Training Afghan Allies, With Guard Firmly Up
By Matthew Rosenberg, NY Times, September 25, 2012
BAD PAKH, Afghanistan—When American military advisers fly into Afghan Army outposts like the one nestled on the floor of this forested valley, they keep their body armor on and their weapons loaded.
Their guard was up even though they were there for a day of training Afghan soldiers without once leaving the confines of a fortified base—even when chatting with the Afghan officers over a lunch of goat meat and yogurt.
Afghan soldiers and police officers have gunned down 51 American and allied troops so far this year, and now no one is taking chances. The advisers’ extreme caution lays bare the steep challenge ahead after the official end of the American troop “surge” on Friday and as the mission shifts toward the next chapter of the war: preparing the Afghans to fight on their own.
“They come here and they look like they are going to fight us,” said Sgt. Abdul Karim Haq, 25, an Afghan soldier at the outpost. “They are always talking down to us like we are little children.”
American military leaders say they have little choice as insider killings have become a prevalent cause of death. Attacks by Afghan forces against Western soldiers and Marines this month led to new precautions over where and when joint operations and training sessions happen. At the same time, a video and cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad are stoking outrage and violence against Americans across the Muslim world.
In the field, where small teams of American advisers are now working with Afghan units, even minor misunderstandings are treated as potentially violent confrontations.
When a pair of Afghan soldiers decided to take a nap in a guard tower in which the Americans had taken up a position at this outpost, the coalition advisory team commander, Capt. John Chung, 28, sent his interpreter to hustle out the Afghans with an admonishment to “be gentle. No trouble, you know what I mean.”
Aside from a fear of being gunned down, the advisers said they were more vigilant because they also doubted the ability of Afghan soldiers to secure the base from an insurgent attack.
“Exhibit A,” one adviser noted about the Afghans’ nap in the guard tower.
“I think we need to be ready for everything. Maybe it’s coming from inside, or maybe it gets in here from the outside,” said the adviser, a young soldier who did not want to be identified for fear of damaging his career. “I mean, sleeping in a tower? There are a lot of reasons to be careful out here.”
By here, he meant behind high walls that American soldiers had built near Bad Pakh, in eastern Afghanistan, just a few years ago and guarded until handing the outpost over to the Afghan Army in March. Once home to Americans, it is now treated by them as another dangerous place in a hostile country.
And for good reason, judging by comments from Afghan soldiers here and elsewhere in the country.
Abdul Hanan, 20, a soldier also based in the east, was blunt. “We would have killed many of them already,” he said, “but our commanders are cowards and don’t let us.”
He said the Americans treat the Afghans roughly, cursing at and bullying them. “We like the Americans’ heavy weapons, but we don’t like their soldiers,” he said.
Despite a decade-long, $33 billion allied effort to build the military and the police, Afghanistan’s security forces “continue to confront challenges, including attrition, leadership deficits and limited capabilities in staff planning, management, logistics and procurement,” according to an April review of Afghan security by the Pentagon.
Persistent corruption and organized crime networks within the security forces also risk undermining rising public esteem for the army and the police, and could “pose a threat to the transition process,” it said.
The police, in particular, have a reputation for brutality and corruption. In Bagh-e-Pol, a village near the southern city of Kandahar, the police chief, Abdul Wali, boasted that he and his men often beat people suspected of being members of the Taliban so badly that “sometimes he loses an arm, sometimes he loses a leg.”
Mr. Wali’s American advisers smiled uncomfortably as he explained in an interview that he did not need a trial to know who deserved a beating.
Advisers flew into Bad Pakh last month to teach the Afghans how to load wounded soldiers into an American medevac helicopter. Time permitting, they also planned mortar practice.
But when the Americans flew out 10 hours later, the training day had gone much like three previous ones held here in the past two months: the helicopter never showed. It was either down for maintenance or called away for a more pressing mission. The advisers never got a clear answer why.
Mortar practice also had to be scratched when it turned out the Afghans were missing the sight for their sole mortar tube.
With plenty of time to talk, the Afghans told stories about life without the Americans. Their first big test came in June when a patrol ran out of ammunition after being ambushed by the Taliban, who killed one soldier and captured another, said Sgt. Maj. Ghulam Jilani, 45, the senior Afghan enlisted soldier at the base.
The Americans had pulled out three months earlier, and the Afghans quickly determined that a rescue mission was too risky without the air cover and surveillance once readily provided by their now-departed allies.
So, Sergeant Major Jilani said, they got their man back the “Afghan way.” They rounded up fighting-age men from a nearby village and took them back to the base. The villagers basically became hostages.
“We made sure everyone knew: ‘Give us the soldier back and we’ll free the men,’ ” Sergeant Major Jilani said.
By dusk, the district governor had brokered a trade.
Without American backup, “we could only do what these village people would understand,” Sergeant Major Jilani said. “Why should there be any objections to this method? We did not shoot the men.”