July 26--CAMPBOWIE -- This autumn, 400 Texas Army National Guard troops will assume a challenging mission in a violence-soaked area of Afghanistan that traditionally falls to the Special Forces, not to part-time citizen-soldiers.
The soldiers, men with careers in insurance, law enforcement, construction and retail, will be the first Guard troops assigned the task of mentoring, advising and training Afghan army and police units.
The Security Force Assistance Team program is an urgent, if belated, effort by the Army to prepare the Afghan security forces for the pullout of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014.
The Texans, who are on the front end of weeks of intensive training, face many challenges, even more than in a similar program instituted in Iraq several years ago. They will work in the dangerous southern provinces of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, with only 12 to 15 men per team.
They will have to rely on interpreters to communicate. They can't expect that most Afghan soldiers will be able to read or write, making instruction difficult.
They will also not be in control, which may be one of the hardest things for an American officer to accept.
And then there is the issue of trust, or the lack of it.
Afghan-soldier-on-American-soldier violence has been building since 2011. Afghan police or soldiers have killed at least 27 U.S. or coalition troops this year, according to NATO. Three more died Sunday when an Afghan soldier turned his weapon on American contractors.
The Texans know all that, of course, which has made this deployment different from previous tours.
"Trust will have to be built," said Lt. Garrett Ivey, an Arlington resident who works in the insurance business when not in uniform. "We will see how they act and react and respond to us. Those that seem a little different, I'll just watch them a little more. And, of course, I'll always have my rifle handy."
The first training and advising teams in Afghanistan came this year from the 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and other active-duty units. This fall, the Texans and soldiers from Hawaii represent the Guard's first contribution to the expanding program.
As the number of U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan continues to fall, their roles must change, and so must the Afghans', said Maj. Tim Redhair, a veteran infantry officer and team leader who lives in Cedar Hill.
The United States must ensure that the Afghan army and police can operate effectively once they can't rely on the Army and Marines for planning, support and money, Redhair said.
Because of that, Redhair said, he has prepared himself and his team not to take over in the police district where they will work. Instead, he said, he will offer advice to the police commander.
"They may not do it exactly like I would, but as long as the end state is the desired end state ..." said Redhair, a sergeant in the Duncanville Police Department. "We have got to set them up so they can be successful in their own manner and within their own way of life."
There is considerable debate about whether the mission can succeed on a broad scale.
Anthony Cordesman, a leading defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., testified before a House Armed Services subcommittee Tuesday that the military is overly optimistic in its assessments of Afghan units. In particular, he said, Afghan police units are rife with corruption and abuse and have been infiltrated by insurgents.
"The U.S. has long had problems in honestly and realistically assessing the Afghan, Iraqi and even South Vietnamese forces that it has trained," Cordesman said. "U.S. assessment systems have been consistently inaccurate in measuring loyalty, unit cohesion, corruption ... and the military's ability to sustain itself without U.S. help."
The Guard soldiers selected for the mission are more senior in rank than a typical outfit. The teams contain lots of lieutenant colonels, majors, captains and senior sergeants, a reflection of the need for maturity and experience more than youth and enthusiasm.
After several weeks of training at Camp Swift outside Bastrop and Camp Bowie outside Brownwood, the soldiers will say goodbye to Texas on Tuesday. They have several more weeks of training at Fort Polk, La., and Fort Irwin, Calif., before deploying.
The last eight days at Camp Bowie, spent under the tutelage of retired Special Forces and special operations troops with experience in Afghanistan, have proved to be both humbling and rewarding. Rare is the Guard soldier or senior officer who learns how to hit targets at 700 meters, shooting downhill with a 15-mph wind, from a Green Beret who has earned a Purple Heart.
"This is the best training I've ever had, by far," said Lt. Nathan Pieper, a 2008 graduate of Texas Christian University who was working for the YMCA in Houston before the Guard called on him. "We're getting all kinds of training that we don't normally get."
The 30-plus training teams from Texas will be strung out across several provinces for at least nine months. The soldiers have been given an extensive reading list on the ancient and modern history of the country, from Alexander the Great's invasion in 330 B.C. to the Taliban takeover in the mid-1990s.
Over the next several weeks, they hope to learn more techniques for getting their message across without being overbearing, including some lessons from Afghans themselves.
Lt. Benjamin Smith, an Arlington resident who is deploying overseas for the third time in eight years, said he recognizes that the Afghan army is never going to be like the U.S. Army.
All he can do, he said, is offer suggestions on how to improve tactics and professionalism. Whether the Afghans accept his opinions remains to be seen.
"They're a proud culture," said Smith, who works for an auto parts retailer. "They don't want to be told how to do something all day long, every day, by us. They're grown men, too. They don't want to be treated like children. We would feel the same way. Hopefully, we can build a rapport, and they will listen to us."
Redhair, who will likely have to lose a goodly number of Texas sayings that won't translate into Pashto, knows little about the district where his team will operate. He knows even less about the police commander, police strength, their resources or their methods.
If the considerable uncertainty bothers him, it doesn't show. Police patrol work is all about uncertainty, he said.
"This is a mission that is personality-driven," he said. "It will be built on personal relationships. That's where the Guard excels. We have jobs outside the military where we work in the community and deal with all sorts of people. I have to convince that police commander that I left my home and family to help him.
"But if he chooses to ignore my advice, well, that's a frustration of dealing with people everywhere."
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547
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