I have previously described how being cheerful, helpful and non-intrusive had help possibly save me from getting blowed up real good. Well, the other side of the Afghan War (2001-present version) knows a thing or two about sowing doubt and mistrust. And they used just such a tactic against us in the area I was responsible for.
I spent a fair amount of time accompanying the 3/116th INF’s (VA ARNG) patrols in the area around Bagram, AF. Almost every time, the people were a mix of curious, glad, interested or slightly wary when they saw us. However, one of the times I was given quite a fright came when I went with a patrol to the village of Qarabaghi-Robat.
Our patrol had a local policeman along with us – and his behavior told me something was wrong from the get go. Normally, we would come to a village and the inevitable crowd would gather. We would then ask to see the village elder(s) and let them show us around, talk about what was going on in the area, etc. This time was different. Our policeman started suggesting that we wait outside the village, and he would go find the elder and bring him to us. When we told him that we had to go into the village, he became very agitated. He left to find someone while we waited where you see in the picture below.
The people that did gather around while we waited for the elder were not acting normal either – sullen, not talkative (a non-talkative Afghan from the Bagram area was truly alarming) and they made my interpreter nervous. The interpreter (a fellow from Kabul) told me that the people were not happy we were there – and they were making rather rude and crude remarks about us, and him as well.
Eventually the policeman returned and told us no elder or other representative of the village was around, and we should wait for them outside the village. Before I could think of something suitably sarcastic to say, the NCO leading the patrol said, “You tell him we are going to look around, and he can wait somewhere else if he wants,” to our interpreter. The policeman then did leave, much to my surprise. Also, the crowd had grown in size and surliness.
The NCO and I looked at each other, shrugged, and moved out. A group of men of the village followed us as we walked through the center of the village and turned down an alley. We had obviously gone someplace nobody wanted us to go by the villager’s reaction. They were getting louder, and our interpreter mentioned they were starting to make threats.
When we got to the end of the alley, one of the soldiers told me he had walked over a hollow sounding patch of ground – and that when his platoon had been in the South of Afghanistan (near the Pakistan border), this was how many weapons caches were hidden. We stopped to check the spot out, borrowing a shovel from the property owner (he looked like he had just sucked an entire lemon). The covered over pit was full of garbage, and we figured it wasn’t a weapons cache – but as we were giving the shovel back, the interpreter told us that “these people are crazy”. I asked him why, he said that they were telling him how they were going to kill him, and then all of us. I thought about it, and drew inspiration from that legendary hero – King Arthur, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail – RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!
I quietly mentioned to the NCO what was being said, and we agreed it was time to leave Qarabaghi-Robat.
As we were leaving, the village elder suddenly appeared. He confined his conversation to asking for supplies and help with the local school. I was upset at first, but then had to admire the man. Here were his people threatening to kill us, and he wanted school supplies…
We went back to Bagram AF and reported everything. Later, I had the leader of the area around that village, one Haji Sultan Qand (aka “Commander Qand”) apologize on behalf of the people and promise to give them a swift kick up the backside. He said that someone had told the village that the Americans were coming to look through your houses (a particularly touchy subject with the Afghans – you would bring dishonor to them, see their women, etc.) and do all sorts of bad things. The enemy had very cleverly engaged in disinformation. If we had not kept our cool, or someone had as much as thrown a rock – the effort would have probably yielded great results for the enemy. Forget LT Calley and My Lai, it would have been MAJ Swiss and Qarabaghi Robat.
So the lesson for those that would engage in counterinsurgency (or policing, hint hint), you must be prepared to sometimes just stop looking around and leave people alone. Then find out what is going on, if you do need to go back for a good reason (we did not). For police, I think, the hassling, the stop and frisk, and searches of homes that more resemble a ransacking would have a similar bad effect. The people of the community you are policing would then be confirmed in their belief you don’t care, you are just there to push them around. They will be sullen, uncooperative, or hostile.
Better to just come back if everyone is riled up at you – and there is no threat to life or property. I wasn’t about to shoot up a village to inspect a garbage pit, and the police should not trash homes or violate people’s bodily integrity just trying to find their own garbage dump.