by JASON REICH
Part one, the Afghan National Army
I was out on a daytime patrol with the soldiers of 4/25 Artillery and their Afghan National Army counterparts, when I overheard an interesting exchange. The ANA platoon leader, affectionately dubbed “Rambo” by the Americans, was expressing dissatisfaction with the U.S. soldiers’ house-clearing technique. Rambo argued that there were too many Americans in the courtyard of this khalat, and his men were not able to search it effectively.
The ISAF protocol for entering a khalat in Afghanistan is to have the Afghanistan National Police enter first, followed by the ANA, while the Americans guard the perimeter. The Americans rarely ever content themselves to simply guarding the perimeter, however, and usually sweep their way through the entire structure “in order to establish proper over-watch,” one U.S. commander explained to me.
For all of its tactical prowess, I can understand why the ANA commander disagrees with the U.S. approach. The body language of urban warfare, even when the bullets aren’t flying, is extremely intimidating to anyone who sees a squad of American soldiers stacked shoulder to shoulder, rifles at the ready.
What made this exchange particularly enlightening, though, was the American’s positive reaction. “Okay, you’re the boss,” was all the U.S. commander said, as he pulled most of his men back to the outer perimeter. “We trust these guys,” he told me. “If they feel they are ready to start taking more responsibility, and they don’t endanger my men in the process, then I encourage it wholeheartedly.”
“These aren’t your average ANA,” explained Sergeant E. Kloberdantz back at Combat Outpost Conlon. “These guys are squared away. [They are] almost like real soldiers.”
Of the many ANA the men of 4/25 have worked with in the course of their deployments, the group they are with now at COP Conlon are amongst the best, they say. More importantly, the Americans trust the Afghans enough to let them take the lead on certain missions. Perhaps the best example of this is their participation in the daily Route Clearance Package (RCP), where soldiers check road culverts for IEDs. It’s an extremely dangerous mission, and the ANA soldiers who do it — in soft-skinned pickup trucks, no less — have had many close calls. In one week, they discovered three IEDs, two of which were triggered as they arrived. With perforated eardrums and a few minor concussions, they were back on RCP the very next day.
This is the only place in Afghanistan that I know of where the ANA takes a lead role in what is considered the most important security procedure for a COP. Speaking to soldiers outside of Conlon, I learned that most Americans don’t trust their ANA detachments enough to let them do RCP. Here at Conlon, there is a different attitude, and it speaks to the potential for a self reliant Afghan National Army — sooner than many think. “They’ve found IEDs before we have — that isn’t easy to do,” said Sgt. Kloberdantz. “Anytime someones saves your life, you tend to like them.”
I asked the battery commander, Captain Brian Moran, about what measures could be taken to spread around the experience and professionalism of these ANA soldiers to other provinces — or to other units, such as the ANP. He said that the Afghan National Security Forces are “hit or miss,” and there is really nothing a small unit commander like himself can do except “work with what I am given. In this case, I got lucky.”
The civilians in Jalrez district seem to take kindly to the ANA. In one extreme case, I saw a taxi driver who did not slow down at a checkpoint get pulled from his car and beaten rather savagely by the ANA, only to get up, brush the dust off his clothes and shake the hands of the ANA soldiers while apologizing profusely for his error. The main reason the villagers here seem to tolerate the ANA’s presence is that “they protect us from the police,” as one village elder told me. Out of the three elements making up the Afghan National Security Forces, it seems the ANA are the “good guys” of the bunch.
But they still have room for improvement. The Americans at Conlon remain skeptical of a fully independent ANA, at least for the near future. “As much as we love them, these guys are still ANA,” quipped one soldier. “They bring cots and mattresses up to their guard tower, for God’s sake.”
In part two of this series, I will address the many shortcomings of the Afghan National Police. And, in part three, the mysteries of the Afghan Public Protection Force.
(Photo: Jason Reich)