Taking the Lead: 1LT Mark Chapman, USA ’14
Standing under the blasting heat of the Afghan summer sun, viewing the mountains that ring Jalalabad Airfield, I realized this was Alden Partridge’s dream being lived out almost 200 years later. He stood up the Corps to train leaders who could go forth and make the world a better place. How many times had I stood in Dodge Hall belting out Norwich University’s mission statement at the top of my lungs? Parts of it are still ingrained into some lonely corner of my brain like maroon and gold graffiti: “…to enable them to act as well as to think, to execute as well as to conceive…”
A few short months earlier I had graduated from Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and been assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s Field Artillery Squadron stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Soon after reporting for duty I was informed our unit would be deploying to southeastern Afghanistan as a Police Advisory Team (PAT) for the 202nd Zone. I was surprised to learn I had been selected as lead advisor for the personnel section, or G1, of the 202nd’s police headquarters.
I was both excited and nervous. How was I, a newly promoted first lieutenant, going to advise an Afghan colonel?
I was fairly new to the Army, and he was a senior ranking officer within a headquarters equivalent to a corps. Furthermore, I was an artillery officer, not a logistician or a personnel officer. How effective would I be at advising this Afghan, responsible for thousands of police personnel records, pay, awards, and training?
Arriving in Afghanistan, we were briefed that the Zone headquarters had been stood up less than a year earlier, and that our mission would be to help the Afghans work through the challenges they faced. We were to accomplish this by helping them to think critically about the tasks before them, conceive solutions, and, finally, execute based upon those solutions.
I quickly fell into my role as an advisor, often taking part in two or three advising missions per week at 202nd Zone headquarters, where I met with the Zone G1, Colonel Khan. Like me, the colonel was new to his role, having been assigned to the position just three months prior. I was astounded by what had yet to be completed. The G1 shop lacked the necessary computers and printers; moreover, they were understaffed and largely untrained for their jobs. Making matters worse, every time Colonel Khan or his staff requested training in Kabul, his higher headquarters, the Ministry of Interior, denied such requests, leaving him and his staff in an endless cycle of inability.
After a month of engagements, I addressed my team, comprising two civilian contractors and two Afghan linguists. The time had come to facilitate change within the G1 shop. We needed to advise Colonel Khan in such a way that when we left he could stand, albeit shakily, on his own. But where to begin? Drinking coffee, we mapped the road ahead of us. There was so much to accomplish in nine months.
We organized a “shura,” the Afghan phrase for meeting, on our operating base, in order to train Colonel Khan and his staff on how to conduct future staff meetings. Here was something so basic, so simple, yet he had never done this before. Two of the main problems facing him and his staff were that they were not properly trained to do their work, and they could not facilitate communication among the seven provinces which comprise the 202nd Zone.
My team and I began calling the American advisors in Kabul several times a week, as well as their Afghan counterparts who worked directly with the Zone headquarters. Colonel Khan called weekly as well. Soon, two of his officers were on their way to the capital to attend formal training—a huge victory. One of them graduated number two in the class, adding a small bit of prestige to Colonel Khan and his staff.
In order to address the G1’s communication problems, as well as bolster his legitimacy as a Zone leader, my team hosted another shura, inviting all the G1s from the seven provincial headquarters. Our mission was to take small steps toward fixing the macro-level problems the Zone faced. Our task was to effect change which would last longer than a nine-month tour in Afghanistan.
As an advisor, I listened to my counterpart, seeking first to understand his challenges and empathize with his position. I quickly realized that just because a solution worked for me and the U.S. Army did not necessarily mean it would work for him or his staff, so we worked together to find an Afghan solution. Through my efforts and guidance, Colonel Kahn grew in legitimacy—far more than I ever expected. It was no longer a major effort getting accountability reports from the seven provinces that fell under the 202nd Zone, nor were his comments brushed aside during the Zone’s weekly staff meetings. I could not help but smile as I watched his confidence build.
However, it was not enough. I wanted more, so I set my eyes toward Nuristan, the northernmost province within the 202nd Zone. Bordering Pakistan, it was largely contested by the Taliban and other hostile organizations. The police led rugged lives, living in tents and cooking over fires alongside the checkpoints that dotted the snowy mountains. It was a region so desolate that the government had only recently built a bank in Parun, the capital city. Corruption was rampant, and Nuristan desperately needed accurate accountability and training for its police.
The first step was a meeting with the Nuristan Provincial Chief of Police (PCOP), a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man who favored camouflage fatigues over the traditional blue police uniform. I arranged a meeting with him at the Nangarhar Regional Logistics Center—the regional supply base—because we could not facilitate the movement to Nuristan. Upon introduction he stated that he would prefer I refer to him as “the Rambo of Afghanistan” as opposed to his given name and title, Colonel Ekramuddin.
Talking over a couple of Boom Booms—a favorite Afghan energy drink—we discussed the predicament faced by the police under his command. He agreed he needed help—no small feat for this towering man who called himself Rambo. We soon devised a plan to facilitate the air movement of a Mobile Biometrics Team and an AHRIMS, or personnel system advising team, to Nuristan to help him enroll his police officers in a computer database system. This would help facilitate automated pay through direct deposits, and give us an accurate count of how many police were in the far-flung regions of the province.
However, it was the middle of the summer fighting season in Afghanistan, and with the Afghans’ MI-17 helicopters in short supply, my efforts came second to the resupply missions of embattled police throughout the region. A month later everything was set. I had coordinated with the Zone headquarters, the Nuristan police, and the Afghan Air Force detachment in Nangarhar. Two MI-17s were going to pick up the teams at the 202nd Zone’s Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) and transport them to Nuristan. At roughly the same time, in another province, the Afghan Army came under fire, sustaining several casualties. Immediately the MI-17s were reallocated to retrieve the casualties. With no indication when the helicopters would be free again, the teams returned to Kabul.
“Nay Khoobis,” I said during our next meeting as we sat together drinking chai and discussing the setbacks. “Not good,” one of the few phrases I had picked up, was an understatement. I was furious. I had lost a month of advising and planning with the G1 who responded by shrugging his shoulders. “Mashkil nasta,” he replied in his native Pashtu, cracking a wry smile. “It is not a problem,” as though to remind me I was in Afghanistan. I shook my head slowly, hiding my frustration behind my cup of chai. The old Afghan saying once again proved true: “We may have the watches, but they had the time.” A policeman for over 30 years, he had witnessed the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed their withdrawal. He had fled to Pakistan with his family when the Taliban had taken power, coming back shortly after the NATO coalition had invaded. After all he had been through, the current setback really was nothing.
It took another three months to line up everything again. The MI-17s seemed to be tasked almost daily with resupply missions or ferrying the Afghan Army and police to and from the fighting. Finally, after a total of four months of advising and a few gallons of chai later, I stood on a roof with another lieutenant shielding our eyes from the rising sun. We had been up since 0500 hours when the crews had first started their preflight checks. We looked across the airfield to the two MI-17s. “What’s taking them so long?” I muttered, checking my watch for the third time in as many minutes.
The other lieutenant laughed. “At least they are doing the preflight checks; most of the time they just fly.” We watched as the two MI-17s shuddered slightly and took off from the Jalalabad Airfield. Climbing higher, they were silhouetted against the mountains, heading toward Zone headquarters, and ultimately toward Nuristan. A faint smile crept across my face, and I could not help but feel a sense of pride in my efforts, those of the other advisors, and especially of the Afghans who are striving every day to make Afghanistan a better place. “Khoobis,” I found myself saying; this morning truly was Khoobis.
Editor’s note: Chapman finished up his deployment in January 2017 and returned to Fort Hood, where he now serves as a Company Level Fire Support Officer.