Under the Radar

How to Fight Insurgents in Afghanistan: 'Hammerhead Six'

Captain Ronald Fry's new book Hammerhead Six tells the story of a team of Green Berets who conducted a successful 2003 mission in Afghanistan's notorious Pech Valley. Led by Captain Fry, Hammerhead Six applied the principles of unconventional warfare to "win hearts and minds" and fight against the terrorist insurgency. Here, where the line between civilians and armed zealots was indistinct, they illustrated the Afghan proverb: "I destroy my enemy by making him my friend." Fry recounts how they were seen as welcome guests rather than invaders. Soon after their deployment ended, the Pech Valley reverted to turmoil. Their success was never replicated.

In this excerpt from the book, Capt. Fry tells the story of how he dealt with Omar, an Afghan with a large cache of Soviet-era weapons stashed on his property.

hammerheadsix-pb-1 13 The Prisoner In a polity, each citizen is to possess his own arms, which are not supplied or owned by the state.

—Aristotle’s view, according to legal scholar Stephen P. Halbrook

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

—Isaiah 2:4

When the Soviets were run out of Afghanistan in 1989, they left behind a shattered national reputation, nearly fifteen thousand of their own dead, and untold amounts of mortars, RPGs, rifles, and other ordnance that had been captured by the victorious mujahideen. Most of these weapons eventually found their way into the hands of warlords or local headmen, who in bad times used them to settle disputes and in quieter periods kept them out of sight. By the time the United States entered Afghanistan over a decade later, there probably wasn’t a village or farm anywhere in the country without a cache of these arms locked in a room or buried somewhere on the property. Because they could easily be sold, traded, or given to insurgents—sometimes under duress, sometimes not—   they constituted a threat to our troops. Part of our job was to contact the owners of arms in the territory we controlled and confiscate or buy back as many as possible.

Locating the owners meant relying on informants, and as we had already discovered, their on-the-ground intelligence didn’t always have a high degree of accuracy. For every Afghan who was honestly trying to help us disarm the Taliban, another one wanted to curry our favor by ratting out a neighbor, and a third wanted to enlist us as a surrogate in a feud. We had learned that lesson the hard way in Shamir Kowt. The takeaway from that experience was, as Scott put it, “You can’t assess intel unless you know who’s bringing it to you— and why he wants you to know it.” We got better at finding that out as we went along.

In January 2004, when we had been at the “A” Camp for six weeks, we received information that a community leader named Omar had a cache of arms at his compound in Walo Tangi, a village about three miles up the Waygal Valley. Reliable or not, it wasn’t news we could afford to ignore. On the morning of January 16, we loaded up two truckloads of Afghan soldiers, along with the ODA and our interpreter Mashal, and took a dirt road north. The drive to Walo Tangi took ten minutes.

We had passed this village on routine patrols, but had never turned into it before, so we got our share of puzzled stares when we pulled into the central square, parked our trucks, located Omar’s compound, and surrounded it.

On a raid such as this, to minimize the risk to yourself and to bystanders, things must happen quickly and by the book. The first order of business is to seal off the objective—in this case, the compound—so I sent Jimi and Ben to cover the back entrance, had Randy and Junior guard the front, and led the rest of us inside to begin the clearing process. Most Pashtun compounds are composed of an outer wall, a large inner courtyard, and a series of rooms built around the courtyard. Clearing a compound means scouring each room to ensure that no one is waiting in ambush. You’ve got to do this before you start the weapons search, because it won’t do you any good recovering an arms cache if you’ve just taken a round in the head from some guy in a closet.

To clear the area, I first had the women and children taken to a safe corner of the compound. Then we started systematically trying all the doors. Some of them opened easily, and some we had to kick in. Omar was well-heeled by village standards, but it wasn’t a massive compound, so the clearing process took less than five minutes.

We didn’t meet any trouble, although we did have a brief moment of concern when one of the doors didn’t budge. I gave it one, then another, good kick but nothing happened. I was starting to imagine a turbaned terrorist barricading himself in on the other side when, on the third try, I heard a deep, lowing sound. The door swung in three or four inches, and I peered in to see the large moist eye of a cow looking back at me. Laughs all around. I’ve had worse surprises.

We had cleared the compound without encountering resistance, and without having to resort to the “blowing off the doors” technique that Hollywood often portrays as standard practice. In fact, in the time that we spent in Afghanistan, unless we were convinced that there were combatants on the other side, even kicking in doors was an unusual procedure. Normal procedure was to try the handle or to knock and ask to be let in. By the time our stint in-country wound down, our cache recovery expeditions tended to be wary but peaceful affairs that began with “Good morning, sir” and ended with tea.

With the compound cleared, the next task was to find the weapons, which meant getting their owner to show us where they were hidden. I had Omar brought to me and we began the little dance of hide-and-seek that, we had already discovered, was a universally popular game in this part of the world. With Mashal interpreting, I offered my opening gambit. “We know that you have weapons hidden on your property. We need to know what weapons you have and where they are.”

Very commanding, I thought. But I was also thinking, somewhere in the back of my mind, what I might say to a federal ATF agent who came to my house and asked me to show him my guns. I would probably lie through my teeth. That was exactly what Omar did. With a look of indignation, he spoke rapidly to Mashal. Mashal turned to me.

“He says that he is a friend to the Americans. He does not have any weapons. He is not hiding any weapons. He would like to offer you tea.”

I bet he would. “Tell him,” I said, “that he must not lie to me. We know that he has weapons from the Russians. He needs to show us where they are. We would like him to cooperate with us.”

As Mashal translated, I could see Omar’s indignation rising. He shook his head vehemently, with a look of feigned outrage. He put one hand on his chest and stared straight at me. I watched his eyes and listened to Mashal’s voice.

“He swears he does not have any weapons here. If someone told you that, that person is lying. He is a weak old man and if someone told you that he has weapons, he is trying to trick you.”

Omar was a daring liar, I’d give him that, and the “weak old man” bit was a nice touch. He was tall, burly, and well fed even by American standards, let alone Afghan ones. And he didn’t look more than fifty.

“We are going to search your property, sir,” I said. “And we will find the weapons. If you help us we will pay you for the weapons, but if you don’t help us and we find them, no payment. And we will have to take you back to our camp. And then you will go to Bagram.”

I thought that the threat of Bagram—the main U.S. detention site in Afghanistan—might loosen him up. Afghans who were sent there often remained in processing for months, and those believed to be dangerous could be sent on to Guantanamo. No Afghan wanted to go to Bagram. But Omar was insistent. He had no weapons.

As part of a security force we had a young Marine with a metal detector. I called him over and showed Omar the device. It was the same type of rig that beachcombers use to locate sunbathers’ lost change. But painted olive drab and sporting a beeping red light, it looked impressively official. In the Marine’s hands it looked like a Star Wars secret weapon.

“This device,” I said, “can find metal. Anything made of metal, no matter where it’s hidden. Even if it’s buried. This man will go around your property and he will find anything on it that is made of metal. If he finds any rifles or rockets or ammunition—if he finds any weapons that you haven’t told us about—I must take the weapons and send you to Bagram. Do you understand?”

What Bagram had not done on its own, the combination of Bagram and American technology had accomplished. As he realized that the game was up, he started to let down his guard and he pointed, somewhat sheepishly, to the door of a room.

“There are a couple of rockets in there that my cousin asked me to hold for him. They are not mine, they are my cousin’s.”

We opened the door into a child’s room. In one corner stood a crib. Under the crib was a rug, and under the rug the earthen floor had been disturbed. Omar motioned to the spot and we began digging. We quickly uncovered not “a couple” of rockets but about thirty of them, plus several dozen machine gun rounds.

“Let’s check the rest of the area,” I said to the Marine. With Omar in tow, we went outside and started plying the metal detector around his property. Much of this was covered by a poppy field, laying fallow in the January gray. When the Marine swept the field, the detector let out so many frantic beeps that for a moment you might have thought you were in a video game arcade. With some local people recruited to help with the digging, we unearthed an assortment of rockets, RPGs, RPG boosters, and machine gun rounds—a major cache, buried beneath the poppy rows.

Omar’s expression went from nervous to resigned to penitent, as he realized we had caught him in false denials. But then, as the Marine approached a corner of the field and the detector began registering another find, Omar became animated. He started talking excitedly, indignant again.

“What’s he saying?” I asked Mashal.

“He says that’s not his. That one there, not his. Somebody else buried those rockets on his land.”

Hilarious. Either Omar was a true liar’s liar—someone with a deep need to deny the obvious—or he had been the victim of a cosmic irony. Either way, seeing him proclaim his innocence while he was standing in that poppy field turned ammo dump offered an even funnier moment than the terrorist cow.

The streets of Walo Tangi were too narrow to admit our trucks, so once the metal detector stopped beeping, I had the team form a fireman’s brigade to transport the weapons to the square where we had parked. It was a mixed crowd, composed of our guys, the tough-looking Afghan soldiers, and about ten local kids pitching in on what must have seemed to them like a grown-up game. This went OK for a few minutes until one six-year-old took a mortar shell from Dave, who was to his left, turned right to pass it o n—and saw it slip, business end down, out of his hands.

There was no fuse to the shell, but it was old Russian ordnance that had been buried for years. I wouldn’t have bet my life on it being stable. The time it took to get from the kid’s hand to the ground might have been the longest half second of my life, and the harmless clunk it made was an angelic sound. I don’t recall giving an order, but as if on cue Dave and every other SF guy there thanked the kids, gave them some candy, and closed up the gaps in the line with Afghan adults.

The cache recovery had been successful. Now, what to do with Omar?

In 2003 and 2004, deciding which suspects to detain was left to commanders on the ground. The protocol wasn’t clearly spelled out, so in determining Omar’s fate I had to go with my gut. We had intelligence that he was a person of interest; we had found a significant store of ordnance on his property; and he had lied to us. I figured that we couldn’t just let him go. He would have to be brought back to our camp for questioning; he would be detained there as a Person Under Control (PUC); and perhaps from there he would have to be shipped on to Bagram.

So Omar the indignant armorer became our first prisoner.

Ben thought that we should put a gunny sack over his head right there in Walo Tangi, to humiliate him in front of his friends. Bagging a prisoner like this wasn’t a universal procedure, but it wasn’t unknown. When I hesitated to give the order to bag Omar, Ben hotly disagreed.

“Damn, Ron, the dude lies to us straight out. He’s got enough rockets for the whole village. I say let everybody see what happens, what the consequences are, when you screw with us like that.”

“Secure him,” I said, “and no kid gloves. But no bag.”

“No bag! What the hell. We’re gonna look like assholes, letting this guy walk away with his head up. You afraid of embarrassing him? He should be embarrassed. He should feel outright humiliated, and his people should know that.”

I understood Ben’s frustration. As someone who had suffered a loss of hearing thanks to an IED attack, he had a special reason to be angry about hidden armaments. And he wasn’t wrong about the virtues of bagging. There was often a good reason to bag a prisoner, especially when you were close to home, to prevent him from observing your defensive layout, and in fact it was common practice to at least blindfold potential hostiles when you were bringing them into a military facility. But I saw no good reason to do that to Omar on his home turf. Doing so would play into Taliban propaganda, which painted Special Forces as an American Gestapo, intent on insulting Islam and imprisoning the faithful. Considering the long- term effects, we probably had more to lose than gain by humiliating a respected leader in his own village.

So we treated Omar with respect and made sure that his neighbors saw us do so. We put him in the back of a truck, along with his weapons, and moved off on the road back to camp. This didn’t endear me to Ben, but it’s not a commander’s job to be liked by his men at every step of the way. Ben and I respected each other, and I knew that once this incident had passed, we would be fine.

The truck rumbled along for ten minutes, with Omar sitting quietly and looking a little dazed. When the men could see the wire perimeter of Camp Blessing rising in the distance, I ordered the gunny sack to be put over the prisoner’s head.

“You want to do the honors?” I asked Ben. It was no surprise to hear him answer, “Hell, yeah.”

Back in camp, we brought Omar to a tent that had served as a makeshift detention facility during Mountain Resolve and handcuffed him to a cot. Within a couple of days—when it became clear that he wasn’t a physical threat—the handcuffs came off, and he was secured by Marine guards standing outside the tent. We interrogated him usually two or three times a day, with the sessions conducted by me and our intel sergeant Scott, with Mashal interpreting. We were looking for anything that would help us better understand the complicated web of allegiances in the Pech Valley.

Civilians often assume that interrogation is a euphemism for “torture”; that the only way soldiers in the field extract information from detainees is through the use of physical or psychological abuse. I don’t deny that such techniques are used; but in Kunar in 2003 and 2004, this was not our practice. We treated our prisoners with respect, and I am convinced that this humane approach to information gathering got us more reliable information than we might have gathered from the use of more aggressive measures.

I’m not saying that harsher measures wouldn’t work or would never be justified. Any commander, in considering enhanced interrogation, has to measure the ethical costs against the potential practical benefits. In our case, the practical benefits of not using such methods outweighed other considerations. Aggressive interrogation wasn’t in our toolbox for a simple reason. Our goal wasn’t just to get good intel as quickly as possible (often the goal of CIA and some Special Ops interrogators); it was to build working relationships with locals. Given our mission, we had to consider the long-term effects of everything we did, both in terms of U.S. interests and in terms of the everyday realities of the people we lived among.

In fact to the best of my recollection the only time we “tortured” Omar, it came about unintentionally, and with no lasting harm.

Omar had been with us for a couple of days, submitting to our daily visits but otherwise being left alone in the tent when we weren’t questioning him. When we weren’t there, his Marine guards would pass the time by playing rap music; they would turn it off during our interrogations. It wasn’t superloud, but to ears not accustomed to it, it must have been grating. Scott and I had no idea just how grating until we were in the middle of an interrogation one day and, tired of Omar’s evasiveness, we got up to leave.

“Please don’t go,” he said through the interpreter.

“Why not?”

“Because when you’re here is the only time they stop playing that horrible music.”

Here was an unplanned opening, and we took advantage of it. “All right,” we told him. “If you give us the information we want, we’ll stick around.”

Omar became quickly cooperative. What we learned from the episode is that you don’t need thumbscrews and waterboards to extract information. Just a minor adjustment of a detainees’ comfort level can sometimes work wonders.

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US Army Captain Ronald Fry, a third-generation veteran, served in the 82nd Airborne Division and as a Special Forces team leader in Afghanistan. Check out his bio here.

Buy "Hammerhead Six" from Amazon or Hachette Book Group.

Adapted and excerpted from "HAMMERHEAD SIX: How Green Berets Waged an Unconventional War Agains the Taliban to Win in Afghanistan's Deadly Pech Valley," reprinted with permission from Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2017 by Ronald Fry.

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