09.20.12

The US Army And Afghanistan’s Bad Divorce

Why our relationship with the Afghan Army is like an epically bad divorce.

Recently, a good friend told me he was getting divorced after a decade-long marriage. A fair assessment would be that the marriage started brilliantly, but after many trials and tribulations, as well as many children, the bloom came off the rose.

Neither partner committed any flagrant fouls, but once the frustration and bickering became a daily occurrence, and hope for the future was in doubt, my friend made the decision to propose divorce.

Once this genie was out of the bottle, the ground rules changed instantly. Small slights, which had in the past been ignored, became grounds for full-scale arguments.  In short order, my friend saw the combative levels rise dramatically with his wife, and it even escalated into a recent violent outburst by his spouse. This was something heretofore unheard of in his marriage.  

In the course of a decade, this relationship went from hope and optimism, to distrust and violence. It’s a scenario that is also playing out on a macro-level today in another area near and dear to my heart: Afghanistan.

For 12 months, I served as an embedded trainer in the Afghan National Army (ANA), where I mentored and led Afghan soldiers in combat and in training.

In many ways my relationship with the Afghans mirrored the experiences of my friend in the process of his divorce. Embedded team trainers, or ETT's as we were known, began our tours about a decade ago, and experienced the honeymoon phase where camaraderie and congeniality were the order of the day.

All the resentment and anger is boiling over, and for too many Afghans, there is no love lost, the gloves are off, and tragically, blood is flowing.

But by the mid 2000s, the relationship had begun to fray. During my time there in 2006-07, the war was getting harder and victory was for the first time in doubt. The ANA was growing, getting better at its job, and chaffing at the perceived collar it wore, which was connected to a leash held firmly by American ETT hands.

Fast forward to today in Afghanistan, where the "divorce" discussion has been had, and the terms and conditions for ending the relationship are set. All the resentment and anger is boiling over, and for too many Afghans, there is no love lost, the gloves are off, and tragically, blood is flowing.

There are no excuses for the Afghan soldiers and police who murder the American soldiers assigned to train them.  Yet there are likely causes for these "green on blue" murders that are occurring. 

One cause that is likely contributing to this spike in murders is that we have woven a bloody tapestry over 11 years of both accidental and intentional incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed—as in the recent May 11, 2012 incident where a rogue US soldier murdered 16 women and children.

We in the West are rightly quick to dismiss these as aberrations; but to Afghans, aided by Taliban propaganda, forgiveness is not as forthcoming as it was back in the honeymoon phase of the war.

The enemy is also improving its ability to infiltrate and sew dissent among the Afghan security forces' ranks. When I was there, rumors surfaced of $50,000 bounties on our heads, but our camaraderie and rapport with the Afghan soldiers we mentored made this a running joke. I never once worried or watched my back with my Afghan comrades, and they never made any efforts to collect on this hefty Taliban bounty.

Regardless of the mistakes we have made, there is no excuse for the murders that are occurring of US soldiers by Afghan security personnel.  But recognize we must that, much like my friend’s dissolving marriage, the ground rules have changed, and the years of camaraderie and integration are over. Call it a divorce. Call it a withdrawal. Either way the two parties are entering a new chapter of a long and rocky relationship, and the protocols of the past no longer seem to apply.