Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 7 (end of week roundup)
I have spent the majority of the past week with the combat advisers of the Infantry Branch School. For the purposes of my trip, to study intercultural interactions in a military setting, the IBS has been a perfect laboratory. Not only do the advisers interact, daily, with the various peoples that make up the ANA (Pashtos, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc.) but the IBS is made up of Brits, New Zealanders, an American, the French, and the Germans. The Brits are composed, themselves of English, Welsh, and Scottish. In other words, heterogeneity is the name of the game, and trying to both work together, and to teach across social divides is simply the status quo. No doubt, to the advisers, the training could go smoother and more rapidly, but perhaps they do not realize how much of an achievment it already is that their workday world manages to move along at all. Even one of the ANA captains, CPT. Y (he did not want his name or picture taken) said, via an interpreter, that “the Pashto, the Tajiks, everyone makes it work.” Getting at what “makes it work” is what I hope to understand better upon leaving Afghanistan.
One SGT, from New Zealand, that I have been watching, is the quintessential “good stranger.” SGT K. is friends with everyone: the ANA, the interpreters, the Brits, the Americans, the French, even the Russian contractors. Traveling around with SGT K. means observing or participating in exchanges of: “hey bro!”, “Whats up mate!,” not to mention ‘thumbs ups,’ shouting out windows with a big smile and a wave, and the use of broken Dari to let ANA troops, marching on the side of the road, know that he sees them and is saying hello. Above all, SGT K. is engaged with everyone regardless of the national or cultural origins. Even when gestures that he uses are not “culturally” correct, such as the ‘thumbs up’ he still gets at a smile back from the ANA. One of the interpreters tells me that SGT K. stands out because, even though his language skills are poor, “he tries” and “treats everyone like a man.”
I think that there is the assumption that the difficulty that comes from intercultural occasions like the Brits mentoring the ANA is that there are two relatively stable cultural systems that clash during situated encounters. Such a view is dramatically oversimplified, for even with the Brits it is quite apparent that the very notion of what they ought to be doing, day to day, is quite unsettled, their notions of what counts as being a competent adviser is frequently contested and is certainly conditional on the lines of activity they are embedded in at the time.
This was quite explicit during the morning drive from the FOB up to the 25m range. Sgt. S. tells Sgt. K. about the difficulties he was having with the ANA instructors and students the day before. “They tell us that we should just advise. But where is that line between advising, mentoring, and training? I think you have to step in and step out. I mean, if I just advise, and the instructors aren’t training the students, then what go is it to the students?” Sgt. K. responds, “Its about survivability. If we are just advisers and we don’t step in, we aren’t doing them [the students] any good when they go down south [to Helmund or Kandahar] and they can’t fucking clear a stoppage. Our obligation isn’t to the instructors its to the students. Advising is just one way to get there: Advise, mentor, and train. All three are important, I think. The problem is that you advise, advise, advise, and the instructors, they just ignore you. Sometimes they listen, or you have to push it up the chain [of command, both British and ANA] and by then, its two weeks, and you don’t have the students anymore. You sometimes have to mentor. You got to pull ’em aside [the instructors] and show ’em or you have to jus’ do it yourself and train the students. Ya have to do it bro!”
In observing SGTs K. and S. you can see the difference in how they interact with the ANA. SGT K. is constantly “bull shitting” with the ANA (students, instructors, NCOs, and officers). Only when he is observing the instructors in action is he relatively still and silent. But typically, as soon as the instructor is done teaching a group he is right back into action. SGT S. is just as eager to be a good adviser but it is clear that he is not yet as comfortable with the ANA. His movements and engagements are more stilted, more forced, and typically more abrupt. He also is more standoffish, typically hanging out in the background while SGT. K. is in the foreground running about. On the other hand there are good security reasons for this. It is not uncommon for ANA to turn their weapons on their advisers. Not to long ago 5 US advisers will shot by an ANA instructor. While the media has portrayed such shootings as being about Taliban embedding themselves in the ANA, the advisers tell a different story. Another one of the advisers, CPL G. told me, “Nah, its rarely about infiltrators. usually what happens is that one of the advisers berates ’em [the instructor or student] real harsh. And ya’ know, when ya do that ya have to know that if you shame them they will comeback five times harder. And that c’n mean they’re going to have to kill ya.”
The first problem of the day is that the ANA SGT Major has absolutely no idea where the 25m range. It isn’t clear to me if this is a matter of him not knowing where the range is or not knowing that it is a “25m” range. It seemed like this simply was not how the ANA NCOs referred to the ranges. Upon getting the ANA platoon to be trained on site, SGT K. used sticks, stones, and drawing in the dirt to try and explain to the ANA instructor how to arrange the troops so that he could observe everyone.
The instructor promptly ignored SGT K. and instead had everyone line up in a straight line and he stood behind them. After several dry fire drills where the instructor missed students make critical errors, SGT K. calmly waved over the instructor and the interpreter and asked if the instructor would mind if he tried leading a group through the dry fire drills. He qualified the request by saying, “If you like it, you can try it too,” so that it did not sound like he was ‘ordering’ the instructor. SGT K. expalined, “It just doesn’t work to tell them what to do. You have to put it out as a suggestion and hope they take it. They [Afghans] are very stubborn people and you can’t make them do anything. They have to want to.” SGT K. lays out the students on an an angle and stands in front of them, with a clear view of their weapon system and their bodies. He explains to the interpreter how to give commands of execution and proceeds with the drill. When it is time for the next group, the ANA instructor continues with SGT K.’s methods.
When it comes time to do live fire, SGT K. says, “This is the first time they will shoot at paper targets. Usually they [ANA] are just sent up to a hillside range and told to fire their weapons. You see all kinds of things, like shooting from the hip.” SGT K. sets up 25m zeroing targets. The first group up tries to zero their weapons from the kneeling position. Not suprisingly, the students are all over the paper targets. With the next group, SGT K. convinces the ANA instructor that having the students laying prone will improve their shooting and make him [the instructor] look better. Sure enough the students do dramatically better.
Something I did not expect about the students is that they love having their picture taken and they love fliping through our cameras and their own. So when the students do well and “qualify” (it is informal) by shooting 20+ out of 30, SGT K. has each student stand by their target and takes a photo of them. To one stern looking ANA student he says with a big smile and slap on the students shoulder, “Hey man! Loosen up! Smile! You’re not an American Marine!” to which I cracked up.
When the adviser and I go and shoot, the issue of American’s being “wound up” comes up over and over again, with the advisers assuming an exaggerated tactical pose while doing shoot and move drills or simply standing on the line getting ready to shoot. They even comment that the US Army’s practices for clearing weapons demonstrates a to much seriousness and a lack of confidence in soldiers. SGT S. says, “We have 16 year old soldiers. If they can qualify on their weapons and we trust them to carry ’em and fight then we aren’t going to clear and check their weapons 3 or four times. We trust ’em to raise their hand and let us know when their weapons are cleared.” This kicks off an interesting discussion about the relative cultures of risk in the US, UK, and NZ.