Saturday, May 30, 2009

Recent entries


"A short pencil is better than a long memory" - Confucius

I've had much more opportunity to write these days since I have my own room with internet. This won't last much longer as I'm set to move again, but for now it enables me to get a lot written. Things I used to just put into my journal, I now just edit and post. I've got quite a few interesting topics buried in my journal that I need to explore, but for now daily living seems to provide enough stimulation to get something written.

Reading over some of what I've written lately, I've realized it's been mostly negative. Working over here with these guys certainly gives you a lot of ups and downs. I think the most common phrase I use here is a head shake and a muttering under my breath to myself, "These f%^@ing guys." But on the flip side, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. The sense of satisfaction is real when it comes, and the camaraderie that comes with the job is irreplaceable.

At any rate, I think the hotter weather, the constant pain in my wrist, and the fact that I haven't been sleeping well have all caused me to lose patience with these guys a little faster than normal. I know better than to show my exasperation with the ANA to the ANA unless it's truly necessary (On many levels the ANA seem to resemble children, and how angry can you really get at a child...?). And so some of the frustration comes out in my writing.

The Bad News Bears


Today's firefight lasted 2.5 hours. Which I know sounds crazy until I explain how it goes sometimes. We're driving down the road in an 8 vehicle convoy when we take a few shots from the ridgeline maybe 800 meters away. So we stop and start returning fire in the vicinity of where it was coming from. An Army convoy happened to be right in front of us, so they coordinated artillery and mortars on the enemy positions. But with all the rounds and explosives raining down on them, we simply could not get those guys out of their positions in the mountains. Things would be quiet for a few minutes, and we'd think they were finished, and then they'd shoot a burst our way. This went on for what seemed like forever. The bad guys would shoot a few rounds and then we'd return fire for a minute or so. Wait a couple of minutes and repeat. Finally we called an end to it and started to get the ANA back into the vehicles to push out of there...but as soon as we started driving away we'd take another burst of machine gun fire nearby and the ANA would jump out of the vehicles and light up the mountainside.

Here's a few interesting tidbits from it all:

-the ANA needed an ammo resupply from a nearby base 30 minutes into the fight since they'd shot so many rounds so fast.
-several ANA went into a local shop and drank chai during the fighting; many other ANA began eating lunch from their semi-covered positions during the shooting. The eating wasn't even the funny part - the funny part was how much they were enjoying the food and the camaraderie under the circumstances. They were a bit put off when I refused their offer of a granola bar.
-the Apaches finally showed up and showered the area with rockets (this usually puts an end to the bravado of our good friends in the mountains), but to no avail as the sporadic shooting continued. When the guy on the ground tried to correct the impacts of the Apaches' rockets, the pilot came back over the radio laconically replying, "We hit the spot the rounds were coming from."
-at one point we decided to use the vehicles as cover so the ANA soldiers, who do not yet have the luxury of armored vehicles, could run across an open area on the road. The ETTs managed to execute with our vehicles but the ANA driver drove off and left his guys in the open when three of them tripped and stumbled over each other.

Some of the stuff you really have to laugh at. The image of the ANA First Sergeant walking around gesticulating and yelling at his guys, and then after hearing a pop shot from the enemy, turning and distractedly firing a 20 round burst from his AK toward the mountainside while hardly losing a beat on his rant at his guys was absolutely priceless.

On the positive side, the ANA did keep their big guns working the whole time, and none of them were afraid to fight. They all will jump out there and start shooting, even if they don't aim and squeeze off all their rounds at once.

Once the fixed wing showed up and started dropping bombs it came to an end; this was shortly after we finally managed to get everyone on or in a truck and get clear of the area. As for a better way to fight the fight.... When guys are buried into the mountains with strong, covered, bunker-like positions from which to shoot at us, it's tough for us to combat them. Assaulting 800 meters up a steep mountainside is not really feasible. The best thing we can do is get a bomb directly on target. I've bagged on the Army in the past for using anti-tank weapons to shoot at individuals, but today something like a TOW missile complete with its infrared sights would've been handy to destroy a bunker or cave. Preemptively, we can go up there and destroy those positions, which is something we do with regularity. But not often enough apparently.

As for the title of this post...I put it there for comic relief, not because we're really that bad. The ANA have made me proud on a number of occasions - today just wasn't their finest hour. And in any case, I've learned by now that if you can't laugh a little bit at some of the ANA antics, you're bound to drive yourself nuts.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Non vi virtute vici


It's hard to go more than a few weeks without seeing a headline about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Sadly, we seem to keep making the same mistakes. Whatever the reality is as far as exact totals and Taliban using them as human shields, the perception is that we keep killing innocent people.

I hadn't been in this country two weeks before I had go to the local village alone but for a handful of Afghan soldiers and explain to an angry group of 50 Afghan males why a unit in the area had shot a missile from the sky that ended up killing two adolescents. Having little information on the incident itself at the time, I stated that the incident was unfortunate, but that innocents always die in war, and that the local people should get on our side so that we can put an end to the conflict. A heated but controlled argument ensued where I heard the villagers say things like "Your technology is so good, we know you can tell if it's a child or not that your shooting" and "How can we support people that kill our children?". Thankfully, my Afghan platoon commander stepped in and calmed them down as I learned it's a losing proposition to argue with an angry mob, especially when you don't speak their language.

Whether we're killing Taliban with air strikes or not, much like the drone attacks in Pakistan, aerial strikes carry a big price tag not only because of their propensity for error either on the part of the pilot or the guy on the ground clearing them, but also because of the way killing in that manner is viewed by the people here. Pashtun people simply see no honor in an unseen killing from afar. While our enemies' planting an IED might be considered devious and respectable on some level as a way to overcome our technological advantages, our shooting missiles and dropping bombs on unsuspecting people is considered cowardly. If the bombs came during a firefight it might be different, but the targeting of the kind done by the drones in Pakistan and what was done that night leading up to my meeting with the local people loses us support. Two steps forward, five steps back.

It's not just what you do but how you do it.

The video is a bomb drop that occurred during my first patrol in Afghanistan. video

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Afghan National Army


"You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. It just doesn't work that way." - Warren Buffett (referring to the speed of the economic recovery post-stimulus plan)


By all accounts, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has been one of the most successful institutions we've built since our arrival in this country in 2001. The US has done almost all ANA training, funding, and fielding since the war 'ended' and the ANA were established in 2002. Other countries have focused on other things - the UK on counter-narcotics and the Germans (originally, until they failed so miserably) on training the police for example. The ethnic breakdown of the ANA reflects that of the country as a whole, with about 40% of the soldiers being Pashtun, 25% Tajik, 15% Hazara, 10% Uzbek, and 10% other. Each Kandak (battalion) and smaller unit reflects that mixture as well. Almost all soldiers speak Dari or Pashto. Many speak both languages. Estimates on the number of ANA troops vary, but at this time the ANA has about 80,000 soldiers. The size of the ANA has steadily expanded over the years, and I'm sure we'll keep trying to expand it. We may be plowing a lot of money into the ANA, but the individual Afghan soldier must be at least one order of magnitude cheaper to field than one of our own.

There's a certain amount of pride that goes with being one of the a very small contingent of Americans walking amongst the populace with local soldiers, and I've been told many times by the local people that they feel a lot of pride in seeing their Army out on patrol. For this reason, I often attempt to keep a low profile when I'm out with my guys - let them run the show and do the talking. If anyone asks, I tell them I'm only there so they can communicate with the American units. It's always an especially proud moment for me when the ANA soldiers are looking good and taking things seriously. Impressions are important, especially for the local soldiers. Whether the ANA ever kills a single Taliban insurgent or not, they can still be effective by looking competent and professional, and in so give the local people something to believe in and take pride in.

Many times I've been out with the ANA as the lone American in the group as we patrol in a town full of people that may or may not hold some degree of antipathy towards us. But it's not something we as ETTs worry about because we know the Afghan soldiers would take care of us if it came down to it. When you build that good relationship with the soldiers and a degree of mutual respect exists, then working together can be a pleasure.

To experience those moments of pride, however fleeting they may be, ETTs have to go through plenty of frustration. The laziness and unwillingness to train, the whining and harassment for comfort items they don't need, the hashish smoking, the general slovenliness, the willingness to let us do their jobs for them, the corruption and stealing at all levels, the refusal to do as many operations as they should, the painfully slow learning process, the pathetically short attention spans, the disobedience to some of our demands, and the repetition of simple mistakes all add up to weigh on you at times. And it's those times that I understand why our tours as advisers are shorter than the normal tours that many people do over here. One can only take so much. Most days we take it all in stride as we know what to expect from the ANA. Keep your expectations in check and you can't be disappointed. But then something will happen like an interpreter getting beaten to a bloody pulp for no good reason or your best local contractor getting shaken down by the ANA commander and his platoon (mob) to the point that he can no longer work for you, and you ask yourself whether all of this is going to add up to something in the end. Are the ANA really going to be any better when we leave than they were when we got here? Tough to say. Will the Afghan National Army ever be able to work without us holding their hands? The only way to know will be to kick them out of the nest at some point and see if they fly. Better sooner than later I say because at this point they have the equipment and training to do the job. Whether they have the will to do the job is the question, but I think will will come with necessity, and necessity will come when we're gone.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nation building


"If you break it, you own it." - Thomas Friedman referring to Iraq in early 2003

I'm thankful that as a member of the military I get to take part in the nation building we're doing here. Nation building is something you would think might be undertaken more by civilian agencies or the State Department, but that's certainly not how it is here, and probably rightfully so since we're building a nation in the midst of an insurgency. It's nice to be able to talk with local people about projects and construction that we're funding or supporting. It certainly feels good to help people out. But as for the concept of nation building itself...well, I'll say it's an idea that sounds good. Seems good on paper. We'll devote x amount of reconstruction dollars to y country and then eventually voila! we'll have a functioning, productive member of the international community. Certainly, nation building has become a big part of our strategy here in Afghanistan. The theory goes something like we'll set up a democracy, build up the nation a bit, and then hopefully they'll never bother us again and we can all live and peace and prosperity.

I'm all for giving the people their freedom and removing the Taliban, but I'm not so sure about the feasibility or realism in all this nation building. How do you pull a nation out of poverty? Is democracy compatible with Biblical standards of living? So few countries ever break out of relative poverty to join modern Western nations' standards of living. The few that have over the past 40 years (Singapore, Taiwan, S. Korea) were all E. Asian nations that valued hard work, saving, and education. Culturally, Afghanistan has little in common with those countries or any other rich nation save the Arab oil states. Of course, other factors beyond the merely cultural come into play when we're talking about the overall economic state of a country, but the culture and habits of a country's inhabitants have to be considered key in its political and economic development.

All of the development money that's been spent worldwide over the past few decades has had limited success, given the living standards today of those receiving it. The same regions seem to have the same problems they've always had. I'm an advocate of nations pulling themselves out of poverty, rather than having aid given to them. As developed nations we can help set the conditions for their success (free trade, without subsidizing our own industries in which they might be able to compete, namely agriculture, or by technology transfers), but no one really grows, in the developmental sense of the word, by handouts. Maybe that's why I get so annoyed with do-gooders like Bono who like to lay the guilt on rich nations to give to the poor. Poor nations have to bring themselves out of their predicament for development to catch and be sustainable.

War and rebuilding are expensive undertakings. I've seen several Javelin missiles shot; each one of those costs $80,000. Sometimes I can't help but ask myself if the 80K would be better spent on a development project rather than shooting (with often marginal success) at some guy on a mountainside harassing us. A well-aimed 7.62mm round would be much cheaper, and leave the savings for development in theory. But the idea presupposes that development can be accomplished with enough time and money, and again scant evidence exists to support the proposition. We can build roads all over the place, but who will maintain them when we're gone? We can put in power plants, but again, how long will they last in a country that can get its act together enough to keep them running? Building schools is probably a good idea, but does brick and mortar ensure the population will progress on an intellectual level? I know the people are interested in educating their children because I've been to girls' schools where hundreds of young girls were present, and I would like to think that since the desire exists to educate, and aid money is present, then the kids will end up educated. But in practice I'm not so sure where it will all end up.

One of the big problems with developmental funding is accountability. Accountability is a problem in any large agency, especially a governmental one. The head of a Civil Affairs Group gets good marks on his evaluations for spending money and building projects. But who's out there market testing these projects? I've seen numerous projects work for awhile, from agricultural replacement (substituting saffron for opium) to hydroelectric power, only to be neglected in the end because the local population did not have the know-how or desire to see them become permanent fixtures. Building a community center is all well and good, but after we're gone who's to stop the local strongman making it his dwelling?

In the end, what we need to help create is a stable political and economic system whereby the individual is rewarded for his or her efforts. Individual liberty through systemic incentives. But I have to ask myself whether individual liberty is compatible with Islamic/Afghan tradition. And how do we establish a political system anyway? It may have worked in post-War Germany and Japan, but those were modern nations. The Japanese in particular went to great lengths to modernize themselves prior to WWII without any goading or handouts from Western nations. In fact, Japan's modernization was in response to Western aggression. We may have provided the impetus, but we didn't do it for them. Expounding an ideology that requires cultural change by use of military force and engineering prowess doesn't seem workable. Afghanistan needs to modernize on its own accord, or not, it's up to them, but either way at the end of the day they are on their own. Getting the Afghan people to care seems to be the toughest challenge of all.

Granted, I agree with Friedman to an extent, when he says that if you break it, you own it. We can't leave absolute chaos in our wake. But having ousted the Taliban and established some important institutions like the army, I think it's important we start looking toward leaving, and leaving under very imperfect circumstances. I have no doubt we could succeed completely with enough time and money, however staying in this place until it's a reasonably well functioning country would probably require staying here until Islam modernizes itself...a process that I hope is ongoing, but may take many years.

So while nation building and development held a certain appeal for me at the outset of my time here, more and more I thinking we had our theory of the war right from the get-go - come in, overthrow the government, and stay away from nation building. We can always come back and overthrow another government if need be. We did it the first time with a few Special Forces and CIA guys backed up by the Air Force. The implied or overt threat to invade again would provide the proper incentive to whatever government that establishes itself that it needs to behave or risk being removed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Salesmanship


From a leader's perspective, one of the nice things about counter-insurgency operations is the flexibility to approach the problem in various ways, although everything pretty much boils down to engaging the enemy or engaging the populace. How we do either of these two things is up to us. On the kinetic side we might conduct ambushes, movements to contact, security presence patrols, cache sweeps, vehicle checkpoints, or cordon and searches. When it comes to engaging the populace we often conduct MedCaps (medical civil affairs program) and key leader engagements.

So today we (the ETTs and ANA) did a joint operation with the US Army. Basically, the plan was for the Army to head out before sunrise and set up on the rigdelines. We would then bring in our ANA later on in the morning and "engage the populace". When we're going in to the more volatile areas, "engaging the populace" often means we'll serve as "bait". But they can't phrase it that way when selling us on the op, so they'll call it "engaging the populace" and away we go. A nice bit of salesmanship in their part. We laughingly refer to our role in this type of operation as "hey diddle-diddle right up the middle".

With so many of our personnel on leave at the moment, I ended up being the driver of the MRAP since our other licensed drivers were unavailable. An MRAP is a very large armored vehicle that is gradually replacing the venerable humvee because it provides such better protection from IEDs. I've read MRAPs described as "mastodon-like" which is a very apt description. The vehicle is pretty capable, although so large that it just barely fit down some of the roads. I managed to severely sprain my wrist when the steering wheel whipped back and did a couple of revolutions as the back right tire was stuck on a rock and the front left was in a little ditch. The wrist sprain prevented me from taking part in much of the action later since I couldn't really use that hand at all, and still hardly can as of this writing. At any rate, once the pains subsides some I'll be motivated to use my handy (no pun intended) DynaFlex Pro Plus gyro, which is a fun little device to build up strength and stamina in your hands, wrists, and forearms. I'm reminded now how a sprain of any kind makes daily living a teeth-grinding experience.

The area where we went had been the subject of a "treaty" between the Coalition forces and the local elders. The treaty saying something to the effect that we'll start helping them out with projects if they'll stop shooting at us when we show up. This was our first trip out there since the onset of the treaty, and sadly, the treaty did not hold up and we were engaged in the typical manner from several machine gun positions on the ridgelines. The event was certainly not unexpected, but it was disappointing all the same. The firefight had all the hallmarks of what I've gotten used to out here: ANA shooting machine guns from the hip, the Army using anti-tank weapons to shoot at individuals, aerial ordnance dropping after the fight has stopped, and arty crashing down. In the end, we all (us and them) went home to do it again in the near future.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Test-fire

I originally wrote this one a couple of months ago but didn't ever post it.

We decided to test-fire our weapons into the mountainside the other day. Much of the area up in the mountains is off limits to everyone, so there are plenty of areas you can fire into to make sure your weapons are behaving the way you'd want them to.

So several of the positions around the valley fired a good number of rounds into the mountains and we didn't think any more of it. No other firing happened that day as there was no attack of any kind. Amusingly, later that evening we received reports that the insurgents in the area were bragging to their commanders about the large firefight they'd been in and how they'd taken a lot of fire from us but had continued to fire back and draw us into wasting our ammo. The commanders apparently enthusiastically received such news. Of course, they were referring to our test-fire as their "firefight". Omissions, exaggerations, and outright lies - I guess no one is above them when telling a story.

The incident also gives some insight into the nature of some of these people we're fighting. While there are plenty of true believers, there are also plenty of others who view fighting us as a job like any other - they'll do it so long as their paid and be happy to get paid for doing nothing if they can get away with it.

Sheep dinner


Today the Afghans asked that we buy them a sheep in celebration of a fellow marine's wife having a son. Good thing it was a son - I wonder how they would have reacted if he'd had a daughter...? Demand that he flay himself? I'm not sure. Slitting the animal's throat and letting it bleed out is the proper way for Muslims to kill something they're going to eat. The killing itself is not the only part of the process that's different; the meat is butchered so that nothing goes to waste - leaving you to dine on small scraps of fat, gristle, and meat attached to misshapen hunks of bone. In the States we're so far removed from the brutality that is required to prepare animals for eating, but then as Americans we're sheltered from reality in many ways these days, which I would say has helped lead to the nanny state we're living in. Or maybe I'm backward as to cause and effect. At any rate, it made a fine meal as usual.



video

Friday, May 15, 2009

Logistics


The old military adage says that amateurs talk tactics, while professionals study logistics. It's hard not to think about logistics after having just been shipped home for 15 days along with 200 other military and civilian personnel stationed in the Middle East and Central Asia. The flight that I was on was not special - they go every day bringing 200 or more people halfway around the world to visit home briefly before bringing them all the way back.

No doubt exists that our military has mastered the logistics of warfighting. But sometimes I wonder if our logistical prowess is always being used in the best way to ensure we're successful in the war. I met a company commander on the flight who had been shipped home for a few days to accept an award. His tour ends soon, but he was required to go back to the States for the award and will end up being gone from his unit for two weeks with all the travel time. Just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean we should. It's great he got to accept his award in person, but shouldn't the conduct of the war take precedence?

I'm on a nine-month tour here, which is not long compared to what some of the Army units out here have to deal with. Nine months would have been very doable without leave, but since it was offered, most of our guys chose to take it. As a result, we're incapable of operating to our capacity for two plus months of our deployment due to lack of personnel.

I'm certainly not complaining about being a member of the most technologically advanced and well-supplied military on earth. It's great that we have such great equipment to use and rarely want for anything. Even when I was at one of the most remote outposts in the country we still had all we needed. It's great that we can build outposts in the middle of nowhere with no road access and still support them logistically. But there are costs and risks involved with supplying remote outposts. It was commonplace in our valley to receive supplies airdropped from C-17s - the term is CDS drop for control-descent system. I had an amusing morning several months ago as I was woken by gunfire and someone glibly talking over the radio, "Yeah, they're shooting at the C-17 again." I felt obligated to get out of bed and put down some suppression fire in the direction of the gunfire's origin, but all along I couldn't stop laughing at the absurdity of the insurgents shooting small arms at plane flying at 10,000 feet. While the aircraft was under no danger, and we usually managed to recover most of the supplies dropped, the expense of conducting such an operation has to be substantial. You have to wonder if that money would be better spent on the Afghan people themselves.

Since we are without a reliable road out in the valley, most supplies come in via helicopter. The helos would "sling" the supplies in by carrying them underneath the aircraft using slings and ropes. The more supplies you need, the more trips you make. And the more trips you make, the more your chances of a mishap. And in the most disheartening moment so far in my tour, at one point I saw a helo get hit by gunfire as it approached a mountaintop base with several slings of supplies. The helo went down on the other side of the valley, fortunately only killing one person. Realistically, the fact that we can supply those outposts by air has prevented us from having the urgency necessary to get a road constructed. With no road leading to the valley, the situation will likely not improve much for the Afghan people and ourselves in that place. And so indirectly our capabilities have retarded our progress.

Helicopters aren't the only ones exposed - convoys are as well. There's no telling how many individuals were wounded or killed in Iraq delivering supplies. And the fact is, that even in the most remote and difficult to supply areas, we still waste supplies because we know we can get more. I've seen a large amount of supplies just abandoned to the elements at different bases.

Not only is bringing in all these supplies dangerous and expensive, but it leads to complacency in a lot of areas. When we're logistically able to supply nearly everyone with outstanding food and bring in plasma screen televisions and internet cafes, you have to believe these distractions detract from the mission. Morale is important of course, but so is focusing on why we here.

I'm an advocate for shorter, tougher tours, with less distractions, as opposed to the lengthy tours most people serve now, characterized by slow optempo and relative comfort. Of course, being a marine, it's natural that I feel that way, since the Marines serve seven busy months, while the Army serves one long slow year. And I really can't blame the Army for their slower optempo since their tours are so much longer than the Marine Corps. I just don't think it's the way to go. If we actually had a tighter budget, reduced some of the frills and used our logicistical capabilities more wisely, I think we'd perform a little better in the end.

Honesty

"The words of the Greeks are born on their lips but those of the Romans in their hearts." - Cato the Elder

Honesty or lack thereof presents itself as an issue every day when working in the Afghan culture. A delivery of humanitarian assistance to the head man of the village will often ensure that the head man and his family benefit, while the rest of the village gets nothing. If I buy a cow, gravel, or a pickax from a local vendor, I can be assured that my Afghan counterpart is going to shake down the vendor for his cut. I'm tempted to blame these types of dishonesty and the general corruption in this country on poverty, but in reality the poverty is probably a symptom rather than a cause of the disease of dishonesty and lack of fair-dealing and even-handedness endemic to this place and most other cultures and countries around the world. I'm not sure Afghans and Iraqis are capable of caring about their fellow man, as demonstrated in this article. I read the article in a military newspaper the other day about Iraqi soldiers stealing wheelchair parts destined for crippled Iraqi children. The article got me thinking about honesty and how it's viewed in different cultures. I'm now more referring to lack of manipulativeness, deviousness, and insincerity as opposed to just outright thievery like what those soldiers did. Americans are a very honest people and are recognized and appreciated as such worldwide. Americans' honesty with ourselves no doubt has been very instrumental in our country's development. The ability to honestly face and deal with problems in a straightforward manner is certainly more conducive to growth and progress than having to mollify egos and worry about saving face, as is the norm in other places. It's ironic that our citizens would be lauded for honesty, while the country as a whole is lambasted when we publicize our failings. But then it's much easier to point the finger and hide your own potential embarrassments than face your problems head-on.

I've heard it said that while we Americans spend all those years in school learning to read books, Afghans spend those years learning to read people. Guile is a highly prized characteristic in other cultures, from the Islamic world, to the Chinese and Sun Tzu, and persons lacking it are often considered naive or simplistic. I think it's true that Americans, in general, are often lacking in guile when dealing with people. Honesty is a habit for us, and habits are powerful forces on behavior.

The question is why. Why are Americans so forthright and honest in comparison with the rest of the world? I think the Christian religion has had something to do with it, though many other Christian countries are much less honest as a cultural trait. We're a rich country that doesn't need to steal to make ends meet (though certainly rich people do steal, see nearest politician for example), but our honesty goes much deeper than that, and I think it's got something to do with our individualism. Our Bill of Rights guarantees individual rights, often superseding the rights of the individual over those of the community. Constitutions in other countries don't necessarily see it the same way - the French Constitution often subjugates the rights of the individual to those of the community.

Americans are permitted and even encouraged to go their own way. We respect an individual's freedom to live life his own way. When people are free to express themselves and make their own decisions they are free to be honest with themselves, and by extension, others. Americans don't necessarily have to mold themselves to their peers in order to be accepted, as is common in cultures less tolerant of differences. Other cultures foster deceptiveness and manipulativeness by not allowing people to express who they really are.

I try to comport myself always in an honest manner, but knowing the how other cultures view the topic of honesty has certainly helped me deal with people from those places. And never more so than now than here in Afghanistan.

Time

Short of travel at very high velocities, I suppose there's not much we can do to affect the rate of time's march. Doesn't always seem like time passes at a uniform rate though. Lately, I've had plenty of time to think about time.

Slow time is in transit.
Fast time is the destination.
Slow time is in the open waiting to get shot at.
Fast time is getting shot at in the open.
Slow time is meetings.
Fast time is offhand encounters.
Slow time is waiting on a medevac.
Fast time is adjusting mortars.
Slow time is behind a covered position while it gets peppered with bullets.
Fast time is behind a covered position peppering the mountainside with bullets.
Slow time is shopping.
Fast time is all those other moments with family and friends.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Goodbyes

They are never easy. And they never seem to even get any easier no matter how many times I go through the process. In fact, I dread goodbyes so much that I seriously considered not coming home for leave at all. But...I'm glad I did, although at the end of the trip I always regret not spending more time with everyone.

Now I'm on my second day since I left and I feel much better after a good night's (afternoon's in this case with the jetlag) sleep. Hopefully, I won't be long here in Kuwait and I can get back to work; time seems to move fastest that way. I've got a great job as an ETT, but I can't get home too soon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Status


I've learned here in Afghanistan that the concept of status is certainly not confined to Western nations or cultures. I suppose that should be no surprise, but for some reason I thought before that a nation so precariously balanced on the edge of poverty would not concern itself with something like status, and instead would be more focused on things more "real".

For example, the Afghan battalion commander has a 12 man security detail. 12 men are nearly as many soldiers as we have at some of the remote outposts. Manpower is always an issue and we can always use more soldiers out fighting, but there we are wasting twelve perfectly good soldiers as bodyguards. Given that the battalion commander lives on a military base with us, he really does not need bodyguards at all...but he has them. Why? Status. He can get away with having them, so he has them in order to show off his power and relative importance.

It's not uncommon to go to an extremely poor village and see the village elder using a cell phone. Granted, a cell phone does have some utility (it certainly makes it easier for the village elder to report on our movements to whomever he may be reporting to...), but it's hard to imagine it being a necessity...and in a village where the people live on the poverty line it seems gratuitous. Chalk it up to status. Hard to imagine what else those fancy rims on the car would be for.

I personally have been used as a status symbol by my different Afghan commanders that I work with. It's not hard to gather from a conversation and body language that a particular Afghan commander is proud to have me as his right-hand man when we're conversing with local people. Of course, it's not so much me that he's proud to have at his beck and call but what I represent, i.e. the US government and military and most of all, money.

The desire for status can help us. A security badge given to an Afghan by a US base is often considered a status symbol. This gives us an easy way to put the badge-holder into our databases - by taking their picture for the badge we're usually getting fingerprints, irises, and other identifying data on the subject at the same time, which may become useful in the future if his fingerprints show us somewhere they are not supposed to be.

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I always hated the yahoo format I was blogging on...and so now I've finally changed it. Not sure when or if I will import all the old stuff.