Wednesday, October 14, 2009


"Freedom is replacing imposed discipline with self-discipline." - William Lind

Drug cultivation was not something we really dealt with in Kunar. When it comes to illegal trade funding illegal activity, Kunar is more known for the timber might say the situation with the opium in the south is analogous to the timber in the northeast mountainous provinces. Undoubtedly, some opium is cultivated in the mountainous regions, but it wasn't something we really saw or dealt with.

What we did deal with regularly was hashish smoking among the ANA. The hash smoking was something I saw much more of at the more austere bases, and not so much at the more developed bases we were responsible for. I suppose you might say the hash provided a bit of an escape from the poor living conditions at those bases.

The fact that the ANA smoked hash was not a surprise to any of us. I'd seen the same thing with the Iraqis, and we were told we'd see it from time to time, if not regularly. One night early on in the tour, I was woken up by an ANA soldier asking me to attend to a sick soldier. So I grabbed my interpreter and headed over to the sick soldier's hooch to have a look at him. When we got there, my terp informed me that the soldier was only "sick" because of excessive hash smoking. I gave him a couple of aspirin and went back to bed.

It was a common experience to smell hash burning in the early evening or at night. We understood that it's a part of the local culture, so we were never intent on eradicating the habit completely among our ANA, but it didn't seem right to completely ignore the issue, so we brought up the hash smoking with the different commanders we had. One commander denied that it was occurring at all, so we simply asked him to see to it that the soldiers standing guard were sober. Another commander acknowledged the problem and pledged to do something about it, but not surprisingly nothing changed. A third commander would not tolerate it at all, and sent a couple of guys back to the battalion after catching them indulging. That third commander turned out to be the worst commander of the group that I had during that time period, but have to give him credit for maintaining some discipline with his men.

I can't say I ever saw an officer smoke hash or look stoned, but a few of the NCOs were repeat offenders. Some of those hash-smoking NCOs were actually among the best NCOs we had. We even had an incident where a couple of ANA soldiers beat a terp supposedly for trying to interfere with their hash smoking. It's tough to know what's really going on with those guys sometimes, so that incident may have been over something else. Whatever the case may be, the incident resulted in us losing one of our best terps...the two soldiers involved were sent away for awhile but came back eventually. It's tough to get rid of even the worst soldiers when you need everyone you can get your hands on to fight the war.

As you can imagine, having hash-smoking soldiers on hand during patrols can make for some interesting moments. We often stopped in towns to talk to local leaders during our patrols. We'd often just sit there until all hell would break effective if dangerous and uncreative way to locate the enemy. During one of the first times when we decided to just stay in the town until shots were fired, several of the soldiers lit up a joint after the wait was longer than expected. We got on their case about it, but a firefight erupted before we really dealt with the issue. I will say the ANA fought particularly well that day, putting several RPGs directly into a house 300 meters away.

One of our worst hash offenders, who I never once saw without bloodshot eyes, was often our RPG gunner. One day on our way out of base, we started taking large-caliber rounds from a ridgeline across the way. Our RPG gunner proceeded to load up his RPG and get ready to fire it with his back right up against a small cliff face...a no-no since the back-blast would likely rebound off the cliff and do who knows what to the gunner in that situation. Luckily, his comrades yelled at him and got him set up in a safe place...though firing an RPG at a ridgeline 1000 meters away might not be the best use of ammo. In that same event, the ANA platoon sergeant accidentally shot a round that almost blew his foot off while loading a machine gun, and then pointed it right at me while clearing and reloading it.

Suffice to say, there are things we'd rather be doing when enemy contact is imminent or ongoing than chastising ANA soldiers for smoking hash, dodging errant ANA muzzles, and teaching the ANA how to use their own guns. The ANA certainly do keep things interesting, and as long as things don't really go wrong, it's all really a lot of fun.


James Gundun said...

Yes, sounds really fun. I've been reading similar accounts of opium use in the ANA as well as addiction rates among normal Afghans. Many reports are sobering, no pun intended. As Democrats in Congress and other opponents of the war constantly champion an "Afghan surge," they rarely speak of the current conditions of Afghan forces and never about using hash while on missions. If the American people got wind they would lose all faith in the ANA. I suspect your answer, but do you believe the ANA is a viable substitute for additional US troops? I don't.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/15/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anand said...

K, it sounds like you had a blast. LOL.

James, I don't agree that Americans would lose all faith in the ANA. Many of the ANA seems to really want to fight. I have heard good things about 203rd ANA Corps near Khost/Paktya/Paktika.

The problem right now is that ISAF isn't giving the ANA exclusive control over the battlespace (with embedded OMLTs/ETTs such as K) and letting them make their own mistakes.

If I am not mistaken, the soldiers K worked with might be 2nd Bde, 201st ANA Corps. This is one of the worst brigades in the ANA. But even here, the ANA seemed to enjoy the fight . . . even if their way of fighting wasn't particularly thought through.

K, do the Haqqani, HiG, or Quetta Shura guys fight any better than the ANA? I imagine that they too "keep things interesting" for anyone embedded with them.

James Gundun said...
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James Gundun said...

I would never question the ANA's eagerness to fight, only its total capabilities at the moment and the argument that the ANA is sufficient to fill the current security vacuum.

SA said...

Thankfully no one over there shoots very well or we'd really have to alter the way we do things in some areas.

I was with 3rd Kdk, 2nd Bd, 201 Corps. I thought the Brigade Commander was pretty good when I met him Anand. I know you've been wanting me to write about him. He talked to quite a few local people and had them eating out of his hand...and he went on a foot patrol with us in the Korengal...which is something I never once saw the battalion commander do. It was a pretty tough movement for an old man, but he did really well. The battalion commander was awful and useless, however.

True, the ANA have an eagerness to fight...when the fight is on. They don't have much eagerness to go out and get into a fight. But they'll fight when the bullets start flying.

Really, I don't think you can judge whether they're a viable substitute until they are given total control over an area. As long as we're there to clean up they're mess and enable them, they won't grow and get better. Kick the ANA bird out of the nest and see if it flies I say.

While the ANA's capabilities are much much less in many ways, the fact that they're local and indigenous to the country could make all the difference in getting the people we're fighting to lay down their arms. They have a lot of advantages in intel gathering and developing rapport with the people that we'll never have.

Little Bill said...

I fully agree with your assessment of the situation in your comments.
As a Marine embedded with the ANA during your tour, who would know better than you. Does the Congressman that visits for few days know anything? Only what the military leaders want him to know.
Maybe Thunder Run and David M. are read in Washington. Hope so.

James Gundun said...

So why do you think the ANA isn't being given that control yet, if it needs the freedom and has the local advantage? Or is this process beginning?

SA said...
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SA said...


You know, I really wish I could answer that question, but the fact is, while I was out there and saw a lot, I didn't have any experience or knowledge on what goes on with the higher-ups that make those kinds of decisions. I'm sure they're smart people and have their reasons for doing things the way they're doing them.

I just tend to be a person that does not enable other people. I think you point someone the door to walk through and then they either walk through it or they don't. I don't hold their hand and walk them through it. We were the 4th iteration (I believe) of ETTs at the battalion we were with. That's about three years worth of ETTs there helping and training. Realistically, that should be enough in my mind, and I'm sure the ANA have the knowledge to do the job b/c I've seen them do it from soup to nuts. They just lack the will, IMHO, which is something I think would change without the American security blanket.

Whether or not the process of handing over responsibility is ongoing I also cannot speak to. I assume it is in other areas, but I know next to nothing about other units outside of the one I was with. I was told at one point by an evaluator that our battalion was far superior to three other battalions they'd seen recently who were being trained by the Italians and Spanish...and I won't go any further with that.

James Gundun said...

I really appreciate your info from the field and hope you don't mind if I ask more questions.

SA said...

Not at all. I'm very pleased to get some serious discussion going on this site.

BruceR said...

For what it's worth, the guys I was with (1/205 Bde), Canadian-mentored in Kandahar Province, were also "CM1." As of April when I left, everything K says about his guys was true of them, just with the placenames switched. There's no observable difference between ANA quality across corps or regions that I can see. And those I worked with also needed their own AO, or integration into the ISAF command structure on more than a notional level, if they were going to get any better.

More here

Wesley R. Gray said...

It sounds like the ANA are a lot like the IA (Iraqi Army)--brave, but inept. I also don't buy the argument that being brave is equivalent to being capable--that's silly. The adrenaline nut who jumps off buildings for fun is brave, but I'm not sure I want him running a military unit.

I agree with your assessment that it's time to let Afghans solve Afghan problems with Afghan solutions. If we had all the money in the world it may make sense, but have the exact opposite--all the IOUs in the world. ha!

Anand said...

Wesley R. Gray, the ANA are where the IA was three years ago, except the IA three years ago was much better educated. If the ANA reaches the level the IA is at now, ISAF could rapidly draw down; provided the ANSF gets long term international funding. In other words, getting the ANSF to the level the ISF is now = military victory in Afghanistan, even if the Taliban gets substantial additional foreign help.

Wesley, thanks for your service. Can I ask which ISF unit you mentored? If its IA, probably a bn in 1st or 7th IAD.

Bruce, any ANA unit that has been downgraded, or is still CM3 or CM4 even though it has been around for many years, probably has serious problems. There are many ANA kandaks like that, especially in the worst ANA Corps, 207th.

It looks like most of us agree that the the ANSF needs pockets of battlespace that are gradually expanded. I would transition the PRTs and reconstruction responsibility to the ANA Corps and brigades as well. Eventually, the PRTs and reconstruction should be transitioned from the ANA to the provincial AUP (Afghan Uniformed Police.)

How can the CM rating system be improved? The ORA rating system for the IA seemed to work better.

For example wonder why 2nd Bde HQs, 201st ANA, is still rated CM3, given that the brigade commander is pretty good and that the the brigade HQs is many years old?

The CM ratings systems for the ANP seem much better. The vast majority of ANP are rated CM4 or lower. There are very few CM1/CM2 in the ANP.