The overall mission in Afghanistan for the 95th Military Police Battalion is high level - to train, advise, coach, and mentor high level commanders and staff in the Regional Command East, an area encompassing four provinces (Paktia, Gazni, Patkyka, and Khost). the The battalion therefore deployed from Germany last February with a full headquarters complement and staff. For some of the junior officers and Soldiers much of the mission during the first nine months or so had been a succession of frustrations and disappointments.
Most had higher kinetic expectations prior to deployment. Almost universally they thought that they would be in fairly regular combat. SInce that has not taken place, a kind of regret has set in that most civilians would find difficult to comprehend. Many of the Soldiers say that "this isn't a war. All we do is provide a secure taxi service." Outside observers quickly see that most of the Headquarters Company Soldiers make "milk runs" to and from local destination: driving back and forth to other FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) and the air strip occupies most of their time.
In addition, as newly-promoted Captain Ryan Goltz, the outgoing commander of the HQ company noted, "We constantly moved these Soldiers from one location to another. The physical relocation from FOB Lightning to FOB Justice was a significant ordeal, moving so many people into skeleton facilities that required major additions and improvements. This meant new duties, usually filling HESCO barriers and sandbags. Also manning guard towers themselves, a critically important task that had previously been covered almost entirely by contracted Afghan personnel back at Lightning. The bad thing was that this got put on top of their normal duties, so some of them were working 16-hour days. Morale was low."
Then, in October came the opportunity to finally carry out their originally intended mission. Since the move to FOB Justice the 95th MPs are essentially side-by-side with the Afghan Provincial Headquarters. The order came to start training the student policemen who are attending training at Provisional Headquarters there. It was extremely well received.
After months of running the roads (which, by the way, are still dangerous) and force protection work, many of the junior NCOs and enlisted MPs finally feel that they are doing something tangible, something worthwhile. "Even if only one of these students retains only one small technique or tactic we are teaching them and it helps them along the line," an enthusiastic Soldier said, "it will make this effort worthwhile."
Watching Sergeant Nick "Ski" Olszewski at work with the Afghan National Civil Order (ANCOP) trainees was illustrative. Ski had planned well for his class on room and building clearing operations. "You can't give them too much sit-down-and-just-listen classroom time," he noted. "They just don't do well in a traditional class. They learn best by doing." On top of these issues, instruction is always slower when processed through an interpreter.
So Ski had his fellow Soldiers divided into demonstration teams and coaches. First a small team entered the room, pantomiming kicking the door, simulating holding weapons, and passing silent signals back and forth along the "stack" - the group of Soldiers designated as the clearing team.
After watching the American team go through the routine a few times the ANCOP students - and keep in mind these are considered the elite of the Afghan police units - then got to practice such "new" room-clearing techniques themselves. While they understandably fumbled a bit on the first few attempts, the Afghans responded quickly to spot corrections and coaching. American Soldiers stood closely by and helped with some of the subtleties that can make a difference between success and failure - life and death - in these situations.
"Maintain body contact with the men in front and behind," Sergeant Frank Vale coached. Gently but firmly he moved the men till their shoulders were touching. "That way you know can feel when he moves and that he's in position without taking your eyes away from your surroundings," Vale explained. "Keep watching for a potential threat, constantly scan your assigned sector of the room or building, but always remain aware of what your team members are doing by maintaining physical contact with those ahead of and behind you." As the interpreter translated the words it was easy to see the light of understanding in their eyes. The moment was priceless: They got it!
Next Ski had the teams practice a couple of runs. Amazingly each team improved markedly. Then it was time for room clearing an entire building. In this exercise, one team enters and secures the hallway while a second team clears a room. As the Americans ran through the exercise they called out - one team to another - "three men coming out!" once the room was cleared. As per procedure, the team in the hallway repeated the call. That way friendly casualties are avoided.
There were some comic moments. When the first Afghan team ran the exercise, the team doing room-clearing called out in garbled, very broken English "Tee meh 'oming owwwt" ("Three men coming out!") and the team in the hallway struggled to mimic the strange foreign words that they didn't quite understand. "It's okay," Ski laughed. "Do it in your own language." While humorous it showed that the Afghans are eager to learn and will struggle to get details right.
Outside, several Soldiers led Afghans in learning to pivot into a fight. The exercise is designed to teach footwork and economy of effort so that when in a tough situation a policeman has to can quickly change direction without thinking about his feet while he and his weapon are remain focused on the threat. Repetition until the movement becomes instinctive is the only way to drill it into students. Yet this maneuver was very unfamiliar for the Afghans. For a while it appeared the MPs were teaching some kind of dance class as the trainees shuffled around in the graveled dust, some mixing up left and right, others having problems with keeping their feet in constant contact with the ground. But after a while the US team leaders were shouting "move left, move right" commands in Pashtu and everyone in the line eventually mastered both the rhythm and direction of the drill.
At the end of the session some of the Soldiers groused that the Afghans did not perform uniformly as well as they wished. But this is Soldier-bitching, part and parcel of being a Soldier. The American instructors were proud of their accomplishments and of their ANCOP students.
On the way back to the FOB several wished aloud that they had been tasked to do this training from the start of the deployment. A couple of short sessions improved both the ANCOP skill set and 95th MP Battalion Soldier's morale.
The book "Warrior Police" by Gordon Cucullu and Avery Johnson will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2011. This blog contains background notes, informal interviews, and photographs gathered during the Afghanistan research phase of the project... click here for a little more background on this blog, and enjoy!