The Afghan Girls I Couldn’t Save
We used to joke about the marijuana garden at the police station, right in front of the counter-narcotics office. We traded theories about how the Afghan police were stealing diesel fuel. We complained about the headache-inducing heat in Jalalabad in August. We weighed the chances that John Cena, the professional wrestler, would run for president of Afghanistan. (Unlikely.) We talked about how to deal with the puddles of feces that bubbled up in the grass from a dozen different septic tanks around the station. And we shook our heads every time the Afghans crashed one of their green Ford Ranger police trucks, which they did with stunning regularity.
But after the Afghan police allowed an old man to take his teenage wife home—we presumed to kill her—we never talked about that.
In May 2009 I caught a helicopter ride to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, where I’d been deployed to mentor the local Afghan National Police force. The U.S. and NATO militaries had started to revamp the police in 2005, but they’d made little progress by the time I arrived.
I slept in a room at Site Two, a DynCorp contractor base in Jalalabad that was filled with American police trainers and only a handful of military personnel. My police mentor team consisted of three Americans—our team leader Lieutenant Colonel Foor, Sergeant Stevens, and me—and our respective Afghan interpreters. Mine was a guy named Samad.
We advised and mentored the force at Nangarhar’s police headquarters, which resided in a cluster of buildings across the street from Site Two. My main objective was to build relationships with the officers, whom we referred to as “our Afghans.” Most days I oversaw one of the Afghans who pumped diesel fuel, or met with the officer who supervised logistics for Nangarhar province, or sat with Amir Khan, the Afghan second-in-command.
We’d correct them when they acted in ridiculous ways. I entered the police compound one day to find one of General Mohammad Salangi’s bodyguards twirling a loaded AK-47 around his index finger, which he’d inserted in the rifle’s trigger well. He must have had a deathwish.
Sometimes the police arrested people who broke the law. But more often, they arrested people for cultural reasons that I didn’t—and still can’t—understand.
In Jalalabad, no one explicitly told me to prevent the officers from torturing prisoners, but we checked periodically. Within the police compound, there was a small jail that usually stood empty, and a few times a week we’d drop in to talk with the jailer and the prisoners.
I never witnessed police beatings, but I did see their aftermath. One day in July 2009, six Pakistani fighters arrived at the jail, and from their bruised and swollen faces it was obvious they’d been abused. I asked the nearest Afghan cop what had happened.
“He fell down a flight of stairs.”
“And that other guy?” I asked.
“He fell out of the truck and hit his head.”
I made a disgusted expression, but I doubt the police officer understood why.
Terrible as the treatment of male prisoners could be, imprisonment and its repercussions could be far worse for females.
In August, a young woman arrived in our jail. The police told me she was 18. Someone had noticed the girl at the local hospital and complained that she was speaking to a man who was not her relative. And so my Afghans arrested her.
My team leader, Colonel Foor, heard first that a girl had been jailed. Normally, he was the most laid back Army officer I knew. He liked to sleep late. He didn’t worry about salutes. He challenged us to play ping pong. But on that day, Foor was agitated, and I was slow to understand why.
He sent me to talk with the jailer first. For 15 minutes I tried to get the Afghan officer to release her, but he made one excuse after another.
A text message from me later, Foor stormed into the jailer’s office in a rage with his interpreter, Wais, running after him. Foor strode up to the seated jailer and pounded his fist on the guy’s desk. He loomed over the Afghan officer, yelling in his face to set the girl free. Wais repeated his theatrics, pounding his own fist on the desk and shouting Foor’s message in Pashtu at the Afghan police officer.
I was as surprised as the jailer, who shrank down in his seat. None of us had ever seen Foor act this way. I don’t remember Foor’s exact words, but they were something like, “Goddamnit! I want this girl released from the fucking jail right fucking now!”—Slams fist on table.—“Right fucking now!” The jailer tried to speak, but Foor and Wais pounded their fists and shouted again.
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When the jailer finally gave in, we hustled him down the stairs to the bank of holding cells, and he unlocked the girl’s cell. Foor rushed the girl outside and into the arms of her disbelieving parents. They were still hugging as we pushed them toward the street, urging them to flee.
“Get in a taxi and get out of here,” Foor told them.
Foor recognized right away that the girl would have been raped if she’d stayed in her cell overnight.
I felt good for a few minutes after we busted her out of jail. We rarely achieved anything positive in Jalalabad, so helping this one family on this one day felt to me like a small victory.
A month later, it happened again. My police arrested another young woman. This girl, like the first one, was about 18 years old. I checked on her in the jail cell, and she looked OK. We briefly made eye contact through the iron bars. I don’t remember what she looked like, just that her bright white eyes stood out from the cell’s shadows. We didn’t speak.
I turned to the nearest Afghan policeman and asked him why she’d been arrested. He told me the girl had run away from her 75-year-old husband, and that she’d tried to elope with a man in his twenties. The young couple had been detained.
Not far away, on the grass in front of the jail, sat a dozen villagers and friends of her elderly husband. They were mostly old men wearing turbans and long hennaed beards. They were waiting.
As I had a month before, I climbed the stairs to the jailer’s office. It was already full of people. Samad and I grabbed two empty chairs on the left side of the room. The girl’s elderly husband—deaf, blind, and barely able to walk—sat across from me, and his middle-aged son sat next to him. The jailer sat behind his desk to my left, and a handful of ANP and villagers were spread in a circle around the room. I was the only American.
Samad and I listened as the old man’s family talked. The old man’s son spoke the most. They wanted to take back the girl.
“What will happen to this girl?” I asked.
“We will take her home to live in her husband’s house,” said the son.
“You are not angry with her?”
“No, we only want to take her home,” he replied.
The police and the family kept talking, but about what, I can’t remember. We kept on listening, and I noticed Samad looked uneasy. Normally very expressive and easy going, Samad was cold and serious. The old man’s son had said something that got Samad’s attention.
Samad leaned close to me.
“Sir, do not believe them,” he whispered. “They are going to kill the girl.”
“What can we do?” I asked.
“Sir, there is nothing you can do.”
I sat there silently for a couple of minutes. Foor must have known we couldn’t fix this. Maybe that’s why he didn’t come yelling and screaming. This girl’s parents weren’t coming to the rescue. And with half a village sitting there in the grass in front of the jail, there was no way we could sneak her out.
I left the jailer’s office and didn’t go back for days.
We never spoke about her. It was easier that way. As long as I didn’t think about her, I didn’t feel sad or angry or get a sick feeling in my stomach. If I didn’t think about the bearded old man or the turbaned villagers sitting on the grass outside the jail, then I could keep pretending the Afghans were decent people, that I was helping them, and that our mission made a difference.
The reality, I think, is that I made no difference at all. They were never going to understand American-style policing. As long as the Afghans thought it was OK to treat women like property, like killing a woman was equivalent to killing a goat, then they were never going to understand higher-level concepts like voting, or free speech, or feminism. Shit, getting them to stop twirling their AK-47’s was hard enough.
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That day cemented the feeling deep down in my gut: There was no fixing Afghanistan. Our mission there had been pointless.