FORWARD OPERATING BASE BORIS, Afghanistan — As soldiers walked through a flower-speckled valley in Bermal district, the translator picked up insurgent chatter over the radio: “They are coming.”
The intel spread quickly through American ranks that they were being watched.
“We need to own this high ground so we don’t get [expletive] up right here,” shouted one soldier. “We’ve got to move now.”
Soldiers clambered up the slopes on either side of the road as an A-10 Warthog close support jet roared low overhead in a show of force. And then the Americans settled in to wait.
They weren’t running the show here. It was up to the Afghans.
In the past year, U.S. and NATO troops have increasingly drawn back from planning and leading operations such as this one, handing the lead more and more to government forces in the run-up to the withdrawal of foreign combat troops at the end of next year.
The Afghan National Army 2nd Kandak (battalion), led by Lt. Col. Abdul Gafar, blazed the trail out of Forward Operating Base Boris shortly after daybreak, blue plastic bags with pita bread and juice boxes dangling from their packs. An Afghan with an IED (improvised explosive device) detector moved along at an alarmingly rapid pace.
As they began picking their way toward the village of Wecha Kackey, Capt. Robert Reidel, head of an eight-person advisory team attached to Gafar’s unit, muttered nervously, “We’re going the exact same route. Even when they say we’re going a different route.”
He said later that the route eventually deviated from the path of the past two days’ patrols, but he fretted that the enemy would learn their habits and take advantage of them.
By the time the foot patrol reached Wecha Kackey on the third day of Operation Pamir — an advance designed to clear villages of enemy safehouses and set up new Afghan checkpoints — the Kandak and Reidel’s team had pulled ahead of the American team backing them up, led by Lt. Col. Robert Fouche.
Gafar was in the village in a Shura with local elders. The Americans stayed out of sight, so villagers would know the ANA was in charge. The enemy kept chattering over the radio, coordinating plans to attack if troops moved north, closer to the village.
Fouche stood on a mountain peak overlooking mud compounds on one side and lush green fields on the other, wondering how to nudge Gafar into deliberately triggering the ambush, taking the fight to the enemy.
“I don’t think this is a bad Kandak at all,” Fouche said. “I just think they’re not as aggressive as they could be.”
Of Gafar he added, “I think he’s a little bit more of a politician. Nothing wrong with that.”
The ANA brigade in Paktika is one of the few Americans have declared able to operate “independently with American advisers,” the highest rating given so far. The head of the International Security Assistance Force said in March that five of 26 brigades in the country now meet that standard.
The challenges that come with advising Afghan troops in Paktika may be a best case scenario for the future of other provinces. It is one of the first places where Americans have had to shift from training, teaching and leading to leaning back and trusting the Afghans to know best. Sometimes that is easier said than done.
At Wecha Kackey, Gafar didn’t learn about the radio chatter the Americans had heard until after the Shura was over. Second Kandak had no contact with the Taliban that day.
As the Americans and Afghans rested on the road back to FOB Boris, Fouche, Reidel and Gafar discussed plans for the next patrol. Meanwhile, they kept listening to radio chatter between insurgents with call signs like “Dangerous,” “Grenade” and “Injury.” Gafar said that most were the same call signs his troops use.
“It’s because you’re so good,” Fouche said. “They want to be like you.”
“They cannot be like me, because I am good with the people,” Gafar replied.
Reidel chalked up Gafar’s decisions not to engage, both at Wecha Kackey and another village the day before, to a difference of perspective. While the American mind-set would be to look for the insurgents and kill them, Afghans might decide to fight another day.
But, asked if he thought one was better, he conceded, “I grew up in the U.S. Army and went through U.S. infantry school. I have been trained to close with and destroy the enemy.”
Col. Todd Clark, a brigade-level adviser with the 10th Mountain Division, has spent multiple tours and two masters theses pondering the complexities of advising. Asked if some Afghan commanders weren’t being aggressive enough, he asked, “According to whom?”
“Some of these kids out here, their country’s been at war since they were in diapers,” he continued. “Some of our [Afghan] senior officers, they’ve been fighting in the war since 1979, so I think it’s kind of hard to pass judgement on whether they’re being aggressive enough.”
Clark stressed that advising isn’t about teaching Afghans the “right” way to do things. Instead, it requires finding out what the Afghans want to do better, and offering possible ways to improve. It demands extreme patience and cultural intelligence, he said.
As 2nd Kandak and the advisory team prepared to move toward Nakhl, a historically hostile village, on the fourth day of Operation Pamir, those virtues came under strain.
With Gafar away at meetings, his executive officer, Safi Nasrullah, was left in charge of the village clearance operation. Before the team began to move, Nasrullah told Reidel to spread out his soldiers, then repeated the request.
Reidel said they would spread out once they began to move.
After Nasrullah hectored him one last time, Reidel snapped at the translator, “I will spread out however the [expletive] I want to spread out. I graduated infantry school.”
“It’s amazing how many people here will tell me how to do a wedge,” he fumed a few minutes later.
Fouche said Afghan commanders would sometimes order the Americans to spread out as a way to show they’re in charge, and Fouche would usually humor them, moving about his men at their command. He admitted that he sometimes found their orders frustrating as well and would push back.
Reidel later said such incidents are an inevitable side effect of two people working so closely together.
“If Col. Gafar gets mad with me about something, he’ll yell and walk away from me, so it’s usually not a cultural thing,” he said. “It’s more of just two people that have a certain mindset of the way things are done and have disagreements.”
Reidel said he knew the linguists would often leave out profanity when translating, since curse words carry more weight in Afghan culture. But he added that many of the Afghan soldiers who have picked up English curse just as often as the Americans.
As the patrol reached Nakhl that morning, translators once again began to pick up insurgent chatter on the radio. This time, they were saying troops — probably ANA — were right outside the door of their safehouse.
Reidel shared the intel with Nasrullah, including the rebels’ assurances to each other that the Army would only search a few houses.
“You and I know better than that,” Reidel added.
Nasrullah agreed as he and Reidel moved into the town. Afghan police were charged with searching the houses while ANA soldiers provided security.
As the soldiers did their work, a 20-year-old villager named Ghausullah told a reporter about an American air strike a few weeks earlier that killed one villager and injured another.
“The people of the village are very happy with the national army, but very angry at the U.S. Army,” he said. “The ANA are our brothers and our sons. The U.S. Army is not our sons or our brothers. They are not Muslim.”
He predicted that once the Americans leave, the Taliban fighters in town, who he said come from Pakistan, will make peace with the ANA.
Maj. Jon Belmont, a 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division adviser at the province’s tactical operations center at Forward Operating Base Rushmore, said the two men targeted by the air strike had been observed engaging in hostile activity. The Americans had waited until they were clear of the village to strike, and then provided medical care to the survivor. The injured man had been released to the village elders in return for a promise that he would be available for questioning in the future.
As bad weather blew in and reports drifted over the radio of firefights in nearby towns, the Afghan police wrapped up their search of the village. They said they didn’t have enough time or people to search every home, and they didn’t find the insurgent safehouse.
Col. Dennis Sullivan, head of the 10th Mountain Division’s advisory mission for all of Paktika, said it remains to be seen whether 2nd Kandak’s wariness will have negative consequences. If the Kandak reaches its final objective, the insurgent stronghold of Margah, Sullivan said, Gafar’s caution in the meantime may be justified.
“In years past here, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would do large clearance operations where we’d go in and search a whole village, and it really didn’t accomplish much,” he said. In return for disrupting a handful of insurgent supporters, he added, “you just irritate the other 95 percent” of the village.
If a tactical failure could lead to a serious defeat, the Americans could still step in, Sullivan said. But barring disaster, it was crucial to stand back and let the Afghans show their capabilities.
According to Belmont, by the end of Operation Pamir, 2nd Kandak made it within about a kilometer of Margah.
Belmont said there was little left for the Americans to teach the Afghans. Now that they have the ability to operate alone, belief in themselves is all that’s left to be tested.
“It’s going to take a nation-wide leap of faith” when the coalition leaves, he predicted. “And if they falter at the edge, they’re probably screwed.”