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Hard feelings on both sides as U.S. winds down its Afghan role

Relations between U.S. and Afghan forces are strained — by suspicion among the Americans and resentment among their counterparts — as the 2014 pullout approaches.

December 25, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Col. Babagul Aamal of the Afghan National Army, center, said incidents such as the slaying of 16 villagers in Kandahar province and the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers at Bagram air base have added to the tension between Afghan and foreign troops.
Col. Babagul Aamal of the Afghan National Army, center, said incidents… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

SUROBI, Afghanistan — Col. Babagul Aamal is a proud veteran of 28 years in the Afghan National Army. Short and fit, with a thick black beard, he's a leader who blurts out exactly what he's thinking.

"I don't talk politics — I talk facts," Aamal said, wearing a sweater beneath his uniform in his unheated command office on a dusty base 40 miles east of Kabul.

It shames him, Aamal said, that he is not allowed to wear his pistol when he enters the fortified gate of the new American military base next door. Though he's a brigade commander, he's required to stand before an airport-type scanner with his arms raised, almost in surrender.

Yet when Americans visit Aamal's base, they are not searched. They are offered chai tea. And they bring half a dozen soldiers armed with M-16s, so-called Guardian Angels on the lookout for "insider attacks" by Afghan soldiers.

"Afghan generals get searched by low-ranking foreign soldiers," Aamal said. "Our soldiers see this, and they feel insulted."

As American troops shift from combat to advising, the ominous specter of insider attacks has strained the relationship between the two armies.

Sixty-two Western coalition troops have been killed this year in 46 such attacks, leaving many American soldiers deeply suspicious of their erstwhile allies.

At the same time, some Afghan officers and soldiers say they feel abandoned and patronized. After 11 years, they say, certain Americans still don't respect Afghan customs.

Moreover, they complain that the United States is pulling out without providing the weapons and equipment needed to hold off the Taliban.

"The Americans have the weapons, so they go wherever they want. It's like this is their country," the brigade's public affairs officer, Maj. Ghulam Ali, said with a weary shrug.

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Officers and soldiers encountered during three days spent with the Afghan army were upbeat and enthusiastic about taking over the fight. But many also said they felt slighted by what they perceive as a chronic lack of resources.

At a desolate battalion base beneath towering snowcapped mountains, Lt. Col. Hussian Hadl sat in his office, shivering in an overcoat and puffing on a cigarette. The electricity was on, but only because Hadl was using precious fuel to run a generator for a visit by an American journalist.

Hadl's 1st Battalion recently took over the base from a French military unit, which had fuel for generators. Hadl said he's been supplied enough fuel to power communications equipment, but not for heat or lights.

His 700 men have 40 Humvees, he said, but half the vehicles are in the shop, awaiting parts. There's barely fuel for 20 of them. The battalion has just three heavy machine guns, he says, and no rounds for its Russian-made mortars.

Inside the chilly officers' mess hall, 1st Lt. Ali Ahmad wolfed down a hot meal of goat and rice. He said the Afghans would like to use traditional Afghan wood stoves, called bukharis, but there are no stovepipes in the French-constructed buildings, and no firewood.

"I'm not worried about the Americans leaving. I'm not worried about the Taliban," Lt. Col. Hadl said. "I'm worried we won't have enough weapons and fuel to fight on our own."

For the 2,700 soldiers in Col. Aamal's 3rd Brigade of the 201st Corps, the fight against the Islamist militants who once ran Afghanistan is largely their own. Aamal described three recent combat operations he said were planned and carried out by his men, with minimal advice from Western forces.

But he also pointed to 27 trucks that sit idle on the base, waiting for replacement batteries. Humvees, parked in a line, need new brake pads. There is not enough fuel for heat. He blames the Afghan Defense Ministry and the coalition forces.

"How can my soldiers perform under these conditions?" Aamal asked. "Some of them can't survive like this, and they just walk away and quit."

Aamal says his relations with the coalition hit a low point under the French, who occupied the adjoining base before the American unit arrived. "Let me be blunt: The French didn't like us," Aamal said.

When three Afghans were badly wounded by a roadside bomb, he said, the French took three hours to provide a medevac helicopter. By then, one of the soldiers had died. The copter flew another of the soldiers to a Kabul military hospital, but Aamal said he was told to transport the third man — and the body of the dead man — by road.

Aamal hopes for a better relationship with his new neighbors, the 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He's met the Americans only a few times, he said, and they seem eager to help.

"But we'll see," he said.

The colonel cited incidents involving U.S. soldiers elsewhere that have enraged Afghans: the slaying of 16 villagers in Kandahar province, for which Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused, and the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers at the Bagram air base.

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