The Transition Home

Rank and File

Nights at the ANA COP are dark, to say the least. There are no skyline lights, no neon store front displays. There’s only the shine of a few stove heaters flickering through the barracks windows. Occasionally, I’ll hear the blaring noise of a homemade Pakistani music video from the ANA leadership’s parlor. The television’s backlight tends to illuminate the entire building and everyone inside.

Since the day I arrived on the COP, this parlor in the ANA command post has served as nothing but a room symbolic of the corruption and apathy plaguing the leadership of this professional Army. The staff officers lounge in the parlor nearly all day, watching the same tasteless Pakistani girls dancing around their backyards as the ANA hunt for a small taste of sexual arousal. The parlor serves as the usual meeting venue where the ANA leaders offer their “protection” to dozens of civilian contractors working on the COP, contracted by the Ministry of Defense. Of course, a few kickbacks of the contract serve as adequate compensation for such a service. The leaders task a handful of ANA soldiers with the mission of serving at their every beck and call, much like servants. Each hour, these soldiers bring in trays of hot tea and snacks along with a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner for their masters. The streets of Zhari run ragged with terrorist activity, but clearly this is a much more prudent use of ANA manpower. And such is the life of an ANA battalion staff officer: lots of television, good money, very little accountability.

As I walk by the parlor in the early evenings, I can’t help feel just a little jealous; not of the relaxed careers of these senior ANA leaders, but rather the lack of micromanagement they impose upon the subordinate companies and platoons. I ponder just how much easier my job would be if a few of my senior leaders could relax, chill out for a day or two, and simply let my guys on the ground do their job. On the other hand, having an overly managed unit as opposed to a neglected one is probably the lesser of the two extremes.

But there’s one man conspicuously missing from the parlor each time I pass by. That man is Lieutenant Colonel Abdul, the 6th Kandak Battalion Commander. When most of the officers in the ANA retain disoriented loyalties from their previous lives as Mujahideen fighters, LTC Abdul has remained conventional and legitimate his entire career. Abdul is an educated man. He’s one of only a handful Afghans with a college education, and one of even fewer with a master’s degree. But front and center on this man’s résumé is the fantastic accomplishment of graduating from the U.S. Army War College. I visited The War College as a junior in High School, when I knew absolutely nothing about the military nor had any thought of joining it. I couldn’t recognize a Major from a Colonel or a General. Yet, even in my military ignorance, it was visibly clear in the students’ demeanors that every officer walking those halls was destined for greatness.

And there I was, in the middle of arguably the most frustrating conflict of my generation, living next door to one of this institution’s protégés. In a world of projectile rocks and fuel tanker explosions, this man might actually bring a degree of sense to the bizarre things that happen here.

LTC Abdul lives and works in a two-room building just adjacent from the ANA command post where I usually find his cracker-jack staff. The two buildings are only 100 feet apart, but in terms of leadership culture, they’re miles away from each other.  A light was on in LTC Abdul’s quarters. It was approaching 2100, but I felt compelled to enter. I walked to the thin green metal door on his shoddy stucco unit and announced my presence.

“Rajiv Khan, please come in.” announced the Colonel. His English was less than perfect, but nothing short of fantastic for one who learned it through the Afghan military. He spoke in a slow, deep voice. I often compare him to Bill Lumberg from the movie OfficeSpace…”yeeeeeaaah, um…I’m going to neeeeed you to come in on suunndaaay.”

I found LTC Abdul sitting on a mattress with his three-soldier detail quietly joining him. One of the soldiers was his driver, the other two his security element. The boys could not have been more than 18 years old. In contrast to the immaturity and selfishness I witness inside the ANA parlor, here I found these three young soldiers sitting quietly in matriculation around their leader. LTC Abdul held a Gateway computer that he had probably been using before I even began wearing a uniform.

“Would you like some tea, Rajiv?” he placed the computer to his side as the three soldiers stood up respectfully and offered me a seat and chai. LTC Abdul stands about 5’5” and 130 lbs. His teeth are long, but noticeably grey and in dire need of floss. His skin is fair and smooth. He could easily pass for a teenager if it weren’t for the bulging bags under his eyes from his many sleepless nights.

“Yes, Sir. Thank you. So what are you all discussing?”

“I am trying to teach these soldiers some things about Microsoft Word.” He replied. “They want to learn about computers.”

My face bloomed into a fanatical smile. That’s adorable! I thought to myself, patronizing the Colonel and his soldiers in my mind. This scene took me back to my Firstie year at the Academy, sitting impressionably in my Arabic and Comparative Politics classes, my eyes and ears locked upon my instructors’ every word. There’s nothing like watching an amazing leader impart information to the next generation; especially at West Point where most instructors are Majors: usually only about 10 years older than the cadets they teach. That mentorship at West Point is what makes the Academy special. It’s what makes me feel good about serving, it’s what I crave in my professional life in the Army. LTC Abdul was mentoring his soldiers in his spare time, and there was nothing more he could possibly do to better earn my respect.

“Sir, that’s fantastic,” I replied sincerely, “I miss that about my school. I loved when my senior officers would share their knowledge and experiences with us.”

“Yes, I understand.” Sighed the Colonel, “This is where our Army is very weak. Most officers do not show care for their soldiers.”

“I agree, but why?” I asked, “They’ve been a professional fighting force for so long, and they even have previous military experience with the Northern Alliance or Mujahideen. They surely know the importance of enriching one’s subordinates!”

“I am not sure, Rajiv Khan,” began the Colonel, “You must remember that we are a poor country, a new country. Most soldiers and officers have still loyalties to other things…like tribe, origin, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns.”

“Sir, you’re a Tajik officer. Dari is your first language. But two of these three soldiers are Pashtu, one of them is Hazaar,” at this point in the tour, I’ve become skilled at determining an Afghan’s ethnic origin based solely upon appearance. “So why are you different?”

“Well, I went to the Army War College in Amrika. We speak many times about talking to soldiers. Amrikan Army taught me that a soldier who does not trust his leaders will not do his job well because he is in danger.”

“Well, that solves it!” I smiled, “All we need to do is send all the Afghan officers to the US Army War College. Case Closed, Afghanistan won!” LTC Abdul didn’t seem to understand the joke, but he smiled politely anyways.

“That is an idea, but it is not possible. We are too poor. It will take time to see the change. There are other units with very bad officers because they all can make so much money from drugs. Some even refuse promotion to stay and take more money from the communities. But our nation is weak. We cannot prosecute them. And they are usually well connected.”

“Do you have this problem in your unit?” I asked innocently, trying  not to imply my suspicions of certain members of the Kandak staff.

“No, I am very strict. I make my officers account for every drop of fuel. They know where all their soldiers are at all times. They must always train their soldiers. We have a good kandak.”

I bit my tongue while trying to decipher if the Colonel was genuinely aloof of his staff’s laziness, or if he was indeed aware of the matter but chose to give a politically correct answer. His next response pointed to the former.

“—Well, I take that back. We had one problem with CPT Kalay long ago. But he was prosecuted and was demoted. He has been doing well since.”

“Oh really?” I questioned, wishing I could unravel my previous encounters with that problematic leader. Again, I bit my tongue. “Well, at least you were able to do something about it.”

“Rajiv Khan, I will also tell you a deeper problem…you are Indian, you can understand this…” I braced myself for this novel response, “but imagine when senior military leaders go into politics, you have to wonder at what point did they start making decisions based on their political ambitions.”

“Do you mean like GEN Mohammed Atta as Balkh Governor? Or GEN Mohaqiq running for President? Or even GEN Dostum campaigning for Karzai?”

“Yes, and it even happens in India too!”

“This is true,” I recalled meeting the former Indian Chief of Staff in my junior year at the Academy, “I think J.J. Singh has been elected Governor of Arunachal Pradesh which is getting lots of attention because of a conflict with China over land.”

“Even Dr. Abdullah who ran against Karzai is a deputy of Shah Massoud. They all are after power!” cried the Colonel.

“But Sir,” I interrupted, “I really liked the idea of Dr. Abdullah in the elections. I mean, in the United States, we had a leader like George Washington who sacrificed so much of himself for our freedom. He was a General. He was a great leader who everyone trusted and honored for his service and he was able to unite the nation in some sense. If Massoud is still so revered in Afghanistan, shouldn’t his chief Lieutenant have the respect and confidence of the people if elected? Shouldn’t he be more effective than a Karzai?”

“First Rajiv,” I could sense the lesson coming forth soon, “the second in command is never a leader to the masses. In India, Gandhi was a leader, but when he died, a man named Nehru took his supporters and yet still did not unite the country. Rajiv Khan, you must know that officers do not simply leave the service and get elected. They must plan. And in Afghanistan, when everyone wants power, planning starts before they’ve left the military, making decisions that do not take care of soldiers.”

“So are you saying that most ANA officers want to become politicians?”

“Not at all. What I mean is that they all are ambitious and want power. They will make decisions based upon their ambition, not upon their soldiers or the mission. I’m sure it happens on rare occasions in America, but nothing like in Afghanistan.”

So many of this country’s problems regarding military professionalism suddenly appeared so simple to me. In American society, the separation between civilian and military structures is such a delicate balance, but absolutely crucial to our national security interests. The constituency honors the soldier; the soldier honors his General; the General honors his civilian leader; the civilian leader should hence honor his constituency. What seems like such a simple equation has taken centuries to develop and still remains imperfect. Could Afghanistan ever cleanse itself of such corruption and ambition to produce a similar model?

I took a sip of my tea which had cooled from its scalding temperature to lukewarm over the duration of our conversation. My eyes rolled up at the Colonel as I sipped. I wondered…is this officer going to be a politician one day? Am I drinking tea with a future provincial governor or even the President of Afghanistan?! Perhaps the country could do worse for itself than LTC Abdul. But then again, all he did for me tonight is demonstrate his understanding of a dangerous trend in Afghan society and his willingness to talk about it openly…I did not get any sense he was committed to changing it, or much less opposed to profiting from it. I held my suspicions at bay.

“Sir, this has been a wonderful talk, but I need to be on my way.”

“Yes Rajiv. Thank you for stopping by. We will see you shortly.”

“Yes, Sir…I’ll surely be seeing you…” I left the office in a slow and graceful saunter into the February cold. Perhaps asking for a unifying and inspirational leader for Afghanistan, like what George Washington was for the United States, might be a little too much. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a leader who is clear thinking and honest enough to at least recognize the problems of his nation…even if he himself  is a rank and file byproduct of them.


7 responses

  1. Meredith

    Fascinating post Rajiv! The way an individual’s self-interest and desire for power can influence his actions while in the ANA reminds me of the re-election focus in Congress. Where leaders are pocketing the money and not even spending it on campaigning, bribes would be limitless…

    That sounds like one seedy Parlor. I love your colorful description of it! It seems like a little MTV Afghanistan is in order. The other place where I’m used to reading the word parlor is at church, i.e. the room where one of my BFFs and we bridesmaids tucked into a bag of waffle fries and got ready for her wedding. I’ll be thinking of you as you make the transition back to Afghanistan after your R&R. I’m sure it’s always painful to leave…keep us posted.

    7 March 10 at 21:58

  2. Nina M

    How interesting! I now understand the culture there so much better from your candid comments and observations. Thanks. Be safe.

    7 March 10 at 23:50

  3. Cam Srpan

    VERY different world…no wonder we have a difficult time communicating.
    Package on the way…thinking of you all. Be safe!!

    8 March 10 at 16:27

  4. Mike A

    Great story, enjoyed reading it, keep up the good work.

    8 March 10 at 23:07

  5. “They will make decisions based upon their ambition, not upon their soldiers or the mission. ”

    Ah, ambition! It can often be the force that hoists a man on his own petard.
    Excellent story. Keep writing.

    10 March 10 at 22:08

  6. Excellent post, as usual. I must have missed this from one of your other posts — why does he call you Rajiv “Khan”?

    20 March 10 at 16:22

  7. Jim Richards

    Deja Vu! I heard the same thing from Vietnamese officers in the ”60s. In the end they would not fight for their country because they didn’t understand the concept! Great post Rajiv–with soldiers-leaders such as you maybe your generation can make it work!

    23 March 10 at 00:39

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