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.