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Troops Find Common Ground With Afghan Soldiers

By Army Sgt. Stephen Decatur
Special to American Forces Press Service

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2009 – Many U.S. servicemembers working and living alongside Afghan soldiers here find they have much in common with their Afghan counterparts.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Capt. Jacob White discusses planning with Afghan soldiers Maj. Mohammed Ahmen and Capt. Zalmay at Forward Operating Base Bullard in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, Sept. 29, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Stephen Decatur
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team live on the same bases with their Afghan counterparts and work side by side with them during combat operations. The U.S. soldiers advise and mentor Afghan forces to become self-sufficient in fighting, and eventually defeating, the Taliban.

To avoid the pitfalls of culture shock, one of the first things combat advisors have to do is get to know their new neighbors. And that begins with a history lesson.

The Afghan National Army was established in 1880 by the Afghan king Emir Abdur Rahman Khan. After the Soviet Union toppled the monarchy in 1979, the army continued under the socialist government of Afghanistan. Numerous officers and soldiers of the ANA have been fighting since that time. In fact, many of the troops serving together today fought on opposite sides during the insurgency that lasted until the collapse of the Afghan government in 1992. Since then, they have fought together against the Taliban.

“The Afghan army is a national army,” said Maj. Mohammed Ahmin, executive officer for 3rd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 205th Corps. “We have soldiers from different tribes, who speak different languages, all serving together. Every soldier is a volunteer, and all of them love their country.”

In his 28 years of military service, Ahmin has been wounded five times and has served in every region of the country.

“When I first joined the army, everyone wanted to serve,” he said. “Everyone loved Afghanistan and was very proud. I used to work in civilian government as a clerk, but the situation in the country was not good. I was keen to become a soldier, because I felt like I could serve the people.”

Ahmin eventually rose to the rank of colonel and, at one time commanded a regiment, but when he joined the re-established army after the fall of the Taliban, he had to start over from the rank of captain.

“I love my country,” Ahmin said. “Rank does not matter to me. I just want to be in the army.” He said the same patriotism he remembers from his youth is alive and well in his soldiers today.

Some U.S. soldiers are finding that their Afghan counterparts chose to serve for the same reasons they did: they were looking for a stable job to provide for their families, or for patriotism, or because of a life changing event.

Afghan Capt. Zalmay remembers the day he first wanted to become a soldier. When he was a small boy, he looked up to an older brother who was serving in the Afghan air force. When his brother visited home wearing his uniform, Zalmay said, he was so impressed that he wanted to be in the armed forces as well.

When Zalmay graduated from high school in 1986, he enrolled in the military academy in Kabul and has been a soldier ever since, fighting with the army until the collapse of the government in 1992, and later joining a paramilitary group to fight against the Taliban.

Zalmay says he hates the Taliban fervently, as do the villagers whom the Taliban threaten with decapitation if they don’t cooperate with them.

“On election day, I was outside a school being used for a polling station,” Zalmay said. “The people had to put their fingers in ink to vote, so I asked them what they would do if the Taliban see it. They told me they didn’t care. The Taliban were less than dogs to them.”

Afghan Sgt. 1st Class Faizullah has been serving in the army for five years. His parents were farmers, and he grew up in poverty, he said.

One day when Faizullah was 20, he said, he saw a group of Afghan soldiers and thought they were probably no different from other fighter he had seen who served warlords during the time of anarchy before the Taliban. He decided to talk to them out of curiosity.

“I asked them who they were and where they were from,” Faizullah said. “They told me, ‘We are the ANA. We’re here to protect the people.’ And they told me how to join.”

Faizullah joined and later took an exam to become a noncommissioned officer. He passed, and has steadily advanced in rank. He hopes to become an officer, he said. “When I joined, I brought hope with me,” he said. “Everything depends on hope.”

Many Afghan soldiers’ hopes and dreams would sound familiar to Americans. Faizullah is engaged to be married and wants to raise a family. Because he never finished school, it’s important to him that his children have an education, he said.

Education also is very important to Zalmay, who is a father of two and a widower. He wants one of his sons to be a doctor and the other to be an engineer, he said.

“They’re just like we are,” said U.S. Army Capt. Jacob White, commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “They want a safe environment to raise their family, and a steady job.”

Faizullah’s family urged him to leave the army because of his upcoming marriage, he said, but he explained that he doesn’t want to leave until he has a son old enough to replace him.

Afghan soldier Abdul Fatah, a radio operator, has similar ideas about service.

“Our fathers are too old; they can’t fight,” Fatah said. “If we don’t serve the country, the Taliban will destroy everything. There will be no future for Afghanistan. As long as I’m alive, I will be in the army.”

Afghan attitudes are influenced greatly not only by Islam, but also by “pushtunwali,” a code of hospitality, solidarity and courage recognized as virtues in Afghan society.

“If we show an interest in their culture, we will gain their respect,“ said U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Oclander, commander of 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “This is a culture that is all about respect.”

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay, a platoon sergeant with the battalion’s Company A, said he is impressed by how respectful Afghans are of their elders.

“So many young people think they can do it better,” Lindsay said. “Here, they listen to their elders and place their trust in them.”

Every Afghan army unit has a cultural officer who educates the soldiers about respecting the civilian population and respecting other cultures, Ahmin said. The cultural officer also helps Afghan soldiers learn to read and write, because illiteracy is so prevalent in the country.

Most Afghans react very well to patrols by Afghan soldiers, Faizullah said. He recalled a memorable patrol to a remote village that rarely saw Afghan forces. An old woman was frightened when she saw the patrol coming and came outside with a stick to hit them, he said.

But the soldiers spoke to her in a respectful tone and explained who they were. The woman calmed down when she realized they were Afghans and they told who they were and why they were there.

“We’re the Afghan National Army,” Faizullah said. “We’re here to protect the people.”

(Army Sgt. Stephen Decatur serves with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.

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