QUANTICO — The six Afghan army officers have fought the Soviets, the Taliban, maybe even each other. This week, the men, a lieutenant colonel and five captains, are learning a different way to fight — the American way.
Their thick black hair, moustaches — two sported beards — and chiseled faces suggested age and combat experience well beyond the clean-shaven Marine Corps officers teaching them Tuesday about the intricacies of the M82 sniper rifle.
The soldiers are part of a Marine Corps pilot program to give Afghan military officers in the middle ranks — company and battalion officers — a taste of American military leadership and training to take back to the troops of the fledgling Afghan National Army, said Lt. Col. Keith Jensen, a Marine officer escorting the Afghans.
They have flown halfway around the world to tour Marines bases here, Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Parris Island, S.C.
Back in Afghanistan, Marines are training two battalions, about 600 men each. U.S. Army advisors are training more than a dozen other battalions.
At Quantico, the Afghans observed how new officers learn military leadership and how snipers improve their marksmanship. They will see how enlisted Marines become infantrymen at Camp Lejeune and, during their visit to Parris Island, they will watch how recruits train.
“This is very important, especially for the Afghan National Army, because it’s the first time we’re coming to the U.S.,” said Lt. Col. Ishaq Tamkin, the leader of the Afghan contingent.
While here, Ishaq’s men hope to learn American leadership skills, logistics and training techniques.
One officer, Capt. Zabibullah, speaking haltingly in English, said the Afghan soldiers have become wiser since working with the Marines for several years.
“We came here to see and learn,” he added. Back in Kabul, he and the other officers will teach what they learned to their troops.
The Afghans might teach the Americans a few tactics too.
“Thirty years we’ve been at war,” Ishaq said through an interpreter, nodding his head at the other Afghans. “So, I think we have good combat experience.”
Especially, he added, in fighting guerillas; leading small units, like squads and platoons; and dealing with land mines — a battlefield scourge that still kills or injures up to 100 people per month in his country.
While he and his men are experienced soldiers, Ishaq said the Afghan army is “like a new-born baby, so it needs training.”
When will it be able to provide security without assistance from the United States and other nations?
Ishaq contemplated his answer for several seconds before speaking. “I’m sure after three to four years we’ll have a strong army,” translated the interpreter.
Coming to America was a first for all.
Asked about his impressions, Ishaq answered, “The culture is different. I can’t find any good green tea.”
Some of the Afghans are finding American food — heavy on beef — difficult to stomach. Their diet leans toward lamb or goat — two meats not normally on mess hall menus.
Their Marine escorts are searching for green tea and a restaurant serving roast lamb.