QALAT, Afghanistan — In nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan, US forces have brought in a tremendous amount of fighting equipment, built military facilities all over the country and overseen the training of hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops.
Afghan soldiers say they would love it if all this sophisticated equipment were left behind when the United States leaves next year, but the reality is that most of the American arsenal is too complex, delicate or expensive for the Afghan military to maintain.
Running notably counter to this trend is the Mobile Strike Force, or MSF, a new unit of handpicked Afghan soldiers now training to use $1.2 million, American-built, armored personnel carriers. American soldiers from 5/7 Cavalry and 2/1 Infantry work alongside the MSF soldiers to assist in their training.
It is a big gamble. On one hand, the MSF vehicles are highly blast-resistant and give the well-trained soldiers a tremendous amount of mobility and firepower. On the other, the costly vehicles require a fuel supply and maintenance regimen beyond anything the Afghan supply chain has proven itself capable of.
“If you're a rigid individual who can't handle ambiguity or uncertainty, this isn't the job for you,” said Maj. Greg Schrein, commander of the American advisory team who is training the first MSF battalion in Zabul Province, just east of Kandahar.
Schrein and his team focus their efforts on developing the Afghan officers into competent leaders and planners, rather than trying to train every soldier in the battalion individually. The Afghan leaders are then expected to train their subordinates.
The Afghan soldiers selected for the MSF are more educated and disciplined than their regular army counterparts — many are literate and some speak English well. During basic training in Kabul, the unit marched together to the chow hall to show up the regular army troops. Now they have their own home in Zabul, the former NATO base called Lagman.
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While their morale is high at the moment, Schrein said maintaining morale depends on the MSF getting the fuel they need, and interesting missions. The first attempt at creating an MSF unit in Kabul failed because the trucks were not maintained and the unit was not given a real mission. The unit quickly suffered from a high AWOL rate — the soldiers went on leave and never came back.
Gen. Abdul Hamid, commander of Afghan troops in southern Afghanistan, has not yet articulated his intent for the Zabul MSF. Once the unit is fully trained, some soldiers speculate that they will assist special operations raids, others think they will set up security checkpoints on southern Afghanistan's highway.
"This is a professional vehicle — much safer than a Humvee," said Sgt. Monib Mujahid, a former English teacher from Kabul who joined the MSF after family problems forced him to seek a larger paycheck. "The (vehicle) is for hard missions — it has good seats and many radios."
Just how tough is it? "It can take .50 cal. rounds all day long," according to Frank Stevens, an employee of Textron, who builds the hulking truck in Slidell, La. According to Stevens, the 15-ton vehicle is balanced to run with a wheel missing and has a V-shaped hull to deflect blasts from below.
Textron convinced the Afghan Ministry of Defense to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in its new trucks rather than refurbish the thousands of Soviet BRDMs rusting in Kabul scrapyards. The MSFV, as the Textron trucks are known, and the BRDM look very similar at a glance, but the Soviet truck has less effective armor and is far less fuel-efficient.
Top Afghan soldiers, top American trainers and a strong vehicle are only part of the picture, however. The investment will be a waste if the Afghan Army doesn’t maintain the vehicles properly and supply them with the necessary fuel to conduct operations.
At Forward Operating Base Grizzly in Zabul, Stevens led a refresher course on MSFV maintenance — training he has repeated with these Afghan soldiers many times. His frustration was evident as the soldiers ignored his instructions and used a dirty ammo can to transfer coolant from one vehicle's overfilled reservoir to another vehicle's nearly empty one.
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One MSFV was low on transmission fluid and the can of replacement fluid had either been lost or sold at the local bazaar. Another transmission is overfilled, which can blow seals out, leading to difficult and expensive repairs.
"Most of the soldiers have never operated a car before, and culturally it's difficult to impress upon them the importance of (preventative maintenance)," Schrein said. "They say, 'it's running fine right now, why should we work on it?'"
As much as the Afghan troops like their new vehicles, they do not care for them as if they were their own, as American soldiers are expected to.
"The vehicle belongs to high-level people," said Staff Sgt. Abdul Majeed, an MSFV operator. "The maintenance is very easy though — we learned to look for oil on the dipstick. Driving it is very easy too."
Schrein estimates that the MSF battalion will need about 120,000 liters of fuel per month to conduct operations and fuel their generators at the base. During a cellphone conversation, the supply chief at 205th Corps headquarters assured MSF commander Lt. Col. Abdul Samad that he his elite force had been approved for the 120,000 liters of fuel. Whether it will arrive is another story.
"We don't know when we'll get the fuel," Samad said, laughing. "Maybe it will take one day, maybe one year."