Afghan police often find themselves in combat

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2010 

WORLD NEWS USAFGHAN-FIREFIGHT 2 MCT

First Lt. John Paszterko carries fresh ammunication during a two-hour firefight with insurgents near the village of Raysnar in Afghanistan.

DAVID BELLUZ — David Belluz/MCT

RAYSNAR, Afghanistan — Fazlur Ahmed is a guard at a rural school in southern Afghanistan, but on Thursday the Afghan police officer was thrown into battle and severely wounded in a U.S.-led assault on a Taliban position.

During the three-hour firefight Thursday morning in Kandahar province's Zhari district, Afghan police spearheaded the Afghan component of a company-sized Afghan-U.S. force. Afghan army troops often refused to return fire, and at least one soldier didn't appear to know how to operate his weapon, according to U.S. officers and McClatchy journalists who were present.

The Obama administration's plans to begin withdrawing some U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July, as well as allied NATO countries' eagerness to get their forces out, depend on handing over security to the Afghan army and police. However, the operation in Zhari Thursday showed how the Afghan National Police, not the army, are often in the frontlines of the military campaign, and while the police are notorious for corruption, they displayed a determination for the fight in Zhari that the army lacked.

The episode in Zhari pointed to a wider trend, backed by anecdotal evidence, of Afghan troops freezing under fire, and although coalition forces are spending much of their time training the Afghan army, there's deep skepticism about whether the Afghan troops are up to the task.

The army has difficulty recruiting in the ethnic Pashtun south — the Taliban's heartland — and so Afghan army units often aren't from the area where they're deployed, and often don't even speak the local language.

The police are locals, with unrivaled local knowledge, the reason, said Capt. Paul DeLeon, the commander of Charlie Company, it was necessary to take them along. "The police force in Afghanistan is not like a traditional police force, like you'd find in Europe or the United States," said DeLeon, 29, of Pasadena, Calif. "They're in a war zone, so often they're acting as an army would. The lines are blurred."

"Our ANA is a new unit that doesn't have battle experience. It would happen with any army. I think they'll get there."

The battle in Zhari erupted after a platoon of Charlie Company, part of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., together with around 20 Afghan policemen and soldiers, thrust into Taliban-controlled countryside near Raysnar, in the east of Zhari. The district, a Taliban stronghold west of Kandahar city, is expected to be the target of a major U.S.-led offensive.

Surprised by the pre-dawn move against them, the Taliban began firing at Afghan and U.S. forces at 6.10 a.m., with automatic fire cracking all around. The insurgents fired from a mud-walled compound and ran among multiple positions, changing their angles of fire, said the platoon leader, Lt. John Paszterko of Los Angeles.

The Taliban have proved gifted at small unit tactics of fire and maneuver. "They would submerge, re-emerge, then submerge again," Paszterko said. "It was essentially like playing whack-a-mole."

Policeman Ahmed, interviewed by McClatchy Wednesday at the Bagh-e-Pul school he guards, had said there were Taliban in the area, adding, "Either we'll die or them."

Ahmed, 25, was left fighting for his life the next day after he was wounded in both arms and his chest. He'd taken cover in a ditch, but that protected only half his body, and he was hit when the Taliban fired from a new position.

As he stood up after he was hit, blood ran down both arms, eyewitnesses said. Like many Afghan policemen thrown into combat, he wasn't wearing a bulletproof vest or even a helmet.

The bullet appeared to smash into his left arm, apparently passed through his chest, puncturing his lung, and then punched a massive hole in his right arm, according to 1st Sgt. Paul Bailey, 39, of Montrose, Mich.

"Allah," Ahmed wailed repeatedly as U.S. soldiers treated his wounds. Pvt. Mark Hatchett, 18, of Chickasha, Okla., who was close to him, immediately put tourniquets high on both of Ahmed's arms and dressed his arm wounds.

Sgt. Jason Rodriguez, a medic, took over the treatment; applied a bandage that wrapped round both arms and chest; and, with Ahmed on the back of a truck on the way to further medical aid, discovered the chest wound.

"The ANP (Afghan police) guys are from around here; they have a stake in it. For the ANP, it's a bit more personal," said Rodriguez, 35, of Lancaster, Calif.

Charlie Company called in attack helicopters and mortar fire, which missed its target. The Afghan police swung into action, with Paszterko barking orders on where to fire. His orders to the Afghan soldiers brought little response.

"Unfortunately, the ANA (Afghan National Army) weren't shooting," said Paszterko, 27, of Los Angeles, briefing the company afterward. "They weren't freaking out, just not firing . . . . It turned out one of them didn't know how to fire."

The engagement ended when Sgt. Steve Larrabee, 27, of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, grabbed an AT4 shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon and fired at the mud-walled compound, shouting "jackpot" as it hit the target.

Larrabee earlier had inflicted the only confirmed enemy casualty, shooting a Taliban fighter from more than 400 yards as the militant broke cover to avoid a helicopter's guns.

Charlie Company didn't press further to search the compound, partly because of the danger that it could be booby-trapped. Officers estimated that they'd encountered from eight to 20 Taliban fighters.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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