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Afghan Troop Training Challenges Examined by Documentary Filmmaker

June 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally, we return to the Afghanistan story.

As we noted earlier, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan has issued a report criticizing efforts to build up Afghan security forces.

For a different perspective on how that program is working, we turn to documentary filmmaker Carol Dysinger. She spent months filming Afghan military units and the American soldiers trying to train them.

Ray Suarez recently spoke with her.

RAY SUAREZ: Building an Afghan military has been one of the central policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Progress has been slow and uneven. A new documentary, “Camp Victory, Afghanistan,” chronicles American National Guard units and their work with an Afghan corps commander and his troops in Herat in the western part of the country.

Filmmaker Carol Dysinger, a professor of graduate film and new media at New York University’s Film School, spent an extensive amount of time in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2008, and joins me now.

And you got in, well, on recruiting day. To be able to chronicle the life of an army from day one is a pretty amazing experience.

CAROL DYSINGER, documentary filmmaker: Yes. Well, it was an amazing experience. And I am — was very lucky to have the time to be able to sit there, because I think the advantage I had and the access I got came from the fact that I could be there for so long and film for so long.

RAY SUAREZ: You make the point, almost from the opening frames of the film, that this is more than just getting young men to join the army. This is something that is starting from, well, behind square one. There’s not even really quite a country yet. Why don’t we take a look at that?


MAN (through translator): Joining the national army was not just a privilege for one group. No ethnic group is stronger than another. This is an Afghan army. Understand? You get equal privileges. Your contract is for three years.

Did all of you come here voluntarily? All of you?

MAN (through translator): Take the grenade. Throw it. A grenade. Take a grenade. Throw it there. Call, “Grenade.” Move over here. What a shame. They are filming you.

MAN (through translator): Keep your muzzle in, so it can’t be seen. Kneel down. I see you standing there. OK.

RAY SUAREZ: These guys give new meaning to the words raw recruit.

RAY SUAREZ: They — and the officer says: “What a shame. They’re filming you.”

RAY SUAREZ: This access is very intimate.


Well, I think part of it was that I was a woman, and so had no position. Nothing had to be proved to me. They called me “Professor.” So, I fit into their pantheon, you know. Also, I liked these young men. They’re young men. They’re students. I’m a teacher.

So, I felt they were raw recruits. Many of them had never been out of their villages before. They had never seen an American before. You know, but they were game. You know, they were willing to give it a try.

RAY SUAREZ: Their trainers from the Vermont National Guard put great stock in trying to raise that literacy rate from one out of five adult young men to something higher than that, but were early on in the film frustrated in their efforts to get people to take learning to read seriously. We go to see that as well.

MAN: Right now, we have got to get the soldiers to the 4:00 class that’s coming up in one hour.

MAN: One hour, for the literacy?

MAN: For the literacy, yes.

MAN (through translator): Roger, sir. Tell them we have problems with classes at 4:00 p.m. I agree it’s important, but the soldiers will think we’re taking their prayer time.

MAN: We’re only asking two days, just two days a week to educate them. If they need to go to a mosque, we will get a van and go to the mosque. But, if they can make an exception and pray in class, that’s good.

He’s OK with that?

MAN: I have told them what time to be here, how many soldiers to be here. Nobody shows.

RAY SUAREZ: Was that cultures colliding right there, the idea, if we have a schedule and it says 4:00, you ought to be there? They sound perplexed, bewildered almost.

CAROL DYSINGER: In a lot of ways, this was a very good moment, because Kirby (ph) was trying to train damage — Major Kirby, now Colonel, who is over there now again, he was trying to train this guy to organize something. And the guy organized something. He just didn’t organize it, like, all the way.

And part of that is cultural. The prayer time, in many ways, it’s kind of like our Sunday. It’s not necessarily that we’re going to go to church, but, if somebody said you have to work on Sunday, we would want an explanation.

RAY SUAREZ: You showed us both a blistering tongue-lashing from a senior officer after it was found that military materials were being squirreled away in personal areas.

Let’s watch.

MAN (through translator): Damned am I for being your commander. In soldiers’ lockers, we found all kinds of things, bayonets, knives, empty clips. Bullets are being sold.

Come to my office. I will show you this much ammunition meant for the Taliban. Wouldn’t it be a shame if this got you killed or led Mullah Omar’s to our gates? Wouldn’t it be a disgrace if the country we took back, after such sacrifice, was handed back to these outlaws to destroy before our eyes?

If people see this in their own army, how can they trust us? All the Taliban in Helmand are being armed from here. I am ashamed to be your commander. Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: When we see an Afghan general chewing out the troops over some infraction, help us understand what exactly is going on there. What’s he so — what he’s so mad about?

CAROL DYSINGER: Well, it would seem that somebody had stolen a bunch of bullets and a whole bunch of opium and had stuck it in his locker.

And there wasn’t at that time a military — a JAG officer. There was no military justice system in place. So, really, the only way to deal with this was to do a sort of additional humiliation of the soldier. And that’s basically what he was doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a discipline problem that you saw?

CAROL DYSINGER: I don’t know if it’s a discipline problem or a corruption problem.

In our army, if half of the stuff happened that happened, they wouldn’t be soldiers anymore. But when you’re undermanned and you’re trying to puff up an army this big, can you say it’s a discipline problem when somebody is doing something wrong that they’re not punished for, and so it happens again?

RAY SUAREZ: A main character in Dysinger’s film General Fazil Ahmad Sayar, commander of the Afghan army’s 207th. He was a battle-hardened veteran of Soviet occupation and the war against the Taliban.

Now, having to work with another occupying army, this one sent to help his own forces find their way to combat readiness, some cracks in the partnership were showing.

MAN (through translator): Our American advisers give us one plan. The Italians give us another. And then the special forces tell us to ignore all that and go with them on missions. If you don’t trust the officers, the commanders, or even the Ministry of Defense, then what are we all doing here?

RAY SUAREZ: You could hear the frustration. The Americans tell us one thing. The Italians tell us another, special forces yet another. Did he have a point?

CAROL DYSINGER: I think one of the great myths that the Afghans have about us is, if the Americans do it, they must know what they’re doing. It doesn’t occur to them that perhaps we’re not coordinated.

RAY SUAREZ: When you left Afghanistan, did that 207th look more like a cohesive fighting force, where the men in arms knew what they were doing, and, if you gave them orders, would carry them out with some efficiency?

CAROL DYSINGER: If you’re asking whether they behaved like an American army, I would say no.

But I think a lot of what I saw and came away feeling wasn’t that there was so much something wrong, you know, with them, as much as there was something kind of wrong with our expectations and our capacity to translate the reality on the ground to behavior upstairs.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dysinger, thanks a lot.


JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Dysinger gathered footage for her film between 2005 and 2008. It was edited before the recent debate began again over the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Her documentary airs on many PBS stations in August and September.