US Mentors Prepare to Let Afghan Forces Go it Alone

US mentors in Afghanistan (Credit:
US mentors in Afghanistan

KOH-E-SAFI, Afghanistan, July 21 — The small and cherubic governor of Koh-e-Safi District was struggling to compute the meaning of the American troop withdrawal.

He had just finished crediting a young American Special Forces captain for improved security in his district, an area near Kabul that has been a busy staging ground for insurgent attacks. Now, suddenly, he was trying to talk about his plans for when the team of Green Berets leaves in August.

“Well, we hope it will not happen,” he said, flattening his hands on his desk. “We think the Americans will find a way to stay.”

The captain, having been through this routine before, interjected: “We are out of here by the end of the summer. It’s happening. And if there’s no plan to fill that void, then that’s what people in this room need to be talking about right now.”

The American Special Forces teams have over the past decade become a central part of the local security landscape in Afghanistan. The 12-man teams are embedded in remote areas with a high insurgent threat, and they train indigenous police and elite Afghan units while coordinating the efforts of the local government and security bureaucracies. They also hunt down Taliban figures.

For many Afghans, they have been the face of the American military presence, for better or worse. But they are leaving. Even if a long-term security agreement is signed with the United States, these teams in their current form will not be part of the tiny force that will remain.

Whether the Afghan forces can sustain themselves in the critical districts the Green Berets will be ceding to them is an urgent question all over the country. The answer will help define America’s legacy in Afghanistan, much as it has in Iraq, where the Iraqi forces have fallen apart in combat.

The void in some places will be hard to fill. Beyond being a deterrent to the Taliban, the teams grant a measure of confidence to the Afghan forces they fight alongside. That confidence is already being tested: In the past few months, the Taliban have been aggressively going after the security forces in places the Americans have left.

In places like Koh-e-Safi, a district of ashen mountains of silt, rock and chromite, there is worry about what will come after the Americans.

“I’m not sure they have the confidence to do this once we leave,” said the Green Beret team captain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of military rules. “Over the last few years, they have come to rely on Americans’ solving their problems.”

The sentiment is shared, to some degree, among the other team members, most of whom have deployed several times in Afghanistan.

“This country is going to turn into a warlord environment,” said one sergeant on his fifth tour. “Until these guys are willing to fight for a sense of nationalism, I don’t see how this changes.”

But sustainability is more than fighting. It is a matter of logistics: feeding and fueling forces spread across the country, perhaps the greatest challenge for the Afghan forces.

“We have modeled them so much on us that they have taken on more logistical requirements than they need,” the team sergeant said.

As a result, it is likely that the Afghan Army Special Forces team, which is meant to do the same thing for the district that its American counterparts do, will go elsewhere when the Americans depart. There simply will not be the logistical support for it in Koh-e-Safi.

During the meeting in his office, the governor, Saifullah Bedar, raised another issue that has increasingly been on Afghans’ minds: Iraq’s rapid disintegration after the American withdrawal there.

“What is the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan?” Mr. Bedar asked the captain.

“I was in Iraq near the end,” the team leader fired back. “When we left, they were set up for success. The decisions they made in the following three years left them where they are now.”

An American Special Forces captain observes how his Afghan trainees do on their own as they meet villagers near Taliban territory in Parwan Province. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

The room was silent, everyone fidgeting in the suffocating heat.

“The same thing can happen in Koh-e-Safi if the government and security forces don’t make the right decisions,” the captain warned.

By most accounts, the American team in Koh-e-Safi has done well. It has brokered relationships with local leaders, trained nearly 130 police officers, and mentored two Afghan Special Forces teams. It has also helped keep the Taliban mostly confined to the remote southern half of the district, but there are worries here that the militants will find a way to creep back after the Americans leave.

The commander of one of the local police checkpoints here, Shaman Gul, visited the Americans last month on a hill overlooking his village, Damdar. From the hilltop, plots of emerald farmland could be seen in the valley basins below, rare flashes of color in an otherwise gray-brown tableau.

I wish all involved well but, naturally, there are doubts. The performance of the South Vietnamese Army in 1975 and that of the Iraqi Army…The only thing that the Afghans will miss is the free and easy money that is being funneled into their country.

Mr. Shaman Gul, who also owns a tailoring shop in Damdar, said he recently got a call from the Taliban, who reminded him that the Americans would be leaving soon. While he insists he is unafraid, he knows that things will change soon.

On the walk around his base, a ramshackle affair fortified with barriers and wire, he began noting deficiencies the Americans might help resolve.

“We only have 120 bullets a man,” he told the captain, shrugging.

“When is the last time you guys were in a firefight?” the captain asked, knowing it had been months. Mr. Shaman Gul shrugged again.

More than ever, the Special Forces are trying to have their Afghan counterparts take the lead. While that has always ostensibly been the plan, it only really began to be a focus this year, when it dawned on commanders that one way or another they were leaving. The American team captain in Koh-e-Safi acknowledged that it had been hard to keep his men from going out on missions.

On a recent operation near Chanerai, a small village of mud homes arranged in a valley near the edge of Taliban territory, the Green Berets tested their resolve to allow their Afghan comrades to operate alone. From the top of a barren ridgeline, the captain peered through binoculars, watching as the Afghan team organized a meeting, or shura, with the locals.

“I want to know what’s going on in there,” the captain said, pulling the binoculars away, impatience creeping into his voice. “I want to see firsthand how the Afghan soldiers are handling the shura.”

In a departure from past missions, the Americans would not go into the village. They would not press the Afghans to ask direct questions. They would not challenge dismissive answers from villagers. They would, instead, stand on the peripheral ridgeline, peering down at the village and scanning the valley for ambushes.

“When the Americans go in, the villagers act differently,” the captain said. “We become the focus of attention.”

A few of the men drove all-terrain vehicles along the ridgeline. But one soldier, angling around a truck on the side of a ravine, lost control. As the vehicle turned down the hill, the sergeant quickly hopped off.

Everyone stood silently, watching weaponry, tarps and other equipment catapulted off the four-wheeler as it cartwheeled down the hill. Its broken body somehow landed upright.

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