When Security Isn’t: Relying on Local Nationals to Watch Your Back

By Jon Harris:

Military contracting is a strange way to make a living. It takes a certain type of person to be successful. You have to be able to leave your home, by choice, for extended periods of time, often for more than a year. You voluntarily go into places where most people in the world would not dare venture. Your living conditions are less than stellar. Depending on where you are, there may be little if any logistical support. Possibly no mail, no phone, food can be, well, iffy, and in my case the showers were only a mile walk away. The one constant is security, or lack of it.

Starting in 2011 and up until the base was being handed over to the Afghan Government, I was assigned to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. FOB Sharana sat on top of a flat plateau at 7300 feet, at the foothills of the Hindu Kush. It looked down on several cross roads and was a hub of cargo flights in and out of the region. Sharana had a short runway and was home to an Apache Attack Helicopter unit, an air cargo hub, and the 1980th Forward Surgical Team, as well as several other much larger units that operated and ran the logistical side of the base. There are always a myriad of organizations on any FOB and the contractors were every bit as much a part of the day-to-day operations as the soldiers.

Sharana had one very unnerving characteristic. No fixed wing aircraft stayed on the base. Everything flew in and immediately back out. The runway was always being rocketed and there was no reason to put a big “X marks the spot” to shoot at with a large aircraft sitting there. With only one runway and a short one at that, a damaged aircraft would shut air support and resupply down, so no one wanted to chance it. Almost everything came in from Bagram, which was about a 40 minute flight away. By the way, FOB Sharana is where Bowe Bergdahl was stationed when he walked away.

My job was running the contract canine unit. This consisted of seven canine handlers and their canine partners. All were counter explosive canines except for mine, a German Shepherd named Jack. I worked narcotics, and not only on Sharana.  I had one of the only counter narcotics canines in the region, and I was often helicoptered to many of the outlying FOBs in the region to do surprise inspections when the commanders thought they might have a drug issue. We almost never found any drugs among the US soldiers and units; it was the civilian workers and the Afghan security teams that tended to be the problem. Needless to say, I was busy.

The US Military at Sharana did not send out patrols on a regular basis. Everything went in and out by air except for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). That was a special unit. They had their own compound within the walls and pretty much took care of themselves. Besides them, I and one other canine handler were the only ones routinely outside the wire. Jack (my dog) and I would go out the gate and search the entrance areas, the local personnel that came in each morning, and all the vehicles. We would go through looking for narcotics destined for the FOB in the several small encampments that sprung up just outside the perimeter. I was told to stay in sight, within the over watch area of the US troops at the gate. I had about a 500-yard limit before I was out of sight, so I stayed close. If things didn’t look right I could retreat back to the FOB in a hurry.

My main protection on these treks was from Afghan security teams who were privately contracted to provide security outside the perimeter. An Afghan security company worked in conjunction with the US soldiers at the checkpoints inside the base. They did not have the run of the FOB though. They had their own compound just inside the walls and close to the main traffic control point where all the vehicles entered the base.

FOB Sharana saw an influx of several hundred trucks and trailers every day. Other than checking the outer areas, my job was to check each and every vehicle once it was directed to the “cooking off” area. Here, my explosive detection dog handlers went to work looking for hidden explosives and IEDs. The idea was if a truck had a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) on it, we would let it “cook” off in the holding area and not inside the FOB proper. The funny thing about being a canine handler is, if you are looking for drugs, you hope to find them, but if you are looking for explosives and booby traps, you really hope you don’t.

(cooking off area)

While the trucks waited, Jack and I would search. We never failed to find some truck with narcotics on it, that was an everyday event. Sometimes I would find something else. It might be a wire going to something that it shouldn’t, or an attachment that just didn’t belong. When that happened, I would call for one of my explosive detection handlers to check the vehicle. I found explosives several times during these searches. Not a comforting feeling but at least we found them before they got inside the FOB where they could do damage.

The main issue we had was security. “Green on blue” shootings were really starting to escalate and none of us trusted the Afghan security. A “green-on-blue” attack is when an Afghan police officer or soldier fires on coalition forces. We had several incidents at the gate with the “security” guards when the US Commander warned me to be very careful not to ever let the Afghan security personnel get behind me. When I went outside the wire, we always kept them out in front where we could watch them as much as our surroundings.

I was lucky enough to have a Navy Master at Arms and fellow canine handler always go with me. The mission called for me to get to the areas outside, and the US Commander always sent him with me. We became inseparable until, sadly, his canine partner became a casualty while we were on FOB Sharana due to a needless accident by the FOB veterinarian. We actually had to restrain him from the veterinarian when they couldn’t save his friend. We were both devastated. A canine handler lives with his dog, and this was like losing a child. Handlers are not much good without their dogs and my friend did not handle the loss of his partner well at all. Soon after this happened the vet was relieved and my friend transferred back to the States. After that I stayed much closer in as there was no one to accompany me as cover when I went outside the confines of the FOB.

One particular day as I arrived at the front gate, I checked in with the US Army Lieutenant in charge of the front gate security to get the day’s briefing. This normally consisted of a summary of what was going on that day, who was expected to show up, and the current threat assessment. This day he told me they did not want me outside the wire. I asked what was up and all he did was point to the walkway I normally searched. On any given day, there would be four to five hundred people lined up to get into the FOB. These were local workers that did everything from cleaning the showers, to running the laundry, to fueling the trucks. The FOB ran on local labor. Today the line had maybe 20 people in it. Even the line of trucks waiting to enter was unusually small. There were only three or four trucks waiting to enter the FOB, when there were normally around 100. Clearly, the local workers had been given the word not to show up.

This was something we knew to look for. A change in the local population’s behavior meant something was going on and it sent red flags off all over the FOB. We were looking to be hit. It didn’t take long to see what was scaring the locals off. A Toyota pickup truck pulled around the few trucks waiting and made its way through the zigzag barriers. These were placed to preclude a straight on run by a vehicle at the gate. The pickup carried five or six men in Afghan military uniform in the back.

As the truck approached the gate, the Sergeant standing behind a series of HESCO barricades stopped it. He directed the driver to get out and approach the gate. The driver either refused or didn’t understand. Although this truck and its occupants had come to the FOB before and were allowed in, this time things were off. One man in the rear of the truck stood up and starting yelling something at the Sergeant. The Sergeant, as well as the rest of the military personnel, started through their procedures of escalation as per the current Rules of Engagement (ROE). The Sergeant instructed the man to sit down, but he refused. Next, he and the rest of the military personnel made sure their weapons were charged. The Afghan man still did not comply. The Sergeant raised his rifle and ordered the truck to leave. Still, no response. It became clear things were not going to go well and everyone inside the perimeter at the gate, I included, got a little smaller behind the barricades.

The Sergeant then directly pointed his rifle at the truck and ordered it to leave. I saw the M240 gunner, positioned on top of the checkpoint building, ready his weapon and take aim on the stopped truck and its occupants. There was a little pause and the Afghan in the back of the truck started to raise the AK 47 he was carrying just as the driver floored the vehicle in reverse. The standing man fell into the back of the truck as it spun around and sped away. The standoff was very short lived.

An investigation determined the truck with the Afghans at the gate belonged to the local security forces but had been reported missing. We all figured this was a practice run for something bigger and they were just testing the response at the gate. The FOB went into lockdown and nothing came in or out for the rest of the day. No rounds were fired, but one of my explosive detection canine handlers did find an IED that evening placed at one of the pedestrian gates, and a couple of rockets did impact inside the FOB later that day. We also got word that a sister FOB, Salerno, had been attacked with a VBIED at the front gate, destroying entrance to the FOB and injuring two dog handlers that were preparing to check the vehicle over. It was later determined that the Afghan security personnel working there assisted in that attack against our people.

Since there was nothing for me to search that day as the FOB was locked down, the US Commander setup a surprise inspection of the Afghan guard compound. I was tasked to search the buildings and area for narcotics being smuggled in by the guard force. They were supposed to be stopping the drugs from coming in, but they actually were the biggest facilitators of the illicit drug trade on the FOB. In that one search over a couple of hours, Jack and I found over 40 bundles of hashish and opium, as well as several pounds of marijuana. Narcotics were hidden in almost every building; inside light switches, under floorboards, in beds, hidden under rocks, and just about everywhere else. To say the least, Jack and I were not the most welcomed visitors in that compound after that.

While this was going on and the Afghan guards were focused on what I was doing, the US personnel went through their rosters to verify who was and who was not supposed to be there. Three unauthorized Afghans were discovered in the compound. The Afghan guard force commander said he had no idea they were there, but no one believed him. The inspection resulted in the FOB Commander having the Afghan security company fired and removed from the base. The security contract was renegotiated, and awarded to another, supposedly trusted, local company.

Day to day security and the “green on blue” situation became a major factor in operations after that. In 2012, the rate of coalition casualties due to “green on blue” attacks was 19%. By 2015, that percentage had risen to 80%. As said in the opening of this article, security is not always security, especially when you are more likely to be attacked by the very ones that are watching your back.

Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.

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