Thursday, April 23, 2009

Living with the Enemy

May 2007. I had just arrived home after a 15-month embed that included 13 months in Afghanistan. Soon after getting home I received an email asking me to call a friend of mine from Special Forces. I had spent two months with that SF unit, an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) in the northwest area of Uruzgon Provence. I picked up the phone and called.

“Scott, do you remember Barry?”
“Yes. He was your interpreter.”
“7th Group intercepted his communications. He was working with the Taliban. They found a suicide vest in his room.”

Barry’s family had been abducted by the Taliban. They had threatened to torture or kill them unless he provided intelligence on the Special Forces units he was attached to as well as details on the fire base layout. Barry was considered loyal to the ODA team that I had been with. Through translation and participation in operations he had been privileged to a range of information that could have compromised not only that ODA team, but future teams as well. But Barry’s loyalty was deeper for his family. In trade for suiciding himself and killing the soldiers that he worked with, Barry’s family was to have been given a guaranteed financial stipend estimated at $50,000; enough money to support them for years.

Local nationals are hired to do a wide range of jobs on fire bases. From interpretation, to construction, to food service and janitorial. Some are hired through the US military, others through KBR. The wages offered make these jobs highly desirable which results in having local nationals a regular part of the personnel landscape on these fire bases. Yet history seems too easily forgotten. In WWII, both the Germans and the Americans new the value of placing operatives inside a fire base, especially working in areas near latrines or in dining halls as a sure way to collect the latest intelligence.

More recently, the threat of locals sympathizing with Taliban forces and working on fire bases was discussed in an article in the Washtington Post, written by PJ Tobia, titled “A War’s Impossible Mission." (Link to article) Detailing the Army tribunal of West Point graduate, CPT Roger Hill and twenty-year veteran, 1SG Tommy Scott, for supposed “detainee abuses.” Though Hill would later be forced to resign with a General Discharge, his non-compliant interrogation methods revealed what the FBI later confirmed... that Hill’s interpreter and workers on his firebase were in fact working with the Taliban. Hill’s closing statements to the tribunal paints the picture, “Please know that seeing your brothers whittled down one by one by a cowardly and ghost-like enemy is difficult.” Indeed, and Hill paid a heavy price with the sacrifice of his career. Many of the detainees were set free.

In November 2008 prior to Tobia’s ariticle, an interpreter was quarantined for possible Taliban affiliations in the fire base in Bermel. Arriving in the dining hall for lunch shortly after the election results announcing then President-elect Obama as the new President of the United States, an interpreter engaged myself and a Captain sitting with me in conversation. During the course of the short discussion, the interpreter proclaimed that he was happy because our new President was Muslim, since he was raised Muslim, adding, that we “were now all infidels.” The Team Chief initiated an immediate investigation. The use of the word “infidel” is typically only used by Taliban and anti-American forces. The head interpreter was questioned, and he agreed with the US officers assessment. The interpreter in question was confined to the base until his scheduled time for leave back to his home in Khowst. Once that date arrived, he was allowed to take his leave, but with the foreknowledge that he was to be transferred to a larger base if he was to continue working in the same capacity. However, following his leave, he never returned.

Most recently, in a fire base I visited several week ago, signs were posted throughout the base including latrines, and the phone and computer rooms, warning soldiers to be ware of Operational Security violations and information leaks. Incidents have occurred in the past few months that have given local nationals working on the fire base access to important intelligence. The posted signs validated the continuing threats and challenges in this war.

As the US military tries to extend a hand of friendship and hope, there is an over-willingness to embrace Afghans as friends. While that bond may develop over time, our two cultures are still very far apart. Locals continue to have to walk the razors edge of a sword as they reach for hope to the US in one direction, while weighing the long term prospects, religion, family safety and security in the other. A careless slip and they lose their livelihoods or their lives. It is in effect a perpetual balancing act. What seems to be lost in all of this is that we are the occupiers fighting an often invisible enemy. They are everywhere and nowhere all of the time.

Footnote: As I sat and ate lunch today outside of the dining facility, I watched a local national working for KBR count paces near the garbage can; a common technique used to create a mental map of locations within the fire base. His actions went unnoticed by his supervisor. Only myself and the fire base Mayor, an E5, took notice.


  1. We are not there to create jobs we are there to kill an ememy. I did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and never trusted one of the locals, ever. It's a cultural thing with Arabs and Persions; tribe above all and everything's for sale (including your life)

  2. Dear Scott, I am continuing to pray for you. Is there anything you need or would like to have that you are lacking? May I ask a question, because I do not know the answer? Would you prefer to fight in a war, say North Korea, where the enemy wears a uniform but is well trained or would you prefer where you are? I think I would rather fight the North Koreans. Why? I could see them. It must be awfully stressful in Afghanistan.

    There is one man I was in constant contact (when allowed) in Afghanistan, but he never let me know how truly dangerous it was for him. He still hasn't, but I realize why. Some things you just don't repeat.

    I pray God is with you at all times and also with your family. Keep your head down and your powder dry.