FORWARD OPERATING BASE NOW ZAD, Afghanistan - Sitting in a meeting room here March 18, Afghan National Army Lt. Col. Shirali Noori spoke to his Marine counterparts, taking brief pauses between his words to hide his emotions.
“I report to Jalalabad in four days,” said the saddened Shirali, commander of 4th Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps.
Captain Nicolas Rapkoch, a U.S. Marine advisor with 4th Kandak, 2/215th Corps Security Force Assistance Advisor Team, and fellow Marines on his team were shaken and without response. For three months, Rapkoch had worked alongside Shirali and developed respect and admiration for his counterpart.
Shirali commanded the 4th Kandak for three and a half years, moving with the unit from Delaram and Sangin districts and finally settling in Now Zad district. His new assignment will take him northeast to command 4th Kandak, 4th Brigade, 201st Corps.
Throughout Rapkoch’s time at Forward Operating Base Now Zad, he advised Shirali and his staff daily and watched Shirali improve security in the district while developing his officers and enlisted soldiers.
Rapkoch, a Tacoma, Wash., native, quickly realized Shirali’s leadership was critical to the kandak’s success.
After hearing the news of Shirali’s new assignment, Rapkoch spent the rest of the day wondering how he would tell the other members of his advisor team. He wondered if the new kandak commander would be as respected by the ANA soldiers and the Afghan people.
“It was a sad moment for us, because we really enjoyed working with [Shirali],” Rapkoch said. “We became emotionally attached to him because he and his guys treated us like family.”
Shirali’s leadership in the district helped create a safe environment for the people living within its boundaries, said Rapkoch. Shuras, or town hall meetings where Muslims air their grievances and discuss issues, were almost unheard of before the 4th Kandak arrived. Now elders come to the district center regularly to discuss ways the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can help the people there.
During the last three months, Shirali and his soldiers conducted two major clearing operations in and around the district. Rapkoch accompanied Shirali on the missions to meet with local elders while operations were underway.
“Despite the shooting going on around him,” said Rapkoch, “he was able to remain calm even when he knew the people he was talking with might have been protecting the enemy.
“It’s evident when he speaks, people are listening to him and want to follow him,” Rapkoch added. “He knows his troops will go anywhere he directs them to go and the enemy also knows that. And he wants the people [in Now Zad] to know of his good intentions.”
Shirali has spent most of his life at war. His experience as a tank commander during the Soviet invasion and as a freedom fighter during the Afghan civil war which followed “made him the effective combat leader he is today,” Rapkoch said.
“He’s been in more complex and dire situations than the one we’re in right now,” said Rapkoch.
But Shirali said he is tired of war, and he believes peace will only come when Afghans support the government.
The only way to achieve that, is by him and his troops treating the people with dignity and respect.
The kandak commander made respect a theme among his troops. He treats them as he expects them to treat the local members of the community they encounter during missions.
Rapkoch likened the way Shirali works with his subordinates to that of Marines, the bond Marines share on the battlefield and the idea of decentralized leadership.
“He genuinely cares about his soldiers,” Rapkoch said. “During briefs, he’ll bring in his men and have them do the briefs, so one day they’ll be able to be in his position.
“He knows there are many different cultures among his men, but he likes to focus on the similarities, not the differences,” said Rapkoch.
Rapkoch said Shirali understands the advisor team’s role in Now Zad is to communicate and make suggestions. He said the time is coming when the team must leave and Shirali understands there’s a “reason behind our role and that our method works.”
Shirali considers himself to be lucky to have served with Marines. He said the professionalism they displayed while working with his kandak will have a lasting impression.
“We used to sit down daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Shirali said. “The Marines were very good to us and taught us a lot.”
Shirali said he and his men are very grateful for the training they conducted with the SFAAT, which included courses on explosive ordnance disposal, vehicle maintenance and first aid.
“Most importantly the Marines came from thousands of miles away, leaving their families, to risk their lives to protect us and help the future of Afghanistan,” said Shirali.
U.S. Marine Maj. Paul Jarr, the executive officer for 2/215th SFAAT, spent a month in Now Zad helping the team set up operations, ensuring they had the tools needed for mission success.
Jarr said he quickly realized Shirali was a genuine person and had great intentions for his Afghan soldiers and the people of Now Zad.
“He was adamant to find out who his soldiers really were,” Jarr said. “He was definitely combat effective. He has the tools to assess where he’s at, the capabilities and strength of his men, and he just knew what it took to take the fight to the enemy rather than allowing the enemy to bring the fight to them.”
The Marines serving with the team are Shirali’s fourth set of advisors. When the last team of advisors left, Shirali was on leave and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. He made it a point during the meeting to extend his gratitude and say farewell.
“Well, don’t get up in the middle of the night and leave without saying goodbye this time,” Rapkoch jokingly said to Shirali.
“It’s impossible,” Shirali said. “We are brothers, here. I won’t ever miss that opportunity again. You are my family.”