- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

FORWARD OPERATIONS BASE BERMEL, Afghanistan — American troops face massive obstacles in training the Afghan national army.

The army and its American military trainers confront problems as basic as maintaining sanitation and feeding and clothing soldiers of the young force - while being engaged in active combat. In addition, cultural attitudes are a barrier to creating a professional, self-sustaining Afghan military.

For example, an embedded training team in East Paktika province near the border with Pakistan faced serious systemic issues upon its arrival in November. “When we got here, there were human feces everywhere; they’d contaminated the well with E. coli and the showers were full of ice,” said Master Sgt. Michael Spaulding of the 2nd Kandak, 2nd Brigade training team. “You’ve got to get that fixed before you can even think about training them for war,” he said.

Many Afghan units are in a similar situation, especially in the more remote regions of the country. It is difficult for American troops to provide the basics while training an Afghan unit to defeat anti-government insurgents.

The training of the Afghan national army began just after the opening salvos of Operation Enduring Freedom undertaken in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 10th Mountain Division identified the need to train and equip a national army built in the image of the U.S. Army. Thus, Task Force Phoenix was created, and embedded training teams were formed in the spring of 2002.

Until recently, Phoenix has been manned predominately by National Guardsmen. Yet as part of the Obama administration’s surge, the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne is being deployed to serve as trainers. This brigade is a regular Army brigade not specifically structured for the advisory mission.

There is no doubt the Afghans are willing to fight. This is a nation of warriors that pushed back the Soviet army; it is also one of the very few nations that mounted a formidable campaign against Genghis Khan.

Afghanistan is filled with proud warriors and a rich warrior tradition. The challenge is making this a professional fighting force and teaching the warriors to serve the elected civilian leadership.

Logistical issues such as securing spare parts, winter clothing and field rations continue to hinder the progress of the Afghan national army. Many training team members say the Afghans understand how to fight yet are unable to support that fight over long periods and distances.

Cultural beliefs also hinder progress. Afghan culture is permeated with the “Inshallah” attitude, meaning that something will happen if God wills it to happen. This reliance on fate undermines planning. “I’ve been in many meetings where we ask what their plan is for resupply of the operation and their response is ‘Inshallah.’ That doesn’t work in subzero temperatures and fighting a determined enemy,” said Staff Sgt. Roy Cooper.

One of the strengths of professional armies is their ability to identify and learn from mistakes and to codify corrections to shortcomings. For the hyper-masculine Afghan army, this is difficult. Attempts to teach the value of in-depth analysis of past operations is often an exercise in futility. “One time I sat in an after-action review, and these guys couldn’t identify one mistake in over an hour of discussion. Look, they didn’t even get to the right objective. That’s a pretty easy one to start with,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tim McLaughlin.

Despite these problems - and what often appears to Americans to be a slow pace - significant progress is being made. The Afghan national army is increasing its ability to conduct sustained combat operations on its own. Every quarter, new units reach capability measure one; this means they can conduct operations without their embedded training teams to support them.

The life support, logistic and cultural issues are overcome by the sheer dogged determination of American trainers. The U.S. Army has been in Afghanistan for eight years; it is attempting to train and influence a culture and society that existed centuries before the United States was even conceived. In addition, this must occur while these units and their assigned mentors engage in hunting down and fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Every day, the Afghans and their U.S. mentors toil side by side building an army while securing a fragile democracy. “There’s no pulling these guys out of the field to train or taking them to the National Training Center; every day they have a security role to fill, so that means you have to train them when you can, with what you’ve got and fight the rest of the time,” said Sgt. Spaulding.

• Cory Schulz is a Nevada National Guardsman who has been serving as an embedded training team chief to the Afghan national army at Forward Operations Base Bermel, Afghanistan, since October.

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