HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Everybody likes payday. Walking around with bundles of cash is a dream for many but for two Marines working in the Afghan National Security Force Development Team for Regional Command Southwest -- it’s just another day on the frontlines of Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Capt. Chad Lowry and Staff Sgt. Christopher Stephens, the cash they are carrying today is not from their personal bank accounts but will be used to pay new members of the Afghan Local Police.
The Afghan Local Police are a part-time police force made up of civilians from local villages much like reserve law enforcement officials in the United States. They receive uniforms and on-the-job training while waiting for their formal training to begin. It takes approximately 60 days for the Afghan government to start the automated pay process under the Ministry of Interior. Lowry and Stephens travel throughout Helmand province ensuring the new policemen are paid during the transitionary period.
Near the Landing Zone at Forward Operating Base Rahim, in the Nahr-e-Saraj District, 28 local policemen anxiously await the arrival of the pay masters who have already visited and paid local policemen at several coalition bases. This is the third stop of the trip.
“We expect to be able to bring Forward Operating Base Rahim and Patrol Base Two ALP units up to one-hundred percent pay,” said Stephens, pay agent for the ALP, earlier in the day.
There are no celebrities on this visit to FOB Rahim, but clearly to the local policemen who are patiently waiting, these two Marines maintain a “rock star” status and were treated like distinguished visitors.
Lowry, from Ormond Beach, Fla. and Stephens, from Dallas, have been visiting bases in Helmand province for several months now and know the systematic process for paying the new ALP extremely well. In return, ALP members know them and are delighted every time Stephens and Lowry appear because it means they will soon have money in their pockets and the ability to provide for their families.
“Team Rahim” as the local police unit is known, is lead by a veteran of the Afghan National Army who returned to his village to be closer to his family. “Rhamatooli,” as he is referred to by Stephens and Lowry, is a dedicated leader who has experienced the horrors of front-line fighting.
While a member of the ALP Rhamatooli was blown up several months ago after stepping on a roadside bomb (improvised explosive device) and lost the lower part of his left leg, said Stephens who has developed a special relationship with the leader who is now on crutches.
The lack of mobility has not slowed Rhamatooli from training and directing his cadre of local policemen.
There were “lots of problems at one time from the Taliban” but now “locals start to believe in us and we have safety,” said Rhamatooli. “This is my job, my country, my village.”
Afghan Local Police forces continue to grow, gain maturity in Helmand province and have become an added part of security for population centers.
Previously in the day, Lowry and Stephens stopped at Patrol Base Two in the heart of Helmand province, when they were escorted to the Pan Kalay Police Station to meet and pay two additional local police teams. Coordinating this event was British Army Capt. Giles Walsh who is an infantry officer with the 1st Battalion Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment. Walsh, part of the police mentoring advisory group who trains local police units, is on his second tour in Afghanistan and said there has been a huge difference between the tours in 2008 and 2012.
“I was in Musa ‘Qala during the winter of 2008 -- entire villages were abandoned due to the fighting,” he said. “Now, the security bubble has expanded and all of the security forces support each other, they are intrinsically tied,” he said.
Travelling around and paying the ALP has been a rewarding experience for Lowry and Stephens.
“We have developed trust over time,” said Stephens. “If you want them to be your ally you have to be their ally.”
“We have a positive rapport,” added Lowry, Afghan Local Police Coordinator for Regional Command Southwest.
Pay rosters are checked, validated and rechecked to ensure the right person is getting paid but there is always room for something to go wrong. Today is no exception
Shortly after arriving at FOB Rahim, Lowry, an aviation supply officer by trade nearing the end of his eight-month tour in Afghanistan, spends nearly 45 minutes explaining the pay process to Rhamatooli and the majority of his policemen who are currently not on duty.
Lowry does his best to explain the importance of the rosters which were submitted several weeks ago. The discrepancy is the rosters do not include several new policemen who will have to wait and get paid at a later date, according to Lowry, when they will be properly identified and validated. Lowry remains calm during the process, showing a true concern while practicing his statesmanship and eventually the concern subsides and all parties understand there are additional steps to take in order to pay the new policemen which will occur in the near future.
Controlling emotions during these semi-tense situations is something Lowry has grown accustomed to.
“The secret to success here is to remain comfortable even when the situation is uncomfortable,” said Lowry.
Once the pay process starts it is seamless and takes just a few minutes to pay the entire team. Stephens is in control of distributing the money while Lowry provides an extra set of eyes to ensure each transaction is accurate and finalized with a signature or a finger print for proof of payout.
“This was smoother than normal,” said Stephens.
Smiles and laughter are evident minutes after the process finished. While some recount their money, others light a cigarette and discuss how they will spend it.
“They’re just trying to survive like everyone else,” said Lowry. “They just want to live peacefully.”