GHAZNI, Afghanistan—The newest weapon in the U.S. military's fight against the Taliban here is the country's first unit of motorcycle-riding Afghan police, trained and mentored by an Army captain with the help of a biker bar owner and Harley devotee from Washington state.
After soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment killed three Taliban insurgents on motorbikes last month, they considered selling off the bikes to supplement the salaries of the poorly paid local police.
Then they had another idea. "We were sitting around talking one night and thought, 'Hey, maybe the Afghan police can use these things,'" says Lt. Col. Tony DeMartino, the battalion's commander.
The Afghan police agreed. During joint operations, the Taliban have little trouble spotting, not to mention hearing, large U.S. military vehicles rumbling toward small villages. That allows the guerrillas time to escape on motorbikes.
U.S. troops recently watched what turned out to be a high-value Taliban target flee on a bike during an operation. Uncertain of his identity, the soldiers didn't shoot. Chasing him down through narrow back roads in a heavy Humvee, they add, would have been impossible.
In these situations, U.S. military helicopter assistance can be helpful, but troops note that such support is in high demand and short supply throughout the country. But Afghan police on motorbikes could conceivably be a solution.
The battalion soon discovered a problem. "We just assumed that all Afghans could ride bikes," says Capt. Caleb Threadcraft, a police mentor for the battalion. The Afghan police even said they knew how.
But Threadcraft learned otherwise. The unit's inaugural operation involved four bikes total—three with Afghan national police doubled up on each one. In short order, all but one of the bikes fell victim to speed bumps and wipeouts.
So Threadcraft, a fluent Dari speaker, started a motorcycle class with Pat MacDonald, a former cop and contracted trainer for the Afghan national police. They set up a school on the base and drilled the police on, among other things, the difference between the gas and the brake and the finer points of keeping a safe following distance. (The latter subject is particularly important, given that U.S. Humvees do not have brake lights.)
Threadcraft bought New York Yankees caps for the course graduates, to distinguish the motorcycle unit.
They began operations in late summer.
In the months since, the motorcycle unit has proved highly effective in supplementing U.S. operations in the area and surprising insurgents.
Recently, a Taliban commander hiding in a garden during a U.S. raid on his village heard one of the motorcycles drive by and hopped out, waving his hands in hopes of flagging down a lift out of town.
He soon realized that he had signaled an Afghan policeman.
During the course of operations, one unit standout soon emerged. He was an Afghan policeman who MacDonald initially nicknamed Mad Dog. But the officer did not like this moniker: "Dogs are dirty in Afghan culture," MacDonald explains.
And so they dubbed him Crazy Horse. He didn't like this nickname, either. He didn't like being named after any animal, MacDonald says.
Then Threadcraft recounted the story of Crazy Horse, explaining that he was a Native American legend.
Crazy Horse was born, and the motorbikes have become so popular around town that the governor recently disguised himself as a Taliban insurgent and took one of the bikes out for a late-night spin to inspect local checkpoints. "I looked just like a Talib," says Dr. Muhammad Usman, the governor of Ghazni province. "But no one stopped me."
He concluded that the city's police checkpoints needed more motivated personnel—unlike the motorcycle unit, he is quick to add.
The unit has also proved to be highly effective psychological warfare, say troops here. The Taliban have banned motorbikes after dark in at least one village in Ghazni. "Now, every time they hear a motorcycle in their village, they wonder who it is," adds DeMartino. "It could be them, but it could be us coming for them."