The third of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
Today marks a change for me here in Afghanistan. After a few months working and living with a 173rd Airborne platoon (wherein my daily routine has consisted of walking through minefields, meeting with villagers, scoping out projects, sleeping on a roof side-by-side with members of the platoon in severely inadequate sleeping bags, sharing a cigarette on guard at 0300, and playing non-stop RISK tournaments until 0100), they have left my outpost for a new assignment. My original “co-workers” are now on their way to train the new soldiers that will comprise the Afghan National Army (ANA), and have been replaced by a new platoon.
With this change in my environment, I cannot help but address the President’s State of the Union address and how it has impacted – and continues to impact – us here on the ground. Admittedly an unwatched speech at our outpost due to a lack of satellite television (and due to the aforementioned RISK tournaments!), I finally got around to reading a transcript the next morning. I also read some of the Monday morning quarterbacking on the speech. One column by a veteran who served in Afghanistan stood out…
As a former infantry officer with the 10th Mountain Division in 2007, Mr. Erik Malmstrom possesses a perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan that most Americans will never have. Except for perhaps me (and a few others of course). Interestingly enough, I am an embedded civilian sent to train Afghans in his old area of operation (AO) under the protection of the 173rd Airborne (the successors to Mr. Malmstrom’s 10th Mountain Division) in the northeast mountains of Afghanistan. It is from this perspective that I’d like to briefly comment on Mr. Malmstrom’s main arguments on the current counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and the much-needed Integrated Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troop increases.
In his opinion piece, Mr. Malmstrom makes several assertions about “Mr. Obama’s strategy” (better named “the COIN strategy”) that I think require additional context, as the situation in Afghanistan today is a lot different than it was during Mr. Malmstrom’s time here in 2007.
Select ISAF troops–now including my old platoon–are living side-by-side with the Afghan National Army (ANA) to show them firsthand the discipline required to be a productive security force, provide them with the much-needed skills and equipment to effectively protect their communities, and ensure that all missions and patrols contain the ANA as the lead component. In fact, we do not go outside the wire into villages without the ANA’s leadership and guidance–a drastic change from the protocols of the 10th Mountain Division a few years past.
The ANA is taking on a larger amount of the responsibility for the security of the country and will continue to do so as the pledged additional American/NATO/non-NATO troops enter the country and allow for the incubation of a stronger national military. Likewise, the civilian sector of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) has put itself at the forefront of helping their citizenry, from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (with whom I work and mentor daily).
Last month, it was ANA commandos–not ISAF troops–that defended the Presidential Palace in Kabul. And efforts to train Afghan soldiers are growing and will continue to do so at rapid rates throughout 2010. These Afghan units are trained by, backed up by, and supported by their non-Afghan partners–as it should be.
A solider assigned to train the ANA recently told me that on his first deployment to Afghanistan two years ago, the Afghan security forces were non-existent and security operations were undertaken without the inclusion of these forces. Today he has noticed a change in ANA presence when we patrol the villages, and–relative to his last deployment–he has seen a noticeable increase in ownership of the patrol responsibilities (especially when the ANA conducts independent patrols, missions, and community protection without ISAF soldiers). The purpose of these patrols has not been security for the sake of security, but to stabilize an area of Afghanistan to allow it to develop with the assistance of its own ministries and civilian advisors.
Admittedly, there is a large divide between American and Afghan “cultural norms,” as I have seen from living side-by-side with both American and Afghan military and civilian personnel. However, we harbor enormous respect for the Afghan security forces as they attempt to secure their country and instill discipline within their ranks. My platoon and I walk patrols with them each day, have pulled guard with them standing next to us (and yes, it was “all hands on deck” at 0300, even for civilians!), and have literally slept in the same living quarters as the Afghan security forces (which consisted of dirt floors, glassless windows, and below freezing temperatures).
Bottom line: it’s important to point out that Afghans are not taking a passive role in governing, securing, and providing essential services for their people. I agree with Malmstrom that “this is an Afghan war that must be won or lost by Afghans.” I also agree that the Afghan government must do a better job of fighting corruption and winning the confidence of the Afghan people. However, the Afghans are indeed taking steps to take ownership of their country in every sector of society, starting with security and ultimately by trying to provide other essential services (which is where I come in). The COIN strategy is on paper–and hopefully in practice–exactly the approach that is required to move foreign troops out of Afghanistan responsibly.
I hate to see my old platoon go, but I know they are the right men to train the ANA recruits. I look forward to flying down to see them work in a few months, but I really can’t wait to share a much-needed beer with them at their German base when their deployment is over.
Keep up the good work, gents. It was great working with you all.