In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, Frank Light rediscovered a journal he had kept for a few weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country more than thirty years earlier. Later he fleshed out the journal, starting a process that led to a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Fourteen literary reviews and anthologies have published excerpts from it. Further to Afghanistan, he met his wife on the cliffside Buddha in Bamiyan that the Taliban would later blow up, and in 2005/2006 he worked on Afghanistan policy while detailed to the Pentagon. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. A few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published.
(Photo: Kerry Greene)
Disclaimer: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
October Surprise by Frank Light
C. The Chief of Police
Tracers streaked outside Ripley’s western perimeter as a medevac chopper landed the night of the day we returned from an exploratory trip to Chora. The next morning our soldiers on Ripley heard a machine gun followed by small-arms fire in town. The 2/5 said the Governor’s militia killed two Taliban that night, in Chenartu, apparently. Our interpreter reported Rozi Khan was back, so I hitched a ride with our three military policemen to the police station.
It sat on prime real estate in the heart of the government quarter. The main building had a new, second story overlooking irrigated fields that flushed with poppy in the spring. The station had an exterior wall, always a consideration in Tarin Kot, and more square footage than most government compounds. It fell short on upkeep, however. Trash and broken furniture had been dumped behind the addition the 2/5 had recently financed. The 2/5 had also contracted for that second story. Work on it stalled when the contractor ran out of rebar and cement.
With his brother, Rozi greeted us warmly, shaking our hands with both of his and inviting us to his office on the unfinished upper deck. The three MPs, a soldier from our escort, our interpreter, and I sat on rope beds, Rozi and his brother on the floor. Our hosts claimed they hadn’t heard the gunfire; it must have been a wedding. Rozi's eyes, off-green and radiant, like pond scum in sunlight, connected with a smile he could not contain even though he tried because we were feeling each other out. His brother's grin was similar but broader. It suggested a smirk. I once considered him insecure. I now saw him as a wise guy, maybe all you could aspire to when your brother ran the show. Rozi was older, and you could tell it from more than the age markers beginning to surface on his cheeks and brow. His posture was straighter. So was his gaze.
He didn’t say much at first. He didn’t have to. The weapon crates stacked behind him, against the wall away from the beds, said it all. They spoke of Kabul’s imprimatur, a rebalancing in favor of the police. We foreigners had already started that transition by providing vehicles, radios, renovations, and training. Kabul and Bagram emphasized support for the police and the army as national institutions. Prodded by the global community, the Coalition was distancing itself from warlords and their militias. Too many crimes had been committed under their banners, and they were the antithesis of the modern state we were trying to establish. But Uruzgan's preeminent warlord – Jan Mohammed – happened to be its governor, a presidential appointee. His militia filled a breach. The two Afghan National Army companies in the province, one at the American base in Deh Rawud, the other at Ripley, didn't go out much and when they did it was always in the company of American advisors. The militia's greater numbers, higher tempo, and gubernatorial sanction made them the dominant indigenous force. Bobcat 6 tried to shape their conduct without getting stuck on a tarbaby. His subordinates kept in close touch with the Afghan Army’s advisors. He left the police to the PRT.
In Kandahar I'd been told the police had a force of 300 men. Closer to 150, the 2/5 maintained. Our MPs thought 100 was more like it. I'd never seen one in uniform. Rumor had it they refused to wear the ones we provided for fear of being mocked by the townsfolk and attacked by the Taliban or Matiollah's men. Although they concentrated on Tarin Kot, they also searched for Taliban independently of the Governor's militia, especially east of town and in the parts of Chora, including Chenartu, where the Barakzai predominated. Like the Governor, Rozi could call on tribal reserves. Some district police chiefs reported to him, others to Jan Mohammed. Personal and tribal relationships determined the chain of command.
The competition didn’t seem to wear on Rozi. Maybe the time away had invigorated him. Not even the downward turn of his mustache could mask his smile. The hair under his lip led to a well-trimmed beard that came to a point several inches below his chin. He was younger than the Governor, maybe younger than Atiqullah. More obviously than those two, he cared about his appearance, and he might have done some shopping in Kabul. The first embroidered shawl I ever noticed on a man lay across his shoulder. Silver threads woven into his black turban played off the gloss in his shawl and the gray of his salwar kamiz. On his feet were black, elfin shoes; no socks. His brother wore a wedding ring. Rozi did not, his only jewelry a metal-banded watch on his left wrist. A handkerchief poked out of his upper vest pocket, a radio antenna out of the larger one underneath it. For all the sartorial flash, he wasn’t as outgoing as the Governor. He soon cut to the chase. He had to get to Kandahar to talk to Bronco 6, the American brigade commander.
What about? I asked. Bobcat 6, one grade lower and subordinate to Bronco 6, would need a strong reason. Rozi had been gone for nearly two months, he must have passed through Kandahar on his way back, and we had an election coming.
He didn’t want to say.
I noted helicopters were available only for emergencies until the election was over.
The Governor was trying to influence the election, he responded.
Rozi shook his head and smiled. He said it could wait.
The election was more important than any one person, I remarked. I hoped it didn’t sound as pompous in Pashtu, but I think it did. In my younger days I could banter with the best of them. Years in the bureaucracy had taken that out of me.
He mentioned that the Governor had written Minister Jalali a letter urging him to appoint Matiollah to Rozi’s position as provincial Director of Security. The Minister showed Rozi that letter and, by way of answer, sent him back with 100 uniforms and 300 AK-47s. Rozi lifted a Kalashnikov out of the topmost crate and passed it to us. It was straight from the factory, redolent of steel and oil. The MPs tried to determine its place of manufacture. Czechoslovakia, as I recall. Staying on message, I said the police and the militia needed to work together. And they all needed to work with JEMB and the Coalition. Rozi nodded.
A policeman brought tea. That was a good sign, though not unexpected. Rozi appreciated the support we Americans were providing even as he understood it was not personal; it was directed to a force for law and order. Or at least order.
His brother spoke, noting that our assistance was necessary because the Governor withheld the police food allowance, forcing the brothers to feed their men from the family farm and from friends and concerned citizens who could afford it. In desperation Rozi was sending one of his own, a recent graduate of Tarin Kot High, to Kabul to learn how to keep records. If Jalali saw potential in him, he might send salaries directly to the police.
In the two days since Rozi’s return he had met with Atiqullah, offering him police escort for the JEMB vehicles to Chora. The escorts would attach to the police in Chora for the election. Rozi didn’t offer escort to Khas Uruzgan, however. It was distant, and he had no understanding with the police chief there. He told Atiqullah the 2/5 should do it. He promised to do whatever he could for the election in the districts where his men operated – Tarin Kot and Chora. He didn’t know the location of any polling sites, however, and he hadn’t met with the Governor. I said the left hand should know what the right was doing. He sighed. That was his duty, he acknowledged, even though the Governor always made trouble. In the most recent affront, Matiollah’s men were detaining Rozi’s because they didn’t have the ID card the Governor had started issuing his militia. The police worked for the national government, Rozi continued, not for Matiollah.
Matiollah works for the Governor, I noted. The Governor works for the President.
Rozi didn’t respond. As a native Uruzgani he knew we couldn’t resolve these contradictions. He just knew we knew he'd work them.
D. All Together Now
We finally arranged a plenary session in the Governor’s office five days before the election. Bobcat 6 and the PRT commander attended. So did the Governor and Atiqullah, each uneasy in the other’s presence. From behind his corner desk the Governor thrust out his chest and tucked in his chin. He was too used to giving orders to keep his thoughts to himself. Frowning, shoulders hunched, Atiqullah looked everywhere but at him, at the ceiling, mostly. He considered himself an independent operator, certainly not a subordinate. Rozi sent a factotum. We knew the man was powerless because he wore a uniform. Rozi never did. Nor did his brother. Nor, of course, Matiollah. He attended as did his pudgy boss, a figurehead we could tell by the uniform and smiles.
The Governor announced that Matiollah was back from Chenartu, where men under his command killed a talib in women’s clothing. The deceased didn’t walk like a woman, the Governor explained with a leer. There were more Taliban where that came from, but Matiollah couldn’t stay to finish the job because 70-80 of them had assembled at the other end of the province, in Charchina. The District Chief would give Charlie Company the particulars.
Turning avuncular, the Governor said he knew Charlie had to fortify its base. The District Chief could help with that. He could find laborers, maybe even construction materials. But the company needed to get out and be active. The few patrols they ran weren’t deterring anyone. The Taliban were moving in and the people were moving out even though they had nowhere to go. Deh Rawud certainly had no place for them. That morning, the 2/5 civil affairs team told him, a car triggered an IED as it passed an American convoy north of Deh Rawud town. No one was injured, although the car was destroyed. The Governor knew we were trying. We just didn’t understand the Taliban. Only Special Forces were willing to learn, willing to work with those who knew from long and bitter experience how the Taliban operated, how devious they could be. He let that sink in. His hands set on the desk, signaling an intention to rise. As a matter of fact, he had to leave right away. Our Special Forces needed him and his men for an operation out of Deh Rawud. We should continue the meeting without him. His secretary would brief him on his return.
Bobcat 6’s lower jaw dropped a notch, and Asim muttered in his ear. Rob leaned in. The PRT commander was too tall to bend that far. It’d be unseemly. Left ankle propped on the right knee, hands clasped on the other knee, he smiled a smile that suggested what goes around comes around. He wouldn’t have maintained silence, you could tell, had he been in charge of election preparations.
The Governor stepped out from his desk. No suit coat today; he was dressed for the country. Only his secretary rose with him.
What about the election? Bobcat 6 snapped, his irritation clear.
The Governor stopped in his tracks. What about it? I don’t see the police chief.
He’s coming, the factotum piped up. Large body, squeaky voice.
The Governor ignored him. How can we discuss security without the police chief?
I can explain, the factotum pleaded. He'd lowered his voice.
The Governor said he couldn’t wait. The Taliban were on the move.
Atiqullah? Bobcat 6 turned his way. Any hot issues?
Atiqullah dismissed it with a flick of his wrist.
The Governor might have caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye. No time for that. Deh Rawud beckoned.
You should visit Charlie Company, Bobcat 6 called in parting. You’d be surprised by all they’re doing.
The Governor nodded the way people do when distracted. Going as both host, and guest, of our Special Forces could complicate his freedom of action.
The Australian from Global Risk stood to request the Governor’s help transporting the polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan.
That made the Governor even more impatient. He turned to the South African, who, still seated, stretched out his leg to fit a notepad into his pants pocket. JEMB should use its reaction force, the Governor growled.
The South African shook his head. Spare of build, about 30 years of age, he had on the same trousers, shirt, and sandals he wore the other day, a sign he traveled light. That plus a silver chain around his neck, cord bracelet on his left wrist, silver band on the right ring finger, no-time-to-shave beard, and hair too short to bother with could lead a person to think he might have once been an operator in his country’s armed forces. That may have accounted, in part, for his restraint. We’re tapped out, he said.
Asim hesitated with the translation.
As if the Governor wanted to hear it. He said JEMB’s guards were the problem.
Four dollars a day is our max, the Australian declared with an emphasis on the max. Known as Brown Dog, he’d had a career as an army engineer. His penchant for getting the measurements right transferred well to budgets, logistics, and personnel, his responsibilities with the JEMB. He believed in the slippery slope.
The Governor glared. He also believed in the slippery slope.
We asked JEMB for an exception, Brown Dog elaborated. He was built like a fireplug, and had the face and stance of a scrapper. No exceptions, they told us. He worked on keeping his cool.
They got six for registration, the Governor reminded him. He meant dollars per day.
I already explained this, Brown Dog said. He knew he was being tested. To Matiollah, he added.
Matiollah’s shoulders stiffened.
The Governor exploded. Moving furniture wasn’t his job. The police should do it.
His glare shifted to Rozi’s representative.
The representative agreed.
They’re lazy, the Governor snarled. Or scared.
He turned to Atiqullah for the first time and said, in the reassuring voice one friend uses with another, your guards can handle it.
Atiqullah had been sitting through all this with a sardonic smile. Now he adopted a professorial stance, as though looking through bifocals. It suggested he either still had a lot to learn about the Governor or he knew him only too well.
Just pay them, the Governor elaborated.
He bustled upstairs, where the bathroom was (the palace, JEMB, and the NGO had the only flush toilets in Uruzgan). He didn’t seem really angry. It wasn’t fake, either. After all, anger led to action. And it satisfied.
Everybody took a breath.
His secretary looked at us, an ointment under his eye. Skin cancer, rumor had it. It was getting better, our interpreter said the other day. He should know: named Mohib, he was the secretary’s nephew. We told his uncle he could go. The meeting was over. He hurried to catch up, the Governor already thumping back down the stairs. Matiollah slow-walked in the man’s wake, his head bobbing, a fuck-you grin for us all.
Atiqullah coughed out a laugh.
Our special friends strike again, Bobcat 6 lamented.
Election? the PRT commander asked no one in particular. What election?
The outer courtyard was fuller than I’d ever seen it. In addition to the usual hangers-on and us foreigners spilling out of the palace, a pack of militiamen clustered around several pickups and two vintage SUVs parked in a line that led to the exterior gate. They were waiting for the Governor.
At that moment Rozi pulled up in the just-washed silver and blue SUV he had brought, courtesy of the Germans, from Kabul. Problems in Chenartu, he explained, doing his best to suppress a smile. He had to send some men.
The Governor strode past with a brisk nod in our direction and nothing at all for Rozi. His face was grim, his posture braced, his gait that of a man responding to the bugle’s call. Reveling in the moment, Matiollah brought up the rear. The militia hustled to board their vehicles while he and the Governor settled into a dinged-up SUV that was third in line. In what would be the Governor’s first travel to the districts since a rocket-propelled grenade detonated in front of him early that summer, the convoy headed for Deh Rawud. He once told us he had killed 100 Taliban.
100 and counting.
The greatest reaction to my reporting occurred when I characterized Rozi and the Governor’s relationship as dysfunctional. Keyed for the election, Bagram was now reading State’s PRT messages, and somebody there asked Bobcat 6 what the heck was going on, how come he hadn’t mentioned this? Field commanders didn’t like to report problems. It invited micromanagement. Bobcat 6 assured headquarters the situation was under control. He razzed me about it at the afternoon briefing, knowing I always ran my reports by his executive officer before transmitting. They had become one more variable to account for.
Events confirmed his assessment, as things worked out in the typically non-linear fashion. We even got Rozi, Atiqullah, and the Governor together in the palace after the latter returned from Deh Rawud, where nothing much seemed to have happened, at least that we could ascertain. The three of them were on their best behavior, stiff, agreeable, and cold, like couples in public after a spat. I think Karzai and/or Jalali might have called them following a request from Bagram. The police agreed to work from the polling sites out to 500 meters in Tarin Kot and Chora towns. The Governor’s militia would patrol the streets outside the police cordon, and they would keep all private vehicles out of the towns. American commanders in the districts reached similar understandings with the local militias. The 2/5 would be on a 15-minute fuse, or string, as the military called it, to respond anywhere in Atiqullah’s area of responsibility plus Nesh, in Kandahar Province.
Thus Rozi, Atiqullah, and the Governor came to an electoral co-existence. Rozi's brother said of course: it was the Afghan way. Brown Dog laughed when I told him. The Afghan way meant something different to him, something to be avoided. He knew the Third World. He’d toiled in the islands north of Australia. But he had to be true to himself, true to the reason he was sent here. His manner more that of a first sergeant than the officer he had been, he liked clarity. If his surname hadn’t been Brown, matching his hair color, Bulldog would have been an apt moniker.
He couldn’t recruit enough guards for Chenartu. The Governor offered his own for $10 per day. Brown Dog put his foot down. He was authorized six per site at a $30 flat rate, no matter how many days. He finally got a few from Rozi’s force and more from the Chenartu militia commander, one of the Governor’s minions. The Governor agreed as long as Brown Dog gave him the pay to distribute. On hearing that, Brown Dog shook his head and smiled.
In an odd manifestation of the compromises that developed, the Governor’s militia guarded the western half of the JEMB compound, the police the eastern side. The Governor’s men used their posts to catch up on their sleep, according to Brown Dog. He tried to enlist the police released from the western wall for his reaction force. He couldn’t get enough, they didn’t report for training, the crew-served weapons never came through, and so he gave up on the idea. If the stink hit the fan, JEMB would mayday for the 2/5. He grinned a soldier’s grin. You did what you could.
Rob and I tried to meet every day with at least one if not all the three principals. We never again got them together in one room. Bobcat 6 and the PRT commander joined us when higher authority could make a difference. The meetings blur in my memory. I remember one day the Governor was excited by news that Matiollah’s men had killed seven more Taliban in Chenartu. He claimed to know the names of six. The 2/5 civil affairs captain told Bobcat 6 he’d seen the bodies in the palace garden, each shot in the head. If they were Taliban, Asim asked us Americans while the Governor boasted about how many more he could take down if we combined forces, how would he know their names?
Headquarters tried to help. An Afghan trucker appeared at Ripley with papers from Bagram and 250 sets of riot gear but no guidance as to whether they were for American or Afghan use. When queried, Bagram promised to look into it. The MPs crammed the gear into a conex then talked Rozi into sharing some of his new AKs and uniforms with the police in Chora and Nesh. The Ministry of Interior intervened, nixing Nesh; that was in another province.
Atiqullah informed us that Karzai’s brother would arrive for the election. Although the man lived in Kandahar and owned a restaurant in Baltimore, he had represented Uruzgan at last year's constituent assembly in Kabul. Atiqullah also said a French observer might fly in, and the Embassy advised that an American ex-Special Forces turned big-time contractor would come to observe.
The Embassy then emailed a heads-up about observer credentials and a ban on firearms within 500 meters of polling stations. Sound policy for the cities but so un-Uruzgan. No Afghan was going to ask an American for credentials. Not that any ever reached Uruzgan. The JEMB security chief in Kandahar dismissed all that when he rode the White Elephant up for a whirlwind visit. Don’t sweat the 500-meters, he told us. Just don’t take guns into the polling sites.
Rob suggested a concealed weapon. I had lent him my Pashtu primers, and I was sure I could have borrowed his pistol. That ran counter to Embassy doctrine, however, and it contradicted the rule I’d formulated in the Peace Corps: if you carried, you had to know when to use, especially if you were out by yourself. That required a knowledge of the language and local scene far exceeding my own.
As an alternative, the PRT commander said he’d send two or more soldiers with me to any polling station. They would wait outside while I entered. The JEMB guards on site would also be armed.
The JEMB security chief brought the back pay. By then the wildcat strike had fizzled out, and most coordinators returned to their districts. They would either get paid or they wouldn’t, and Atiqullah told them they definitely wouldn’t if they didn’t go back to work. A C-130 landed at Ripley with the ballots and ballot boxes. Global Risk hauled the shipment to the JEMB compound. It was Atiqullah’s job to push it to the districts. After Brown Dog's reaction force fell through, Atiqullah told him to pay the Governor the $10 a day he was demanding for guards to escort the shipments to Charchina, Kijran, and Gizab. JEMB Kabul authorized an exception to their $4 a day limit. The ballots arrived in good order despite the Governor’s reports of attacks on each convoy. No one was injured in those attacks.
Atiqullah asked Bobcat 6 for helicopters to bring in the ballots from Gizrab and Kijran after the election when time and ballot integrity would be of the essence. State had already paid JEMB for that and so pressured the military to stay out of it. Months earlier, during voter registration, Bagram directed the Marines not to fly the documentation to Kandahar. And the UN security chief had once said he’d transport the ballots there by armed convoy. Bobcat 6 brought that up. Atiqullah asked if those two spoke during the chief’s most recent visit.
Atiqullah claimed the UN wasn’t saying that anymore.
Rob confirmed it. Bobcat 6 said they’d do what was necessary.
Half the PRT force concentrated on Tarin Kot district; they eventually scouted every voting site, and they’d seen several in Chora on our foray there. The other half prepared to accompany Ripley’s Afghan Army contingent and its three American advisors to Gizab, the Pashtun enclave in southern Daikundi. It’d be their first time to the district. We’d heard the inhabitants had asked to join Daikundi, a province of different ethnicity and language, one even more remote than Uruzgan, to escape Jan Mohammed’s predatory rule. Jan Mohammed didn’t see it that way. He claimed Gizab’s elders had petitioned Kabul to rejoin Uruzgan and Karzai promised he’d make it happen after the election.
Kerry would go as a civilian observer. Since, as far as we knew, no PRT or other foreigners covered the province, he could also look for potential development projects in the district capital. The previous PRT team had contracted for a school in Gizab. He’d tried to check it out. They were going to helicopter in.
Meanwhile the trucks hired to haul the furniture to Chora failed to show at the appointed hour. Just as well: the furniture wasn’t ready for loading. A day later it all came together even though one trucker left before the other and the second took a different route, causing each to think the other had disappeared. Both made it to Chora with their just-in-time inventory.
Atiqullah sent the Khas Uruzgan furniture in a truck escorted by a handful of his guards who volunteered for the trip. He told the stranded staff from Khas Uruzgan to go with them or forfeit their pay. They went. Staff and furniture arrived without incident.
On the Wednesday before election Saturday, Global Risk reported that ballots had not gotten to Langur, the most troubled part of Chenartu, apparently because the JEMB guards chickened out on the way. The Governor promised to send militia from Chenartu town. Deh Rawud called to say six ballot boxes arrived without lids. They called back later to say the lids had been found. An IED exploded in Deh Rawud town. No injuries.
On Thursday the Gizab choppers were cancelled. A half-hour ride turned into a day-and-a-half road trip. The PRT force planned to overnight north of Chora town. The Governor told us the Chenartu militia weren’t going to Langur. They lacked the firepower. Atiqullah said Languris would have to come to Tarin Kot to vote. The 2/5 picked up Taliban chatter about ambushing PRT patrols in Tarin Kot. And it passed a report that Taliban were stopping cars, checking satellite phones, and executing the owners of those with politically incorrect numbers on their call list. No source, no place, it sounded apocryphal. An IED destroyed a vehicle outside Charlie Company's compound in Charchina. That night small arms and rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the compound.
Charlie reported more harassing fire on Friday. No casualties. The Governor complained that Americans – Special Forces, apparently – killed four of his men who ran when the Americans approached their compound in Charchina. They were scared, he explained; Taliban would have stayed and fought.
In preparation for the election, he called up his reserves and distributed ID cards to his militia. He had only 900 cards, he said, so each served for five men. Never missing an opportunity to show up the Governor, Rozi got his police to deliver the ballots to Langur. Bravo Company headed for Nesh. Rob, the 2/5 civil affairs team (captain, medic, and commo man), and I drove to the JEMB compound, where I spotted the first sign of campaigning I’d seen in the province. A Karzai poster had been pasted to the exterior wall. I mentioned it to Atiqullah, and he had the poster removed. No favoritism.
Four of us five houseguests brought American firepower, which was welcomed. I brought a Thuraya and a laptop for connecting to the Internet. Although my civilian status made Brown Dog sniffy at first, he let me put a cot in his room and use his satellite dish to link up with the Embassy. Rob also bunked in his room, which was larger than the others. The civil affairs team moved into the room next door with their radio, weaponry, DVD player, cards, poker chips, corn chips, muffins, cereal, canned sausages, canned cheese, water, soda, and meals ready to eat. The South African slept in a room around the corner, next to Atiqullah’s. The JEMB safe haven – it didn’t seem all that strong – was a small room on the other side of Brown Dog’s. They kept their radio in it. Although it featured a metal door with a bolt, rocket-propelled grenades or a sledgehammer would have made short work of the walls.
The captain prepared cheese dogs over a camp stove. I had two. Music twittered from the DVD player. The medic and commo man moved a table into the breezeway. A poker game ensued. Cigars were lit, stories swapped. In America, candidates Kerry and Bush debated. Nobody mentioned it. Taking advantage of the amenities, I took my first warm shower in months. Refreshed, I shot off an email to King County, Washington. I was afraid my absentee ballot wouldn’t arrive in time.