Afghan Army Makes Progress; Will Government Services Follow?

Afghan Army Makes Progress; Will Government Services Follow?

12:43pm May 07, 2015
This patrol is part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.
This patrol is part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.
David Gilkey / NPR
  • This patrol is part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.

    This patrol is part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan soldiers begin an early morning patrol in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. A major operation against the Taliban is currently underway.

    Afghan soldiers begin an early morning patrol in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. A major operation against the Taliban is currently underway.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An Afghan soldier moves through a riverbed toward the village of Tazir Abad. Afghans are now in charge of fighting the Taliban.

    An Afghan soldier moves through a riverbed toward the village of Tazir Abad. Afghans are now in charge of fighting the Taliban.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan troops — joined this day by local police — patrol Tazir Abad.

    Afghan troops — joined this day by local police — patrol Tazir Abad.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Village resident Haji Abdul Bari says the Taliban come into the village at night, looking for food and water. They meet in the mosque, and when day breaks, they slip back into the hills. His village is more secure because it's near an army outpost, Abdul

    Village resident Haji Abdul Bari says the Taliban come into the village at night, looking for food and water. They meet in the mosque, and when day breaks, they slip back into the hills. His village is more secure because it's near an army outpost, Abd

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An Afghan soldier drinks yogurt offered by residents of Tazir Abad.

    An Afghan soldier drinks yogurt offered by residents of Tazir Abad.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan soldiers shoot at suspected Taliban members in Tazir Abad and the parched hills beyond.

    Afghan soldiers shoot at suspected Taliban members in Tazir Abad and the parched hills beyond.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An convoy of Humvees moves down Highway One after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

    An convoy of Humvees moves down Highway One after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An Afghan mine-clearing team safely detonates a roadside bomb planted near Highway One.

    An Afghan mine-clearing team safely detonates a roadside bomb planted near Highway One.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An Afghan soldier at Camp Eagle prepares to leave for a morning patrol.

    An Afghan soldier at Camp Eagle prepares to leave for a morning patrol.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan soldiers at Camp Eagle roll out in a pickup truck mounted with a machine gun for an early morning patrol.

    Afghan soldiers at Camp Eagle roll out in a pickup truck mounted with a machine gun for an early morning patrol.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan soldiers assemble at Camp Eagle in Shah Joy district in Zabul province. The Afghan army now looks like a professional army; its soldiers are eager to go out and take on the Taliban.

    Afghan soldiers assemble at Camp Eagle in Shah Joy district in Zabul province. The Afghan army now looks like a professional army; its soldiers are eager to go out and take on the Taliban.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Brig. Gen. Akram Samme coordinates his men at Camp Eagle in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. He is a commander in the major operation against the Taliban that's currently under way.

    Brig. Gen. Akram Samme coordinates his men at Camp Eagle in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. He is a commander in the major operation against the Taliban that's currently under way.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • An officer with the local police greets a child in the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold in Shah Joy district.

    An officer with the local police greets a child in the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold in Shah Joy district.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Haji Abdul Bari, a farmer in the village of Tazir Abad, says he is concerned about the war's lasting effects on his children.

    Haji Abdul Bari, a farmer in the village of Tazir Abad, says he is concerned about the war's lasting effects on his children.

    David Gilkey / NPR

  • Afghan soldiers return to Camp Eagle after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

    Afghan soldiers return to Camp Eagle after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

    David Gilkey / NPR

Fuel trucks, cargo trucks and buses zip north along Highway One toward Kabul, just like any other morning. They seem not to notice what's above them on a vast desert plateau that overlooks the highway in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan.

Dozens of soldiers and police mill about, awaiting orders. There are armored vehicles, towed artillery, an ambulance and a long line of Humvees. Each one has a massive Afghan flag snapping in the breeze, like banners from some ancient army.

The man in charge is Brig. Gen. Akram Samme. He struts among the troops, smiling and chugging a can of Red Bull. Then he turns toward Highway One, fingers his prayer beads and peers below at his objective: the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold that lies across the highway.

Brig. Gen. Akram Samme coordinates his men at Camp Eagle in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. He is a commander in the major operation against the Taliban that's currently under way.

Brig. Gen. Akram Samme coordinates his men at Camp Eagle in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. He is a commander in the major operation against the Taliban that's currently under way.

David Gilkey/NPR

Samme slides down a rocky embankment, crosses the highway and trudges down into the brush, pointing to a deep ravine that runs parallel to the highway: a perfect place for Taliban to hide.

The general smiles and gestures toward his troops across the highway. They're shooting at suspected Taliban in the village and the parched hills beyond. They press on, crossing a small stream and rising toward an open plain.

This is just a small part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.

Afghans are now in charge of fighting the Taliban — with no Americans in sight — and compared to just two short years ago, they're doing well: They are relatively well-equipped, organized and led. They look like a professional army and are eager to go out and take on the Taliban.

It's a far cry from just a few years ago, when Americans were in the lead. Then, for instance, American soldiers would turn up for dawn patrols in full combat gear, ready to go — and the Afghans would be sleepy, half-dressed and sometimes smelling of hashish.

Now, Samme's exclusively Afghan troops, joined this day by local police, are fanning out into a village that is the site of some suspicious targets.

The soldiers push open a metal door and surge into a compound. Children scatter about. Several women cover themselves in shawls, huddle together and squat by a wall.

An officer with the local police greets a child in the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold in Shah Joy district.

An officer with the local police greets a child in the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold in Shah Joy district.

David Gilkey/NPR

A policeman digs through a pile of hay looking for weapons. A middle-aged man with a turban and thick black beard walks up. His name is Haji Abdul Bari.

"No one is happy with the war," he says. "Look at my children over there on the ground. Do you think they are happy when the bullets are passing over them? Can you hear them shooting? No one is happy with the war."

He says the Taliban come into the village at night, looking for food and water. They meet in the mosque, and when day breaks, they slip back into the hills.

At least, he adds, his village is more secure because it's near an army outpost.

The police push aside a blanket hanging from his doorway and stream into his house, pulling up carpets, opening doors and cabinets. Abdul Bari stands by and slightly shakes his head. When the police leave, he tells a different story.

"Look, being near the [army] post, it has two sides. One is safety, of course. The other is a problem," he says.

Haji Abdul Bari, a farmer in the village of Tazir Abad, says he is concerned about the war's lasting effects on his children.

Haji Abdul Bari, a farmer in the village of Tazir Abad, says he is concerned about the war's lasting effects on his children.

David Gilkey/NPR

Abdul Bari says he has a cow tied in his garden. But he's afraid every time he tends to it. That's because the soldiers watching from the army outpost have mistaken him for a Taliban fighter planting a bomb.

His neighbors have actually come under fire, though no one has been hurt. He prefers the government to the Taliban, he says, but the local government isn't making his life easier. There are no police patrolling the village.

His eyes fill with tears.

"Both of the sides, leave us. Leave us!" he says. "We want to be at peace."

Afghan military officers agree that local government has failed. They say the provincial governor is weak and doesn't provide basic services. And the district governor — something akin to a mayor or county council chairman — is nowhere to be seen. He lives in Kandahar, two hours away.

The soldiers move on, searching a few more houses. They find nothing — no Taliban, no weapons.

As the soldiers head back through the fields, artillery continues to pound the Taliban in the hills. They cross the river, and climb the windy hill to their armored vehicles.

Back at the army outpost above the village, Samme, the Afghan general, settles in his office, just a large open room with a white plastic table.

I ask him about what the villager said, about a lack of help from the government. Samme agrees that his military operation can only achieve so much.

"When we go in and disturb people's homes, it disrupts their lives," he says.

Afghan soldiers return to Camp Eagle after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

Afghan soldiers return to Camp Eagle after a patrol in Shah Joy district.

David Gilkey/NPR

"It is not the military's job to govern," he continues. "The provincial government needs to provide services and hire more police."

Without better government, Samme says, we'll be conducting the same operation over and over.

Both Americans and Afghans agree that the government is still not addressing the basic needs of its citizens — things like police, schools, electricity and clean water. And the risk is that this frustration and anger could still fuel support for the Taliban.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now of Afghanistan's war as fought by Afghans. The country is increasingly supposed to be defending itself. And NPR's Tom Bowman has been watching as Afghans try to rely less on the United States. He's just back from Afghanistan, joins us in the studio. Tom, welcome home.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are the Afghans doing?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, this is the first time I've seen them look like a professional army. They're pretty well-equipped, organized and led. They're eager to go out and take on the Taliban. Now, just a few years ago when I would go out on patrol, the Americans would be in full combat gear ready to go. The Afghans would be sleepy, half-dressed. Here's an Afghan soldier back in 2010 asking for breakfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He needs milk.

MAN #1: No, we don't - we don't have enough milk. We don't have any milk.

INSKEEP: OK, so basically depending on the Americans for everything, including the basics.

BOWMAN: Right. And so that's why I went there this time - to go out with multiple Afghan units to find out how they're really doing without any Americans in sight. So I went on a large operation in southern Zabul province, an area full of Taliban. And here's what I saw.

Fuel trucks, cargo trucks and buses zip along Highway 1 toward Kabul, just like any other morning. The drivers seem not to notice what's above them in a vast desert plateau that overlooks the highway.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Dozens of soldiers, employees mill about waiting for orders. There are armored vehicles, towed artillery, an ambulance, a long line of Humvees. Each one has a massive Afghan flag snapping in the breeze like banners from some ancient army.

BRIG. GEN. AKRAM SAMME: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: The man in charge is Brig. Gen. Akram Samme. He struts among the troops, smiling and chugging a can of Red Bull. Then he turns toward Highway 1, fingers his prayer beads and peers below at his objective - the village of Tazir Abad, a Taliban stronghold that lies across the highway.

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken). OK, let's move.

BOWMAN: Gen. Samme slides down a rocky embankment, crosses a highway and trudges down into the brush, pointing to a deep ravine that parallels the highway.

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken). Perfect place for Taliban to hide.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SAMME: No problem. No problem.

BOWMAN: That the good guys?

SAMME: Good guys.

BOWMAN: Gen. Samme smiles and gestures towards his troops across the highway. They're shooting at suspected Taliban in the village and in the parched hills beyond. They press on, crossing a small stream and rising toward an open plain.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BOWMAN: This is just a small part of a larger Afghan effort called Operation Rescue. It's one of the first large-scale combat operations planned, organized and fought by Afghan forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: I'm now heading into the village with Brig. Gen. Samme. You can see a long line of soldiers and police in front of us, and you can see the first outlines of the village, the mud-brick walls. They've been firing rounds into the village at suspicious targets, and they've been shooting mortars into the hills.

The soldiers joined today by local police start to fan out into the village.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

BOWMAN: They push open a metal door and surge into a compound. Children scatter about. Several women cover themselves in shawls, huddle together and squat by a wall. A policeman digs through a pile of hay looking for weapons. A middle-aged man with a turban and thick beard walks up. His name is Haji Abdul Bari.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).

HAJI ABDUL BARI: (Through interpreter) No one is happy with the war. Look, my children are over there. They are on the ground. Do you think they are happy when the bullets are passing over them? Can you hear the shooting? Of course, no one support the war.

BOWMAN: He says the Taliban come into the village at night looking for food and water. They meet in the mosque, and when day breaks, they slip back into the hills.

BARI: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: At least, he adds, his village is more secure because it's near an army outpost. The police push aside a blanket hanging from his doorway and stream into his house, pulling up carpets, opening doors and cabinets. He stands by and slightly shakes his head. When the police leave, he tells a different story.

BARI: (Through interpreter) Look, being near the post, it has two sides. One is the safety, of course, and another is a problem.

BOWMAN: Abdul Bari says he has a cow tied in his garden, but he's afraid every time he tends to it. That's because the soldiers watching from the army post have mistaken him for a Taliban fighter planting a bomb. His neighbors have actually come under fire, though no one has been hurt. He prefers a government to the Taliban, he says, but the local government isn't making his life easier. There are no police patrolling the village. His eyes fill with tears.

BARI: (Through interpreter) Both of the side, leave us. Leave us and we want to be in peace.

BOWMAN: Afghan military officers agree that local government here has failed. They say the provincial governor is weak and doesn't provide basic services. And the district governor, something akin to a mayor or a county council chairman, is nowhere to be seen. He lives in Kandahar two hours away. The soldiers move on, searching a few more houses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: They find nothing, no Taliban, no weapons. As the soldiers head back through the fields, artillery continues to pound the Taliban in the hills.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BOWMAN: They cross the river and climb the windy hill to their armored vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Back at the army outpost above the village, Gen. Samme settles into his office, just a large open room with a white, plastic table. I ask him about what the villager said, about a lack of help from the government. Gen. Samme agrees that his military operation can only achieve so much.

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "When we go in and disturb people's homes, it disrupts their lives," he says.

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "It's not the military's job to govern," he says. "The provincial government needs to provide services and hire more police."

SAMME: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "Without better government," Gen. Samme says, "we'll be conducting the same operation over and over."

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Tom Bowman. Conducting the same operation over and over, he warns. What did you think about when you heard that, Tom?

BOWMAN: I thought about I heard the same thing from the Americans when I went out with them years ago.

INSKEEP: Over and over?

BOWMAN: Right, that the government has to deliver and once that happens, the Taliban has no sea to swim in.

INSKEEP: And years later, they're still saying the same thing.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman freshly back from Afghanistan on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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