Sakhi strongly believed that most Taliban were locals, working on farms, firing when they had a chance, then throwing down their weapons and taking up a shovel. He warned that the Taliban had planted at least 100 IEDs in Nawa. IEDs had been responsible for the majority of American and British casualties in Afghanistan and a few months before had claimed Team Ironhorse's lieutenant and a staff sergeant, as well as an interpreter and an ANCOP officer. It happened last February when First Lieutenant Jared Southworth and Staff Sergeant Jason Burkholder went to examine an IED the ANCOP had discovered. They asked for an ordnance disposal team to destroy it because they worried civilians would get blown up, but were told to mark the location and move on. The ANCOP officer dismantled the IED anyway, but a second one beneath blew up. Ironhorse spent an hour picking pieces of their friends off the road and out of a tree.
First Lieutenant Southworth had been very passionate, his men told me. He believed he'd come to give Afghan kids a better future and he loved what he was doing. He paid Afghans $150 for pointing out IEDs. A rich aunt sent him the money. It was unusual but it worked, his men said. Back in Illinois, they had been told they would be on a large base in a safe job, but Southworth knew different. He informed them they were going into the shit. He spent more than a year preparing the team as best he could, sending them to sniper school, scout school, combat lifesaver school, mountain warfare school. He gave a speech to the men just prior to deployment, warning that some of them wouldn't make it back.
Mindful of IEDs, Contreras told Sakhi that Ironhorse would go through the desert to avoid the main road. The Marines would meet them to guide them to the schoolhouse base. But Sakhi had still not received his written orders. He asked Contreras to tell the American police-training headquarters in Kandahar to e-mail the deputy minister of interior. The next day Contreras went to see Sakhi again. "The Marines are giving me a lot of problems because of the delay," he said. Sakhi was still waiting for supplies. One of the major operations of the year, the military's big push to ensure Afghanistan could hold its election, was being held up by red tape.
Two days later they finally got the order to go. Sergeant McGuire was in command of the lead National Guard Humvee. The gunner up top shot pen flares that went pop like a gun at cars that got too close. McGuire asked if I was sure I wanted to be in the first vehicle, which would be the first one to get blown up by IEDs. Sakhi asked that the Americans' armored vehicles take the lead because his vehicles would be blown to shreds.
As we drove south the ANCOP stopped in front of every culvert to search both sides. It was slow progress. Some of the police trucks got stuck in the deep, soft sand. When we reached the Arghandab River, the ANCOP drivers started playing NASCAR, speeding around each other, nearly crashing. Two of them got into an argument about the driving and one raised his rifle. This had happened before, Sergeant Verdoorn later told me. Once, on the base, two of the ANCOP had drawn their pistols on each other. "There was blood in their eyes," Verdoorn said.