Owen Matthews

Bagged by the USA

Owen Matthews goes on patrol with American soldiers in Afghanistan’s ‘Indian Country’ and sees them capture and interrogate suspects

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Owen Matthews goes on patrol with American soldiers in Afghanistan’s ‘Indian Country’ and sees them capture and interrogate suspects

It was one of those wonderfully luminous Afghan days, the spring sky a vibrant baby-blue, the heat of the day cut by a breeze which blew though fields of poppies and winter barley. We were on the edge of the Khost highlands, where the fertile Khost plain starts to rise into the mountains of the Pakistani border — also known, not so affectionately, by the soldiers of Task Force One of the US army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment as ‘Indian Country’. Band-i-Khel, the small village we had surrounded with our armoured cars and Humvees seemed deserted. The only sound was an occasional crash from inside a mud-brick compound which a platoon of soldiers was methodically ransacking. Under a shade-tree in the compound’s courtyard, four college-educated Westerners, all perfectly civilised, rational and humane men, stood debating the fate of four prisoners. The captives sat on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs with plastic bands and their heads covered with grey plastic sacks. ‘So we’re going to PUC these guys, right, sir?’ a sergeant asked Lt Daniel Mainor — a PUC being a Person Under Control, also used as a verb, as in ‘PUC the fucker’. Mainor was an affable black man from Georgia who’d worked his way through the ranks to a commission. That afternoon his easy manner was fraying.

‘I’m absolutely fed up with everyone lying to me. I wanna talk to this guy some more. He’s not getting it. He’s not talking. He’s smiling. I want this guy in a stress position. Hey, Bill, tell the guy that if he wants to tell the truth he’s gonna have a good day. If he doesn’t, he’s gonna have a really bad day. OK?’

‘Bill’ was the platoon’s brand-new Afghan ‘terp’ — interpreter — a skinny 21-year-old student from Kabul. He wore big dark glasses, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a tracksuit and flip-flops. This was his first mission, and he gulped a lot from nervousness. He also barely spoke English, but he was trying hard. ‘Um, exactly he is saying that he does not know anything, sir,’ was Bill’s usual translation of long monologues by the prisoners. Undoubtedly, the men sitting on the ground had some explaining to do. Item — when the US patrol arrived in the village, a young girl was seen to run from the compound into the fields, carrying a large FM antenna in an apparent attempt to hide it. Item — during the subsequent search of an outhouse, deep in a chest full of old shoes, clothes and assorted rubbish, soldiers found a plastic bag full of brass blasting caps, a length of black cord, presumed to be detonation cord, a rusty steel grenade case, an old Soviet manual on mines, one Afghan and two Pakistani passports, all with the same photo but different names. In the thatch of the main house they discovered a dozen quick-loading clips of AK-47 ammo. The incriminating evidence had been neatly laid out in the centre of the courtyard. After three hours of systematic interrogation of the men of the house, through the inept medium of Bill the terp, confusion reigned.

We had just heard over the radio that Malik Khan — the prisoner whose face appeared in the passport photos — was the namesake of a ‘mid-level Taleban commander’ wanted by the authorities. Then the story changed — not a namesake, but a relative of a dangerous man named Khan. ‘Khan’ is a common Afghan honorific. ‘Malik’ means ‘landowner’.

The sun began to sag towards the horizon. Four enlisted men took the prisoner who ‘didn’t get it’ and made him kneel upright facing a wall, poking him in the back if he tried to relax his position. Another of the men, a cowherd who had been arrested while he was passing by, began wailing that his cows would run away if he didn’t get back to them.

‘OK, OK,’ said Mainor, rolling his eyes. The cowherd and two sweating US soldiers trotted into the fields and began chasing cattle in the far distance. The remaining PUCs began to doze, swaying, on their knees. Large luggage labels were written out that summarised the circumstances of their detention in five terse lines, and were tied round their necks. They now looked like unusually benighted Paddington Bears.

I sat not two yards from the prisoners, chatting and laughing with the guards, and quickly forgot their presence as we swapped cigarettes and dirty jokes. When you put a bag on a man’s head, he becomes an object. Instead of a face to read, you have a label. It makes it easier to believe that he is one of the elusive insurgents who took regular pot shots at the men of the 501st and built roadside bombs. Flies buzzed. A gaggle of women came out of the house, clutching kohl-eyed snotty children, to sit under the trees 20 yards from their menfolk. Suspicion began to brew among the soldiers as we awaited radio instructions from Khost. A bicycle generator was discovered — ‘Perfect for setting off a bomb’. An album full of old photographs of bearded men — ‘Bad guy pictures’. Someone tried to light a bit of the ‘det cord’ — it turned out to be just electric cable in the end — but it just fizzled. ‘Must be old or something.’ ‘The older guy is very calm, that’s a big indicator,’ mused Mainor, squatting on his haunches. ‘Veeery cool. All compounds we search have weapons — but not this one. Suspicious.’

Some of the soldiers waxed philosophical in the afternoon heat. ‘I have a lot of respect for these people, y’know?’ drawled one sergeant, chewing a plug of tobacco. ‘That’s why I don’t treat ’em like shit, like some of the guys round here. I wouldn’t put up with this, some foreigners bustin’ into my house telling me what to do. I’d go out like Scarface, man, I wouldn’t go out like no bitch.’ ‘You know, I hate doing this stuff,’ said Sergeant Scott Self, a 16-year veteran whose wife would send packets of pens which her husband liked to give out to Afghan children. ‘We’re here to make a difference. When I see the smiles on those kids’ faces when we’ve given ’em stuff, I know it’s all worth it.’

Two Humvees pulled up just as the soldiers were done turning over the neighbours’ houses, for good measure. Two captains from Civil Affairs emerged, with a couple of level-one terps — a charming middle-aged, well-educated Afghan émigré couple from Pennsylvania. The whole rigmarole of interrogations began again. Doubts emerged. The passports? Dealers in Peshawar routinely sell UAE work visas from a list of random names they’ve submitted speculatively, and thousands of Afghans buy the visa and passport as a package in order to work as labourers. The antenna? The women said they’d scavenged it as scrap from an old army camp, and there was no radio to go with it. The girl had just panicked and tried to hide it. The blasting caps? The kids had found them in an old mujahedin cave nearby and hoped to sell them. The ammo? Everyone has ammo in rural Afghanistan.

After an hour, the new terps, both card-carrying Republicans and certainly no friends of al-Qa’eda, were convinced that these people were innocent. The Civil Affairs officers were also sceptical that they were anything but ignorant, frightened peasants. For a moment they wavered over letting them go, but dropped the idea. My inference: it would be too demoralising to release the suspects in front of the infantry unit who’d put so much effort into capturing, bagging and labelling them. The buck would be passed to the interrogators at Camp Salerno in Khost or Baghram airbase outsid e Kabul, where fresh allegations of the abuse of prisoners have recently emerged.

Me? I don’t know whether those PUCs were guilty of anything. But I do agree with Captain Jeffrey Roberts — ‘We’re infantrymen, we’re here to fight, we’re not policemen.’ The fighting soldiers of the 501st are certainly terribly good at soldiering. But they’re not so good at playing detective.

Owen Matthews is Newsweek’s correspondent in Istanbul.