The Magazine

Back to the Afghan Future

The return of the Gurkhas.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By ANUP KAPHLE and GRAEME WOOD
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Back to the Afghan Future

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

Last summer, before the U.S. Marines moved into Marja and began doing what Marines do best, the NATO command center in nearby Lashkar Gah—capital of Helmand province—had a small black-and-white poster on its wall. It featured a grinning Asian man, wearing a hat with a chinstrap and carrying a small, cucumber-shaped sword. The caption read: “Gurkhas: Because a big guy with a little knife and a frown isn’t as scary as a little guy with a big knife and a smile.”

There are about 3,700 Gurkhas in the British army, and until a few months ago they were the dominant presence in Lashkar Gah. Thanks to a long history in the British army, these Nepalese soldiers have a reputation as fearsome warriors. It seems vaguely improbable when you first meet them. Where other soldiers are broad-backed and tall, the Gurkhas are skinny and short. Where others are loud and blustery, the Gurkhas are quiet and reserved. The assumption, which the Gurkhas and their British comrades seem pleased to cultivate, is that their silence is of the tightly wound, steel-nerved kind, and that in battle they strike with deadly precision. The enduring romantic totem of their violence is the kukri knife. When we asked a Gurkha why he would carry a knife to a gunfight, he looked surprised by the question and said “To chop the enemy,” as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about preparing dinner. 

The Gurkhas’ reputation as unsentimental killers has shown no sign of dying down in recent decades. But during their six-month turn in Helmand last year, the signature virtue of the Gurkhas was less their bravery than their culture. NATO has struggled to field soldiers who can relate well with their Afghan counterparts. Nepal is only a few hundred miles from Afghanistan, and Gurkhas share linguistic and social kinships that should make them ideal trainers and partners to the Afghan army. The Gurkhas have a storied past in Afghanistan, too. Gurkha units fought for the British in the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars (1878-80 and 1919).

The Gurkhas’ latest Afghan deployment began modestly, with a 45-soldier detachment that joined an initial force of about 380 British soldiers in Helmand. In 2006, they saw their first serious resistance from the Taliban. During a shura in Nawzad, Taliban ambushed 110 Gurkhas. In the six-hour battle, 20-year-old Gurkha rifleman Nabin Rai was hit first in the eye and then in his helmet but refused to be evacuated for treatment. The British papers fawned over a quote from Rai’s commander indicating that the Gurkha had played to character, sitting down for a cigarette to shake off the shock from the second hit before quickly returning to duty. 

In Helmand the following year, hundreds of Gurkhas took part in Operation Palk Wahel (“Sledgehammer Hit”), where they were tasked with driving away the Taliban from the Upper Gereskh valley and into Musa Qala. The subsequent battle claimed the life of Yubraj Rai, the first Gurkha to die in Afghanistan for almost a century. Two more would be killed before the deployment ended.

But last summer the Gurkhas in Helmand moved from offensive missions to staffing mentoring teams tasked with training the Afghan police. NATO soldiers have so far failed miserably at training the Afghan security services and convincing them to do their job. Even with interpreters the two sides have rarely really understood each other. This is a natural and predictable effect of pairing a force that uses night-vision goggles with one that has never before worn footwear with laces. 

A scene last summer at Lashkar Gah’s last checkpoint on the road to Kandahar was typical: The British soldiers were supposed to be overseeing the Afghan policemen manning this important post, but mostly they just traded dumb grins and fondled each other’s weapons (taking care to check twice to make sure the Afghans’ dime-store Kalashnikovs were clear). Trucks passed by, and British soldiers watched in dismay as the Afghans occasionally conducted strange and incompetent searches. One British soldier had a fresh tattoo in what he thought were Dari letters but were in fact pure gobbledygook. He slouched against a wall sullenly, hiding his arm from the eyes of the few literate Afghans, so they wouldn’t ridicule him. 

But when the Gurkhas arrived, an unlikely communion began. The Nepalese soldiers and the Afghans have a common language—Hindi—because of their shared love of Bolly-wood. When they talk the affection seems real. A British platoon commander said that policemen would first come to the Gurkhas with intelligence on location of the Taliban or about a possible attack. “It’s easier for them to come to the boys because they can communicate with each other,” he said. Afghans who stand baffled and tightlipped when a British soldier asks questions will suddenly open up and spill vital details when the question comes from a Gurkha. 

The Gurkhas are mostly Hindu, and the Afghans Sunni. But the religious gulf matters little. “Most of these Afghans believe in god. We also believe in god, but they believe in god more than we do,” says Shivendra Gurung. 

The Gurkhas, whose name comes from a Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath, are generally very religious. Inside their massive tent at the base in Lashkar Gah, they have lined up idols and images of Hindu gods, and most Gurkhas worship before them before heading out on both routine patrols and major operations against the Taliban. Even those manning the computers and phones at the operations base wear tikas, the red forehead dots that mark blessings from the gods. 

The Gurkhas, many of whom are in their early 20s, and the Afghan policemen have made easygoing friends. Before going out on operations, the Afghans often buy a goat from nearby villages—the animal is popular in a wide variety of Nepalese dishes—and the two groups slaughter it and share dinner. They smoke cigarettes, recite poems, and joke about which Bollywood actress they would like to marry. They know the same movies—and so the same pop songs, as well. Even the older Afghans, whose stern expressions seem so unmatchable with the cheery mincing of a Hindi-pop dance sequence, express enthusiasm. 

“Sing a Hindi song for me,” a Gurkha asks.

“I can only sing before I go to bed,” the policeman replies, caressing his beard.

“Whose song do you usually sing?”

“The song where Ajay Devgan [a sort of Indian Kevin Bacon] sings about having his heart stolen,” answers the policeman, resting his machine gun, and shyly scratching his head. 

This is likely among the first genuine interactions he has ever had with a NATO soldier, far different from painstakingly relayed advice to keep his weapon clean and his boots tied.

The Gurkhas’ ability to speak freely leads the Afghans to reveal intimate details that they assume will repulse Western soldiers. The Afghan police freely share dirty jokes and stories about their sexual conquests, generally among young Afghan boys. After hearing one unprintable exploit, a young Gurkha tells a policeman, “You are filthy, very filthy.”

The policeman eyes him coyly, responds, “And you are cute, very young and cute.” 

“Truly filthy,” says the Gurkha.


 

If these interactions sound trivial, that may be because they are. Getting a man to joke with you about the hoary topic of pederasty does not mean he will fight well at your side. Asadullah Sherzad, the Helmand police chief, wasn’t sure the Gurkhas’ cultural knowledge had made them better mentors for his men. Useful information did pass from Gurkha to policeman and vice versa, but more often the interactions were of a very general type that may have built confidence but did little to increase the police units’ effectiveness or to materially weaken the Taliban. 

Since mentoring of Afghan National Police and Army has been, up until now, a cornerstone of NATO’s policy, the Gurkha example offers a sobering perspective on how fruitless police training can be, even when the trainers have every cultural advantage, and indeed are from a force that was constituted for the express purpose of fighting wars in far-flung reaches of South Asia.  

At the worst moments, the Afghan police seemed to view the Gurkhas not as comrades in war but as rich playmates willing to share their modern military toys. The most popular toy was a traffic flare, which the British army shoots in the air to scare off Afghan drivers when they get too close.

At the police station, one policeman asks a Gurkha signalman if he can have one. The Gurkha scolds him, “This is not a toy!”

“I promise not to misuse it,” the policeman says. “Anyway, it’s not like I’m asking for a grenade.” In the end, the Gurkha gives the man a bottle of water, his second of the morning. The policeman snatches it, slightly disappointed, but walks away with a grin. 

What little safety the Gurkhas achieved in Lashkar Gah did not inkblot out into the hinterlands. The -Gurkhas, for all their virtues as mentors, have historically functioned as fighters. When the Gurkhas rotated out in October, the fight was left largely undone, and the U.S. Marines—a much larger and better equipped force—went on the offensive. 

Part of the reason for this has been structural: The British military has time and again complained about lacking key resources, such as adequate serviceable aircraft to conduct large-scale autonomous attacks. But it is also a result of a different attitude toward the incorporation of Afghan forces into military operations. 

In the Marja offensive, the Marines aimed to field an Afghan soldier for every Marine deployed—though they only managed a one-to-two ratio at the start of the operation—and they hardly ever stop aspiring to Afghanize the fight (and even moved quickly to Afghanize the peace, installing a readymade Afghan government for Helmand after the assault). What differs from the Gurkha model is that unlike the British, the Marines possess enough resources to both clear the area thoroughly first and then deploy for more culturally sensitive missions—which is the stage where the Gurkhas could prove most useful. 

Firm footholds have softened and crumbled before, of course. But if the Marines’ Marja operations succeed, and Helmand is safe enough to try police training again, the Gurkhas will be back there soon. The British government is set to send 1,200 more of them to Afghanistan this year. Whether to swap Bollywood duets, to fight, or both is yet to be seen.

 

Graeme Wood and Anup Kaphle were South Asian Journalists Association reporting fellows in Afghanistan in 2009.


 

 

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