Combat Outpost Mizan, Afghanistan – A frantic call came in to the operations center here on one recent morning — a bomb had just exploded a few kilometers away and there were badly wounded Afghan villagers in need of aid.
It was the beginning of an all too familiar story in the Afghanistan War, now more than a week into its 10th year. Despite a renewed push to train the country’s police forces — made possible by the administration of President Barack Obama, who has released more money and more trainers to help along what has become a key goal of the war’s revised strategy — positive results are hard to come by.
Responding to the morning call, Afghan police officers based at Mizan jumped in their trucks and sped off toward the scene, at the same time intercepting Taliban communications that militants were preparing an ambush. After relaying this information to American soldiers, two heavily armed scout helicopters were dispatched to support the Afghan unit.
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The Afghans stopped their pickup trucks well before the site of the strike to avoid hitting a secondary explosive, and they cautiously walked the rest of the way.
At the scene, a crowd of villagers from nearby Bayanzay gathered around a weeping man and the body of a woman, covered with a sheet. The woman was on her way to visit relatives when she stepped on the homemade bomb, killing her instantly.
Her uncle, who was walking with her, was slightly injured by the blast. Upon the arrival of the police, the group of villagers knelt down around the woman’s body and prayed quietly before hoisting her on a stretcher and walking back to Bayanzay.
Rather than follow the group back down into Bayanzay, the police charged further up the mountain to nearby Mullah Bustan, where they suspected the Taliban fighters who placed the bomb were hiding.
As the scout helicopters buzzed around the tiny village, Afghan police and soldiers poured into Mullah Bustan, grabbing every military-age male they could find.
The police commander slapped, punched and kicked the first man he found, who appeared to be about 20. The young man, after being kicked around by the commander in the dust, eventually managed to dash off into an orchard.
The police were unable to find him again.
Not to make the same mistake, the police tied up the next few men they found before punching them in the backs of their heads and demanding to know if they were Taliban fighters.
About an hour later, U.S. forces surrounded the village and watched for fleeing suspects, but saw none. They loaded five detainees into Afghan police trucks and started the long, dusty walk down the mountain to Mizan.
They had barely gone a kilometer when they heard a Taliban fighter bragging on his radio that he’d escaped the troops’ search and was now back in the village.
In minutes, the troops stormed back into Mullah Bustan and detained two more men, but no radios or significant weapons were found. During the walk back to Combat Outpost Mizan, the troops passed the crater where the woman died. One of the suspects began to fidget nervously although the crater wasn’t visible from where he was sitting.
The next morning, about 20 elders from several nearby villages came to protest the detention of the seven men. Their insistence that the detainees were innocent was good enough for the Afghan police at Mizan, and all seven bruised and battered men were quickly released to the elders’ care.
“Is that how you usually process detainees?” asked 1st Lt. Troy Peterson, the ranking officer at Mizan.
The police commander nodded and turned away.