September 03, 2010
Name: Major Dan
Posting date: 9/3/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
(No, not that kind of "commando" -- you sick people, you!)
Back on July 4, I arranged a site visit with the Afghan army's Commando Brigade, located a bit outside the city (there were no hot dogs or fireworks -- thankfully, in this case). Reminding me of this visit recently was a press conference in which the Defense Ministry's spokesman extolled recent successes of the units which receive a level of training unlike any other in the ANA. And while I won't go sans drawers if I don't have to (ugh, is he still on "commando" references?), I will go sans captions for a bit. (Okay, one caption...) These are a few from the drive out there. Can you tell how excited this city boy was to be in the country?
Who says you can't take a siesta in mid-morning?
One fast and bumpy hour-long ride, which began in Kabul traffic jams and concluded past herds of sheep and deserted villages, got us into the badlands of Logar province and the home base of the commandos. The billboard above challenges young men to see if they've got what it takes to join the Kung-fu SEAL Ninja Marines known as Commando -- or something to that effect.
The commanding general is not a colonel but a brid genral, or brigadier (wait -- a brigadier general commanding a brigade...hmmm...why didn't we think of that?). More importantly, he is said to be highly appreciated, respected, even loved by his troops. My colleagues passed on a couple of anecdotes supporting that. What struck me the most was his lack of aloofness (his loofness, then?), rare in my albeit limited experience of palling around with Afghan general officers.
The guard among display-cased flags is mandatory for garrison HQs. The other guy is standing there for fun.
One of the greatest challenges we face in trying to build a meritocratic army is the entrenched model preferred by too many current senior leaders, a model that will take many years to alter. The prevailing mindset within the military and other security forces here is that a general is lord and master, to be catered to and tiptoed around, and all others are unworthy of opinion and incapable of independent thought. It's not confined to just the Afghan army, of course. Anyone who has spent enough time in the military has surely seen it exhibited somewhere. When soldiers and young officers of any nationality see servitude below and excess (or worse, corruption) above, demoralization sets in quickly. But in the race to train a lasting force, capable and dynamic leaders who earn the respect of their troops must be given the chance to take the helm.
This bridmal was positively excited to see a Marine on deck -- he had attended a USMC drill instructor course.
The mentality of patronage and absolute rule when in positions of authority extends further down the ranks in various forms, and can be exhibited by a dagarwal (colonel) or dagarman (lieutenant colonel) or lower, depending on the situation. Surely the same turan (captain) or bridman (lieutenant) who is treated like dirt by his superiors on a daily basis learns just one thing -- that he should exhibit the same behavior towards his own bridmalaan (sergeants).
It's an overly hierarchical structure that the trainers of NATO are working tirelessly to break. Afghan systems are too often centralized to the max in the old Soviet style, rendering junior leaders powerless and concentrating all decision making in the hands of the most senior. All of this makes it all the more admirable that good soldiers and officers still sign up and still stick around, out of love for their country and a desire to shape the way its armed forces develop.
A few more scenes from the drive back out, and this brief travelogue will come to a close. Hopefully I'll have a mission excuse to return and witness some training here. Advisory positions at the Ministry of Defense may be important for development of the services, but riding a desk all day is no substitute for training a proud new force at the action level in the field.
"Dang it, AfghaniDan, you were told to beat it!"
Plug time, of sorts; for more on the commandos, see this recent story by an outstanding military journalist from NATO.