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Embed update: Hard choices with armed contractors

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on March 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
March 31, 2012 10:58 am

SURRY, AFGHANISTAN – It’s confusing out there.

Today we accompanied a Joint Base Lewis-McChord infantry platoon as it tried to make sense of several Afghan security contractors who were carrying illegal weapons and executing independent patrols in such a way that they looked suspicious to American forces here.

The Afghan security guards – ASGs for short – used to be hired to protect supply convoys that in some cases supported NATO bases. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for a ban on security contractors, and the American troops believed that included the ones outside Forward Operating Base Wolverine today.

They first caught the attention of soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division today when three of them went walking with the weapons and paused to fire off rounds.

Those shots led to a debate about whether the Afghans were hostile, and commanders couldn’t answer that question from their live video feed.

Later, a platoon from the 3rd Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment spotted three more ASGs parked on a hill with a launcher for rocket propelled grenades and two AK-47s. The AK-47s were kosher under Afghan law, but the RPG launcher was not.

One of the three Afghans appeared suspicious to the Americans. The soldiers believed he tore up his identification card shortly before the 5-20 patrol approached, and he didn’t know the names of his two coworkers. He denied the ID was his, but soldiers believed he looked like the person in the damaged ID card that was found near the parked SUV. He said he had been in Paktika Province two days earlier. That’s a violent area that also concerned the American soldiers.

Meanwhile, Afghan army soldiers who joined the patrol vouched for the two other ASGs, and the Afghan soldiers wanted the Americans to let the contractors keep the RPG launcher and its four rounds.

“They have enemies,” an Afghan staff sergeant told 5-20 Lt. Jeremy Wisniewski. “If the Taliban come, they will shoot at the (the security guards). They are not bad guys.”

It was up to the Afghan soldiers to determine whether the contractors should be detained. The Afghan soldiers declined, and the situation resolved itself with the Americans holding on to the RPG launcher, its rounds and the IDs from the ASGs. They can pick them up tomorrow if they have the right paperwork.

Later, the patrol visited a headquarters camp for the security contractors and told the Afghans that carrying the illegal weapons could endanger their lives if soldiers – Afghan or American – interpret the shots as threats. Moreover, the contractors are supposed to stick with their convoys, not set up their own checkpoints, even if they have contracts to work in the area.

***

The 5-20 soldiers here have been safe and busy lately. The belong to the battalion’s B Company. The battalion’s other soldiers are in Kandahar Province and taking more enemy contact than the soldiers here in Zabul.

The ones in Zabul have been helping their fellow infantrymen in Kandahar by disrupting the Taliban’s supply network here in the mountains. They detained a spotter this week, and responded to a couple threats for improvised bombs.

They caught the spotter by sprinting outside the wire at Forward Operating Base Wolverine, a run at about 6,000 feet elevation while wearing full battle gear. They’d already been outside the base twice on patrols that day.

“I’m not going to lie, I was smoked” after the sprint, said Spc. Kyle Poteat, 24, who lives at Lewis-McChord when he’s home.

We’re going to take a couple days to put together a better story on the guys here. In the meantime, check out Peter Haley’s photos from today’s patrol.

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