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Instant justice, Afghan-army style, fails to win over locals

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
updated 10:46 AM EDT, Mon April 16, 2012
  • American soldiers plan air assault into Afghan area where the Taliban is basically law
  • U.S. forces will likely not do many more of these as drawdown of Allied forces gathers pace
  • Mission fails to find two men targeted; mood seems relaxed, says CNN's Paton Walsh
  • Village is not a place where NATO has power, or Afghanistan's government even exists

Qadem Khel, Ghazni province, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The day begins with a count of the necessities for a joint operation with Afghan troops -- among them 85 halal MREs (Meals Ready To Eat). Around the tactical headquarters, soldiers of the 172nd Infantry get a taste of home before setting off into the wilder fringes of lawless Ghazni province.

There's baseball televised from Fenway Park, replete with a rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by Rose Newton, aged 11. One lieutenant has his mortgage approved by email; another exclaims how he just can't wait to go home.

This is FOB "4 Corners." And tonight these soldiers plan an air assault into an area called Qadem Khel, where the Taliban is basically the law. Neither this unit, nor other U.S. forces, will get to do many more of these as the drawdown of Allied forces gathers pace.

Adding an air of anticipation to the mission, the men at 4 Corners believe two of the men they most want to take off the battlefield are in the area. They have a photo of one of them, with and without a heavy mop of hair. The helicopters arrive and, with the assistance of night vision for the Americans and some careful footwork by their Afghan colleagues, they climb aboard.

The helicopters touch down in a huge expanse of desert. The troops huddle in the coldest moment before the dawn, and then begin their approach.

Gary Berntsen on Afghan security forces
Insurgents create havoc in Afghanistan

The mantra now is "Afghan-led," part of NATO's bid to make this an Afghan-only war. The Afghan soldiers are mostly from the north or northeast of Afghanistan and to many locals they are strangers almost as foreign as the Americans. They lead the way, set the tempo. And, for a mission that many of the Americans thought might have been one for special forces, that tempo is pretty relaxed.

In large numbers, in daylight, they amble into town. They're allowed into most homes; would you say "no" when four dozen armed men arrive at your door? When they meet a locked door, the Afghans seem to turn away, particularly when a pocket knife can't prise the lock.

It is remarkable to watch, and their casual attitude is contagious to the Americans, who are soon also ambling, in between the occasional grimace at how this operation is being led. Soon it becomes clear that their prey has probably fled unless they're remarkably lazy.

Sergeant Richard Snader admits that "once they hear the birds they probably leave immediately."

But still they carry on, house to house, the first contact this village has had with the Afghan government in over six months. At times, it has an almost random feeling. Two boys are caught riding banned motorbikes. One Afghan soldier considers shooting the bike's fuel tank as a punishment, but decides that's probably too dangerous even for him. So the soldiers let the tires down, and then the more sheepish biker is given a couple of heavy slaps around the head. Instant justice, Afghan-army style. Far from western jurisprudence, but in rural Afghanistan, this is often what passes as the law.

As they pass through the village, locals seem bemused, friendly. As though visited by aliens, rather than caught in a war. This is not a place where NATO has power, or Afghanistan's government even exists. Captain Chris Barlow says he's been told by locals that when the Taliban lay booby traps for NATO, they issue a warning to villagers over the mosque loudspeakers. This is their form of law. Barlow, with eight weeks left in his tour, accepts it's likely American forces won't return to Qadam Khel soon.

Eventually, the insurgency makes an appearance. The Americans are searching a house where weapons had been found previously when shots are fired. There is confusion and the Afghan army seem to relish the fight ahead. U.S. airpower arrives quickly, with one of the heavily armed A10 warplanes buzzing the likely insurgent position. But after 20 minutes, it's clear children and women are near the insurgent firing position. The Americans dispense with any idea of an assault.

They head back into the village, and at dark move again -- across wide open fields to the landing zone. A whirr of Chinook blades and a cloud of dust later, the Americans are gone, perhaps for the last time.

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