‘It’d Be A Real Shame If We Got Out Of Here Before We Were Supposed To’

In evaluating Afghanistan’s early stages of democracy, U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Tom Gills says it’s been a “good news story.” As the senior enlisted leader in charge of training the Afghan army and police, he is working with the Afghans toward a 50,000-man army and a 70,000-man police force.

Gills deployed last January and will return to the Pentagon at the end of this month. He has traveled throughout Afghanistan and talked with service members. He also mentors the sergeant major of the Afghan army, the first ever in that position.

Gills called from his headquarters in Kabul and spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.

Tell us about your assignment. I work at the Combined Security Transition, Afghanistan, and we’re responsible for training, manning and equipping the Afghan army and police. I travel and make assessments of the training and mentorship. As sergeant major, my job is to go out there and tell the truth regardless of how painful or good it is.

What’s your assessment of the threat there? The threat’s real. I think it’s way overstated compared to the actual threat and when you compare it to the goodness that’s going on. In Kandahar, we’ve got a couple of provinces where it’s high threat. Enemy efforts are concentrated. In places that they’re not concentrated, it’s not an issue.

How would you evaluate the Afghan forces’ level of readiness? We use a readiness (capability) rating of 1 through 4 – capability milestone 4, can do nothing for self; 3 is they get it done with a lot of help from us; 2, they do quite well but we’re still needed as combat enablers, like helicopters, medical evacuation, military intelligence. “Cap 1,” they can do it all by themselves – limited interaction. Our goal is to get them to the high end of capability milestone 2.

The majority of forces are at the high end of capability milestone 3. The army is three years ahead of the police force. The police are at the low end of milestone 3.

Good news is we have a request in for a substantial increase of budget for equipping them. If that comes through, they’ll catch up readily with the army. We came here to fight a war, so we got the army up on its feet and running and then started a dedicated focus on police for just a year and a half now.

The budget increase is the most important thing to get us out of here more quickly. I consider that the exit strategy. Until we train and equip them to sustain themselves, we’re never going to get out of here.

Do they have problems recruiting or retaining forces? Police and army retention is the challenge. We do very well in recruiting. The retention challenge revolves around good solid banking and problems in the army and police. We’re getting an automated process in place and that takes out the culture of corruption. I hear that a lot in the media – a culture of corruption – and that’s not really true.

We have a problem with remote areas. Afghanistan is one and half times the size of Iraq and has 2 million more people with an army a quarter of the size. So getting through the terrain, getting money out and a banking infrastructure in a country that just survived 30 years of unbelievable war – that’s a real challenge. We’re also getting promotions set up, where previously there was no promotion process. As these systems are in place, pay improves, promotions improve and they reduce leadership challenges.

You travel throughout the country and are responsible for all the training. Talk about what you see as progress. With the police, the training was set up very professionally. The Germans have the lead in training with long-term schooling. We need that quality, but we wanted to inject some short-term classes to get an operational force on the street more quickly. In those courses we have good values training, where Islamic law, rule of law, code of commitment – like our code of conduct – is covered. That, combined with the flushing out of bad leaders and placement of good quality leaders, is really turning the police around. We hear good news stories every day.

Further, we’ve tripled the rate in which equipment is coming in and getting fielded. As we educate those in the logistics field, it moves faster and the patrolmen on the street get their equipment.

I mentor Sgt. Maj. Roshan of the Afghan army. Here’s a guy who learned English at our Defense Language Institute in a year and half and outperformed all his classmates from 45 nations in the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy. He was the honor graduate for all the international students.

Sgt. Maj. Roshan is a warrior; he’s been fighting since he was 14, bringing weapons in from Pakistan on horseback to fight the Russians. He led squads by the time he was 16. He was minding his own business in his hometown when fighting broke out in his back yard; half of his family was killed, either directly or indirectly, with the fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. So he joined the army and climbed the ranks from private up to sergeant major in the first year.

He may not be their army’s single greatest hope, but he’s in the top three. He’s a natural charismatic leader; soldiers know him and love him. His innate ability to read a crowd, gain their confidence; it’s fantastic to watch, inspiring, just a ball of fire and extremely visionary.

What’s the reaction of the Afghans? They’re very affable, congenial people and it’s extremely positive. It’s the fourth-poorest country in the world. How poor is that? It’s freaking poor – unbelievable. In many places it’s like the 17th century; in others it’s advanced. They leap centuries every six months.

When can they take over? If we get the resourcing we asked for, then at the end of 2008, truthfully, we can probably start peeling back as a coalition. The resources are going to provide enough people and combat enablers to defend themselves without our support and mobilize their army to be where they need to quickly. It’s going to give us the constabulary ability to police ungoverned space, weaponry to clear an area, hold it and establish law.

To do that it costs money. We don’t need to be here to do it for them.

Americans are tired of the conflict. What are your comments? American people, God love us all, we’re the microwave generation. You want something, you want it now. There’s a new movie, I got to have it tomorrow. I can get online and make it happen.

In less than five years, we’ve gone from no army and a completely corrupt, dysfunctional police to a working army and police, ministry and government. That’s pretty daggone amazing. They’re doing a lot on their own and it’s getting better every day. There are challenges; there are pockets of crappiness, but many good things are going on.

Somebody was complaining about the police: “I heard a young policeman has to pay his boss money to be in the police.” I said, it’s a good thing there’s no corruption going on in NYPD or Miami PD. We have our problems [in America] also. But there are plenty of successes.

My personal belief is that we need to stay here until the job is done. I have 4,200 service members and teammates that would absolutely echo that thought. We’re a very good success story in the aggregate, given what we were given. It’d be a real shame if we got out of here before we’re supposed to.

Anything else you wish to share? I think there’s a lot of hope, there’s a lot of goodness. There are challenges but there are so many successes. The Afghan people are hard-working, industrious and thirsty for knowledge. It’s an awesome experience to come over here and work with them.

MyLinh Shattan can be reached atmylinh@mylinhshattan.com.

Jan 7, 2007

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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