KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. Lee Durham has made a career for himself in the Army's Special Operations Forces, then in the civilian world as the assistant county attorney for Jackson and Jefferson Counties in Kansas, and back in the Army as the special assistant to the commanding general at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. Now he's commanding the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Brigade in Afghanistan.
Durham spoke to McClatchy at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, the Afghan capital, about the task of building a new Afghan National Police force and army to battle insurgents, and about the morale of his troops.
McClatchy: In training the Afghan National Police, how do you keep the bad guys out?
Durham: "I always tell everybody, it's not the soldiers at Fort Benning who keep Columbus, Georgia, safe. It's not the soldiers at Fort Bragg who keep Fayetteville (N.C.) safe. It's the local police who keep Fayetteville safe. . . . Same thing here. What we're trying to do is establish an environment where the army can protect the nation, the police protect the communities."
"Do we have people who have infiltrated the police? Yeah, we have a soldier who was shot by a guy who infiltrated the police (a non-commissioned officer was wounded but survived) — but you know what, that unit the next day went right back out to that (Afghan police) unit and re-established contact and went and started training them again."
"Didn't we just have a guy in the U.S. who killed 13 soldiers (at Fort Hood, Texas)? How do we stop infiltrators in our Army? The way we do that is you build long-term trust and relationships."
McClatchy: What's the right ethnic makeup of the Afghan National Army?
Durham: "We're recruiting as many people as we can get into the army of all ethnic makeups. Sometimes I think we confuse and we think that Afghanistan is like Iraq. . . . Afghans aren't like Iraqis. Pashtuns from this valley don't like Pashtuns from that valley."
"I haven't seen, from my experience, as much of this homogeneous, one tribe versus another tribe. I think sometimes we make more of that than really exists."
"I think tribe is only one of the many factors that need to be used (in building the Afghan army). History between towns, history between mullahs, history between families — history between tribes is important, but you got to understand the whole big picture."
McClatchy: If the Pakistani government is as effective in rooting out the Pakistani Taliban elements on their side of the border, will we have enough troops to meet them so they won't simply move to the Afghan side?
Durham: "No. . . . There are historical routes that have been used for thousands of years. People walk from one side of the mountain to the other side of the mountain to get something."
"Could we block the whole border? No, I don't think we ever could, just because of the sheer length of it . . . and the sheer willingness and ingenuity of the people crossing the border."
"The only way you could stop that is to build a wall. . . . If Pakistan is successful, is that going to push some bad guys into Afghanistan? Well, yeah. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on how we use it."
McClatchy: Have you noticed an increase in insurgent activity in the northern provinces, where you have a unit assisting a German command in training the Afghan National Army?
Durham: "In our area of operations, the north is probably the quietist. . . . When we arrived in April, they had 300 some soldiers up there. We went up to over 600. As you double the size of forces up there, you increase the numbers, you also increase what? The opportunities to have engagements with the bad guys."
McClatchy: You're 10 months into a 12-month deployment, and for many of the soldiers it's the second deployment in four years. How are your soldiers holding up?
Durham: "You can find anecdotal evidence from guys on one end of the spectrum to the other, guys who are just having a blast to guys who are suffering. We've had a few issues of guys suffering from behavioral problems and stuff like that. But I will tell you, if you compare it to the other units in the past, we've had very few incidents of that. For the most part, soldiers' morale is very high."
(Day reports for The Telegraph of Macon, Ga.)
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