The only question is, are we loyal to our country, to our people, to the rule of law? Are we dedicated to protecting this nation? Ultimately, in our minds, are we committed to peace or not?
—General Fazaludin Sayar
General Sayar remembers war. A soldier since he was 13 years old, he looks forward to the day when he can stop fighting for one army or another, when Afghanistan will be at peace. In 2005, he’s at the Herat Province Camp Zafar (called Camp Victory by the Americans), where he and the 207th Corps of the Afghan National Army are working with yet another unit of American embedded tactical trainers (ETTs). This training and advisory team changes each year, their tours on a schedule. And each year, General Sayar takes up the task of working with strangers while leading his men.
In 2005, at the start of Camp Victory, Afghanistan, General Sayar is working with a unit from the Vermont National Guard, headed by Major Kirby and Lt. Col. Boyd. “We spent the first three months trying to figure out what we’d inherited,” says Boyd, “which wasn’t much, you know.” As he describes the troops’ lack of discipline and decrepit facilities, the camera cuts to an ammunition belt hanging on a wall, a bird nesting in it. Another voice begins to speak over this shot, that of Sgt. Major Aminullah of the Afghan National Army. “The Americans are used to getting their way,” he says as the image cuts to a group of Afghan trainees running in formation through the camp. “They show up and expect it to be the same. After a few weeks, they realize it’s different here. Why? Our army is new, right? It just doesn’t work like that. Every advisor who comes here figures that out eventually.”
With this deft series of images and observations, Carol Dysinger’s superb documentary sets up the ongoing problems for both the Afghans and Americans, as they try to meet each other halfway. Screening at the Asia Society in New York on Veterans Day and also airing on PBS, the film offers a nuanced, poignant view of what it means to be a soldier in a system that seems premised on inefficiencies and tensions. For not only does the National Guardsmen change over each year, but they are also working with coalition forces, including the Italian Army and a Special Forces contingent. As General Sayar notes, this is a difficult array to keep on track, as each comes with its own agenda, its own plans, and its own language. Even apart from the difficulties of fighting the Taliban, this mix makes for problems in daily communications.
During Major Kirby’s tour, a series of IED attacks have killed Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and moved several ANAs to “slip away into the night.” Angry at their lack of commitment, Kirby insists that even if not all the ANAs are disappointing in this way, the “one or two that are bad… [have] tainted the whole thing. That changes your attitude right then and there.” Indeed, the cycle seems inexorable: when Major Kirby arranges for literacy classes (eight out of 10 of the Afghan troops are illiterate), the potential students don’t show up. Frustrated, he suggests that those soldiers who don’t want to miss afternoon prayer bring their prayer mats to class. Shaking hands with his Afghan counterparts, he imagines the problem solved. At class time, no one shows up. As the teacher stands outside the classroom, his eyes downcast and a pile of books in his arms, General Sayar observes, “The officers are inexperienced, they don’t have a real education [and can’t] execute orders properly.”
Major Kirby feels stymied. And the film points out why he must be. As he prepares to leave Camp Victory in 2006, he burns all his papers, a ritual for each ETT team that symbolizes the problem in this system: each unit begins anew, without a buildup of knowledge and experience, without relationships with the very men they’re assigned to counsel. The next ETT leader at the camp, Col. Mike Shute of the New Jersey National Guard, arrives with yet another view. (Col. Shute will be on hand to speak at the Asia Society screening on 11 November.) Rather than see himself as a “mentor,” as Major Kirby has put it, Col. Shute says he means to “advise” General Sayar; as well, he adds, he will not stand too close to him at public appearances (to demonstrate proper deference), listen to his concerns about the coalition’s activities and expectations, and help him to train his men and plan his missions as he sees fit. That is, Col. Shute sees in General Sayar a soldier of longtime experience (much more than the colonel has himself), a man he respects and will come to admire.
Col. Shute doesn’t approach literacy as a problem for U.S. military planning and training so much as it’s a problem for the villagers’ perceptions of the U.S. military. The locals, he reasons, “don’t know the difference between us and the Russians. We’re just another form of weapon, that’s all they see.” And so he focuses less on changing the Afghan Army than working with it, assuming that General Sayar and his men “know how to fight,” and need support rather than instruction. He makes an effort to work with the local population as well, at one point deciding to “take a walk” through village streets (his body armor isn’t exactly inviting, but still, he’s in view and greeting locals with smiles and waves). He also invites General Sayar to speak his mind.
These conversations are at once dramatic and instructive, offering General Sayar the opportunity to describe the dilemmas he faces each day from his view. Though he spent most of his life at war, the general longs for and envisions peace. A career soldier who would rather not be one, he mourns the loss of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military leader assassinated just two days before September 11, 2001. (The film underlines the contrast between the inspiration still provided by Massoud and the frustration embodied by Hamid Karzai, in a brief shot of their portraits on a wall side by side: Karzai smiles and waves like a plastic politician, Massoud appears earnest and thoughtful.) General Sayar worries that the American occupation and Karzai government are following the path of the Soviet regime: “Nowadays the government is reading the same manual [as the Russians],” he says. “No one tells the truth. I can tell the truth.”
And when he does, Col. Shute listens. The operations are disorganized, the several units must plan together, and the leaders - the Americans and NATO officers—must trust the men they mean to lead. “What he realized was that the coalition was not talking to each other, and the ANA was suffering for it,” says Col. Shute. “He essentially gave us an ultimatum: either train us, or we’ll do it ourselves.” Four years later, in 2010, this assessment still seems apt.