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US troops reduced to advisory role as Taliban begins its annual onslaught.
QALAT, Afghanistan — Beside the twisted remains of three Afghan police trucks destroyed by roadside bombs, a pomegranate tree too young to bear fruit grows through a tangle of razor wire.
The tree's home is a small Afghan National Police base within sight of a former American combat outpost in Arghandab District, Zabul Province, where pitched battles raged against the Taliban just last year.
In years past, the police base would have had easy access to American military resources and firepower. Not anymore. The base was transferred recently to the Afghan National Army, and the American role reduced to an advisory one.
US troops who are in a position to respond to attacks on Afghan forces say their current posture is laissez faire — Black Hawks will not, for example, be delivering US troops into battle on behalf of Afghan forces. Under very limited circumstances Afghan units may request assistance from American attack or medevac helicopters, otherwise, the Afghan forces are on their own this summer.
While conventional US forces no longer conduct proactive combat operations in Zabul's districts, soldiers like Maj. Jon Gutierrez, an American advisory team member from the Arizona National Guard's 1/158th Infantry, advise their counterparts in the Afghan police. Gutierrez is the operations officer for his unit, so he trains the Zabul police operations officers in planning and managing their missions.
“They understand we're leaving, that resources are dwindling and that we can't provide them with the resources that their previous advisory team did,” Gutierrez said. “That said, we've found that when they ask us to do a job they should be doing themselves and we say no, they tend to figure it out for themselves.”
Afghan police officers at the Arghandab base say their district is relatively peaceful at the moment, but fear for their colleagues further afield in Day Chopan and Mizan. There, they say, the Afghan forces are ringed in with Taliban mines and improvised explosive devices to keep them from patrolling through neighboring villages.
"When (US forces) left the district bases the enemy attacked us for two weeks," said 1st Lt. Kabir, a young Afghan police officer in Zabul. "They thought we would be easy to defeat, but we fought back and scared them off."
Kabir said his officers are motivated and fight well, but need better weapons and more ammunition if they are to prevail through the typically violent summers.
It is likely the initial attacks were of a symbolic or probing nature. In past years in Zabul and Kandahar, the Taliban's preferred tactics have involved the use of IEDs and car bombs, rather than mass attacks on fortified positions.
With the United States largely withdrawn, the lead now falls to senior members of the Afghan security forces like Col. Jalani Khan, the deputy police chief of Zabul. He is a burly 33-year veteran of police work in Afghanistan and something of a local cult of personality.
Khan has been wounded approximately 11 times (estimates vary) in his career, and US commanders describe him as a tremendously capable leader. Like many Afghan security officials, Khan worked for the Soviets during their occupation. After the Soviet withdrawal and the civil war, Khan was imprisoned for seven years under the Taliban, and still harbors a deep contempt for the movement.
“He's like the Dirty Harry of Zabul,” Gutierrez said. “He's trained with the KGB and Russian military. Working together professionally I have to strike a balance between giving him the respect he deserves without fawning over him like everybody else (in the Afghan police).”
Khan describes the Afghan National Police in Zabul as suffering from many small problems, but fewer large ones. The problems he lists are endemic to Afghanistan, not just to Zabul's police forces: illiteracy, corruption and a poor military intelligence network.
He acknowledged that, to American ears, these problems seem large. But he said he feels the very presence of his officers in the districts makes up for these issues by providing some measure of security and rule of law.
In district outposts like Arghandab, widespread illiteracy hampers his officers' ability to request re-supply and they have difficulty communicating their exact location to nearby forces. Both Kabir and Khan said this breeds contempt within the police for the Afghan army — by the time the army figures out where the police are fighting, the battle is long over. The two forces, while usually garrisoned in adjacent bases, often refuse to work together. Khan was barred from entering a meeting at an Afghan army base last week.
Khan, a native of the far-western Farah Province, pointed to a recent massacre there, where at least 44 were killed at a courthouse by nine Taliban gunmen who also died, as an example of a huge Afghan military intelligence failure.
"The (intelligence officers) are very weak — they should be working 24 hours a day, instead they are sleeping," Khan said. "The huge amounts of money they are given, they steal it instead of doing their jobs."
He said he has strict security protocols in place at his headquarters in Qalat, and suggested that if his counterparts in Farah had done the same, the massacre would not have happened.
Two days after Khan said this, a huge car bomb detonated between US and Afghan convoys in front of a Qalat hospital, killing five Americans and an Afghan doctor, and wounding 20 more. The bomb may have targeted the Zabul governor, Mohammad Ashraf Naseri, who was in the vicinity but was unhurt.
The Farah massacre, a carefully planned attack in a far-flung and normally peaceful district, and the bombing in Qalat may well herald the beginning of the Afghan security forces' first fighting season on their own. In Kabul, people are already drawing parallels between the massacre and the Taliban's early attacks during their rise to power in 1996.
According to US soldiers who advise and assist the police in Zabul, effective command and control of the Afghan security forces hinges on a handful of charismatic, influential leaders like Colonel Khan and Governor Naseri. Assassination attempts on key figures like them will likely be the focus of future Taliban attacks aiming to destabilize the Afghan government.
Khan lives with his family in a village near Qalat, and according to Gutierrez, Taliban leaders and their families live there as well.
“It's like a mafia situation — they know each other is there, but they have an understanding: you don't mess with each others' families,” Gutierrez said. “It creates a balance, but if Jalani or other key individuals were removed, there could be a breakout of violence.”