Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 9: Viva La France

Yesterday was spent doing ambush training with Taff and Smudge, two IBS sergeants. Not much action as the ANA were only able to get through one ambush scenario before they and the IBS gave up. As much as the cultural differences between the ANA and the UK soldiers impede training, the conflicts between ANA officers and instructors cause as many problems. Hierarchies seem much more unsettled among the ANA than among the IBS members. A couple of days ago, on the 100m range, a Major usurped Mahid, a SGT and instructor. Mahid spent the remainder of the day sulking and being generally pissy and obstructionist as a result. The Major certainly did not help improve the quality of the training since he was not even qualified to train in the first place. Rather SGT K. had to spend his time chasing after the Major to correct his many mistakes, mistakes that would not have been made if Wahid had been left to conduct the training.

Yesterday the issue changed and became one over schedaules. The ANA instructor for ambushes, Najuibullah, has been operating off of a 3 month old training scheduale that the British combat adivsers had tried to get rid of several times. Smudge, through one of the interpreters, confront Najuibullah and said, “Why are you still using this? We told you it is wrong. The training is out of order. There is a natural sequence to training and we have given you a scheduel that makes the training work better?” Najuibullah, started shouting “Ney, ney, ney!” [No, no, no!] and through the translator I learned he was arguing, “But if I use your scheduale and my superiors show up, I will get yelled at for not following this scheduale [pointing at his out of date scheduale]. So I can’t use the new one.” An officer who was supervising the instructor pulled Najuibullah aside and, the interpreter explained, tells him, “But this way is better and that is what matters.” One of the advisers tells the interpreter “crawl, walk, run.”

Nonetheless, Najuibullah sulks off.  Smudge says,  “I hope he doesn’t have any live rounds [referring to two combat advisers killed the day prior by a ANP student], cause I embarrassed him yesterday [over finding him smoking hashish during training].”

I rotated out to the French today. Not surprisingly, the challenge of trying to make sense of the Brits/Americans and ANA is challenging as it is. But throw in the fact that I don’t speak French or Dari, and today took much more effort to wade through.

The French soldiers I worked with today were all infantry, and have served everywhere from Sierra Leon, French Guinea, Ivory Coast,  Bosnia to Kosovo. Like the Brits, most of the men I spoke to had spent at least 10 years in the service. However, Laurent, the officer I spent most of today with, had spent 20+ years in the French military. Laurent served as my primary translator. He was a good spirited fellow, in his forties, and very funny (even when I couldn’t understand his jokes). When Laurent talked to someone, whether an ANA instructor or a fellow French soldier, he had the habit of grabbing onto their arm to make a point or to drive home the punch line to a joke.

Colonialism came up repeatedly today, though I never initiated the discussion of it. Laurent or one of the SGTs would bring up France’s colonial legacy not so much as a point of pride  but as an important historical experience that shaped a French soldier’s ability to move and be successful in  counter-insurgency. Laurent believed that because of France’s colonial legacy, and the variety of countries France had historical placed soldiers, that not much training was needed to prepare a French soldier for a counter-insurgency (COIN) like environment. Like a Johnny Cash lyric, Laurent told me, “I’ve been everywhere man! Africa, Bosnia, this is no different! You have to build rapport.” I asked Laurent what about the Afghan soldiers he works with differentiates them the most from the various African soldiers he had worked with. He searches for the right words in English and finally grabs a cigarrette out of his armor carriers pocket, lights the cigarette, and then raises his index finger to signal to hold on another minute. He reaches back into his carrier pockets, searches, and finally pulls out a small French-English dictionary.  Finally, he grabs his cigarette, and jabs with his finger (cigarrette sandwiched between his other fingers of the same hand) and with ash flying everywhere victoriously says, “Pride! They are a Pride people!”

I ask Laurent what he means by this and he says, “In Ivory Coast, when we teach, the instructors are happy to listen. But here, if I say something to an instructor, if I say it to his facce, direct, and in front of the students, it hurts his pride and he [the instructor] is lost for months! He will not listen to you again.”

Laurent, CPT Muktar, and a translator evaluate the ANA NCO’s battle drills. CPT Muktar had asked Laurent, “good or not so good?” Laurent refused to answer, asking CPT Muktar, instead, what he thought. Reluctantly, CPT Muktar makes a thumbs up with one hand and a thumbs down with the other, “so, so.”

The French advisers find a lot at fault with the ANA instructors and the students. The primary issues is that the students and teh instructors show up late or go AWOL with, to the French advisers, alarming frequency. A common sentiment was put this way by an adviser, “The instructors would rather appear stupid in front of their students than ask us for help.” I asked the adviser for an example: “You see, yesterday we do the M249. I ask the night before, ‘do you know how to use the M249.’ And the instructor, he says, ‘I do.’ And of course, yesterday, he [the instructor] does not know what to do with it! If the day before, he just ask me some questions. He probably be okay. But the students, now they don’t know the M249.” I ask the adviser if he had stepped in to correct the instructor. “Oh no. We are advisers not trainers.”

The fine line between advising and training is not so fine to the French advisers. Rather, it seems a bright line.  To a much larger extent “culture” plays a role in justifying non-participation. The French advisers will not interfere with the training at all, no matter how disastrous the training is going because they don’t want to risk hurting the pride of the instructors. Another instructor says, “They don’t want my experience, they just want my materials. I give them M16s and they don’t say thank you they say, ‘why don’t you give me an AK-47?” Or ‘why don’t you give me your gun?'” Laurent explains to me, a phenomena that the Brits also spoke about, “Insha’ Allah.” Laurent says, “They don’t aim their rifles, they just point and say, ‘Insha’Alla, if my enemy is supposed to die, then the bullet will hit him.’ The Afghans, you know, they aren’t like us: planning, everything is urgent. No. They just live for the day. They don’t project into the future.” One of the advisers, stands in an upright lotus position, arms out, thumbs touching the index and middle fingers, and says “ooommmmm. You have to be zen. Everything is slow.”

A French soldier demonstrates the zen comportment needed to work with ANA

Laurent, continues, “We have to try not to think in the European system but the Afghan system. The have their own mentalite and tactics. They are not ours. But we have to try and understand what they do.” It is not obvious how far the adviser have gotten with this project, inspite of their talk. Most of their comments about the ANA typically regard having no idea why, for example three squads will face each other (like a three sided box) while assualting an objective. But the advisers assume that there is a reasonable explanation from the ANA’s point of view, but they claim they just haven’t figured it out yet. And so the advisers swing back and forth between outward displays of trying to understand the ANA and lots of shrugs, and “merde!” and other backstage displays of disbelief and frustration with the progress of training.

Several of the French advisers used Dari words throughout their communications through the interpreters. Laurent says, “Its not so important to actually know Dari but to be able to use it to build good relationships. You show that you are trying and people appreciate it. Now, because we build rapport, we can just give some advice and they [the instructors] don’t just get mad. They sometimes listen.” Laruent also describes his strategy as “diploimatic.” “We have to be diplomatic. You don’t just give them orders. Do this now do this. But you have to give it as suggestions: ‘Maybe you do  this.  Maybe you try this? Whatever you like.’ But you make it so they have to decide.”

Laurent also says religion plays a role in the difficulties they have when training. “Children, the only way they know how to learn is how they learned to read the Qur’an. They just read and memorize. That is how you see the ANA being taught by the instructors. They just have them read about something and then expect them to go do it.  In the classes, the instructors just read directly from the lesson plan. But they don’t show them [ANA students] how to do it. You try to tell them they need to do demonstrations and to do drills but they just won’t do it because that is not how they learned the Qur’an.” Arguably,  the same critique could be made of the Western traditions emphasis on “rational thought.” The assumption being, that people are rational beings, like computers, and if give the proper ‘code’ they will execute properly. Consequently, far too much training excludes situated learning in favor of rote memorization of facts.

Another adviser says that Islam also impacts fighting style and thus training. Speaking of ambush training, an adviser says, “In their culture they believe that you have to see the enemy’s face, to see the eyes. So even though we teach them to engage from 300m with accurate fire with their rifles, they would rather wait until the enemy is next to them.  The students, a few months ago had an incident with a grenade because of this. They don’t train to fight from far away so when they throw grenades they throw them close by. All the time in training they throw the grenade and are still standing in the kill area, no matter how many times you tell them. Two died because of this. But we still can’t get the instructors to change the training. For them, without being able to see your enemy you aren’t showing courage.”

In the office at the adviser “cottage” the advisers show me mock radios they made approximately 5 months prior. The adviser says, “They have few materials, but they won’t do anything about it, even when they need to train.” He points out that the NCOs have to learn how to opearte radios but there are no radios to train on.  “They won’t adapt. So we built them a radio out of card board and parts so they could see how to use the radio and practice. But when we tell them they need to do the same they won’t.”

The adviser laugh when they retrieve the ANA instructors attempt to show how to use the radio. “This is what they made after three months!” a adviser said with a surprised look on his face.

I am surprised by the account that the advisers give of what they perceive to be their success in advising. An instructor says, “We French, we are a Latin people and so we have an easier time with the Afghans than the Americans!”

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