My first full month in theatre has now come and gone, only eight more (or so) to go! Our first week here was spent following around the team that we replaced (OMLT II), getting orientated to the area, meeting the people that they had worked with, and most importantly getting introduced to the Afghans that we would be working with.
Week two felt as though it was very unproductive, as we spent that week at the Headquarters of RC North Air Base Marmal. Marmal is the Mazar-e-sharif airport, which has basically been taken over by the Germans and other NATO/ISAF partner nations and turned into an Air Base. We spent Monday through Friday sitting through International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) classes. Our classes were basically rehashing of classes that we had already sat through while in training at Ft Polk, and Camp Hohenfels. Such hard hitting topics as the fundamentals of counter insurgency, Afghan history and culture, ways to avoid being a victim of an IED attack, and how to do an Area Structures Capabilities Organizations Peoples and Events assessment of an area. Two of the five days were spent out on a modified range reinforcing looking for and identifying IEDs. The other three days were death by power point days, with everyone struggling to stay awake during the presentations. As during the previous more than two months of training we have sat through several different briefings all stating that the Afghan people have a different culture than ours and we must do everything we can to show respect to them and their culture. More importantly though as part of our mission here we must attempt to put an Afghan face on everything that we do. It is better that when it comes to a mission that our Afghan counterparts attempt and do something kind-of right, as apposed to us doing it perfectly.
The past two weeks, since returning from our week of ISAF training, is when I've gotten into the meat of the reason whey I have been here. Which to Observe Mentor and Train the soldiers of the S1 section for the 4th Kandak (Afghan word for Battalion), of 1st Brigade 209th Corp. Almost every morning, along with my interpreter Shafiq, I walk about a mile into Camp Shaheen to observe and assist where I can the soldiers in the personnel section. I work with Toran (CPT) Sharif the Kandak S1 officer, he has been working as the S1 officer for several years and seems to have a fairly good handle on the system. Almost every morning that I come to visit his office has several soldiers coming in trying to get leave or have some other issue taken care of. He and is staff are also having to work the issue of AWOL soldiers, and soldiers on Extended Leave. From my observations thus far it is not uncommon to have 10% of the Kandak on some form of absent without leave.
Because the Afghan government is so desperate to increase the size of the Army, they are looking for Quantity over Quality, there is no real punishment for being AWOL. If a soldier does come back from being AWOL after a short time, he will just lose his pay for the time that he was gone. After a few months of being AWOL they will eventually kick that person off of their books, however if a soldier does come back to the same unit they left, and can prove in some fashion that they were in the Army with some paperwork or something, they will be let back into the Army with no hard feelings. It is tough to build a strong Army, if they do not have any meaningful consequences for soldiers actions.
While I have enjoyed working with Toran Sharif, thus far I've found I have gotten the most enjoyment working with his NCOs and soldier. The youngest soldier in the office is named Qandlhal, and is their runner/chai boy. Since they don't have Internet his responsibility is to run paperwork from one end of the post to the other as needed, and when he isn't running he makes tea for office. Recently I have spent time working with Mohammed Hussein, who for the near short term is the senior NCO, until a new senior sergeant arrives. Recently I have helped him correct some formula mistakes on a personal management excel program that they use in their office. Mohammed Hussein will work to put soldiers back in the unit, if they are re-enlisting after being out for a while, or if they are AWOLs returning and trying to get back in.
Thus far I have found working with my Afghan counterparts very rewarding and enjoyable. I just hope that I am able to keep that motivation up over the next several months. Currently I know that I am still in the learning phase, and am absorbing a lot more information from them than they are from me. The key that the previous unit that we replaced kept stressing was to have patience. I am sure that there will be some frustrations and setbacks yet to come, but it is all part of the learning and growing process.