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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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. 

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