"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.