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Local Afghanistan vets divided on US exit from country
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Matt Primrose was 21, just a couple of years out of Monadnock Regional High School, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

Having joined the Army a year earlier, Primrose — a Winchester resident who grew up in Swanzey and Sullivan — said he was initially “pumped” about the war effort. His deployment to Afghanistan in 2003 involved a large amount of active combat. It was an opportunity, he said, to “bring it to the enemy.”

Now 41, Primrose still shows that same passion, proudly recalling his year-long tour as well as later Army postings. But he struck a different note about the war after watching from afar as U.S. troops left the country this past week, ending the longest conflict in American history.

“We should’ve never been there that long to begin with,” he said. “… It wasn’t sustainable. The proof is in the pudding. Here we are 20 years later and for what?”

To some Monadnock Region veterans, like Primrose, the U.S. withdrawal was long overdue after losing 2,500 troops and spending more than $2 trillion. To others, it was a foolish retreat that has allowed the Taliban — the religious fundamentalist group that had harbored al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, prompting the American invasion — to recapture the country from the U.S.-backed government.

If there’s a common sentiment, it’s that nobody is quite satisfied.

For Antrim resident Jim Creighton, a retired Army colonel who served three decades, including from 2009 to 2011 in Afghanistan, the U.S. exit will likely reverse much hard-earned progress there.

The war was an appropriate way to punish the Taliban for having abetted the Sept. 11 attackers, according to Creighton, 60, now a state representative whose district includes Antrim, Bennington, Francestown, Greenfield and Hancock. He said the U.S. got mired in the conflict, though, because it struggled to identify and defeat enemy fighters and because its subsequent invasion of Iraq drew resources and attention.

Creighton, who commanded about 3,000 troops near the city of Kandahar, said that after expelling the Taliban, the U.S. was right to help rebuild Afghan society by backing democratic elections, providing economic aid and improving education, particularly for girls.

But a lack of patience among U.S. policymakers, due largely to political pressure, kept those efforts from succeeding, he said. Noting that education rates in Afghanistan have risen substantially since 2001 — including from a secondary-school enrollment of 12 percent to 55 percent, according to United Nations estimates — Creighton argued that U.S. forces needed more time to help stabilize the country.

“It’s just an example of layered challenges that you don’t understand from an office in Washington,” he said, adding that the U.S. “just said ‘screw you’ ” to Afghan children.

“The situation was not ideal, but it was moving forward.”

Creighton said the U.S. should accelerate its immigration process so that Afghans who worked with the American military, and now face retribution from the Taliban, can resettle here. He knows some Afghans who escaped during the Biden administration’s recent evacuation effort — during which an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. soldiers and at least 60 Afghans — but hasn’t heard from other friends, he said.

A more prudent policy, Creighton argued, would have been to leave a small residual force in the country, similar to troops who have been stationed in Germany since the 1940s and South Korea since the 1950s.

“I believe that the cost for keeping 5,000 soldiers there is minuscule compared to the disaster that we just suffered,” he said.

To some, however, the risk of losing more Americans was too great.

John Garabrant, whose son, Brandon, was killed in June 2014 after deploying to Afghanistan with the Marines earlier that year, said the withdrawal means “more parents won’t have to experience what we experienced.”

Brandon, who was 19, grew up in Greenfield and had graduated from ConVal Regional High School a year earlier. Garabrant, now of Nashua, said his son was never able to share much about his missions but that he’d thought he might be able to come home for Father’s Day that year.

Garabrant, who has two other children, 25 and 22, was at work in Concord when he learned that Brandon had been killed, he said.

“I’m just glad no more families have to go through it,” he said. “There’s still going to be military tragedies, but it’s not going to be, hopefully, in at-risk situations like they were over there.”

The Taliban’s rapid advances last month should make U.S. policymakers hesitate before going to war again, according to Garabrant, who said the exit plan seemed only to endanger soldiers further. He added that American troops should have left Afghanistan long ago if its government was going to fall anyway.

“There’s a bunch of pissed-off Gold Star families around now that are kind of thinking there was no sense in their kids losing their lives over there,” he said.

Despite recent events, Joyce Lehman of Keene, a former aid worker in Afghanistan, said U.S. efforts made a difference in the country.

Lehman, 77, spent several years there in the mid-2000s running economic development projects for the World Bank and later the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That included working closely with Afghan communities to distribute funding meant to help locals buy resources such as livestock or sewing kits and grow their wealth, she said.

Explaining that she hoped to create opportunities for people who didn’t have them, Lehman said she views her work as a success — pointing to a chamber of commerce founded by Afghan women she knows as one positive outcome.

“Even a small amount of money … will give people a life that they didn’t have before,” she said. “And we did a lot of that.”

Lehman said she returned to Afghanistan on several consulting trips, most recently in March 2019. While acknowledging the stance that U.S. troops couldn’t stay in the country forever, she said she’s worried that under Taliban rule, some progress will be reversed — especially for Afghan women.

“For 20 years, most Afghans were able to live the life of their choosing,” she said. “Whether that’s important enough for us to keep some sort of a minimal force there … that’s above my pay grade. But [it’s] not true anymore.”

After immigrating with her husband and daughter to Keene in 2016, one of Lehman’s Afghan colleagues at USAID, Patmana Rafiq Kunary, said Thursday she was surprised how quickly the country’s government fell.

Now living in Portsmouth, she said those developments threaten all the progress made over the past 20 years. Her niece, who was set to begin her final year of medical school in Afghanistan, doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to complete that degree, Kunary said.

“I’m praying that hopefully everything stays the same,” she said.

Lehman said she’s received “heartbreaking” messages in recent weeks from other former colleagues who don’t qualify for U.S. visas. She’s now trying to help some of them obtain refugee status so they can emigrate from the country, she said, lamenting, however, that many of those who fled were the people most committed to improving Afghanistan.

“Not only am I concerned that the Taliban are back in power, but I’m concerned that [the Afghans are] losing their future,” she said.

Hope for a brighter future — at least under U.S. supervision — had already stalled, though, according to some area veterans.

“I don’t think it would’ve helped being there any longer,” said Richmond resident Andrew Sellers, citing corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Sellers, 32, joined the Army a few years after graduating from Keene High School and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. During his 10½-month tour of duty, he said the priority largely seemed to be on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, which often meant conducting humanitarian missions like delivering food and water.

Although he had moments of doubts, Sellers said he thinks the U.S. military presence did serve a purpose.

“I don’t think it was all for nothing … If we were able to prevent women from being stoned to death for 20 years, I think that’s a plus.”

Still, he said winning the war in Afghanistan, at least in conventional terms, was impossible — comparing the conflict to the United States’ ruinous efforts in Vietnam.

“We need to stop repeating history … Obviously, you have to be involved in foreign policy to an extent. I don’t know if making home in a foreign country in the middle of a religious conflict is the right idea.”

Twenty years later, Primrose, who retired in 2008 as a staff sergeant and now serves as facility manager at the Keene Family YMCA, said his views on foreign policy have changed. Rather than engaging in so-called “nation-building,” which he argued is costly and often ineffective, he said the U.S. should stick to strictly military operations, such as counterterrorism strikes.

“When I was young, I was all about just waving a big stick and running around,” he said. “As an adult now … all I give a f- — about is here.”

Despite misgivings about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, though, Primrose noted that there haven’t been any large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil since Sept. 11.

“Even though it’s endless, it’s not fruitless,” he said of the war. “What we went through, it wasn’t for nothing.”

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In Winchester, a new park brings nature closer to home

WINCHESTER — Roberta Royce’s excitement was palpable as she walked along a nearly finished boardwalk, pointing to the things she loved — three tall willow trees, a swath of cattails, a small brook tumbling over rocks.

“We have a resident deer who’s made a bed out here,” she said, laughing, continuing on toward the wooded section of the soon-to-be community park.

Royce, the executive director of the Winchester Learning Center, has long had a vision for a nature park that would benefit both the center’s children and the greater community. Now, after several years of the land sitting undeveloped and unused, that vision is coming to fruition.

The 3.5-acre lot owned by the WLC, at the corner of Lawrence Street and Route 10, is being developed into a small network of trails. A gravel path through the park will provide wheelchair and stroller accessibility, while smaller dirt paths will allow visitors to explore the woods further.

The WLC is a United Way-funded child care, preschool and family-resource nonprofit. The center was first established 20 years ago in the basement of a local church, and eight years ago moved to Route 10, where it is currently, according to Royce. When the nonprofit purchased the building, it also bought the nearby parcel of land.

Thursday morning, a five-member crew from the Student Conservation Association — a national nonprofit that sends young people to improve public land and parks — was hard at work, clearing trails across that same parcel.

“We’re trying to make it exciting for the kiddos,” said crew leader Kelly Rife. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”

The group has been working on the park for the last two weeks, Rife said, under the guidance of Royce’s son-in-law Matt Coughlan, owner of Maine-based Recon Trail Design. In addition to the trails, the crew installed a series of tree stumps for children to play on, and was discussing what other features could be included, like a balance beam.

“I can’t say enough about the Student Conservation crew — they are wonderful,” Royce said, adding that the park has been a collaborative effort involving organizations and companies across the region.

The plan was set in motion about three years ago, when Stephen Gehlbach, then a representative of the N.H. Charitable Foundation, visited the WLC and learned of Royce’s vision. Gehlbach connected the center with the Monadnock Conservancy, of which he was a board member, according to the conservancy’s executive director, Ryan Owens.

Owens said the connection came at a time when the conservancy was looking to work with organizations beyond the conservation sphere and develop projects closer to where people live.

“For me, as executive director, this is still one of the things I’m most excited to talk about among all the things we’re doing,” he said. “I’m so pleased we have this opportunity to help a different organization and different group of people connect with nature, connect with the outdoors, when they might not otherwise have that opportunity.”

Royce’s vision and expertise in early childhood development, paired with the Monadnock Conservancy’s experience in land management and recreational infrastructure, was the perfect combination for a project that would benefit the community, Owens said.

“It was one of the easiest fundraising campaigns we’ve ever had to engage in, in part because it was just so different.”

Though the pandemic delayed the start of the park’s construction to this summer, the boardwalk connecting the center to the park was built last fall by the Conservancy’s land manager, Rick Brackett, and Lew Shelley of SnowHawk LLC, a Walpole-based trail design and construction company.

For several years, the lot was separated from the center by a residential property. Last year, the owners of that property agreed to sell part of the land so a boardwalk could be built connecting the center to the park. The Winchester Conservation Commission donated funds for the purchase, Royce said. Without that connecting land, the only way to access the park from the center would have been to walk along Route 10.

“Our hope is that this is just the start and every year we can add more features,” Royce said, adding that future plans include adding picnic tables and plaques identifying the park’s plants.

Royce said she wants students to see that they don’t have to travel far to find fascinating and beautiful places, but instead can explore their own communities.

But the park isn’t just for the benefit of the center’s children, she said. Royce wants anyone in the area looking for an accessible place to connect with nature to take advantage of the park.

As she was returning to the center on Thursday, Royce paused on the boardwalk, looking out at the thriving wetland. It was quiet under the late-summer sun, save for chirping insects and the rhythm of the conservation crew’s work.

“I see a lot of coffee breaks out here in my future,” she said, laughing.

Do police body cameras work? It's complicated

As calls for police reform have intensified, one popular response has been to equip more officers with body cameras.

The idea is that increased monitoring of officers will deter misconduct and make it easier to discover and punish when it does happen. Body cameras have support from a broad range of stakeholders — if not always for the same reasons — including many police officials and activists.

Body-worn cameras have been studied more extensively and rigorously than many other policing changes. So do they actually improve officer behavior and increase accountability? The answer is complicated, according to experts.

Body-worn cameras “are a tool,” the researchers Michael D. White and Aili Malm write in “Cops, Cameras, and Crisis,” a book-length literature review published in 2020. “They are not a ‘silver bullet’ that can repair decades of mistrust between police and citizens. Nor can (body-worn cameras) single-handedly put an end to bad policing.”

Overall, the research indicates that body cameras tend to reduce complaints, though it’s unclear why. The studies examining the way officers use force, meanwhile, are more mixed. Researchers have found reductions in some places, but not others, and uncertainty remains about the average effect.

Still, cameras can provide internal affairs investigators and the public with a more objective record of what happened after a police shooting or other high-profile incident. And, advocates in New Hampshire say, they offer reassurance that it won’t just be a civilian’s word against an officer’s if something does occur.

Sean Johnson, a member of Black Lives Matter Seacoast’s leadership team, sees body cameras as protecting civilians as well as officers and helping to avoid he-said, she-said situations.

“You can’t dispute footage,” he said. “You can’t dispute things that are actually happening. You can get a different perspective, obviously. But what happens on tape is on tape.”

Impacts on use of force

Small devices worn on the person, body cameras capture interactions with civilians from an officer’s vantage point. Though they’ve been around for years, their adoption became more widespread starting in the mid-2010s, after a spate of highly publicized killings of Black people drew more attention to police violence.

In New Hampshire, body cameras have come up often since George Floyd’s death last year sparked discussions about police accountability.

The state’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), formed after Floyd’s death, recommended that departments be encouraged to adopt body cameras.

In the most recent budget, state lawmakers set aside $1 million to help local police departments afford them. This month, the Executive Council also approved a $3.4 million, multi-year contract to equip state troopers with body and cruiser cameras starting this fall.

Promising results from early research raised hopes that cameras would meaningfully reduce the use of force. The first randomized controlled trial, conducted on the mid-size Rialto (Calif.) Police Department, randomly assigned some shifts to use body cameras. The results showed a substantial across-the-board decrease in uses of force, with the largest drop occurring when officers wore cameras.

But the literature has grown more mixed over time, with additional studies reporting use of force went down in some jurisdictions but finding no clear impact in others.

“If you’d asked me that question four to five years ago, I would have said, ‘Oh yeah, body-worn cameras reduce (use of force),” said Janne Gaub, a professor in the criminology department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has researched body cameras. “But what we’ve seen in the last few years is more kind of mixed results.”

Gaub and other researchers have suggested several factors that might be behind that.

For one, though many body camera studies are randomized controlled trials — often called the “gold standard” in research — they can still have small sample sizes and other methodological limitations.

How an agency implements its body camera program could also matter. If a department lacks a clear policy requiring officers to turn their cameras on or doesn’t hold officers accountable for misconduct, the impact could be minimal.

Agencies also start from different places. Some researchers say there seem to have been clearer reductions in the use of force at police departments, like Rialto, that are beset by problems. There appears to be less of an impact at agencies that already have higher standards — including ones that had already made other reforms under federal oversight. In other words, some agencies have more room to improve than others.

“We would assume if a department has federal oversight, and part of that federal oversight was to deal with use of force, that when they also implemented body cameras, they probably wouldn’t have those steep declines,” Gaub said.

But more research is needed on why body cameras seem more effective in some settings and less so in others, according to experts.

“I don’t think there’s great evidence on what is going to make this effective,” said Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “But there’s probably some common sense, right, that if officers aren’t using the cameras, they’re probably not gonna work. ... If the department has, like, no accountability for bad behavior, then putting a camera on an officer may not make a huge difference.”

Fewer complaints

The findings about civilian complaints are more consistent. Complaints about officers tend to fall due to body-camera adoption — a study released this year by the economist Morgan Williams Jr. and researchers at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which analyzed the results of past research, suggests a roughly 17 percent reduction on average.

But researchers say there’s a significant caveat: We’re not sure why.

“Is it that people are not filing frivolous complaints?” Gaub said. “... That could be happening. It could be that officers are acting better. Or citizens are acting better. We don’t really know. It’s hard to get at that mechanism of why are these things happening.”

Police officers who support body cameras often cite them as protection against frivolous or false allegations by civilians.

But body-camera footage could also dissuade civilians from filing complaints even when they feel genuinely aggrieved at first, as Charlie Dennis, the chief of police in Hanover and a member of the state’s LEACT commission, described at one of the body’s meetings.

When a civilian comes in claiming that an officer was rude, for example, Dennis reviews the video. If it doesn’t show that, the video can help avoid a complaint altogether.

“What I really like about it is the opportunity to bring in the individual that’s making the complaint to have them sit down and watch that video,” Dennis said. “And many times, they’ll say, ‘That’s not the way I remembered it.’ ”

Video evidence may also improve internal complaint investigations, according to a recent study.

In a paper released this summer, a group of economists found that civilian complaints about Chicago police officers were more likely to be sustained after the department rolled out body cameras. That meant officers were disciplined for misconduct more often.

The authors chalked that up to “objective and less controvertible evidence for investigations, helping them clear the bar for identifying whether an officer has engaged in an infraction or not.”

The presence of body cameras also seemed to narrow racial disparities. Previously, complaints from Black and Hispanic individuals were more likely to be unsustained than those from white complainants.

“When the body-worn camera is available, what you see is that this disparity disappears,” said lead author Suat Çubukçu, a lecturer in American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Criminology. “So almost at the same rate now, the police are sanctioned regardless of the complainant’s race.”

‘Peace of mind’

The findings on force and complaints have led some policing scholars to be skeptical about body cameras as a tool for reform.

In a July 2020 Bloomberg op-ed, Texas A&M economist Jennifer Doleac argued that police departments should focus instead on identifying and disciplining officers who behave badly, using their existing complaint data.

“Body-worn camera programs are an expensive attempt to find a way to build trust between police officers and their communities,” she wrote. “Video footage alone can’t do that, however, if there are no consequences for the bad behavior it reveals.”

Others are more optimistic, saying the benefits tend to outweigh the costs.

“Among the set of police departments that have adopted (body-worn cameras), the data seem to suggest they can be helpful on average, although by themselves they are clearly not a panacea,” Williams and his co-authors wrote in their analysis of prior studies, which included a cost-benefit analysis that calculated a positive return from fewer complaints and, possibly, less use of force.

Gaub said municipalities considering body cameras should consider their specific situation and needs.

“Really take a look at your local context,” she said. “The departments that I talk to that elect not to use body cameras oftentimes are those that say, ‘Look. The main reason people get cameras is because we have a significant problem with use of force, you have a significant problem with citizen complaints, you have poor police-community relations .... We don’t really have those. So if we don’t have issues with those, then we’re not going to spend the money on cameras.’ ”

Activists point out that whether or not body cameras actually reduce the use of force, their more important function may be to increase transparency and accountability — and give the public more confidence about what happened if and when a particular incident comes under scrutiny.

Ronelle Tshiela, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester who served on the police-accountability commission, said the Manchester officers she encountered during protests last summer would tell her their body cameras were on. That gave her more peace of mind.

More recently, she was pulled over in Portsmouth. Recalling that the city does not have body cameras, she said, she instantly felt less comfortable.

“If that interaction is not documented, then essentially it’s my word against theirs, and they’re in a position of authority, and nine times out of 10, that is going to take precedence over anything that I say,” she said. “So having that interaction recorded, having that interaction documented, is very important.”

No body-camera footage was available in at least 24 of the 30 fatal and non-fatal shootings by officers in New Hampshire since the start of 2014, according to a review of public statements and reports by the N.H. Attorney General’s Office, which investigates such incidents. In a handful of those cases, dash cams in police cruisers, surveillance video or video shot by bystanders captured the incident.

One of the incidents without body-camera footage occurred in Claremont in 2016, when then-Corporal Ian Kibbe shot and killed Cody LaFont. The Attorney General’s Office found the shooting legally justified based on Kibbe’s account, which stated that LaFont had pointed a gun at him. No other witnesses saw the encounter.

After Kibbe pleaded guilty two years later to falsifying documents to justify an illegal search in an unrelated case, the Attorney General’s Office said it could no longer conclude the 2016 shooting was justified, citing Kibbe’s shaky credibility. At the same time, it said it could not disprove his claim of self-defense.

Joseph Lascaze, an organizer on criminal justice issues for the ACLU of New Hampshire and a member of the state police-accountability commission, said the presence of body cameras during an interaction with police could reassure the public that the officers will behave properly.

He has heard that from multiple community members and felt it himself. When officers announce they are wearing cameras, it signals that the interaction is going to “go the way that it’s supposed to go,” said Lascaze.

“It’s a peace of mind,” he said. ”It’s a peace of mind knowing that the body cameras are being employed.”