Monday, November 17, 2008

Peter Marton's Question About Afghans: Part 2

A post or so ago I referenced Peter Marton's post about Wech Baghtu and addressed one issue on that post that I found significant. It wound up being a lengthy post, mostly about terps (interpreters,) who I have nothing but respect for.

That article concerned an assertion by an alleged airstrike victim who claimed to have had his phone, papers and four dollars in Afghanis stolen from him by an interpreter. I don't buy it, and I explained my experiences with terps to illustrate my skepticism.

Marton ends his post with a deep question. At least I think it's deep. It's not a cornerstone type of question; it's a keystone type of question.

Meanwhile put prejudices aside, because having prejudices apparently doesn't come with better control exercised - so having prejudices is not good. Not even in a narrow, instrumental sense.
* Of course the ANA should not at all be judged based on single incidents, I'm not trying to create an overall bad image of them. Based on what I know, while ANA soldiers may commit bad things just like anyone else, they are doing quite well considering the pay, the training and the equipment they get (which is still better than that what the police gets). Also, based on sources I had access to, American soldiers and other soldiers who have been to combat with ANA units, tend to appreciate them more than others. But I still have heard complaints from trainers and soldiers and the like from some sources. Anyway, now that brought this subject up, I wonder what you people think of the relationship between Afghan and foreign soldiers, and how it varies from place to place or depending on other factors. Let me know. ~ Peter Marton

What follows is this soldier's impressions about relationships with Afghans. There are thousands of other Combat Advisors out there who have had experiences with Afghan soldiers. If you are a Combat Advisor veteran, consider this an open invitation to express your own thoughts about it on this blog. Email them to and I'll post your thoughts.

My earliest experiences with Afghans were with ANA soldiers. While we saw ANP soldiers on the streets of Kabul and Jalalabad in our early jaunts about the land outside the wire, there was nothing to judge them by but the relative professionalism of the ANA. The ANP didn't come out too well in my mind in these early evaluations. Of course, at that point I was still congratulating myself on my luck in being able to work with the ANA.

When O, Maniac and I were initially detached from the team, it took several weeks to get downrange and actually get to know some Afghans. Initially, we met Provincial Headquarters types. They were cordial. LTC SFowski had been working with them for months, and he and his team had developed relationships. It was a little awkward for us, but that was because of us. The Afghans were very friendly and outgoing.

Within a short time we would move downrange and a few days later we met the ones who were to be our charges under the initial plan.

They were a mystery; they came from Tag Ab, way down in a valley that we had not ventured into. The Tab Ab Valley had a mythic reputation. The Special Forces had only recently been involved in a massive TIC (Troops In Contact... a fight) in the valley. We met the district ANP leadership and some of their soldiers who accompanied them for security.

There was no requirement for hospitality from these Afghans; they had come to our firebase to meet with us. This put the onus for hospitality on us. The ANP soldiers viewed us with suspicion as their officers were greeted and invited into a small concrete building that the Special Forces had gotten built not far from the front gate on the firebase. We met for several days with these officers, and we were not impressed.

The district Police Chief, who did not reside in the valley and had a reputation for being absent from his post, was not exactly a ball of fire. Some of his staff seemed potentially trainable, but others seemed intransigent. These ANP had been pinned down inside their district station for a full day only a month or so earlier. We got the impression that they were taking their lives in their hands simply by driving from Tag Ab to Nijrab for the meetings.

We showed them a map of the valley, gave them magic markers, and asked for some information. "Mark in green," we said, "where the ANP are in control. Mark in orange where it is not safe, but the Taliban are not in control. Mark in red where the Taliban are in control."

Nods. They set to work busily, fingers pointing, discussion flowing, markers making that scratchy noise they make on paper. In a few minutes they were done, and presented us with their work.

There was a small green area around the District Center. Orange blobs extended to less than a kilometer from the green dot. The rest of the valley was a mass of red dots.

"Hmmm... we've got work to do."

O briefed them on the idea of community policing; 24/7 coverage, shifts, active patrolling. One ANP officer, eyes wide, stated that they couldn't patrol like that. They didn't have machine guns, he claimed, and the Taliban did.

"Kill them and take their machine guns," O stated flatly, "then you will have machine guns." Eyes became wider, and excuses flowed like water.

Like I said, we were not impressed.

A few weeks later we trained ANAP (Afghan National Auxiliary Police, a now-defunct program) at the nearby "highway building." Among our trainees we had smart guys, enthusiastic guys, John Wayne types (which doesn't really work for Afghans, so they were more like Jan Mohammad Wayne types,) shy young men, curious types, a born leader or two, and one who was clearly a full bubble out of plumb. I think that he was developmentally disabled.

We also met a corrupt ANP officer. His fate was to be tied to our presence, and the men that we were training. That's another story. While we were training the ANP, they complained that they were not getting meat in their meals. This officer had been given money to buy meat for the soldiers. LTC SFowski had to make clear to him that bad things would happen if he didn't provide the meat that was paid for.

Shortly thereafter there was planning, training for, and then the execution of Operation Nauroz Jhala (New Year's Hail.) By the end of this operation, I would say that my opinion of Afghans had matured. I found that I respected many of them. I found that many of them were like my own soldiers at home. I found that cared about them.

You see, lumping the Afghans together as a bunch is just as deceiving as lumping any other bunch together. They are individuals. The only thing that you can really point to as a group are their traditions, their religion, and their customs. Other than that, I found them to be a group of men, just like any other group of men. There are the proud, the brave, the strong, the cowardly, the weak, the smart, the stupid, the moral, the immoral, the Godly and the ungodly.

Their culture breeds certain things into them that we may not like, some things that we are uncomfortable with, and some things that make them among the most hospitable people in the world. Some will focus too much on the aspects of their culture that cannot be changed right now or are a waste of effort to focus on in combat.

Yes, they have an archaic culture. Yes, they have a culture whose treatment of women is driven by a deeply ingrained male inferiority complex (which I think is partially a result of their history of being conquered and pillaged.) Yes, those things need to change. Focusing on those issues right now is like deciding to change your underwear in the middle of a firefight. It'll make your butt feel better, but it doesn't help win the fight and you may not complete the task if you get whacked in mid-change.

It is not a high-payoff task; and it's actually counterproductive.

You have to focus on the things that really matter; like ethics, good governance, leadership and training.

If you can get past the cultural issues and see the basic stuff inside the man, then you will see many of the same attributes that men anywhere have. Afghans have some childlike aspects to them, as they have not had the same social experiences that we have, so all of the simple social practices that you may have had in high school, they have not perfected.

There were incidents. During the operation, ANP of my company were accused several times of stealing. I believe that they did steal a couple of cell phones, but I couldn't convince the Colonel to search the men who had searched the particular khalats where the accusations were made. There were also patently false accusations. One was alleged to have happened on a day when my ANP were not in that area.

The problem is that the local people were only too willing to believe that the ANP had stolen, and in the Tag Ab Valley, word of mouth spread incredibly quickly. One or two bad apples can paint the whole bunch with the same brush. Not much different from here, huh?

I met some very noble Afghans. I met charismatic leaders. I met kids who were like American kids in many ways. The younger the Afghan, the more like us they are. The concerns of the Afghans are very similar to our concerns, but they live in a backward, harsh country. Their lives are simpler in many respects, but the simple tasks that they have to accomplish take considerable effort to complete.

I'm not entirely sure what separates a pro-government Afghan from an anti-government Afghan. The Taliban youth that I met were not externally different from the young men that I trained. The difference probably boiled down to associations; family and the circles that they traveled in. At one point I met an entire family; three generations of bad guys. One of them was a personal bodyguard of Mullah Mahmoud. Opium-growing, explosive-hiding, hashish-smoking bad guys who were no doubt involved with the same people who blew four of my ANP charges into the next world, leaving behind remains that literally had to be sorted.

They looked like farmers. Middle class Afghans.

Which brings me to the ultimate "how did I feel about the Afghans?" When those four men were brought in and O and I were sorting body parts, I was heartbroken. They were soldiers, just like any other soldiers I'd known; because they were mine. I took pride in their successes and said, "D'oh!" when they stepped on it. We shared missions, meals, and laughs. I had trained them in what short time we had to train and watched them progress and then regress in tactical situations.

Overall, they grew. It was only a little, but it was also a lot.

I met heroes. Some of them were Afghans.

At the core of questions of this type about Afghans is the unspoken question, "Are they worth it?" Perhaps when we look at our "impressions" of Afghans, we should recognize that the basic question concerns whether a nation of individuals is deserving of our efforts in the service of our own national security.

1 comment:

  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/17/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.


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