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Sunday, 05.08.2011, 01:42pm (GMT)
By Philip Grey, The (Clarksville, Tenn.) Leaf-Chronicle
Cl\ourtesy: USA Today
ASMAR, Afghanistan — The image of Afghanistan as a dysfunctional nation is, like most generalizations, true or false depending on where you look.
High above the diverse terrain, flying in a UH-60 Blackhawk on a pleasant morning, Brig. Gen. Warren Phipps, deputy division commander of the 101st Airborne Division, was happy to point out a few images that might escape the eye at ground level.
Down below, the barren desert gave way to bright green along a line sharply drawn by hard work and ingenuity. Phipps pointed out that, given water, the people down there can grow anything in the flood plain soil. And they can do a lot of other things as well. Given peace and stability, they can even grow a country.
But there is the nagging matter of an often inefficient and unresponsive central government. Can the U.S. effort to make this place self-sufficient really work by concentrating on the districts and provinces, while the central government continues to founder?
Phipps answered by using America's own experiences, past and present.
America before mass communications, air travel and interstates worked primarily at the local level, and there was great loyalty among citizens toward individual states. The central government was not the primary building block, though it became more important over time.
Even today, the Iowa farmer will complain about inefficiency and corruption in Washington, while still feeling an intense loyalty to the idea of America.
Here in Afghanistan, given good governors at the provincial level and good governance at the local level, Phipps believes, as do other leaders here, that the central-government problems can be worked out in time. It isn't the most important thing right now.
Understanding the situation
Lt. Col. Jeff Smiley of the California National Guard, brought up a different sort of history lesson. Sitting in the office of an Afghan National Army Corps commander at Forward Operating Base Gamberi, Smiley recounted the Soviet tactics that destroyed much of the agricultural base of a nation that used to export food, but which now exports almost nothing.
Using the sheer force in trying to bring the country into submission, the Soviets destroyed Afghan canal systems and wells. A lot of that agricultural infrastructure was thousands of years old. It will take many years to rebuild.
Smiley says the Afghans are doing much of the work of rebuilding, with some help and mentoring from National Guard units that have a strong success rate with their agricultural development teams, due to good skill sets among soldiers from agricultural states.
But understanding what Afghanistan has gone through for 35 years, and particularly what the country endured in the 1980s in terms of fundamental infrastructure damage, goes a long way toward understanding why the nation seems dysfunctional in a lot of areas today.
There are success stories. For example Mehterlam — a green area near Gamberi that looks like some areas of Tennessee from above. The belief is that it can be replicated elsewhere, and attempts to do that are under way. But the process will take time, and the American mission here is politically on the clock.
As Smiley told of the partnering going on in agriculture, Phipps and Afghan army corps commander Maj. Gen. Abdul Abdullah were engaged in discussions of a military nature.
The conversation was frank, and Phipps was adept at politely pulling no punches. He was willing to talk about the successes and positive signs of improvement in the Afghan army, but he didn't flinch from laying bare the areas where much improvement is needed, such as accurate reporting. Some Afghan commanders in the field still tend to exaggerate numbers of enemy in contact, thinking that if they don't, they won't get support.
But accuracy and hard fact are indispensible to military operations, and Phipps made it clear that "plussing up" reports is not a way to do business for a professional army.
Moreover, he stressed that once contact is made, the Afghan army has to go out and assess and confirm battle damage and casualties.
Abdullah, who comes across as a professional himself, took no apparent offense while writing notes without pause.
On the flight down, Phipps had discussed the slow and painful process of weeding out the types of generals and high-ranking incompetents that resulted from people buying the positions. The current corps commander is there on merit, and he and Phipps appeared to have a good relationship based on mutual respect.
The Afghan soldier
The two men broke for lunch, after which they planned to do a surprise visit to a unit in the field to assess the state of readiness. Phipps gave assurances that this was to be a real surprise visit.
After dropping off some replacement weapons systems to a unit near Jalalabad, the generals headed up to former Combat Outpost Monti, now Asmar, flying through the spectacular Pech River Valley. The vistas on the way left no doubt that the area could be a tourism gold mine if ever Afghanistan could find a way back to peace and stability.
That stability rests largely, as 101st Airborne commander Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell has repeatedly said, on professionalizing the Afghan army and police so they can assume the primary role for the nation's security.
And the soldiers at Asmar are where the rubber meets the road.
As the Blackhawk carrying the generals landed, it became quickly apparent that this was indeed a surprise. But to everyone's credit, the reaction from Afghan soldiers and their American mentors didn't resemble a mob scene. Orders were barked out, and not far from the landing pad, the soldiers assembled quickly into formation.
By the time the generals arrived, the Afghan troops were ready for them. The troops didn't look like they were on parade, but they did look tough, hard and competent.
Following an impromptu ceremony and short speeches by the generals, the senior officers and sergeants gathered in the office of the area commander.
The generals wanted to know what the problems were and what the troops needed. The local commander, Col. Faqir Muhammed Ghnuw, wasn't shy about telling them.
He gave the generals a report in rapid-fire, unflinching language, and they took notes. They know he's no whiner, and they know he and leaders like him — on-the-scene commanders who connect with and care about the soldiers — are vital to the effort.
The surprise visit may have been well-chosen because of this commander and the reputation of these troops. But Phipps doesn't pretend there aren't problems in the Afghan army. The message here was, look what it can be.
A tense moment
Earlier in the day, we passed the blown-out walls of a building at Forward Operating Base Gamberi, where six U.S. soldiers, a contractor and four Afghan soldiers died in a suicide bombing. That attack was aimed squarely at the mission of partnering and mentoring that Phipps and others seek to accomplish.
Both Afghans and Americans have shown great courage in the face of the suicide attacks that might be the last card for the insurgency, reportedly reeling from the U.S. military's winter campaign. But how many more such attacks can the partnering mission withstand?
During lunch, prior to heading out to Asmar on the day U.S. forces had finally caught up to Osama bin Laden, the discussion was centered less on bin Laden's demise and more on what the reaction might be from the insurgency.
As the discussion went on, a young Afghan boy strolled through the American dining facility to the drink cooler and grabbed two bottles of water. Phipps asked of no one in particular, "Who is that?" Then, "Does someone want to find out?" The tension at the table rose until the boy's identity was discovered from the soldier who allowed him in. The boy was the son of an Afghan contractor who had simply come inside to get some water.
Phipps wanted someone to know if procedures had been followed — for good reason. A 12-year-old boy had walked into a bazaar in Paktika Province the day before and detonated himself, killing four people.
The tension passed, but it was a reminder of another reality of Afghanistan. It is the shadow that lies across every hope