Dispatch from Afghanistan: Helping Afghan forces stand up

1st Lt. Donald Wagner is a 1997 Penn State journalism graduate. The former assistant editor of Penn State sports magazine Blue White Illustrated, he is currently serving in Afghanistan with the 1-506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, based out of Fort Campbell, Ky. Wagner is sharing his experiences on the ground in Afghanistan in a series of dispatches for Penn State Newswire and Penn State Live. In his fifth installment, Wagner discusses the commitment of Afghanistan's National Army and National Police in trying to secure their country.

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One of the biggest reasons we are over here is to see this country eventually stand up on its own two feet.

Two of the biggest keys to that are the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army, the ANP and ANA respectively.

As with any organization made up of different people, different personalities and different motivations, the ANA and ANP have struggled to form cohesive units. It is especially hard in a country where tribal and family allegiances are so strong.

Still, I have personally met quality individuals in both organizations, those who despite the low pay, poor equipment and a lack of just about everything, are determined to do the best job they possibly can.

One of the biggest problems we as U.S. soldiers encounter in dealing with the ANA and ANP is their total dependence on us. Much like with the people of Afghanistan, until both the ANA and ANP are ready to strike out on their own and take this country back from those who are trying to tear it apart, change is going to be slow in coming. In my former companies' old area of operations, we worked closely with both ANA and ANP elements and it was difficult to convince them to operate against anti-Afghan forces without us. There were times we just didn’t have enough people to go out with them. ANA commanders repeatedly told us they were not allowed by their command to go out without us.

To a certain degree I can understand their reluctance. The ANA is the better equipped of the two and their equipment is second-hand at best.  We have up-armored humvees, they have old Toyota Hilux trucks that look like they just finished a demolition derby. Every one of our soldiers has the latest body armor; they have body armor but there is not always enough for everyone.

The ANP has even less. Most of them have a uniform, an AK-47, some magazines, boots — and that is it. No body armor and no helmets and many times barely enough ammunition to finish one firefight. The one thing they do have are brand new trucks, most of which are actually pretty nice. The ANP I worked with amazed me because despite their lack of resources, when we asked them to go on a mission they went willingly. Same for the ANA.

I always had to remind myself that it is going to take time for the Afghans to get to a level where they can operate free of our help. The U.S. Army did not become the premier fighting force it is overnight. It took hundreds of years.

Not surprisingly, our enemies know this. Time after time we would drive through an area and not get hit once but as soon as the ANA or ANP drove through the same area, they would get ambushed an/or blown up by an IED.

Slowly but surely training programs are being implemented to help both units. When we first got over here in 2001 the ANP was rife with corruption. Most of its members spent more time shaking down the locals than chasing criminals. Today, corruption still exists, but it is much less widespread and there is at least a modicum of professionalism among the ANP ranks.

During my time as a platoon leader I met some awesome ANA and ANP leaders. These were guys who despite their lack of resources, managed to get their men to accomplish the mission every day. I often wonder if I could do the same with so little. The key now is to start growing more and more of those types of leaders. I honestly don’t know how we do that, but I do know it’s possible. Again, it’s going to take some time.

As with so much else we do, trust is one of the keys with the ANA and ANP. Especially with the ANP, who have more direct contact with the local population than the ANA. Still, because of the ANP’s past reputation the people have been slow to accept and trust them. One of the reason villages side with the Anti-Afghan Forces is because they think they don’t have a choice because they don’t feel the ANA and ANP can protect them.

I do think there is hope for both groups, but they have to realize this is their country and they are going to need to make a stand before anything changes. One of the things that makes a U.S. Solider unique is his sense of pride and belonging to something bigger than himself. That is something our Afghan counterparts still lack, but they are learning.

When I covered Penn State football for Blue White Illustrated it was during five of the worst years in school history. The year after I left Blue White and joined the Army, the Nits won the Big Ten title and went to the first BCS bowl in school history. That season I missed every game because I was in training most of the time. Strangely this year I have again missed most of the season, catching only one game on TV. Coincidence? I hope so.

I don’t think I can handle another Pennsylvania-bred quarterback ruining another magical season (think Chad Henne in 2005). Fortunately I think this one will feature an Ohio-bred quarterback (Darryl Clark) returning home and ruining the party for his home-state team. PSU has too many weapons and I’m guessing they will all be on display on this one … PSU 35, OSU 28.

Wagne (center) with members of the Afghan National Police. Credit: Donald Wagner / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 18, 2010