KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Stocking warehouses in most police forces is low-rank, unglamorous work. In Afghanistan, where literacy and education are at a premium, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hurley is pushing to make it a well-paid and prestigious job.
The U.S. and its allies are rushing to ready the Afghan army and police to take over control of security from July, but they are discovering they have a job far more complex than just providing guns and training about how to use them.
Years of funding shortages, civil war, corruption and weak leadership have eaten away at the backbone of logistics, medical and training systems that support front-line troops.
So U.S. Air Force officer Hurley is just one of hundreds of foreign soldiers who have found themselves in Afghanistan fighting a war with training manuals, Excel spreadsheets and theories about supply lines.
Hurley runs training and management at the Afghan police force’s largest regional logistics hub, where just six Afghan officers coordinate supplies for 20,000 police in the south.
“One of the greatest challenges we face is the lack of literate, capable Afghan logisticians,” Hurley told Reuters in a gleaming warehouse stacked with everything from waterproof coats to pistols kept in a padlocked wire cage.
At present the pay and rank of the jobs are low. In a country where two-thirds of the population is illiterate, that makes it virtually impossible to attract police with the management and record-keeping skills needed, or give them a salary that ensures they resist temptations toward corruption.
“Logistics isn’t terribly glamorous, but what they control are the resources and the weapons so there is incredible pressure on them and a huge revenue stream,” Hurley said, adding that it is also a dangerous career choice.
“If they are doing things honorably they are at huge risk from the Taliban,” he said, gesturing to the stacks of guns.
Commanders in the field also cite logistics as a major problem. Lieutenant Colonel Omar Jones, who commands ISAF troops in Zabul province, which neighbors Kandahar, says a crack Afghan army unit has the combat training to secure several districts but still struggles with supply chains.
“I think the biggest challenge is logistics. They know how to do security, I think the majority want to do it well, and I am impressed by their commitment,” he said on an outcrop overlooking an ancient mud hill fort.
And at a meeting in Kandahar’s western Panjwai district -- last year an insurgent-dominated corner of one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces -- the local army commander’s biggest concern now is securing generators for small outposts.
NATO training teams have known for a long time that logistics were a serious problem, but faced with a weak and fragmented police and army they decided to focus money and attention on frontline skills first.
“There was a conscious decision two or three years ago to say ‘what are we going to do first -- build a fighting force or build a logistics force?'” said Brigadier General Bruce Scott, an Australian in charge of training in southern Afghanistan.
“They could have built a logistics force and we’d have no one because we’d be overrun, so we built a fighting force first. So this is what we are suffering from at the moment, through no one’s fault, the logic is very sound,” he told Reuters.
Now there is time to focus on supply chains and equipment sourcing, but building a support system for an army thousands of miles away from home, in a radically different culture, is a constant challenge even for experienced soldiers.
“You can’t just look in the mirror, and provide them with what your army would want,” said Command Sergeant-Major Ralph Beam, who helps implement the training scheme.
“You have to work out how they operate, and respect that,” he said on an Army logistics base, where cold storage units for frozen meat were filled with sacks of uncooked rice.
Since it was built, the training team have realized that Afghan units tend to buy live animals and slaughter them on their bases, so the money and space dedicated to huge cold storage units for meat could have been better used elsewhere.
Beam’s commitment to revamping the army includes wearing every new design of boots turned out by an Afghan factory in Kabul, as the U.S. pushes to channel millions of dollars of spending on supplies into domestic businesses.
They are now as good as U.S. boots, he says, and other skills appear to be coming together as well -- with a computer room in the Kandahar base up and running to log supplies and rows of clearly labeled equipment ready to distribute.
“This is an effort where our progress is measured in centimeters,” said Hurley, minutes after General William Caldwell, head of the training mission in Afghanistan, decided to award him a medal for his work.
“We try to instill in our guys that tactical patience so they feel like they have made a large accomplishment even when they see a little bit of progress.”
Editing by Alex Richardson