FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan • Spc. Adam Lindsay calls it the “Wizard of Oz” door. And no one gets to see the wizard. Or at least almost no one.
Lindsay’s job on a recent afternoon was to stare at the steel door — with its sliding slat window — and protect American and coalition troops at Forward Operating Base Frontenac from what’s behind it.
“We are pretty much on our toes,” Lindsay said, sitting at a desk fortified by bags of rocks.
Lindsay, 23, of Cape Girardeau, was joined on his six-hour shift by fellow Missouri guardsman Spc. Josh Yakel, 25, of Lake Saint Louis.
Both men said they don’t like having to open the door. For that matter, they don’t even want to look through its tiny window to the other side.
What’s on the other side is what may be the best hope of securing a safe Afghanistan after American combat troops leave the country as soon as next year.
The Frontenac base, like many across Afghanistan, is shared by American soldiers and Afghan National Army troops. And like at other bases, the Afghans are walled off and sequestered to a base within a base.
It’s a separation born of a fear that any Afghan soldier could be a turncoat.
And for Lindsay, Yakel and some of the other members of the Missouri Guard’s 1138th Engineer Company, there are grounds for that fear.
The guardsmen arrived in Afghanistan in a year that saw 61 coalition forces killed from 45 attacks involving Afghan security forces. The so-called “green-on-blue” incidents were up from 35 deaths and 21 attacks in 2011, according to an Associated Press tally. And the Frontenac base — situated in an area known for insurgent boldness — has had its share of the violence.
In 2011, an Afghan security guard, hired by a Canadian firm to guard the base’s perimeter, opened fire on American troops, killing two and wounding four.
Last year, as the 1138th was training at Fort Bliss, Texas, enemy fighters scaled Frontenac’s outer wall, moving past a team of private Afghan security guards who patrol the towers.
The fighters caused mayhem, both with their own weapons and the rush to kill them. At least one of them was trapped in a metal container and blown up, a blast that also destroyed the nearby chow hall.
By the end of the incident, six enemy fighters and one Afghan guard were dead, and several U.S. soldiers were injured.
“Emotions were a little high,” Spc. Caleb Wiltse, 24, of O’Fallon, said of coming to Frontenac. “There was a sense of, ‘What are we getting into?’”
Missouri’s 1138th is tasked chiefly with clearing away the greatest threat to military and civilian life — improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, planted by insurgents by the thousands.
It’s a threat for which they are trained and prepared. But the potential that Afghan troops might attack the Americans who train them is another kind of concern. It’s a worry-behind-a-smile the guardsmen say they think about when they mix with Afghan troops.
At the “Wizard of Oz” door, the limited trust of the Afghan troops is represented by six photos that hang on the wall above Lindsay and Yakel. The photos show the only six Afghans who rank high enough on the chain of command to pass through the door.
One of the Afghan officers pictured is Lt. Col. Mangol Rahat, who commands a battalion of about 700 soldiers spread across northern Kandahar Province.
In an interview on the U.S. side of the base, he said there hasn’t been a green-on-blue incident in his battalion in the past six years and that he had confidence in his soldiers.
“There are some people, a few people, who the enemy has infiltrated and brainwashed, and these kinds of incidents happen,” he said through an interpreter. “But Afghan people are very friendly.”
Yet he supports having the dividing walls.
“Most of our soldiers have been away from education,” Rahat said. “They are illiterate, so that’s why this wall is good to keep them separate.”
That sentiment is shared by the American in charge of the base, Lt. Col. Paul Weyrauch. He said the divisions at Frontenac were set up last year after an insider attack elsewhere in Afghanistan.
“Lt. Col. Mangol is a great battalion commander, but he can’t control the actions of all of his people, no more than I can prevent everybody in my battalion from drinking and driving,” said Weyrauch, 40, of Texas.
RICH BASE, POOR BASE
The separation between Afghan and coalition forces at Frontenac creates the feel of a border town — poor community on one side, rich on the other.
The Afghans don’t have anywhere near the resources and luxuries of their American counterparts. No hot water, unless it’s heated on a wood stove. The cooks are in the military, not contractors.
When they have fuel, generators run for only 12 hours a day. In the cold months, soldiers often huddle in their tents. But they do have satellite television, on which they enjoy Afghan comedy programs and music videos in the several languages spoken by the troops.
They play sports — volleyball and cricket — and have a tarp-covered gym. They often ask the Americans for batteries — from AAs to car batteries — photocopies, pocketknives and antennas.
On a recent day on the other side of the metal door, the Afghans were equipped with Humvees and Ford pickups. The gym area had one exercise bike, one bench press. Wood smoke bellowed out of the kitchen and from furnaces in barracks, where soldiers sleep on cots in green tents — a la M*A*S*H 4077.
The soldiers were in a good mood. They had fuel for generators. The sun was out, and many of them played an endless game of volleyball, one of them wearing a T-shirt proclaiming his love of Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Capt. Josh Pugh, of North Carolina, who goes over to the Afghan side of the base every day to train, said when he’s there he’s “cautiously alert.” He goes with armed guards and asks soldiers only about fathers and brothers, never the women in their lives.
“I am always looking around, but I am not afraid,” he said. “These guys aren’t crazy. You have to do something pretty dumb to offend them.”
He added: “The guys who are the most leery are the ones who spend the least amount of time with the Afghans.”
One of the Afghans on this day was Sgt. Safiullah, 27, a medic and supply sergeant, who said he was pleased with the training his unit had received from the American counterparts.
“We are very happy and satisfied about them,” he said from a wood-heated tent that he shared with several other soldiers. “What I don’t know is if they are happy or satisfied with us.”
The former farmer has been in the military for seven years.
“This is our country,” he said. “I have to defend my country.”
ICE UNDER THE SUN
Afghan Sgt. Maj. Naqibulla Osmani, 26, is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the battalion at Frontenac. He trained several months in Texas and has been in the Afghan army nearly 10 years.
He said insider attacks are a sensitive topic for members of the Afghan army. And he said the reasons behind the green-on-blue incidents are complex and varied.
A primary motivator, he said, are incidents such as when Americans were accused of desecrating the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Last year, thousands rioted after it was reported that several Qurans were torched in a landfill at a large military base, an incident that was later reported as unintentional. Or last March, when a U.S. Army sergeant went on a rampage, killing 16 civilians, including several children.
Some of the attacks, he said, are due to Taliban infiltration.
But the sergeant major said many Afghan soldiers are fed up with the corruption and bribery of their own government, which he said ignores their needs. He referenced an Afghan expression: “They write down our problems on ice and put it in the sun.”
He said he knows of a soldier elsewhere who discussed engaging in an insider attack because he said doing so would “put into question the government of Afghanistan because the government doesn’t care about us.”
He doesn’t want coalition forces to see the Afghan National Army as enemies.
“We have soldiers who really feel sorry for soldiers who lose parts of their bodies or lose their life in Afghanistan,” he said. “They left their country to come help us. They have better life conditions in America but came to Afghanistan to help us. I am one of those soldiers.”
Hope for a better relationship between Americans and Afghans rests on continued training, with a dose of diplomacy.
“The biggest part of our job is relationship building,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. B.J. Herman, 40. “We want them to believe we are there to help them.”
That means drinking a lot of tea and eating pistachios. That means talking about the elephant in the room. For instance, when a video came out that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in a negative light, Herman said the American soldiers told the Afghans the video was out there and that soldiers didn’t produce it.
“If somebody is mad about it, let’s talk about it,” he said the Americans told their Afghan counterparts.
Though the onset of the Missouri Guard’s deployment was filled with anxiety about safety at Frontenac, five months into it, there have been no major incidents.
During late-night drills, everybody dons their body armor and runs to bunkers, while teams of soldiers sweep the base on foot and with armored vehicles mounted with machine guns.
“Gradually, as time goes on, you get more comfortable with it,” said Wiltse, of O’Fallon. “But the Army preaches that complacency kills.”
And recently, the guardsmen were notified of a new change with base security.
Right away, they were to start sharing some of the guard duty at an entry control point, a duty that has been left to Afghans in the past.
“It’s a shame you have to judge everybody like that, because I am sure there are a lot of good ones out there who want to do the right thing,” said Sgt. Tim Barker, 37, of Troy. “But you can’t take that chance when it could be your life.”
Just like in the U.S. Army, there are going to be a few bad seeds, he said.
As long as those threats endure, Lindsay and Yakel will continue to guard the “Wizard of Oz” door with vigilance. And they will have no interest in experiencing what’s on the other side.
“Hell, no,” Lindsay said. “I don’t even want to open the door. You hear about all the green on blue. I don’t really want to have anything to do with that.”