In September, I traveled to the Greshk district in Helmand province. The trip was planned in part to inquire about a major hydroelectric project and in part to research the link between sexual frustration and the insurgency. But, as I wrote in a piece for TIME, unexpected events – in particular an IED the Taliban had planted for the district governor with whom I was traveling – became the focus of the reporting. The events of that day, especially the police investigation after the explosion, were a telling window into where the Afghan security forces stand as we approach the 2014 withdrawal date.
But before we get to the explosion – our day started with a lot of color.
The district governor of Greshk, Saleem Khan Rody, was in Lashkargah, the provincial capital, to attend his daughter's wedding. He called in the morning, telling me to come over to his house and that we would leave for his office in the district from there. After bidding his daughter and his new son-in-law farewell as they set off for their new home in Kandahar, we waited for our security convoy to arrive. To pass the time, Mr. Rody called up his 8-year-old nephew – a prodigy of sorts who acts in radio dramas – to recite for us a couple of the poems he had composed. On a recent trip to the barber, the little boy's hair had been cut shorter than he had wanted, inspiring a humorous poem that chastised the barber for "stealing and plucking away all his hair."
"The barber told me he would pay me not to recite that poem on the radio," the boy, Basheer Ahmad Basharmal, said with a grin.
After an hour's wait and repeated attempts to reach the security escort on the phone, Mr. Rody got impatient and announced we would depart without the security escort. He told his son to send the escort after us as soon as they arrived.
As we got into the governor's white Toyota Corolla wagon, he noticed some writing on the wall of the house across from his.
"The Dear Talib Roundabout," the clumsy graffiti in large white letters said. An extra letter – a typo – had been wiped with a rubbing of mud.
"Which ****** has written this?" the governor said with a smile, thumbing his prayer-beads behind his back.
One of his bodyguards explained that the "Dear Talib" was not a reference to the insurgency, but that it was the name of one of the local elders. Unconvinced, the governor ordered it to be painted over.
As we approached his office in Greshk after an hour-long drive, we were greeted by the Taliban's road-side bomb. I describe the moment in the TIME piece. In the commotion that followed the explosion, one of the soldiers shouted after a lanky young man of 19 or 20, dressed in a brown tunic. When he continued walking into the crowd, the soldier chased after him, grabbing him by the shirt.
At the site of the explosion the soldier had picked up a shawl that matched the young man's clothes. In the south, as in most of Afghanistan, men often wear matching shawls with their clothes, cut from the same fabric.
Slapping and kicking the young man as he pleaded his innocence, the soldiers tied his hands behind his back with the shawl and put him in our Toyota. We sped off towards the governor's office, soldiers poking their heads out of the windows, shouting and cursing at the crowd to open the way.
The hours that followed were revealing about the atmosphere in which the 11-year-old war is now being fought and the gaps that remain ahead of the planned withdrawal in 2014.
Five hours after the young man's arrest, I visited to the police department to inquire about the investigation. He had not been questioned yet. When the police commander called in the aging crime investigator, the investigator seemed unaware of the particulars of the arrest.
Greshk, a district of about 120,000 residents, has over 500 police officers in addition to the coalition and Afghan army presence. But there is only one crime investigator in the entire district, and he has been borrowed from the neighboring Garmsir district, where he is permanently assigned.
"I am a one-man team with many cases to solve," he smiled. He had been busy all day investigating the U.S. killings of two Taliban members in the bazaar the day before, as well as the theft of seven motorcycles.
Two soldiers brought the detainee into the room, and the police chief ordered him to sit on the floor. The investigator began his questions, mostly inspired by his 20 years of experience in the field rather than his information about the day's incident.
The young man said he was from Musa Qala, another restive district in Helmand, and had brought his car to the bazaar for fixing and painting. The investigator, using textbook detective tricks, tried to bluff him, saying another young detainee had given him away. When he finally asked about the matching shawl that was found at the blast site, the young man said it wasn't his. His shawl, he claimed, was in his car and the car was parked at the painters' shop.
The police could keep him for 72 hours, the investigator said. In that time, he would reach out to people in Musa Qala whom the young man had listed as contacts. He would also visit the painters and inquire about the shawl and the car.
As dusk fell, I shared a taxi with three other passengers back to Lashkargah, where I was staying. On each side of the highway, a swarming of Afghan army vehicles was visible – a clearance operation in the district has been underway for several days now. We were stopped at the gates of the city when the police found hashish on one of the passengers, who turned out to be an off-duty police officer. He made several calls trying to get back his hashish, but the young officer on duty refused to return it. He finally gave up.
As we left the check-post, the off-duty police officer pulled out another huge bar of hash that he had been hiding in his shoe.
"Those were tiny pieces he took," he said with a prideful grin, cursing the other officer's mother.
Two days later, I inquired about the fate of the suspected bomber. He had been found innocent and released, the governor told me. The kicks, slaps, and gun-butts he received on his body – just marks of a brutal war.