Battleland

Building a Secure Afghanistan

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Much of the more than $600 billion the U.S. has spent over the past decade in Afghanistan has gone into developing its security forces – the Afghan army (ANA) and police (ANP). Major William Nordai, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), returned from Afghanistan last June after spending a year in the northern part of the country working out of NATO posts helping build such facilities.

A recurring refrain in his comments is the fact that Afghan leaders kept getting killed, and the difficulty that poses in creating stable government institutions. Nordai, who also has deployed to Iraq, shared his experiences in a recently-posted March interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Some excerpts:

I was dealing with the chief of polices for a number of the Afghan districts around there, which was interesting because once you develop some of these relationships, sadly some of them would die and so you would have to reestablish relationships again. The attrition was pretty high, especially as that was leaving because they were targeted. It was sad to say that once you established a relationship, that person may not be in that position long…

I have to say that working with European military personnel, there are some things that you have to understand. Naturally, the cultural differences in terms of getting things from them but they are the most polite individuals. If you went by a German or anybody from Europe, they would always look you in the eye and say, “Good morning.” It was very neat to work there. Sadly, U.S. Soldiers who were up there would tend to not even say hi, they just kind of did their own thing…

There is a reputation that U.S. Forces have. We tend to go in and rough things up and that’s what happened with the surge. The Germans had established this base in 2004 and 2005. They built it up; they built the infrastructure up themselves. They are very proud of the way it looked. It was a very clean, well-run base. To have the Americans showing up saying, “You will give us these facilities. You will share your support with us.” It was a trying time I think for those couple of months…

I would go in to talk to the corps commander for the ANA. I tried to do it about once a week, maybe once every two weeks and a lot of it focused around concerns of security. Because of fact that the enemy was targeting those installations and that leadership, they didn’t really know who their enemy was sometimes. They didn’t have very good records. They don’t have sophisticated common access card (CAC), they just had little pieces of paper that Soldiers carried. People could come in dressed like a Soldier; they really weren’t sure who it was. There were a number of attacks, a number of key leaders taken out…

The police side, a lot of this stuff had to do with, “Can you build me this? Can you build me that?” They liked the fact that we were trying to pull them into looking at some of the new construction. We couldn’t tell them when we were going to be out there but we would make a point to stop into their office and kind of do a surprise visit. “Hey, we apologize for dropping in. We know it is unscheduled but if you have some time we would like to talk to you about your projects and such.” That was the only way that we could do that without compromising our security because the information could have easily gotten out and they could target our convoy…

Toward the end, before leaving, I know that the NATO commander up north had a lot of high-level meetings with both ANP and ANA, at the same time they would have these large meetings, one of which was attacked sadly and a number of the key leaders was killed; even the NATO commander was injured by some shrapnel…

[One of the Afghans killed] was a two-star equivalent police chief for Dhi Qar Province. He was a deputy to Mossad, who was a Afghan leader as part of a Northern Alliance…He was a war veteran. He fought the Russians. He was a two-star chief of police, helping to get his district together. It was only a week or so after we met with him that he was killed at that meeting…

It was sad because I have these pictures of us meeting. He was smiling and he brought his entourage of aides into the meeting and we would sit and talk about the projects. He was excited about that. He wanted to go out with us to see some of the projects, especially some of the projects that were so far up north near the border that we couldn’t get to them, we were talking about ways of sharing security a little bit to get out to those projects…

They would hire a number of Afghan security guards to help out with those convoys and we were out at one project site, out in the middle of nowhere and apparently one of those Afghan security guards had said something over the radio that was misinterpreted by one of the other Afghan guards from this project site that was just standing by. They took it as a personal offense and there was a serious threat made to the one — as it turns out, it was nothing.

He was commenting about an animal that he saw but the interpretation was that he was looking over the wall at a female in the neighboring house. [Laughs] Most likely, there was a family relationship too, so just trying to smooth things over with the Afghan guards at the construction site without having to fire this very confident security guard. It was just a misinterpretation. In the end, it was just a matter of telling the guards that he was severely punished and that it won’t happen again. I think the word was probably that he was beaten. [Laughter] Of course, he wasn’t beaten but they understand that. They feel better that he was beaten…

A lot of the security forces was around Kunduz. Dealing with them, I thought, was really neat. [One of our Afghan safety officers left for R-and-R and we] found his camera that he left behind and my Air Force NCO; he came up to me, and he says, “Hey, you might want to take a look at these pictures.” There were all of these pictures of Taliban looking at people holding guns and everything and they were out smoking something. [Laughter]

We took the chip from the camera, downloaded these pictures and took it to the Special Forces Group that was there and they were loving it. They said, “Oh yeah, we’ll check this out during our night hours.” They did the facial shot thing, looked at it, came back and said, “No, these guys are all clear. They are just militia.” The fact that we have Special Forces in Afghanistan and the capability that they bring to everybody, to include USACE when we ask for something, it is just wonderful.

In terms of construction in Afghanistan, I think the hardest thing to do across NATO is identifying what success is. The USACE plays a big role in that simply because of the money that is being put into building the ANA and ANP up so that they can do their mission. Identifying the standards that we build these facilities to. There is an expression over there, they call it “Afghan good.”

What our standard is over here is not the same — you don’t need that same level of standard in Afghanistan because they’re not accustomed to it anyway. They’ll use the facilities a little differently than you probably intended. Just defining what is really needed for the Afghan people to do their mission is something that we’ve had to work hard on these last 10 years over there. It’s going to come to an end, obviously, in the next couple of years. Hopefully, those lessons are being captured so that when we do construction again, we are not building A+ facilities; we’re building B- facilities that can do the job and are very functional but don’t have all of the perks. They are the best bang for the buck, if you will.

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