Best Defense

Book excerpt: Fighting with the Afghan National Army in the Korengal Valley

This is excerpted, with the permission of the author, from To Quell the Korengal.

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This is excerpted, with the permission of the author, from To Quell the Korengal. His introduction to this passage:

In May 2007, the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed for 15 months to northeastern Afghanistan. Within the Brigade, 2nd Battalion was considered the best the 173rd had to offer. And of 2nd Battalion’s five companies, Battle Company was largely regarded as the cream of the crop. As such, Battle Company was assigned the toughest Area of Operations within the Brigade’s footprint. It was called the Korengal Valley. It later would be dubbed “The Valley of Death” by President Bush.

Every Platoon in Battle Company had a small (15 to 20-man) Platoon of Afghan National Army attached to them. They lived with us on the firebases and would accompany us on patrols. The whole endgame in Afghanistan was to get the A.N.A. on their feet and trained up so they could defend their own country and we could go the hell home and watch football on Sundays. Problem was, that would involve them becoming real Soldiers instead of the clown car that they were.

Every Platoon of A.N.A had a team of two E.T.T.s (Embedded Tactical Trainers) which normally consisted of a United States Marine and a Navy Corpsman (medic). Their sole job was to babysit, I mean train and mentor, the A.N.A. into soldierly perfection. Though we liked having a Marine to fuck with and an extra medic around, it was very difficult to not get frustrated with A.N.A.

I couldn’t tell ya how their recruiting process takes place, but according to one of our ‘Terps (interpreters), the A.N.A. were mostly thugs, lowlifes and criminals. Basically, the worst their society had to offer. They weren’t here for service to country. They had no pride. They had no esprit de corps. They had no sense of professionalism. They didn’t even jump out of airplanes, yall. This was just a paycheck to them. And it wasn’t worth dyin’ for.

The A.N.A. all wore the U.S. Army’s old woodland camouflage pattern (which was much better than our current camo). They rocked A.K.47s, P.K.M.s (a light Russian machine gun comparable to our SAWs), and 1 or 2 guys would carry R.P.G.s, so they were pretty well armed. When we patrolled, they would usually take up the rear (which is the safest place to be). When we took contact on patrol, it was a very mixed bag. Some of them would return fire, some of them would run, some of them would hide behind cover and not pull the trigger. While they weren’t too reliable out on patrol, they were pretty useful when Phoenix took contact. For what it was worth, when behind fortifications, the A.N.A. will lay out some lead.

I will say some Platoons we worked with were better than others, which leads me to our next problem. They (“they” being the unknown and all-wise decision makers, or, “deciders,” as President Bush would say) kept rotating these guys out what felt like every 3 or 4 weeks. So right about the time they started to figure out what they were doing, here comes a fresh batch of clueless lip-twiddlers. The Korengal being what it was, common sense would dictate the A.N.A. would send us one of their best Platoons. Decidedly not the case. We’d often get a Platoon fresh out of basic.

We had a Brigadier (1-Star) General come down to visit Phoenix once. He asked us a lot of questions and then asked if we had anything for him. Sergeant Eddie commented, “Sir, I was in Afghanistan 2 years ago, and I gotta say, I just don’t see any real improvement in the A.N.A. I half-expected them to be better this deployment,” which was a pretty ballsy thing to say to a General. To which the General replied, “Uh yes, we are working on that. And once blah blah blah and blah blah blah blah, I think that you’ll see blah blah blah. Agreed?”

One of the best examples of how worthless they were is this: One day the head A.N.A. dude told our P.L. that they weren’t going on patrol until they had helmets. They said it was unfair that we had helmets and they didn’t. So our P.L. sent the request up to higher. Weeks went by with the A.N.A. doing nothing but sitting on the firebase. Finally, we got them their helmets. So we were like, “Okay, here’s your helmets, now let’s go on patrol.” Oh-so-reluctantly, the A.N.A. show up where we were staged to leave, and not a damned one of them had their helmet on. I never even saw the helmets again.

But really, they didn’t even need an excuse to not go on patrol. It was not uncommon for them to just flat-out quit. And I mean the whole Platoon. They would simultaneously pack up all their shit, march back to the KOP, and we’d never see that Platoon again. It might be a month before their replacements showed. Was the Korengal hard? Was it dangerous? Yes. But here we are, fighting for their country, and they’re the ones that are giving up?! It really made you despise them.

Darren Shadix served in the U.S. Army for 7 years. Between Army deployments and government contracting, he has spent 3-1/2 in the cauldron of depravity known as Afghanistan. 

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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