KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Soviets shaped the Afghan army that Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hashim remembers from his days as an up-and-coming officer. They tended to give the orders, as if his countrymen were working for the Russians.
The Americans assisting him today use a lighter touch as they aim to restore a different kind of army, he said.
“It used to be the other army would tell the Afghans what to do,” said Hashim, who counts 31 years wearing his country’s uniform. “The Americans just come up with recommendations. The Americans work side by side” with Afghan soldiers.
Hashim’s U.S. advisers, including several from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, are cultivating a hands-off approach both to show their respect to distinguished Afghan officers and to instill in them a creativity they say the Soviets lacked.
They’re working to build a new ground forces command for the Afghan army that will manage the daily operations of local units all over the country. The command is due to open in October, and it would represent a level between the big picture strategists at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and the army units out in the field fighting Taliban insurgents day in and day out.
Educated Afghan soldiers are already manning an operations center modeled after one used by NATO forces at the coalition headquarters in Kabul.
It has rows of Afghan soldiers working at computers, monitoring daily incidents and feeding reports to higher-ranking officers.
The U.S. soldiers assisting the Afghans want to leave their mark, but they’re not trying to re-create an American command.
Each U.S. officer partners with an Afghan soldier, and in each case the Afghan holds a significantly higher rank than the American. The rank difference alone requires the Americans to attempt to persuade instead of imposing orders.
“You need to sell it,” said Col. Lapthe Flora of the Virginia-Maryland National Guard. He is advising a three-star general. “I show what we have. It’s up to you to take it.”
Flora is the top American officer among a small group of soldiers assigned to build up the Afghan ground forces command. The troops belong to Flora’s National Guard unit and to Lewis-McChord’s I Corps, which returns to the base south of Tacoma this summer.
It’s an assignment that calls on U.S. soldiers to nurture tight relationships and to exercise patience as they operate within another country’s customs. They drink a lot of tea with their Afghan partners as they learn more about each other’s personal backgrounds.
“There’s a lot of give and take,” said I Corps’ Maj. Ayodele Lawson, 36, of Lacey. “You’ve got to build relationships.”
The Americans and the Afghans have seemingly close ties after the months they’ve spent creating the new command.
Maj. Ian Bennett of I Corps recently teased Hashim about a planned hunting trip to Spain. It was to be Hashim’s first break in two years. Hashim laughed off Bennett’s suggestions that he would not like the looks of Spanish women.
Over tea, Hashim showed off his diplomas from Soviet military schools. He even kept his report cards. He graduated from an armor academy in 1975 on his way to becoming a two-star general before the Taliban’s rise.
Hashim fled Afghanistan in 1996 as civil war toppled his country. He returned to the Afghan army in 2009.
“You should write a book,” Bennett told him.
“It is all, sorry to say, classified,” Hashim replied through his interpreter.
As with other NATO assignments in Kabul, the close relationships at the ground forces command do not prevent the Americans from keeping up their guard. At least 18 NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghan soldiers this year, and two American officers were slain in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior while performing an advising mission similar to the one taking place at the ground forces command.
Afghans are prohibited from bringing weapons into the American side of the compound. They’re screened with a metal detector. At least one U.S. soldier brings a rifle whenever a party of American officers crosses the compound to the Afghan side.
Flora says his best defense is becoming as close as he can to Afghan leaders.
“If you have a good relationship, they will treat you like family, and they will do anything to protect you,” he said.
Bennett finds the assignment rewarding, especially when an Afghan officer independently reaches a conclusion Bennett would have recommended.
He’s an Iraq War veteran who’s planning to return to Lewis-McChord this summer for an assignment with the 17th Fires Brigade.
“Working with the Afghans, much like working with the Iraqis, is one of the most rewarding and difficult jobs there is to be had out here,” said Bennett, a DuPont resident. “It can be supremely frustrating at times, but then you have one of those ‘eureka’ moments and it all clicks, and the feeling is awesome. And then the cycle begins again.”
Hashim, the chief of staff for the ground forces command, is looking forward to the day when the Afghan army can confront his nation’s insurgency without Western assistance.
He cites three weaknesses that must be overcome: air support to move supplies across Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, artillery to pound enemy strongholds, and combat engineers to clear roads of buried bombs.
“If we have the three kinds of support we can say, ‘you guys can go back home,’” Hashim said. “We’ll give you flowers and say, ‘We can take this responsibility.’”