Originally appeared in The New Yorker.
Letter from Pashmul
An ethnic-minority force enters a Taliban stronghold.
In late 2007, in Pashmul, a tiny cluster of villages in southern Afghanistan, Muhammad Khan began his tenure as the police commander by torching all the hemp in a farmer’s field. Farmers in the area had grown plants up to seven feet tall, and, being teetotallers, like many Afghans, they smoked hashish constantly. Afghan soldiers and policemen in the area also smoked, to the exasperation of the NATO troops who were training them. But Khan wasn’t from Pashmul and he didn’t smoke. He ordered his men to set the harvest ablaze, moved upwind, then turned his back and left, with an expression of indifference.
Khan and his police officers are members of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, identifiable among Afghans because of their Asiatic features; the population they patrol is Pashtun. Hazaras are mostly Shia, with a history of ties to Iran, whereas most Pashtuns are Sunni and have turned to Pakistan for support. Over the past century, the two peoples have fought periodically, and the Hazaras, who are thought to make up between nine and nineteen per cent of Afghanistan’s population—the Pashtuns make up nearly half—have usually lost. On the border between the Hazara heartland, in the country’s mountainous and impoverished center, and the Pashtun plains in the south and east, conflicts over grazing land are common. But, working alongside NATO soldiers, Hazara police units are now operating far to the south of these traditional battlegrounds and deep into Pashtun territory.
The Pashmul base is just outside the city of Kandahar, in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions. Last year, the Taliban all but wiped out the Afghan National Police, or A.N.P., squads there. Deploying Hazaras in this region is a risky move, and comes at a time when Taliban bombings and assassinations are making clear the failure of the U.S.-led NATO coalition and the Afghan government to secure the country. Recently, a draft of a National Intelligence Estimate said that increasingly effective insurgent attacks and widespread corruption in President Hamid Karzai’s government have eroded the government’s authority, and concluded that the country is in a “downward spiral.” And a leaked diplomatic cable quoted the British Ambassador as saying that “the presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution.” If the coalition were to leave, the country would be left with the ragtag Afghan National Army, or A.N.A., which deploys wherever it is needed to fight the Taliban in counter-insurgency battles, and the A.N.P., which is responsible for street-level law enforcement and now bears the brunt of the Taliban insurgency. (Last year, nearly four times as many Afghan police were killed as soldiers.) Among Afghans, the A.N.P. has become known for incompetence and corruption. Units like Khan’s, made up of a despised minority with an unsparing attitude toward those they police, embody many of the paradoxes involved in trying to bring order to Afghanistan’s ethnically fissured society.
In July, I visited Pashmul’s police base, a small installation about twice as large as a tennis court and surrounded by ditches and razor wire. Nearby are crumbling Pashtun villages of mud-brick homes, sprinkled with trash and unexploded ordnance. Pashmul is ideal terrain for an insurgency. The main sources of livelihood, other than hemp and poppies, are grapes and pomegranates, and, during the summer fighting season, foliage in fields and orchards provides cover for insurgents. Because farmers are too poor to use wooden frames in their vineyards, their grapevines are supported by deep furrows cut in the earth; thus in an apparently empty field hundreds of Taliban may be hidden. Grape huts, scattered around the fields, have mud walls thick enough to stop bullets, and narrow ventilation slits that can accommodate rifle barrels. Fighting has caused many Pashmul residents to flee to a temporary camp in the desert, from which they trek several miles each morning to cultivate the fields.
Khan’s police unit patrols a war zone, and the men often do the work of soldiers rather than of normal beat police officers. Although the Army lends support when the police encounter armed resistance, the soldiers then retreat to a base outside Pashmul. On most days, the police patrol the alleys alone, except for a few Canadian soldiers whom NATO has assigned to train and mentor them. Taliban snipers routinely fire at the base’s wooden guard towers, and the Hazara policemen fire back. They watch the rickety pickups that pass on a paved road along the base’s eastern edge, on the lookout for suicide bombers. Khan’s men know the faces in each village, but they remain an alien presence. One man, who sold goats to the Hazara policemen, would say hello to the patrol when it walked past his home; his corpse later turned up in the next village.
Now in his late twenties, Muhammad Khan has an intense manner and an unsettling stare. When I met him, he gave me an appraising look, his glare landing on the book in my hand, Paul Theroux’s “My Secret History.” Khan asked me, in Persian, what I was reading, and, struggling to recall the word for “novel,” I said it was “a book.” He gave me the same suspicious look I later saw when he confronted frightened farmers about insurgents in their fields. “That much I can see,” he said. “Is it a novel?”
Khan’s directness enables him to work efficiently with his Canadian supervisors—particularly Mike Vollick, a warrant officer stationed at Khan’s police base. An infantryman, Vollick is thirty-seven and of medium height, with sturdy arms that, when I met him, five months after his arrival in Pashmul, were scabby from dozens of sand-fly bites. The Canadians and the Hazaras communicate reasonably well, although they mostly use a translator and don’t have more than a few dozen words in common, most of which describe military equipment. Vollick considers Khan the most effective Afghan police commander he has seen, and an ideal candidate for district police chief, although, given Khan’s inability to speak Pashto, the local language, and the strength of Pashtun prejudice, this would be an unlikely appointment.
Khan enforces high standards—the men’s blue-gray uniforms are tidy, and military routine is strictly followed—which are all the more impressive given the lack of discipline and infighting in most Afghan police units. The men enjoy the slightly giddy camaraderie of a team under permanent siege, and they are bold fighters, though their zeal often exceeds the behavior that might be expected of a group given the task of winning the trust of an uneasy citizenry. Once, when Vollick called off a planned patrol into Taliban territory for tactical reasons, he had to assuage the Hazaras’ sense of honor by explaining why he had not led the group into battle.
The day before I arrived, Vollick and Khan, after months of long-range firefights across fields and vineyards, had planned an ambush of Taliban who, villagers said, sometimes gathered at a cemetery some five hundred yards from the base. The Hazaras took up a position near the cemetery, and soon two men carrying heavy blankets rounded a corner and passed a mud wall. Vollick stayed back to watch how the policemen behaved. They passed the first test by not immediately killing both men. But as soon as Khan’s men called for the Talibs to halt, they dropped the blankets and raised Kalashnikov assault rifles that were hidden underneath. The Hazaras outdrew them, and one policeman—who looked several years younger than his stated age of eighteen—emptied an entire magazine at one of the men, who fell dead with more than twenty bullets in his chest. The other man scrambled away, wounded.
The Hazara men had never been this close to their enemy before, and they were eager to pursue the wounded man. But Vollick shouted at them to stay where they were, fearing that they would be led into a trap. “They were losing their minds, they were so excited,” Vollick told me later.
The dead man wore an orange skullcap, a loose shalwar kameez, sandals that the Hazaras identified as Pakistani, and Chinese military webbing that held his ammunition and weapons. Vollick found a small book of names and phone numbers, as well as a rusted rifle whose stock had been shortened for easy concealment. Moments later, the group heard shots nearby. Another patrol had encountered a third insurgent, and two policemen killed him at point-blank range.
Soon, insurgents began shooting wildly from a concealed position. Vollick ordered a retreat, and the group ran through the alleys toward the base. The policemen moved with their Kalashnikovs raised, and Vollick shouted at them to lower their weapons, to avoid shooting innocent farmers. The group returned with no casualties other than its composure and professionalism; the Hazaras had behaved more like a paramilitary group than like a professional police team. They hung the rusty rifle on a wall as a trophy. In the next days, every Hazara I met pointed to it with pride. That evening, they listened eagerly to the Taliban’s radio channels, which featured confused messages about someone named Bashir. Villagers later reported that the wounded man had died.
Two days later, Vollick, sitting in the base’s kitchen, with his back to a wall of M.R.E.s and granola bars, described the operation as a success. Police had subsequently picked up a suspected insurgent leader in the area, and Vollick ascribed the capture to Taliban panic resulting from the ambush. “We hit them when we chose, and they had no idea who did it or how,” he said. When he said “we,” he gestured to the Hazaras’ sleeping quarters, twenty feet away. “It was a psychological victory.” The Hazaras I spoke with described the sprint back to the base, easily the most dangerous moment of the ambush, with nonchalance. Muhammad Hussein—the boy who killed the first Talib—chain-smoked as he described it. “It wasn’t that serious,” he said. “They launched one rocket, but it was far from us.” But Vollick, a professional warrior, remembered the sprint differently. “We were running for our fucking lives,” he said.
The Hazaras trace their bloodline to soldiers of Genghis Khan who settled in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century. Some scholars doubt this pedigree, but Hazara mothers remind their children of their Mongol heritage by addressing them as “bachah-ye Moghol”—“child of Mongols”—to teach them good manners. In the late nineteenth century, the Hazaras were among several groups who revolted against Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s Pashtun king. They lost badly, and Khan built towers of Hazara skulls as a lesson to the survivors. Most of the surviving Hazaras fell into poverty, doing the work of draft animals and slaves. Pashtun nomads seized Hazara-held pastures and farmland at the southern foot of the mountains in central Afghanistan.
The British noted the Hazaras’ role as servants and manual laborers in Kabul, and saw an opportunity. The Orientalist Edward Balfour, though he described the Hazaras as “unblushing beggars and thieves,” went on to write, “Some of the clans have a military repute; they would make good soldiers, and might have risen to distinction, but they are disunited.” Lord Kitchener directed the Indian Army to create a unit of Hazaras, along the lines of the Nepalese Gurkhas, and in 1904 the 106th Hazara Pioneers was formed. Known for fine marksmanship, the regiment fought in France in the First World War and in Baghdad in the early nineteen-twenties.
During the rest of the twentieth century, Pashtuns further encroached on Hazara land, and extremist Sunni clerics declared the murder of Hazaras a righteous act. In the nineteen-eighties, the Soviet occupation largely spared the Hazara homeland, but they mounted an insurgency nonetheless, singing revolutionary songs whose villains were Pashtuns rather than Soviets. By the nineteen-nineties, when the Sunni Taliban formed around Mullah Omar, the Hazaras had found an Iranian-backed Shiite, Abdul Ali Mazari, to oppose him. Mazari led Hazara attacks on the Taliban, but, in 1995, he was captured, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter near Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. After Mazari, no Hazara leader reached national prominence until the formation of the Karzai government, in 2002. During the Taliban ascendancy, Muhammad Khan and all his men lived in Iran, as refugees. Khan himself has spent twenty years there—most of his life—and he speaks with a slight Iranian accent. Having been treated poorly as refugees, these Hazaras have no lingering fondness for Iran, but they have benefitted from the country’s superior educational standards. This, together with their determination to reëstablish themselves in what some Hazaras regard as their ancestral homeland, makes them effective janissaries for NATO.
The formation of police units like Khan’s gives the Hazaras greater authority outside their own territory than they’ve had in a century. It is also a classic counter-insurgency gambit. Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who has undertaken a book-length study of NATO in Afghanistan, compares it to the American use of Shiite militias to fight Sunni insurgency in Iraq. “It’s a common tactic in irregular warfare situations to pit the rivalries of an ethnically diverse populace against each other,” he told me. The difficulty is finding a way to avoid unleashing a dispossessed minority on a rampage of revenge against the group it is asked to control.
Alessandro Monsutti, an anthropologist who has studied the Hazaras, fears that the short-term gain of the Hazara units’ efficacy may be outweighed by long-term harm. “They’re very efficient for narrow, military targets,” he told me. “But what about rebuilding the country?” Donnelly, too, acknowledges that the use of ethnic militias could lead to explosive retribution when NATO leaves Afghanistan. (European use of privileged local minorities in colonial Africa contributed to the continent’s most destructive post-colonial wars, including the Rwandan genocide.) The Hazaras have not, historically, fared well in combat with the Pashtuns, although the policemen at Pashmul seem eager to try their luck. When Vollick asked them where he could get more police like them, they replied that they could raise a militia of a thousand men in their homeland, in Daykundi Province.
At the command level, the decision to exploit one of Afghanistan’s least noted and most bitter ethnic rivalries seems to have been improvised rather than planned. I asked Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, the top Canadian commander, about Khan’s unit, and he emphasized the similarity between Hazaras and Pashtuns, rather than the differences. “The advantage of any Afghan, regardless of their ethnicity, is that they get a better measure of what’s going on on the ground than we could ever get,” he said. “They know when something is amiss in this district.” No NATO officer I met seemed to appreciate the full significance of the Hazara-Pashtun rivalry.
At least in the short term, the deployment of Hazara police in Pashtun areas seems to have worked well, especially in the context of the ineffectiveness of Pashtun units and the area’s slide toward Taliban control. Less than a mile from the Hazaras’ base, the Taliban have trenches and permanent defensive positions. Vollick told me that beyond the trenches there were recreation areas and field hospitals for insurgents, a safe area invaluable for launching attacks on the city of Kandahar.
The Afghan security forces can blame at least part of their failure on geography. The Pashmul region is near Pakistan and is a common first stop for foreign fighters. Historically, too, it has been a center of insurgency. According to one NATO officer, the Soviet occupation never really controlled Pashmul’s district, despite assigning an entire division to it. And it was at Singesar, a village west of Pashmul, that, in 1994, Mullah Omar organized the militia that became the Taliban. The village remains a Taliban center, and last May NATO opted to abandon it, after deciding that the effort of maintaining the small base there could not be justified in terms of resources. No NATO or Afghan government soldier has stepped openly into Singesar since.
Still, policing efforts have been greatly hindered by the fact that indigenous police forces who worked with Vollick before Khan’s unit came to the region shirked their duties and sometimes even collaborated with the Taliban by letting them pass armed through checkpoints. “The Pashtuns just want to eat, sleep, and collect a paycheck,” one Canadian soldier at Pashmul told me. “They come here and they know the people here. And they’d say to each other, ‘If you find a weapon, don’t tell the Canadians.’ ” At one point, the Pashmul base experimented with a mixture of Pashtun and Tajik police, but the unit, after sustaining severe losses at the hands of the Taliban, refused to leave the base. When finally shamed into patrolling, they sang songs as they marched, and wrapped plastic flowers around their rifle barrels.
Soon after I left the Hazara police camp, I had the opportunity to see how an ethnically mixed security force operates, on a mission with the A.N.A. About a mile from Vollick’s base, at the border of a large vineyard and a garden of hemp plants, I met Captain Simon Cox, a ten-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, who had spent a few months mentoring A.N.A. units. Two days earlier, NATO artillery strikes had destroyed a Taliban position. Footage from a Predator drone suggested that Taliban soldiers had suffered serious injuries and that, more interestingly, villagers had surrounded and stoned wounded Talibs as they tried to crawl away. Cox’s mission was to lead soldiers to the village to find out what had happened, and to see whether they could harness any anti-Taliban feeling. Some areas haven’t seen a patrol in years, so even farmers who might sympathize with the government lack any guarantee that the government will protect them if they oppose the Taliban. “How are these people supposed to know about their government and support it when there’s no police there?” Cox asked.
The men on duty were not inattentive, but they seemed fundamentally unserious. They lacked initiative, and sat back and murmured to one another while the Canadians interviewed a local farmer. The Canadians barely spoke with their A.N.A. contingent at all, and the Afghan soldiers seemed to regard it as their principal duty to stand in place while the Canadians conducted their search.
The team cornered a farmer, who confirmed that some villagers had persuaded the Taliban to set up their heavy machine gun in another area, in case the Canadians sent in artillery to destroy the position. The team seized on the disclosure as a sign that the villagers could rise up against the Taliban. The farmer shook his head. “No,” he said. “We can argue with you. Not with them. If we say just one thing against the insurgents, they will come and kill us.”
“Have the insurgents come back to say that to you?” the Canadian asked.
The farmer leaned in and looked around. “They always come here.”
Soon afterward, Cox received word that some insurgents were just a few hundred yards away. An unmanned aerial vehicle had spotted men clustering south of us, across a vineyard and near a suspected weapons cache. Cox summoned an A.N.A. quick-reaction force, to support an assault against the position. Half an hour later, no one had arrived, and Cox was furious. He yelled at his counterpart in the Afghan forces, stabbing his finger at the soldier, who was suppressing a laugh: “I’m asking you if they’re ready to come here and help us fight. If you want to take this job half-assed, then fucking get out of the Army.”
When the Afghan quick-response force arrived, its soldiers stood looking dazed. We started to move toward the insurgents’ position by fanning in two directions—one of the most basic tactical maneuvers an infantry unit can attempt. The Afghans now looked slightly frightened—less of the Taliban ambush than of their officer, an Afghan captain trained by Green Berets. As he issued commands through a radio, the soldiers moved down the road and into the vineyard, correctly enough but with uneasy attention to detail, like a troupe of dancers staring at their feet. When we had closed half the distance, I crouched in a furrow, amid grapevines, until a soldier ahead of me—a stubbly, spindly man with a backpack full of rocket-propelled grenade warheads—yelped “Gun!” and pointed at the ambush point.
Seeing a weapon triggered the rules of engagement, and we ran toward the position. I kept my head low, looking at the ground a few steps ahead of me to avoid I.E.D.s. We leaped over an irrigation ditch, and, when I looked up to make sure I was still running in the right direction, I saw the soldier again. He had his grenade-launcher in one hand and, in the other, a colossal bunch of grapes, which he had started to eat. By the time we arrived at the place where the surveillance had spotted the insurgents, the Taliban had long since vanished back into the surrounding villages. As we stood in the empty Taliban position, I noticed that most of the Afghan soldiers carried grapes that they had picked up during the maneuver, and that they looked pleased.
Khan and Vollick’s relationship is rare and exemplary among NATO soldiers and their Afghan counterparts. Other commanders in Vollick’s position have had to pressure their Afghan counterparts to lead their men into unfriendly areas. Vollick is able to rely on Khan’s initiative. Khan keeps the watchtowers manned, and insures that policemen are properly armed for patrolling. During planning, Vollick and Khan discuss tactics and the day’s operations, and when they leave the base they walk together, conferring about which houses they need to inspect more closely, and which villagers are lying.
While in Pashmul, I followed a routine patrol. It was a couple of days after the ambush, and the men marched in an evenly spaced, disciplined line, with Khan and Vollick near the front and Khan’s second-in-command in the rear. The Canadians wore brown camouflage and a standard array of body armor and ammunition. Khan wore a ballistic helmet, but several other Hazaras wore nothing but their uniforms and a few ammunition magazines.
Within minutes of leaving the base, we were twisting through Pashmul’s narrow mud-walled alleys. Khan sometimes called out the name of his second-in-command over the radio to make sure that both ends of the patrol remained in touch. The men fell silent, and for ten minutes at a time communicated only in gestures, punctuated by the single word harakat, “movement,” passed down the line to signal that the group should continue forward. They were watchful because of the possibility of an ambush— Taliban spotters monitor the patrols from the moment they leave the base—but also, it seemed, because alertness appealed to them. They sometimes sprang off the path recklessly to inspect a piece of suspicious trash, and they burst through doors, hoping to surprise anyone hiding inside. On that morning, though, the village was empty and silent. Khan and Vollick went to a suspected Taliban flophouse; the only sign of human habitation was a wooden table in the courtyard, with tomatoes on top, drying in the sun.
When the patrol encountered residents, Khan and Vollick asked them about Taliban in the area, and received jittery and unhelpful answers. Neither spoke Pashto, but through a translator they managed to perform a kind of good-cop, bad-cop act. Vollick approached two old men sitting outside a house, and asked about Taliban. The response was cordial but evasive. Vollick repeated a line, familiar by now to the villagers, about NATO’s desire to make sure the government could meet their needs for schools and wells. While the men spoke, Khan rolled his eyes in operatic boredom and instructed his men to search the building and to frisk every passerby. The villagers obviously regarded Khan and Vollick as equally foreign. They denied any knowledge of Taliban activity, but, as Khan’s aggressiveness and suspicion grew, they gave Vollick more and more desperate excuses for not coöperating—they were afraid, they said, and hadn’t seen any insurgents anyway. Two other men and a teen-ager looked at us over the walls, perhaps close enough to report back to insurgents on what was said.
The next evening, I watched the sunset from one of the guard towers with Khan, Vollick, and Abbas, a senior Hazara policeman in his late twenties. When cars rolled by on the paved road next to the tower, Abbas stared the occupants down, his hand on his machine gun.
Khan and Vollick leaned on a parapet and chatted, as one commander to another. Through a translator, Khan argued with Vollick, and even flatly disagreed with him. When Vollick claimed that an area had a weapons cache, Khan spoke with authority, citing a lack of armed Taliban presence. “There’s no weapons cache. If there were, they’d fight for it every day, ” he said. From the way he spoke, it was clear that the Hazaras saw their work as less a matter of policing fellow-citizens than of patrolling enemy territory.
Abbas stayed silent nearby. When Khan and Vollick left for dinner, he told me that he had another four or five months left before his next ten-day leave. He seldom talks to his wife and daughter, because his hundred-dollar monthly salary won’t pay for a calling card. “Afghanistan’s broken,” he said. The weak economy, he told me, had driven him to join the A.N.P. As for relations between Pashtuns and Hazaras, he said, “We like Pashtuns, but the Pashtuns don’t like us. We’d like Persian people and Pashtuns to get along, but they don’t want it.”
Below us, the off-duty policemen were singing songs to the accompaniment of a guitar made from an old camping-fuel can. From the tower, Abbas scanned the road and peered into a thermal imager that showed a night-vision image of the cemetery, from which someone had shot at the base earlier in the day.
In the fading light, he examined a car full of nervous Pashtuns as it drove past. “Taliban?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. Later, two men and a boy walked by harmlessly, and he tapped me on the shoulder. “Those are Taliban. See them?” They wore black-and-white turbans, and may well have been Taliban. Or they could have been just farmers. “Is the boy a Talib?” I asked. “Future Talib,” he said, and raised the binoculars to his eyes. ♦