Military Police Soldiers Maintain Presence in Afghan Community
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Feb. 21, 2005 A call came over the radio in the 58th Military Police Company Operations Center just as Army Staff Sgt. Marc Jones was preparing to head out on a night patrol Feb. 18. Someone had reported an explosion near the perimeter of this coalition base in northeastern Afghanistan, and Jones was told to take his soldiers and investigate.
Jones walked outside the building to where three armored Humvees waited in the dark parking lot, their diesel engines rumbling as they warmed up for the mission. At 7 p.m., the sky was already pitch black. The moon and the stars didn't help much.
"We've got a change of plans," Jones told his soldiers. "An explosion has been reported, and we're going to go check it out before we head out on our patrol."
Jones gathered his squad and briefed them on the mission. Laying out a map on the hood of a Humvee, he and his soldiers determined the best route to their targeted location and agreed on it, making sure they all knew the game plan.
They climbed into their vehicles and started off. Each soldier was alert and focused. Driving over unpaved Afghan roads, the Humvees' headlights lit up the mud and stone walls -- sometimes three feet tall, sometimes 10 feet tall -- that line many of the thoroughfares. The Afghans built them, Jones said, to create be able to trap Russian convoys. On the other side of the walls, most of the fields are peppered with mines.
A building stood nearby looking different than others in the area. It was square and appeared to be made of actual brick, rather than the mud construction found in most dwellings in the area. Jones said the Russians had built the building as a barracks for their troops when they operated from Bagram Air Base. Now Afghans are occupying it, and dim lights were visible through some of the windows.
There is no electrical power grid in the area. Some villages are fortunate enough to have generators that can provide some electrical power. But most people get by with candles and kerosene lamps.
When the patrol arrived at the spot where the explosion was reported, everything was quiet. They checked the area with searchlights. There was no sign of movement or fresh damage, though if a vehicle had just exploded, it would be hard to tell it apart from other hulks of destroyed and disassembled vehicles that are ubiquitous along Afghanistan's roads.
Jones reported back to the operations center over the radio that they were unable to detect anything suspicious or worthy of further investigation. He was told to proceed with his scheduled patrol.
"This is nothing unusual," Jones said. "We get reports of explosions pretty regularly. Usually it's a mine going off. There are lots of mines around here."
The 58th Military Police Company is part of the 25th Infantry Division, which has been one of the main U.S. units operating in Afghanistan. The division deployed to Afghanistan from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
The military police soldiers have been conducting patrols, both during the day and at night, in the area for the past 10 months. Jones estimates that his squad has conducted more than 200 patrols in that timeframe.
The main purpose of the patrols, according to Jones, is to deter enemy activity in the area. "We want to be seen. We want everyone to know that we are here," Jones said.
But the military police presence has had another benefit. It has encouraged the growth of commerce and attracted people to the community.
During the day, the streets in the villages are teeming with vendors and shoppers buying and trading all sorts of goods, ranging from fruits and vegetables to clothes and hardware. Since the coalition drove out the Taliban regime three years ago, a flourishing market economy has sprung up in the area. Jones said he's seen the numbers of shops and shoppers multiply in the time he's been here.
"This place has really developed. There our now houses, schools and shops that did not exist when we first started patrolling," Jones said. "Areas that used to be open land are now villages. From what I've seen, this place is really starting to prosper."
The region's development is not the only change, however. Jones said the relationship between the troops and the local populace has also changed.
"When we first got here, our posture was much more aggressive," Jones said. "We projected an image of force, and we didn't allow the people to get too close. Now, we're more relaxed. We know that these people are glad we're here. We've gotten comments from the villagers, thanking us for patrolling and telling us that they feel safer because of us. They said crime has gone down."
During night patrols, the streets are empty. Virtually all Afghans stay indoors at night. Jones said that if his soldiers see someone running around outside at night, they automatically become suspicious. Though they are in a relatively safe area and the local populace is friendly, Jones said he never allows his soldiers to forget they are in a combat zone and there is a dangerous enemy waiting for them to let their guard down.
"There's always a sense of danger. We can't ever let ourselves become complacent, because that's when something bad will happen," he said. "My job, specifically, is to make sure we complete our mission and to bring all my soldiers back home safe."
After four hours on patrol, the soldiers returned to their headquarters inside the base. Once again, as they have for the past 10 months, Jones and his soldiers accomplished their mission.