Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 26, “…the best intentions”

Standing in the hot sun of the dry training area, just bellow a local burial ground,  I turn to a couple of combat advisers about something I heard at chow at lunch the other day but forgot about. “What happened to the dog? Someone said they [meaning the Brits] shot a dog.”  “SGT S. says, “Well that’s not quite what happened. You know the young pup by the ‘cottage.'” “Yeah, the one with the bad legs?” I said. “Well” SGT S. continues, “The ANA thought it would be quite funny to throw it over a wall. Heartless bastards broke its hip,  so that’s how it got injured. But the lads thought, even though they had adopted it and started feeding it and giving it water, that it wasn’t getting better so they would put it out of its misery.” “Okay,” I said, prompting him past the pause in the story. “Well, no one actually wanted to shoot the dog but everyone knew it was better than letting the poor pup linger. The lad who cared for the  the pup the most, finally stepped up and said he would do it. So they put the pup in the back of the wagon, leashed it up and drove off to the range where they would shot it. That would be that. What the lads didn’t know was that after they drove off, the pup jumped out of the wagon and was dragged by the leash for 500m or so and that killed the dog. Poor lads were pretty upset about it. They thought they were going to do the pup a favor and put him down real quick like rather than leave him to the mercy of the ANA guys. Instead, they made this poor dog have a long painful death. It just goes to show that like anything here in Afghanistan, the best intentions  can go astray.”

Many of my posts probably are best described as lacking in analytical reconstruction. So briefly, I should say some words about how and why “best intentions,” often seems to describe the efforts of combat advisers. Combat advisers, in Afghanistan,  have the unenviable job of supporting the building of a modern, industrial style, and bureaucratic military. But they are to do so without any of the tools or resources that mark the rise of modern bureaucratic militaries, e.g. pre-existing bureaucratized churches like those of Western Europe in the 17th century, the centralized proto-states of European monarchs, the experience of Talyorized industrialism, Fordism, and scientific management of the the early 20th century. Importantly, despite the popular conception that the advisers have some kind of colonial authority, or can rule through the brute force of techno-war, each day is in fact a battle with the ANA over legal-rational authority over, to use Weber’s terminology, “tranditional” modes of authority.

To many of the ANA students, holding the position of “adviser” or “instructor” simply does not hold much water. The ANA is not organizationally like the Weberian bureaucracy where conduct is “subject to strict  and systematic discipline and control.” Instructors sometimes respond to the misconduct (whether ethical or simply the performance of stoppage drills) with anything other than what appears to be an arbitrary and capricious manner. The student, however, that is the son of a locally important mullah, however, may carry much greater weight in terms of what goes on out on the heavy machine gun range. The ANA instructors, dominate less by respect for authority then the use of abuse and fear but again, even that slight power that is backed by the emerging bureaucratic structures of the ANA, can be trumped by students who come from more important families, have wealth, etc. Moreover, the ANA instructors, like the combat adviser may only have the partial backing of the “highers” who can empower them to remove a problem student, impose strict performance standards, etc. As Taff has said repeatedly of his struggle with the ANA powers that be, “It is quantity over quality.” And it is often with the complicity of the Coalition Forces that such breakdowns occurs, as “It’s the CF and the ANA that want to just push these guys through, poorly trained, like mine. You know, call them ‘sharpshooters’ when they can’t zero because everyone wants to show how quickly the ANA has improved. So even if I can’t qualify them, they get passed as ‘sharpshooters’ and sent down South to units where they will be useless, get killed, or just be a liability.”

In the past few days, multiple advisers have been shot and killed by the very people they are charged for enskilling. It often does not matter that the”best intentions” of the advisers is to prepare ‘their” soldiers and instructors for future battles, that they genuinely do want to empower their students to simply survive in the battles down in the South of the country.  Often these shootings look like crimes of passion, where advisers tell someone that they are “wrong” in public, and later that day or the next day, the soldier comes back and rectifies his mortified social self through a kind of reconstituting use-of-deadly-force. The advisers, and often the ANA instructors themselves, are still in the business of selling the ANA as a ‘sacred institution’ and lending the positions of the institution prestige or as Weber put it, “a belief” in the position of authority, “a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige” (1966:382). And yet this is not a prestige that the advisers have. They cannot impose upon the ANA through “dominance of a spirit of formalistic impersonality” (Weber 1966: 340) and so any injunction, criticism, or condemnation they make comes without the status and prestige that make it receivable in ways other than as a personal insult.  The advisers are not oblivious to this. Advisers often tip-toe around very real and potentially deadly training errors (again, weapons stoppages being my favorite because so technical in nature) so as not to ‘step on the toes’ of students or instructors. Adviser often have a Macabre humor about it as well, as when I described, some weeks ago, the advisers semi-jokingly wondering whether or not an ANA instructor they verbally reprimanded (because they had no real power to punish) would shoot them in the back during training.

Whatever the bureaucratic context, much of the strife this week seems to have accompanied that jump in temperature. Instead of high temps in the upper 60’s the temperature shot up to a stead high in the upper 80’s. Being out on the “sharpshooter” course is like standing in a microwave. Its hot and you are getting bombarded by UV. For the advisers, today was a mixed day.

Upon arriving at the infantry school, the interpreter greats us right away to tell us that the Major in charge of handing out ammunition is in the office. Taff charges off with the interpreter to try and secure ammunition. He reappears half an hour later looking sour, “Fucking no ammunition again today. That twat won’t give it up again. Fuck it, I am not going to stress over it. That’s a recipe for an early grave.” Taff turns to me, “Mate, if you don’t mind, I’ve got some left over ammo from yesterday, so will shoot. But with the French guys gone, its just you and me. Will you go pick up the students and come back and then we will head up and shoot.

I grab the terp and head across the ANA compound to the Conex boxes where the ANA students are retrieving their weapons. The two Afghan Border Police come over and great me with American style handshakes and “buddy hugs,” “Salaam Lande, what’s up!” “khoob as!” or “good!” I reply. I pile everyone into the DFC HiLux, armored pickup and we very…very…very slowly drive back to the “cottage” to pick up Taff. From the cottage we drive up to the range. The ANA and Afghan border police pile out, grab their weapons from Taff’s armored vehicle and go set up. Taff explains to the students that they will be shooting at targets at 300m and beyond. He tells them to set up and then tries to explain what bolders he wants them to shoot at.

Now, normaly this would not be a straightforward task, even between English speakers. After all, with the kind of rocky terrain here in Kabul, it does not mean much to say, “Aim for the white rock up there, to the left of the curve in the road.” I always have to ask myself and then usually Taff, “Which curve do you mean, the bottom one or the one up higher near the chimney looking thing? Do you mean the brown rock or the whitish rock? To the left or to the right.” Now Taff has to go through this process with the interpreter and then the interpreter to the students. So not surprisingly, some of the reference is lost in the translation, or the translator is not very precise and some of the reference gets lost.

The first sign of trouble was that as Taff was handing out ammunition, after the students had supposedly sighted in and ranged their weapons, one of the ANA students started shooting. This pissed Taff off who tells the translator to tell the student, “Listen. I didn’t tell you to fire. I told you to load and make your weapon ready!”  The one upside to the student firing was that it was clear as day that the student did not understand where the target was. He was off to the the left, hitting a rock about another 50m back from the target.” I ask why the Students don’t do sector sketches (used by snipers to log distances of reference points so that they can quickly adjust their sites to shoot at targets at different distances). Taff  says, simply, “They won’t do it. If they did, the would have their rifles set up and know what the distances were to the targets. I could just point on their sector maps. But they refuse to do it.” Taff cannot tell me why. Taff re-explains the target to one of the border police who speaks a bit of English. The border policeman hits near the target. Taff shouts and points to the instructor, “Tell them that’s what they are shooting at! The plume!”

It does not take long for the training take a further turn for the worse. The two ANA soldiers start sitting up from their firing positions, a basic error that to Taff signifies that “their heads aren’t in the game. They just aren’t concentrating’” Not 10 minutes later, after the students have burned through their ammunition, the two ANA students fail to execute drills to clear their weapons. One leaves his bolt shut with the safety on. The other fails to drop the magazine and set the rifle on safe. Taff walks over and tells both students to properly clear their weapons. He turns to the interpreter and says, “Ask them why they are like this today? Why aren’t they doing their drills properly?” The youngest of the two ANA students says, via the interpreter, “I did it like you taught me.” Of course, having watched Taff and Dee Dee teach the clearing drills, I know that this isn’t true. But what has happened, sociologically speaking, is that Taff has dropped the disciplinary practices necessary to maintain a correct order of movement and replaced it with a demand for accounts: i.e. exasperated “whys?” Taff, grumbles something that I don’t hear, and he waves at the youngest ANA student to move out of the way. He gets down on the ground and executes the proper clearing drill several times, but fast. Probably too fast for the ANA to see and understand even if they were paying attention. But the two seem to only be occasionally watching Taff.

I ask Taff why he doesn’t make the student do push-ups, or pull the student off the line, or pull the student out of the course, something to act as a means of punishment to enforce discipline. Taff simply says, “I will try to have him pulled from the course by talking to his commander but that requires a whole process. If an ANA instructor where here maybe he would do something or maybe not.”

Taff calls out more targets but focuses on the border policemen since they seem more responsive.  He calls out targets and occasionally there are miscommunications regarding the target which are overcome with a few quick exchanges. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture these exchanges on video as they occurred to rapidly and I did not have enough memory on my camcorder to leave it running. That said, the problems of targeting seemed likely to have been an issue not so much of cross-cultural communication (other than a third party, the interpreter, that adds an extra step) since there were times I didn’t know what Taff was referring to. The issues is one of building reference and none of the tools, like sector maps, or a shared experience of the range and which rocks are likely to be candidate targets, were there to make targeting a quickly achieved processes.

After two weeks with this group, Taff seems “done.” At one point he tells me  part of the problem is that the ANA still refuse to zero their rifles. “If they’d zero they could make adjustments for windage and elevation. Instead they are just moving their sights off and guessing whether it will hit the target.  When they did the zeroing, they wouldn’t adjust their sights, they just shoot up or down until they hit the target. So now they are all fucked. Good news for us if they turn!”

Taff ends the training after about two hours since it is unproductive. He takes the students back to the infantry school and has them clean their weapons. At lunch check in with Taff and ask him how the rest of the morning went. “Great! I took the two ANA, put them on their knees, and finished it. No more problems!” he jokes. “I am going to have to add another week to the training just because these ANA won’t do the training right.

Also, today, Daru Pavel, “LT”, as he is known to the Brits, the USMC Lt. who has become one of my buddies and work out partners here, leaves for the US today. The Infantry Advisers had an awards ceremony for him this evening. During his speech to thank the Brits, the Kiwis, and the French for hosting him he said, “Remember to stay energized about working with the ANA. The ANA can be real cunts and grind you down. But remember they are trying to do their best. Sometimes they are just ignorant. They don’t have the same military history or institutions that we built over hundreds of years. So stay energized so that when the new guys come in they stay excited about the mission.”


This morning I link up with Stu and Sgt. S. to observe a close target recon training. The advisers warn me, “I don’t know what’s going to happen today. The instructors didn’t seem to know anything about this drill yesterday, so we walked them through it. They said they were going to drill it today and that they understood. They are supposed to do a tactical march to the dry fire training area and begin the exercises. We will split up with an interpreter each and follow each squad. Phil’s guys from the Train the Trainers course are also supposed to help the instructors. We’ll see.” We hope into the armored Toyata and drive out to the dry fire range. No one is there. Stu says, “Well maybe they marched up the road.” We drive up the road, nealry several kilometers into the hills before we turn around. No sight of any ANA.

We drive back down to the bottom of the dry fire training area. SGT S., in what I think was a very generous gesture, suggests, “Well, we really emphasized the importance of concealment yesterday, maybe they are hiding.” SGT S. was not joking. We drive very slowly, then hop out of the vehicle to start poking around where we trained on the 26th, looking for hiding ANA students and instructors. No one is to be found.
Eventually we are flagged down by a very angry looking ANA military policeman. We slow down, and roll down the windows, the interpreters tell us that the MP is saying “You are not allowed here today. There is a march tomorrow. Get off!” Stu gets pissed off, “Fuck that. We are allowed here. No one told us the range is closed! Tell him that we are allowed here. We are advisers.” The interpreters say, “No, he says you have to go. No ANA are here today. They and you aren’t allowed here.” It finally dawns on the advisers that they have not been told that there is a holiday tomorrow. ” The advisers giggle in the back of the vehicle when Stu asks, “So you are saying that the instructors knew that there was a holiday tomorrow and they didn’t tell us that they weren’t going to train?” “Yes” says one of the interpreters. An adviser asks, “so why, if you guys knew this, didn’t you tell us?” One of the interpreters says, “Well this is a good thing. Its boring and hot out here. We can go now.” Stu looks absolutely pissed. We head back to the “cottage” to regroup. On the way back we pass the gate to the ANA camp. We see a bunch of ANA students who are smiling and waving at us. They are mixed into a company of about 75 ANA soldiers. SGT S., why, they are here. Why are they with all these other people?” The interpreter says, “that is the sick call.” Now the advisers look really ticked off. “you mean they only show up to sick call? That’s half the platoon!”

Upon getting back to the cottage, we find only every other group of advisers has had the same experience. Yesterday they had reached agreements with their instructors as to what was to occur today, only to find out that not one of them had been informed that not a one of the ANA instructors or students was actually going to show up today.  When one of the advisers pops off with a litnay of explititaves, one of the other advisers smiles and says, “Woo-sah! Woo-sah! Find your zen place. I’ll make you a brew.”

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