This is Part Two of a 4-part series built around The General, a legendary Afghan officer we previously introduced in a run-down of the cast of characters that Geoffrey Ingersoll is following while embedded at FOB Delaram. Geoffrey told us, ” It was probably one of the hardest pieces of work I had to write. I felt like the military development went hand in hand with the economic … and the simple fact is that one is moderately successful while the other is, well, not so much. It was a lot of information to process, but I wanted to give the reader at least a brief idea of the other forces at play.”
You can read Part One here.
Photo: Geoffrey Ingersoll
The General has been known to ride a motorcycle around the area of operations. “He’ll scoop up one of his company commanders, throw him on the back of the bike, and head out to check on troops,” says Marine Capt. Charles Arvisais, adviser, Embedded Training Team 8.
Indeed, the 2nd Afghanistan National Army Brigade is one of the more independent in the country, owning and operating in the northwestern half of Helmand with very little help. Arvisais credits Wasea’s hands on approach to soldiering for these leaps in his brigade’s proficiency.
“He treats every soldier with respect, talks to them, sits down and eats with them, and he receives respect in return,” says Arvisais.
Despite his experience, fighting the Russians, fighting the Taliban, Wasea is not outwardly intimidating, neither in attitude nor in posture. Personally, I can’t tell if it’s a political mask or just plain old friendliness.
Eccentric, he giggles often, smiles even more, and he even insists on practicing his English with me, writing down words he’s never heard.
“Bravery,” he says writing, “Courage. These are good words. This is why I am not dead, these words.”
He laughs at the idea of assassination. Actually laughs.
“How can they … assassinate … me?” He says, practicing the word, “When I am such a good soldier? Good soldiers don’t get … ah-sas-nated.”
He’s certainly not short on confidence. Although assassination is a very real threat for guys as popular as Wasea.
As a Pashtun himself, operating in a majority Pashtun area of Afghanistan, Wasea takes a hands-on approach with the community. His relationship with the villagers can be good and bad though.
Often they either don’t trust the local police, or they don’t rely on district governors. Instead they’ll ask to see Wasea. During recent elections, some villagers didn’t know who to vote for.
“We only know General Wasea,” they said.
The general directs his troops to retreat. The villagers have gathered. The word “mob” comes to mind.
But even mob is an understatement – the amoebic raging civilian gaggle overtakes a military outpost and lights it ablaze. For Wasea, an outpost is a prudent trade for the few Korans American soldiers burnt only days prior.
“Let them burn the outpost,” he says, “it’s just wood. We can rebuild it. But a life, a relationship, that is harder to rebuild.”
Like a patient father, Wasea waits for the crowd to tire out. Then he goes into their villages, wades right into the thick of them, and proceeds to talk them down.
Photo: Geoffrey Ingersoll
“Like our soldiers here, the Afghan people trust the Marines, and the Americans. Afterward, they understood that the acts of a few bad men do not make all the men bad.”The army rebuilt the outpost, but their relationship with the people remained more than intact, reinforced even.
If they didn’t know Wasea before, they will now. His reputation has just exploded.
There are two bombs on base. How they got there is a matter of Standard Operating Procedures – or maybe more accurately, non-standard.
“The [Afghan National Army] has a problem with bringing IED fragments onto base, they look at them kind of like trophies,” says Arvisais. He said a major deficiency is their Explosive Ordnance Technician proficiency; in fact, the transition advisers recently started “train the trainer” Counter IED courses, even bringing a former Army combat engineer out to teach them.
“They don’t really have the capability to reduce IEDs like we do. They either, A, shoot at them, or, B, light them on fire,” he says, adding, “but nonetheless they’ve proven incredibly efficient at IED reduction.”
This time though, they thought the IEDs were no longer IEDs – not boom-status, but trophy-status.
“How they got them through the [Entry Control Point] I have no idea,” says Arvisais.
The Marines fly into a tizzy. Marine EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) arrives and evacuates everyone to a safe area. Then they “reduce” the IEDs to Marine standards.
Many Marines refer to standards here as “Afghan-OK”:
“A lot of our problems training these guys comes from trying to push them into our own standards, and we forget that they simply don’t have the capabilities we have,” says Arvisais. “You know, we just don’t shoot or set IEDs on fire, it’s just not how we operate. But these guys, they don’t have robots or blast suits, and believe it or not, even though it’s against our SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), they have proven rather efficient at reducing IEDs their own way.”
“We call it ‘Afghan-OK,’ and I think a lot of our perceived lack of progression with the Afghans across the country is because we try to hold them to our standards,” he says. “It’s their country, it’s time for them to make their own standards, their own SOPs, and we just sort of have to take a step back. Part of the training is getting them to do it on their own, in whatever way they can.”
“You know, it’s kind of like throwing your kid into the pool,” says Lt. Col. Tom Przybelski, lead adviser of Embedded Training Team 8.
Photo: Geoffrey Ingersoll
“It’s sink or swim, but while we’re here, it’s not that drastic, it’s like your kid is an arm’s length from the side of the pool,” he says, “and you’re still there, standing close, but you’re also trying to get him to build confidence to do it on his own.”But just like any kid, I’m suspect of this logic, and I still find that the sink or swim analogy is like a thin gruel spiced with a tangy tinge of terror, it’s hard to swallow and is that— do I taste a faint hint of, maybe poison? Is this a trap?
Przybelski, an infantry officer, has trained with many foreign militaries. Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, Israeli, Kuwaiti — his career has led him here, Afghanistan, two years away from the 2014 dead end in the middle of a Marine draw down, and advising an army eleven years in the making. Compared to the other countries he’s worked with … well … let’s just say Adult Swim is over.
“The toughest part of this job is acting as a go-between,” says Przybelski. “If you’re not making people uncomfortable, you’re not doing your job.”
Pryzbelski explains that “people” means the two parties at work here, Americans and Afghans. It’s often a delicate dance.
“In order to get Afghans confident, they have to take over ground, which means Americans have to give it up, and Americans, the Marines, are good at covering it,” says Pryzbelski.
There’s no doubt the U.S. Marine Corps is world class, with world class assets. aeroplanes, helicopters, trucks, weapons and training, training, training. So asking them to give up ground they’re good at covering is more than difficult, it’s uncomfortable.
On the flip side, asking the Afghans to take ground they consider themselves unable to take, that’s not just uncomfortable, unfortunately, it’s inevitable.
Sink or swim.
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