03.23.10

Afghanistan's Troop Killers

For years, a core part of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been training new police officers. But then some trainees started brutally killing Americans. Jessica Stone talks to American soldiers whose friends turned against them.

On October 2, 2009 in Andar, a dusty village overlooking one of the most dangerous roads in Eastern Afghanistan, Captain Tyler Kurth, 26, assembled his men and about 10 Afghan National Police officers. The group had spent three days cordoning off Andar and searching every single home, looking for those involved in planting dozens of roadside bombs which were injuring and killing American soldiers. Kurth had asked the villagers to help stop the Taliban bombings and was preparing to hand out food and blankets to civilians in a gesture of good faith.

Little did the men know that the worst danger would come not from the roadway or the village, but from within their own ranks. Later that day, one of their own—an Afghan National Police Officer—would turn on the American men who had taught him to shoot, patrol, and investigate crimes, killing two soldiers and severely injuring three others.

Months after the Andar incident, Delta Company’s commander still struggles with anger and confusion. “He had no reason for it,” Kurth said of the Afghan trainee who killed his men. “It’s one thing to engage someone in combat, but to be a traitor and to shoot someone in the back. There’s a special place in hell for him.”

Click below to see exclusive video interviews with American soldiers whose Afghan trainee turned against them in a violent attack

The same betrayal of American and coalition troops by their Afghan allies has played out all over Afghanistan, totaling at least six reported cases of fratricide. The most prominent occurred in Helmand Province in November, when an Afghan Police officer killed five British soldiers. No one in the military tracks these incidents, despite the fact that the entire strategy in Afghanistan is to recruit and train a homegrown army and police force that will provide stability in cooperation with the United States, allowing American troops to leave the country by President Barack Obama’s target date of 2011.

The attack on Delta Company took place around 2 p.m. Five soldiers, including Kurth, Staff Sergeant Christian Hughes, 23, and Specialist Sean Beaver, 20, were sitting in the courtyard of an abandoned mud compound, eating lunch. They had taken their body armor off to escape the oppressive mid-day heat. A few soldiers stood guard while the rest took a moment to relax. Kurth remembers chatting with one of his soldiers. A moment later, he heard shouting and screaming.

“As I turned to look, I see this particular Afghan Police officer with his AK-47 at his hip, and he’s firing away in a sweeping motion,” he recalled. “And it dawns on me very quickly that he’s not shooting past them. He’s shooting at them.”

Kurth took a step forward out of the building, fumbling for his handgun. An Afghan police officer nicknamed “Crazy Joe” met him at the door—firing.

Crazy Joe was a tall, skinny man in his mid thirties. He was one of the group’s best officers, but his eccentric eyewear made him stand out. “He always wore very big, black goggles,” Kurth said. “You couldn’t see his eyes through them.”

Crazy Joe was the last person, Hughes said later, whose loyalty he’d ever question.

Kurth remembered, “He was shooting me, and [I saw] his little smirk on his face when he was doing it.” Kurth was hit several times in the chest and leg. Meanwhile, Hughes got up, noting the accuracy of the fire. The dirt kicked up around him as a mist of blood filled the air. His mind warily connected the dots. The Afghan police officer he’d spent months eating, sleeping, and patrolling beside was shooting at him and his men. A moment later, Hughes, too, was hit.

“I remember my legs just being on fire,” Hughes said. “I could see white, blood, and muscle.”

With his right leg now blown to pieces, Hughes rolled over a wall. Another Afghan police officer used a towel as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Beaver, meanwhile, had gotten up to grab his weapon after hearing the shots. He was hit five times, collapsing his lungs and sending him quickly to the ground, breathless.

Kurth grabbed Beaver, pulling him out of the line of fire, then turned to see Sgt. Aaron Smith, 25, and Pfc. Brandon Owens, 21, both severely wounded. Smith had been hit in the neck and upper chest and was begging for help. Owens was slumped against the wall, already dead. Moments later, Kurth found Hughes on the other side of a wall, screaming. As the medics came to administer aid, Kurth grabbed a radio and ordered a MedEvac helicopter.

It was only then that Kurth discovered his own injuries. As he went into shock, he watched Smith slip away. “I was right next to him, and I watched him die,” he recalled, breaking down, “He was a good friend of mine.”

“I never got to say goodbye to them,” Kurth continued, his voice cracking. “It’s just so hard, so hard to….to lose a soldier under your watch. I mean. I feel responsible.” Smith was just 10 days away from taking leave. His mother says he had planned to get a new tattoo and take a trip to Ireland with her. Instead, that’s where she spread his ashes.

“He was a sweet boy,” Ann Jones said of her son. “He had a very soft heart.”

The whole experience still leaves Kurth shaken. Both Kurth and Hughes suspect that Crazy Joe was turned by the Taliban, either by threats to his family or a sizeable bribe. This winter, the US Government raised the pay for Afghan police, trying to bring it closer to the amount the Taliban offers—a reported $250 to $300 per month, but figures vary from province to province.

The overall goal is to nearly double the number of Afghan soldiers, and to add 40,000 Afghan police by October 2011. But nearly half of the country’s population is under 14-years old, leaving every military and law enforcement recruiter to compete for a finite number of fighting age men. The bottom line is that the insurgency is recruiting from that same pool. And often, they pay better.

Crazy Joe has still not been found. Kurth and Hughes believe he was given shelter by the Taliban. Asked if he would ever work with the Afghan security forces gain, Kurth is adamant: “Nope. Never again. I don’t want a platoon leader to ever have to feel what I do.”

Hughes is a little more guarded.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It would definitely be hard, but if I’m still in the military and that’s what I’m called to do, then yes, I would.”

Jessica Stone is a freelance multimedia reporter based in Washington, D.C. She focuses on national politics as well as covering conflicts and disasters around the world.