For U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, Coalition Forces Are Mixed Blessing

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Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

A U.S. Army soldier from the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, speaks to an Afghan man in West Now Ruzi village in Afghanistan's Kandahar province

U.S. forces have long expected to do the heavy lifting on the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but even then, the Army battalion that arrived in Ghazni province last summer were troubled by what they found. The Taliban were resurgent in areas that U.S. forces had pacified before handing control to Polish forces a year earlier. "It was as if the [Polish] were waiting for us to come back and release them from their base" and then take the credit, says one U.S. officer, describing how failure to patrol the roads has allowed a route between coalition bases to become choked with roadside bombs. Americans had to return to take charge, he said, because the Poles are "just kind of hanging around."     

 

Such criticism is common among U.S. officers who have served in Afghanistan, and it is directed not only at Polish forces but also at other NATO forces, some of which are hamstrung by so-called caveats that range from prohibitions against fighting at night to traveling without an ambulance, thereby precluding foot patrols. The Polish force is not bound by any of these constraints, but U.S. officers say the Poles’ top-down approach to war-fighting is ill-suited to a counter-insurgency campaign that requires real-time decision-making by mid- and lower-level officers on the ground. They add that the Poles' six-month deployments strain continuity, and that logistics snafus make them dependent on U.S. support. 

 

Such shortcomings, say U.S. officers, are more harmful in a strategically vital province such as Ghazni, through which runs the Kabul-Kandahar highway. The province has increasingly been targeted by fighters from the Haqqani network, bent on carving a path to Kabul. Some militant cells are said to control entire villages, and more fighters have moved there when squeezed out of other areas.

   

Despite fielding just 600 men compared with the Poles' 2,600, the previous American battalion had, over eight months of heavy fighting, achieved a measure of security in the province. U.S. officers enjoyed warm relations with local Afghan government and security personnel, and had upgraded the capacities of the local police. But they feared that the Polish forces to whom they were handing over control might not have the nuanced, carrot-and-stick approach necessary to consolidate those gains. At the handover ceremony, the Poles flew a Russian-made HIND gunship, the kind with which the Red Army had terrorized the Afghan countryside in the 1980s, over a reviewing stand full of elderly Afghans, who "turned white" from shock, according to one officer.

Today, violence is at an all-time high and some districts are under de-facto militant control; reconstruction projects are stalled and some of the novel security initiatives set up by the American forces are derelict. But given what was obvious about the Poles' capacities, one U.S. officer serving during the handover believes that "we failed them by placing them there on their own."    

A new crop of U.S. officers now grumbles that their Polish partners are not doing enough fighting. Highway One, the critical roadway that bisects the province, now requires heavily armored route clearance operations to give military convoys safe passage. Several pro-government officials have been assassinated or intimidated into quitting. In eastern Andar district, militant attacks have surged, and just three people from a population of over 100,000 voted in September's election. "The government, development, Afghan security forces all seem to have regressed," says one U.S. officer. "We're basically starting from scratch here."  

In the Deh Yak district, to the north, soldiers explained that many villages they entered were meeting coalition forces face-to-face for the first time. Afghan security forces there said essentially the same thing. "The Polish did nothing for us," says district police chief, Lt. Faiz Muhammad. "It just got worse day-by-day until the Americans got here."     

The Polish contingent can't be blamed for all the setbacks, however. Their manpower is very low for a province of Ghazni's size, while the Taliban-led insurgency has worsened across much of Afghanistan's south and east, spurred by alienation from a corrupt government and anger at civilian casualties inflicted by foreign troops, usually American forces. If the Polish are passive, that may be in part because a soldier faces the prospect of a civilian trial back home if he mistakenly kills a civilian, even in the heat of combat. The Polish military only recently became fully professionalized, and has limited resources compared with the Americans' state-of-the-art weapons and logistics support. U.S. officers have seen still plenty of motivated young Polish soldiers showing great courage under fire. At least 22 Poles have been killed in action in Afghanistan, and more than 100 have been wounded.   

Brig. Gen. Andrzej Reudowicz, a mechanized battalion commander with experience in Iraq, has won good reviews from U.S. officers, who say he brings a sense of urgency that his predecessors lacked and has given subordinate officers greater flexibility. While officially in charge of coalition forces in Ghazni, the general says he's also learning a lot from the Americans and "understands their way of thinking." He's had a head start. Before coming, Reudowicz and other senior Polish officers were given a two-month crash-course in counter-insurgency by American advisers. But the gathering Taliban threat on the ground leaves little time for drinking tea with local elders. "We are changing some of our behaviors to become more aggressive," he says, citing a shift toward more night-time air assaults and joint operations on foot. "We are on the same track [as the Americans]."       

But 10 years into a war that is costing more lives by the month, skeptics maintain it's not the time — and Ghazni is not the place — to be getting  an allied army into gear. "Clearly Ghazni is bad. It's gone from a decent province in 2008 to one of the worst in the country," says a U.S. officer. "I think it's fair to say that in a coalition setting like this one, you really have to be careful about who goes where and for how long." At this point, however, he concedes that the coalition must work with what it has — and could use more support. Insurgent attacks in the province are on pace to double last year's figures. And U.S. intelligence officers say that militants flocking in greater numbers from the eastern borderlands are staying on through the winter, a bad sign for the year ahead.