Troops find bringing together various Afghan forces a tough task
June 21, 2009
KHOST, Afghanistan — If the only task that troops had here was to fight an escalating insurgency, life would be much easier.
Instead, U.S. forces are trying to build a cohesive community out of an array of disparate security and political forces that have differing needs and varying skill levels, so that one day they can stand on their own.
It’s proving to be quite a challenge.
Under U.S. guidance, the Afghan National Army has grown to more than 180,000, making it the strongest and best trained of the country’s security forces. But even here in the east, where the Afghan army’s 203rd Corps is considered among the nation’s best-functioning units, there are lapses in discipline and reliability.
Fledgling police forces are rising, but they are still plagued with corruption and a lack of discipline, and are widely unable to secure the inner cities, towns and villages where the Taliban operate. The job is dangerous, and not well paid. And in a conflict that is as much about public trust as military prowess, recruiting new police officers is proving difficult.
The Afghan Border Patrol, a force desperately needed to curb insurgent activity along the extensive frontier with Pakistan, is in its infancy. Launched less than two years ago, some units are operating and more are being trained.
And while the NDS, the Afghan intelligence service, gathers a regular stream of information, reports aren’t always acted on.
"We hear a lot of reports," the agency’s regional leader, who keeps his identity hidden, said during a recent meeting set up to foster cooperation among forces. "We need to take decisions to act against those things. Every month the enemy changes its tactics. We need checkpoints and ambushes."
Meanwhile, officials say that Khost Gov. Hameedullah Qalandar Zai has mostly been holed up in his compound since the Taliban attacked three municipal buildings in downtown Khost on May 12. The attackers wore explosive vests and held the governor and others hostage for hours as the army, police, U.S. and NATO forces fought pitched battles that left 11 Taliban, three Afghan security personnel and four civilians dead and more than two dozen people wounded, among them 15 civilians and three U.S. soldiers.
Bringing these fractured groups together is an uphill battle.
“I have no doubt whatsoever ... of their dedication to help each other out when it gets really, really bad,” said Lt. Col. Pete Molin, Brigade Team Chief at Camp Clark, which from its position in the heart of Khost province oversees the training and mentoring of the 1st Brigade of the Afghan army’s 203rd Corps
“The question is, how do you see really, really bad? The ANA might see it one way and the ANP might see it another way. The coalition might see it one way and the [Afghans] might see it another.”
Efforts to come together have yielded some successes, but distrust and clashes of leadership abound. For the past year, all parties have been meeting weekly under the umbrella of a coordination office known as the Operational Coordination Center, Provincial — OCCP — in downtown Khost. The meetings are an attempt to bring the parties together to share information and build strategies. But they frequently are derailed by disputes or personality conflicts.
At one recent meeting, the governor launched into a tirade against the police for not supplying adequate security, and for not keeping his office informed. And in a heated exchange, border police chief Shir Ahmad Kochi berated the governor for removing a proactive Khost TV director at a critical time in this information war and for blocking the paved road when he expanded the security perimeter around the governor’s compound after the May 12 attack. Now, to get to the OCCP each week, security vehicles must detour onto a dirt route to circumvent the governor’s compound, exposing them to the risk of buried bombs.
Enraged, Qalandar Zai cut the meeting short and dismissed everyone before any strategic planning could be addressed.
“I hate to say it, but I think we need to get the security guys together for another meeting,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Smith of the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Alaska, who commands coalition forces in the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. “We need to talk about the elections. We need to talk about Mangal and Makhbal (tribal fighting) and joint operations. There’s all kinds of stuff we need to talk about.”
Last week, Gen. Mohammad Israr, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 203rd Corps, told Molin that he’d received information about a new batch of armed men roaming the Qalandar area, beyond the mountain ridge to the north of Clark. It might be tribal fighting, Israr said, before concluding that the group was a new enemy.
Israr said he asked the coalition for helicopter transport and supply, but they declined. “We can’t do it alone,” he said.
Molin suggested sending the police to the hilltop to see if the armed men shot at them. He was greeted by laughter among the military folk, not at the prospect of ANP being shot at, but at the suggestion they actually have the manpower to actually send anyone out there.
“The problem right now is that the ANP is weak,” Israr said. “If the ANP and the ABP (border patrol) are strengthened, they can be out in the field.”
In this war of information, assessing reality can be like walking through a hall of mirrors. It all depends on vantage point. Israr saw his forces overextended. The coalition saw the dangers of acting too quickly. Others saw the request as a measuring stick on how far the Afghan army still needs to go to stand on its own.
“They really don’t need air support,” said Capt. James Azzinnari, a member of Molin’s Embedded Training Team. “They are better equipped and have better weapons and body armor than the Taliban, but they would rather ask the coalition for help.
“We are making slow progress. But it will be a generational change.”
Molin put it another way.
“It’s a constant negotiation,” said the former West Point instructor. “It’s a subtle game almost. The Americans certainly have ideas about what they would like to see happen. But it’s a process of letting the Afghans come to what they see as an available solution.”
In fact, Molin noted that after the contentious coordination meeting on Saturday, the men all stood outside talking and the very next day, border police chief Kochi and Gov. Qalandar Zai, who had gone head to head in the meeting, went out on a day trip to a particularly troubled border post in the province.
They fought, they got over it and they got to work. It was indicative, Molin said, of the way things often unfold here.
Trainers and mentors in Clark get attached to their Afghan units, and will sometimes overlook flaws to appreciate larger achievements. Border patrol trainer Capt. Philip Poag, 31, acknowledged the daunting task of standing up a new force. But he said they fight well.
“I’d rather have American soldiers guarding my right and my left, but they are doing their jobs out there,” said Poag, a team chief for the trainers. “They don’t want to die, either. I felt secure with them.”
“These guys are going to be the reason we go home one day.”
Israr is quick to note that his forces operating at Command Outpost Spera, along the southern provincial border with Pakistan, were recently joined by a new unit of the border patrol. And police and army are working together to hold meetings with village elders all along the area to prepare for the elections in August.
When the governor dismissed the OCCP meeting, Lt. Col Matthew Smith of the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment watched the events unfold with the eyes of a newcomer. Smith is taking over command of training and mentoring teams in the Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces this month.
“It’s just so frustrating to watch it all unfold,” Smith said. “This place could be so much more.”
Later, though, after some reflection, Smith’s perspective softened.
“We are talking about something that has taken years and will continue to take years,” he said. “The ABP came into existence in the last two years. ANP is three years behind the army. And that meeting we sat in yesterday didn’t exist a year ago. I think it’s fair to say progress is occurring.”