Monday, June 29, 2009

Afghan Women

It's a tough row to hoe for the Afghan women. Well, actually everyone's got a tough way to go over here, and you can see it on their faces, which from about middle age onwards tend to be as ridged and folded as the landscape. I often overestimate ages here by roughly 10 years, unless I'm consistently being lied to as to the true ages of the people. At any rate, the women have it especially tough. From the time they can walk it seems the young girls are treated like mules, carrying various jugs or containers on their heads or in their arms. It's a common sight to see a man walking down the road empty-handed while his young daughter struggles along behind him serving as his porter. I guess having a daughter accustomed to working may make her more marriageable - better to get those good habits started early on.

On the other hand, I've been to girls' schools that were very well attended by 5 to 12 year-old cute young ladies. So undoubtedly the people do want their daughters to learn and get something of an education. The high schools around here are boys-only though. Afghanistan actually has a fair number of female politicians in government. Those women are brave souls no doubt, as female politicians have been murdered in recent years.

In this part of the country most all women of child-bearing age wear the burqa in public. I say most all because in one particular area it was not uncommon for us to see women working outside around their home without wearing the burqa, but that was a small, close-knit community. In that area, when we saw women coming through carrying bunches of twigs gathered up or water from the river, the custom was for us to turn away and ignore them as completely as possible. This was the SOP not just for US forces but for the ANA as well. However, for the most part in Kunar Province, except for the old and withered and the very young, we see no women. We do, however, see plenty of T and A beneath those burqas...toes and ankles.

Islam allows male practitioners four wives. Women, of course, aren't allowed the same privilege. Given that I'm well into my 30's now, the ANA often question me why I don't have a wife or children yet. I often play off their questions by telling them I'm only allowed one wife, so I have to make sure I pick the right girl. I once (jokingly - I promise I was only gauging his reaction) told the ANA Religious Officer (an older guy who serves as the battalion mullah) with whom I was eating dinner, that if I were allowed more than one wife I would have already married one. I would then follow her up with a newer model ten years later or so, and then kick the old one into the back room somewhere. Repeat that process three times and you've got your four wives without ever lacking for a young one, with three old ones in the back of the house or in the yard doing chores. After he heard the translation he got a big smile on his face, clapped me on the shoulder, and said in English, "GOOD!". As if to say, "You're getting it figured out my young American friend!" Religion and my idea of morality don't always go hand in hand over here.


Haven't been feeling especially inspired to write this week so I dug through my archives, sanitized, and edited this journal entry I wrote in February. Reading over it makes me miss the little base where I spent my first four months of the tour.


I’m not completely sure how many firefights we’ve been in to this point. The ones that we participate in while we’re on the base are not really a big deal to me because we’re generally not the target of those attacks due to our proximity to the village below. We get to participate because the other firebases (typically Restrepo lately) in the area are getting attacked.

However many gunfights we’ve been in, the frequency of attacks has been increasing recently. We’d gotten some intel that some foreign fighters had pushed into the area with the intention of hitting us as hard as they could for about a week or so...and hitting us they have been, though with no friendly casualties to this point.

Sometimes you get so used to the shooting you don’t pay much attention to it, and not just when you’re "safe" inside the confines of your compound. As part of a security patrol the other day, we stopped at the local lumber mill, which consists of a house with a large, partly covered porch where they do the cutting with an old bandsaw. This province used to have a thriving timber industry, which has since been shut down by the government for fear the proceeds were being used to fund insurgent operations – a not unreasonable fear given this area is considered “insurgent central”. The anthropologist embedded with us for the time being thought talking to the young men at the lumber mill would be a good chance to get some information about the lumber industry’s history and their hopes for the future. I, on the other hand, thought stopping at the mill would be a good chance to get to talk to some of the people who shoot at us in their spare time. I'll mention that our "default position" toward all young males in this specific area is to consider them as active or passive insurgency supporters.

Unfortunately, due to our ANA commander’s meddling in the conversation (I thought he would know that if we wanted his answers to the questions we would just have asked him in the confines of our base during our nightly discussions, but apparently this was another assumption I should not have made.), the domination of the conversation by the head local guy once he arrived, the ineptitude of the particular interpreter I’m stuck with at this point, and the natural reticence of the local people, I’m afraid our anthropologist didn’t get all the information he could have hoped for in a conversation lasting more than 30 minutes.

And so it was that the most interesting part of our brief stay at the lumber mill occurred about 15 minutes into the conversation when a firefight erupted at Firebase Restrepo about 500 meters west up the hill from us. The firefight was interesting not because of what happened, but because of what did not happen – namely, no one, not the local men, anthropologist, marines, or ANA made much of an acknowledgment of the bullets and mortars flying other than an occasional glance up the hill. 500 meters is not all that far away, but of the ten of us sitting and talking no one really considered moving or altering his immediate plans in any way, including myself, though I did begin to pay a bit more attention to my radio. Now that's multi-tasking when you can make sense of a garbled radio blaring in one ear, while also making sense of a translation in broken English with your other ear. One might think that we would have or should have done something, but in reality there is little we can do to support that post unless the fires are coming from an area of the valley where we can reach with our guns, which is rare, so in a situation where we're otherwise engaged we don't worry about it too much. As for our own safety, even if a coordinated attack were planned from multiple firing positions, the odds of us being shot at while on a visit with the local people are low. Part of the insurgents’ hold over the local people is due to intimidation, but they don’t normally take to shooting into crowded areas just to get at us. And so I sat there with the rest of them outside on the porch drinking chai, calmly listening in on the conversation as mortars fell about 800 meters away and the sound of heavy guns reverberated in the air.

I suppose I know now how the people in Beirut felt for all those years during their civil war. One can used to pretty much anything it seems. Just keep doing what you're doing. Maybe some day the Army will figure out how to kill the guys that shoot at them everyday up at Restrepo....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

People...the difference

"It's not where you are but who you're with."

The ANA tend to move around a fair bit. Some of the areas where they work are considerably 'different' from others so everyone moves around to give everyone the chance to 'experience' the different places. The ETTs don't move around with the ANA; most of our guys have stayed in the same place for our whole tour. I'm one of the few that's moved around a lot, having been stationed at three different bases, each of which is very distinct from the other two not only in the surrounding areas but also in the amenities (or lack thereof) available at the bases themselves.

Regardless of where I've been stationed, what's made the difference in my state of mind and level of satisfaction I gotten out of the job has been the people, both ANA and ETT, I've been with at the different bases. I can remember someone telling me years ago that it's not where you are but who you're with that often determines how much enjoyment you'll get out of your life, and I've certainly found that to be true in my experiences and probably never more so than here. I have a great time with some of the ANA officers and platoons, and it's when I'm working with them when I really enjoy this job. Some of the others, well, let's just say their attitude towards their work gives me the chance to practice being disagreeable, sarcastic, and occasionally downright mean. However, the cost is high for me when I act that way - I cease to have any fun at all on the job, which is why I only use that approach after exhausting all other methods of getting what I want out of them. Thankfully, more often than not it doesn't prove necessary to act that way.

The pic is of a soldier holding the bridge steady for me as I walked across.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How we fight

I can’t speak for the whole country and different areas can be pretty distinct, but I’ve been in enough scrapes by now to give readers a pretty good idea of how the battles are actually fought in eastern Afghanistan. Most every engagement between the Anti-Afghanistan Forces (AAF) and us (when I say “us” I’m referring to the ANA and the US Army) is begun by them. They always know where we are and we rarely know where they are with any exactitude. In fact, I can easily count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually seen the enemy since I’ve been out here, and I’ve been involved in at least 50 different firefights by now. The AAF almost always get the first shot off, and luckily they don’t shoot very accurately or we’d take a lot of casualties. We don’t do a lot of sneaking around and we don’t go up into the mountains very often. Most of our patrols are during the daylight. We do all different types of operations, but the most common is for us to walk into a village and stay there to talk to the elders. While we’re in the village, we’ll often get indications that we’re going to be shot at. And many times, we’ll just sit there and wait until the shooting starts – this can take hours. We call many of these patrols a “Movement to Contact”, meaning we walk into an ambush in order to find the enemy, or advertise our presence to the enemy and then wait for him to do something. It may seem a strange why to fight an enemy, giving up the initiative like that, but when you're fighting an enemy who's not wearing a uniform and is difficult to identify your options are limited as to how to bring him to battle. One of my favorite things to do is sit in a village, wait for the shooting, have the firefight, and then continue to sit the village and begin to talk with the elders again after the shooting stops. Like, ok, you tried, but we’re still here; try again if you like. We often use the homes and local people as our cover and concealment, but at some point, the local people will often get the word to clear the area, and then the shooting starts soon thereafter. The AAF generally do not start shooting until the local people have cleared the area since they don’t want to lose the support of the local people.

I should mention at this point that we, well at least the ANA, rarely go far enough away from a base or observation post (OP) that we can’t be supported by direct fires from that base or OP. We certainly don’t go anywhere we consider dangerous unless bring a lot of ass (assets). By this I mean we’re not going to go walking into a firefight without one or more of the following - a lot of people, separate elements in separate places, support-by-fire position(s), or air support.

Often the shooting will start with a single shot (luckily, the ambush is not often initiated with an IED blast), followed a few seconds later by shots from a few different positions. Once the shooting starts, we find cover and start looking around to locate the enemy. Whoever the leader is gets on the radio and starts calling for fire support in the form of mortars, artillery, helicopters, or jets. Roughly two minutes after the first shot has been fired mortars are usually landing in the vicinity of the suspected AAF positions. Everyone is pretty familiar with the known fighting positions used by the AAF so it doesn’t take long to get oriented to what’s going on, though finding an exact location is always very difficult. Generally, the AAF are 400-800 meters away from us somewhere up above us in the mountains and are shooting light machine guns and AKs. From their point of view, I can understand why they bury themselves in their little caves and fighting positions – they must feel very invulnerable that way. However, their marksmanship, or lack thereof, combined with the distance they maintain means their shots are not overly effective. And given that their supply lines are a bit less capable than ours, they tend to have to conserve ammo a bit. We don’t have that problem, so we’ll keep dropping mortars, bombs, artillery, rockets, grenades, and bullets of all calibers until things calm down.

The smarter AAF will fire at us for a few minutes and then exfiltrate. Of course, we know this so we’ll often shoot mortars at those exfil routes once they stop shooting and we think they’re retrograding. The ones that hang around and continue to shoot for awhile are asking for “martyrdom”, as once the helicopters get on station the birds usually get a pretty good bead on the enemy if the enemy continues to fire on us. Martyrdom is exactly what some of these guys want but is not the wish of the vast majority of our foes.

It’s interesting that the AAF choose to engage us from afar. They would cause many, many more casualties if they fought from inside the villages. But then turning a local village into Fallujah is not likely to win them much support from the people. However, they could ambush us along our routes outside of the towns with good effect if they were close enough. By getting close to us they’d mitigate our fire support since we’re not going to fire mortars at targets that are close to us. We don’t often give them the chance to do this though. The Army tends to stay in their heavily armored vehicles when they’re moving through bad areas; the AAF have no answer for 10 ton armored vehicles other than IEDs and the vigorous road building and paving efforts have reduced IED effectiveness in many areas. The ANA doesn’t have heavily armored vehicles, or armored vehicles at all at this point, and we usually walk everywhere we go so the ANA could be vulnerable to this type of attack. But again, we don’t go walking into places where we think something like could happen unless we’ve got all kinds of support. Annihilating an ANA patrol might not win the AAF much support from the people either. Fighting an all-American convoy is different for them.

The end result of the tactics used on both sides of this war is fewer casualties. I’ve been in firefights that lasted two or more hours and likely had zero casualties on either side. We could try more aggressive tactics, like spending more time up in the mountains, attacking suspected training camps, clearing known bad villages, or trying to ambush the enemy more frequently, but in reality, while we may not be annihilating the enemy at a fast pace, we’re not getting hurt too badly by them either. And daily the Afghan government institutions get stronger and development wins the people over (in theory). Realistically, the way we’re fighting the war is the only way to do it on the political level. If this war were causing 100 deaths or more on our side each month no one would support it, even if we were killing many thousands of the enemy and thereby bringing stability. I think we learned somewhere along the line that body counts either on our side or the enemies’ weren’t necessarily a useful or desirable metric of the war’s progress (Though see WSJ article on use of body counts not as metric for progress but rather propaganda tool.), so we’re focusing much more now than in past wars on the reconstruction and political aspect of the war, though there are certainly those that would argue we neglected to reconstruct Afghanistan for many critical years due to our attention on Iraq. We’re using money instead of blood to win, which is an American tradition dating back to WWII; the trend is increased use of the former in order to avoid loss of the latter.

I have no doubt our military could create regular infantrymen (or could use the Special Operations Forces in this capacity if given the right training) with the skills to live off the land that would have the ability to go up into the mountains in small units for long periods of time in order to locate and kill the enemy while operating nearly independently of our fire support and logistical chain. One should never make the mistake of underestimating his enemy, but I believe such individuals would have great success against the AAF and would greatly shorten the timeframe for us to achieve our objectives here. Undoubtedly a highly trained force with the right skills can kill a great deal of insurgents of marginal training and capability (see Selous Scouts). Sadly, we don’t seem to have those individuals at our disposal at this time, so we fight the kinetic side of the war in a way that maximizes our strengths: logistics and fire support, and minimizes our biggest weakness: negative public opinion brought on by casualties.

The video shows a firefight that took place near a schoolhouse...with the children and local elders inside and nearby. The AAF shooting at our forces with so many civilians nearby would hopefully constitute a victory for us in the propaganda (or IO, information operations) aspect of the fight. The video is about 4 minutes long.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Nearly every Afghan I’ve met blames the insurgency on the Pakistanis, holds a huge amount of hostility toward Pakistan in general, and resents Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. According to many Afghans, there’s not a single Afghan involved in the insurgency. While I’m quite certain some of the insurgents are Afghan, there’s truth in the idea that a difference exists between an Afghan and a Pakistani or other foreign insurgent. They have different motives and goals, and are willing to use different means. I’ve heard it said that some Afghan insurgents won’t shoot on Afghan patrols but will fire at US troops, whereas foreign insurgents will fire upon anyone. The foreigners are often here to achieve martyrdom, while the locals want to live to fight another day. Many times we've gotten information that local people that support local fighters often resent the foreign fighters because they know the foreign fighters will bring enough attention to themselves and the area they fight from that collateral damage becomes a virtual certainty.

Without question, much evidence exists that Pakistan has contributed to the insurgency in many, many different ways. Unfortunately, due to our poor relationship (or lack thereof) with Iran, we need Pakistan for supply routes and overflight rights if nothing else, and even if we didn’t need it, given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, our hands are a bit tied on how we can really deal with it. The list of grievances from this side of the Afghan-Pakistan border is long: allowing escaping al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to enter Pakistan after the initial invasion; harboring al Qaeda and Taliban fighters; developing and supporting insurgent training camps; providing shelter and aid (and in some cases covering fire) to Taliban fighters returning from fighting in Afghanistan; encouraging extremism in the first place with their many thousands of madrassas; exporting Wahhabism (by way of Saudi Arabia and the madrassas) to Afghanistan; the list goes on. My unit has often heard insurgents speaking Pakistani Pashto or Urdu (or Arabic for that matter) on the radio and detained local Afghan individuals with notebooks full of Pakistani phone numbers.

Pakistan’s strategy of empowering their Taliban proxies in an attempt create chaos in Afghanistan and thereby secure their rear in their perpetual standoff with India over Kashmir has already backfired - witness the recent chaos in Pakistan and fighting between the Pakistani military and Taliban fighters in the Swat valley. And if Pakistan’s internal threats aren’t serious enough, my Afghan officers all look forward to the day when Afghanistan has the power to take revenge on Pakistan and take back some of their territory. The current border, known as the Durand Line, was originally drawn up principally to create a buffer between Russia and what was then British India. The Durand Line not only divided Afghanistan and Pakistan but also officially put some of Afghanistan’s traditional territory within Pakistan’s borders. An Afghan government has never accepted the Durand Line as the border. I’ve had an ANA lieutenant suggest to me that we forget about fighting the insurgency here in Afghanistan, but rather unleash the ANA to attack Pakistan with US backing as a way to end the insurgency here…an idea that probably significantly overstates the ANA’s capabilities, but is nonetheless creative. Taking the battle to your enemy’s lands rather than fighting in your own territory worked for Scipio and the Romans against Hannibal and the Carthaginians. It may come to that at some point. Who knows?

Monday, June 15, 2009


"Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell" - Kyle Bass

Soldiers in combat expect other soldiers to share in the risks inherent in the job. While we might not expect the air wingers at Bagram to experience the same things that those of us in infantry units experience, we do however expect other infantry units to be taking on a somewhat similar risk load, even if those units are from a different country. The risk of death in this conflict is much lower than in conflicts from the past, but all the same everyone expects everyone else to be doing their part. And the knowledge of this expectation is what makes it hard for me when I can’t get my ANA to do more than 4 or 5 patrols in a week. When I see the US Army here going out everyday, and often more than once a day, while my Afghans play volleyball, it makes it a little hard to feel proud of the job I’m doing with them. At times I’m almost ashamed at the scheduling meetings when I tell the Army guys that the ANA are taking another day off for “religious classes”. When questioned about this issue, I laugh it off and say the ANA are in it for the long haul.

We do what we can here to get them to work more, but overcoming the attitude of the culture in general towards work is tough, and overcoming the Afghan military cultural problems that stand in our way is even tougher. I’ve asked myself many times how it is that I can instill in the Afghans the appreciation and sense of obligation toward working hard. And I still don’t have an answer. I asked the question of a cultural anthropologist that came to stay with us for a week. He replied that it would take a generation at least. I’m not even sure a generation would be long enough, as the Afghans have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world as compared with Americans. I suppose one might call the Afghans Stoics at heart. Whereas Americans tend to have a can-do attitude and are ready and willing to make efforts to better themselves and their situations, the Afghans are more fatalistic, and nothing sums their attitude up better than the ubiquitous phrase “Ishah Allah” (If God wills it.) they utter so often. If everything is in God’s hands and you can’t control your own future, why bother? Initiative goes right out the window.

Afghan military culture doesn’t help our cause either. Many Afghan officers don’t lead by example. Most do not go out regularly on patrols. When the Afghan officers aren’t often sharing the dangers of their men, the men aren’t going to feel that risk is fairly distributed, and thus be less likely to believe in the mission and do a serviceable job.

Additionally, Afghan officers are afraid of making any type of non-conforming decision that might get them into trouble. The Marine Corps tries to push decision-making down to the lowest level, whereas the ANA tries to remove decision-making from as many levels of leadership as possible. For example, we have a couple of ANA artillery guns here at the base, but we can’t shoot them without calling the battalion commander 20 miles away and asking his permission. If we want to change the patrol plan on the fly due to changing conditions, or simply to make it better, we often can’t because we have to have permission from the battalion to make those kinds of decisions. Granted, I realize the ANA will often invoke the idea of permission from the battalion in order to avoid doing work, but their hesitancy to do anything different or risky for fear of making a mistake is real. Doing the standard but ineffective job is a far better course of action for an Afghan officer than the unconventional but potentially effective course of action. If something goes wrong and you were following convention, then blame lies elsewhere. If you make a decision to do something outside of what was planned or normal and then things go wrong, you are the one to blame and the punishment here can be severe and based upon the whim of one man.

In this, Afghan military culture merely reflects the conforming, authoritarian culture of Afghanistan as a whole. The Iraqis were identical in this regard. Of course, all militaries can be seen as conforming and authoritarian culturally, but as Americans we recognize that for leaders to develop, they need to be given responsibility, and if their actions and decisions fall within an acceptable range of what we’ve been taught and trained, we’re not going to second-guess those decision-makers, at least not to the point of punishment. We respect that bit of individuality. The Afghans generally do not.

The bright spot is that the younger officers I’ve worked with are much better than the older guys. Afghan Army officers basically come in three varieties: the older officers who were Russian-trained or influenced; the former mujahideen fighters/commanders; and the new, younger, American-trained generation. The former mujahideen fighters make pretty good officers and are revered by their men but don’t have the education or formal schooling and don’t listen to advice. The older officers, in the words of my best interpreter, a former ANA 1stSgt, “don’t ever want to leave the base” and have an excuse why they can’t do anything about their problems or act on our suggestions. The new generation of officers is much more willing to do operations, listen to our advice, and make some changes on the fly if need be, although they’re still somewhat afraid to make mistakes. Unfortunately, for now the power lies with that older group of officers. Hopefully, once the younger, American-trained generation comes of age, things will start changing rapidly for the better.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Since the recent grenade attack in the not-too-distant city of Asadabad, we’ve been making the effort to get out into all the local villages to put out our own version of the events. It seemed pretty clear from the start that the attack was done by someone not an American. However, given the many incidents of civilian casualties since the start of our operations here in Afghanistan, people can be willing and resilient in their beliefs in the worst about us. Basically, what had happened was a local truck had been parked in the road to get a US convoy to stop. People started gathering around and then a grenade was thrown, killing one person and injuring many others, including several American soldiers. A video was shot live of the event from a blimp that flies nearby for observational purposes. The video is about halfway down the page. The video is not that great but I’d still like to post it here, but the computer and internet situation here doesn’t really allow for me to do that. Evidence revealed nearly immediately that the grenade was thrown by a civilian and not an American. The photo above is of an American commander explaining to local elders that the pieces of the grenade that were recovered were from a Russian grenade...not something US soldiers would likely have or use.

The insurgents are very good at taking events like these and turning them to their advantage. Since the insurgents live amongst the people, they have the ear of the people. I have to say though, we mobilized our own “information operations” campaign rapidly and effectively to get our own message out. Apparently, the US military released video on facebook and youtube within hours of the event. So while we may always be at a bit of a disadvantage with it comes to the war of propaganda, at least we're focusing on it and trying some new ideas. Within a few hours of the event, we had talking points to bring up in our conversations with the local people and were making the effort to get out amongst the people. And for the most part, people seemed receptive.

For the past couple days we had mortars shot at the base – they’ve yet to land inside the wire, but they’re getting closer. We usually reply with a few mortars rounds of our own in the vicinity of our nearest guess as to their point of origin. Some of the rounds shot our way actually end up landing very close to local villages. So today we went out to a local village to see how close the rounds were coming and to make sure everyone was ok. While we were there we decided to also ask a local elder his opinion on who’s shooting the mortars and from where, etc. He stated that he didn’t know who was shooting the mortars but he knew they were coming from the western of two peaks near the base and that we should quit shooting back at the eastern peak every time it happens because he’s starting to think we’re the ones supporting the AAF (Anti-Afghan Forces) since our shots are so far off. We all had to laugh at that one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The constant fight to somehow better and change these Afghan soldiers sometimes feels as though we'd be better off fighting gravity or the tides.  The ANA are unchanging - impervious to exhortation and good example, resolute in their tenacity to hang on to mediocrity.

Being out here doing what we are doing day after day, week after week, you begin to ask yourself some questions and eventually question some of your assumptions after awhile.  First you ask yourself why.  Why are the ANA so resistant to change?  Thinking a little deeper, the next question is if the ANA are so resistant to change, then maybe what I'm trying to change them into is not something they are interested in?  Maybe, just maybe, they don't want to be like us or don't think it's possible.  Possible...?

So if they are not interested in being like me, maybe I'd better figure who I am.  How am I to do that...?  What do I stand for as a US Marine officer in his mid-30s?  What do I believe?  How do I see the world?  What is my paradigm?

I have the following beliefs and assumptions:

- Hard work pays off and it worth it any in case for its own sake
- Admitting a mistake shows good character
- Most people want to have a better life...and are willing to work for it if the right incentives are in place
- Education is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right
- Long term goals should not be sacrificed for short term expediency
- Honesty and genuineness in dealing with others works in the end
- Admitting ignorance rather than covering it up shows strength
- Negatives can be turned into positives and are a chance to learn
- If you are apprehensive about doing something, you should do it for that reason
- It's worth it to trust other people until they give you reason not to
- The world is fundamentally just
...and lastly and most importantly, that I control my destiny

Your typical Afghan soldier might see the world the following way:

- Hard work will get you nowhere and simply wears you out
- Mistakes should be avoided at all costs
- A better life can be had...for some...and not in Afghanistan
- Education has value, but it is not a real or direct path anywhere
- A man does what he has to do to get by
- Guile and cleverness are the best way to get what you want
- Ignorance is weakness
- Negatives should be punished
- If you don't want to do something, you probably have a good basis for that
- The best default position is not trusting
- The world is unfair, cruel, and difficult
- A man's life is in the hands of forces beyond his control

An Afghan's soldier's experiences have taught him this.  My experiences have taught me my views.  Neither one of us is right or wrong.  Not even my own teammates would agree with many of the things I believe, much less the Afghans.  I make no judgment on any of their beliefs.  And I daresay, as the world's economic outlook looks increasingly bleak over the short and mid-term, I would say more and more people may come to see the world from the Afghan perspective.  Everyone has their own way of looking at the world.  My beliefs are what works for me.  It helps me get by to think of the world the way I think of it.  For an Afghan with a decidedly more pessimistic outlook, his views are easily understood as a response to his experience.  They help him get by.

How to get over that hurdle?  How to teach a man to take control of his own life when everything he has experienced has proven the opposite?  Perhaps we need younger, more malleable stock with which to work...hah.


It’s a necessary part of counter-insurgency to search people, cars, homes, sheep, bicycles, whatever. Unfortunately, the law and the culture restrict the effectiveness of our searches. If the ANA set up a vehicle checkpoint they’ll do a reasonably thorough search of the car and its occupants…unless the car has women in it. Women are never asked to get out of the car and are never searched. Since the women are covered in burqas, we really don’t have any way of knowing if they are in fact women, and since it’s common knowledge that we don’t search women or even make them get out of the vehicle, we’ve left open a huge gap for anyone trying to smuggle contraband.

As the culture restricts our searches of cars and individuals, the law restricts our ability to search homes…i.e. we can’t. The ANA cannot go into homes and search them unless there are no Afghan National Police (ANP) in that region (as is sometimes the case in the more dangerous areas). I understand in theory it’s better to have police searching homes rather than soldiers since police are (ideally) trained a bit better in legal procedures and in how to handle civilians. But given the tenuous state of security in Afghanistan at this time, it seems a little unrealistic and idealistic to have already created such a legal divide between the ANA and ANP. When the country no longer depends on foreign troops for its security would seem to be the time to start adding legal protections and procedures at the expense of security and effectiveness. It may not seem like a big deal…just bring the ANP along to do the searches…but it really does create problems because we don’t necessarily trust the ANP, the ANP are not as well trained as the ANA, and the simple fact that anytime you add another entity to an operation things just get more complicated.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Blame game

Sitting in meetings with the local elders is a necessary part of the job. The elders want to talk about local projects and things we can give them. We want to talk about security and whether they are doing their part to help us keep the security situation under control. When talking about security, it’s always hard to get very far with these guys. The elders are pros at shifting blame and responsibility. You’ll hear things like, “Those attacks were perpetrated by people from the adjacent valley – we have no control over them.” I should mention at this point that whereas in the US communities are divided into neighborhoods and municipalities, Afghan communities are divided by the landscape itself; each separate valley has its own little subculture and ruling elders. I’ll also mention that if you go far enough up any valley in these parts, you’ll run into a lot of trouble. The hinterland areas of high elevation far separated from population centers and paved roads are where many insurgents hide out, and we have little to no control over vast areas like these.

If the elders are not blaming bad guys from the nearby valleys for attacks, then they’ll blame people from an adjacent province. If that doesn’t work, then the Pakistanis are an easy target for all Afghans. It’s difficult to get anyone to take responsibility for the security in their area. While the local elders are the traditional power brokers, now that a government has taken root and a local governor or sub-governor exists and resides nearby, the elders will tell us to talk to the local governmental official about security. But the government officials probably do not really have any connections or power in a particular area. It’d be great if he did because we’re trying to develop governmental authority, but for now that’s not the case.

I wrote a similar blog entry titled “Elders” awhile back that concluded the elders probably just don’t have the power to control what’s going on. That conclusion was specific to that particular valley, which happens to be one of the worst, that is, if your concept of ‘bad’ means that there’s shooting and fighting going on every day – some of my fellow marines consider such a living situation to be ideal for them personally…. In that valley (referred to as “The Tiger Valley” by local people from nearby valleys), the US Army and ANA are the government because there are no government buildings, no police, and no civilian government officials. Now that I’ve seen some other places my perspective is broader, and the elders in the better areas would appear to have the ability to be an asset to us in our push to provide security…but it’s certainly hard to get commitments or concrete results out of them. So in the end, we do the same dance every week, where the elders come to ask for help with projects but don’t really bring anything to the table in return.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Letter of Recommendation

To: Contractor Approving Agency
From: Captain K.L.N., USMC

Subj: Letter of Recommendation re: Contractor Mujeeb

This letter is to certify that Contractor Mujeeb has in fact completed his contract for building the ANA barracks at FOB Combat Outpost and recommend that he be given consideration for future projects of flexible timeframe and limited importance. Due to Mujeeb’s scrupulous attention to detail, what was specified as a 4-month project took more than 6 months.

Mujeeb is a very giving man, who is very concerned with the feelings and well-being of the ETT in charge of supervising the construction project. Because he is so giving and caring, he can be counted upon to daily present gifts of lamb kabobs, Afghani rugs, clothing, and even air conditioning units. Recommend these gifts not be accepted due to the implied quid pro quo, however, accepting one such gift and giving to Mujeeb in return a construction level, carpenter's square, and tape measure, complete with instructions on their use and express expectations that they be used, could be helpful in the project’s end result.

Mujeeb is smart but forgetful. Oftentimes, when you lend him tools he will forget to return them. Mujeeb also speaks very good English, but he often seems to forget his English during periods of tension. Mujeeb is very punctual and concerned with finishing the job on time. As such, you can expect him to start coming to you to sign off on the project every day around the end of the specified time for completion. Mujeeb is well aware that the last 10% of any construction job is half the work, so you can expect him to complete the last part of the project from the time he informs you he is “finished” in about the same amount of time it took him to do the initial phases of the project.

The importance of environmental sensitivity is not lost on Mujeeb. In these days of depleting ozone, Mujeeb can be counted on to use a minimal amount of Freon in his installed air conditioners. Mujeeb also does his best to conserve important resources like cement by using a high percentage of dirt in his concrete. Furthermore, Mujeeb uses the “natural” method of drainage in his projects, i.e. solar evaporation, thereby obviating the need for upsetting the earth with digging.

Mujeeb is an honest man, but he seems to have difficulty understanding some of the terms in the contract itself. Perhaps this is a cultural disconnect. Mujeeb seems to have believed that the terms “complete and usable” as written in the contract meant that the air conditioners need only have been put on the wall, not that they were actually wired up and blowing cold air. To Mujeeb, “complete and usable” meant that a shower facility had been built, not that the shower heads would stay on when you turn on the water. To his credit, Mujeeb is concerned with the discipline and cohesion of his nation’s Army – I’m convinced he attempted to leave the completed barracks dirty just so we’d have the chance to muster the ANA and have them work together to clean the barracks.

In conclusion, Contractor Mujeeb is a well-meaning man with many good qualities. Recommend Mujeeb’s contact information be retained in order to facilitate locating Mujeeb in the near future for repair and refit of existing structures originally constructed by said Mujeeb.

Captain, USMC

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What is an ETT anyway?

"The task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted"  - Kierkegaard

ETT stands for Embedded Training Team. We refer to the members of the team as ETTs. As for what we are…well, we’re generalists. We come from a variety of MOS's (military occupational specialties). As far as I know the job is open to any MOS, though the team leader has to have a combat arms MOS. As ETTs we have to have wide variety skills. One needs to be able to troubleshoot a .50 cal machine gun as well as have the cultural sensitivity to communicate with local elders in such a way as to not piss them off. An ETT needs to have the savvy to negotiate reasonable prices from local contractors on construction projects as well as know what pieces of information are believable or should be discarded.

A good ETT needs to be an infantryman, operations officer, diplomat, civil affairs professional, engineer, intelligence analyst, supply officer, mechanic, linguist, and communications specialist all rolled into one. Of course, we have specialists to help us in many of these skill sets, but at any given time we have to: troubleshoot communication systems; design and improve the force protection measures at the base; negotiate and supervise construction projects; maintain generators and vehicles; mediate disputes between the US Army and the ANA; and conduct meetings with local groups, in addition to the normal everyday patrolling requiring infantry skills, which are without a doubt the most skills to have in this environment.

Other helpful skills: the ability to eat rice with your hands (Pack it into a little ball and then use your thumb to shovel it into your mouth.); the patience to talk for two hours about business and yet accomplish nothing; the ability to refuse to help without alienating; the stomach to take food and drink that might not be prepared according to what you’re used to and may be covered with flies; and the fortitude to deal with the same issues and problems week after week and day after day.  Having a bad day is not allowed, and if you do not care for or believe in someone or something, you'd better have the maturity to fake it.

The days are not super busy - the ANA don’t tend to want to work with us for a lot of hours during a given day. But there’s always something going on, so as an ETT you don’t often have a lot of time to yourself. The day’s patrol may be finished before lunch, but then you have lunch with the Afghan commander, followed by supervisory tasks on construction projects, coordination meetings with the Army, communications with our own bosses, normal cleaning and maintenance of our gear, more meetings with the Afghans, etc. The day may start at 0530 and not end until 2100, but we’re not busy that whole time. Plenty of 30-minute periods of freedom are interspersed in there. Put a couple of those free periods together and you get an entry like this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Moved again

I'm now settled into my new place. For a variety of reasons I seem to be the guy on our team that moves around the most. Hopefully, I'll get to stay here long enough to get to know the area and then make use of that knowledge before I have to go somewhere else. I've been on a large base and on one of the smallest - where I am now is somewhere in between, and so far I like it. The pic shows our base from up on a little hill we climbed yesterday.