‘A Long Timetable’

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on June 20, 2006

(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – Sgt. Scott Gurley is a 27-year-old communications specialist with the Florida National Guard and has been deployed a year at Camp Phoenix just outside of Kabul. He is due to return home this summer. During his time he has maintained a blog for the Orlando Sentinel and written articles for the camp’s weekly. He answered WORLD’s questions about the U.S. and coalition mission, Afghanistan’s future, and his personal experiences with locals.

WORLD: How important a role do our NATO allies play and how is it helpful and challenging to work with them?

GURLEY: NATO is responsible for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is equally as important as that of the U.S. military. In Kabul French soldiers are responsible for training the officers of the Afghan National Army, while our military trains the enlisted soldiers. Camp Phoenix is U.S.-run but the United States only patrols a portion of the city, while neighboring sectors may be under charge of the U.K. or Germany.

This can make for a colorful international environment, but it also comes with its frustrations due to a lack of uniformity in military training for the Afghan National Army. In the near future all military operations in Afghanistan will be under NATO control.

A British lieutenant told me that doing things like joint patrols with U.S. soldiers helps maintain good relations between allies. He also said that the U.K.’s peacekeeping operations are heavily influenced by decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. This gave British soldiers experience with dismounted patrolling that perhaps the U.S. didn’t have, and he implied we could learn from that.

WORLD: What sort of interactions and friendships have you had with Afghans?

GURLEY: Early in the deployment I had the privilege of eating lunch with some of our interpreters and got to know a few of them. Surprisingly, many of them are doctors or are in medical school, and all of them are extremely friendly. While we waited for the meal to be prepared, I asked one of them about what things were like when the Taliban was around. He said that women would be beaten in public if they were seen alone, and their husbands could be beaten if their wives did something out of line. He said he tried to stay, but had to leave because things got so bad. He fled to Pakistan until the U.S. invasion. When he returned he started working as an Army interpreter and has been here ever since.

Many of the interpreters have similar stories. Among the group one had studied in America and another was getting ready to work more on his degree. Occasionally we would look up at the TV, which was playing an Afghan version of MTV. At one point the programming was interrupted for a daily prayer. Arabic script, I believe, scrolled up the screen. The interpreter whom I had talked to about his experience with the Taliban told me what the different prayers meant in English. Probably sounding very much like an American, I asked if he thought displaying these prayers on TV was a good thing. He thought it was, saying it was a good way to reach the younger audience that would be watching the music station.

WORLD: What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the U.S./NATO mission?

GURLEY: Winning the minds of the Afghan people. During the ministerial elections last year I asked a local national who works on post about what the local communities thought of the elections. He said they didn’t understand the elections. Everybody wanted to be elected just to be elected, just to have power.

The impression I get is that Afghans have gotten so used to fighting—with others, with themselves—and used to functioning in an unstable environment, that the vision necessary for stability is new to them. In areas where there are military posts there are definitely more jobs, but in the rest of the country job growth is slow.

If I’d spent my whole life just fighting for myself, for work, food, pay, or survival, I can imagine it would be hard to understand the need to contribute to a government, economy, or military that was supposed to be working for me.

WORLD: What impact is the United States having in Afghanistan that you think is little noticed?

GURLEY: I have talked to various Embedded Training Team soldiers. These are the guys who work directly with the Afghan National Army (ANA) training their enlisted, and some of them have returned for a second mission here. They have seen improvement and are hopeful for the future, but they all have agreed on a long timetable. The ANA are learning concepts necessary for a stable army, but the learning curve can be substantial. A French colonel I spoke with had a better impression. He found the officers the French train to be eager to learn and do their jobs well, though the concept of an officer taking care of his men is something that does not come naturally to them.

WORLD: You’ve mentioned on your blog that media coverage can sometimes overstate the scale of violence in Afghanistan. What would be a more complete picture?

GURLEY: A more complete picture of the U.S. in Afghanistan would include the hundreds of humanitarian missions that are executed every year. The Army has created the Commanders Emergency Relief Program, or CERP, essentially to win the hearts and minds of local communities by investing U.S. money in community projects. CERP’s activities include installing wells, building boys’ and girls’ schools, and distributing thousands of dollars worth of school supplies and clothing donated by Americans to orphans and other young students.

Apart from CERP missions, my unit has also executed many medical missions, which have served some 150 families per mission. At the beginning of the year we also supplied families at Displaced Persons’ Camps with months worth of food.

So, a more complete picture has to include all of the immediate needs we are meeting, but also the long-term outlook. I really believe that Afghanistan has hope of growing into a stable country if everything continues on as it has been going. Yes, the violence is terrible to deal with, but things are really in motion for stable economic and governmental systems to develop. There have been successful elections and a solution for the national dependence on opium export is continually being sought.

WORLD: What’s a typical day like for you and soldiers at Camp Phoenix?

GURLEY: I think the conditions here are not quite as tough as many people assume. My weekly routine is pretty typical of soldiers at Camp Phoenix. For starters, I work in an “office” eight hours a day. The offices here are in either converted Connex storage containers (complete with power, A/C, and internet) or buildings constructed of flimsy plywood called B-huts. We have a nice gym and a variety of chow hall food prepared by civilian contractors. On Fridays we get surf and turf.

I have to use the military phone system to talk to my girlfriend and family, which can be sketchy at its worst. But it is nothing like the 15 minutes per week that my dad talked about when he served in Baghdad.

In all honesty, there have been times that I’ve forgotten that there is another culture outside the post walls. Only recently have we seen any real action. Within a four-day period a car bomb and an improvised explosive device detonated just outside our walls, and shots were actually fired into the camp. We’ve used the bunkers once. There are soldiers who go outside the wire daily, and there are soldiers who have been shot at, and others injured by IEDs. Just not most of us at Camp Phoenix.

Copyright 2006 WORLD Magazine, June 17, 2006. Reprinted here June 13th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.