KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – When Diatullah returned to Afghanistan following a nine-year absence from his home in central Afghanistan, 17-year-old Ibrahim just enlisted in the Afghan National Army. Diatullah joined the ANA shortly afterward. That was six years ago.
Since then, 39-year-old Diatullah and 23-year-old Ibrahim have run missions together in Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces as ANA Commandos trained by members of Special Operations Task Force – South, near Kandahar Airfield.
Today they are squad leaders in the ANA’s 3rd Commando Kandak, assisted by the same SOTF–South weapons sergeant who trained them in 2008.
“Last trip I worked with them on just about every mission, and we did similar direct-action missions then as we’re doing now,” said the weapons sergeant. “I was one of the lead advisors for their company and platoon; and comparing this squad to the others, [Ibrahim and Diatullah’s] leadership has definitely trickled down to the commandos in their squad,” he said.
Born just 30 miles from each other but separated by more than 17 years, Diatullah and Ibrahim arrived at the ANA from very different places in life.
As an adolescent, Ibrahim had been attending school near his home in Baghlan province when the Taliban rose to power in the mid-1990s.
“When the Taliban came, they didn’t let us go to school anymore, so my family moved to Pakistan where it was safer for us,” Ibrahim said. “But we wanted very much to get back to our country and to live in our home again.”
Once they received word that the Taliban had been removed from power by early 2002, Ibrahim and his family moved back to Baghlan and back to their family’s compound. But by then, he said, he had reached the age where his family now depended on him to earn money to help provide for everyone.
Joining the ANA allowed Ibrahim to take care of his two biggest concerns at the time: patriotism and family.
“Even today, when I go back home on leave, I tell the young people that they can support their family and serve their country if they become a commando,” he said.
Diatullah has served his country in two different decades of fighting.
In the 1980s, he fought the Soviets as a young man with the mujahedeen. It was a difficult time, he said, because the Soviets conscripted his brother to be a soldier in the Soviet army.
“For six months he was gone in Moscow for training to become an officer,” Diatullah said.
Not long after returning to Afghanistan, he got word that his brother was killed in a tank battle. Diatullah was wounded in fighting during that period, but it was a minor injury to his leg and not something with lasting effects.
Then life slowly began stabilizing for Diatullah’s family after the Soviets left Afghanistan, he said. By this time, his family was just his mother and his wife.
But when the Taliban rose to power, Diatullah’s family moved to Iran for safety. Then tragedy befell them all when a dispute with an Iranian soldier landed Diatullah in prison for seven years. He never saw them alive again.
“When I returned to Parwan,” he said, “I found that my wife and my mother had just died. I had only two younger brothers and no job.”
So Diatullah joined the ANA as a 33-year-old experienced fighter. His SOTF-South mentors have warmed to him because of his maturity and experience – and his signature mustache.
“We call him ‘mustache’ because he looks like that guy on the coffee can,” said the SOTF-South weapons sergeant. “He’s an old dude; but he and ‘Rahim’ are about the best I could ask for when working with a partnered force.”
A SOTF-South engineer sergeant said he’s worked with Diatullah and Ibrahim for the last four missions, and both are “probably the most squared-away” of all the commandos.
“They’re all proactive when we’re out there pulling security throughout the night,” he said. “Their assertiveness – you should hear ‘Rahim’ yell – and their concern for the most basic needs of their soldiers gives them credibility. Their squad listens when they talk.”
During their latest mission in Kandahar province’s Zhari district, Diatullah spent the early part of their first evening teaching their fellow commando, Rahmad, how to write up a guard roster for the squad’s evening watch.
Once the squad began their shift on an evening when temperatures dipped below freezing, both Ibrahim and Diatullah took turns adding logs to the fire they built to keep their squad warm throughout the evening.
“We have worked with each other for about five years, and he has become my closest friend,” Ibrahim said.
Both Ibrahim and Diatullah hope to continue their success as commandos, with the goal of one day earning selection for training as a member of the ANA Special Forces.
“We can’t worry too much about the future of Afghanistan, because that is up to God,” Diatullah said. “But I hope that one day we can help it become at least as secure as other foreign countries.”