2:00pm

Tue May 8, 2012
Afghanistan

For Afghan Soldiers, A Battle For Respect

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 5:07 pm

Last month, the Taliban carried out their largest coordinated attack across Afghanistan, including three sites inside the capital Kabul. It took an 18-hour gunfight to end the assault.

But even as they took cover, Kabul residents saw something new: their own soldiers taking the lead, with limited help from NATO. Television footage showed Afghan soldiers moving confidently into the building where the militants were holed up, avoiding reckless gunfire that might have endangered civilians in the crowded city.

Afghan troops appear to be slowly winning the respect of their population, as they take a more prominent role in security operations. At the same time, Afghan soldiers say they are not getting the same respect from the government they're fighting for.

Untold Stories Of Valor

One Afghan feeling new pride in his country's forces is Taj Mohammad Jabar Khel.

"If we don't send our sons to be police officers and soldiers, then who should protect our land and our honor?" asks Jabar Khel. "Should we depend on the Americans? No."

But a steely sadness tempers Jabar Khel's pride. His 28-year-old son, Zamman, died in the building as part of an Afghan SWAT team. Two years ago he lost another son — an army colonel — to a Taliban ambush.

If all my boys are killed serving God and country, so be it, says Jabar Khel, who has three more sons in the military.

Afghan commanders say their soldiers and police don't always win medals, and stories of valor don't always make the paper. But there are plenty of stories.

Abdul Rizaq, 22, says he joined the police to serve his country -– but mostly to support his family with the $240 monthly salary. Two years into his work in Paktika province, he joined Afghan soldiers on a mission to capture a Taliban commander in the town of Yahya Khel. The attack ended with Rizaq kicking a grenade out of the enemy commander's hand before the man could pull out the pin.

Rizaq says he threw himself on top of the insurgent, and his partner helped cuff him. He did get a commendation for the arrest, but Rizaq and his comrades are under no illusions -– they say there is little compensation for what they do — and plenty of risk.

Jobless And Lacking Benefits

Amanullah Ahmadzai, a 27-year-old Afghan army veteran, is also from Paktika. On his very first mission, his convoy hit a roadside bomb.

Ahmadzai had one eye to his gun sight; the shrapnel hit his other eye. There was no ambulance with the Afghan convoy. The Americans eventually helped get him to a hospital, but it was Kabul's then-notorious military hospital. In years past, patients there brought their own food or faced starvation. They paid bribes to get medical treatment.

Doctors operated on Ahmadzai's eye — without anesthetic. He eventually spent twice his military severance pay to get treated in neighboring Pakistan.

But now, Ahmadzai says, he can't get a job and his disability pension doesn't always arrive.

These kinds of stories abound. Benefits getting skimmed off by commanders. Soldiers have to chip in to buy coffins for their slain comrades. Soldiers get stuck on the front line year after year because it takes a bribe to get sent to a safer place. Soldiers are killed in action, and their children end up begging in the street.

"I don't want anything special from the government," says Ahmadzai. "All I want is some respect not only for me, but also for all disabled veterans."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One more challenge now to add to those we just heard about from Tom. While Afghan troops do seem to be winning the respect of the Afghan people, many Afghan soldiers complain they're not getting the same respect from their own government. From Kabul, NPR's Quil Lawrence has that story.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Last month was marked by the Taliban's largest coordinated attack across the country, including three sites inside the capital. It took an 18-hour gunfight to end the assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIGHT)

LAWRENCE: But even as they took cover, residents of Kabul saw something new: their own soldiers taking the lead with limited help from NATO. Television footage showed Afghan soldiers moving confidently into the building where militants were holed up, avoiding reckless gunfire that might have endangered civilians in the crowded city.

TAJ MOHAMMAD JABAR KHEL: (Through Translator) Let me tell you that if we don't send our sons to be police officers and soldiers, then who should protect our land and our honor? Should we depend on the Americans? No.

LAWRENCE: One of those feeling new pride in the Afghan forces is Taj Mohammad Jabar Khel, but he does so with a steely sadness. His 28-year-old son Zamman died in the building as part of an Afghan SWAT team. Two years ago, he lost another son, an army colonel, to a Taliban ambush. That's his six grandchildren you hear running around in the house.

KHEL: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: If all my boys are killed serving God and country, so be it, says Jabar Khel. He has three more sons in the military. Afghan commanders say stories of valor by their soldiers and police don't always make the papers or win any medals. But there are plenty of stories.

ABDUL RIZAQ: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Abdul Rizaq, a 22-year-old police officer, says he joined the force to serve his country but mostly to support his family with the $240 per month salary. Two years into his work in Paktika province, he joined Afghan soldiers on a mission to capture a Taliban commander in the town of Yahya Khel. The attack ended with Abdul Rizaq kicking a grenade out of the enemy commander's hand before the man could pull out the pin.

RIZAQ: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Abdul Rizaq says he threw himself on top of the insurgent and his partner helped cuff him. He did get a commendation for the arrest, but Abdul Rizaq and his comrades are under no illusions. They say there is little compensation for what they do and plenty of risks. Amanullah Ahmadzai is a 27-year-old Afghan army veteran, also from Paktika. On his very first mission, his convoy hit a roadside bomb.

AMANULLAH AHMADZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Ahmadzai had one eye one to his gun sight; the shrapnel hit his other eye. There was no ambulance with the Afghan convoy. The Americans eventually helped get him to a hospital, but it was Kabul's then-notorious military hospital. In years past, patients there bought their own food or faced starvation. They paid bribes to get medical treatment. The doctors operated on Ahmadzai's eye without anesthetic. He eventually spent twice his military severance pay to get treatment in neighboring Pakistan.

AHMADZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But now, Ahmadzai says, he can't get a job, and his disability pension doesn't always arrive. There are plenty of stories about benefits getting skimmed off by commanders, as well as stories about soldiers having to chip in to buy coffins for their slain comrades. And soldiers stuck on the frontline year after year because it takes a bribe to get them sent to a safer place. And there are stories of Afghan soldiers killed in action whose children end up begging in the street.

AHMADZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: I don't want anything special from the government, says Ahmadzai. All I want is some respect for disabled veterans like me.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.