I spent the first 11 days of this month in a small combat outpost in Paktya province called COP Zormat. My original purpose in going there was to cover an important mission which was postponed several times and, to my chagrin, ultimately cancelled. Nevertheless, my visit did allow me to see the nuts and bolts of the Afghan Uniformed Police training for the first time, so it wasn’t a complete bust.
Two Afghan police officers I met during that time have come, in my own mind, to represent opposing extremes in Afghanistan’s continuum of possibilities.
On one extreme is the officer I met on Feb. 2 at a checkpoint only a few kilometers away from the Zormat District Center—which is something like city hall but at county level. I made a trip out there with troops from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Platoon Zormat, 92nd Military Police Co., who wanted to give the officers a refresher course on some basic medical skills in preparation for an upcoming evaluation. One particular officer displayed the worst attitude I had ever seen.
When the medic, Spc. David Silva from San Jose, California, began inquiring about this officer’s medical knowledge he discovered that the officer did not know what a tourniquet was. Even more appalling, he didn’t seem to care to know. Silva asked him if he loved his country; the response was rather muted. Silva asked him if he loved his friends; this time the affirmative response seemed a bit less forced.
“If your friend lost a leg what would you do?” Silva asked with the aid of a Pashtu interpreter.
“I’d drive him to the hospital,” the police officer said.
“He could bleed to death in four minutes,” Silva pressed. “What would you do to save him?”
The police officer shrugged and said, “I guess he’d just die.”
Silva began explaining that his friend didn’t have to die, that with the right knowledge he could be saved. He began constructing a tourniquet from a scarf and a small sturdy stick but the officer lost interest and wandered off. He came back a few minutes later when I conveyed that I would be taking pictures of the training. That, I guess, was enough to recapture his childlike attention span.
The encounter with this officer left me feeling distraught for several days. In order for the NATO mission to succeed the Afghan Uniformed Police and other Afghan institutions must have long term legitimacy. In order for the police to have long term legitimacy, they must not tolerate officers of this nature. His existence punctured the gradually swelling balloon of hope I was beginning to feel for the country.
Then I met the second officer and I began to regain hope. This officer, whose name is Hamyun, was among the youngest in the entire district. He claims to be 18 but many suspect he is much younger. Hamyun’s attitude could not have been more different from that of the officer at the checkpoint.
I first saw Hamyun when he was participating in a class on apprehending a suspect at COP Zormat. A civilian contractor was playing the part of the difficult customer who had no intention of getting arrested. Hamyun—who could not weigh more than a buck thirty, tops—aggressively pursued the much bigger contractor and brought him to the mat in about 20 seconds, practically giggling as he did it.
After the class, the contractor told me he was very impressed with that young man. Hamyun was attentive and retained the information from his classes. The U.S. troops on COP Zormat, who taught a variety of other classes for the benefit of the local Afghan police, shared the contractor’s opinion of Hamyun. He participated in every class with the same dedication and enthusiasm. Even after the training sessions ended, Hamyun could often be found sticking around to ask questions on finer points that were not covered in class. In short, everyone on COP Zormat knew and respected “the little guy.”
When it became clear my Big Story had been postponed indefinitely, I decided to do a profile piece on Hamyun, who turned out to be a willing subject. Hamyun was born in Afghanistan but spent most of his life in Pakistan. He returned six months ago and joined the Afghan Uniformed Police with high ideals and ambitions.
He spoke a fair amount of English and tried very hard to speak to me directly even though an interpreter was present. Everything about him seemed to be saying “your preconceptions do not limit my possibilities.”
“I like to serve my people and I like to learn and I want to have a high rank,” he said through an interpreter.
When I asked him what he liked to learn, he said, “everything.”
In my previous deployment to Iraq, I interviewed a few of that country’s soldiers. They would always tell me how much stopping terrorism meant to them. I would faithfully quote them verbatim, but always with the suspicion that it was so much hot air. Not so with this guy; he’s the real McCoy.
All Hamyun wanted in exchange for the interview were copies of the pictures I had taken of him training. He was a little disappointed that I could only give him black and white copies on non-glossed paper, but it was the best I could do.
Let’s go back to our first subject for a second. In retrospect, the presence of officers like him is understandable. After 30 years of war, tyranny and the degradation of the ecological and social environment, I too might be remarkably disinterested. Why invest labor when the fruits of my labor can be seized by anyone with a Kalashnikov? Why invest emotion in other people when the life expectancy in southeastern Afghanistan is so remarkably low (18 years less than Haiti in some areas, according to UNICEF)? And why bother saving another amputee?
That the nation’s predicament makes the first officer’s attitude understandable only reinforces the need for those like Hamyun. The question of whether NATO will succeed in Afghanistan, I suggest, comes down to two things: whether the Government of the Islamic Repubic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) can set up an incentive structure that rewards the Hamyuns, and whether there is a sufficient number of Hamyuns. Let’s hope that Hamyun is able to succeed, and that there are many, many more like him.
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