Monthly Archives: July 2011

Training Afghan Security Forces

A portion of the Polish troops are dedicated to training Afghan National Security Forces. This is mostly done by Special Forces units, akin to U.S. Green Berets. Once the SF teams got to know me they were happy to have me along on some of their missions.
Here Polish SF soldiers train Afghan National Police (ANP) in a day at the firing range.

The Polish soldiers told me the ANP were making great progress – some who couldn’t even hit the target at 10 feet a week ago, were able to hit the bullseye at 100 feet today.

The ANP also receive basic emergency combat medical training – and as usual, they are pleased as peach to have their picture taken by a woman.


Ghazni Hospital

Polish and U.S. representatives from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) visited the main Ghazni hospital in May to participate in a working group meeting with doctors and hospital administrators.

Here’s a female Polish doctor from the PRT sitting next to physician’s assistant from the U.S. National Guard. The green and tan digital camouflage uniform in the foreground is what most Americans wear. (Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic about why digital camo is actually better at fooling the eye than traditional swirly/tiger stripes camo.)


The purpose of the meeting was to set priorities and action items for hospital projects with the funds allocated by the central government. At least, that’s what the PRT thought going in. The Afghans are (unfortunately) used to handing over a list of projects, which the PRT dutifully gets to work on. This means things get built but it is obviously not a long term solution. The Afghans are still getting used to the idea of working with a central bureaucracy.  The PRT is trying to transition to a support role, and is encouraging the Afghans to take the lead — teaching them to work through their local government channels. It’s difficult and slow going. For example:

Afghans: “But the PRT could just do this for us, that would be easier.”

PRT reps: “We aren’t going to do that anymore. You have money from your government and you have to find out how much you have, and set priorities. We can help fund the gap.”

Afghans: “But we don’t even know how much our budget from Kabul is. We’ve never gotten money from them.”

PRT reps: “You have to ask your local district represenative about your budget, and we can go from there.”

Afghans: “We don’t even know who that is.”

Another Afghan: “I think it’s [so-and-so], but I sent him a letter two months ago and haven’t heard anything or seen him.”

And on.

This meeting did however end on a positive note — the Afghan doctors were an impressive bunch; It was clear many of them understood English and a few even spoke it quite well. There were two women in attendance, who confidently smiled and shook my hand as they walked in before the meeting began. Everyone around the table took turns listening to others speak. They provided a generous amount of delicious weak tea, and tasty cakes and candies for their visitors. Very kind, considering Afghan meetings are known to go on for hours, and this one was no exception.

These were smart, educated people, and I could sense they understood what was being asked of them. They didn’t appear to shy away from the challenge.

More pictures from the meeting here.

Polish Civil-Military Affairs team visits troubled village

These pictures are from a patrol May 2 with the Polish Civil-Military (CIMIC) Affairs team to a village called Espandi, not far from the main Ghazni city center.  The CIMIC team was sent to Espandi mainly because the base keeps getting attacked from the general direction of this village, and they wanted to talk to the locals about what they can do to make it stop.

As usual, most locals will play dumb and say they haven’t seen the Taliban for months. But after you get the elders out, and sit everybody down, and they realize you are not going away, they start admitting…. “well, yeah, the Taliban does come through here at night, on motorcycles… and they threaten us…. but we don’t know where they keep their weapons… and they’re never here long… and they say they’ll kill us if we talk to you.” At which point the CIMIC soldiers have to try to convince the elders that they can protect them from the Taliban.

The Afghans are understandably skeptical.

Children out in the streets when the convoy arrives are a good sign – if there is an ambush in the works generally the locals will know and they will be hiding. Curious little girls poking their heads around the corner take the stress level down a notch for everyone.

The vehicles generate a line of dust as they drive across sandy fields back to the base. You can see tracks from previous days in the foreground, as the convoys generally avoid taking the same route twice as a security precaution.

Nangar Khel article in Foreign Policy

Please see below my recent article published in Foreign Policy on the war crimes trial that resulted after the incident in Nangar Khel in 2007.

Poland’s ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in Afghanistan

Visiting Schools in Ghazni

One of the most interesting missions I was on in Afghanistan was a trip with the Polish PRT (provincial reconstruction team) to visit several schools in the northern part of Ghazni province (Quaji Omari district). In addition to maintaining 2,500 troops in the Afghan theater, the Poles also hire highly-trained civilians to travel to Ghazni with their troops and assist in humanitarian development projects for the 1.5 million inhabitants of the province. These civilian experts work mainly in the PRT and District Development Group in Ghazni. Many of them hold Ph.D.s or M.D.s., and they provide expertise the American military has come to rely on as coalition forces and civilians work together to stabilize the country.

This is Angela, who is the Polish PRT’s education specialist:

The Polish reconstruction team has a budget of roughly $14 million per year, which it uses to build infrastructure projects, institute educational programs, and develop health and welfare programs for the residents of Ghazni. I heard time and again from Americans who work in the PRT about how grateful they are that the Polish have brought actual subject matter experts to Afghanistan to work on development. The American military often looks at its pool of available soldiers and evaluates them for specialized skills or training. If they have a lieutenant who took a few civil engineering skills as an undergraduate, for instance, they may send him to the PRT to serve as the engineering representative for the year. The Poles go about things differently: instead of looking for soldiers who may or may not have specialized skills, they specifically hire civilians with advanced degrees in the fields they need covered. The Polish engineering representative is a career engineer, who also works as a civil engineer at home. The Americans greatly appreciate having this level of partner to work with, and the coordination between the American and Polish sides of the PRT is very close, as it is one PRT, run jointly by an American commander and a Polish deputy commander.

There is often a joint element to the patrols, and even though on this particular mission we were going out with the Polish PRT, there were also Americans involved in the projects who rode with us. All missions start the same – we brief the details the night before. Usually a detailed power point presentation with exact route, where the vehicles will stop, turn around, who will guard what entrances where, and what the PRT experts will be doing in the meantime. Here’s the lineup for the final briefing before we roll out:

The view from my MRAP window as we drive through Ghazni city:

We visited several schools in one of the most peaceful districts in northern Ghazni province – a surprisingly lush and green area.

Open schools with girls in attendance signal that the Taliban is not in control in this area. That there were desks and pencils for most of the students showed this was one of the best schools in Ghazni.

That’s me with the red scarf, although after a few days I stopped wearing them – more on that later.

The boys have classes in a separate tent from the girls, and while they didn’t have desks, they seemed just as intent on their studies. My eyes go straight to the blonde-haired blue-eyed boy in the upper right – unmistakable Russian heritage.

Children swarming near our vehicles as we get ready to leave:

The district governor invited us to his compound for tea and cookies. Getting served traditional Polish Krowki (carmel fudge) by the Afghan National Police was probably the last thing I expected would happen to me in Afghanistan. As my grandmother summarized: “Clearly they must be smart people who know what’s good. Everybody knows that Polish candies are the best.” But of course.

What was interesting about meeting with the district sub-governor, is that the PRT commander LTC Kiszkowiak, pictured here with the governor, is that the small talk largely revolved around how the Polish and Afghan people have a shared history of suffering because of their unfortunate geography. Centuries of invasions from both East and West have plagued both countries, and Russian aggression is fresh in the memories of most adults. There was much talk and murmurs of agreement in the room as the Colonel and Governor discussed the shared burdens which have faced their people, and how much Poland understands and wants to help the Afghans.

Here the governor proudly shows us a video of his recent trip to NYC and Ground Zero:

Walking to another school from the Governor’s compound:

And here are a few other shots from that day:

More of my pictures can be found on my Flickr photostream page here.