Life on the FOB – Day 6 in Afghanistan

The Afghan weekend is over. Saturday is Monday here.  I woke up early and linked up with the Brit combat advisers. The Brits were, once again, fantastic, allowing me to embed with them, answering my questions, and indulging in my taking field notes. Moreover, they are excellent mentors and trainers. They have a lot of their own expectations about the “normal” routines of training to set aside, especially their sense of “rhythm” for how skill development should progress. They struggle everyday with a sense of how competent they know the ANA can be and the realities of social life here, in Afghanistan, which means it takes a lot more time and patience to get performance that “looks right.”

I headed out with the Brits from the FOB to their “schoolhouse” on the ANA compound. The “schoolhouse,” sometimes jokingly refereed to by the Brits as “the cottage”  is a pink colored and pretty bare bones two story building. It has a few offices with some chairs, desks, a smattering of office supplies, and that is about it. Outside are half a dozen ANA trainees squatting around the building plus an equal number of dogs, either sunning or hoping to grab a piece of fallen naan from one of the ANA.

Most of the morning is spent waiting for the ANA instructors to move their students to the training areas. The Brits work on their training schedules, periodically interrupting their discussions to complain that the ANA instructors fail to teach the correct courses. One of the several ‘Stu’s’  (I think there are three in the group!) says, “What happens is that they instructors are only good at on subject. But they get assigned to teach several subjects. So instead of teaching the skill they need to be teaching, like today, ops orders, they will teach what they know, maps and compass. So some of the students never get the class they need. Or the instructor isn’t in the class he’s supposed to be teaching because he has gone to a class that needs to be taught maps and compass. Just wait. We will go check in on the classes to check on their progress and you will see that they will be teaching whatever the ‘ell they want.”

I go with SGT S. and a Stu, to check in on the classes. We walk into one of the classrooms and the Brits go through their greetings with the ANA instructor (salaam and sabha b’khar). Then the conflicts begin. The Brits look at the white board that the ANA instructor is using. They see that it has angles and grids written on it appropriate for map and compass. SGT S. leans over and whispers to me, “Told ya mate, map and compass, not an op-order in the room!” The two Brits have a somewhat tense discussion with the ANA instructor about needing to follow the schedule. “This group was supposed to have had op-orders since week 1! They haven’t had any because the instructors don’t like teaching it and they are in week 4 already!”

Flustered, the Brits go back to “the cottage” and have a quick cigarette break. The Brits have a scheduale for the 6 weeks training each cohort gets and are visibly frustrated that, for their first cohort, they are consistently finding that the classes composing the cohort are getting training out of order, getting repeats of training unnecessarily, or not getting the needed training at all.  SGT S. tries to be positive about it saying, “They’re getting better but its slow and for every inch of gain you’re fighting a yard backwards. Its not what we’d expect or like but it is progress” though looking at his face it is not obvious he believes his own words.

The classes fall far behind schedule and suddenly the advisers are in a position in which they only have one hour to conduct four hours of training. Another adviser, from the marksmanship course grumbles, “Between them taking two hours to teach 20 minutes of material, them not giving us the damn keys to the weapons depot, and their damn two hour lunch, we have one hour to train!” The adviser leave “the cottage” and round up the classes, shove cell phones into the hands of the interpreters and ANA instructors and tell them to get the weapons out of the lockers and “I don’t care what you have to do to make it happen, just make it happen!” Finally, weapons appear and the ANA students begin training on the M249.

Things do not go smoothly. The students aren’t paying attention to the instructor. The instructor seems not to be paying attention to the students. When it comes to the drills, the instructor seems to let the students load, make ready, fire, do failures, and reloads in completely inconsistent ways. I am obviously not the only one that is suprised by this. The Brits are visibly upset that the instructor seems to be going through the motions (giving instructions) but in no way actually interacting with the students or giving any feedback or correction for the obvious and often dangerous mistakes that the ANA students were making.

Finally, one of the advisers, in exasperation, throws his hands up in a “stop” motion and begins teaching the class, in English, and using only the few Dari words that he knows (stop and fire).  The mood of the students changes dramatically. Instead of looking disinterested and bored, they are literally sitting on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, and even verbally engaging the instructor and the Brit adviser, even though he has no idea what they are saying!

But soon a bind emerges. The Brits use ‘preparatory commands’ and ‘commands of execution’ (just like American’s use for drill and for training) but there seems to be no direct translation of execution commands such as “LOAD!” or “STOPPAGE” or “RELOAD.” Instead the ANA instructor literally explains how to load the M249 at the command of “LOAD.” This might not seem very important but it ground training to a halt. As the Brits explained, the execution commands are meant to trigger a muscle memory. But because the instructors had no equivalent, and had to use descriptive sentences to get student to load the weapon, there was no opportunity for the students to actually memorize and rehearse from memory the act of loading the weapon. The information was always being provided to them.  This became even more apparent when, in further exasperation, the advisers finally called in a translator. (It should be noted that they advisers spent about 15 minutes trying to do the training before calling in one of the translators. That is, they do a lot of their work without needing or having available a translator).

Even when the translator came in, that did not solve the problem. When the advisers explained to the translator what execution commands were, and he finally started giving them, the students, literally, had no idea what to do. At the command “LOAD” without the command including the description of the task itself, the students fumbled with the magazines and slide mechanism and generally could not complete the required movements in the proper order. Another problem was that there seemed to be multiple possible correct ways to utter the command “FIRE” and “STOP” and the instructor was not consistently using the same words for the self-same meaning command.

All this is just to say that at a basic level of training, the way “commands” are used as a training practice in the UK and US is quite different than the way I observed commands being uttered and used among the Afghans. Neither is inherintly right or wrong, but the US and UK systems rely on using commands as stimuli to elicit a motor response and that simply was not how the Afghans practically seemed to deploy commands where the command is not only a single utterance (RELOAD) but contains instructions on the action to be executed. The cognitive impact of these different forms and content of “commands” has practical import since the UK/US version seems to have a functional relationship to memorization of movements and later elicitation whereas the Dari commands emphasize properly listening to and then executing instructions. Fortunately I video tapped much of this segment of the encounter between advisers, instructor, translator and students and I will hopefully  be able to mull more over the comparative differences in the pragmatic use of commands.

After about an hour and a half, it was lunch time and the ANA began heading to their chow hall for lunch and training was effectively over for the day.

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