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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Andrew Ashley Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Andrew Ashley

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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Andrew Ashley

As Told To Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

A native of Northern Virginia, Andrew Ashley graduated from West Point and served five years in the U.S. Army. In December 2007, he received orders calling him back to active duty. The ensuing administrative muddle was all too typical of how the military assigns troops to the adviser mission.

I was recalled from something called the Individual Ready Reserve. It’s a list of people who, if called upon, can be ordered to return to active duty and serve at the needs of the Army. I checked my mail, and I had a manila envelope from the Army, and it was orders recalling me back to duty. [My reaction,] it was a combination of laughter -- because I’d been off active duty for five years -- and a little bit of sorrow because you know your life is changing. But at the same time there’s a little bit of pride.


The point of contact was a unit in Michigan, a National Guard unit. I contacted the commander. He was surprised to get my call, and then he was just like, "Well, I’m actually at strength, I don’t necessarily know that I need you." Ultimately, it was decided I wouldn’t go with that unit. I was going to Fort Riley, Kansas [the site of the Army's school for advisors at the time].

At Fort Riley, for the guys who were going to Iraq, it was much more organized than for the guys who were going to Afghanistan. They knew where they were going in Iraq, they knew what units they were going to, they were corresponding with the units they were going to replace.

We didn’t know any of that stuff. We found out very late in the ballgame -- a week or two before we left -- that we were going to be most likely working with the police, and we didn’t know where in Afghanistan we were going.


At Fort Riley we studied a lot of Dari, [but] we were sent to southern Afghanistan, where some people know a little bit of Dari but it’s mostly Pashtun. I was fortunate in that we had very good translators.

We went to Kandahar, which is the major hub for operations in the south, the heartland of the Taliban, and at that point we found out where within southern Afghanistan we would be assigned. We were all split up at Kandahar. I was the only man on the team that went to Helmand province. [Later] I was in a very remote area of Zabul.

My role changed -- I started out as an XO, the number two guy, on the team in Helmand province. And ultimately when I was in Zabul I was the team leader.

When I went up to Zabul, we didn’t hit any IEDs. When I was in Helmand we hit one. We were very lucky. Three anti-tank mines detonated just in front of our lead vehicle, which under most circumstances would have been my vehicle, and it was not a direct hit: The IED went off just in front of the vehicle and banged up the vehicle pretty significantly. We were very fortunate: Everyone lived. It could have been a lot worse. The IED basically took out from one side of the highway to the other. A couple of weeks before that happened, an IED went off that killed several soldiers not far from there.


In Garmsir [a district in Helmand], we’d live at checkpoints and sleep under the stars on a cot. This started in the summer -- late May, June, July. Summer in Afghanistan gets very, very hot, wearing all the armor.

[In Zabul] we were in a very remote area, and if logistically things are difficult for us, it’s doubly so for the Afghans -- to get supplies out to a remote location, to keep their police there. A lot of them don’t necessarily want to live in such a remote area.

The mission of the police in Afghanistan is not to issue parking tickets. They are on point in this counterinsurgency fight. It seems like just as many police are getting killed, if not more, than Afghan army. The police are out in the communities, they’re out on the roads, they’re detaining Taliban, they’re killing Taliban, they’re leading convoys.

When I was in Garmsir, and we went out into local villages, the people didn’t seem to speak very much, didn’t provide very much information. There had been a lot of fighting in that area; there had been a lot of people that were displaced from their homes. They saw the Russians come and go, they saw the Taliban come and go, they see the Americans here today and maybe gone tomorrow. People may be not hostile to you; that doesn’t mean that we’re friends.

It did depend even within Zabul what village you went to. You’d go to some village and you’d see the Taliban fleeing on motorcycles before you got to the village. Whereas other villages you’d go to, the kids were happy to see you; they’d always want candy. The villages that saw us more frequently, that had confidence that they weren’t going to be overtaken by the Taliban, were generally more friendly.

We did a lot of humanitarian missions. We got some airdrops for things like blankets and food and heating oil and that type of thing, which we distributed out to the local communities. We distributed a lot of grain. We tried to have the police delivering the assistance to the people, not so much the Americans. We wanted the Afghans to be the face of that.

One conversation I had that was very memorable: I was in a village, and I was talking to a little kid, and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he didn’t know. And I said, "Well, you know, would you like to be a member of the police?" And he said, "No way." I said, "Why not? You can serve your country." He said he didn’t want to be a police, because he’d get his head cut off. I said, knowing the Afghans need health care a lot, "Well, would you like to be a doctor?" And he says, "How am I going to be a doctor? There’s no school here. There’s nobody in this village that knows how to read.”

It’s a very incestuous situation in southern Afghanistan; everybody knows people in the Taliban. We are really trying to build up the Afghan units, and there’s lots of recruiting, and not everybody who signs up to be with the police is with us.

At one point, there was a time where, like, 20 police pulled their weapons on me. It was in Zabul, in the city of Qalat, at the police headquarters. We had deployed a significant amount of our police to the training center to receive training, and then upon returning to Zabul, there was a significant contingent of the police that did not want to go to our location, because it was very remote, it was very isolated, it was dangerous, and they refused to go. They were not Pashtun and a lot of the police that I had in that district were Pashtun, and this group of Afghans felt that they wouldn’t get a fair shot, even though there were Afghans of all sorts of different tribes that were working well in my district.

[But] the Afghan colonel there was very firm in the fact that they would be going. There was some verbal exchange, and the colonel grabbed the AK-47 from the junior policeman and yelled at him. The next thing I know, 20-plus Afghans drew their weapons on me and this colonel and some of my other soldiers, and there was a moment of great intensity.

Fortunately, everyone calmed down. But it underscores some of the tribal issues that you have within the Afghan police and the Afghan army.

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