Afghanistan has defined me for the past five years of my life. In that time, I have spent the majority of my days thinking about people I have not met, speaking a language I don’t know, in a country broken beyond repair, 7,000 miles away.
I arrived on my first of three stretches in Afghanistan in July 2010, when I deployed to Camp Hanson in the restive southern province of Marjah, which the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines had taken five months earlier, in February. I served as the logistics and supply advisor to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, which had relieved the 3/6.
Over the next seven months, we partnered with the Afghan National Army’s 2d Kandak, 2d Brigade, 215th Corps, making tenuous tactical advances in Northern Marjah. The ANA presented major challenges. Its senior officers still clung fast to the military doctrines of the Soviets who had trained them in the 1980s.
The ANA rank and file showed rampant fraud, pervasive graft, nepotism, and at times, total disinterest in conducting basic tactical maneuvers. Many commanders were never held accountable for their misdeeds and unprofessionalism, and showed only a passing interest in the welfare of their soldiers.
Nevertheless, like so many Americans in so many wars before, we made our advances at the squad level. As a team of advisors, together, we realized that our essential task was developing tactically proficient ANA squads for patrolling — regardless of what the PowerPoints from Regiment and Division told us.
I left Afghanistan with an uneasy feeling about the direction of the country and uncertainty about whether the Marine Corps was committed to developing the Afghan National Security Force.
When I returned for my second deployment, from December 2011 to May 2012, I felt all the more so.
I served as the Future Logistics Operations Officer for Regimental Combat Team 6, supervising the closure or transfer of bases in northern Helmand province and planning support for three Marine infantry battalions, in additional to supporting the 31st Georgian Battalion.
Dismantling the Marine Corps’ war infrastructure was a difficult and at times painful task. Leaving key areas of the Afghan terrain uncovered, including strategically significant district centers, placed greater strain on the Marine advisor teams and forced the Afghan National Security Forces to assume the lead in security. This transfer yielded mix results, at best, and left many Marines with the feeling that they were there to run out the clock.
As the Marine Corps consolidated forces into positions of company size and larger, small unit leaders largely lost their ability to shape, mold, mentor and lead the Marines under their command. This came as a disappointment to all, especially considering the level of trust and responsibility Non-Commissioned Officers had held during my first deployment.
Denying younger Marine officers the opportunity to lead stunted their growth and made them unnecessarily risk averse in a combat environment. In addition, the comforts of home made it difficult for young Marines to divorce the realities of combat from the lingering changes of home.
Whatever misgivings I had, during the summer of 2012, after my four years of active duty were up, I transitioned to a new role focusing exclusively on Afghanistan.
I worked as a practice manager for an international law firm that a retired Marine Corps Colonel had started in Kabul. Colonel Ward Scott (USMC, ret.), a former NATO advisor in Afghanistan, founded Scott Advocates, LLP in early 2012 to represent Afghan and U.S.-owned businesses in Afghan court.
I had met Colonel Scott through his son, Captain Carl Scott, with whom I had served on the V2/9 advisor team during my first deployment. As I soon saw, the firm’s legitimate clientele struggled against the predatory and at times abjectly criminal behavior of the Afghan government, and the arbitrary acts of the United States Government.
The Afghan government operates as a loosely confederated criminal enterprise, and expends much of it effort on shaking down legitimate businessmen. One client, with whom coalition forces had contracted to deliver mail to troops, had its truck seized by the ANSF and its employees’ passports confiscated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, through its opaque contracting process, routinely revoked contracts from Afghan-owned businesses without warning or due process.
Power-mad government bureaucrats often interfered with legitimate commerce, leaving Afghanistan’s would-be future leaders deeply unhappy with U.S. leadership. Hyder Akbar, an Afghan-American businessman and Yale grad, returned to Afghanistan to help support its reconstruction, saw his contract for logistical support to the coalition forces canceled unceremoniously. A U.S. official subjected Akbar to numerous browbeatings by email, and denied him a hearing about it.
In December 2012, I left the firm to return to Afghanistan as an environmental manager.
I soon arrived in Kandahar, this time as a civilian contractor Envirotech, Inc. Over the next three months, I conducted seven environmental surveys on tactical installations, as part of the process of closing U.S. bases and transferring them to the Afghans.
The work allowed me to spend more time around the Army and civilian contractors, populations to which I had little exposure before. Each group operated with little independent initiative, inhibiting its ability to solve basic problems such as the proper disposing of batteries, repeating mistakes made years before such as initiating unsustainable reconstruction projects, and turning its collective attention towards everything but the development of ANSF and the sustained reconstruction of Afghanistan.
None of the senior officers or contractors seemed capable of answering the most basic questions about how Afghanistan would recover after the U.S. withdrawal.
With the Marine Corps and the Afghan National Security Force now facing deep budget cuts, the future looks bleak, but both forces will learn from the experience. They have no choice, and perhaps some good will come of it.
The author is a U.S. Marine stationed in Afghanistan. Eagle, Globe, and Anchor image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire