FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan -- "Hippos" is the name the 11-man Security Forces Assistance Team goes by when rolling off Forward Operating Base Lagman for a mission.
Assigned as advisers for the Qalat Reserve Kandak, an Afghan Uniformed Police, or AUP, battalion in Zabul province, SFAT 21, part of the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team with the Hawaii National Guard, has a huge task to accomplish.
Part of the enormity of the Hippos' task lies in the fact that the Qalat Reserve Kandak is the largest police unit in the province with more than 700 policemen manning seven companies and 30 checkpoints spread over 50 miles of territory.
Despite more than 10 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it has only been in recent years that coalition forces have focused primarily on training Afghan Security Forces to take over the security of Afghanistan. With the 2014 deadline for the coalition forces withdrawal looming, the 11-man SFAT 21 has become the Qalat Reserve Kandak's first and last Assistance team.
"They've never had an adviser before but they are very receptive to us," said Maj. Kevin Carbrey, the commander of SFAT 21.
But with less than a year left to work with the QRK, SFAT 21 had to decide where to focus their efforts and what training would produce the greatest sustainable results.
To understand the scope of possibilities and problems, the team had to first get to know the leadership of the QRK and begin building rapport with both the leaders and policemen who have never worked with American advisors before.
"The first few times we came out to visit the QRK headquarters, the Afghans just showed us how good things were. They didn't want to look bad in our eyes," said Capt. Trevor Mastromarino, the operations officer for SFAT 21. "It took many visits for them to begin to really tell us what was wrong and where they needed help."
What the SFAT learned was that the QRK of more than 700 policemen had a variety of issues. They operated using a fleet of Ford Ranger pickup trucks in various degrees of disrepair, with cell phones as a primary means of communication, with a few trained medics but only one equipped ambulance, with about one magazine worth of ammunition per police officer, with a serious lack in weapons training and no explosives ordinance training to speak of.
And yet the SFAT also learned that, despite all the shortcomings, lack of training and equipment, the QRK also seemed to get the job done.
"Their ability to traditionally police as we would think of it, is not there," Carbrey said, "But their ability to conduct counter-insurgency operations is robust. Their second and third companies act as quick response forces for the province. They've even offered us their help. They've said that if we ever need them we should just call and I have no doubt they'd be there 15 minutes before our own QRF."
After getting to know the QRK better, SFAT 21 determined that helping the police force develop and improve its logistics and supply chains will be a main focus for the remainder of the time they are advising. Enabling the QRK to increase their ammunition supplies and repair their vehicles will be key to the force's future sustainability.
Additionally, the team began teaching the police to recognize indicators of improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and is working to get at least 10 policemen special training in counter IED tactics, because the AUP are expected to take over the security of Highway 1 in their province by the summer of 2013.
"We're trying to find and focus our training on the guys who are going to stay and protect this place after we leave," Carbrey said. "They are attentive and highly motivated, knowing that when we leave, they are on their own."