Thursday, April 30, 2009


It'd be hard to fully comprehend what we're doing out here without appreciating our reliance on interpreters, or 'terps' as we call them, for even the most basic of communications. None of us really is able to speak either of the dominant languages in this country other than basic greetings and a few military-specific terms. Very few of my colleagues can even count to ten. Dari and Pashto are tough languages to learn, and tougher still by virtue of there being two of them, but the fact is most of us really don't put much effort into learning the languages. I'm guilty of laziness toward the languages as well, using the excuse that since I'm still learning Spanish (and probably will be the rest of my life) I don't want to use up all of my 'foreign language mental energy' on another language.

The inability to communicate makes the inadvertent casual conversation impossible unless a terp happens to be standing right there. After the obligatory greeting and handshake with a smile you're pretty well done communicating. I can communicate enough to schedule a meeting with my Afghan counterpart, but not being able to converse with him in an offhand way makes it tougher to really monitor him and lowers our productivity since I can't even conduct minor business without making a meeting of the event.

The quality of your terp can make a big difference in how well you understand each other. A terp that speaks English poorly will lead to quite a number of non sequiturs in the conversation - something like this is not uncommon:
Me: "Hey, tell that guy to come over here."
Terp: "Thank you."
Me: No, tell him to get over here."
Terp: "Yes, yes."
Me: (Slowly) "I need that man standing over there (pointing) to come to this place where I'm standing (pointing at ground) right now."
And that gets it done.

At times I have rephrased questions multiple times only to continue to receive answers that don't make sense. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Of course, then there are those terps that won't translate what I'm saying if I happen to be angry with the Afghans. I'll get angry about something only to have the terp try to smooth it over by not translating what I'm saying. I'll then complain to the terp about this and he'll come back with the response, "I can't repeat what you just told him because it will offend him." Yes, I know, but I've been doing this long enough that if I want to offend someone then I have a good reason for doing it. Even after that explanation I don't think my more harsh criticisms get through unfiltered.

Speaking of unfiltered, I played Opfor (Opposing Forces) against some Afghan commandos training with our SF forces one day a few weeks ago. Basically, we were playing paintball and I was holed up in a building with some other US personnel waiting for the Afghans commandos to come clear us out of the building. We gave them their lumps, but they did a pretty good job overall. After I was 'wounded' and then searched (a little more thoroughly than I might have liked), the SF trainer asked his soldiers what the deal was with me. The Afghans responded that he was their prisoner, which elicited the response, "Did he have a gun?"

- "yes..."
- "then why the $#*k isn't he dead!"

Now that's what I call being straightforward.
By now I've worked with probably 10 different interpreters for a decent length of time and have gotten to know some of them quite well. They had in common the fact that they were all Afghans that spoke Dari, Pashto, and English, but other than that they were very different people. One of our terps (who we dubbed "Baby Spice") looked to be know more than 15 years old. He was very happy after his first firefight, claiming that he was a man now. For all the fear and indecision he showed that first time, I have to say he adapted to things pretty well and seemed to enjoy going out on patrol, unlike some of the others who clearly dreaded any trip outside the wire.

My favorite terp by far was a guy about my age who had been a senior enlisted soldier in the Afghan National Army for some years before becoming an interpreter. I should mention that passing a short series of tests is enough to become an interpreter and the terps make about three times the wages of an Afghan soldier. The former soldier's insight into the minds of our ANA soldiers was very useful in helping us to know what we should and shouldn't let them get away with. The two of us got some good laughs after one afternoon when I asked our ANA soldiers to continue a patrol (after it had been 'interrupted' by a few machine gun bursts directed our way from across the valley) to the top of a hill and they refused saying, "The battalion does not let me do that." Ah yes, of course, the battalion does not allow you to do the mission you planned for.

In some aspects the terps are the continuity out here. I've sat and looked at my map and asked myself what it must be like in some of these places deep into valleys where we're always getting reports of large numbers Taliban. Many such places we don't go to anymore as we just can't get to them very easily, but we have terps that have been in this area of the country for years, even dating back to when the Marines were out here in 2005 and they've been all over and seen and survived a lot.

The other terps we've had have had varying degrees of proficiency with English and with combat situations - we tend to get the newer terps out here. Some will hide when things get interesting and others will stay attached to you wherever you go. Most of them are hoping to obtain US citizenship by spending some years as an interpreter with us. All in all they are a good group of young men, and with enough patience we can usually get what we want out of them.

I've attached an actual job description to give you an idea of what these guys sign up for.

On Leave

"I have seen it, but I don't remember this part. Funny, it's like what's happening to us, like the past. The movie never changes -- it can't change -- but everytime you see it, it seems to be different because you're different -- you notice different things." - James Cole in "12 Monkeys"

I'm home now on my two week break. Once again I had the opportunity to fly anywhere in the world on leave for free, but again I chose to come back home and take it easy. I'm actually surprised we're being granted leave since our tour is only nine months. If they are offering, then I'm taking, though quite a few members of our team aren't going to bother with it. Surprisingly, it only took three days to get home from the time I was dropped off at a small base in E. Afghanistan. Those flights with the civilian-contracted Hueys really help since apparently military air hardly flies in any type of bad weather anymore.

I was one of three marines on the flight from Kuwait out of some 200 people. I'd been through the whole leave process from Iraq before so I wasn't surprised or frustrated by some of the little things like showing up 12 hours before the flight is scheduled to leave, etc.

As for being back home, can't say I have much planned. My perspective has changed on a few things, but thankfully I can't say I've been radically changed by my experiences in
Afghanistan so far. One thing I have noticed while driving around is that those hills that used to seem fairly steep now seem almost flat. The mountains in Afghanistan, much like the heat in Iraq, have made an impact on me.

"12 Monkeys" is my favorite movie by the way.

DHS memo

One of my readers had mentioned to me (only half-jokingly) that I should be careful with entries like "Going Galt" because I might come across as someone likely to be recruited by "right-wing extremists" who target former military personnel. After all, according to the Department of Homeland Security those right-wing extremists are after us war vets. The link does a great job of making fun of the whole ridiculous premise.

Reading some of these other military blogs, many of which seem to be written by ETTs embedded with the Afghans like myself, has helped me come to the realization that I need to get off of yahoo as my blog service provider. I never have been very happy with it, and looking at these other sites it's clear I need an upgrade. Need to upgrade the material and writing as well actually.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


It's been awhile since I've put up a picture. This is the kind of small billboard you'll see on the back of the last vehicle in a convoy; the intention being to warn other drivers to stay away from us. Pictures are pretty important in a country where most of the people can't read. I'll give them credit for presumably writing the warning in a local language, as I've often seen signs directed at the local people written only in English. As for the picture part of the seems to say something along the lines of "STOP!!! or your car that floats on a dock might run into my recreational vehicle, because I can't hear you with these earphones on nor can I see you through my extremely large hand."

My thanks to MSgt A for the pic and commentary.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

NATO weapons transition

You know, I don't miss being bothered constantly by the Afghans...until I'm not. It's been a while now that I've been gone, and I miss my little outpost in the middle of nowhere, where my Afghan soldiers wake me early in the morning to complain about a toothache or to ask to borrow a tool.

Until I saw how things are run with the 'embedded' trainers at other bases I really didn't appreciate how lucky I am to live in such close proximity to the Afghans. My Afghan commander lives in the room directly below me, and we see each other all hours of the day and night. We eat pretty much the same food and live in the same conditions and do the same things together. Sometimes it's a pain being so accessible and I just want some peace and time to myself, but it's much more rewarding than the sterile relationships these other guys have, where there's no shared hardship or proximity to build that bond.

As for here near Kabul, it's been a slow but relatively interesting week. Helping out with teaching the Afghans to shoot the M16 has been enlightening. Most of them actually shoot pretty well, though when they are shooting at paper targets they don't really get into it very much. Give them an armored vehicle or a steel bell to shoot at though, and they get excited. The ones that don't shoot well, really don't shoot well. We had a guy miss the entire 2x4 foot target with 15 straight rounds from 25 meters away until we figured out he was using the wrong eye to look through the sights. I had wondered why his head was cocked all weird. It took awhile but we convinced him he'd be better off shooting using his right eye if we were going to shoot right-handed.

The training done here is run by civilian contractors. I'm just here to learn a bit and then go back and train the rest of our battalion. All the trainers are former military, usually infantry or SF. They're a cocky bunch, competent and entertaining to be around with all manner of funny stories from around the world, although the amount of hours they put in working is pretty sparse given their salaries. Spending time with them has been educational for me on many levels. The contractors tend to curse and yell at the Afghans more than I do when I'm doing training back "home", but then these guys can get away with it because they don't have to live with the ANA the way I do; I'm a bit reluctant to anger my Afghans too much, considering my life is really in their hands.

Civilian contracting certainly seems like a pretty good gig if you can get it since these guys really aren't working very many hours for the ridiculous amount of money they make, though I'm not sure I would want to run rifle ranges all the time. Of course, not all these guys run rifle ranges - plenty of other opportunities exist for all manner of specialties.

Going Galt

Madness is something that is rare in invididuals - but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche
This entry has nothing to do with Afghanistan.

With all the bad news about the economy it's been a nice time to be out of the country. But now that I have internet access and the slight market recovery has buoyed my investment accounts a bit, I'm starting to read more and more about the state of the country. Reading through a few different blogs I came across the "going Galt" concept. "Going Galt" referring to the protagonist in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged who decided that rather than work and have the government tax away all of his earnings, he'd just shut down. This article sums it all up pretty well.

I've read a lot of books in my life, but Rand's epic has not been one of them. I had no idea until now what it was actually about. Somewhere along the line I had heard it characterized as being extremely long and boring, and that's been my enduring impression of the book.

Anyway, this "going Galt" concept is how I can now explain my behavior over the past 15 years to my parents. In that time, I've spent years earning degrees I did not use, traveled extensively purely for the hell of it, and spent lots of time deployed to tax-free zones in support of (in the parlance of our celebrity in office) "overseas contingency operations". See, I was ahead of my time, I did all of this as a way to keep the government from taking any of my money. I've got principles...

Actually, I just did all that stuff because it was what I felt like doing and because it made sense to me at that time. What all those experiences add up to I'm still not sure yet, but it's been fun. At any rate, as a libertarian I'd love to see the "going Galt" thing catch on - in its essentials, the concept is about incentives and behavior, and I'm a firm believer in "incentivizing" behavior we want to encourage. Since people are likely to do what's best for them we may as well see to it that those self-interested acts add up to something good for all of us - the unselfish act in self-interest if you will. The way I figure it, the sooner the country reaches bottom (by this I mean a bankrupted and weakened country brought on by rampant socialism) the sooner we can rebuild it in the image of its former self.

Maybe I'll give Rand's book a look when I get home for leave next month.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


You'd be surprised at the things you find on forward-deployed military bases these days. While searching for a post office I stumbled across a beauty salon - the two young ladies working looked to be vaguely Chinese (later turned out to be from Kyrgyzstan, which does border China) so I thought I'd ask if massage services were offered, and they were.

Seems strange that this type of service would be offered on a relatively small base here at Camp Blackhorse, but given the prevalence of officers, contractors, and higher-ranking staff around here I guess I'm not surprised. It's unfortunate we're banned from leaving base for recreation and they have to bring these services to us, because it'd certainly be more interesting to go out in town and acquire the services we desire for ourselves. But then, though Kabul may be a bit more liberal than the rest of the country, I still can't envision massage parlors being available, and danger can certainly strike at any moment.

If you're going to get a massage, Asia is certainly the place to do it, or have a massage given to you in the Chinese or Thai style. The massages I've had in other parts of the world certainly have been a disappointment in comparison (with the exception of a "Hawaiian-style massage" I had some years ago that had some unique and interesting aspects to make it highly recommendable), though I've never had a Swedish massage as as far as I can recall. Upon walking into the room, I was disappointed to see a table - since I prefer the massage as hard as possible I prefer a mattress on the floor to a table...being closer to the floor means I know she'll get ample leverage and be able to use her knees and feet for maximum pressure. Nevertheless, it was a good massage, with some good work done on my neck and head, though I could have done without the sheet intermittently covering me - all that moving up and down of the sheet while I'm lying in the prone makes me feel like I'm a cadaver lying in a morgue or something. I don't consider myself a vain person, but lying on a massage table nearly completely exposed always makes me wish I spent more time in the gym. I suppose it's because I feel like the condition of my body says a lot about how I've lived and how I live, and thus who I am exactly.

Incidently, I tried to get a massage at Bagram, but the Russian girls there didn't seem to interested in actually doing the deed - they were unfriendly and didn't bother to tell me beforehand that regular underwear would not suffice for an undergarment.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Kabul convoy

Well, I did get to take a convoy to Kabul, to pick up a VIP and yet another reporter. I didn't get to interact with the city at all, but at least I got to ride through it. Kabul and its outskirts are blessed with an abundance of mud, which is still used to build houses all over this country. The roads we drove on were pretty well maintained, but one would expect this since they link the military bases - bad roads make it easier for bad things to happen to us, and with 75% of the casualties in this war now coming from IEDs, making the investment in the roads seems like a win/win. I got to see a few young ladies out and about without the traditional garb. Nice. The men were mostly dressed in the traditional way, but Western clothers were fairly common as well. Most everyone seemed friendly as I got a good number of waves, thumbs up, and smiles, most of which were initiated by the Afghans not me, which was all a nice change from the sullen stares I often get back east. Certainly plenty of other traffic was about, but they kept their distance from us, which made the ride nicer for me since I was tail gunner. As for the traffic itself, it was really pretty normal stuff with some bicycles and motorbikes mixed in with the cars and trucks, with the exception of the intermittent donkey-drawn carriage. The driving was even pretty tame with minimal chaos at the large roundabouts. I'd heard the people burn tires at night to stay warm so I was expecting bad smells, but only in a couple of areas was it really that bad.

Unknown unknowns

"There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don't know we don't know."
- Donald Rumsfeld

I can remember when Rumsfeld made that quote - seems he took a lot of flak for it, though I really don't understand why. I recently stumbled across the quote in a book I'm reading and thought it might provide a useful framework for writing about what it is that I do for a short time every month.

When I'm not out patrolling with the Afghans, I'm often working with their officers doing other things; our job being to try to come up with theories about enemy activity and the local populace that would be useful in planning future operations. To do this I often discuss the things we know with my Afghan counterpart (the known knowns) and then move on to the information we would like to know but don't know (the known unknowns). This information can often be summarized with the 5 W's: who are the bad guys? where are they? what type of activities are they conducting? etc. You can then apply these ideas to all the different aspects of conducting guerrilla warfare and ask yourself things like, "where do they get their money? who do they get it from? where do their supplies come from?, etc. We then can apply this framework to the other side of the coin in COIN (counter-insurgency) operations, the population, and ask ourselves what kinds of things we would like to know in order to influence the populace in a positive way.

Once we finish with the known unknowns we're pretty much done asking ourselves questions and can then start figuring out how to answer them. The problem with all of this is the unknown unknowns and a subset of the unknown unknowns, the unknown knowns, which is where I would group a lot of our information because I'm not sure it's actually correct. The Afghans love to surmise things and believe a lot of second-hand information. They'll often come up with estimates on things that are not quite believable. But on the other hand, this is their country and their culture, so they should be able to get a feel for what's going on out there a lot better than we ever could. At any rate, I characterize a lot of the information we do have as unknown knowns because we think we know things that we don't have good solid proof of.

And as for the unknown unknowns, I would characterize these as things that are beyond the scope of our thought processes. No doubt we're potentially faced with many unknown unknowns for two reasons: because insurgencies and terrorists are inherently unbound by rules and unpredictable; and because none of us in the area are conducting enough operations and getting out among the people to really know what's going on out there. You conduct operations partly to get information to use for planning future operations. When you're not operating, guys like my Afghan counterpart and I are kind of in the dark and are left to conjecture and surmise instead of analyze facts - leading to less and less situational awareness of the battlespace and more unknown unknowns.

On the move

Got the word the other day that I'm going to be helping our Afghan battalion transition from the old Warsaw Pact weapons systems to NATO weapons. Whether it's a good idea for these guys to give up their AK's for M16's is something I'll probably explore more in the future, but my gut tells me this is one of those ideas that looks good on paper but in reality will not work well. We'll see. Anyway, my new role necessitated a trip to Camp Blackhorse on the outskirts of Kabul. To get over here I first went to Jalalabad Air Field and then caught a ride on a civilian-contracted Huey. Why they need to contract Canadian companies to fly people around in Hueys is beyond me, but I was happy the service existed. So I flew over here with a reporter from Leatherneck magazine and another captain from the army. It was my first trip in a Huey and I enjoyed it. It's nice to be able to fly on a military aircraft when you can actually see out the window. Not that there's much to see...the terrain between J'Bad and Kabul is desolate. With the exception of the narrow river regions and the adjacent irrigated areas, most everything is sandy and brown, although some of the hills were covered with a bit of a green peach fuzz.

I didn't see many population centers on the flight, though tucked away into the mountains you'll see the isolated village from time to time. I'm not sure how high a Huey can fly, but we didn't fly over all of the mountains - the pilots had to seek passes through the mountains to get us over here to the west. As for the bird itself, I didn't see any sophisticated navigation equipment inside...the navigation aid consisted of a Garmin GPS on the dash and a map in the co-pilot's lap. "Continue 400 feet and turn left at the craggy peak". Ok, it didn't really say that.

Camp Blackhorse is emblematic of the KBR-constructed military base with the straight lines, rocks on the ground, conex boxes, plywood-constructed B-huts, etc. If there's one aspect of military operations we're really good at it would be constructed made-to-order bases. This is just the kind of place that I hate, but I'll take good advantage of the chow and weight room while I'm here. During my check-in the KBR lady pointed out to me the "emergency laundry" facility. I guess not having clean clothes constitutes an emergency around here. Hopefully, I'll get to see Kabul on a convoy before I leave.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Reporters embed with the units out this way from time to time. They’ll even go on the missions, which I certainly respect them for. I had a chance to sit down with the latest visitor to our little patch of the world for about 15 minutes in the middle of the night recently as she was on her way somewhere else. She was accompanied by several soldiers and a couple of Afghan workers carrying her four different bags. Personally, I wouldn’t let any reporter into this valley that couldn’t carry all her own gear herself, as to me the large number of bags is a quick indicator that this person is going to be a pain in the ass. Anyway, after chatting for a few minutes I asked her exactly how the tasking comes down to her from her superiors on what she should write about, where she should go, etc. She told me that they basically told her to go to one of the more dangerous areas of the country and write about the good and bad things we as Americans were doing in the war effort. Of course, as a marine deeply involved in what’s going on out here and an amateur writer myself, I found it laughable that her superiors found her, a graduate of the Berkeley school of journalism, the appropriate person to spend a week or two out here and then write about “the good and bad things in the war effort”. But given the magazine she writes for I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I’m pretty sure I can count the number of decent current events written media on one hand…let’s see, there’s Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and…I think that’s it. Suffice to say she doesn’t write for any of those.

Frankly, I’m not sure why the military lets these people come out here. I just don’t see the good that’s going to come from letting people with no military background or education in the subject write and make judgments on the war effort at the tactical level. To me, you should have to be an expert on a subject to write about it for a major news outlet. Show me that you have some experience and education in the subject matter, and then maybe I’d let you write about it for my publication. Despite her ignorance on company-level counter-insurgency operations, I suppose if she could just report the facts it’d be fine, but when she’s tasked with making judgments based on limited time and exposure, then to me she is way out of her depth and therefore has no place here whatsoever. At any rate, the Army pretty much let her have the run of the place and seemed to cater to her every whim. She repeatedly bothered the marines for access to the Afghan National Army and other things and people related to us, entreaties which we repeatedly denied and have denied every other reporter who’s been here save one. In that case we were given an order from our commander to deal with a particular reporter, and we didn’t mind since he was an Afghan national. I’ll give this latest reporter credit though for at least trying to get to the ANA. We’ve had reporters in the valley that didn’t even attempt to make the ANA a part of their story. To come out here and write a story on the war and not include the ANA is only getting half the story, but half is all anyone is getting for now around here…unless maybe we see someone show up from those periodicals mentioned above.

I suppose the larger issue is the future of written media as a whole. Being someone who delivered newspapers everyday from the age of 13 until I was 18, I look upon the demise of the newspaper industry with some sadness, but the really unfortunate thing would be if newspapers let declining revenues affect their journalistic integrity. I think it's inevitable that this will happen since newspapers are a business and businesses do what they have to do to stay in the black. If this means hiring more inexperienced and less capable reporters and directing them to write sensationalistic articles in order to try and hold on to their base of readers, then that's probably what the written media companies will do.


“In this valley, a man without a gun is useless” – Head Elder talking to contracted anthropologist. Was Head Elder referring to the folly of having an unarmed American anthropologist try to work in this close-mouthed part of the world? Or may he in fact have been referring to himself…?

When it comes to dealing with the populace, our intermediaries are the local elders. The elders are a group of old men, usually one or two from each town, who (supposedly) have influence over the people inhabiting those villages. Of course, even if we concluded that the elders had no influence whatsoever, I’m afraid we’d have to deal with them by default - the younger men are invisible in fact if not in influence (they’re the ones in the mountains playing their games with us and won’t voluntarily show themselves to us), and the women maintain the converse position, being invisible in influence if not in fact (and completely off limits to us at any rate)…so we really have no alternative.

We have a weekly shura (translates as ‘consultation’), where the elders, the Army, and the Afghan National Army get together to discuss the issues facing the valley. I usually sit in on these meetings but rarely say anything. My influence comes by discussing beforehand with my Afghan commander things that might be good for him to say if he’s so inclined.

The first order of business in most of the meetings is discussing collateral damage, i.e. which houses, irrigation canals, goats, and door locks have been damaged, killed, or destroyed in the past week. I will probably at some point write a piece on collateral damage, so I won’t expand on this topic now other than to mention some type of agreement is reached and we move on. Occasionally construction projects are discussed (specifically the project to rebuild/improve the road that leads to this place), but since this idea seems to be going nowhere for the time being, the only other real topic of interest is the fighting.

On the subject of fighting, a representative interchange might go something like this:

Elder: “Taliban are outsiders.”

Army rep: “Yes, but we hear them on the radio speaking the language native to, and exclusive to, this valley.”

Elder: “Ok, there are one or two locals involved, but they only shoot from the mountains.”

Army rep: “Yes, but we often see muzzle flashes coming from the houses.”

Elder: “Ok, they shoot at you from the houses in the villages, but they force their way in to those houses; we don’t allow them in.”

What to make of a conversation like that? Since the elder lied in his first two statements, you’d certainly be justified in believing he’s lying in the third statement as well. Or do the elders really lack the power to keep fighters out of their villages? I’m convinced that what happens around here happens with their knowledge – knowledge that they don’t share with us. But I suppose the question is whether the fighting occurs with their encouragement and approval, tacit or otherwise. My opinion is that these men, as the representatives of their community, occupy the unenviable position of being responsible for the safety of a population caught between two warring factions. Undoubtedly, many of the fighters are sons of these same elders, but the financing, training, and many of the fighters come from abroad. And these men that come from abroad are not likely to accept “No” for an answer when it comes to supporting them. Given that supporting the Americans overtly could get you and your family killed, the decision to offer no help to the Americans or resistance to the insurgents seems to correlate highly with their chief self-interest – survival. Even having a son fight against the Americans doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative when everyone else is doing it and non-compliance could bring grisly reprisals.

So while our elder may have not really been telling the truth in that third statement either, the reality is he’s powerless to affect the situation as it is in the valley as a whole, and is nothing more than a man caught up in larger events over which he has no control. This is all assuming of course that the elders and locals don’t just hate us and everything we stand for…a distinct possibility in a country with such a history of antipathy toward foreign invaders. Backward though the Afghans are, I’m satisfied that although our elders might not be able to fully grasp the esoteric concept of liberty that we are expounding (not that we go around proselytizing about ‘liberty’ in the streets or anything…), nevertheless now that we Americans have been here for some time, they can probably digest that our essential makeup and motives are good and rightfully supported by a good portion of the national populace and the Afghan National Army. At the end of the day, our elders might not want the situation in the valley to be as it is, but it is what it is, and until the Coalition shows more of an ability to protect the populace and defeat the enemy in this specific place, then the elders will likely counsel the population to stay safely on the sidelines, offering our enemies tacit support and giving us nothing.