29 November 2010

Afghan Trainer: Values More Important than Tactics

Editor’s note: In 2007, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Courter and 15 other Illinois National Guard soldiers deployed to an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) mission in the Wor Mamay district, Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Along with three other ETT members, he helped mentor a company of 35 Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.).

Since his deployment, Courter, now an Illinois National Guard recruiter and part-time seminary student, Courter has continued to wrestle with questions and insights he gathered in Afghanistan.

In 2008, he self-published his “Afghan Journal” notes as a book (available as paperback and in Amazon Kindle format), and continues to blog at: www.lifeloveandtruth.com.

Red Bull Rising invited Courter to share his thoughts with the recently deployed soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division. Some Red Bull soldiers will directly mentor Afghan police and army units. Others will fight alongside and support them.


By Jeff Courter
To be effective at “how” we fight, we should begin with “why.” Some warriors emphasize tactics, and ignore the reasons we’re on the battlefield in the first place--as if they’re independent variables. They’re not. The right values can be the greatest tactical advantage of all, especially in Afghanistan. That’s because soldiers--whether U.S. or Afghan--will fight harder and longer when motivated for the right reasons.

Young soldiers may roll their eyes when old warhorse NCOs trot out the seven Army Values--“Loyalty. Duty. Respect. Selfless Service. Honor. Integrity. Personal Courage.” But face it: Values work. They work for individuals, as well as entire armies.

Sharing these principles with our Afghan colleagues is mission-critical.

Granted, progress may not be swift. It may even span generations. Whether you frame this conflict as multiple small wars--or a single very long one--the road to constructive, sustainable change won’t be straight, and can’t be hurried. Our enemies are patient, committed and ruthless. We must be patient, committed, and valorous.

Not all of your new Afghan colleagues may share your values or professionalism, but that shouldn’t deter you. Let your actions do the talking, no matter your assignment or situation. To paraphrase General Petraeus:
“Regular training teams can’t be everywhere, so units must help enforce local military standards, enable performance, and monitor for abuses and inefficiencies. Any coalition unit working with local security forces will be studied, emulated and copied--for better or worse. Therefore, we must always set the example. Any coalition unit operating alongside local security forces is performing a mentoring, training, and example-setting role.”
Think of Afghanistan as the Wild West. Think of the Taliban as a bunch of outlaws. And recognize that most Afghans are innocent townspeople, who just want to stay out of the line of fire.

During my tour, our larger mission was to secure the area from Taliban activities. We conducted hundreds of “presence patrols” among local villages. The ABP always joined us, to “put an Afghan face” on our operations. They were also there to learn first-hand how persistent police visibility can disrupt insurgent activities.

When our convoys rolled in and our ABP colleagues offered food, clothing, school supplies and medical assistance, villagers often greeted us warmly. But cautious tribal elders sometimes tempered their response, for fear of Taliban reprisals. Chieftains explained that Taliban fighters would steal into their villages at night and threaten them with violence. Some elders even spoke in hushed tones, fearful of being overheard.

Once, we circled back to a village that we had visited only days before. Surprisingly, we found a ghost town. While there, our unit repelled an ambush from an overlooking hill.
Later, we learned that Taliban fighters had stormed the village after our initial visit, demanding payment from the chieftain. When he refused, they threatened to kill him on the spot--until he placed a Quran on the ground and claimed that their actions violated Islam.

The thugs backed off, but promised to kill him if he and his family remained. That night, he packed his belongings and led his entire village to a distant hamlet. The Taliban simply waited for our return to the village, assuming we would investigate reports of its abandonment.

In many ways, the real enemy in Afghanistan is fear. The Taliban feed on it. But by demonstrating our values, by protecting people, and by “closing with and destroying” the bad guys, we deny our enemies an environment where fear can grow. It all begins with a spirit of trust.

When a seasoned U.S. law enforcement officer visited our Forward Operating Base ("FOB"), he emphasized the importance of gaining trust from the local community. Here’s his two-pronged approach:
  • Give local Afghans a reason to believe that, whenever they share intelligence, you’ll respond as quickly and decisively as possible. It’s not about arriving immediately every time you’re called. That’s unrealistic. Rather, it’s about proving, over time, that you’ll strive to do your best when needed.
  • Police can’t fight crime everywhere, simultaneously. So, when your resources are assigned to a specific area, stay focused on that area. Take control of territory you hold, and deny the enemy an opportunity to move freely in that space. It’s less about eliminating the Taliban altogether, and more about stopping them from operating in your local environment. Eventually, they’ll move on.
Bottom line: It’s not rocket science. It’s about walking a beat. It’s about making people feel safe, because you’re there when it matters.

Let me tell you about one day when it mattered:

Early one morning at our FOB, there was a commotion at the front gate, as a young man sought medical assistance for his very pregnant wife. Their young son had accidentally shot his mother with an AK-47. The bullet had ripped a hole through her abdomen, and intestines were spilling from her side.

Our medic was in his early 20s. Although he’d been trained to treat combat wounds when emotions are running high, he wasn’t prepared for this. As we waited for a MEDEVAC helicopter to airlift the woman to a hospital, “Doc” did his best to stabilize his patient. Language and cultural norms were a huge problem. Whenever Doc uncovered part of the woman's body, her husband rapidly covered it back up. Eventually, Doc blindly bandaged the wound from beneath a blanket.

The clock was ticking. Time was running out. The woman was nine months pregnant, and both she and her baby were in critical condition. Family members began to argue about whether she should be left to die at home, rather than being evacuated. Our ABP trainees stood-by throughout, ensuring crowd control and helping to maintain calm.

An hour later, the chopper swooped down and left in a cloud of dust, lifting its precious cargo along with our hopes and prayers. Later that afternoon, we received a radio update – mother and child were fine. We rejoiced along with the ABP. Their commander thanked us, insisting that our actions proved to local villagers that “America is good!”

That day, values mattered. That day, we scored a victory, without firing a single shot. We beat the devil at his own game. And we helped a woman and her baby cheat death.

Along the way, we forged a new level of trust.

It was glorious.

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