Friday, December 11, 2009

Getting there

The events referred to in this entry happened about a year ago. Put this together based on some...memories.

You may find yourself in another part of the world...and you may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here!?" - "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads


Thankfully, the worst part of all of my deployments has been the getting there. The anxiety of the unknown combined with saying goodbye to friends and family, as well as the actual travel involved in getting yourself and your gear to these places on the other side of the earth combine to wear on you mentally and emotionally. Though my personal exposure to violence has exponentially increased through each successive deployment, I still felt quite a lot of unease before even the first one simply because I did not really know what I was getting into before I got there. One’s tolerance for known dangers can increase over time, but increasing one’s tolerance for uncertainty itself seems tougher to develop.

My deployment to Afghanistan has come with a special sense of concern, and is the only time in my life thus far I have felt compelled to buy more life insurance. If the numbers involved put the probabilities in your favor you have to invest right...? Going to a place as well known for danger as the Korengal Valley, one can’t help but be a little apprehensive, although those feelings of worry are offset somewhat by the excitement for the adventure and challenge ahead. All of us headed out the Korengal volunteered to be here, and several other Marines had wanted to be out here but couldn’t be. The Korengal is likely to be a bit more dangerous than the Pech Valley where the rest of the team is stationed, but the chief difference is likely to be in the living conditions, which are bound to be much more austere with no running water.

The trip out to the Korengal began about 2 AM one morning in late-November. We had to get up that early just to get over to the passenger terminal and get registered for the flight that would take off in the late morning. Hauling a few large bags around with all of your body armor and weapons has always been my least favorite part of these trips overseas. Something about that feeling of vulnerability when you have all of the things you are going to need and rely upon with you at that same time makes you a little nervous.

Pax terminal: we showed extremely early – par for the course. Sat around for a long while waiting before anything at all happened. Check. Mid-ranking personnel working there but not helpful - unable to make decisions or give useful information. Mm-hmm. People sleeping on the floor with their packs for pillows and few chairs in the pax terminal. A bearded well-built guy in the corner with tricked out gear keeping to himself. Removing rank insignia and boot bands...won't see those again for awhile. Having to physically attach each item we’d brought with us to our bodies by strapping, stacking, and grabbing before jumping on the scale to get weighed. After a few hours in the pax terminal we finally made it out to the tarmac…just as the sun was coming up.

Tarmac: cold, windy morning. Soldiers hiding from the windblast behind the massive CH-47 smoking cigarettes…but not standing too close with those cigarettes. Been on a Chinook before, but never been this close to one in the daylight with this much time to look at it…it’s as big as a bus. We know we’re all headed out to the same place so the Marines strike up some conversations with some of the soldiers around us, who don’t appear to be new to the country as we are. A few of the soldiers are returning from leave and headed back to the Korengal. They have some interesting stories to tell about the place. Not much of it pretty. They manage to convey the impression quite succinctly that they hate the Korengal and are sick to death of getting shot at. These aren’t really the things most would want to hear on their way out there, but what can you do but laugh and say to yourself and your colleagues, “It’s all part of the adventure…” We talk to the crew chief and ask if we can get dropped off at Firebase Vimoto, or if we have to get dropped off at the Korengal Outpost (KOP). The crew chief looks at us like we’re crazy and says he doesn’t know what Vimoto is. One of the soldiers nearby chimes in that there is nothing resembling an LZ at Vimoto. We’ll have to walk down to Vimoto from the KOP.

Ride out: first first-hand look at the landscape. It’s clear day but the helo is not made for sight-seeing. Can see enough to notice mud-brick abandoned-looking homes scattered about just outside the wire from Bagram. The flat valley around the air base quickly gives way to mountains…tall snow-capped mountains…but not as green and tree covered on the slopes as I had expected. We make a couple of stops on the way out. I’m a little surprised how much time we’re spending on the ground here in broad daylight, but I suppose they know what they are doing. The last leg of the helo journey out to the Korengal only has ten or so passengers on board - the remaining few. Once we land, we’re not quite as organized as we ought to be getting our possessions and persons off the bird quickly, but we manage to get it done and the helo gets away without incident.

KOP: We're admonished by the head of the guys we're replacing for not getting our gear off the bird quicker. A Russian helo went down not far from here not long ago - no use keeping the bird around long enough for them to draw a bead on it. We chat for awhile, before we pack a bag with the stuff we need most and then take off for Vimoto.

Walking: Even the one kilometer walk over to Vimoto along a flat road is fairly difficult at the speed we’re doing it at with the stuff we’re carrying. I realize quickly my conditioning will need some work, though I thought I was pretty strong coming in. Tough to stay acclimatized to altitude when you’re not at altitude…and now we’re at about 4500 feet. Not too high, but high enough for now. At least we aren't heading up to Firebase Restrepo...that looks like a long way up.

Vimoto: Vimoto is about what I’d imagined it to be: a few mud buildings surrounded by concertina wire on the side of a mountain situated on the edge of a village. The guys we’re replacing look very lean and intense, but are confident and relaxed in this forlorn place. The ANA soldiers seem friendly enough…no doubt they’ll be sizing us up over the next few weeks. Rounds start flying around the valley a mere hour after we arrive, and a bomb gets dropped on a house a kilometer up the road. We made it here and some of the things I’ve been wondering about for quite awhile now are starting to become clear; all in all, a good first day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The White House



Our typical mission was to conduct “Leader’s Engagements” with the populace. Basically, that meant we’d go into the villages and talk to the people, typically the head man. The idea was to get the ANA out there mingling with the populace and basically showing themselves to be present and competent. Gathering information about security developments in the area and what projects the villagers would like to see done was a secondary part of those missions. We may have considered the actual information gathered to have been the most important part of the mission, and not of ancillary importance, if we’d been able to get relevant information about the security (enemy disposition, whereabouts, etc.) more often, or ever for that matter. Given the peoples’ reluctance to tell us anything about the enemy we’d usually just talk about happenings in the area in a general way, unless we had something specific we wanted to talk to them about. We’d always ask them about what small projects we could help them with. As ETTs with the ANA we depended on the US Army logistically for, well, everything really, so obviously we didn’t have control over the money for projects or humanitarian assistance to give to the villagers, but we could help coordinate with the US Army.

Often when the Army had humanitarian assistance to hand out, they’d let the ANA take the lead on the actual distribution of the goods. Those “HA drops” were always interesting. We’d usually try to hand out whatever it was, like radios for instance, in an organized way, but in the end it almost always became a scrap for whoever could grab what. A bunch of men with guns are no match for determined youngsters in the presence of what, for them, must be riches.

At any rate, we’d always prefer the ANA to do the talking with the villagers. We’d try to prepare the ANA beforehand on what topics should be discussed, or which propaganda pieces we’d like to mention, but it’s tough enough to get the ANA to patrol and conduct security the way you might want…getting them to conduct “conversation ops” perfectly was not a major concern.

Whether the ANA were taking the lead on the talking or not, if you spend enough time out there you’ll have some interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s funny stuff. Sitting down and having tea in a village I’d never been in before with an old man I’d never seen before, the old man inquired who I was and whether I was new in Afghanistan. I mentioned I’d been around a little while, but had been over in the Korengal Valley before. The old man and his friend looked at each other and said something to the effect of the Korengal being “the tiger valley” (referring to the fighters in the area). I was like, “yes, beautiful place, the Korengal, but I don’t think the locals liked us very much since they were always shooting at us.” That brought a few laughs.

Another time a village elder, when inquired what help the village needed, stated they needed a well. At the time we were sitting in a kind of small village square, complete with a fully functioning well. When I pointed out the nice, relatively new well to the old man, and asked if there were some problem with it, the elder replied that the well was fine, but the ‘village’ needed a well nearer his home, which was apparently on the other side of the square, a good 30 yards from the well. Those requests usually end with a “We’ll see what we can do” from our end, which I was fairly certain was interpreted on their end as I intended, i.e. as a “Not gonna happen.”

Some of the conversations are not funny at all though. The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened. The mission was to visit a particular village, known for having a huge white house. The village was not far up the valley from our base. In fact, we could see the white house from the base, though it would take a good 30 minutes to walk over there.

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (2 Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

We stayed there for quite awhile talking about a fair number of topics, and had quite a good time after we got past the initial sadness over the death of their relative. The young men were hoping to get jobs working on a base somewhere. In reply to their requests, I said my usual “I’ll see what I can do”, which I figured would get interpreted (by my interpreter and the young local men) as a polite brushoff, but apparently was not, as they showed up at the base the next day saying I’d promised them jobs. It can be tough to know who your enemy is, but in that case I think those guys were good. It’s unfortunate that many of the men who can’t find jobs end up in the welcoming arms of the Taliban, but there was not a lot that we could do about that situation at that time and place, so we had to send them away empty handed.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eats, shoots and leaves


"I am mindful of human weakness, and I reflect upon the might of Fortune and know that everything that we do is exposed to a thousand chances." - Scipio Africanus
Thinking back on things, it does seem strange some of the things that went on. You walk around among, shake hands with, and eat and drink in homes of people you don’t really know and may not like you. But I never felt any fear in those situations, though I knew some of these people collaborated with insurgents. Pashtuns are hospitable people, and they'll take it to the point that they're equally hospitable to some of our enemies as well.

I’d say we returned the favor and were pretty darn hospitable to local people as well, however. On one occasion the local villagers brought men to the base with bullet and shrapnel wounds. They looked like Taliban, with their beards and stares, and my interpreter was absolutely convinced that they were. And how does an innocent get bullet and shrapnel wounds anyway? There was generally enough notice given before the battle commenced (often in the form of a single shot cracking off, followed some 5 seconds later by larger barrages) to allow most people to take cover before things really got crazy. Well, we patched those Taliban up, though they may have been detained for awhile since they had to be shipped away for better care. It’s all part of the game. Patch them up and send them back out to play.

I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up...since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

Sometimes it's shocking how little we really know about the people we're fighting, but my feeling is that for a lot of these guys we're fighting, especially out in the Korengal, the insurgency is a way of life. It's just what they do, and how they gain respect. Many certainly are ideologically driven - but not all.

The only time we really got a good look at our enemy was on Friday afternoon at the local mosque or occasionally out playing cricket. All those young men that were missing in the villages during our regular patrols would appear out of the woodwork to attend the mosque on Friday, kind of like Sunday morning church for Americans. Their age, body language, avoidance of eye contact, and lack of response to our greetings told us all we needed to know about the loyalties of those young men. But did being 90% sure that these guys were the ones shooting at us from the ridgelines a couple of times a week mean that we could arrest them and deal with them? No. Not at all. We let them go about their business, only to meet again in the near future on the ‘modern’ battlefield to play our dangerous little game of long-distance target practice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ANSF vetting

It's always disturbing to hear news of Coalition trainers being turned on by their trainees. When you hear of an incident like the one a couple of weeks ago where the five Brits were killed by one of their trainees, it certainly makes you wonder how feasible the end strategy of training more and more Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF...an umbrella term to cover the ANA, ANP, Border Police, and other security agencies within Afghanistan) is. Thankfully, such incidents are rare, but with more and more ANSF out there, we're bound to start seeing more of this. To significantly increase the size of the ANP and ANA they are going to have continue lowering the already low standards for recruits...many are essentially conscripts already.

Currently, ANP members need little more than the recommendation of two local elders in order to get accepted into the police academy - and very shortly after that they are police. There are other requirements, but in a country where few people can read and bureaucratic institutions are lacking, the requirement to be a citizen or not have been convicted of a crime in recent years is not difficult to circumvent.

The ANA has a bit more of a vetting process, but both the ANA and ANP could be easily infiltrated by insurgent sympathizers...and undoubtedly have been. However, having a few bad apples within the units I was embedded with was not really a concern of mine. Not that it did not ever cross my mind, but it was kind of like if I'm going to worry about that then I'm going to drive myself crazy. And my view on it was the good ANA in my unit would protect me from the bad ones if there were any. All in all I trusted them...but, of course, I did what I could to maintain cordial relationships with my guys...not that having a undercover insurgent like you personally is really going to save you if he's dedicated, but it's another reason to develop rapport with them all the same.

Afghans, in general, are not suicidal about their cause and have quite a bit of guile. These incidents where an ANP or ANA member shoots our men are likely to result in the death of the aggressor (though the shooter in the incident mentioned above is still on the loose as far as I know). I would think an infiltrator in the ANA or ANP would be more likely to partake in a more survivable activity, like simply reporting to the insurgents on our patterns and giving early warning of operations. For many reasons, we had quite a bit of difficulty getting the initiative on the enemy during my time - I would not discount the possibility of informers within the ANA contributing to this.

The good news is we have initiatives going on that should help with the vetting and accountability of ANSF forces, and should help over time in getting the bad ones out and out for good. Before I left, we were, with the help of a civilian contractor who was a specialist in working with the biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, etc.) collection systems in the process of collecting biometric data on our ANA and the local ANP, and putting it into a database. The ANP seemed to think we just needed the biometric data so we could give them an ID card to access the base. Well, our having that data will have longer lasting effects hopefully. I should mention that we were able to collect biometric data on whomever, during checkpoints or otherwise, and we did so from time to time. These systems can quickly link back to databases to identify the person standing in front of you. These are great systems with outstanding potential in a counter-insurgency, but are very underutilized, chiefly because of the painstakingness of the data collection process, in my opinion.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Street smarts


In an insurgency, when so much of the enemy's advantage lies in the element of surprise and its ability to hide among the populace, the power of perception and ability to 'sense' trouble become of the utmost importance. It's a skill we try to acquire in training, but some will always be better than others. I do believe awareness can be developed, and that the mind picks up on much more than we're consciously aware. Some days when we went out, just a few moments in the local area and we could feel that we're were going to receive some enemy 'attention' at some point. It's was not necessarily an absence of people or dirty looks that would alert us, just...something, and in time we learned to listen to those feelings.

At any rate, the ANA have their deficiencies, and they don't often bring their "A" game on patrols that have little chance of receiving enemy contact, but the ANA do have a way of doing well when it matters and knowing when to be their best. Much like how the ANA are deficient in formal education but are experts at reading people and making-do, what they lack in military tactics and proficiency they make up for with street smarts and ingenuity. I would not be surprised if patrols with ANA in them were more likely to discover an IED rather than get hit by one than Coalition-pure patrols.

I'd been in Afghanistan for months before I went on my first convoy. (This was by design...I hate riding around in a truck waiting to get blown up - being dismounted is not only a better way to interact with the local people but safer as well). Since we were going off the paved road, we had some trepidation of the dreaded IED, a fear which would turn out to be not at all unreasonable since we would shortly discover one. So on one cold February morning, off we went. Not knowing the area and mainly just being along for the ride, I got put up in the turret, which is generally not my favorite place to be in a humvee, especially when its 40 degrees, though the wind on your face can be invigorating.

I should mention that when a road in Kunar is unpaved, and the vast majority of them are (and probably all were unpaved before we arrived here some years ago), there's generally a very good reason for it to be unpaved; often the pre-existing dirt road has been narrowly hacked out of a steep hillside, not leaving enough width to make paving the road feasible in an engineering sense, given the realities of security and available resources. On the missions along those roads, an equally great threat along with the IED is the threat of driving off the road and ending up in the river 50 or more feet below. On missions out that way we more than once inadvertently got a chance to 'spread the democratic message' while we waited for another truck in the convoy to be recovered after having nearly driven off the road into the ravine.

We got some miles down the road before the convoy had to halt due to the presence of a large boulder in the middle of road. Now, we knew we'd had some rain in the area, winter being the rainy season in Kunar, which can always potentially lead to rockslides and boulders in the road, but this particular boulder looked rather well placed so as to stop our larger vehicles, and yet allow for the local hi-luxes to pass unimpeded. By the time our vehicle, which was somewhere in the middle of a 10-vehicle convoy, had come to a halt, the ANA vehicle in front had already dismounted its soldiers, one of whom nearly immediately started pulling buried detonation cord out of the road and began following it toward the river below. The ANA can be fearless indeed.

We set up security around the site, detained a few suspicious-looking folks in the area, and waited some hours for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to show up. In the end, EOD found quite a fair amount of explosives buried in the road, and disposed of them in the usual way by, well, blowing them up.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Balance



It's a common thing to see articles in the news media about the negative aspects of war on the micro level. The dead, the wounded, the mentally and emotionally damaged, all appear to get a fair amount of coverage and exposure, so I'm going to focus on a few of the good things some of us get out of serving in combat - because many of us are getting a lot out of it.

Wearing a uniform that says 'US Marines' has always been a great honor for me, and more so when I've been able to wear the uniform overseas. Knowing you represent the ideals and power of the United States gives one quite a bit to live up to, and a lot of pride goes with that. Being out in the middle of nowhere, knowing you represent the end of the line of America's reach is quite a thing...I can remember thinking how the power of all those billions of dollars and millions of people ended right there with us at a lonely outpost in an isolated valley. Maybe the thought of our 'power' ending there in an isolated valley comes across as a bit imperialistic, but I make no apologies for what we're doing and love being a part of it.

People are good at different things. Some people happen to be good at conducting warfare. I spent months this past tour with a Marine who stated numerous times that he kept coming back over to war zones as an infantryman because it was what he was good at. He undoubtedly was very good at it...and there's nothing wrong with that at all. I believe everyone wants the chance to use his or her skills that he or she was born with or has developed and honed over time, even if those skills happen to belong to what some might call an unfortunate but necessary profession.

Undoubtedly, those that come back from combat have an increased appreciation for life generally. Anytime I'm away from friends and family for lengthy periods I miss them, but getting a real feel for the fact that everything can be gone in a moment certainly helps heighten that sense of gratitude for the times together. Having survived some difficult moments, I know I personally have more confidence than I had before. Having taken some risks, lived through and overcome things that were legitimately difficult makes life's daily challenges at home that much easier to deal with, though the flip side of that coin is sometimes daily life at home seems a bit trite. Before I was on the ground directly doing things that were in the news regularly, which kind of makes me feel underutilized today. I'd argue that satisfaction is life's best feeling, and it can come to a person in many ways, but one of the best ways to find it is to overcome a period of difficulty with a job well done.

The losses of warfare are tragic and far-reaching, but for those of us that survive, that feeling of satisfaction is why many of us keep coming back for more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Decision Time


"Try harder...try again" - Brandon Lee in The Crow

The wait continues for the president's decision on General McChrystal's recommendation. The unfortunate aspect of all of this business is that the debate is taking place in the public eye. While having a public debate on the efficacy of sending more troops certainly satisfies the exigencies of American politics, it's most certainly not beneficial to the war effort as a whole. I say this because if the decision is made to not send more troops, or even not send as many as asked for the by the general, we will be perceived by the Afghan government, people, and security forces as abandoning them and losing our will to fight the insurgents. I can confirm that the ANA leaders I habitually talked with were always worried about our ability to stick things out and did not want to see us go anywhere until the country had progressed significantly.

Perception is an incredibly important part of any counter-insurgency, as winning the support of the people should ultimately lead to victory. I can confirm that many of the people of Afghanistan don't really care who wins this war, just so long as someone wins it, and they can live a semblance of a normal life...i.e. the people will support the side that appears to be on the path to victory.

For these reasons, any action leading to the perception of weakness or lack of commitment on our part needs to be scrupulously avoided. It would have been better to avoid all of this public debate on the issue...unless the request is granted of course, in which case we may take some small benefit from all of this publicizing of our intentions on the matter.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Kandaks


In Afghan languages a kandak is a battalion. I can remember visiting a base outside of our area and talking to a someone who during our conversation remarked to me, "Oh, you're with 3rd Kdk? Is that an infantry battalion?" I was a little taken aback by the question and almost remarked in Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men fashion "Is there any other kind?" But I caught myself, as I remembered that there are indeed other types of kandaks out there, just like in our military. The ANA do have tanks, artillery, Afghan Commandos, and other types of units, to include aviation.

We had a small detachment of ANA artillery soldiers at one of our bases, complete with two D30 122 mm howitzers. In the month I spent at that base, we never once fired those guns...and not for lack of enemy contact. We were firing mortars from the base nearly daily. It was a little tough for the ANA to get into the act of firing those indirect fire assets when they needed the approval of the Kandak Commander, located some 25 km away, in order to fire. Real time comms are easy to achieve out there with cell phones, and that's what the ANA use for much of their communication. Nonetheless, having to route permission to shoot through someone miles down the road, obviously does not make for efficient and timely fire support.

The ANA did apparently fire the D30's from time to time though. Since the ANA has very few people who can read maps and do whatever geometry is done to get artillery rounds on target, they simply direct fire the guns. And since most of the targets are up above them in that particular place, the technique works pretty well. The US forces would somehow mark a target with machine guns or mortars, and the ANA would be instructed to hit those impacts, which they evidently did pretty well. Unfortunately, I never witnessed it.

As for other types of battalions, we knew a few ETTs who got attached to a tank battalion. The tanks they have are Soviet-style like the artillery. They, not surprisingly, did not use their tanks very often given the logistical difficulties in supporting tanks. The ANA have commandos trained by our Special Forces, and having seen them in action as the opposition in a game of military-style paintball, I'd say they're pretty good - not light years better than regular ANA infantry, but certainly more aggressive and better trained. As for Afghan aviation, that was not something we ever saw, though they do have a few helicopters starting to fly around. I look forward to more of those ANA helos getting out there as I know it will be a big source of pride for the ANA to fly in their own equipment with their fellow countrymen at the helm.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dealing with the ANA


“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.”
— Conrad Hilton
Getting what you want out of the ANA is a huge part of the job. If you can't get along with your ANA commander, and get him to do things your way, then you aren't going to get much done, because most ANA commanders can't be relied upon to show any initiative to improve and do their jobs well. We all certainly had our ups and downs in the relationships with the different ANA commanders we worked with. Sometimes some of us, including myself, didn't always do things the best way. I definitely don't have any magic formulas for how to work with them, but I did learn a few things. I'll throw this little anecdote out there.

During my last tour to Afghanistan as an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army (ANA), I conducted training sessions on the M-16 rifle as part of the ANA’s transition from the AK-47 to the M-16. The ANA soldiers had a habit of showing up late for my training sessions. I had tried encouragement, suggestion, and profuse compliments when they were on time as ways to try to get them to show up on time and be more professional, but I had not gotten the results I had hoped for.

Since my efforts to improve the ANA by gently nudging them along were not working to my satisfaction, I decided to try a different approach. The approach I selected was to berate them for being lazy, discourteous, and unprofessional. An Afghan soldier is not unaccustomed to being treated in this manner by an officer, and would expect such a reaction from an ANA officer in a similar situation.

However, the fact of the matter is, it was really not my place as an advisor to the ANA to handle my problems with the ANA soldiers in that manner. I should have known perfectly well that the appropriate and expedient thing to do was to talk to their officer about their behavior and let him deal with it. This approach would not only help develop leadership traits in the ANA officer involved, but would also likely engender much better results. However, on another day when the soldiers again were late for my training, I decided to direct my ire at their officer, Commander B, who happened to be standing right there. While the soldiers could not understand the things I was saying (no interpreter was necessary since Commander B speaks English well), they no doubt caught the gist that I was criticizing their commander.

After the training was completed that day, I thought about the incident. I knew I had overstepped and that my new “approach” to dealing with the ANA of being critical, negative, and worse, criticizing an officer in front of his own men, was counter-productive. Subsequent events proved this to be true, as the ANA became increasingly difficult to deal with, and I lost the trust and confidence of Commander B. I apologized to Commander B and made a special effort afterward to compliment him in front of his men, but I was not able to restore our previously amiable relationship in the limited time we had left together.

In retrospect, I should have remained consistent with the way I had been conducting things…only with more patience and with my expectations in check. Our team had a lot of different personalities, and they all did things different ways; the guys (including myself) who were dictatorial toward their ANA commanders and lost patience with them eventually were unable to accomplish anything at all...to the point where they hardly even worked together. The ETTs who were patient and encouraging with their ANA were able to slowly but surely get more and more out of their ANA. We had one ETT in particular who was always very encouraging and positive with everyone, all the time. I've never heard him say a bad word about anyone, to include the ANA. He, out of everyone I saw, was the best able to get the ANA to work more than they wanted to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hash

"Freedom is replacing imposed discipline with self-discipline." - William Lind

Drug cultivation was not something we really dealt with in Kunar. When it comes to illegal trade funding illegal activity, Kunar is more known for the timber trade...you might say the situation with the opium in the south is analogous to the timber in the northeast mountainous provinces. Undoubtedly, some opium is cultivated in the mountainous regions, but it wasn't something we really saw or dealt with.

What we did deal with regularly was hashish smoking among the ANA. The hash smoking was something I saw much more of at the more austere bases, and not so much at the more developed bases we were responsible for. I suppose you might say the hash provided a bit of an escape from the poor living conditions at those bases.

The fact that the ANA smoked hash was not a surprise to any of us. I'd seen the same thing with the Iraqis, and we were told we'd see it from time to time, if not regularly. One night early on in the tour, I was woken up by an ANA soldier asking me to attend to a sick soldier. So I grabbed my interpreter and headed over to the sick soldier's hooch to have a look at him. When we got there, my terp informed me that the soldier was only "sick" because of excessive hash smoking. I gave him a couple of aspirin and went back to bed.

It was a common experience to smell hash burning in the early evening or at night. We understood that it's a part of the local culture, so we were never intent on eradicating the habit completely among our ANA, but it didn't seem right to completely ignore the issue, so we brought up the hash smoking with the different commanders we had. One commander denied that it was occurring at all, so we simply asked him to see to it that the soldiers standing guard were sober. Another commander acknowledged the problem and pledged to do something about it, but not surprisingly nothing changed. A third commander would not tolerate it at all, and sent a couple of guys back to the battalion after catching them indulging. That third commander turned out to be the worst commander of the group that I had during that time period, but have to give him credit for maintaining some discipline with his men.

I can't say I ever saw an officer smoke hash or look stoned, but a few of the NCOs were repeat offenders. Some of those hash-smoking NCOs were actually among the best NCOs we had. We even had an incident where a couple of ANA soldiers beat a terp supposedly for trying to interfere with their hash smoking. It's tough to know what's really going on with those guys sometimes, so that incident may have been over something else. Whatever the case may be, the incident resulted in us losing one of our best terps...the two soldiers involved were sent away for awhile but came back eventually. It's tough to get rid of even the worst soldiers when you need everyone you can get your hands on to fight the war.

As you can imagine, having hash-smoking soldiers on hand during patrols can make for some interesting moments. We often stopped in towns to talk to local leaders during our patrols. We'd often just sit there until all hell would break loose...an effective if dangerous and uncreative way to locate the enemy. During one of the first times when we decided to just stay in the town until shots were fired, several of the soldiers lit up a joint after the wait was longer than expected. We got on their case about it, but a firefight erupted before we really dealt with the issue. I will say the ANA fought particularly well that day, putting several RPGs directly into a house 300 meters away.

One of our worst hash offenders, who I never once saw without bloodshot eyes, was often our RPG gunner. One day on our way out of base, we started taking large-caliber rounds from a ridgeline across the way. Our RPG gunner proceeded to load up his RPG and get ready to fire it with his back right up against a small cliff face...a no-no since the back-blast would likely rebound off the cliff and do who knows what to the gunner in that situation. Luckily, his comrades yelled at him and got him set up in a safe place...though firing an RPG at a ridgeline 1000 meters away might not be the best use of ammo. In that same event, the ANA platoon sergeant accidentally shot a round that almost blew his foot off while loading a machine gun, and then pointed it right at me while clearing and reloading it.

Suffice to say, there are things we'd rather be doing when enemy contact is imminent or ongoing than chastising ANA soldiers for smoking hash, dodging errant ANA muzzles, and teaching the ANA how to use their own guns. The ANA certainly do keep things interesting, and as long as things don't really go wrong, it's all really a lot of fun.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Latest attack in Nuristan

In my most recent blog entry, I stated that I found it laughable the idea that the Taliban and insurgents could conduct coordinated assaults and challenge US forces on the conventional battlefield...and then a day later they go and kill eight soldiers in a conventional-type attack. Everyone out there knows that Nuristan is full of insurgents. The terrain in Nuristan so severe that anyone could hide out there for years without getting caught, and Coalition forces have virtually no presence in the province. The US Army unit we were partnered was often on reserve-alert to support police stations up that way which were in extremis.

It's very disheartening for everyone to see us lose that many guys in one battle, but I stand by the assertion that with decent terrain selection and unit-tactics this type of thing will not happen. When you build a small outpost in an area where insurgents can shoot down upon you, with few to no supporting positions to help you, then the position is asking for trouble. In Kunar, we had observations posts up further on the hills, or even at the very top in some cases, and other mutually supporting positions, just to prevent something like insurgents being able to surround us and shoot down upon us.

Sounds like the plan is to remove the post in Kamdesh and other similar ones. I can tell you once an outpost like that is gone, then the area it occupied is no longer going to be visited by the Coalition, and the territory is essentially Taliban-territory at that point, although it sounds like it already was given the number of fighters they had gathered, and the fact that the US Army unit in the area didn't even patrol in the local village. They say the plan is to push those troops into the larger population centers, which sounds all well and good, but I always thought the idea behind those mountain posts was to fight the enemy in the mountains and more sparsely-populated areas rather than fight them in the larger cities and villages.

The fact is, the whole strategy in north-eastern Afghanistan is extremely predictable and reactive. Basically, the US Army and ANA tactics are to build a firebase somewhere and then wait for it to get attacked. Patrols last a couple of hours and stay within sight of the base. If an "operation" is conducted it never lasts more than a couple of days. In the past, units conducted operations that lasted more than a month...the entire time outside their bases in the villages and mountains. The Marines in Helmand keep moving and sleep in ditches they've dug themselves before moving on somewhere else the next day.

The Army might want to think about what they need to do take the initiative in this war. Simply inhabiting a firebase, waiting for it to get attacked, and then calling in fire support, does not appear to be an effective, nor risk-free, way to conduct a war. The insurgents have a nearly unlimited supply of manpower from Pakistan. The idea in warfare to break the enemy's will to fight, not just kill a bunch of guys. By allowing the insurgents to always have the initiative, and topping it off with abandoning these firebases (which will be perceived as weakness, as it should be) we'll do nothing but put wind in their sails, which will only lead to more of the same.

So yes, I'm criticizing the approach of building all these firebases, and I'm also criticizing the idea of abandoning them. We need to put more thought into where we put these bases if we're going to put them anywhere, so we don't give up propaganda victories when we close them. In Iraq, when we left bases, they were turned over to the Iraqi security forces, not just abandoned. Ideally, we'd patrol in unpredictable places for extended periods of time out of larger bases in larger population centers. Why build a base when you can inhabit local homes for a few days while you're there and then move on somewhere else? Why use all your manpower protecting something...? Better off projecting something. I criticize the Army for closing firebases because I know they don't do large-scale ops of lengthy duration, at least not the units I was partnered with. Without a firebase in an area, they'll have no almost no effect on the area (unless a paved road happens to run right to the area), and the territory is ceded to the insurgents.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wanat

Came across this article about the battle of Wanat on the internet today. Wanat was a part of our area of operations while we were out there, but we never went there - no one goes up that far any more after what happened, although that it's true that we do have "a large base four miles away" like what you read in articles. I'll just say that four miles is a very long way when there's no paved road leading up there. The previous ETT had some members involved in the battle of Wanat, which resulted in nine US solders being killed. You don't read it in the main article but all the guys that were killed were manning an observation post outside the main compound. Lots of conflicting information out there on exactly what happened, but I've heard it said that the insurgents never breached the wire of the main compound, contrary to what you read in the article.

At any rate, after what happened in July 2008 at Wanat, the battalion that came out to replace the guys from the 173rd didn't have much interest in heading back up that way, and really had their hands full with the (smaller) area they had. The proximity to Pakistan and the difficulty of the terrain out in Kunar-Nuristan means that every valley turns into an insurgent haven if you go far enough up into it. You can pick as many fights as you want out there...just go further and further into a valley and the shooting is sure to start sooner or later. The guys from the 173rd, for all the mistakes they made leading up to what happened at Wanat, certainly were not afraid to get out and mix it up with the enemy. And frankly, you keep a unit over there in an extremely difficult and dangerous environment for 15 months and it's easy to see how mistakes happen at the end of the tour.

From what I've heard and read on Wanat and seen in similar areas, I think the lesson is if you poorly select your terrain, allowing yourself to be surrounded and people to approach within grenade range of you unseen by simply staying in a village, and are unable to build it up, then, yes, perhaps the Taliban can put together a very deadly attack using conventional assault tactics. The notion that "The battle stands as proof (the Taliban) can operate like a disciplined armed force using well-rehearsed small-unit tactics to challenge the American military for dominance on the conventional battlefield" as stated in the NYT article is gross hyperbole. If that statement were correct, we'd really be getting our asses handed to us over there. I say that not to disparage the capabilities of the insurgents we're fighting. Clearly, they are giving us all we can handle and absolutely know how to take advantage of an opportunity like the one we put in their lap like at Wanat, but they don't challenge us on the "conventional battlefield" in the absence of gross negligence.

The other notable thing to me in the article was the shooting of a US soldier by an ANA soldier after the US soldier went to check on them to see if they were sleeping. Seeing in the news a similar story recently, in a case where the Afghan police officer clearly deliberately killed those guys, one might be tempted to think that this type of thing happens all the time. I can say that I never once felt like my ANA would shoot me intentionally. All the same, I made sure to keep things amiable between us, as you do hear horror stories, not of ANA shooting their embeds, but perhaps not...putting in the effort to help them when they need it, shall we say. Given that the ANA had all the security at the base where I spent much of my time, I had extra incentive to keep things smooth between us. But I never in all that time really doubted them, and they never let me down.

In any case, that the US soldier would get shot checking on the ANA at night is absolutely no surprise to me, especially given how dangerous that area proved to be. The ANA can get jumpy out there. It takes courage to approach them at night, and best if you can warn them somehow that you're there. I always made sure to shine a light or make plenty of noise and talk loudly in broken Pashto if I were checking up on them. Sneaking up on them is not a good idea. It's easy to see how a shooting incident like that would poison relations between the two parties. ETTs are there to see that a working relationship is maintained between the regular US forces and ANA, but it's not always easy to make it happen. High time to solve the whole issue by separating them completely by giving the ANA their own battlespace and making them accountable for it.

A few memorable words


Bribery
- Marine: “Since we just had an IED blow up outside the base, just down there in the town, I think we should search the town down there.”
- ANA commander: “No, not a good idea.”
- “Yes, it is a good idea. We can’t let them get that close to us. The villagers at least need to know that if they aren’t our eyes and ears out there, then we’ll put them through some inconvenience by searching their homes.”
- “I don’t want to do it.”
- “I know you don’t but we have to.”
- “Couldn’t do it even if I wanted to because we already made the schedule and a search of that town is not on the schedule for this week.”
- “Right, but this little operation is based on new information. Remember what we talked about changing operations based on new information and intelligence?”
- “Can’t do it and won’t do it.”
- “Ok, I’ll give you one phone card to call your family with if you do the op.”
- “No.”
- “Two phone cards.”
- “No.”
- “Two phone cards and I’ll buy a cow for the soldiers.”
- “Can’t do it.”
- “Ok, two phone cards, a cow, and we’ll find you a new wife. Plus I’ll throw in a summer house in Nuristan.”
- (laughing) “Seriously, we’re not doing that operation.”
- “Roger.”

Thermals from the sky
- Apache Pilot: “I got a guy on my scope moving all nimbly-bimbly through the trees!”
- Air controller on the ground: “Yeah, that’s probably a monkey.”

Soviet War heroes
- Marine: “How come every officer I meet claims he was a commander during the war against the Soviets?”
- ANA mullah: “Because some of us were.”
- Marine: “Maybe, but not Commander Hanif here. He looks way too young to have been commanding anything during those times. Maybe he was the chai boy.”
- Commander Hanif: “You may be right.”

We’re ready

- ANA officer: “We’ve got intel that the base is going to be attacked tonight.”
- Marine: “Sounds like a great opportunity to kill some people…but how are we going to prepare for this?”
- “We are at stand-to.”
- “What does that mean?”
- “It means we are ready.”
- “Are there more soldiers on duty? Are they sleeping in their gear?”
- “No. None of that. But we are ready.”
- “Yes, but are we doing anything differently than before?”
- “Yes, we are ready now.”
- “Well, alright then.”

Prelude to a firefight

Unknown insurgent on handheld radio: “I am going to do something.”

We meet again

- Marine: “Hello there Haji Z. Been awhile.”
- Haji Z: “Here you are. Where have you been? I didn’t give you permission to leave my valley.”
- Marine: “Ah, yes, but I have to take orders from someone and can’t always be where I want to be.”
- Haji Z: “Let me talk to this person!”

Korengal Tank
- ANA officer: "You know what would help us? A tank! We need a tank our here."
- Marine: (egging him on) "Oh yeah? A tank? Great idea! How would we employ a tank here exactly?"
- "Easy. We'll just drive it around and the Taliban will shoot at it. Then we'll shoot them with the big gun."
- "Hmm. You sure we can drive a tank around this valley? It's kind of narrow and the roads might not hold a tank."
- "Oh, we don't really need to drive it anywhere. We can just park it out there somewhere."
- "Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of a tank?"
- "No. No. It would work great."
- (laughing) "You guys need tanks in the Korengal about as badly as you need a navy."
- (petulant) "If you Americans cared about us you'd get us tanks out here."
- (placating) "Ok, ok, we'll see what we can do."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the media II

The New York Times linked to this blog a couple of weeks ago, which explained for me why my site had taken such a jump in its number of visitors. Of course, the NYT discovered the blog and labeled it as a blog by a deployed soldier only after I'd returned. At any rate, I'm flattered by the exposure. One of the other effects of the NYT link was this blog was discovered by a reporter for NPR who then requested a phone interview with me for his story about blogging and social networking while deployed. I was happy to give him my two cents on the issue, though I wish he'd've made it more clear that I didn't want my name associated with the blog because I don't think it's right to use military service to publicize yourself. I did mention the fact that I'm going to be continuing my military service, but fear of reprisals or whatever is not why I don't put my name on the site (see below). At any rate, it was a good article and I'm glad to have been a contributor to it.

I think the blogging done by service members while on deployment is generally a good thing, and I was happy to have been put in a position where I could write about things that people would be interested in reading. I didn't see it as my duty to write positively. I just tried to be as honest with myself as I could be with it, while also keeping in mind that I did not always have the bigger picture on things.

I can see where concerns about blogging on the part of the Pentagon would come in, as they have every right to be concerned with the information that comes out of theater, given how important public opinion is in sustaining the war effort. Service members who are bloggers would seem to have a more authoritative voice on the war than an embedded reporter given their status, but then service members who blog don't really reach very many people. Even with the New York Times linking to this site recently, I've never had more than 300 unique visitors in a day and I average about 50, of whom I probably know a third personally. In short, a site like this reaches such a small proportion of the populace that it simply wouldn't be worth the effort on the part of the Pentagon to try to control it, which was the conclusion the military seems to have reached on the censoring of letters sent from soldiers home during prior conflicts.

The Stars and Stripes recently had an article about the Pentagon profiling reporters. I found the article quite lacking in substance and have no qualms whatsoever about a private consulting group being used to check the accuracy of information being presented to the public by reporters. The Pentagon claims they profile reporters on the accuracy of their reporting, not the content, which is something I believe. That being said, I'm pretty sure that if a reporter consistently reported only on the negative, though true, aspects of the war then he or she might find it harder to get an embed.

I can say that we had many reporters come and go and the stories they put out were accurate and fair in my opinion. Those reporters were treated with respect and granted quite a lot of access to what we were doing. We didn't always give them everything they wanted, but then it was often our call on whether to accept an embed or not, so we made the call, almost always based on factors that had nothing whatsoever to do with the reporter himself and what he or she might write about us (see prior blog entry). We refused to accept one reporter simply because we didn't think she could hack it physically moving up and down the mountains with us. What she may have written, I guess we'll never know.

I think the more interesting question is if the Pentagon is indeed profiling reporters for the sake of controlling the types of stories that get printed, is this necessarily a bad thing? Freedom of press is a great thing, but it doesn't mean every type of information and story is at the disposal of every reporter who wants to come out and write. If we have information that is classified and unreleasable for security purposes, where do we draw the line on war reporting? Moreover, assuming the lawmakers we've elected to make decisions and run the country have access to all the best information available, aren't they in a better position to make decisions on how far to go with this war than the general populace? Well, at least in theory anyway...? Does the public have to have a role in every decision? Do we want democracy to evolve to the level where public opinion controls every decision that's made for the country as a whole? I think ideally you have a selfless leader who makes the right calls based on unbiased thought processes and good information. We're so far from that though that maybe public opinion is the best way to reach a decision.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In the media

You know it's been an interesting tour when during an hour-long layover in Alaska someone just happens to buy a Time magazine and thereby stumble across pictures of members of our team and one of our interpreters. Of course, our guys that had the pictures taken knew that eventually they might show up in the magazine, but none of the rest of us knew they'd be in there since we didn't pay attention to the fact that a reporter was with them. It might have been a nice surprise if not for the fact that two of our guys pictured were bearded and well out of uniform. Unlike the Special Forces, we're not permitted to dress and groom ourselves how we'd like.

Of course, where we could get away with it, many of us did just what we liked regarding our uniforms and beards. Generally we had sense enough to not let pictures get taken of us in such a state. In fact, for the first half of our time we didn't let reporters embed with us at all, and pretty much just kept them away from us, primarily so something like this wouldn't happen. At some point that changed though, and members of our team thereafter appeared or were mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time (twice), El Mundo, and some others. It wasn't until this last one though that some of us were published completely out of uniform. Not sure what if any repercussions our team will feel, but at any rate, I think the main pic of the story makes a helluva recruiting tool for the Marine Corps...

As for the why...why we'd be out of uniform and unshaven at times...well, there's more to it than simply being nasty and undisciplined. For one thing, the Afghan elders and people respect a man with a beard. In fact when we and our ANA would go to a village the ANA commander would always ask to talk to the "spin gheri" which translates as "white beard". Now I'm not sure if the literal translation in Pashtu for "village elder" is "white beard" but that's how my Afghan commanders got their point across, pretty much indicating that in the Pashtu language and culture a beard is synonymous with seniority and authority. We certainly never once spoke to a man of any stature whatsoever that had no beard. The elders I habitually dealt with were dismayed (nearly as much as I) when I shaved a two-month beard I had going. I'm not sure being clean-shaven was any real detriment at the end of the day, but adopting a local custom is not always a bad thing, despite what our pre-deployment training told us about "not going native". I say go native sometimes where it serves you. And frankly, growing a beard makes the Marines feel like their getting one over on the rulewriters on high and is good for morale. You just have to be sure that you've got a group that is professional enough to realize that breaking one rule doesn't mean they are not still Marines, with all the other attendant rules and regulations to follow.

As for the uniforms, most of that had to do with blending in with the ANA. Most likely even from 500 meters away an insurgent is going to recognize an American by the gear he's carrying and how he carries himself, but there's no use making it any easier for them to target the ETTs specifically by wearing a uniform that looks different.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blog



This blog is not over yet for those of you out there still reading. I promise I have more topics to explore. I've just got some other stuff I need to catch up on (like LIVING) before I get more entries posted. We did get some rough news today that 4 ETTs were killed in an ambush not far from where we were stationed during our time. That's the most ETTs ever lost in one attack.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letter response

Question from a reporter after I returned:

"I've heard from some troops who served there, as well as think tankers and other folks, that the US presence there was an "irritant" to the local population, and that they only joined the insurgency to get the US troops out of there.

I'm wondering if you've seen the same kind of insularity and isolation elsewhere in Kunar. Did you ever get the sense that the locals don't want you there, and could live fine alone, without US or ANA presence?"

My response:

True, the ETT job is not an easy one, but was by far the most rewarding thing I've done, and I think many ETTs would agree with me.

I do not want to denigrate the observations made by the individuals you talked to with experience in the Korengal, but I'm going to try to give you a bit of additional context on the Korengal before I move on to your questions. I think it's a bit of a simplification to say that Korengalis joined the insurgency to get us out of there. On the one hand, it's true that the folks out in Korengal do not like outsiders typically and will fight whoever shows up in their domain. They do want to be left alone. However, we have to keep in mind that not all the fighters in the Korengal were Korengalis. We heard a lot of voices over the radio that were from Pakistan or speaking Arabic. I think the fact was, that in the Korengal we never had sufficient combat capability (either in number or in the capability of the troops that were there) in order to provide a level of security to keep those outsiders out. So while we might say they fought us so that they'd be left alone, we could equally say they were forced to fight us by outside influence, including people that killed the local leaders when they cooperated with us. I don't believe the Korengalis wanted those outside insurgents in their valley either. The fact of the matter is we simply did not do a good enough job out there to win anyone to our side.

We can also equally argue that the locals' position on our presence was irrelevant. Part of the idea in having forces in the Korengal was to fight the insurgents there, rather than in the more populated areas. Those valleys in Kunar do eventually feed in towards Kabul, and the position at one time was to fight in the hinterlands as a way of taking pressure off the cities, specifically Kabul. Now that we've ceded that territory, it reverts to becoming a lawless region where things happen that we don't like - a safe haven if you will. We went into Afghanistan in the first place so that the Taliban would not have a place to hide unmolested to plot, plan, and train. The fact is, now that we're gone, the Korengal will not be simply a peaceful valley full of folks living a peaceful pastoral existence doing their own thing with no impact on the outside world. It will, and probably already has, become an area our enemies will use to their advantage. If the Korengalis could or would keep out foreigners and live peacefully, then we'd have no issue. But that will not be the case.

As for other areas of Kunar, my experience is with the Pech Valley, which has several large valleys branching off from it, including the Korengal, the Wama, the Watapor, the ChapaDara, and another whose name eludes me where the famous battle of Wanat took place. Go far enough into any of those valleys and we have little influence and no control. The people in the region are certainly not homogeneous, but they do share a lot of characteristics. I think it's fair to say that most do not want to be ruled by what they perceive as a corrupt regime in Kabul, and are probably tired of the US presence. I also think it's fair to say that they don't want to be ruled by the Taliban. They do want economic opportunity. They do want their daughters to go to school. They do want to live in peace. While some share an extremist ideology (and probably more so in the Korengal than other places in Kunar) with the Taliban that they picked up during their time as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet conflict, certainly not all or most feel that way. Many of those people understand why our forces are there and what we're doing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Odyssey

Only when working for the government would you travel 21 time zones west to get to a point 3 times zones to your east. Our diplomats really need to get to work on China so we can fly over that country. If we could have overflown China, we'd have gotten home a day and a half earlier and felt much better on arrival. Instead, we flew from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan, spent a night there and then continued to Germany, Alaska and Okinawa. Upon arrival in Okinawa we dropped off some of our sister teams, spent a few hours at a reception and then resumed our journey. From Okinawa it was still nearly a day's trip to get back to Hawaii, stopping in Tokyo. On the plus side, it is always nice to intermingle with the Japanese, however superficial our interaction with them may have been on our short stay. And fortunately the plane was mostly empty so plenty of room to move about, although this fact is part of why we had to fly so far (We didn't have enough of our own pax to charter a flight to go exactly where we wanted in the fastest possible way.).

In all, we spent nearly 40 hours in the air between Afghanistan and Hawaii and traveled across 26 time zones.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Endex

"If you teach a man anything he will never know." - Bernard Shaw




Well, it’s all over now, except the good times and celebrating together when we get home. From the very beginning it was easy to see we had a stellar group of young men in this unit, top to bottom far superior to other units I’ve been in. Today, I feel more proud than ever to have been a part of what we did. And I’m ecstatic to say we’re taking everyone back home with us. We were not without some close calls – the 21 members of our team were involved in over 300 separate troops in contact incidents (TICs...these incidents can range from a round of indirect fire landing on the base to firefights lasting hours) in our 270+ days in Afghanistan, which if averaging more than one TIC a day sounds like a lot, well, it is…but we did provide a lot of targets out there since we manned seven different bases over a wide area. We will collectively receive quite a few awards, including six purple hearts, but none of those injuries were serious enough to remove anyone from duty for more than a couple weeks. Our ANA battalion likewise received a number of injuries, but no deaths during our time with them.

It’ll be good to get back to a place where things happen normally. Things in America just make sense. In the States, people act and do things that make sense to me. Perhaps I feel that way because America is my culture, or perhaps it’s this fact that makes America so great. Put a bunch of hard-working people together who make decisions rationally without letting superstition get in their way and you can get great results. In Afghanistan, and especially so when working with the ANA, plenty of friction exists to get much of anything accomplished. The mountains, weather, language barrier, education level, the enemy, and above all the culture have a way of conspiring against you to prevent you from getting things done the way you think they should get done. While at my first duty station I can remember often thinking during my lunch break that what took me four hours to do in the morning should have only taken me two hours. Working with the ANA, what should take two hours is liable to take all week, if it gets done at all.

What we achieved other than our own survival is much tougher to measure. I’d be lying if I said the security situation in our area was much different when we left from how it was when we got there. But then, given limited resources, perhaps holding a stalemate in Kunar Province is really all anyone can hope for at this time. We could change a few things on the tactical level (like not being so ridiculously predictable) that might help and wouldn’t involve an increase in resources, but realistically we’re not going to change the way we fight in any significant way. To kill more enemy would involve more risk to our own troops, which would in turn produce more casualties, leading to more negative public opinion, which I fear would in time end the war given our leadership at the very top. Not that I don’t want to see the war end…but I’d like to see it end for the right reasons.

With no changes coming in the tactical fight, to turn it around in Kunar we’d either need more troops…or the right troops. Some of those valleys we were in have been insurgent havens for many years. A part of me says we should just get out of there and leave the local people to their own devices. Another part of me says we should double the manpower (and preferably bring the Marine battalions back to Kunar) and just clean house, even if really taking the fight to the enemy would increase our casualties in the short term. Given the eight years we have invested in Afghanistan, I don’t think we should pack up and quit without giving it a really good push, something like a surge…what an original thought, right? The surge in Iraq showed the people we were serious about winning. The low turnout at the election can be taken as pretty strong evidence that the Afghan people are losing hope on this idea of democracy. And they’re losing hope because we’re eight years now in their country and we haven’t vanquished the Taliban yet, nor have we made their lives significantly better. I hold the Afghan people more responsible for this unfortunate reality than I do my fellow Americans and NATO allies, but regardless of who’s to blame for the lack of security in the south and east, the fact is an elected government in Afghanistan is in our national interest. Now, is establishing a stable, elected government worth the mountains of money we’re spending here…? or would the money and resources be better spent in other ways closer to home? After nine months here, my gut tells me we’re better off investing in ways to protect ourselves that don’t involve creating democracies in impoverished, war-torn, ethnically-divided nations on the other side of the planet. But after all we’ve done here already, I’d hate to see us give up without a really putting our best efforts into it for at least a couple years, keeping in mind we’ve never had anywhere near the numbers of troops here that were in Iraq at that war’s height.

As for the ANA, we need to give them their own battlespace and make them accountable for it. They have the ability to fight the enemy on their own now. Partnering in one area with regular line units like they’re doing now only enables them. If the ANA were operating on their own without a Coalition unit sharing the area, they’d still need ETTs for some things like calling for fire support and medevacs and of course, all that sage advice we give them, but the absence of other regular units in the area would force them to develop or get defeated. I’m confident the ANA can rise to that challenge, but they’ll only rise to it when forced to – initiative is not a strong suit with Afghan soldiers.

As for the ETTs…well, we’re hearing rumors that the embedded training concept is going away. I’m not sure if this means the ANA are going to partner directly with the adjacent Coalition unit in the area without the benefit of an ETT to facilitate, or if this means the ANA is just going to operate independently. Either way, I’d hate to see the concept go away as I’m certain ETTs are huge force multipliers.

And lastly, for my part being an ETT was by far the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m incredibly thankful to have been given this opportunity. This was the hardest I’d worked, with the most responsibility, and most accomplished of anything so far for me. I have no doubt that I’ll always look back on what we did out here with great pride. Hopefully, 20 years from now I’ll be able to return to the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan with a walking stick and a backpack and not have to worry about getting my throat slit.

Time will tell.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Leaving

"Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." - attributed to Einstein
Eventually everyone's time to go home comes and ours finally did. At last, we're on our way out...but it's tough to get too excited about it when the process is going to take up to two weeks. We turned things over to the new team, and they'll begin going through all the things we went through. With the ANA you have to wonder if they purposely hit the rewind button when a new team arrives. By that I mean, the suspicion exists that the ANA play down their abilities for new ETTs in the hopes that the new guys will coddle them and not demand as much of them as they are capable of giving; let the new guys think you're incapable and maybe they won't ask much of you; show how pathetic and helpless you are and maybe they'll buy and give you more stuff. I won't personally say I saw much of that type of behavior, but I did hear of it from others and it would fit right in with what I know about the ANA.

At any rate, the new team will do just fine. They'll find their own way, which will be different from ours in some respects. As for the ANA, I'll miss some of them, no question. They do have some very good people. I'll miss my terps more though. It was hard not to feel like we were abandoning the terps as we said our goodbyes. Afghanistan is their country though, so can't feel too sorry for them that they have to stay. Afghanistan needs bright young men like our interpreters (who tend to see things more our way than the ANA ever did) to help reshape the country.

For now, we'll sit at Bagram and wait for a flight. The time waiting will be primarily spent sleeping, eating, weightlifting, and card-playing. We've already been here several days and we've no firm word on when we'll actually leave. Hopefully we'll be back in Hawaii in a week or so.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Election redux


Our part on election day consisted of checking on the polling sites with our ANA. Unfortunately, we didn’t see as many people out and about as we would have liked, but we did see a fair number of men with purple fingers, indicating they’d voted. Since we didn’t have enough ETTs to accompany the ANA on all the missions they were doing, the ANA actually did a fair number of movements and security on their own, which was a nice culmination to our time here. The ANA proved they can operate without us and hold their own, as they were shot at from afar a number of times throughout the day. Violence in the area was much higher than normal, as was to be expected. Our main base was attacked sporadically with mortars, rockets, and even some direct small arms fire, which was something we hadn’t seen before.

After the polls closed, we went with the ANA to several different polling sites to pick up the ballots. As I watched the ANA throw the plastic crates full (or not so full) of ballots onto the back of their trucks, all the while hoping we wouldn’t start taking rounds, I thought to myself, “so this is how it (democracy and voting) happens”. Unfortunately, many of the cartons for the completed ballots were empty, but we did end up picking up some 14,000 ballots in an area that did not include any real population centers other than small villages. You’d be surprised how many Afghans can fit into those small villages though.

We almost managed to get back to the district center with the ballots without receiving any enemy contact, but…then it wouldn’t be a day in Kunar Province without someone shooting at you from up in the mountains. Normally, we’d stop the convoy and return fire, but on election day we were more concerned with getting the ballots secured in the district center, so despite the burst of machine gun fire and RPG shot our way from about 1000 meters out (much too far for an RPG, which probably why it landed 200 meters short of our truck), we just pushed onward rather than stay and fight. Running away from enemy contact felt like a bit of an ignominious way to end our tour since that was to be our last convoy, but I couldn’t disagree with the decision. Having an RPG rip through the back of one of those pickup trucks full of ballots would not have been good.

It appears the turnout for the election as a whole was low, but in any event we survived it with only a couple of ANA lightly wounded. And now we turn our full attention toward getting out of here as our replacements have arrived and are ready to take over.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Elections writeup


I wrote this piece for worldfocus.org, which is why it contains elements of other posts.

Afghanistan’s election is coming up on Thursday. Here in the northeastern part of the country, conducting an orderly election will be a difficult task, to say the least. This region, due to the high mountains and its shared border with Pakistan, is a well-known insurgent haven. Our enemies inhabit the high ground and getting up there to deal with them is tough.

Nearly every engagement here involves the insurgents shooting down at us from above. When that hasn’t been the case, the enemy has been shooting at us from inside a village on the other side of a valley. Fighting an enemy while he’s inside a village presents its own set of concerns.

Conducting day-to-day operations here is difficult. Holding an election here against the wishes of our numerous enemies will certainly be interesting. Not only are we sure to see more attacks, but we’re also sure to have less support in the form of air since those air assets are likely to be needed everywhere else as well.

Coalition forces just don’t have the numbers to control much of the vast hinterland in this northeastern part of the country. Those air assets in the form of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and fighter aircraft are a vital part of how we get things turned in our favor once the shooting begins, but we’ll make do with or without them.

Generally speaking, if we don’t have a paved road leading to an area, we don’t control it. Geographically, the province sits in the middle of a mountain range. The mountains are interspersed with valleys carved by streams fed by melting snow runoff. The only flat areas you’ll see around here are the areas around the streams. Those flat areas vary in width from a kilometer to maybe 10 meters across. Given the challenging topography, road building is a difficult task. Where roads have been put in, bases and security have followed. Without a paved road, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are regular, which prevents a strong U.S. presence.

We focus on the larger population centers, which are not surprisingly generally located in the larger valleys. Of the many small valleys branching off from the larger ones, we control the terrain at most a couple of kilometers in. Far down into some of these valleys, we haven’t had Americans go in years. This fact hasn’t stopped the unnamed, unseen planners on high from deciding to put election polling sites in some of these places. Exactly how we’re supposed to secure a place we don’t ever go, in addition to all the other sites in our normal area of operations, is a question which has occurred to many of us in recent weeks.

Thankfully, as the election creeps closer, reality is beginning to set in, and numerous planned polling stations are not going to be opened. We’ll consolidate some, and others will just not be available, necessitating the local people taking a longer trip to vote. It will be the courageous family that decides to take a trip down an unsecured road while bearing voter registration cards. The insurgents aren’t always in the mountains…they do come down to the roads to conduct checkpoints, often with an IED in the road between us and them to prevent our arrival in a timely manner to deal with them.

For an election you need ballots. It’s Afghanistan’s election, so U.S. forces aren’t supposed to escort or handle the ballots. As embedded trainers with the Afghan National Army (ANA), my unit is exempt from this guidance. And so, on our way to pick up the ballots yesterday, we got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we’re still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield. Armor is a good thing to have when the element of surprise is not on your side. The firefight was a nice way to welcome our recently-arrived replacements to the joys and adventures of life in Afghanistan.

We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don’t venture…and are not going to venture for this election. The Afghan National Police (ANP) refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case we’re not helping.

If not the Americans or the ANA or the ANP, who’s going to take the ballots up there and provide security for the election, you ask? Well, in Afghanistan, when the official government representatives aren’t doing the job, the responsibility falls to the traditional power brokers, i.e. the local elders. Turning over official election ballots to citizens who hold no official capacity may not be how things were drawn up by the 10-pound heads who wanted to hold an election in a war-torn country in the midst of raging insurgency, but as someone in the news stated recently, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.

If even the elders can’t guarantee the security of the ballots and the ballots end up getting burned in a bonfire in the square next to the village mosque — well, at least in that case, the insurgents have clearly shown themselves to be destructive agents and enemies of their peoples’ freedom of choice. In the past, just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid like schoolbooks in places where we thought it would get burned by the insurgents before the local people could get their hands on it. Something similar may end up happening with a small portion of the ballots.

However imperfect, Afghanistan will have an election on August 20 and new elected officials will take up their posts sometime shortly thereafter. Undoubtedly, some of our enemies will abuse the election process and the general lack of security in this region to get themselves elected. But I reckon we’re on the right track if they’re playing by our rules and participating in the process, whatever their ultimate motives may be.

I’m just thankful I get to be here to see how this thing turns out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ballots

Sometimes it’s really quite amazing to see the disconnect between what the unseen, unknown planners on high come up and the situation on the ground. Let’s just say originally this area was to have quite a number of polling sites. And as the election creeps closer and closer, everyone is coming to the realization that we just don’t have the manpower to provide security for all of these places. In many cases, it’s not so much the number of polling sites as it is the locations. We simply do not control much of the environment out here. Where we are we control, but it’s a big hinterland and we can’t be everywhere. And where we not…the Taliban are. Most of the little valleys out here don’t have a security presence more than a couple kilometers in. To put a polling site out deep in a valley where no Coalition forces go means we have to rely on local elders to provide the security for the ballots and the election itself.

Handing over election security to a local elder who holds no official position seems a little strange and could certainly lead to some odd results, but it’s not a perfect world and no election is perfect. Getting the people to go through the process, however flawed it may be, is the important thing. If that process doesn’t get off the ground at all because the ballots got burned by the Taliban, well, at least the Taliban in that case have shown exactly where they stand regarding peoples’ right to choose their leaders. Just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid knowing it would get burned by the Taliban. Something similar may end up happening with the ballots.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Elections



We were lucky enough to have our stay extended here to cover the election coming up on the 20th. I’d feel a little better about staying if they’d let me vote – I reckon I’ve done enough for this country by now that I’ve earned that right, but oh well. Given that I don’t know much about the candidates or parties involved, I suppose it’s just as well that I don’t vote. What I do know is that 40 some odd persons are running for president. Such a large and divided field would seem to provide significant advantages for the incumbent, though there’s to be a runoff if no one obtains a certain percentage during the first vote. It seems pretty certain that Karzai will remain in power.

We obviously don’t really concern ourselves with the candidates or politics involved. We’re here to see that an election takes place with minimal chaos. The results are irrelevant to our purpose. I have no doubt that the people are reasonably well-informed about the candidates, but I ask myself how exactly an illiterate person votes. Whether these people really understand the process beyond a very superficial level is another question I ask myself. The other day we were rolling down the road and I saw a billboard with a woman in a burqa holding out a voter registration card. I took the billboard to be an encouragement to the local people to vote. The billboard got me thinking about the election and the compatibility of democracy and elections with a society that covers its women in burqas. You'd think that freedom from the burqa would come before the right to vote...but it's coming the other way round here.

Seems to me the Islamic world has a taste for Western ideas and goods, but hasn’t really assimilated those ideas into their culture in a meaningful way. A rich Islamic country can import the best cars, but they can’t create them. They can watch Indian movies but won’t produce them. They can even throw an election, but is it destined to be anything more than a legally sanctioned power grab? (Of course, most elections in around the world are really just that.) Is there really a debate of ideas going on here? Do they really respect differences in opinion? More importantly, does the average person here really think they can make a decision that will have an effect, positive or otherwise, on his or her own life? The whole idea of changing or bettering your state is alien to most of these people. On the one hand, Islam provides the people with some solace and contentment in what must be a difficult existence, but isn’t it primarily their religion that hinders their existence and makes it so difficult to begin with?

Well, we’ll give them their election. We’ve gone out and talked to local people about the election and asked them about voting, whether the Taliban have been around threatening them, etc. We’re often told that the Taliban have one message and we have another: two competing ideologies. The local people don’t necessarily find one or the other better. The Americans stand for personal freedom and democracy. The Taliban stand for a society ruled by its interpretation of Islam, which is unfortunately such an extremist and corrupt interpretation. Even so, frankly, given where the culture in Afghanistan is at this time, the Taliban’s message seems more appropriate in some ways, since this society is much more akin to medieval Europe than a modern democracy. The world has become a small place though, and since we do in fact share this planet with the Afghan people, it’s probably in our best interest to do what we can to drag them into the 21st century. And however culturally unready they may be for an election, I wouldn't underestimate the appeal and power of freedom and democracy once a society becomes accustomed to it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Motivations


Motivations

I appreciate the questions in the comments. I’ll try to answer them as best I can. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do have opinions, which albeit are based on a small part of the country and one particular unit. I’m quite certain what I’ve seen is representative of the country as a whole, but I could be wrong. At any rate, I’ll throw my two cents out there and people can take it or leave it. If anyone has facts that refute what I have to say, I’d be interested to hear them. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s anything I would enjoy more than having my opinions on the ANA attacked by someone who hasn’t lived with them and been on the ground in combat with them.

I’ve actually asked various solders in the ANA why they joined, and they all without fail answered that they did it to fight the Taliban and because they like the soldier’s life. In a few cases this may be true, but in my opinion the main reason an Afghan joins the ANA is money. The ANA pays relatively well, about $180/month with free food, a place to lay your head at night, and a good amount of leave. Moreover, few job opportunities exist in Afghanistan. If the army is the one hiring, then you take what you can get. We’ve seen an uptick in recruiting for the US armed forces over the past year, which I’m pretty sure is a result of the down economy, not a sudden uptick in patriotism or adventurism on the part of our young people.

Regardless of anyone’s motivation for joining the ANA, the important thing is how they act when they’re here. If these guys were serving in the ANA because they really wanted to be here and not for a paycheck, I’m confident we’d see a little more motivation on their part. Teaching class to them is roughly akin to teaching kindergarteners, and that goes for the officers too, not just the soldiers.

The ANA can often talk a good game, but where the rubber meets the road, they’re usually not making things happen. There is usually a large disconnect between what the ANA commanders say they want to do and what actually happens on the ground. Either the commander on the ground is unable or unwilling to make a decision to react to recent events, or excuses will be made for inactivity and blame passed around for long enough until the issue is forgotten.

So what is the ANA really? A jobs program. It’s a necessary jobs program, and a necessary part of the country, but at this point we’re not getting much return on our investment. We baby the ANA and don’t utilize them the way we should. Of course, on our level we can’t tell the ANA what operations to do or not do, but somewhere up on high those demands can be made…after all, we’re paying all the bills here. So long as we let them get away with it, the ANA are more than happy to sit back and watch the US forces do most of the work. I’ve made all these points before so I won’t rehash them anymore. Suffice it to say, I’m starting to believe local militias are the way to go. Local militias are local, and as such have a vested interest in the security of their area. The ANA come from all over the country…their vested interest is in their own security. Since the ANA leadership has little sense of duty or will to make their soldiers work, the result is an army that often does little more than occupy a base and turn food into excrement.

But they're getting better.