Training Afghan artillery teams a lesson in patience
Under the observation of U.S. soldiers, members of an Afghan National Army battery fire a D-30 field artillery gun at Camp Parsa in Khost province in November. U.S. soldiers partnered with the unit say the Soviet-era weapon offers promise for the ANA, which lacks combat air support.
CAMP PARSA, Afghanistan — On a clear November morning, Capt. Hazimi Zacki’s soldiers towed a pair of D-30 heavy guns to the edge of this post in Khost province with a plan to fire 10 rounds into the nearby mountains.
Their U.S. advisers hoped the training would push the unit another step closer to independent operation in 2014, when the coalition’s combat role is scheduled to end.
But after five hours marked by delays, posturing and a tea break, their mentors could only shake their heads.
“There’s just nothing we can do to change that here,” said Capt. Jamie Neely, commander of the U.S. battery advising the Afghan unit. “It’s their customs and traditions.”
The Soviet-era D-30 field artillery gun has a short barrel, fires with an ear-cracking boom and offers some promise to an Afghan military short on heavy weaponry.
U.S. artillery soldiers are training their Afghan counterparts to use the guns for indirect fire, the kind of long-distance artillery support critical for a military lacking jets or helicopters. Indirect fire requires an observer to call in coordinates for a distant target unseen by the gun crew.
“We don’t have an air force in Afghanistan,” said the battery commander, Zacki. “It’s the only hope for the ANA.”
Neely and others say the D-30 avoids many of the logistical problems plaguing the Afghan Army. The gun is already fielded in parts of the country, is durable and remains affordable for continued production, they say. Ammunition is readily available.
In a military where education is minimal, the weapons are relatively simple to use, soldiers say. The basic calculations required in indirect fire — turning a target on a map into a set of firing coordinates — are understood by Afghan officers, who are now trying to refine their accuracy.
The live fires offer opportunities for such improvements, letting soldiers apply what they’ve learned in the classroom as advisers rectify mistakes.
Yet the training has also become something of a spectacle, Neely and others say. Afghan officials from the brigade and battalion, as well as the ministry of defense, want to watch. Their presence can be distracting, Neely said, and sometimes inspire theatrics.
At one firing with officials present, Zacki, the battery commander, grabbed the radio as if commanding the direction of fire, Neely said. The coordinates had already been calculated by battery members.
On this day, distraction arrived as the advisers waited for the exercise to begin. One of the battery’s soldiers came to Neely with news that because the brigade and battalion commanders might not be able to attend, the live fire could be canceled.
Annoyed, Neely left to find Zacki, who had disappeared from the gun site.
He found the battery commander seated in his office, drinking tea with visitors he said had arrived from Kabul. Zacki would return to the exercise site in 20 minutes, he told Neely. But if not, his second-in-command would take charge.
Neely, who had planned the live-fire around a tight air clearance window, said the men needed to prepare the guns by noon.
Neely chose to wait for a command from the Afghan side. Zacki had delegated authority to his deputy, “so we will facilitate that empowerment,” he said as he returned to the exercise site.
Yet the delay continued at the exercise site. As the U.S. battery watched and waited for a command from the Afghan side, an aide to the brigade commander arrived to prepare for the possible high-level visit.
The exercise only began in earnest when Zacki returned to the scene, more than 20 minutes after seeing Neely. Two large trucks pulled into the gravel lot with the guns, signaling the end of a long wait and the start of a flurry of activity.
Afghan gun crews unloaded ammunition, staked the legs of the gun and turned their attention to the sites. In a nearby lean-to, Afghans and U.S. advisers turned the coordinates provided by forward observers into firing instructions, and the two sides compared worksheets. Firing was imminent.
Then, everything stopped. The Afghans in the room snapped to attention. The brigade executive officer entered and approached the plotting table. He leaned on it and started a conversation with Zacki and his second-in-command that, from the translated fragments reaching the back of the room, quickly drifted away from the exercise at hand.
Neely looked down and quietly sighed.
It was some 10 minutes later, after the XO moved outside, that the battery fired its first shot, a massive eruption of dust on the mountainside, followed seconds later by a commanding boom.
The remaining rounds were fired in the next 30 minutes, the majority of them following the arrival of the brigade commander, which further delayed the firing. When all was done, the soldiers applauded and the brigade commander gathered them for a picture at one of the weapons.
There was much to be liked about the exercise, from the viewpoint of U.S. soldiers. Once commanded, the Afghan battery proved eager. They unloaded and staked the guns with gusto, listened to their forward observer and worked the calculations into firing directions.
They were off target by 200 meters, Neely said, a workable margin for a group still refining its skills and somewhat hobbled by a lack of tools to measure weather conditions, propellant temperatures and other variables.
There were moments of head-scratching, as well. Zacki’s disappearance for tea reflected a common complaint from U.S. soldiers and advisers — that Afghan soldiers often lack a sense of urgency, halting patrols or operations for tea or lunch. The appearance of the brigade commander and executive officer spoke to the often brazen displays of authority by high-ranking officers.
“We’re trying to do training while some people are trying to do a VIP show,” said Maj. Patrick Moffett, the operations officer for the adviser unit, the 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment.
For Neely, Moffett and other advisers in Khost, such differences reflect the limits of their teaching. They either have to work around them or wait for Afghans to change on their own, the Americans say.
“A lot of it,” Neely said, “goes to their culture and their Army.”