Transition from US to Afghanistan military an uphill climb
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — Congress has appropriated $51 billion to build and sustain the Afghan army, but Lt. Col. Kohadamani Hamidullah can't get his Humvees repaired.
"See all those Humvees?" he said inside his military base here in east-central Afghanistan, pointing to a ragged line of dusty Humvees. "Broken. Broken. Broken.... All broken."
The United States has supplied 46 Humvees for Hamidullah's battalion here in the rugged, snowcapped peaks of Wardak province in the last couple of years. Only 16 are still running.
A shortage of spare parts, plus a lack of trained mechanics, is among Hamidullah's headaches as he struggles to wean his troops from dependence on the U.S. military. American combat forces are scheduled to leave next year, and the White House is reportedly considering pulling the rest as well. Last month marked the formal transfer of security responsibilities from international troops to Afghan forces. As a consequence, the colonel and his U.S. counterpart are hustling to forge a self-sufficient national fighting force.
Hamidullah, 38, already plans 90% of his unit's operations against the Taliban in the villages and farm fields of this strategic province on Kabul's southwestern shoulder. But U.S. Army Lt. Col. Curby Scarborough, a tall, rangy artillery officer, continues to huddle with Hamidullah almost daily. He and other U.S. advisors mentor Hamidullah's several hundred troops in a province where Taliban fighters dominate the countryside outside Maidan Shahr, the provincial capital.
U.S. infantrymen have rushed to aid Afghan troops confronted by Taliban fighters. The U.S. has sent attack planes and helicopters to assist Afghan forces and has helped with medical evacuation. That help is all but ending with the transfer to full Afghan security control.
Scarborough is trying, inch by inch, to end Hamidullah's dependence — to become what he calls a "shadow advisor." But right now, he says, the Afghan army has holes that desperately need filling.
"They struggle with logistics and enablers," Scarborough said, referring to evacuating and treating the wounded, obtaining supplies and ammunition, and maintaining and repairing equipment. "So they are at times more dependent on us than we'd like."
Even so, he said, Hamidullah has brought professionalism to his unit. "He controls his guys," Scarborough said. "They used to just spray and pray. Now they have discipline."
Hamidullah, a dynamic man with a stout build and a fierce black beard, is considered one of the Afghan army's elite commanders. A U.S. officer nicknamed him "Big Show," after an American professional wrestler.
Hamidullah says his forces could fight the Taliban on their own if only the U.S. would provide him with enough tools.
Wolfing down breakfast one morning, he barked out his requirements in rudimentary English: "I need armored Humvees, route-clearance package, motor pool, repair shop, good mechanics, air support, medevac, artillery … "
He paused to swallow, then added that the quality of Afghan military uniforms remains poor. So too the army's logistical system, beset by incompetence and theft.
"If we don't get all these things fixed by 2014, then we have big problems," he said. "Right now, it's like the tea without the sugar."
Hamidullah was sipping chai in his command room later that morning when he got a cellphone call that three of his soldiers had been hit by a roadside bomb nearby. He walked outside to a tiny aid station, where an Afghan medic was wrapping bandages around bloody shrapnel cuts on the men's sunburned faces.
The colonel escorted the wounded men to his command center, where they gorged on leftovers from the commander's lunch of meatballs, rice and nan. Then he returned to work.
Hamidullah is a man in a hurry. "The Afghans have to live for tomorrow, not just today," Scarborough said. "They know that time is short."
Recently, the Afghans planned and executed two medical evacuations, using Russian-made helicopters provided by the United States. Without the help of the Americans, the unit was able to fly wounded soldiers to a military hospital in Kabul, the capital, said U.S. Lt. Col. Joel Smith, commander of Task Force China of the 3rd Infantry Division. The men probably would have died if transported by road, the common Afghan practice.
"It was a surprise to us," said Smith, stationed next door to the Afghan base. "It was their show, and that was a real measure of success."
Smith said U.S. and Afghan commanders here hash out their problems directly, including the persistent threat of so-called insider attacks against American personnel. In March, two U.S. and three Afghan soldiers in Wardak were killed by a gunman wearing an Afghan police uniform.
U.S. mentors here are accompanied by armed "guardian angels" when entering the Afghan military base. "It's a threat to both sides," Smith said of insider attacks. "We talk openly about it."
At the ramshackle Afghan base, a former U.S. special forces compound made of concrete, plywood and prefab structures, Scarborough and Hamidullah commiserated about the broken-down Humvees. The Afghans' Ford Ranger pickups, the backbone of Afghan military mobility, were in only slightly better shape. Forty percent were out of service, awaiting parts and trained mechanics.
The Afghans' reliance on American backup forces is another issue. Asked why Hamidullah had requested U.S. help on some occasions rather than send his own quick-reaction force, Scarborough paused and said, "Good question."
He thought for a moment, then said: "It's not a matter of their capability. It's showing we're here in support of them.... He's going to call whoever he knows will come in heavy and help him."
The goal, Scarborough said, is to show the Afghans how a quick-reaction force should respond. Ideally, Hamidullah will help train other commanders to prepare similar forces, he said.
Afghan soldiers here are Taliban targets. In November, a massive truck bomb exploded outside the office in Maidan Shahr, where the army, police, district officials, U.S. advisors and the national spy agency hold meetings. Three Afghan soldiers and two civilians were killed, Hamidullah said.
On a recent cold, windy morning, Hamidullah gathered 100 soldiers for a mission he had planned with no American involvement. Scarborough was not present as the Afghans mounted machine guns on Humvees and Rangers, and then lined up with assault rifles.
Hamidullah was sending his men, along with 40 police officers and 10 agents from the government spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, into three nearby villages. They planned to search for Taliban fighters, weapons and bomb-making materials.
The colonel delivered a stirring speech. He told his men they represented the will of the people. He ordered them to respond to enemy attacks only after making sure that no civilians were in the line of fire.
"This is a blessed operation," he told them. "We are soldiers. We love our country. God is with us."
Over the next several hours, the force cleared the three villages, detaining two suspected insurgents. There was no gunfire, but a homemade bomb exploded, wounding two soldiers.
Many more such operations lie ahead for Hamidullah as he takes on full responsibility for trying to hold the Taliban at bay.
Hamidullah has a wife, a son and two daughters in nearby Kabul. He has brothers in Canada and cousins in San Francisco. He said he wants to help build a stable, secure Afghanistan for his wife and children.
"For now, I am staying in Afghanistan," the colonel said. "But later, if the situation in Afghanistan is bad for me and my family, maybe I'll go to Canada too."