GARDEZ, Afghanistan – Not a soul was in sight when two columns of uniformed Afghan men, some armed, made their way into a small village just outside the city.
Some of the men would later surmise that when residents saw them coming, they quickly holed up inside their homes, hoping to avoid any contact.
The men, members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, broke the ice by brandishing crayons and pencils, not pistols and rifles. The children came out first, one or two at a time initially, and then, as word spread, a flood. The parents followed, hesitant but curious.
The next day, the scene repeated in another village. Children clutching pencils joined the ANCOP men as they trudged through snow and mud in familiar blue-green uniforms and the newer, digitized versions, to meet and greet residents and pass out school supplies. Young boys and teens alike followed them everywhere. An elderly man invited the men at his door in for tea.
That gesture best illustrates a lesson Col. Mohammed Yosuf Shirzad stresses with the men, all students in an intelligence/ counterinsurgency operations basic course he teaches with U.S. Army Capt. Tlaloc Cutroneo.
“Because of their performance, they were able to gain the trust,” said Shirzad, who has spent the last 18 months of a 26-year career with the Ministry of Interior working in the ANCOP headquarters G-2, or intelligence, section. “It is part of the police’s responsibility to get the trust of the people. If you want their support, you have to get their trust first.”
Shirzad and Cutroneo make up an ANCOP mobile training team, which also includes an interpreter and a driver. For three months, they’ve traveled the country in a small green pickup truck to ANCOP bases, where they help brigade commanders get their G-2 sections up and running. Classes are made up of about 20 select officers and enlisted men, most with no intelligence background. They learn the basics of gathering information, analysis, map reading and overlays, using a GPS, and counterinsurgency operations.
The village patrols, and a third patrol through the Gardez market area, made up a three-day practical exercise. The men also paid a visit to a local school for students from poor families, where the men handed out boxes of donated school supplies sent to Cutroneo by friends and family.
One student leader was chosen to plan each patrol and the school visit, to include mapping routes, calling for weather and security reports and touching base with area coalition security forces. A heavy snowfall on the first day of the exercise pushed the patrol back by several hours.
The exercise culminated with a ceremony in which students received a certificate for successfully completing the course. Each man held the certificate above his head and proclaimed “I serve for Afghanistan.” One added: “For the poor people of Afghanistan.”
Cutroneo thanked the men for their enthusiasm and willingness to put into practice what they learned in the classroom. He reminded them that building relationships with the citizens they serve is crucial to defeating the enemy and saving lives.
“Our job is to show people this uniform is a symbol of trust,” he said. “In the last couple of days, you saw how people acted with you . . . it made you proud to wear the uniform.”
That rings true with 2nd Lt. Abdul Jamil, one of the top graduates and the intelligence officer for ANCOP’s 2nd Battalion, 4th Brigade. It was a good feeling, he said, to wear the new uniform and be invited into homes for chai.
“That’s very important,” said Jamil. “Without the support of the people, we can’t secure a village or an area.”
Col. Gul Mohammad Rasikh, commander of ANCOP’s 4th Brigade, echoes the importance of building and nurturing relationships with the local community. Having the course taught on his base, and seeing the students go into nearby villages has helped his brigade do that, he said.
His men had no experience in intelligence before starting the course and the best he hoped for was that they would learn something to help them to their jobs. Rasikh, who has served with the Ministry of Interior for almost 20 years and with ANCOP for three, was impressed with the end results. He would like to see an advanced course at some point.
“Our unit is operational, our intelligence officers are the eyes of the unit,” said Rasikh. “If someone has no eyes, they can see nothing.”
An advanced course may be possible, but not in the near future, Cutroneo said. The objective now is to get brigade intelligence sections operating, and to do follow-up visits to the brigades to assess how their intelligence sections are operating.
Cutroneo, who did similar training with Iraqi special police units a few years back, credits his Afghan partner, Shirzad, for much of the success they’ve seen in classrooms. Getting high-caliber students who want to learn is vitally important, he believes.
“When the colonel calls and says give us your best and brightest, he can explain what we’re looking for and what it will do for them,” said Cutroneo.
It also helps that the pair believe equally in what they are teaching, particularly the importance of building relationships and gaining the trust of the people. The students listen and treat him with respect, but Cutroneo believes Shirzad often makes a greater impact.
“I can teach something and they’ll listen, but it’s more like ‘Here’s another American with a big idea,’” said Cutroneo. “But when [Shirzad] teaches the exact same thing, it has instant credibility because he’s an Afghan.”
Still, it was clear most students bonded with Cutroneo – known as “T.C.” in the ANCOP ranks – when one after another asked to have their photo taken with him after the graduation ceremony.
“We appreciate everything T.C. and the colonel has done for us,” said 2nd Sgt. Sardaragha Sikendary, of the 4th Brigade Headquarters. “They gave us information we couldn’t have learned on the battlefield.”