Afghanistan Diaries: Teachers and Doctors

Afghanistan Diaries: Teachers and Doctors

Jacobson: Teachers and Doctors

Combat Outpost Rankel, Safar, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
November 2010

During my first week with the unit I helped the ANA company commander, Captain Abdullah, come up with a list of things he felt were essential to his mission of disrupting the Taliban in the Safar area. The idea was to provide a manageable request list to the ANA battalion logistics soldiers, who, like most ANA logisticians, struggle to keep up with demand and meet the needs of a growing force, all while learning their trade. Here is the list Captain Abdullah dictated by radio to his battalion, and that I copied and sent to the Marine logistics mentor I had met a few days before:

1 generator
5 cartons of 1077 radio batteries
1077 radio battery charger
58 trauma kits
58 tourniquets
40 rocket-propelled grenade rounds
5.56mm ammunition
7.62mm linked ammunition
weapons cleaning gear
maps of the area of operation
map pens
up-armored HMMWVs [humvees]
Ford Rangers
electric coils to boil water for chai
5 gas lamps
10 extra sets of uniforms
7 pairs of boots in various sizes
58 sets of winter warming layers
58 pairs of eye protection
58 sleeping cots
lumber for building living spaces

Captain Abdullah repeated the request by radio every few days. Weeks later, I received word from the logistics mentor that an ANA re-supply convoy was finally arriving, having made its way south through the battalion’s fifty-some-odd static positions, delivering supplies. (COP Rankel is the newest and farthest south of the positions). As it rolled through our gate I looked for ANA vehicles—flat-bed Rangers or larger International trucks. There were none; just the standard Marine 7-tons, MRAPS, and M-ATVs, with a couple dozen logistics Marines and one lone ANA soldier. He unloaded some bags of rice and beans from the Marine vehicles, yellow jugs of cooking oil, and little Capri-Sun knock-off juice pouches, made in the UAE. “What else do you have for us?” I asked. There was nothing; not a single one of the items Captain Abdullah had diligently requested.

One of the main problems is the expectation we’ve encouraged: that Marines will provide the ANA with all the supplies they need. The logistics soldiers know that if they don’t bother to provide their troops with food and water, the Marines will take up the slack, delivering as many palettes of bottled water and packaged halal meals as they need. What are we going to do, let them starve? Unfortunately, this expectation exists for more than just the basic necessities. Every day, ANA soldiers—seldom the assigned logistics soldiers—approach their mentors with requests: boots, socks, nails, wood, mattresses, steel beams, notebooks, diesel fuel, motor oil, compasses, GPS, night vision, thermal vision, holsters, cement, internet, wells, cameras, television…

And the mentors repeat the mentor mantra: “Let’s request these things through your ANA chain of command. We don’t want to circumvent your system.” But they know, and we know, that often the best chance they have of getting the things they need is through the Marines. The problem isn’t just attitude. It’s a lack of equipment. The ANA has an aviation unit, but it’s only a few old Russian helicopters that fly simple missions back and forth between large bases, and only every few days. Their ground capabilities aren’t much more robust. Each ANA battalion has a few of our old up-armored HMMWVs (we don’t use them much anymore and have turned mostly to sturdier MRAPs and M-ATVs), some thin-skinned flatbed Ford Rangers, and maybe a few larger International trucks. My ANA company uses their Rangers to patrol the bazaar, and for bringing basic supplies the few kilometers between patrol bases. But these vehicles are entirely inadequate for longer-range, large-scale re-supply. We take for granted the vast network that works to get the individual rifleman the chow, ammo, and energy drinks he needs to take the fight to the Taliban.

Let’s suppose—and this is a major supposition, because it only really ever happens in theory—that the items on Capt. Gefar’s list made it through the various levels of Afghan movement agencies, forward support depots, and combat service support battalions, down to our ANA battalion. Then what? There’s a good chance some of the choice supplies would be hoarded at that level, or in the worst cases, sold for cash. And for the items that are in fact bound for the units that need them? Without our beefed up v-hull vehicles and mine-rollers out front blazing a path, ANA vehicles would risk being torn apart even by modest-sized IEDs.

In an ANA company, where most of what we do entails not much more than boots and a rifle, it’s not hard to get the soldiers to begin to go out on some patrols independently. But at the ANA battalions, brigade, and above, what would it even mean to “step up” and start doing ops on their own—when it’s not just lack of expertise, but lack of a technology and training? We could give the ANA battalion millions of dollars worth of mine-resistant vehicles, blue force trackers, metal-detectors, IED counter-measures, and all the other complex systems we wouldn’t consider leaving base without. But who would operate it, and maintain it? Every one of our systems has a Marine up at battalion or regiment or division who specializes in fixing it; and for the especially obscure systems, there’s a field service representative, a contractor in cargo pants, who travels the country to fix what’s broken. They can’t “step up” and all of a sudden have our vast technical support apparatus. Will we accept that the ANA soldiers have to assume a lot more risk than we assume, simply by driving down the road?

“Hey Corporal Diego, if we kept on digging all the way through, where would we end up?” “Not sure, sir. On the beach in Hawaii? With some cold Coronas?” We were digging shitters for the new Safar school—the first Safar school depending on whom you ask. I had made a deal with Captain Abdullah, the ANA company commander. His soldiers would put up three tents for the three grade levels, and I would build the bathrooms with my Marines. Nothing fancy: a sheet of plastic with a hole in it, a ditch underneath, and some wire mesh and fabric HESCO wrapped around for privacy. We finished in time for the 8 a.m. start of school. Two months before, Safar had been a Taliban safe haven with no Coalition presence. Now, despite the daily firefights and IEDs, things were safe enough for some education. We put the school tents right in front of COP Rankel, so they’d be in constant sight of the Marines on post. We advertised heavily in the days before we opened the school, worried that no kids would show up, as has happened in other areas of Garmsir District and the greater Helmand (just a few days earlier, the school tents in a much safer part of the district had been burned to the ground). We told elders at the weekly shura, spoke to locals in the villages, and announced it on the Pashto radio station we transmit out of our outpost.

More than a hundred boys showed up that first morning. Some girls, too, which we hadn’t expected. Captain Abdullah divided them into three groups and assigned his sergeants as teachers. He taught a few lessons on the Koran, respect for elders, hygiene, and the importance of passing along any tips about IEDs emplaced in their villages. The soldiers handed out thin photocopied textbooks, bought in the bazaar for a few Pakistani rupees apiece. I flipped through the math book. Learning to count with weapons. Classes ended at 11 a.m. A little boy ran up to me, excited to show off what he had learned: “I teacher, you student,” he gloated in English. “Yes, you’re right,” I said in Pashto.

A few weeks later we packed up the school tents and moved them a few hundred meters farther from COP Rankel to a permanent mud compound Captain Abdullah had scouted—“on government land,” he said. And he installed the biggest Afghan flag he could find, on the tallest pole, to match the flags he already had flying in the bazaar. The school was still within sight of our post, and a few ANA soldiers stood security each morning outside the schoolhouse. Then the night letters started appearing, posted in the bazaar and turned in to us by sympathetic elders. “If you send your children to school, don’t complain to us what happens. Signed and Stamped: such and such Taliban shadow leader, Garmsir District.” Over the next few weeks, school attendance dropped, recovered, and dropped again with the flow of intimidation messages through the area.

The elders came to our shura, concerned: “The Taliban will not allow us to send our children to school, only to madrassah.” “OK, so we’ll call it a madrassah. Most of the curriculum is religious education anyway.” Captain Abdullah spoke with the locals about the importance of education, including secular education. “The Koran teaches that we should learn all knowledge, even the knowledge of China,” he said. He asked them to find some local teachers. We agreed that we could pay them with Commander’s Emergency Response Program money until a proper salary channel came down from the district governor. (No one from the district government has been down here, even to visit, in the months I’ve been in Safar, the southernmost position in the push South against the Taliban; the Afghan soldiers are the only Afghan government presence.) An elder tried to change the subject: “We want doctors for the clinic, not teachers,” he said. “Safar is not safe enough for teachers yet. First we need doctors: doctors from Lashkar Gah. Doctors are neutral.” Captain Abdullah pressed the point. A few days later three very reluctant teachers stood in front of their new students.

Back at the outpost we hold classes of our own: shooting, land navigation, map reading, trauma care, radios…Best is when an ANA soldier is confident and competent enough to take the lead as the teacher. Often, I teach the ANA sergeants (train-the-trainer) and help them show what they’ve learned to their soldiers. My earliest classes were stilted, overly formal, and far too focused on discussion as opposed to practical application. I was trying to teach the sergeants how to plan for missions and brief their soldiers before patrol. I presented them with a scenario and asked them to formulate a plan. “What sort of enemy situation would you tell your soldiers to expect on this patrol?”

“I will tell them at this time that they need to know,” said Sergeant Aziz through my interpreter.

“Yes, but what will you tell them about the enemy before the patrol so that they know what to expect?”

“Everything we will do is in our minds we will do on these technical points.”

“Definitely, but based on this possible mission we’re talking about, what sort of things do you think the enemy will try to do to you? What would you tell your soldiers about the enemy before you left for the patrol?”

“We will take everything with us we need we will make a good plan, just a patrol. We will find the IEDs under, on roof, in walls. I will say no breaks we will go straight and not do Taliban. We will go very fast at this part. Before we attack we will attack by then. I will call the commander he will ask for password. I will use from my technology.”

“OK. That’s a good plan for your patrol. Those are the things you will do when you are already on the patrol with your soldiers. But what about before the patrol. If your soldiers asked you what the enemy might try to do, what would you say? If you are Taliban, and I am ANA, what would you try to do to me on this patrol?”

“Very good. I will have one RPG and two PKM machine guns. I will run away when I see Marine helicopters. I will have a spotter with a radio. I will never put IEDs because when I see ANA I am scared and don’t want to fought ANA.”

Our interpreters hold their own informal classes, memorizing U.S. military acronyms and Turkish military terms (an Ottoman imprint on a mostly Dari and Pashto speaking army), and arguing about English grammar. I’m often the only available tiebreaker. “Yakub,” they say, using my Afghan name, “Is it right to say ‘Do you know who I am?’ or ‘Do you know who am I?’” “‘Where Ahmed is?’ or ‘Do you know where is Ahmed?’” “What is the difference between ‘Do you know whose pen this is?’ and ‘Whose pen is this?’” Or, I added: “To whom does this pen belong?” One of the interpreters cut to the chase: “Why do the Marines use the past perfect tense when they mean the simple preterite?”

Despite the dips and spikes in attendance, the first Safar school was running smoothly. Too smoothly? The local civilian teachers showed up one morning at COP Rankel—when they should have been at the school teaching—to speak with Captain Abdullah. “We will not continue to teach unless you take down the Afghan flag. It is too dangerous for us.” The captain was furious. “That is your flag; your country’s flag. You should be proud to teach under it.” The teachers relented, and for a few more days they continued to teach. Then, they were back at COP Rankel. They made sure it was a time when Captain Abdullah wasn’t around. “Flag or no flag, it is too dangerous for us to teach.” We sent three of our literate ANA soldiers out to cover for them. “If I’m working as a teacher in the morning, and as a soldier in the afternoon,” one of the sergeants said, “then I should receive two salaries.”