Thursday, March 26, 2009
Something about the videos' honest, simple expression and interaction between the singers (nearly always in a romantic context) I find very appealing. In Afghanistan, the guys don't often get to see women they're not related to, but the music videos have a way of bringing women into these men's lives in a tasteful way. The women in the videos are much more than a simple prop. Frankly, I'd be embarrassed to show them an American music video given the way women are often dressed and portrayed, especially those videos of the more recent vintage.
The Afghans seem to be in agreement that the Iranian girls are the best looking, but they tend to prefer the Indian videos since those videos a bit more of the women. If there's one thing I've learned from my travels is that every culture has lots of pretty girls, which makes sense to me in a natural selection sort of way.
Watching the Bollywood videos is always interesting for the smattering of English you'll hear thrown into an otherwise incomprehensible sentence in Hindi or Urdu. You'll hear things like "Happy Birthday" or sometimes an entire short sentence like "Where are you going?" spoken in English in the middle of the Hindi or Urdu. I'd wondered about this, so I had to do some research and learned that Hindi and Urdu are more or less the same language though they don't share the same alphabet due to religious influences, although apparently the younger generations are increasingly writing both languages in Roman script due to the influence of the internet and text messaging. Furthermore, more and more Indians are mixing English words into the Hindi.
It's funny to see that 'Hinglish' is on the rise as I've been convinced for some time now that something similar will happen in the Western Hemisphere and we'll all speak Spanglish 100 years from now. Maybe sooner.
Chaiyya, Chayyai is always a platoon favorite, must be the great choreography with the train.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.
From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Not a very original title for an entry, but the topic deserves some exploration…
Afghanistan has its share of dogs. For the most part, they live a pitiful existence like most of the inhabitants of this land. I say for the most part, because some are lucky enough to be taken in by Americans, who certainly have a soft spot for animals. We were in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before we adopted a puppy, who was carried home by one of my guys after she refused to be led around on the improvised leash he configured. I was happy with the acquisition, reckoning a dog would be good for morale and diversion if nothing else, and given our somewhat precarious situation living within an Afghan village depending on unreliable Afghan troops for our safety at night, I thought we might accrue some force protection benefits from having an attentive dog.
The dogs here tend to all look pretty much alike – skinny and mongrelly…maybe 50 pounds when they are grown if decently fed. Not that many are decently fed; Afghans do not like dogs, don’t keep them for pets, and consider them unclean. Afghanistan is a harsh place, and harsher still on those at the bottom of the food chain, such as the women, domesticated animals, and dogs. In all my time here, I can’t say I’ve seen an Afghan treat a dog with kindness. They pretty much just throw rocks at the dogs. It’s funny though…medieval though the Afghan culture may be (and Afghans can be heartless in their treatment of the weak and helpless), I tend to agree with the Afghan conception of dogs as unclean and filthy animals, though I certainly don’t view dogs with their level of contempt. I don’t mind having a dog, but the dog should stay outside, rather than destroying the inside area with its urine, feces, claws, and jaws.
At any rate, my hopes of having the dog, who was dubbed “Bones” by the Marine that brought her home, serve as an early warning device for people approaching the back entrance to our base, were not realized, as I could hardly get her to spend a night outdoors without whining. A lot of it probably had to do with poor and inconsistent “training” on my part. And some of it surely, had to do with her receiving more lenient treatment at the hands of the other Marines on our base, especially when I was not around. I’ll let that be a lesson to me…unity of effort is helpful, if not required, for the discipline of one’s charges. I was able to occasionally take her out on short patrols through the most local of the local villages when we were on our way to the larger base nearby. On those occasions she’s often stay behind at the larger base to take advantage of the better food and accommodations available over there, but we’d see her again when another patrol made its way down to our base and brought her with them.
As Americans, generally we love dogs, and that holds even more so for soldiers and Marines far from home and loved ones. However, we don’t love all dogs, even over here. Dogs that approach your isolated outpost at night are nothing but a nuisance, and risk activating whatever measures you may have in place to protect yourself, including people standing guard. As I lie in bed trying to get some sleep it is not uncommon for me to hear over the radio one of the outposts in the area requesting permission to shoot a dog. Permission granted, everyone rogers up that they know a shot is going to ring out, and then they’ll call back in saying that they’ve completed the shooting. Sleeping right next to the radio, I seem to hear these things in my dreams, but even so, often I can’t help but snicker to myself about the uniqueness of the whole situation – a bunch of Americans and their partnered Afghans living together holed-up in their little isolated redoubts, shooting the dogs that threaten us in the middle of the night.
Taking a dog out on patrol is probably not the best idea but we often do it anyway. For one thing, the local people, as I stated, don’t want much to do with them. Given that we generally try to get the people to be friendly with us, having a dog nearby does not enhance the chances of us interacting. Second, a dog can certainly be distracting, and distraction is not what you want when danger can come at any time from anywhere. And third, having dogs with us actually makes us much easier to spot. On one of the missions I did not go on, I can recall looking for three of our guys who went off on their own up a mountainside apart from the main part of the patrol. Watching them with the naked eye and with binos, I often could not spot them when they were not moving, as they blended in with the environment pretty well to someone looking for them from 800 meters away. However, they had a dog with them. And that dog never stopped moving, which made it easy to see, and always led me to find where my friends were. Later on in that patrol they, not surprisingly, ended up getting a few shots sent their way, which in that case elicited no response on our part because we could not locate the source of the few shots that were fired.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
"You only need enough light to take one more step forward into the dark" - paraphrased from Nelson DeMille's Wild Fire
Afghanistan, like any poor country, is a dark place. Darkness is really something you lose an appreciation for back home. In the States, I seem to spend more time and effort trying to acquire darkness to enhance my sleep than I do in overcoming it. Given the altitudes and lack of ambient light here in Afghanistan, maybe they'll build an observatory here in the near future...or maybe not. Down in the valley where I normally am, you'll see the occasional house with lights on in the night, but the vast majority of the area is completely dark...so the amount of moonlight and when the moon is rising/setting become pretty important things to know. The power the valley does have is produced my mini-hydroelectic generators; I suppose one might call them water mills. US forces have actually built more of the hydro plants in the area, but unfortunately they seem to keep mysteriously exploding... I'll add that the bad guys don't approve of us improving anyone's life around here, so no, it's not really a mystery what happens to our aid projects and why - the only mystery is the exact identity of the bombers. In other parts of the area we're putting in solar-powered street lights...with mixed success. Shortly after the lights were introduced I noticed a few missing. I don't think it's so much insurgents destroying them as it is people just taking them for their own use and profit. If no one cares and there's no law, then why not use your car to knock over a light post and then drive off with it? Free solar lighting for the home.
I can remember flying commercially over Iraq on my way to Kuwait some time ago, looking out the window and seeing complete darkness and thinking what a forbidding place I was going to. I think my anxiety may have been heightened a bit by the fact that I was flying alone and was told by my commander, after asking what I should do when I got to Kuwait, "I'm not sure...someone will find you." Thankfully, that worked out pretty well, though I'm pretty sure I overpaid for the local porter to help with my gear. While Iraq is pretty dark all over, a reasonably modern electrical power grid does exist. On the other hand, the telephone poles I've seen in Afghanistan are very thin and maybe 10 to 12 feet high, where they exist at all.
Given what we're doing, darkness is something you have to learn to deal with out here, and some of the tricks you learn really do make a big difference. Giving your eyes plenty of time to adjust to the darkness before moving around in it makes a huge difference...even on moonless nights, if it's clear, you'll still be able to see a little bit since starlight provides approximately 10% of the light of a quarter moon. Looking for the absence of 'something' rather than the 'something' itself or just looking a little off-center can help you detect what you're after since the center of your eyeball is not as good as the sides of your eyes at seeing in the dark.
The perception exists that we as the US military have a big advantage over our enemies in nighttime operations due to our technology, most specifically our thermal and ambient light intensifiers that can help us 'see' in the dark. While I have no doubt that our ability to see in the dark could make a big difference, I'm not so sure it actually does in many cases. This is a war where the enemy nearly always knows where we are, and the converse is rarely true. While our nighttime tech might help prevent the enemy from approaching our prepared positions in the dark since night vision devices work well from static positions with open fields of view, being able to find the enemy in the dark on an offensive operation is another matter. The enemy's intimate knowledge of the terrain, our inability to move around quietly due to the bulkiness of our gear or our use of motor assets, and our inadequate training in silent nighttime movement combine to ensure that we're hardly ever going to surprise him. The fact that the night optics we have are not ergonomically designed, take away your peripheral vision, and destroy what natural night vision you had built up also limit their applicability and effectiveness. And so our technology is most advantageous when used in a defensive capacity...and no one ever won a war playing defense all the time.
Darkness actually contributed to the only 'injury' I've sustained thus far, which ironically transpired as a result of transferring out of a volatile place, to someplace less so and thus being afforded the opportunity to take a shower for the first time in months. After spending my first three months without a shower, I flew to a larger base for a break and proceeded to take a shower forthwith. Once finished, I walked out the door into the dark in my shower shoes with no flashlight and proceeded to trip coming down the small staircase, resulting in the toenail on my big toe being torn off. Luckily, I didn't fall down in the mud though...wouldn't have wanted to have to get back in the shower after I'd exhausted the entire base's hot water supply.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! - Tyler DurdenIn the interests of writings something people might want to read, sometimes you have to break a rule or two. Though more rules were broken in the doing than the writing, writing about FOO (Field Ordering Officer) funds was something I did not think I would do. After all, our first rule of FOO was we do not talk about FOO.
And why did we laughingly come up with that as our first and only rule? Probably due to all the rule bending and breaking we had to do to make the system work. Let me explain. FOO funds are cash given to units in the field. We use the cash to buy mission essential items. Ostensibly, the funds exist to fill holes in the supply system. However, the money comes with so many strings attached that using it by the book becomes nearly impossible...and for an ETT doubly so since FOO funds are only supposed to "support US forces". Of course, you don't have to be an attorney to see the opportunity latent in a word like "support", but FOO had many other restrictions.
One of the most onerous for us was the requirement that we had to go to a different base (in Jalalabad for us) in order to pick up the money. For people far from the main lines of communication, a trip anywhere means at least a few days gone, as we have to wait for the next round of helicopters to bring us back out. If someone other than the actual FOO or his assistant the Paying Agent (PA) or could have signed for and picked up our money, it would have saved us days and trips. But no such luck.
The more interesting restrictions are on what we can and cannot spend the money on. A sampling of things the money could not be used for would include
- construction materials for permanent building structures
- food and water
- laborers for more than a single day
- phone cards
- intelligence collection
- personal items
- renting or leasing real estate
- medical supplies
in addition to other fun restrictions like how the PA and FOO had to be present for each payment and how the receipts had to be signed by often illiterate "contractors".
Of course, rules exist for a reason, but with something like FOO you wonder how much bureaucracy was in place to support it. I mean, they only gave each FOO/PA $10,000 at a time, which my group only drew 3 times. Our team as a whole maybe drew 200,000, which is certainly not an insignificant amount, but over a nine-month period and in the context of the larger war effort it's nothing. Is there anyone out there doing a cost-benefit analysis on the subject...maybe not, and probably better that they don't in the context of the war in general.
In any case, let's just say the system in practice works quite a bit differently than how the guys in the rear draw it up. Most of the things were spent money on were on that list above, which isn't to say that we were cheating the system. The things we really needed out in the Korengal were things like food for our Afghan soldiers and building materials for permanent structures. So that's how we spent the money for the most part, as well as having to often pay someone to actually deliver our supplies to us. We did not carry around receipt books in our back pockets underneath our body armor.
I was told once recently by my Afghan platoon commander that the platoon would not patrol if I did not buy them some cooking oil. Did I lecture him about using the Afghan supply system? No. I gave him the money and that was that. When the platoon went over a month without eating any meat...we bought them a cow and butchered it. When we needed better lookout posts and force protection...we bought the materials locally and hired locally for things to be built. The receipts got creative, but it all went to support the mission, and that was what was important.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
“War’s objective is victory – not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory” – Douglas MacArthur
I recently read with some amusement where a leading American commander of the war effort in Afghanistan referred to the overall military situation here as a “stalemate”. I found this characterization of the war amusing because just a few days prior I had spent the better part of an evening discussing the situation on the ground here in my little part of Afghanistan with my Afghan commander, concluding the discussion using the same allusion to the famous board game invented not far from here in India (though Afghans apparently don’t play chess).
By stalemate I meant to say that basically, the enemy, whether you want to refer to them as insurgents or Taliban or whatever, does not have the power to really decimate us and move us out of areas we focus on, but we don’t have the power to hunt him down in the hinterlands, and so they control the majority of the country, if not in population then at least in land area.
How to rectify this? Certainly that’s the big question, and I was heartened to see the increase in the number of troops that will fight here. Hopefully the increased troop numbers will demonstrate to the Afghan people that we’re serious about winning, and as a result they will be encouraged to take more responsibility for what goes on here…because in reality, only the Afghans can win this war. Quite frankly, despite all our firepower, air support, and technology, a couple of sniper teams hiding among the mountains and villages are maddeningly difficult for us to come to terms with, so the solution is probably not a military one.
This was the lesson from the ‘surge’ in Iraq – the local people have to get on board with the program or we’ll only spin our wheels without ever really getting traction (And an important part of getting the local people on board is getting the Afghan Army out there providing their security, not a bunch of outsiders, however amiable we are as Americans.). Will the same ‘medicine’, i.e. increased troop numbers, cure both patients? I’m not a doctor, but I suppose if two patients are essentially alike in their makeup and have the same disease then the same regimen should cure them both. In this case, the disease is pretty much the same, [simplifying] a power struggle fought by Islamic extremists using guerrilla tactics, however the problem is the patients are different: Afghanistan is not Iraq. For all of Saddam’s depredations, Iraq remained relatively developed, wealthy, and educated when compared to Afghanistan; Afghanistan is probably one of the five poorest countries on Earth. I was dismayed to learn that roughly 10% of my Afghan soldiers can read or write…in any language…never mind the difficulties in national unity that come from speaking several different major languages and many lesser tongues. The geography alone presents manifold problems with development, and has probably led to the country’s current state as much as any other single factor. Just getting supplies here to continue the war effort is becoming more and more difficult.
Given the shattered state of the country after 30 years of war, whatever the medicine we employ, the cure is bound to take some time, especially if our heart is not in it. Upon my arrival to the country some months ago, I was surprised to see the dreary state (though I reckon anything built by the Soviets is bound to retain some residual dreariness) of our main air base here in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Field. It was not that Bagram was that bad, on the contrary I think it’s just fine for our purposes, but I had expected the main air base in the country to be nicer and more developed after eight years of being run by Americans – my expectations the result of all the infrastructure projects and improvements throughout Iraq I saw us investing in during my time in the Middle East. Afghanistan’s needs being so much greater than Iraq’s, one would have to conclude that our level of commitment in all areas will need to be at least as high here as it was in Iraq in order to achieve a comparable result.
The increase in the number of troops is a good start, but if our investment in Bagram Air Field to this point is indicative of our future level of commitment to Afghanistan as a whole, then prolonged indecision is the result we’re likely to get, and our fate here will mirror in some respects the end result of General MacArthur’s last war - where a lack of commitment and decisiveness by our political leadership ‘ended’ that war in a stalemate, bequeathing to the world a rogue state that has endured more than 50 years.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
As I’ve mentioned before, we live and work with Afghans, but they don’t work for us. The Afghan commander will often have ideas about what we ought to do in a given week that are quite different from my ideas. His weekly schedule will often have more time devoted to training than a schedule made according to my whims would have; events like religious and grammar classes will start replacing patrols if I’m not able to ‘manage’ my commander. (Who would have thought locution was such a vital skill for an Afghan soldier?) Dealing with the different commanders can be difficult…we’ll sit down and talk for hours about a plan, only to have him try to back out of it the following day at the meeting with the other units in the area.
Plenty of methods exist to get what we want from the commander, ranging from threats and bribery to psychological manipulation and rapport building. For larger scale operations, threatening to tell our commander’s boss about his wanting to back out will usually convince our commander to do the plan we’d already agreed on, but threats won’t work on day-to-day simple stuff and would most certainly backfire if used with regularity. Bribing the Afghans with whatever little niceties we have at our disposal might get you somewhere temporarily, but in the end only leads to more entreaties for stuff they don’t need and that I don’t really have anyway.
When it comes to manipulation, it’s not so much what you say but how you say it. If I demand that my commander change a particular aspect of a plan, either he won’t do it just to spite me, or if he does acquiesce he will hold a grudge against me and be less likely to behave as I might want in the future. If, on the other hand, I make a small suggestion, perhaps as an aside to a discussion about some other topic, then I’m not only more likely to get what I want but also more likely to maintain good terms with my commander, as I’ve shown respect for his position, ego, and judgment.
The offhand suggestions are a good technique, and straightforward criticism is ok as well so long as it is used with humility, but lately I’m resorting more and more to relying on my personal relationship with my commander to get what I want from him - the goal being to get to the point that he’ll do what I want him to do so as not to disappoint me since he trusts and respects me. I make sure to develop a good relationship with my commander the same way I would with anyone else, mainly by spending time with him, asking questions, and always conveying sincerity and attentiveness with my body language and eye contact. (The eye contact always seems a little weird as you sit there nodding your head not understanding a word while he’s talking, awaiting translation.) Patience (something I’ve never been noted for) is requisite as well, as cultural differences and linguistic difficulties can sometimes make things maddeningly difficult to understand. I spent 15 minutes the other day trying to understand why the spring water (of dubious cleanliness) we go out and collect with our used ammo cans is acceptable for washing dishes and cooking food, but the rainwater we amass using plastic sheeting is not. If I’d been thinking, I wouldn’t have had the discussion at all: if rainwater is not good enough for whatever reason, then it’s not good enough, and I’m not going to understand or change his mind by appealing to logic and rationality. Along this vein, the flexibility to accept a decision made by the commander that might not make sense to me is valuable in keeping a good relationship…and in keeping my own frustration level low. Flattery can be a good tool as well – we’ll often spend the first 10 minutes of any conversation telling each other how great we are and how much we like working with each other.
If all of this talk of personal relationships and rapport building sounds like common sense and the same as how one would approach any business, professional, or even casual relationship, well, it probably is common sense, but let’s just say I have not always been much of a “people person”, salesman, or bull-shit artist. However, many of my best friends are professionals in these arcane arts, and watching them over the years has given me, if not the ability, certainly the appreciation for being able to interact with others in a manner that tilts the playing field towards one’s own wishes . My time working with foreign forces has certainly given me the opportunity to “field-test” the techniques outlined above.
For all my efforts, my first commander was much too seasoned (he fought against the Russians as a young man) for me to manipulate him to get him to do something he did not want to do. We got along well, but he didn’t need or care much for my approval. I’d make discreet suggestions and he would heed them or discard them based probably mostly on how he was feeling in that moment. This is not to say that my first commander did not respect me or the knowledge I have. He, as well as all the Afghan officers I’ve worked with, was more than willing to put his ego aside and admit when he didn’t know much about a particular topic. In this, the Afghans are much different than the Iraqis I worked with. The Iraqis liked to pretend they knew things they didn’t know. The Afghans at least are willing to make an honest self-assessment, and show a great willingness to learn, although their work ethic is less than you might hope for.
My second commander was much younger and impressionable, and it was with him that my rapport building techniques paid off. He would occasionally ignore my suggestions just to prove his own autonomy, but if he knew something was important to me, he’d make sure it got done how I wanted, whether it was making unscheduled patrols, doing more night operations, or picking up the garbage inside the base. (I wouldn’t allow us to pick up all those empty plastic bottles scattered around our perimeter even if someone actually wanted to do it, since even a cat can’t cross all that garbage without making noise…a low-tech, cheap, and reliable, if environmentally unsound and aesthetically displeasing, means of force protection.)
With my third commander, I realized a couple of weeks in that maybe I was the one getting manipulated a bit. The commander came in and was very personable, likeable, and concerned for his soldiers’ welfare. His men were actually soldiers rather than just warriors…the chief difference between a soldier and a warrior being a soldier’s discipline…in this case the discipline to clean up the base, do small building projects to improve things, exercise fire control, and keep their supplies organized. I therefore went a little further out of my way to do things for him from the outset, including things I’d never volunteered to do before like using myself and my guys to stand post. It hasn’t taken long to realize however, that although our new commander’s men are better than what we’ve seen before as far as what goes on around the base during the day, the commander’s attitude towards operations is pretty much the same as what we’ve seen before, meaning that he’ll do whatever, but he won’t do a lot. If it takes a lot of sustained effort, like for instance saturating an area with security patrols, then he’s probably not interested. So while the rapport he’s built with me has gotten me to do things for him that I wouldn’t normally do, I can’t really say I’m getting him to do anything for me beyond what he normally does, though overall I’m still very happy with him and consider him a friend.
As for rapport building with the local people, I most earnestly wish I had something to more to say on the matter other than that we try. Unfortunately, neither I nor my Afghans have much success in our efforts. Where we operate the people are very insular and closed-off, not just from the world or the rest of Afghanistan, but even from peoples in nearby valleys. Getting them to open up to us about much of anything at all has proven to be beyond our powers of persuasion to this point.