BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Andrew Odland and the Afghan police officer were standing just inches apart, looking in the same direction. But what they were seeing was completely different.
A brief, contentious patrol in eastern Afghanistan’s Baraki Barak district on March 27 highlighted an important technological gap between U.S. forces and their Afghan partners that will only grow more noticeable as the Americans hand off responsibility to Afghan troops.
The major difference between Odland’s vision and the Afghan officer’s that chilly night in Baraki Barak, a key agricultural district 50 miles south of Kabul, was a 13.5-ounce device mounted to the American sergeant’s helmet and those of his platoon.
The PVS-14 night observation device — or “nods,” as soldiers call it — translates invisible light waves from across the spectrum to a single, visible wavelength. In other words, it sees in the dark, casting even the inkiest night into a palette of greens.
But insurgents prefer daylight, mostly leaving the night to tech-savvy U.S. forces. Afghans are “solar-powered,” U.S. Army Capt. Paul Shepard explained, half-jokingly.
Nods and other sensors mean the Americans own the night. And as long as they patrol under the direction of U.S. troops, Afghan forces at least “rent” the advantage of darkness.
But as the low-tech Afghan soldiers and police begin the slow process of taking over responsibility for security starting this summer, they’ll do so with serious limitations compared to the Americans and other foreign troops they’ll lead during the transition period.
The fallout from this sort of mismatch was evident in Baraki Barak that night.
The patrol got off on the wrong foot and never corrected its step. As planned, Odland’s platoon showed up at the Afghan police station attached to the district’s main U.S. Army outpost, just after nightfall. But the local Afghan cops slated to join the Americans were nowhere to be found.
It took some serious cajoling on Odland’s part to roust a squad of policemen from the warmth and light of their shacks. They stumbled into the dark with little but their windbreakers and AK-47s. Some weren’t even wearing body armor.
Though Afghan troops often travel light, on this night, the contrast with the decked-out Americans was particularly stark. Because they could see in the dark, Odland’s soldiers didn’t worry about being perfectly quiet. Even if the bad guys heard them coming, they’d never see them coming — and the Americans would see everything with perfect clarity.
So, the U.S. troops brought along a small but noisy John Deere six-wheeler to haul extra equipment.