Monday, June 28, 2010

Fighting Taliban, recruiting challenges in Marjah

The heat was intense and stunning; as we stepped of the helicopter, the rotors pushed waves of suffocating hot air toward us. Sweating under 40 pounds of body armor, I stumbled over the rocky ground escaping the noise, dust and heat and climbed into the dirty and hot vehicle waiting for us. Baking under the southern Afghanistan sun, Helmand province is flat, dry and dusty. It is also home to Marjah, a district recently in the news as the site of major military operations conducted by U.S. and Afghan forces in order to clear out Taliban insurgents.

On a recent visit to Marjah, my boss, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan commander, met with Afghan National Civil Order Police leadership to discuss challenges in the area.

The training and development goals of NTM-A are multi-faceted, and although great strides have been made, there remain many hurdles to overcome. From recruiting to literacy development, building the Afghan National Security Forces is a complex challenge and nowhere are these challenges more apparent than in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Working side-by-side with U.S. Marine police mentor teams, the ANCOP, an elite police force, are continuing to provide a majority of the security in the area despite large scale operations ending two months ago. The goal is to recruit and train enough Afghan Uniform Police so that the ANCOP units can be utilized elsewhere, or return home for a rest.

The problem, Regional Command – Southwest leaders told us, is with recruiting enough local police officers to take over permanently. Afghan Police, unlike their Army counterparts, are recruited locally, and once they complete basic training, serve in their home districts. Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban; with a strong insurgent presence lingering in there and in Helmand province, police recruitment is a difficult process at best.

During a meeting with Afghan Maj. Gen. Sharif, ANCOP commander, the RC-SW commander, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Mills, told us his training center at Camp Leatherneck is ready to take on more ANP recruits. The Afghan manning document, or Tashkil, authorizes 311 police officers for Marjah, but there are only 90 currently serving; a class of 32 police officers started their eight-week basic training course June 21, however only eight of the new recruits were from Marjah.

“We keep hearing that there are young men out there who are interested in joining, and are on the fence. Many are concerned about their families and what would happen if they joined,” said Marine Lt. Col. Carlos Orellana, RC-SW C-10 director.

Our visit took us to Combat Outpost Turbett, a small U.S. Marine post in Marjah where the Marine PMT’s live and work with ANCOP forces. From there, we walked through the village directly outside the post. Everywhere we went, we drew attention, and some friendly stares; a few villagers came up to shake hands with the Afghan and U.S. military leaders. On a stop in an unfinished building where Afghan police were taking shelter from the sun, little kids came up to us, curious as always. One little boy pointed at me and asked, “Is that a woman?” Sigh. I’m not sure if it was the armor I was wearing or just the fact that a woman walking around on the street with a group of men is a very rare sight. In fact, during our entire time down there, I didn’t see any women or even the little girls that I typically see out playing on the street.

While we were talking to the boys, me kicking myself for not bringing candy, the sudden burst of gunfire broke through our conversation. Everyone stopped, and in the silence one of the boys said what we were all thinking, “Taliban” with a scared look on his face. Turns out there was a gun fight taking place in the street near-by, so after the marines and Afghan police cleared our new route, we headed back to the combat outpost. Gunfire broke out again during our stop at the new government district headquarters; this time we were getting into our MRAP’s when the gunner in my vehicle shouted down “Contact to the south, we’re getting contact to the south.”

I twisted in my seat to see Afghan police running to get into defensive positions and ducking as bullets hit the walls around them, sending up plumes of dust. Ordered to stay in the vehicle, I could only watch and try to get a few pictures through the dusty window; the gunner was told not to engage unless our vehicle took a direct hit. In those few minutes, I could fully understand the frustration many Marine and Army ground forces say they feel with the restrictions on enemy engagement.

Our visit only highlighted the challenges facing us as the U.S. and Coalition forces work with the Afghan government to create a safe and stable presence in the area. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more time and effort from the Afghan government, military and civilian population, to completely remove the grip the Taliban has on the area. The civilians may be tired of fighting, but their fear of Taliban retaliation and their lack of education keep them repressed.
When it comes to securing their provinces, Afghan leaders, both civilian and police, recognize the challenges facing them and they seemed, more than anyone, to want to bring peace and stability to their people.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wedding crashers, Afghan style

At the insistent tug on my hand, I suddenly found myself part of a clapping, cheering circle of dancing women, a player in a foreign wedding dance ritual. Immediately I became self-conscious – what if I wasn’t dancing right, or moving the right way? What was expected of me? As I looked around at the laughing, encouraging faces, I realized it didn’t matter what I did as long as I participated. I kicked off my shoes and enthusiastically danced along.

It wasn’t the wedding of anyone I knew and I was definitely in unfamiliar territory but all the same, it was a captivating experience.

Last night as I was eating dinner with a co-worker, I received a phone call from an Air Force captain who used to live and work in Afghanistan before she joined the military. Did I want to go to an Afghan wedding? Of course, I replied. Could I be ready in five minutes? Um, of course.

I dropped everything, ran to her room where she had laid out a few outfits that were appropriate for an Afghan wedding. I put on a pretty dark red flowing tunic top and loose pants and beaded pointed shoes and ran back to my office for my camera, all the while feeling completely conspicuous. In a small base where everyone wears either a military uniform or khaki pants with a polo shirt (the standard contractor uniform), an American woman in Afghan garb stands out.

The large wedding hall was filled to the brim with women and children running around. For the most part, hte men were in a separate room, with the younger boys and children mixed in with the women. The women were decked out in their finest, with the dresses ranging from garish to beautiful, some in bright gaudy colors and some decorated elaborately with hundreds of beads and intricate designs. Everything sparkled under the soft yellow lights – their sequins, jeweled hands, hair pieces and shimmery make-up.

Although the celebration had started an hour or so before we got there, in typical Afghan fashion, nothing ever starts on time, so we hadn’t missed much. After we arrived, the band got started and the dancing began. Other than the circle dance where a large group of women were dancing at once, the rest of the time just one or two dancers were out on the floor.

Shortly after the band started, the bride and groom, who had completed the formal part of the wedding ceremony the day before, showed up. They sat in a pair of chairs on a platform behind a table decorated with lots of flowers. One by one, guests came up to have their picture taken with them; although the guests smiled, I noticed the bride never did. I was told it wasn’t appropriate for her to look cheerful; even though the bride and groom knew each other and were both agreeable to the union, it would be an insult to the bride’s family for her to look happy.

Overall, the women were so welcoming and open with me. Some stared at me curiously, probably wondering who I was and what I was doing there, but all were friendly. They smiled, nodded and encouraged me to dance, tried to communicate and let me hold their oh-so adorable babies. And while I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I wanted, the kids absolutely loved my camera, and kept coming around my table hoping I would snap a photo. They were a curious and open bunch; we wrote down each other’s names, drew birds, hearts and stars, and I taught them how to play tic-tac-toe. Several of the women spoke fluent English, including one young woman who had spent most of her life in Germany; she made the trip to Afghanistan for the wedding and was meeting most of her extended family for the first time.

Like American weddings, Afghan celebrations can go long into the night; when we left at 10, the food was just getting ready to be served; I’m sure it would have been an impressive spread. From what I learned about Afghan traditions, the dancing would have gone until well after midnight.

Despite all the unfamiliar rituals and language barriers, I had an amazing time. I know with my pale skin and red hair, I stood out, but these women, who had to know I was no relation the bride or groom, made me feel completely welcome. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and something I’m thankful I got to participate in.
And I'm not 100 percent sure but I might have participated in some obscure Afghan wedding rite; a very insistent mother kept pushing me to talk to her son and she liked to play with my hair. When she gave me a baby to hold, I knew it was some sort of a test to see if I liked children. Unfortunately, I think I passed ... as I left, the son slipped me his phone number. So the next wedding I dance at just might be my own!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Building a ring of steel

Kabul is a sprawling city with an estimated population of four million people. Its streets are crowded with thousands of cars, a vast majority of them white Toyotas typically on the warning alert watch.

Although Kabul is considered relatively safe, insurgents still manage to surprise the city with random attacks, most recently on a U.S. convoy that killed five Americans and one Canadian soldier. To protect the city, its residents and the large number of UN and foreign organizations located here, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are creating secure perimeters around the city.

Part of a new initiative to secure Kabul from the inside out, the layers of security include five Army forward operating bases, a series of city gates, and a string of 25ANP checkpoints known as the ring of steel.

My co-worker and I recently visited some these checkpoints with some of the engineers from Regional Command – Central who have been helping the ANP organize and build up the security stops. Before the engineers got involved earlier this year, the ANP had hundreds of checkpoints dotted randomly around the city, but they weren’t as effective as they needed to be. Under RC-C guidance, the ANP has consolidated the scattered checkpoints into a tight perimeter and built them up to be easily recognized.

Designed to cover every point of entry, by both foot and vehicle traffic, into the city center, the ring of steel is considered to be a low-cost, high-payoff project for the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A) who has helped fund and equip the checkpoints. The checkpoints have been outfitted with barriers, booths, traffic control tools and big blue signs. The plan was to make it a comfortable place for the police to serve and to make the stops visible, legitimate and hard to duplicate, in order to prevent unofficial stops.

While the engineers said that the security plan for Kabul was still relatively immature, the ANP have made huge strides, and security is better than it was even just two months ago. During our tour of the checkpoints, we stopped at the busiest one with the most traffic, one located at the end of a footbridge leading into the city center and one in a residential neighborhood. We got the opportunity to talk to some of the residents, including Mohammad Maroof, a taxi driver who has been a Kabul resident for 40 years. He said that the locals feel more comfortable with the police presence there.

“We all sleep comfortable at night, even when our doors are open because the ANP is here and security is pretty good,” he said. “We feel more secure here and the shop keepers are open late at night. Our children are safe.”

While they have a ways to go, as far as training and equipment, learning how to man the checkpoints and earn the trust of the citizens, with the help of NTM-A, the ANP and Army have a successful start.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A work of art

Afghanistan isn’t known for offering its youth a lot of opportunities in life; 30 years of war have pushed education, art and creative development to the bottom of a long list of concerns. But a few days ago, my co-workers and I covered an art exhibit at a hotel in downtown Kabul.

Hosted by the Law and Order Trust Fun for Afghanistan (LOFTA), the exhibit featured artwork from students ages 11 to 15. The students were part of Aschiana, or nest, a non-government organization that helps poor children attend school. On my trips out, there are always kids of all ages, hanging out on the street, trying to sell stuff, or just playing in the trash on the side of the road. Often it’s because their families need them to try to make a living or beg for food; survival, not school is a priority. Aschiana helps sponsor children, allowing them to go to school and paying the family what the child would have earned by working on the streets.

LOFTA and Aschiana teachers partnered together to showcase the student’s paintings which portrayed their perceptions of the Afghan National Police. The quality of the artwork was impressive and their impressions of the police weren’t always pretty; the watercolor paintings were raw and honest and expressed an adult’s understanding of war through children’s eyes. Some of the paintings showed the police helping people – stopping kidnappers and suicide bombers and arresting “bad people.” A few paintings depicted women wearing the police uniform, always in a helping role. And some showed the police hurting people, taking bribes, beating up children or being lazy. One painting, by a 13-year-old girl named Nozaiba, was selected as a featured painting. In it, a police officer, half male and half female, stands with holds his/her arms out wide; behind the figure are group of children, while in front sits images from the war: a burning car, poppy, an exploding bomb and a man kidnapping a child.

I asked her about the painting and what inspired her to create what she did and she told me that when the school told her that whatever she thought about the police, she could put on paper. She said she thought about it for awhile and imagined a woman in a police uniform. “In our community, women have the best role; I believe women can help anywhere, anyway, and women can serve their country and their people in the police," she told me.

Before Aschiana helped her family, Nozaiba was not able to go to school, but now she's been attending for two years. During that time, she’s learned how to paint and draw, and has participated in several art exhibits in four countries, including the U.S. where her painting won first place out of 3,000 submissions. It was exciting to know that there organizations out there not only willing to help educate the youth of Afghanistan, but to place an importance on art programs.

Even more personally exciting was walking through all the paintings and photos of Afghan National Police on display and coming across one of my own photos hanging up. Luckily, one of my other co-workers was there to document my surprise.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A new wave of Taliban violence strikes Afghanistan

Our office receives daily news updates about events, military and civilian, from around Afghanistan; all day long they pop up into my email – Interior minister Hanif Atmar resigns, attacks in Pakistan, NATO supply vehicle fleet attacked, etc. The last few days have not been good ones for U.S. and coalition military forces in Afghanistan; insurgent attacks killed nine Americans, two Australians, a British soldier and a French Legionnaire, as well as two civilian contractors. Today a NATO helicopter was shot down, killing four Americans. The U.S., British and French flags at Camp Eggers have been flying at half-stay in recognition of their sacrifice.

At the time they entered the military service, these soldiers, however distant in their mind, knew the possibility that they could serving in a war zone existed. And when the tasking to come to Afghanistan was received, I’m sure it crossed their minds, as it did mine, that something could happen to them. We all live and serve here under the knowledge that there those who would do anything to hurt us, and for most, it’s a risk we willingly take to make the world a better, safer place.

This evening, I was working on another blog, when I saw an e-mail news alert stating “Taliban militants execute Afghan child.” Taliban members kidnapped and executed a 7-year-old boy from the Sangin district of Helmand Province, whom they accused of spying for the government. I was shocked to see the level that they would stoop to, and for what reason? What purpose does this serve? Who are they targeting? I can only imagine they did it to further terrorize the local citizens or maybe it was for retribution for a family helping NATO forces. At times, this can be a frustrating place. We seem to make progress, only to move two steps back. I hope this, instead of terrifying the Afghan people, brings down their justified wrath; I hope they finally get the courage to stand up to these people who are doing their best to keep the people of this country ignorant, poor and in a constant state of terror.

But most of all, I hope this country and its citizens can rise against these insurgents, and show the world that our fellow U.S. and NATO military members, and the innocent civilians like this boy, will not have died in vain.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Operation "Hamkari"

With all eyes turned from Marjeh to Kandahar as the next big offensive location, it’s critical for the U.S. and Coalition forces to have not only the support of the Afghan citizens but the participation and cooperation of the Afghan National Security Forces.

On a recent trip to Kandahar, where it was a cool 104 degrees, we visited the Kandahar Regional Training Center, where the Afghan National Police attend their basic training course. Often overshadowed for the Afghan National Army, whose development in the past has received more attention and funds, the ANP are being aggressively developed. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan commander, is concerned with police development, especially Afghan National Civil Order Police, so our visit centered on the training center and several ANP stations around the city.

The RTC, commanded by Afghan Gen. Nassurullah Zarifi, is currently training 316 police in their six-week program; for some recruits, it’s the first time they’ve received training although they’ve been in the police for months or even years. Part of the new NTM-A focus of recruit, train and assign is designed to find those who have not yet attended basic training and ensure they’re trained and supplied with the necessary tools to do the job. New recruits are required to attend training before being sent to their units; this technique is also helping reduce attrition and AWOL rates.

Zarifi and his staff face several challenges to police development including not having enough instructors and a lack of literate recruits, a common problem across the board for Afghan army and police training centers. According to the RTC commander, last year, 14 instructors were injured and four assassinated, including his own son. Despite this, he said the instructors, many who live in Kabul, refuse to stop training new police officers.

“We bravely come to our jobs and our duty, and even when the enemy warns us, we still come,” Zarifi said.

During his visit, Caldwell also stopped at several of Kandahar’s 11 police sub-stations, visiting with Afghan and U.S. Army military police, who are partnering with the Afghan police in a cooperation concept known as “Hamkari.” This required a lot of walking and getting in and out of the up armored humvee’s we were traveling in … did I mention it was only 104 degrees that day?

Some of the U.S. soldiers, including recent West Point graduate, 2nd Lt. Lisa Ernst, live and work alongside their Afghan counterparts, showing the true meaning of partnership. For several days each week, Ernst and her Soldiers do without basics like showers and until recently, even port-a-potty’s, to ensure the ANP receive additional training and protection.

With an increased focus on training and recruiting, U.S. and Afghan leaders say they are on target to meet the Afghan National Security Forces growth goals of 109,000 police and 134,000 Army by October 2010. Some of this is due to increased training capacity and larger classes going through basic training programs and some from anti-corruption initiatives and pay raises that have helped reduce retention. Despite all the recent successes with recruiting and training, one of the biggest problems both U.S. and Afghan leaders say is hurting growth is a lack of experienced enlisted and officer leadership. As the backbone of any military force, NCO’s use their knowledge, experience and wisdom to develop younger recruits, but they take time to build.

Training, education and experience are essential to building leadership; with the help of U.S. and NATO forces, the ANSF is working on the first two, but only time will bring the last and perhaps most, important quality.