan, although his battalion commander ordered him not to go out on missions.
“I think stuff happens for a reason and I’m honestly having a hard time,” he said. “A lot of people ask you, ‘Do you hate the person who did this to you?’ I have a hard time. … I don’t know why he did it.”
He and Owens had been good friends for about a year and a half before the attack.
“He had been my tentmate for the entire time down there,” Hughes recalled. “We slept three feet away from each other. He was a great kid, loved to bowl, loved his blue Mustang. ... He was the kind of guy that you hang around him and you can’t help but smile.”
Smith’s father, retired Sgt. 1st Class Chris Smith, works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He’d made house calls to report the deaths of soldiers when he was on active duty, but nothing could prepare him to be on the other side, he said.
“The military just said he had been killed in combat,” Smith recalled.
The official news release the next day from the Pentagon said that Smith and Owens died “of injuries sustained when enemy forces attacked their unit using small arms fire.”
Smith’s mother, Ann Jones of Kansas City, Kan., recalled her son fondly as “a geek” and “a dork,” and added, “He did a wonderful job in the military. He blossomed and I was really proud of him.”
Orlando said he still struggles with the fact that he was the only American in the courtyard to escape without being shot — although he was wounded later in the deployment.
“This is the first time I’ve told [the story] since we left,” he said. “It’s something I’ve got to live with, and for myself to be the only one out of there without a scratch. ... We lost two good guys there, and the only thing from that incident that ever made me smile was when Beaver came back to Afghanistan, just to see him the way he was before that happened. ... He’s like family to me now.”
The missions continued. A week or so after Crazy Joe’s attack, Orlando was out training and patrolling with the Afghan police again.
“We never trusted them again,” he said. “We never let our guard down again, no matter how many times we worked with those individuals or that group, we never let our guard down. ... If we stayed like that on Oct. 2 we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”