Looking back on Afghanistan: A US soldier remembers

ARLINGTON, United States - The Taliban couldn't have given Douglas Livermore a more memorable welcome when he landed in Kabul in June 2013 to begin his Afghanistan deployment.

"I got in on the evening of the ninth, put my kit away, went to bed - and then that morning at, like, 4.30 am, the Taliban attacked the airfield," the former US army Special Forces captain recalled.

"I was able to grab three other special forces guys that happened to be at the airfield waiting for their flight out of the country," he added.

Together they raced out to join State Department security personnel to hold off the insurgents for three hours, until dawn broke.

"When it was all said and done, we were grabbing coffee in the little mess hall, and the news was already on CNN - with video from the opposite side of the firefight," he said.

"Definitely a surreal experience."

It turned out to be "the only good firefight" that Livermore - with two tours in Iraq already under his belt - would experience during nine months in Afghanistan.

His time otherwise was spent criss-crossing the east of the country, teaming up with fellow NATO commandos to equip and train Afghan police to confront Taliban insurgents on their own.

It was a foretaste of the task ahead for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as it downshifts from a frontline combat role to a training and support mission.

West Point graduate Livermore, 32, a consultant in the private sector who left full-time military service last summer after a decade but remains a Special Forces officer in the National Guard, sees a chance for success going forward.

But it will require a Herculean effort on the Afghans' part, plus an unwavering long-term commitment from the international community, he told AFP.

Work to be done

"I think they might be able to pull it off and hold on to what they've managed to build so far," he said in the modest home outside Washington that he shares with his young family and an energetic Labrador.

"That said, there is an awful lot of work to be done," he added.

Not least is getting Afghans to identify first as Afghans, with a shared sense of national unity that transcends local and tribal ties - something Livermore thinks might take two, three, even four generations to achieve.

"Once you get off the major roads into these valleys and mountain passes, there are really very little incentive for folks to listen to a centralized government," he said.

"Nor is there really a great opportunity for a central government to influence their lives. It's just the tyranny of distance and topography."

There's also a question of the central government in Kabul's ability to organise training, logistics and military-type operations on a large scale.

"My biggest challenge wasn't necessarily getting from my level down to work," he said.

"It was getting my level up, into the Ministry of the Interior, to push down the resources and required training to the provinces, to enable the police officers on the ground with whom we were working to do their job."

Livermore speaks well of the Afghan police officers with whom he and his NATO special forces comrades built "an extremely close rapport".

He best remembers one Afghan police commander in his 40s who, even though he was from a northern tribe, readily moved himself and his family to other parts of the country, despite threats of Taliban assassination.

"This guy was very much, 'I'm Afghan first, I will go wherever I am needed by the Afghan government'," he said.

"He was very much committed to the idea of a unified Afghanistan."

In marked contrast to his experience in Iraq, Livermore felt that during his time in Afghanistan NATO forces were not seen as an army of occupation.

"Obviously, you go into a village that's particularly heavy with Taliban influence and they're not going to welcome you with open arms," he said.

"That said, there was much less open hostility, because at the end of the day it's the Afghan police officers and Afghan soldiers that are doing the operations."

Livermore paused for a moment when asked how history will remember the US-led presence in Afghanistan.

"I think most folks in the international community understand that we went in there with good intentions," he said.

"It was well-intentioned, not incredibly well-executed - but we also haven't run yet, and I think that's going to be important, I think, over the next 10 years."

And he has words of advice for those soldiers about to follow in his footsteps.

"Rather than come in with an American 'this is the solution to your problem', you need to understand the culture, understand their experiences - and then figure out solutions to their problems that make sense to them."