Despite years of training, including help from Minnesota's National Guard, Afghans appear far from ready to take on the Taliban alone.
Colored markers provided by a Minnesota charity and a group of schoolchildren — originally intended for Afghan schoolchildren — turned out to be a big hit with Afghan soldiers, who received them from the Afghan Army command.
Row after row of new dump trucks, front-end loaders, Ford Rangers and Humvees sit in neat rows at the Afghan military base here, the plastic wrapping still on the seats, the shipping tags still pasted on the windows.
They've been idle since arriving a year ago. The Afghans don't know how to operate them.
The vehicles could be providing security and moving supplies, especially along the vital Ring Road that runs along Afghanistan's perimeter. But a country with a near 70 percent illiteracy rate can't produce enough soldiers capable of maintaining these vehicles, or even reading the owner's manuals.
U.S. and allied forces are preparing to widen the war in the hope of finally gaining the upper hand. But their ultimate goal is to withdraw.
Before that can happen, however, the Afghan army must prove itself capable of fighting and beating the Taliban. Despite receiving outside help for nearly a decade, the Afghan forces appear far from that goal.
Here, in the northern part of the country, where the fighting has been less intense but the threat of insurgent activity is growing, a dozen Minnesota Army National Guardsmen and an equal number of Croatian soldiers are trying to make one small Afghan Army group self-sufficient.
Commanders don't normally set humble goals, but the expectations for these teams are unusually modest.
"When you start out, you usually ask yourself how many touchdowns are we going to score before we go home," said Maj. Robb Mattila of Sartell, the commander of the Guard unit. "With this assignment, we're hoping to move the ball ahead, maybe, five yards when we're done."
'Going to be here forever'
The Minnesota team is one of 54 such units deployed in Afghanistan and one of four to include soldiers from another coalition country. Known officially as Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams and more commonly by the acronym OMLT (pronounced omelette), their work is part of the broader counter-insurgency strategy adopted by the Obama administration late last year.
Gen. Larry Shellito, the head of the Minnesota National Guard, seemed especially close to the hand-picked group before they left the state for training in Croatia last summer. As a young lieutenant in Vietnam, Shellito served in a similar unit.
"You are the poor man's Special Forces," Shellito told the soldiers at their deployment ceremony.
The Minnesotans' yearlong mission has them stationed just outside Mazar-i-Sharif. For centuries a pivotal center of trade on the Old Silk Road, it was the first Afghan city to be taken by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance after the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. base here, Camp Spann, takes its name from Mike Spann, the CIA operative who was the first U.S. casualty in this war.
But the problems Mattila and his men face date to an earlier war, the nine-year struggle that began when the Soviets invaded in 1979.
Many of the Afghan officers and older soldiers are veterans of that war. Some were members of the mujahedeen who rebelled against the Soviets, others served with the government army that fought alongside the Soviets. The Russian influence is evident everywhere. Many soldiers still wear Russian winter coats. Russian-provided Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles are the predominant weapon. Lower-ranking officers remain hesitant to issue an order unless it's handed down to them directly from their commander, reflecting the hierarchal nature of the Soviet military.
Ethnic and religious divides also split the Afghan army. A low-level soldier might bypass his chain of command and seek a leave from his top commander because both are from the same ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in some areas, with supplies stolen for resale. Soldier pay is being increased to $240 a month from $180, but the Afghan "cash men" assigned to handle payrolls pocket some of the cash or charge fees to hand out pay. Even when the pay comes through without a problem, it can pale against what the Taliban is offering for service on the other side of the firefights.
Suspicions and cultural differences divide the Afghans and their foreign advisers, as well. The consequences can be deadly. Mattila said he was told before his arrival that two U.S. soldiers -- a man and a woman -- were shot by Afghan guards while jogging together on the Afghan portion of the base. How did it happen? Maybe mistaken identity or miscommunication, but some still believe the sight of a man and a woman together, especially a woman in running shorts, might have been considered a provocation worthy of gunfire. Regardless, Americans no longer use the Afghan base to jog.
Relationships are built slowly over tea and sharing personal stories. Each member of the team is assigned to mentor a member of the Afghan army. Mattila, for instance, tries to spend time each day with an Afghan of equivalent rank. An Army medic works with Afghan soldiers on such things as keeping track of medical records and maintaining proper supplies. Sgt. Maj. Daniel Smith of Brainerd, the top enlisted man in the unit, mentors his counterpart on leadership.
"We don't tell them what to do, we encourage them to come up with the right answers. That can be a slow process," Mattila said.
Four members of the team are assigned to distribute cash for emergency needs. They find themselves constantly rejecting direct pleas from Afghans who simply refuse to go through their own channels.
A few weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, the Americans bought two sheep for $367 from a roadside vendor. They shared the butchered meat with their counterparts, relishing in the newfound camaraderie but suffering the intestinal consequences.
After months of daily conversations, Mattila discovered that one of his charges, Capt. Hazarn Nasrullah, was a tank commander with the Soviets before being captured and beaten by the Taliban. He escaped and fled to Pakistan before returning when Afghan President Hamid Karzi took office. Nasrullah, who often seems to be the only officer on the Afghan base when Mattila checks in, defended the progress of the Afghan Army.
"Right now, the Afghan Army is seven years old," Nasrullah said through an interpreter. "We saw many changes from the first day until now. What we see from five years ago, two years ago, we see a lot of changes now. Day by day, step by step, we are going high in our professionalism."
Several intelligence reports from Washington raised serious questions about the new U.S. strategy of speeding up training to send more Afghans to the battlefields. The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has recommended increasing the Afghan Army to 134,000 men in a year from its current size of under 90,000. The number could go as high as 240,000.
An additional brigade of U.S. forces (about 2,500 soldiers) is scheduled to be deployed in the fall and dedicated to training and mentoring. Minnesota Guard officials would not confirm it officially, but a Minnesota brigade appears to be in the rotation for deployment to Camp Spann as early as 2011. Meantime, several new Minnesota OMLT teams are headed for training, suggesting a long-term commitment to the program.
Despite the U.S. effort, a recent Defense Department Inspector General report warned that challenges will remain, citing the low Afghan literacy rate, a logistics system rife with corruption and a "culture of poverty." Thirty years of turmoil has created an atmosphere of mistrust among Afghans toward their government that the recent botched presidential elections only made worse.
Minnesota Guard medic Sgt. James Varholdt of Robbinsdale, who was part of a similar team in Iraq, said it's more difficult to discern loyalties and allegiances among the battle-weary Afghans than it was among the Iraqis.
"It's a country that's been at war for a long time and you can see it in the people's faces. They're kind of sick of one person after another coming in to mentor them," he said. "Their sense of time is different. They're going to be here forever. We're going to be here for a year."
While much of the U.S. military attention in the coming months will be directed toward Afghanistan's southern and eastern regions, the area to the north, where the Minnesota OMLT team operates, also carries strategic significance.
Criss-crossed by vital U.S. and NATO supply routes, the region is dominated by Uzbeks, Tajiks and other ethnic groups who first fought off the Soviets and then the Taliban. Pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the guerrilla commander who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks, remain prevalent on the walls and in the streets. Reports of insurgent activity have increased in the north, particularly in Kunduz to the east and Herat in the west.
A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that the war is spreading to the north, fueled by the longstanding Pashtun resistance to being governed from Kabul, and by an influx of foreign fighters.
In search of even the smallest victories, the Minnesota OMLT unit looks for chances to score "quick wins." They found one recently when several groups from the Brainerd area sent Command Sgt. Major Smith packages of school supplies with the intention that they be handed out to Afghan kids the Americans met along the road.
Smith hit on a different plan.
He opened the boxes in a shack-like classroom surrounded by barbed wire. Instead of school lessons, the walls featured profiles of different types of explosives. Afghan soldiers receive about six hours of lessons in writing and mathematics a week. Those who are considered advanced read and write at about a fourth-grade level. Smith addressed the Afghans, who had quickly gathered after word spread that something was going to be given away.
"These are a gift from the people of Minnesota and they are being presented to you by your own command sergeant major," Smith announced. The Afghan sergeant stood sheepishly next to Smith. He had to be encouraged to hand out the loot.
The Afghans crowded around until the boxes were empty, the soldiers fingering the clean white paper tablets and holding their new pencils with pride. The Afghan sergeant quickly left the building, seemingly uncomfortable with having to mingle with his men.
Outside, Mattila admonished him through an interpreter: "This is sergeant major business. Taking care of your soldiers."
The Afghan sergeant left without saying a word.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434