Normal Days; 2: The Work Of The DayOld Blue | Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013 | 2 Comments »
The Germans won’t allow your interpreters, or “Language Assistants,” sometimes referred to as “LA’s” for short, stay on the base you live on. There are several methods for meeting up with and transporting them to the Headquarters each day so that you can get productive work done. This means that greetings are exchanged after dismounting the vehicles at the the ABP headquarters. Traditionally, there are handshakes and hugs. Over time, you have gotten to know each of them and have worked with them all, but for the sake of continuity you are typically matched up with the same linguist each time you work. Daweed, an intelligent young Hazara who studies journalism, is the LA you usually work with.
Once greetings are exchanged, you head off towards the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) compound to begin the work of the day. You’ve reviewed your notes and the progress you’ve made. Today the Afghans are going to conduct their first-ever Kandak (battalion… a collection of companies) training meeting. The Afghan officers have expressed discontent with the training level and skills of some of their soldiers. But you noticed that there are soldiers within the QRF who have each of the skills that the officers have bemoaned the lack of. The QRF has the raw materials to address these training needs, and now they need a methodology to use those resources to “spread the wealth” across the Kandak. This may seem an obvious solution to many people, but it’s a foreign concept for them.
Approaching the gate to the self-contained compound, your boots carry you across uneven, dusty ground solidified into the shape it took as it dried after the last rain. There is a guard in the tower. You recognize him, but don’t remember his name. A wave and a “good morning” called out in Dari is met with a friendly wave and a returned greeting. You ask him, again in Dari, how he is, how his job is going. He answers that all is good, and he is healthy.
As you pass through the gate, you see a group of soldiers near the weapons storage conex. They have a blanket spread out on the ground and assorted weapons are in various states of disassembly. You recognize many of the soldiers and stop to chat for a few minutes, making sure not to miss anyone during the handshakes. Many are very friendly, and those who haven’t spent much time around you eye you with obvious curiosity. You wonder what’s going on in their minds, what they see when they see you; what they wonder about you. Normal greetings exchanged, you ask how the work is going, and what they think of the condition of the weapons. They are cleaning and doing maintenance on AKM (commonly and mistakenly lumped under the “AK-47″ name), PKM machine guns, and “Dishka” .50 caliber Russian machine guns.
Two of the soldiers, clearly near exasperation, are struggling to assemble a US-made Mossberg shotgun. The extractors have to be put in a certain way, and it can be tricky. The Afghans look to you plaintively, holding the American-made shotgun out to you, bidding your assistance in putting it back into operation. You are an American, and this is an American weapon; of course you know how to put it back together.
This is a challenge. There is no explaining to them that you haven’t been trained to reassemble this weapon. You are the advisor, of course you know how to assemble this American weapon. Your reputation among the Afghans as a soldier, your credibility as a combat advisor is at stake. You have mere moments to figure this out. They beckon to you, indicating an open spot on the blanket to sit and work.
The wool blanket has seen better days, which is why it’s being used as a ground cover and work surface. It’s better than sitting directly in the dust. Settling in cross-legged, the shotgun is presented to you along with fingers pointing to place where the troublesome parts are. Daweed is engaging in conversation with one of the soldiers, but no matter. Some things don’t require precise interpretation, and making the effort with limited Dari to understand is often appreciated on their part. Sometimes the soldiers teach you new words or phrases. They took the weapon apart and are now confused about getting it back together. Looking into the receiver, and with the parts presented, you see where the two offending pieces fit. Fiddling with it as the Afghan soldiers watch intently, a false start gets a few mumbles going. Some of them are beginning to doubt that it’s going to work again. More pressure to solve the puzzle. After a couple of attempts, the sequence of assembly becomes clear, and the pieces practically assemble themselves. The weapon functions properly.
Smiles all around. The doubters are mocked good-naturedly by their brethren who had faith in you. The shotgun is disassembled again, for demonstration purposes, and put together explaining each step to the soldiers who had been struggling with it. One slow demonstration and the two of them have it down pat. After a few words of appreciation on both sides, it’s time to head for the office. The day has barely begun.
The defacto commander is actually slotted as the Executive Officer. Colonel Bashir has over thirty years of experience in uniform, and was trained in several schools in the Russian tradition. He is a sound, committed officer with a lot of savvy. He understands in detail all that he sees going on around him. Over time, you have grown to understand the subtleties of his expressions. He has grown to feel safe in speaking with you openly about the challenges of the political situations that exist in the Afghan Border Police and its officers. He is respected by his men, and shows a very paternal attitude towards his troops… in an Afghan way.
This relationship has opened the door to close relationships with much of the leadership. Each of the company, or Tolai, commanders and the staff officers have good relationships with you. Your relationship with the Kandak Training Officer is among the closest. He is a competent, intelligent and committed officer. The young captain has great potential to be an agent of change in the Kandak.
First order is always greetings. There is a ritual, and it is followed. Hugs demonstrate the degree of familiarity. Chai is served, and pleasantries are exchanged. Then, some current events and observations. The Colonel explains a speech that President Karzai has just made over the radio, and asks your opinion of what the American drawdown is going to mean to Afghanistan, the ABP and his Kandak. You gain insight into how Afghans view this process. Diplomacy is key here; you don’t have the authority to speak for the entire US government, but you are not in a position to keep your mouth shut entirely.
Those waters negotiated without upset, you sit back and unwrap an Afghan candy similar to taffy. Strawberry. The steaming hot chai helps dissolve the chewy candy.
The Training Officer arrives. This will be his meeting, and you spend some time coaching him on how a training meeting would run smoothly. He nods and seems a little nervous. Staff officers begin to trickle in, and further greetings are exchanged. First, they present themselves to the Colonel, then turn to you and greet you, most very warmly. Two of the Tolai commanders appear within a few seconds of each other. The third Tolai will be represented by a senior Lieutenant, as the commander is on leave.
The meeting begins with a blessing and a few words from the Colonel. The next hour and a half are a stop-and-go version of a training meeting, with notes taken on a dry erase board. At first, it is like pulling teeth from a chicken. A question is followed by silence and hesitance. After a while and a few suggestions, a robust discussion begins, with a few ideas of merit emerging. In the end, it’s a start. Nothing earth-shattering has emerged, but each of the Tolai commanders and the training officer believe that with a little preparation, the next meeting will be more productive. The progress was incremental, but that is, in itself, progress.
The next meeting will indeed begin to bear fruit… but you don’t know that yet.
It is nearly lunch time, and all of the Afghan officers seem very interested in making sure that you eat. Today, there is time for a meal in the ABP chow hall. The Colonel gathers up his things, you grab your radio and the two of you make your way across the compound to the dining facility. The food at the headquarters is always good.
After lunch, you will accompany the Colonel back to his office. There will be a limited amount of time available to discuss the happenings of the morning and make sure that the commitment to continue with this change is solid. Reassured, you and Daweed make your way back to the vehicles to gear up for the ride home, basically a backtrack of the morning’s move.
The earth did not move. The war was not won or lost. Today, nobody you know was injured or killed. In fact, the RC North was quiet in general. But today, incremental movement was made towards the Quick Reaction Force Kandak identifying the skills they need to train on to improve their effectiveness in the field. The Afghans are beginning to look at the soldiers in their unit and identify soldiers who do possess the skills they want for the rest to have. You have taken them one small step closer to a self-sustained capacity to continue a program that can bear fruit for them long after you have left.
You’ve got to do the best you can for them. For all you know, no one will be coming to reinforce and continue what you’ve done.