Seeing the flags of the U.S. and the U.K. being lowered in Helmand Province in Camps Leatherneck and Bastion brought back some memories.I landed at Kabul airport in June 2005 to begin my duties as a civilian/military advisor to the Afghanistan National Army (ANA). My initial assignment was to the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), east of Kabul on the Jalalabad Rd. We had host nation Afghanistan contracted drivers and we stayed in what was called a “safe house” in the city — my room was down in the basement — it felt safer down there. We were issued no weapons, but I had a pretty sharp knife.
My position involved developing a staff officers’ course to train upper level Afghanistan Army officers in operational and tactical level planning. It was a month-long course and I truly enjoyed it. Well, my reputation grew as being very good with the Afghan officers and learning their language a little and so I was soon placed in charge of an advisory team — downrange. That location was Regional Command- South (RC-South), Kandahar — the home of the Taliban and the newly-formed Afghan Army 205th Corps. When I arrived in November 2005, the unit strength of the ANA forces was probably about a brigade (a couple thousand plus), but the plan was to rapidly focus and grow the force.The 1st Brigade, 205th Corps was responsible for Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces (Mullah Omar’s home was Uruzgan, Tarin Kot). We also had responsibility for Zabul and Helmand provinces, but we were thin as wax paper.
The American forces of the 173d Airborne Brigade and U.S. Army Special Forces were tough and kept the Taliban at bay. However, we knew the force structure was transitioning to NATO which would take over operations in RC-South. The Canadians would take Kandahar, the Romanians got Zabul province, the Dutch took Uruzgan, and the Brits got Helmand – as you can imagine, the lines of command and communications were sometimes difficult.
Each country had its own respective employment criteria based on its Ministry of Defense guidance — which really made things interesting. Of course we were seen as glue, since we’d been on the ground and had developed relationships with the ANA leaders.I remember when Camp Bastion was first begun and there was nothing, I mean nothing out there. I had to fly out and meet with the British Army training team to give them a briefing on our advisory team and our capability. We would deploy a 3 to 5 man team to work with the Brits doing the classroom training and systems supervision — logistics and property — to enhance the success of their mission. The one great benefit of heading out to Camp Bastion was I got to have Earl Grey tea. The mission was tough because we hadn’t had a very prominent presence out in Helmand province, the Sangin River valley was the devil’s den and getting the Afghans ready to fight beside the Brits was tough.
The Afghans were extremely exceptional small unit fighters — guerrilla style. However, we had to train them to fight as a coordinated unit and employ various assets at the platoon, company, and battalion (Kandak) levels. The problem was that many of the former officers had been trained under the old Soviet style of leadership — which meant they did nothing unless directed — no independent thought. That was the hardest aspect to break — not just teaching the young officers to make a decision, but also getting the senior officers to allow them to make a decision. We took painstaking time to teach them the intricacies of detailed planning and execution, rehearsals, and most importantly, discipline in combat operations.
I left Afghanistan in November 2007 and got the chance to go back to Helmand Province in the summer of 2011 and visit with the Marines on Camp Leatherneck, some of whom I had served with on active duty. It was a truly awesome experience to see how Camp Bastion and Leatherneck had grown and we walked the streets of Marjah, which was Taliban central back in the day.And so today as I read about the flags of the US and the UK being lowered it reminded me of the small bit our team had played in establishing the ANA presence there. I hope we don’t just pull pitch as the chopper pilots say, and create another gap — because the enemy is sitting there in Pakistan, just waiting. The Afghan people don’t want the Taliban back, but they don’t want a corrupt central government either. The strength in Afghanistan is at the district level and the power lies with the tribal leaders — that is where you must gain respect, confidence, and trust. The Taliban will do their best to reestablish themselves in the south, their spiritual base.
Based on what we’ve seen in Iraq, we don’t need a repeat in Afghanistan, and I pray we’ve learned that strategic lesson — or else the sacrifices of many will have been in vain.