By an ETT soldier
“Hey, you want to deploy to Afghanistan as an Embedded Training Team chief?” the lieutenant colonel asked about a year ago, leaning into my office. If I had realised then how ill-prepared I was for this duty, I may have taken a little time to think over my answer. But with my confidence boosted by years of training and hundreds of thousands of dollars of military education, I instantly replied “Sure!” The die was thus cast, marking the beginning of my journey as a combat advisor with the Afghan National Army (ANA). As it turned out, my military skills were fine; it was in other areas that I was wanting.
To say that I was in shock on arrival at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) of Bermel, in the eastern province of Paktika, is an understatement. Looking out the window of the helicopter, the landscape was an even dull brown, with mountains jutting up like bayonets piercing the earth. From Gardez, just to the north of Paktika, we had flown in an ANA MI-8 HIP, a Soviet-built helicopter that leaked fuel and coughed smoke the entire journey, and finally disgorged us onto a flat, high desert scorched by bright sunshine. With the FOB situated in a shallow valley running north to south at an elevation of 7500 feet above sea level, the first sensation upon arrival was a painful awareness of the altitude. The lack of oxygen made it feel as though a physical thing had grabbed the heart and lungs, determined to squeeze the life out of you – a hemmed-in feeling that was enhanced by the serrated mountain ranges to the east and west.
A typical day, if there is one, begins before dawn and extends well into the night. There are no days off. Beyond the eastern range is Waziristan, the heart of support operations for both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And so I can see into Pakistan every time I step out of the cold, dark bunker in which I live. Superfine dust (called moondust by the soldiers) is ubiquitous, entering and coating everything. When I leave Bermel, tiny pieces of Afghanistan will undoubtedly come with me – bits of the country that have been driven into my ears, pores, eyes and nose by the apocalyptic winds, rotor wash and, particularly, a desire to become one with the ground when taking incoming fire.
Over the mountain
Embedded Training Teams were created about eight years ago, just after US forces first came into Afghanistan. At that point, rebuilding the Afghan National Army was identified as critical to the safety and stability of the country at large; the concept was to remould the ANA along the lines of the US Army, with a strong non-commissioned officer corps, free-thinking officer leadership and civilian oversight. An Embedded Training Team is made up of 16 senior soldiers, each of whom is responsible for a different area of responsibility – operations, logistics, training, intelligence and multiple others. That is the idea, anyway, though this has turned out to be only the tip of a viciously looming iceberg, due to innumerable non-military requirements, as basic as sanitation. We live with, train and conduct combat operations with our Afghan brothers. I see no difference between the Afghan soldiers that I serve beside and my fellow Americans.
Before travelling to Afghanistan, my perceptions of the country were built on news reports, books, movies and other popular media. Images from Hollywood films such as Charlie Wilson’s War and The Bear Came over the Mountain had built within me fear and, I am now embarrassed to say, some loathing. But how quickly upon stepping off that ANA helicopter were these emotions shattered! I had been prepared to come to a land where everyone would hate me, would want to kill me at the first opportunity. Instead of keeping an open mind, xenophobia and toxic hatred oozed from my body. But what I found were people incredibly eager to learn, and relieved at the security that we were able to provide.
In retrospect, I realise how tragically unprepared I was for Afghanistan. The American mores and norms I had grown up with failed me here. Americans tend to view life as black and white, good or bad, with very little lying in the middle of the continuum. Yet the Afghanistan I know is made of innumerable shades of grey. Political and tribal alliances built over decades and sometimes millennia are served with loyalty. There is also rampant graft to contend with, currently a basic part of doing business in the country. To be blind to either of these realities while attempting to force Western ideals onto Afghan society only leads to frustration and demoralisation. To be effective, I had to learn to operate from the middle ground. In conversations and negotiations, for instance, I have had to exchange my get-down-to-business style for one that is far more relaxed. To convince the ANA to conduct a tactical mission, for example, I must first ask the kandak (battalion) commander about his family, then discuss the weather, drink some chai, and eat some fruit and nuts. Finally, and only if time permits, we can talk about executing the mission. It may take two or three conversations to reach an agreement.
In the course of my work, I have become very close friends with my fellow ANA soldiers as well as my interpreters. My very first operation with the ANA revealed the extent of my fellow soldiers’ courage. We had conducted a search of an abandoned village, and were standing outside a khalat, or house. An ANA soldier squirmed his way out from underneath the mud structure covered in moondust, grinning broadly. He was clearly immensely proud of his discovery, which turned out to be an improvised explosive device, an IED. In retrospect, the explosive was rather small in comparison to ones that I have seen since; but at the time I would not have been more petrified by its proximity if it had been a nuclear weapon. Even as I wanted nothing more than to be far away from this object of death, however, this ANA soldier cradled it like a baby while showing it to us. The Afghan commander then sauntered over, took a look at it, and ordered the soldier to put it on the ground. We all walked (well, I ran) about 30 meters back, as a group. The commander then shot the IED with his rifle, detonating it and, in the process, destroying the small rock wall we had selected as cover. My baptism by fire had occurred.
On the other side, I have born witness to the brutal conundrum in which all Afghans eventually find themselves. Once, during a search, I questioned a health officer in the village who was in charge of a very nice, well-stocked clinic. He spoke reasonable English, much better than my Dari. He straightforwardly informed me that he treated Taliban casualties – a bold statement to make to a well-armed US soldier. I asked him why, fully expecting a convoluted answer, part of the dance that normally occurs during questioning. But his answer was again frank: he must treat them because the Taliban were in the vicinity of his clinic and we were not. As soon as we could protect him and his clinic 24 hours a day, he said, he would stop. He then gestured over his shoulder to the gate of his home, which was perforated with bullet holes. His honesty about the matter of choices hit me in the face like a sledgehammer.
In Afghanistan, I have been forced to undertake a broad range of responsibilities for which I was never trained. For example, I have helped to establish a voter-registration site for the upcoming elections. Despite my training as a combat soldier, I have somehow morphed into a pseudo-civics teacher. The Afghans are extremely receptive to my impromptu classes, reminding me daily of the implicit desire for democracy. Thomas Jefferson would perhaps have been exasperated by my inability to explain such concepts as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ – ideas that, it turns out, are surprisingly difficult to put into words. But these words seem to be making a difference: we have now registered over 90 percent of the people in the surrounding area to vote during the upcoming elections, currently scheduled for August.
For all I have worked to shape the events around me, it is clear that all that I have been transformed as well, particularly by the spectrum of positives that I now see. Despite the ongoing difficulties, for instance, Afghan girls are now often able to attend their local schools, learning to read and write alongside the boys. Eight years ago, under Taliban rule, this would have been impossible anywhere in the country. In addition, differences are increasingly being resolved peaceably, through tools of government. Trade is now occurring between provinces with roads, and infrastructure is slowly improving each day. People have come to understand that the ANA is working to protect their right to trade and travel as they wish.
Mostly, I have come to cherish the close and enduring bonds that I have built with the soldiers and people of Afghanistan. Some days, I wonder who has had the greater influence on whom – Afghanistan and my Afghan friends, or the other way around. Ultimately, I think we trade off. The Afghan soldiers are eternally optimistic and energised about their future. Each soldier is able to vote, gets paid regularly, is learning to read and is led by competent leadership – many things that were unheard of previously. One memory that will stay with me forever is a fairly simple one: sitting and drinking chai with a commander during the Eid celebrations, with the snow and wind howling outside. We were just two ordinary men bonded in that brief moment, before returning to the confusion of combat.
The question I am most often asked is, “Are international combat troops making a difference in Afghanistan?” My reply is always, “Yes, we are” – though I hasten to note that this answer is nowhere near as simple as it appears. Though there is progress, it is indeed glacial and slow-moving. The foreign forces in Afghanistan are trying to influence a culture that has been around long before countries such as the US were even remote concepts. Afghanistan is also a country that has had its people, ideas and systems dramatically depleted by decades of warfare. Eight years does not amount to even a blink in the history of this society, but things are improving, I would say. Afghans will figure out what democracy means in their particular context, and how to utilise it to their collective advantage. When they do, it will not look like American democracy, but will be a democracy tailored to Afghanistan. In my view, all they need is time, space and security.