Saturday, January 01, 2011

In Afghanistan, a Tale of Two Forces

NAHR-E SARAJ, Afghanistan—In 26 years as an Afghan soldier, Col. Abdul Sboor has fought for the Russians against the mujahedeen and for the mujahedeen against the Taliban. Now he's fighting alongside the local British battle group helping train Afghan soldiers and police to try to take control of their country's security.

For coalition forces, a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan over the next few years rests in the hands of men like Col. Sboor and Lt. Mohammed Wali, the local heads of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, respectively.

The British on the ground here in restive Helmand province say the Afghan army—often seen in the past as inefficient or incompetent—is showing signs of improvement, in what the British hope is a positive sign for the rest of Afghanistan. The national police force here still appears more prone to corruption and poor practices.

A recent White House review of progress in Afghanistan warned that success hinged on the Afghan government's ability to take over security and governance, but showed concern that neither the army nor the police were yet up to the task.

The U.S.-led coalition has been training the army since 2006, and the police since 2009. As of November, 144,000 army and 117,000 police personnel had been recruited, each around 85% of the coalition's goal.

Critics among coalition forces and in the West have said the quality of the new forces is mixed.

On a joint military patrol outside a small village in this insurgent-soaked region of Helmand one day earlier this month, Col. Sboor and many British personnel expressed growing confidence that the Afghan army is heading in the right direction.

"We plan to bring security" into Nahr-e Saraj, said Col. Sboor, who totes an AK-47 he took from a dead Taliban fighter, rather than a U.S.-issued M-16.

Growing British confidence in the Afghan army forces they are training was evident on a combined patrol that day in the former Taliban stronghold of Tor Ghai. The British battle group's commander, Lt. Col. Andrew Harrison, gave Col. Sboor's forces joint credit for a recent offensive that ousted insurgents from this district. "These blokes have no fear," said British Maj. Nick French of his Afghan army colleagues. Moments later, he gave an emotional greeting to Lt. Jaweed—a 27-year-old who goes by one name—with whom he led the joint U.K.-Afghan force that took Tor Ghai. "You fight with someone, you develop a bond," Maj. French said.

Still, as the joint British-Afghan force patrolled near Maj. French's compound, their differences were apparent. The British from the elite Parachute Regiment walked in silence in single file, each soldier an equal distance from the next, weapons in the "standing alert" position across their chest.

Afghan troops sauntered after them, talking in groups, their weapons held casually, before climbing into Ford pickup trucks to follow Britain's heavily armored Husky vehicles back to base.

Complicating the relationship have been incidents like one in July, when three British soldiers were killed at a Nahr-e Saraj base by a renegade Afghan army soldier, and an incident in 2009 in which five British soldiers were killed by a member of the Afghan National Police. British forces are the second-largest coalition contingent in Afghanistan after the U.S.

But on this day, at a local British patrol base, British personnel made tea for their Afghan colleagues. ANA troops are sometimes seen walking around the base with loaded weapons before and after patrols. During an operational briefing, British officers reeled off positive reports on the Afghan army.

Yet as often as they commended the Afghan soldiers, the British regaled each other with tales of police unpopularity and corruption.

One British officer reported a "rather unusual patrol" by Lt. Wali's police, who—without notifying the British—arrived to fight the Taliban on motorbikes they had recently taken from the insurgents. After being pinned down by the insurgents, the Afghan police forces were forced to retreat on foot.

Another report recounted that the district police commander had arrested members of his own force who had been asking locals for protection money and stealing goods at a market.

In the end, it turned out that two of the men weren't police—and showed up on a biometric watch list for potential Taliban.

Lt. Wali, in an interview, said the men involved were from another local police force. "If my men take so much as a stone," he said, he wants to know about it. About the motorbike incident, Lt. Wali said his force took the Taliban bikes after they attacked his station.

The bearded 27-year-old police chief said it was unfair to compare the army and the police, because the police are involved in more unpopular actions, such as confiscating poppy harvests. Other defenders of the police note that the coalition has been training the army for longer.

Like his men, Lt. Wali is local. Col. Sboor, like almost all his men, is from the north.

Because police are typically locals, they often have a "sixth sense" about whether a "bloke is dodgy or not," which the soldiers lack, said Capt. Charlie Grant from the 5th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The Afghan army still struggles in some areas. Its disparate composition has led to discord within the force, and Col. Sboor admits that junior ranks often disobey midlevel officers. This can happen because of friction among the various ethnic groups that make up the army, a British intelligence official said.

The official talked of other frustrations when dealing with the Afghan army. Officers often report rumor as fact, the official said. In a recent example, army troops told him that Lt. Wali, the police chief, had killed a local as part of a blood feud. The report turned out to be false.

As coalition nations line up dates for departure, both the Afghan army and police are moved from being mentored to a partnership role. In many cases they are increasingly taking over security. For the U.K. in Helmand, that goes from the Afghan army running a local wheat-distribution service to the police manning 50 checkpoints in the nearby city of Lashkar Gah.

Lt. Col. Dougie Graham, commanding officer of the locally based Royal Highland Fusiliers battalion, credited Afghan forces with Lashkar Gah's comparative security and increasingly buoyant economy.

Lashkar Gah is "a good example of how Afghanistan could be," he said.



Blogger Full Moon Party said...

Check out our Full Moon Party pics

10:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home