Maj. Dan Curtis thought of Afghanistan as the Wild West.

Good guys and bad guys, farmers and terrorists alike, carried guns. Young teens sometimes aided terrorists. Few locals showed fear from kicked-in doors.

“It was like the 1880s,” said Curtis, a Maine soldier embedded with police in Afganistan’s Ghazni province.

He even witnessed an Afghani cop’s attempt to pull his gun on another officer.

“We got people to calm their tempers,” Curtis said. But he still recalled the moment – when he was investigating corruption among the police – as one of the few times he was really scared in his nine months in Afghanistan.

Curtis wasn’t alone.

For nine months, from March to December 2008, a team of 17 soldiers from the Maine Army National Guard served in Afghanistan. The hand-picked group spread out across parts of the rugged country, mostly in the eastern provinces south of the capital of Kabul.

They included a pair of local dads and Iraq veterans: Curtis, a 37-year-old Army planner from Norway, and Maj. Joshua Doscinski, 33, of Temple, the team’s commanding officer.

Their job: To boost the professionalism and effectiveness of Afghanis fighting the Taliban.

For Doscinski, who was embedded with an Afghan Army battalion, the job meant advising the military on how a modern military unit works.

“They know how to fight, pretty much,” Doscinski said. But they could be disorganized and it cost them. Friendly fire accidents were common and planning for patrols was cursory.

Just imagine Maine breaking out into a civil war, Doscinski said.

“There wouldn’t be a lot of organized, thoughtful, effective fighting,” he said. “It would just be a big barroom brawl. It would just be people shooting each other.”

Meanwhile, there were patrols to be conducted.

Life in the field

Much of Doscinski’s work was spent trying to aid the Army’s goal of securing a key mountain pass. The routine typically ran in cycles of two weeks of planning followed by two weeks in the field.

Doscinski and a nine-member team lived in a complex of fewer than 200 Americans. Most of his time was spent with the Afghan military, speaking through an interpreter – or “terp” – and trying to guide the officers without telling them what to do.

Mostly, it was friendly.

In the field, he was able to help the Afghanis by calling in U.S. planes for air-to-ground support. He also could call for artillery or air ambulances.

He preferred the field.

“Time went by quick,” Doscinski said. “You actually felt like you were accomplishing something and not mired in paperwork.”

The friendship of the Afghanis had its limits, though. Nights on patrol were spent cautiously, with one eye on the Taliban and another on their Afghan hosts.

“We’d circle up,” Doscinski said, parking his armored vehicles with guns at the ready. “We always kept a couple of guys awake and we were much more heavily armed than a normal American unit.”

His team carried assault rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-personnel mines.

“The military wants to make sure that if you ever do get in a situation, you can punch hard enough to get yourself out,” he said.

He’d rather not punch, though.

On patrol, he gave respect to the Afghanis he met, making friends when he could by offering help for a sick child or other deeds.

“We would try to do that,” he said. “It does pay dividends. It’s probably the only way we’ll make headway in Afghanistan.”

Most people lived in clay homes. Dry river beds rather than roads connected most villages.

“The Afghans don’t like foreigners on their soil,” he said. “The Russians had quite a few more soldiers than we did and didn’t do half as well.”

The Taliban made it worse.

“An American cannot tell the difference between a Taliban and a farmer because they’re both allowed to carry AK-47s,” Doscinski said.

Every farmer feared the Taliban. It kept the distance between the army and the civilians.

“They’re not helpful to us,” Doscinski said. “They’re not rude to us. They’re not going to tell us where the Taliban are because, most likely, the Taliban will kill them and their families.”

Finding trust

Curtis described the Taliban – credited with aiding al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – in Mafia-like terms.

“Their power is the fear they can build with people,” he said. The answer to cutting off that power is making friends with the Afghan people, he added.

“If I could get the people to trust us, I thought that was better than kicking in doors and killing every military-aged male,” he said.

It’s what he counseled the police, some of whom are seen as thugs by their own people.

When they behaved that way he’d ask a few simple questions.

“I’d be a Monday morning quarterback and say, ‘Do you think they trust and respect you now?'” said Curtis.

After his nine months with the police, Curtis said he was only beginning to understand how it all worked when he left.

And he rarely felt protected among the foreign force.

Trust comes hard, he said.

It’s something he learned when he was in Iraq. Both he and Doscinski were part of the 133rd Engineer Battalion during its deployment in 2004 and 2005.

“We trusted the Iraqis and let them eat in our chow hall,” Curtis said. “Then, on December 21st 2004, one of them blows himself up kills a whole lot of guys.”

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