Features

'A long timetable'

Interview | U.S. soldier Scott Gurley on the stark challenges for the U.S./NATO mission in Afghanistan-and some of its untold successes

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

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.

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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.

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