Capt. Greg Schneider, left, the operations officer with Border Adviser Team 1, meets with Afghan Border Police at their headquarters on Oct. 7 near Taghaz, Afghanistan. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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TAGHAZ, Afghanistan — It should have been a straightforward request: A Marine lance corporal needed to relieve himself several hours into a long visit to an Afghan Border Police headquarters. It isn't that simple, however.
The killing of at least 52 coalition forces so far this year by Afghan soldiers and police — or insurgents wearing their uniforms — has changed the game in Afghanistan. And the new message for U.S. troops is this: Keep mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces, but never let your guard down.
Marines took that to heart during an Oct. 7 visit here in Taghaz, located in Helmand province's Khanashin district. Even though members of Marine Border Adviser Team 1 praise the progress the ABP here have made, its Marines visited a dingy restroom in groups, taking turns watching for signs of trouble. Later, a couple of them stood guard with rifles in front of an ABP commander's office, as a cadre of Marines inside ate a lunch of chicken, flatbread and apples prepared by the Afghans.
At the highest levels, military commanders have reinforced the need for deployed Marines and other coalition troops to have a "Guardian Angel." These armed individuals are tasked with watching over a group of their comrades — like the ones eating lunch at Taghaz.
"It is absolutely prudent that if there are four of us sitting here, that one guy is kind of roaming around and paying attention to things inside and the outside," a senior Marine official in Afghanistan told Marine Corps Times on the condition of anonymity. "He's the Guardian Angel. You and I may know who he is, or we may not know who he is."
Maj. Max Hopkins, BAT-1's commander, said the precautions taken here with the ABP were not due to a poor relationship between his team and the Afghans. In fact, the police commander, Lt. Col. Rasoul, already has rejected taking on at least two new recruits for whom he didn't have good references. It wasn't worth risking an insider attack in his kandak, or battalion, he said through an interpreter.
"If he doesn't trust them," Hopkins said, "he doesn't hire them."
When a rash of so-called green-on-blue killings this summer heightened fears, Rasoul assembled his forces and stressed there would be stiff consequences if any member of his unit attacked a Marine, said 1st Lt. John Behrmann, a BAT-1 adviser. The Marines stood nearby, watching uncomfortably, several of them recalled.
"He said, ‘It's your job to keep them safe. They left their families in America to come help us,'" Behrmann said. "That was reassuring."
‘This is business, man'
The mood isn't nearly as good elsewhere in Helmand. Marines and their coalition counterparts have been killed in a series of attacks that have spooked personnel and families, and forced commanders to review security on bases and the relationships cultivated with their Afghan partners.
In volatile Sangin district, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., did not sustain any green-on-blue deaths, but there was still plenty of unrest. Before rotating home in October, Marines in 1/7 were involved in a handful of skirmishes with members of the Afghan National Army. They didn't lead to gunfire, but emotions ran high, said Lt. Col. David Bradney, the battalion commander.
In one case in August, a Marine was sharing a security post with an ANA soldier when the Afghan chambered a round in his rifle in an attempt to intimidate. The Marine tossed him from the 11-foot tower and handcuffed him, and the soldier was put in 1/7's detention facility, Bradney said.
"It's not that we didn't have sh-- heads," the battalion commander said of dealing with problems in the Afghan forces. "There are plenty of sh-- heads. It's just how you deal with them. If some ANA [soldier] slingshots a round because he doesn't like that you're not giving him a bottle of water, and you let that go, then what happens next? He walks on post with the round sling-shotted and shoots you in the gut."
Nevertheless, Bradney said the Afghan soldiers and police in Sangin were mostly cooperative when the Marines insisted on new security precautions.
For example, Afghan weapons were stored in armories on partnered bases, rather than kept in their possession.
"We just told them: ‘If we have one [green-on-blue] incident in Sangin, life as you know it will f---ing stop. So watch your people, make sure you understand what's at stake and don't f--- about,'" Bradney said.
The battalion stressed the need to watch Afghan troops well before the rash of insider killings late this summer. From the outset of 1/7's deployment, "spies" were assigned to observe Afghan forces, and armed "shadows" watched over Marines' safety, Bradney said.
"One of the things we told them is, ‘We're not here to be your buddies,'" Bradney said of the Afghans they mentored. "I'm not going to backslap you and giggle and goof off with you. I'm here to maintain a professional, cordial relationship. I will be pleasant at all times unless you demonstrate that I shouldn't be. The Marines need to do that as well. It's a professional, cordial relationship. There's no reason to be hostile, but this is business, man."
Regrouping, moving forward
The series of attacks this summer included three that killed seven Marines and a Navy corpsman. Two sets of killings were carried out against personnel with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, and one targeted logistics Marines deployed to Helmand's Garmser district.
Sgt. Maj. Harrison Tanksley, the top enlisted Marine in Afghanistan, said it was necessary to "take a knee" afterward to "reassess how you are conducting business to make sure you are not a soft target." Commanders, including Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, the top officer in Helmand, rallied around the units affected, but it was important for Marines to continue showing trust in their Afghan counterparts, Tanksley said.
"We cannot afford to let our guard down anymore," he said. "But, just like we have to respect their customs, they also have to respect our customs."
In Helmand, the attacks also led Marine commanders to assess how safe their bases are. Advisers were sent out from Camp Leatherneck, the Corps' largest base downrange, to make additional recommendations to improve security, said the senior Marine official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It was take a look at your positions, take a look at where you're partnering and advising. Look at the risks on the inside and outside, and then make a determination: ‘OK, it's good to go,' or ‘OK, we need to make some changes,'" the Marine official said.
The response to the killings also bred confusion. The International Security Assistance Force, based in Kabul, released a statement in September saying that "in some local instances, operational tempo has been reduced, or force protection has been increased," as a result of the attacks. That was exaggerated in some media accounts to mean partnered operations ceased, the senior Marine official said.
"It was really fascinating watching that unfold over four or five days because in media … it was perceived to be: ‘Stop,'" the official said. "There was a big gap between what was fact and what was reported.
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