The war in Afghanistan is no longer solely a fight against insurgents. In fact, training the country’s security forces and building relationships are now central to the U.S. military’s mission in Afghanistan and critical to any plans to withdraw troops. That means soldiers have had to adjust to a new role where the tools are words, not weapons.
VPR’s Steve Zind spent three weeks with Vermont Guard soldiers in Afghanistan. In this 30-minute documentary, "Afghanistan’s Other War", he takes us on patrols and to police training sessions to learn how soldiers carried out their complex mission and how they view the prospects for success.
(Zind) It’s a little unsettling to be surrounded by a pack of agitated dogs in the middle of a dark night in the Afghan countryside.
I can’t even see the dogs in the blackness, but I can take comfort in the fact that I’m with a group of well armed Vermont National Guard soldiers wearing night vision equipment.
We’re on foot patrol in Charikar, a provincial capital at the base of the Hindu Kush Mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.
(Zind) "Now this is some serious water we’ve got to basically step in to cross, with a helping hand. Going to have to step in it right"?
(Zind) There’s still danger in this part of the country, but what’s playing out here in these fields has nothing to do with combat. Yet it’s considered a critical part of the U.S. military’s mission. These soldiers are training the ANP – the Afghan National Police.
(Zind) Unlike the police we’re familiar with, the ANP is a national security force. At least it’s supposed to be.
The police have been plagued by corruption, poor training, desertion and a pool of recruits who lack education at best and have criminal backgrounds at worst.
Turning the ANP from a troubled organization into a professional, trustworthy security force capable of defending the country is critical if the U.S. military is to leave Afghanistan without it falling back into the hands of the Taliban.
That recognition has led to a new effort by American and NATO forces better train the ANP, and these soldiers are part of it.
I’m Steve Zind. In the next half hour, we’ll look at how these National Guard soldiers carried out their part of a mission that’s new to U.S. troops: One that stresses words over weapons in Afghanistan’s other war.
At this point in our 3 hour tour, we’ve left the cramped, ripe smelling alleys of the city and we’re making our way through farmland on the outskirts. I’m trying to record descriptions of the little I can see as we move through the darkness.
(Zind) "I thought for a moment we were entering a tunnel, but it’s actually just some overarching trees. It’s very dark."
(Zind) I stay on the narrow paths by following a glow stick attached to the gear of the soldier ahead of me.
(Zind) "The Afghan police are right behind us at this point."
Zind) The soldiers are here as both mentors and as backup for the police – in case anything happens.
Lieutenant Justin Kokernak of Northfield – believes they’re making progress toward a time when the Americans won’t have to accompany the ANP on patrols like this.
(Zind) "Do you have a sense of how long it would be necessary to do this?"
(Kokernak) "It just depends on the area of the country and how remote it is. I think the police training is definitely coming along, you see the newer recruits coming out of the academy are a lot more proficient than some of the older guys who just picked up the job and never got trained."
(Zind) "Still, do you think it would be a good idea to continue these joint patrols for years?"
(Kokernak) "We do have a goal of eventually completely handing this over to the Afghans. You see every day they’re given a little bit more responsibility."
(Zind) Our patrol route takes us back toward the city and past a police checkpoint. The voice of the officer on watch cuts through the darkness as he calls out to our group, led by 1st Sergeant Michael Cram of Milton.
(Officer yells loudly.)
(Cram) "Salam. Anything significant happen tonight?"
(Policeman – through translator) "He says until now everything is all right."
(Cram) "Four or five days ago there was an illegal checkpoint about 4 kilometers east of here. Does he know anything about it?"
(Translator) "No he doesn’t know anything about it."
(Zind) So here’s one of the biggest problems the soldiers are up against:
The police are widely viewed as on the take. One popular police trick is setting up illegal checkpoints to extort money from people. It doesn’t exactly build public confidence and faith in the country’s police force.
It’s easy to reach a not-too-flattering conclusion about the readiness of these policemen to take over the security of their country.
I remembered the conversation I’d had a few days earlier with a group of [Vermont] guard police trainers, including Lieutenant Richard Volp.
Volp was telling me about the kind of people who join the police.
(Volp) "The people that they get are a lot of drug addicts. Some people that have maybe murdered people before and they’re really looking for a way out of whatever their problems are, on the lower level. They get a lot of illiterate people, people that haven’t been educated. The officers themselves, the police officers, the leadership, a lot of them are very educated with college degrees. A lot of them have gone to the police university, which is a four year university."
(Zind) "If the officers are educated and you’re teach all sorts of procedural ideas to them, great. But if the rank and file is made up of people of the sort you described, does any of the rest matter?"
(Volp) "Yes and no. You have to take what you have to work with. Let’s say we develop a good training system and now those people are trained up and can they take the time and train the uneducated or the new people I think we can overcome a lot of those obstacles that may have been there because they’re illiterate or what not."
(Zind) But we weren’t talking just about people who aren’t literate. We were talking about people who had criminal backgrounds or drug addiction."
(Volp) "They’ve implemented a lot of steps to try and weed out some of the problems, working on having stricter drug screening prior to being hired and stuff like that".
(Zind) Lieutenant Louis Santillo, another guard police trainer, pointed out that among some police recruits there’s a sense of pride in what they’re doing and a commitment to helping rebuild their country. Volp and Santillo say the training program they inherited at the beginning of 2010 was disorganized and dysfunctional.
(Zind) "When you started training, when you came here, did someone give you a sense of what the goals were, were their benchmarks established."
(Volp) "That’s kind of a funny question. When we first got here, a lot of the ANP’s opinion of what we should be doing is just giving them stuff: ‘Hey, can you give me your boots, can you give me the bullets out of your gun, give me your watch, can you give me a fire truck?’"
(Santillo) "It was a specific challenge for us when we first got here because there were American units in the past that did that."
(Zind) A new Strategy by American and NATO forces is devoting more money and resources to the job of training the Afghan police.
According to NATO, the effort is bearing fruit. By the end of 2009, only 30% of Afghan police had any formal training. In the first 7 months of 2010 NATO says more police were trained than in the previous 7 years.
But around the country the results can vary widely. In areas where the insurgency is strong, like the south, the NATO plan isn’t nearly as far along. There have been occasions when Afghan police officers turned their guns on their coalition trainers. Just two weeks ago six American soldiers were killed by an Afghan policeman.
There’s been better progress in the more peaceful areas, including the capital of Kabul.
(interior truck noise)
(Smith) "This area is getting more resources and more attention, and this area being the closest visually to the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, Hamid Karzai and the Parliament."
(Zind) The day after I spoke to the police mentors, I go along with Sergeant Joshua Smith of Essex, as he leads a group of soldiers on a training mission at a police station in downtown Kabul.
(Smith) "So this is the zone headquarters right here."
(Zind) Our convoy of armored Humvees rolls through the gates.
(Music and clapping)
(Zind) There’s music drifting from the other side of the gravel police grounds. A group of men in uniforms is outside dancing and clapping to a recording.
At this end of the compound, though, the tone is more serious. Several Afghan police recruits are gathered for a training demonstration led by Specialist Matthew Belden of Ticonderoga, New York and Specialist Adam Marszalkowski from Panton.
(Belden) "I’m Specialist Belden. Specialist Marszalkowski. We’re going to teach you guys muzzle awareness, so you don’t shoot each other. And how to do a staggered formation."(translator repeats in Dari).
(Zind) Before the lesson begins, the soldiers want to make sure there’s no chance one of the policemen could accidentally discharge his weapon.
(Marszalkowski) "Can you rack your slide back (sound of gun bolts). Ok, they don’t have anything."
(Zind) Today’s lesson is fairly simple. Marszalkowki explains through a translator.
(Marszalkowski) "When you’re walking around in the city, make sure the muzzle is always pointed toward the ground, that way if it does go off you won’t hurt anybody."
(Zind) When the soldiers have the policemen practice a patrol formation, they respond tentatively. At one point the police chief scolds them for not paying attention.
One of the Army translators looking on offers his assessment of police in the Kabul area.
(Translator) "Well, they are getting better, because their behavior has been changed. Their behavior has changed with the people. They are more polite. A lot of corruption is going on now, as well but before it was more than the current time."
(Zind0 Some of these policemen have been on the force for a year or more, yet today they’re learning a pretty basic lesson: don’t point your gun at people while you’re walking around the city. Specialist Marszalkowski takes it in stride.
(Marszalkowski) "We didn’t do a lot today; we only did a little bit. I think what we did got through for the most part. I think next time we show up here we’re going to ask them to review it themselves and show us everything and if they don’t get it, we’ll just drive it into them again, drive it into them again and hopefully they’ll get it."
(Zind) The National Guard police trainers say they’ve had to learn their own lessons about patience and lowered expectations, but they say the quality of the police force is improving.
Making progress takes more than a familiarity with police procedures and a knack for training.
In a way that they haven’t before, soldiers in this war have had to learn how to work with the local populace and negotiate another country’s culture.
(Talk and laughter)
(Zind) After the training, the Afghan police captain invites the soldiers for tea.
There’s often a whispered discussion among the American soldiers when these invitations are issued about whether they have time for such niceties. But they’ve learned this is an important social ritual and a necessary prelude to serious discussions in a culture where cutting to the chase and getting down to business are considered rude.
Vermont Guard Captain Larry Doane wrote an audio journal during his time in Afghanistan. In one entry he compares his previous deployment to Iraq with this one. Doane says Iraq was all about combat, about rolling "around looking for trouble until we found it…"
(Doane) "… or it found us. But Afghanistan is a different war. More often than not our objective isn’t to capture someone or attack some Taliban target. Instead we conduct SLE and KLE, or when translated from the Army, Street Level and Key Leader engagements.
I love the Army, but only an organization like ours could make an acronym up to mean ‘go talk to people’. But that’s what we really do here. We talk to kids on the street, sidewalk vendors chat us up about security and the weather.
Unit leaders, like myself, spend most of their time drinking chai, the local tea. We listen to the concerns of local leaders and talk to them about their problems…."
(Walking and talking)
(Zind) One evening at a small Combat Outpost I go along as Doane joins an Afghan Army Colonel for tea.
The colonel is a cheerful, mustachioed man. He ushers us into an office that has a small bed in one corner and a single bare light bulb suspended by a wire from the ceiling. The colonel introduces his entourage, which includes a soldier with a long beard who serves as the ‘religious officer’. Then it’s Doane’s turn.
(Doane) "For everyone in the room, then, I’ll introduce my men…"
(Zind) Visits like this are equal measure friendly chit chat and military business. Talk of family mixes with offers of support and material assistance.
(Doane) "These are maps of the area, translated into Dari. There should be three maps here: Two large ones and a small one…."
(Zind) Afghans are unfailingly polite but when the Colonel’s cell phone rings while Doane is speaking to him, the Colonel doesn’t hesitate to answer it and start talking with the caller, leaving Doane to trail off and patiently wait for the conversation to end.
(Colonel on phone)
(Zind) Doane has clearly mastered the finer points of Afghan etiquette.
Tea and sweets are never declined and once they’re finished, it’s appropriate to wait a respectable interval before taking your leave.
(Doane) "The cookies and the tea was very nice, thank you."
(Zind) Tea and cookies in Afghanistan may not be what any of the soldiers had in mind when they joined the military. Yet it’s an adjustment they’ve all had to make, even if they’re not mentoring the Afghan army and police.
On this particular morning a convoy of armored trucks tests their weapons as they prepare to leave a base in Paktya Province for a combat outpost on the Pakistan border.
(Staff Sergeant Carl Root) "We love to hear that ‘pop, pop, pop’. That’s a hell of a weapon. You can’t use that in town!"
(Truck interior sound)
(Zind) These soldiers are part of a maintenance company and their job is delivering equipment.
Paktya Province is a reminder that combat and danger are still very much a part of the war in Afghanistan.
It was at one combat outpost here where the Vermont Guard lost two of the three soldiers who’ve died during this deployment: Sergeant Tristan Southworth and Staff Sergeant Steven Deluzio died in a firefight in August. A third soldier, Specialist Ryan Grady was killed by a roadside bomb in Kabul Province. Dozens have been wounded.
(Root) "What we’re doing is getting all our vehicles on line to get ready to roll out of the wire."
(Zind) That’s Staff Sergeant Carl Root of Milton. He’s a gun truck commander on this run. It will take 10 hours for the crew to drive non-stop to the combat outpost and back, fueled by a caffeinated drink called Rip It. It’s an exhausting trip over rugged mountain roads.
(Brandon Cleary) "This is gonna hurt, oh boy!"
(Root) "Bump! These guys almost turned over. Put it in neutral, go ahead. Okay, nice and slow. Easy, easy, easy! Everybody ok back there?"
(Zind) This is Root’s third deployment, and he volunteered for it. He’s something of a father figure to his young gun truck crew: Specialists Nicholas Brann and Brandon Clary, both from Maine.
(Root) "Did I tell you how much I love you, man?"
(Zind) Part of a truck commander’s job is to serve as an extra pair of eyes for the gunner, who stands looking out of a turret mounted on top of the truck. As they drive, Root keeps up a steady stream of jokes and one-liners over the truck’s radio, but he’s always on the lookout.
(Root) "Hey, you got a guy on the roof, right here on the left side."
(Zind) This kind of watchfulness is routine whenever soldiers leave a base anywhere in Afghanistan. What’s different here compared to more peaceful provinces is the threat is greater.
(Root) "You’ll see these people, the way they look at the truck they could almost cut through it. It kind of discourages you a little bit. We’re coming over here trying to do good, all you do is get spit on. God forbid we ever break down. Boy in a town like this, I don’t know if that would be a good thing."
(Zind) Root has been in the military for 23 of his 42 years. Square jawed and straight backed, with a taste for cigars and Red Man chewing tobacco, he seems the epitome of ‘old school’ Army. But he’s embraced the military strategy called COIN – C-O-I-N. The acronym stands for counter-insurgency.
COIN is about providing security in an area, then working with local leaders to find out what they need. Roads and schools are built. Teams provide expertise and equipment to help farmers and local industry. The whole idea is to get the people on the side of the Afghan government.
These days a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan is more likely to be talking with farmers than fighting insurgents.
COIN work may not be what the soldier signed up for. Root says it’s definitely a change from past missions.
(Root) "It’s not hard for me, being an older soldier that I can adapt. The Army changes quite a bit.
The training to get on the battlefield and kill, kill, kill seemed to be more of a requirement. Now with the world changing and the leaders changing…it hasn’t been a tough change for me.
For some of these kids, like Brann for instance, my driver, he’s 11 Bravo and what his job is merely to kill. That is his job. For him to come over here and have to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with these guys is an adjustment for him.
This is not the type of tour that he thought he was going to have because of the training he had."
(Zind) On the intercom, over the din of truck’s interior, the soft spoken Brann confirms that. "Our training was ‘destroy the enemy,’ Brann says, ‘when you look back, the training we did was a waste of time."
(Truck sound fades)
(Zind) But other soldiers say they’re fully on board with the new strategy. Former Marine and now Vermont Guard Lieutenant Daniel Silver of Dover, New Hampshire says he basically went to school on COIN.
(Silver) "There was a lot of training before this deployment. I read the counterinsurgency field manual twice from front to back. And basically, it’s those five lines of effort: Governance, security, information ops, development and agriculture. That’s not your typical, ‘we’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys, let’s get it on,’
That’s a lot of different things to consider as a platoon leader and for my guys to consider. I don’t necessarily know that any of them were ready to come over here and talk about agriculture or to talk about infrastructure, but they’ve learned.
I totally avoid the ‘hearts and minds cliché’ but really that’s what I’m thinking in the back of my mind. Every move we make we have to consider the pros versus the cons and that’s pretty much the COIN fight. You can go out and kill these guys all day long but in the long run I don’t think that’s going to be the answer."
(Zind) "As a former Marine was that a, tough adjustment to make?’
(Silver) "Tough adjustment to make? Yea, I would say so. You have to accept more risk in this COIN fight. That’s part of the whole deal. We stick our necks out more. We allow vehicles to come in and out. We don’t bully the roads like we did in Iraq and take things over by force. We do things to mitigate risk, but we accept a lot more for this COIN fight. It gets a little sketchy at times."
(Zind) COIN take many forms.
Not long ago, in the city of Charikar in Parwan Province, a pair of Vermont Guard soldiers took the first tentative steps to help a local women’s organization.
Sergeant Nicole Seitz formerly of East Topsham and Jayme Belval of Moretown, Vermont introduced themselves. They spoke to the NGO’s director through an interpreter.
(Seitz) "Ok and just let her know that probably tomorrow we’re going to have a female engagement team, a FET team, they want to see if they can set up an appointment to come visit here and talk about the females in the Charikar area."
(Zind) The organization is called the Women’s Affairs Department. Its run by an energetic and voluble woman named Shajan Yazdanparast.
(Yaadanparast speaks in Dari)
(Zind) Yazdanparast tells the soldiers the province needs more than the handful of women police officers it has. She wants women police officers to provide security both at the center and when her staff is visiting rural areas. When a policeman in the room objects and says there are male officers available to do that job, Yazdanparast tell him they need women recruits who are trained to use weapons.
At the end of the visit, Yazdanparast gives an overview of the situation for women in Afghanistan.
(Yazdanparast speaks in Dari)
(Zind) As the translator tried to keep up, Yazdanparast goes through a laundry list of issues: Lack of education and a related lack of job opportunities. A high mortality rate among pregnant women, poor access to health care for rural women, forced marriage and domestic violence.
(Zind) As she walks back to the police station Sergeant Seitz acknowledges that Yazdanparast’s needs are daunting and far more than any soldier can address.
(Seitz) "It sounds like a lot of what their issues are is way above and beyond my soldiering skills. It’s a lot of political stuff that’s way above and beyond me."
(Zind) The NATO commander for Parwan and two other provinces is Vermont Guard Colonel Will Roy of Jericho. Roy says these provinces are taking the first steps to create opportunities for women.
(Roy) "For instance in Bamyan, we have the only female Governor in the country and we see in Panjir and Parwan both development of women’s products, women’s industry. So definitely moving forward in our area of operations."
(Zind) As he prepared to end his year-long deployment, Roy gave an upbeat assessment of the situation in the provinces he oversees. He said troops are handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces and working with local officials to improve governance. In Roy’s view the provinces represent the future of Afghanistan.
(Roy) "That’s why we like to refer to these provinces as Afghanistan 2.0, the next version, because security does allow development to continue. It’s a story that doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but it is truly in many ways a peaceful place."
(Zind) Yet, these provinces are historically anti-Taliban. They have never been hot beds of insurgent activity and securing them has succeeded with the blessing of the local population.
The job isn’t so easy in other parts of the country, especially in the south where the Taliban was born. And its made challenging everywhere by one significant problem: government corruption.
Among Afghans, there is a widespread lack of faith in their government. And, remember, building confidence among citizens in their government is central to the COIN strategy.
As a diplomat, Peter Galbraith of Townshend was the second ranking United Nations official in Afghanistan in 2009. He was dismissed after clashing with his superiors over his criticism of widespread fraud in the 2009 presidential election.
(Galbraith) "The problem is that the United States is locked into a counter insurgency strategy which its architects will tell you requires a credible Afghan partner and there is no such partner. The government is corrupt, second most corrupt country in the world, ineffective and now thanks to the stolen presidential elections, widely seen by the Afghans as illegitimate. It is not a government that is capable of winning the loyalty of the population or of providing honest administration, so the essential element for a counter-insurgency strategy doesn’t work."
(Zind) As for the police, Galbraith says on a national scale there’s little hope that they can be trained up to defend the country in the face of threats confronting it.
(Galbraith) "The police is an unmitigated disaster. The training course is six weeks. It is impossible to take an illiterate villager and make him into a policeman in six weeks. Not only is the police a low paying job, but in the southern part of the country the mortality rate is 10%. That means 1 policeman out of every 10 gets killed. This is not a job that’s going to attract talent."
(Zind) Galbraith says the U.S. will never be able to establish what Colonel Roy calls Afghanistan 2.0 in some parts of the country, especially the Taliban strongholds in the south.
(Zind) On a sunny 80 degree day that passes for fall in Paktya province, I sat and talked with guard 1st Sergeant Eric Duncan of Northfield at Combat Outpost Raman Kheyl. No running water, no internet and just two hot meals a day are part of life at this dusty outpost.
Until recently, the base was the target of daily attacks from insurgents. A few days earlier, a man had been killed by soldiers as he planted an improvised explosive device in a nearby road.
Even though he’s in a place where the insurgency is still present, Duncan said the mission is not about fighting.
(Duncan) "The relationship building is probably the most important piece of it, so that they understand that there are no storm troopers in their back yard. We are trying to open up as many avenues of approach into the homes and lives and minds of the Afghans that we share this ground with as neighbors and that’s the primary focus at this point."
(Zind) "But you understand the skepticism on the part of many people in the American public that nine years later, we’re seeing peaks in American casualty rates and from their standpoint it seems as though after nine years we should be much further along than we are."
(Duncan) "I can see that as an individual. You ask yourself as an individual, ‘are we getting enough out of what we’re sacrificing as a country?’ It’s very difficult without being engrossed in the everyday struggle of the Afghan people to identify any gain or any worth in what we’re doing.
It is very simple and unfortunately part of how we as Americans are media consumers, it is very easy for us to sit home and focus on the negative. Without understanding how we as a generation and as a people fit into the global community and without experiencing that firsthand, it’s very difficult to find worth in this experience.
It takes a lot of searching. It’s an individual question. It’s probably the most difficult question to answer at this point. For me there is worth here, for me. I can’t speak for everybody in the United States or everybody in the world to say that what their part of this process, what they are putting into it, what their family individually sacrifices for the benefit of these Afghan people is worth it to them."
(Zind) As soldiers like Duncan return home, their focus turns from their mission to the sometimes tough adjustment of settling back into family, job and community.
They’ll become media consumers themselves and they’ll watch the news from Afghanistan with perhaps a keener interest and understanding than most of us.
Military reports of progress on one hand and news stories of profound problems on the other are confusing to those who can only observe the war from 7,000 miles away.
The reality is the situation is complex and no one statement about security, the readiness of the police or even the corruption can apply to all of Afghanistan.
Even the most optimistic outlook has to be tempered by the political realities in this country, where public patience for the cost and sacrifice involved in our continued military presence in Afghanistan is wearing ever thinner.
(Zind) For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.
(Announcer out) Afghanistan’s Other War was written and reported by Steve Zind. The technical director was Chris Albertine. John Van Housen was the executive producer. Afghanistan’s Other War was made possible by VPR’s Journalism Fund.