KANDAHAR – Like other troops, the Sep.11, 2001 attacks against the United States inspired Sgt. First Class Darryl Cheatham to join the military. The South Carolina native had already served 10 years in the army before returning to civilian life, but patriotism lured him back into uniform.
Cheatham began a one-year mission to mentor the Afghan police in January, a few months before the US military officially assumed responsibility for training the police force. Home is now considered a small base located 45 minutes west of Kandahar city in the south, a region at the heart of the war’s bloodshed.
"I wanted to come," Cheatham said. "I actually volunteered to come over here. I thought we were going to do some good."
Meeting police officers devoted to protecting their country has been a highlight of his tour, he conceded, adding that his team has had an impact on many Afghans it has come into contact with.
But more than two-thirds into his deployment, Cheatham says the overall task differs from his initial expectations prior to departing his hometown of Greenville. Despite the progress US forces have made in the country, particularly with the highly regarded Afghan army, the opinion of US soldiers about the mission to train the police in Afghanistan varies as does troop morale. Following six years of war, some military personnel based here have grown cynical about the conflict, while others are too green to have witnessed anything stirring fear or pessimism.
Cheatham, a 44-year-old postal worker hoping to pursue a career in information technology when he retires, believes troops charged to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban are soon disappointed to find a more humanitarian mission awaiting them. "I’ve always been combat arms, and I’ve trained to fight," he said. Mulling over the state of Afghan society, he added: "They need so much. They need too much."
The US is carrying out a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that requires its forces gain the support of the local population through humanitarian assistance and building institutions like the security forces.
Yet, these very police officers Cheatham is coaching spur some of his greatest frustration, he admitted. "Some of them are just basically useless and shouldn’t be breathing the same air that we breathe," he said in an interview with IPS. "Some of these guys are uneducated. They don’t care. They are corrupt" and enticed only by a monthly pay check, he said.
His efforts to teach police trainees to "fight smart" sometimes prompts a complacent response from them, a reaction he admits may be due to the fact the country has been at war for nearly 30 years. He said he is merely trying to keep these fledgling forces alive. "I’ve seen more death in my three months here in Kandahar than I’ve seen in my whole life," he told IPS. "You just try not to take it home with you."
Like many civilians, his wife Valerie often wonders why he is risking his life "for people who don’t even care," he said. "We got Taliban shooting at us on a regular basis from a village, yet nobody knows that the Taliban’s in their village," he complained. "Some of them are in cahoots with the Taliban."
Local villagers routinely offer "excuses" like a shortage of weapons when questioned about why they resist fighting the insurgents, he noted. "They literally want us to pay them to get information (about the Taliban) that’s going to potentially save their lives."
But many US commanders acknowledge that the insurgent group’s brutality and fear tactics often leave ordinary Afghans little choice but to cooperate.
Within six weeks of arriving in Kandahar, Sgt. Ryan Quinn, a humvee gunner and a police trainer, got a taste of this violence. "You don’t panic till after, really," he said, describing firefights that begin with the "ping-ting" of bullets hitting the vehicle. "When you’re done, you kind of giggle a lot too. It’s like a stress laugh. Like all of a sudden you’re hitting the radio, (giggling and saying): ‘Did you see that RPG? That thing almost killed me.’"
Quinn’s assessment of his country’s undertaking in Afghanistan quickly turned to pointed criticism, though.
"This whole mission here, honestly, is going to be the fifteenth bullet on the 28th page of an 80-page PowerPoint presentation that’s given at the Pentagon," he predicted. He said he doubts it will elicit much interest from military brass in the final analysis.
This may be because the war in Iraq, particularly a congressional push to withdraw troops, has overshadowed the mission in Afghanistan. The US only this spring established a counterinsurgency academy in Kabul to train Western and Afghan government staff and security forces two years after a counterpart organization was set up in Iraq. "Afghanistan bears the frustration of we’re not getting resourced like Iraq, whether it’s people, equipment or just straight-up money," academy operations chief Maj. Luke Meyers told IPS. He is lobbying for millions more in annual funding, he said.
Washington is making efforts, though. President George W. Bush made a budget request in October to redirect some 182 million US dollars from the Afghan army to the police, whose poor training has made them a top target of insurgents.
Yet these changes may be of little consequence to some boots-on-the-ground soldiers.
Raised in a deeply rooted military family in New Hampshire, Quinn, 29, questioned why his country has failed to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after a six-year effort. "All of a sudden it’s not just about winning the war; it’s about keeping troops overseas forever until we train these countries," he said. "And then you hear stuff when you go home on leave how we’re starting up with Iran and Pakistan’s piping up and you’re like, ‘Jesus, can we finish one before we start taking on’" other battles?
Much of Quinn’s frustration arguably stems from a US military decision to recall him to duty after he had parted ways with the army four years ago following three years of service. He left a pregnant wife and a well-paying job as a freight broker in Arizona when he deployed to Kandahar in May.
The US government has mobilized thousands of former active-duty and reserve military personnel to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few years, resisting calls for a national draft even though many senior officers complain forces are stretched too thinly.
Enlisted since 2001, Corp. Darryl Logan was one soldier who ventured to Afghanistan willingly. He arrived in April.
At times the 26-year-old, a New York native reluctant to talk about the firefights he has seen, feels he is making inroads with neophyte Afghan police officers. But he said there are obstacles, such as a lack of resources. More troubling, he admitted, "a lot of them don’t even know their left from their right."
Amidst the frustration, the mission has also featured high points.
Spec. Patrick Martin told IPS his unit recently organized a graduation ceremony for members of the Afghan police. Officers grinned as if they "finally have a meaning in life" while they held their certificates, said Martin, a humvee gunner from the small town of Latta, South Carolina. He said he believes the police appreciate the help of American forces.
Deployed to Afghanistan since January, the 25-year-old has also been known to fling care packages from the humvee’s turret to Afghan kids along the highway. "Santa’s my nickname up there," said the father of three. "I’d say that’s the best part."
More recent arrivals to southern Afghanistan, however, have seen too little to inspire either a negative outlook or strong feelings of accomplishment.
Airman first class Christina Shumate arrived six weeks ago with uncertain expectations. The police trainer and intelligence officer only recently traveled in her first humvee convoy. While a few insurgent rockets have hit her small base in Kandahar lately, she confessed that she is "not really" nervous about her deployment.
DynCorp military contractors recently played songs by the rock band ACDC on the base, recalled the 20-year-old newlywed, whose husband is serving in neighboring Zabul province. "I’d just woken up and I was like, ‘Well, it’s kind of nice out here,’" she said.