KAPISA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Attacks on US forces by uniformed Afghan security personnel are now Afghanistan's signature threat, just as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were in Iraq.
And that new and disquieting reality has me thinking hard about the idea of ‘force protection’ here and how it is changing, or, more precisely, needs to change.
During my first trip to Afghanistan in 2010, it was shocking to see how lax the soldiers there seemed to be in their own force protection.
On a small combat outpost in Kandahar, armed Afghan soldiers mingled freely with Americans day and night. The outpost lacked proper defensive measures to prevent a car bomb attack on the front gate, and some of the guard towers had obstructed views of the surrounding fields.
Force protection, which refers to the measures soldiers take to defend themselves and their equipment, was a big deal in Iraq while I was there. In Baghdad, there was no room for error. Any weakness in force protection would quickly be exploited by the insurgents, typically by an IED.
Three years later and far from Baghdad, I have started to feel more ambivalent about the classic strategy of ‘force protection’ in Afghanistan. While not nearly as widespread as IEDs, the threat of insider attacks has led to extensive new force protection measures that some feel have been counterproductive to the US advisory mission here.
Even within the well-guarded confines of the provincial government compound at Mahmud-e Raqi, a 20-minute drive from the largest US military base outside of North America, US soldiers wear their body armor outside their postage-stamp-sized compound, and post guards called "guardian angels" to protect themselves from insider attacks.
There is a sizable Afghan police base at Mahmud-e Raqi, but soldiers only interact with the highest echelons of the police leadership as prescribed by their current advisory doctrine.
US forces in Afghanistan have assumed a "Level 2" advisory mission, which is more hands-off than ever before. Every week or two, soldiers make the trek out to Mahmud-e Raqi to meet the provincial police chief and sometimes the governor.
An Afghan police officer monitors the radio at Kapisa Provincial Headquarters while U.S. trrops meet with his commanders.
Relations are often warm between the soldiers and the Afghan leaders with whom they interact. But ordinary Afghan police officers sullenly slink around the heavily-armed and armored Americans intently guarding the hallways in the Afghan police headquarters. In my experience, this is a departure from how American troops and Afghan police have interacted in the past, when the forces were aligned on all operational levels.
A soldier who complained to me about this said an army officer had told him, "Force protection is the mission." And that reveals a reality on the ground here straight out of Joseph Heller. That is, soldiers are being deployed just to carry out the mission of defending themselves.
Conventional US troops in Afghanistan are no longer looking for fights. As a result, most soldiers here on their first deployment are likely to never know what it is to carry out a foot patrol. They are unlikely to ever fire upon an enemy or have to radio a medevac helicopter for a wounded comrade. However, Afghanistan is still dangerous and force protection is still important. But from what I am seeing on the ground and hearing from soldiers and officers here, it needs to be balanced with the larger military and political mission.
Some of the distrust and distance is surely because of the impending drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, which weighs heavily on the mind of every Afghan I've spoken to this year. With the Taliban still attacking civilians and Afghan troops, and the Afghan army completely reliant on US funding, the drawdown is already incredibly challenging for Afghan security forces.
Afghan army units patrol the Tagab Valley here by themselves. They have not suffered unusual casualties here, but it seems they know their limitations, and do not attack into areas where they would be at a significant disadvantage. Aided by interpreters, US troops listen in on the Afghan soldiers' radio chatter but don't give them instructions or assistance.
During a weekly visit to Kapisa Provincial Headquarters at Mahmud-e Raqi, soldiers play cards and barbeque a sheep in their compound after a day of meetings with police officials.
Khan Mohammad, an Afghan police officer in the Kapisa anti-terrorism unit, expressed frustration with the security situation in the mountainous province. He said several major political figures were using their personal militias against one another, vying to best position themselves to fill the coming power vacuum. Last week a group of villagers staged a protest in Kapisa over a land dispute, a scene that will likely become more common as people take what they can from less powerful tribes.
Pashtun villages in Kapisa do not have their own armed militias, termed by US forces as “Afghan local police.” Because of this, they turn to the Taliban for protection from better-armed Pashai and Tajik villages, according to Mohammad.
"It would be very difficult to try and force them to stop fighting - they have their weapons positioned on the high ground," Mohammad said. "Everyone there is just trying to steal as much as they can before 2014."
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GlobalPost’s Ben Brody is in Afghanistan as part of a year-long reporting and photography project to document the drawdown of US troops. The GlobalPost ‘Special Report’ is funded in part by The Ford Foundation.