Shifting Security To Afghan Forces An Unsteady Exchange

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U.S. troops in Afghanistan talk about the difficulties of handing off responsibility to Afghan forces.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is handing the baton to Afghan forces. A clean hand-off is hard enough in a relay race, but here, the racetrack is also a minefield. Consider these facts, the number of American troops in Afghanistan has been cut in half from its peak. The force will be cut in half again by early next year. There won't be enough U.S. troops to be everywhere.

NPR's Graham Smith visited one place the Americans are leaving soon, the Arghandab River Valley, near the city of Kandahar.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: The Arghandab is home turf for the Taliban, and it's always been a tough fight. The Russians never really took it during their occupation of Afghanistan. Canadian, then U.S. troops fought insurgents here for years, troops like Sergeant Sean Rodman.

SERGEANT SEAN RODMAN: I came home and told my wife where I was going and she was like, oh, my God.

SMITH: Sergeant Rodman's wife had reason to worry. He'd been here before, patrolling every day, setting up outposts like one at an abandoned school near his base.

RODMAN: Coohak School was a horrible place in 2010.

SMITH: The Arghandab at its worst - homemade bombs everywhere.

RODMAN: My company found 26 IEDs in the courtyard alone. My company commander was killed there. That place was just riddled with IEDs.

SMITH: Rodman says that by the end of that deployment security got better. Still, he was stunned this year to learn he was deploying again to this same valley.

RODMAN: I wanted to prepare for the worst. So, in my mind, I was going into 2010. So it's been a pleasant surprise to not have 2010 all over again.

SMITH: The American mission in 2013: hand off responsibility to Afghan security forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SMITH: Rodman and a combined group of U.S. and Afghan soldiers rack their rifles and push out from their combat outpost. It's early morning, the temperature still in the 80s. The men, strung out single-file. The foot soldiers in front lay down lines of foot powder shoulder-width apart.

RODMAN: Stay within those white lines, 'cause that's where our mine hound has swept. And we know fairly certain that there's not an IED there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SMITH: This patrol will be the last American operation from this outpost. Within days, it will be turned over to the Afghan army.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

SMITH: The soldiers walk past golden wheat fields in mid-harvest, and pomegranate orchards. Near the center of the village, they secure a perimeter.

RODMAN: OK. Hey, Doc, I want you to take up position right there along that little mud wall, have a seat.

SMITH: Right here in the fall of '09, insurgents blew up a U.S. Stryker armored vehicle, flipped it over. Two soldiers died and two others were wounded. Now no gunships buzz overhead, no machine guns rip, there's just the motorized thrum of a grain thresher, separating wheat from chaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAIN THRESHER)

SMITH: The Afghan local police, a semi-volunteer force, want to do the same with the people - separate the insurgents from the villagers. So they'll search homes for explosives. They want to find the bombers who killed their commander earlier this month.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: While the Afghan police search, U.S. soldiers do iris scans and check villagers' fingerprints against a database. Sergeant Brian Claggett is one of the squad leaders.

SERGEANT BRIAN CLAGGETT: If they pop hot, we can hand them over to the ANA. And they can arrest them and take them along.

SMITH: Here's where things get messy. One villager pops but not hot, a low-level concern. Yet, the Americans detain him. The man is tall and slim. He looks angry and embarrassed. His hands are tied behind his back with his own blue and white headscarf. He's marched past children and neighbors at gunpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, Sergeant Claggett, can you radio the guys over there to see why that guy has been handcuffed?

SMITH: This is how you create confusion and, potentially, enemies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What we should do with that guy? He is a bad guy? He's one of the...

SMITH: Brandon Arny, a green lieutenant just recently assigned to this company, is left to sort things out with the Afghan army captain.

LIEUTENANT BRANDON ARNY: That's up to them. It's their decision. If they want to let him go then they can let him go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He's not bad guy. What we should do?

ARNY: If you want to leave him, that's up to you. It's mainly for ISAF forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We believe him.

ARNY: OK.

SMITH: The Afghan soldiers approach the villager, who's squatting to the side of a dirt road, and apologize.

They untie his hands and they let him walk back into his field.

Another villager volunteers that he saw an IED in an orchard nearby. An Afghan scout checks and finds something suspicious. Now the Americans, a week before they're set to leave this place for good, have to go see what's up.

ARNY: There's been reports of multiple IEDs in the area. I don't want to put any more...

SMITH: The heat ratchets up over 105. They walk in a long line down narrow paths, over small canals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

SMITH: It's not easy, following directions given by Afghan soldiers. Few of them can read or write or use a map.

SERGEANT AB: What's up? We're going left.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No, it's right.

AB: It's not right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Serge AB, which way am I going?

AB: Left.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: All right.

SMITH: Lieutenant Arny may be inexperienced but he knows his troops shouldn't be bunching up like this.

ARNY: Let's get moving out 'cause this is a horrible spot to be in.

AB: Hey, hold your position down there.

SMITH: Finally, the soldiers get back on track. They tramp across a field thick with hip-high blossoms that look like big puffball dandelions. Crushed under foot, the plants smell strong.

Onions, this area is famous for them.

Under some trees, Afghan soldiers and police wait by a ratty plastic shopping bag. They look to the Americans for guidance.

ARNY: Hey, Palmero.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes.

ARNY: Just reach it in there. Don't step anywhere near it.

SMITH: Soon, a bomb-sniffing dog confirms: Explosives. The Afghan captain pulls out a long black dagger and walks towards the bag.

SERGEANT DENNIS DICK: I don't know what they want to do.

ARNY: Looks like they want to pull it out.

SMITH: Sergeant Dennis Dick, the squad leader, orders his men back.

DICK: It's just ANA over there now? And ALP?

ARNY: Yeah.

DICK: All right, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: What could we do?

DICK: Hey, let them blow themselves up, bro. If their commander said poke at it, then I mean, that's on them. But we ain't going to stand here.

SMITH: Luckily, there's no boom. The bomb isn't hooked up to a battery yet. Now everyone argues over what to do with it. The Afghan local police want to leave it there and perhaps trap the bombers who killed their commander. The Afghan army captain wants to destroy the IED, so do the Americans but it's not their call.

Five hours into the patrol, Lieutenant Arny and his soldiers are ready to head home.

ARNY: Let them know we're leaving, that higher up is contacting their higher up about the situation. So we're just going to leave and...

DICK: We're going to let them handle it.

ARNY: Yeah.

DICK: Copy.

SMITH: The baton is in Afghan hands. The American leg of the race is over. As many soldiers here say it's their country and it's their war, too.

Graham Smith, NPR News.

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