COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A former Gahanna police officer who spent years training Afghan police sat down with NBC4 to reflect on his time in the war-torn nation in the days after it fell to the Taliban.
Also an Army veteran and Harvard graduate, Gerard “Jerry” Hennelly went to Afghanistan in 2009 as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense. He lived in bases along the nation’s borders, where he trained Afghan border police.
During his three years in Afghanistan, Hennelly developed a love for the nation and its people.
“Afghanistan – it’s a beautiful place,” Hennelly said. “It’s hauntingly beautiful, and the people are hauntingly beautiful and connected to the land. They’re a very pastoral people, a very giving people, and sharing people.”
Hennelly served in the U.S. Army during times of peace, spending much of his service in Alaska. As a civilian, he was exposed to war.
“A lot of Taliban villages (we) very close by,” Hennelly said. “Quite often they’d be unfriendly to us in the form of rockets and mortars and whatnot.”
He said he and other Americans there would discuss the end of what would become a 20-year war.
“In 2011 and 2012, we were all saying on the ground, ‘Once we leave, the Taliban is going to take back over,’” Hennelly said.
According to Hennelly, the Afghans he worked with took quite well to the training, but there were disconnects that Hennelly considered detrimental.
“There was a real disconnect between what we were training police to do and what police actually do over there,” Hennelly said, explaining that the DoD program incorporated American values and practices that did not translate to Afghan practices and culture.
Hennelly described Afghans as more grounded in local and tribal identities, than in a national identity.
“When we were trying to get these guys fired up to do a good job and get them excited, we’d be like, ‘Think of Afghanistan! Think of your country!’ And after you do that a couple times, you realize it’s falling on deaf ears,” Hennelly said. “The Taliban is the only unifying force that is in any way a nation-state actor there.”
Hennelly said he still believes he and other Americans accomplished something meaningful during two decades in Afghanistan.
“You do what you do in a moment because it’s important to do that,” Hennelly said. “I don’t think you can worry to much about what happened after that, because so many things our out of our control.”
As thousands of U.S. citizens and allies try to leave Afghanistan amid a chaotic and widely-criticized evacuation effort, Hennelly said he has been in contact with the interpreters he worked with during his time there.
While some of the interpreters are now in the U.S. and Australia, others remain stuck in Afghanistan attempting to get a Special Immigration Visa.
“There are a lot of them that had their interviews scheduled, and then the country fell apart,” Hennelly said.
One of those interpreters spent three weeks hiding at his parents’ home in Jalalabad, according to Hennelly, who until Tuesday was communicating with the interpreter via Facebook Messenger.
“(The Taliban) says we are not going to harm anyone,” the interpreter wrote to Hennelly. “But we cannot trust them.”
The interpreter told Hennelly a woman was shot by Taliban fighters.
“We do not (know) why,” said the interpreter in his last message to Hennelly.
“Please don’t think I’m coming across as we should have been an occupying army for the next 10, 20, 30 years. I’m glad that our people are home and no longer entangled there,” Hennelly said, calling for a speedier evacuation of interpreters and other Afghans who assisted with the American mission.
“You always take care of the people that take care of you. We couldn’t have done the job without them. And now they’re left there, fearing for their lives.”