Hard feelings on both sides as US winds down its Afghan role
SUROBI, Afghanistan — Col. Babagul Aamal is a proud veteran of 28 years in the Afghan National Army. Short and fit, with a thick black beard, he’s a leader who blurts out exactly what he’s thinking.
“I don’t talk politics — I talk facts,” Aamal said, wearing a sweater beneath his uniform in his unheated command office on a dusty base 40 miles east of Kabul.
It shames him, Aamal said, that he is not allowed to wear his pistol when he enters the fortified gate of the new American military base next door. Though he’s a brigade commander, he’s required to stand before an airport-type scanner with his arms raised, almost in surrender.
Yet when Americans visit Aamal’s base, they are not searched. They are offered chai tea. And they bring half a dozen soldiers armed with M-16s, so-called Guardian Angels on the lookout for “insider attacks” by Afghan soldiers.
“Afghan generals get searched by low-ranking foreign soldiers,” Aamal said. “Our soldiers see this, and they feel insulted.”
As American troops shift from combat to advising, the ominous specter of insider attacks has strained the relationship between the two armies.
Sixty-two Western coalition troops have been killed this year in 46 such attacks, leaving many American soldiers deeply suspicious of their erstwhile allies.
At the same time, some Afghan officers and soldiers say they feel abandoned and patronized. After 11 years, they say, certain Americans still don’t respect Afghan customs.
Moreover, they complain that the United States is pulling out without providing the weapons and equipment needed to hold off the Taliban.
“The Americans have the weapons, so they go wherever they want. It’s like this is their country,” the brigade’s public affairs officer, Maj. Ghulam Ali, said with a weary shrug.
Officers and soldiers encountered during three days spent with the Afghan army were upbeat and enthusiastic about taking over the fight. But many also said they felt slighted by what they perceive as a chronic lack of resources.
At a desolate battalion base beneath towering snowcapped mountains, Lt. Col. Hussian Hadl sat in his office, shivering in an overcoat and puffing on a cigarette. The electricity was on, but only because Hadl was using precious fuel to run a generator for a visit by an American journalist.
Hadl’s 1st Battalion recently took over the base from a French military unit, which had fuel for generators. Hadl said he’s been supplied enough fuel to power communications equipment, but not for heat or lights.
His 700 men have 40 Humvees, he said, but half the vehicles are in the shop, awaiting parts. There’s barely fuel for 20 of them. The battalion has just three heavy machine guns, he says, and no rounds for its Russian-made mortars.
Inside the chilly officers’ mess hall, 1st Lt. Ali Ahmad wolfed down a hot meal of goat and rice. He said the Afghans would like to use traditional Afghan wood stoves, called bukharis, but there are no stovepipes in the French-constructed buildings, and no firewood.
“I’m not worried about the Americans leaving. I’m not worried about the Taliban,” Lt. Col. Hadl said. “I’m worried we won’t have enough weapons and fuel to fight on our own.”
For the 2,700 soldiers in Col. Aamal’s Brigade of the 201st Corps, the fight against the Islamist militants who once ran Afghanistan is largely their own. Aamal described three recent combat operations he said were planned and carried out by his men, with minimal advice from Western forces.
But he also pointed to 27 trucks that sit idle on the base, waiting for replacement batteries. Humvees, parked in a line, need new brake pads. There is not enough fuel for heat. He blames the Afghan Defense Ministry and the coalition forces.
“How can my soldiers perform under these conditions?” Aamal asked. “Some of them can’t survive like this, and they just walk away and quit.”
Aamal says his relations with the coalition hit a low point under the French, who occupied the adjoining base before the American unit arrived. “Let me be blunt: The French didn’t like us,” Aamal said.
When three Afghans were badly wounded by a roadside bomb, he said, the French took three hours to provide a medevac helicopter. By then, one of the soldiers had died. The copter flew another of the soldiers to a Kabul military hospital, but Aamal said he was told to transport the third man — and the body of the dead man — by road.
Aamal hopes for a better relationship with his new neighbors, the 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He’s met the Americans only a few times, he said, and they seem eager to help.
“But we’ll see,” he said.
The colonel cited incidents involving U.S. soldiers elsewhere that have enraged Afghans: the slaying of 16 villagers in Kandahar province, for which Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused, and the inadvertent burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers at the Bagram air base.
“These things make Afghan soldiers feel their self-respect has been taken away,” Aamal said. “They feel like servants.”
The American battalion is part of the first new “security force assistance brigade” assigned to advise Afghan soldiers as the U.S. prepares to remove all combat troops by the end of 2014. Seven more assistance brigades are to arrive in coming months.
A reporter embedded with the Afghans was not permitted by U.S. military authorities to interview members of the 2nd Battalion because he was not embedded with the unit. But because of insider attacks, the reporter was allowed to sleep on the U.S. base at Aamal’s request. The colonel said he could not guarantee that his men wouldn’t attack the journalist.
“I’m afraid one of my soldiers might do something foolish,” Aamal said. “Even I, as an Afghan officer, cannot know what is inside that Afghan soldier’s heart and mind.”
Three of four soldiers now defending the country are Afghans. By the middle of next year, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force expects Afghan forces to take responsibility for the entire nation.
As Afghans take the lead, casualties are increasing. An average of 110 Afghan soldiers and 200 police officers are killed in action each month, a sharp increase from a year ago, according to the Defense Ministry.
As of Sept. 30, ISAF had turned over 330 bases to Afghan security forces. About 250 remain in ISAF hands.
Equipment and supplies are paid for primarily by the U.S. and distributed by the Defense Ministry. Over the years, American officers have said that much of that is stolen or sold by ministry officials, or by field commanders. They have also said Afghan units don’t properly conserve fuel and ammunition, and fail to maintain vehicles.
“Logistics is an area where we need to improve our efforts,” said Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, an ISAF spokesman.
Charlie Stadtlander, another spokesman for the coalition forces, said the Afghan army had “made great strides” in logistics. He cited an operation last month in which the army supplied 10,000 troops with fuel for 16 days with no ISAF assistance.
At the same time, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reported this month that the NATO training mission could not account for $201 million in fuel supplied to the Afghan army because NATO officers had shredded fuel purchase documents.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, denied any serious logistics problems, except for shortages of vehicle parts.
Supplies of ISAF materiel will continue through 2013, said James Graybeal, an ISAF spokesman.
“Once initial fielding is complete, it is Afghanistan’s responsibility to provide and maintain any additional and replacement equipment,” he said.
Aamal, the colonel, is skeptical. “We don’t have our own air support, artillery, medevac,” he said. “We can’t suddenly create these things.”
Some of the equipment his brigade is using was provided in the 1980s by Russia, which Aamal served as an Afghan officer. The colonel worries that the Defense Ministry’s inability to supply units will force a cut in troop strength from 195,000 to 165,000.
“It’s embarrassing to keep asking someone else for your basic needs,” he said.
Even so, morale seems reasonably high. The colonel’s men appear better disciplined and more professional than Afghan soldiers in other units in the past.
At checkpoints along the crucial Kabul-to-Jalalabad highway, the troops were alert and polite. There were no demands for bribes or searches for valuables.
High above Hadl’s base, at an observation site built into the shoulder of a blue-gray escarpment, Pvt. Khair Mohammed manned a lonely guard post. He spends 20 to 30 days on each shift, joined by eight other soldiers.
Mohammed scanned the misty gray mountains for signs of insurgents. They periodically fire rockets at his post, usually without effect.
Mohammed considers himself adequately supplied and fed. Far below, a tiny figure was hiking up the escarpment, a suitcase-sized plastic container of hot food strapped to his back. It was a soldier, making a 40-minute hike, straight up, to deliver lunch.
For firepower, Mohammed had half a dozen magazines of 30 rounds each for his M-16, his only weapon. No matter how well his unit is supplied, or how soon the Americans leave, he said, he’s in the middle of a war and can’t stop to worry about such things.
“We’re ready to fight the enemy, with or without the foreigners,” he said. “We’re fighting him now, all alone up here.”
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.