GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN—It has been a tough tour for U.S. soldiers in this craggy and violent central province where, after years of relative calm, insurgent attacks more than doubled in 2008. But as they prepared to pull out, readying for the October 30 handoff to Polish troops, the Americans expressed misgivings about leaving and concerns about what will happen here when they do.
Since they arrived in March, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment have had to contend with Taliban ambushes and 500-pound roadside bombs. They have engaged in hand-to-hand combat and, at times, have battled until they were so exhausted that they were on their knees, throwing up. Their efforts seem to be paying off. Recently, insurgent attacks have declined dramatically, from a high of 77 in August to nine in October.
Now, these soldiers are going elsewhere in Afghanistan under a NATO plan that puts this area's security in the hands of the Polish military. The Polish battle group brings 1,600 troops (plus attack helicopters), which is 400 more soldiers than the overstretched U.S. 101st Airborne Division had been able to spare for Ghazni. But, to put it bluntly, the Americans worry that the Poles are not up to the job, and that NATO alliance politics and a shortage of American troops are a formula for failure.
The province is home to a strategically vital stretch of the paved "ring road" that links Kabul to Kandahar, and the U.S. troops here fear that without highly advanced counterinsurgency soldiering and a nuanced touch—traits for which the Polish forces are not generally known, they add—this region could quickly backslide. "It's frustrating because we've spent seven months fighting and being killed in this battle space to give it a fingernail's chance of success," says one U.S. military officer here. "Now we've taken the Poles and thrown them into a Ph.D.-level insurgency." Adds another officer, "You know those giant erasers you get at the fair? It's like watching everything you've done being erased with one of those."
There has been much made of so-called caveats, which are the limitations that European NATO partners place on their forces in Afghanistan. These restrictions include, for example, not allowing them to fight at night, or in the snow, or even, in some cases, at all. Allies have garnered praise for their willingness to fight and, at times, ignore caveats. But the Polish takeover here, U.S. soldiers say, illustrates the perils of giving less experienced allies pivotal battle space when hearts and minds are at stake.
At a weekly dinner at his home, Ghazni Gov. Muhammad Usman greets U.S. battalion commander Lt. Col. Tony DeMartino with a hug and a kiss on each cheek—he calls him "B plus B," for big brother. The governor has been vocal about his concerns about the Poles and has threatened to request a transfer to another province. This would be a blow, given that Usman is Ghazni's third governor in a year and a half and, since taking over in June, he has garnered solid reviews among locals for increasing security.
On this evening, Polish battle group commander Col. Rajmund Andrzejczak joins them, and the dinner doubles as a weekly security debriefing. It begins with some good news. Intelligence officials have intercepted communiqués indicating that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is unhappy with his Ghazni commanders—and has even recalled some—because of their failures to disrupt the movements of U.S. forces. At this news, Usman offers a fist-bump to DeMartino.
But word is trickling in that a new U.S. Special Operations Forces group in the area mistakenly killed 22 Afghan security contractors, militiamen paid to guard U.S.-sponsored construction work. The Provincial Coordination Center didn't pass along the information to each of the armed groups that friendly forces were in the area, resulting in the Afghans' deaths.
The PCC is a particular sore point for the U.S. battalion, which worked hard to get it up and running before recently turning it over to the Poles. Army Capt. Caleb Threadcraft, who taught himself fluent Dari in advance of his arrival, transformed the center, training Afghan forces and buying rugs for a tea room to entertain locals who might drop by. He also established a tactical operations center with a map on which he marked key locations with numbers so that the less literate police could quickly coordinate their responses to area violence. Ghazni locals praised the PCC's responsiveness and began dropping by with tips.
Transition. When the Poles came in, however, they wanted to move the PCC to the more secure forward operation base. The Americans pointed out that doing this would make it virtually impossible for Afghan locals to stop by. The Poles eventually conceded, though they did move the PCC closer to the base. Their next order of business was to install satellite television. When U.S. troops visited the PCC after the move, "not one Polish soldier was in front of a radio. They were all just watching TV," says a U.S. soldier. The map Threadcraft made had fallen behind a desk.
At dinner, the governor asks the Polish commander for his views about the death of the Afghan security guards. Andrzejczak responds that he prefers to look to the future, not the past. At this, Usman stares straight ahead, working his prayer beads.
It has not been the only incident to anger the locals. In the southern Ghazni town of Andar, American troops built a combat outpost to strengthen relationships with locals in an area that has struggled with a Taliban shadow government. Soon after the Poles took over, the U.S. soldiers began receiving troubling calls from the Afghans who work on the base. The workers complained that the Polish soldiers no longer let them eat in the cafeteria or use the showers or work out in the gym—and that they were now under constant surveillance. "They're calling us up," says one U.S. soldier, "saying they're done." The Americans are worried about the impact this will have on the strides they made reaching out to local mullahs.
In the weeks leading up to the transfer of authority, there have been discipline problems with the Polish forces, 40 percent of whom are conscripts. A drunk Polish captain roughed up an Afghan interpreter in his living quarters. A Polish convoy driving downtown hit an Afghan national policeman and, fearing a riot, didn't stop; instead, someone threw a stretcher out of one of the vehicles.
Interpreters and cultural understanding have been issues as well. The Poles brought four citizens of Afghan descent, but they use them for intelligence, not interpreting. The governor, who speaks fluent English, says it is difficult for him to understand the Poles.
On the day of the official handover ceremony at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, NATO's supreme allied commander flies in, as does the Afghan minister of defense. One U.S. soldier jokes that catching the last Chinook out of Ghazni will be like catching the last helicopter out of Saigon. "They keep telling us that the Poles are bringing the heavy weapons to Ghazni," says another. "But now is not the time for heavy weapons."
Soldiers speculate about whether Afghans will have flashbacks when they see the Poles' HIND attack helicopters, the kind that were used with deadly effect during the Soviet occupation. They also bring up the considerable U.S. money—such as from commanders' discretionary funds—that Ghazni and the governor stand to lose, although aid work continues.
Skills and firepower. Some senior U.S. military officials say that the soldiers are being too hard on the Poles. "Skill-wise, they are fine," says Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division. "Militarily, we have total confidence. They bring more combat power with them to Ghazni." And he points out that the Poles and the Afghans have something in common. "They both succeeded in throwing off the yoke of Soviet communism."
Andrzejczak, a former tank company commander who was deployed to the politically volatile Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border as a U.N. peacekeeper, says he knows that Ghazni will be a different kind of soldiering than his troops are used to. The Poles are accustomed to patrolling in large convoys. "Here," he says, "first you are told to go smile. This is not our approach." But, he adds, his troops will learn. He knows that the political challenges may outweigh the war-fighting challenges and that building a relationship with the governor will be one of his major goals. But, he says, his first priority is the Afghan people. "We will operate with arguments, and fight with words."
Senior U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say they are aware of the challenges that the Poles face. "It is," says one, "something that we will be watching very closely."