Sunday, August 30, 2009


"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.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


"Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." - attributed to Einstein
Eventually everyone's time to go home comes and ours finally did. At last, we're on our way out...but it's tough to get too excited about it when the process is going to take up to two weeks. We turned things over to the new team, and they'll begin going through all the things we went through. With the ANA you have to wonder if they purposely hit the rewind button when a new team arrives. By that I mean, the suspicion exists that the ANA play down their abilities for new ETTs in the hopes that the new guys will coddle them and not demand as much of them as they are capable of giving; let the new guys think you're incapable and maybe they won't ask much of you; show how pathetic and helpless you are and maybe they'll buy and give you more stuff. I won't personally say I saw much of that type of behavior, but I did hear of it from others and it would fit right in with what I know about the ANA.

At any rate, the new team will do just fine. They'll find their own way, which will be different from ours in some respects. As for the ANA, I'll miss some of them, no question. They do have some very good people. I'll miss my terps more though. It was hard not to feel like we were abandoning the terps as we said our goodbyes. Afghanistan is their country though, so can't feel too sorry for them that they have to stay. Afghanistan needs bright young men like our interpreters (who tend to see things more our way than the ANA ever did) to help reshape the country.

For now, we'll sit at Bagram and wait for a flight. The time waiting will be primarily spent sleeping, eating, weightlifting, and card-playing. We've already been here several days and we've no firm word on when we'll actually leave. Hopefully we'll be back in Hawaii in a week or so.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Election redux

Our part on election day consisted of checking on the polling sites with our ANA. Unfortunately, we didn’t see as many people out and about as we would have liked, but we did see a fair number of men with purple fingers, indicating they’d voted. Since we didn’t have enough ETTs to accompany the ANA on all the missions they were doing, the ANA actually did a fair number of movements and security on their own, which was a nice culmination to our time here. The ANA proved they can operate without us and hold their own, as they were shot at from afar a number of times throughout the day. Violence in the area was much higher than normal, as was to be expected. Our main base was attacked sporadically with mortars, rockets, and even some direct small arms fire, which was something we hadn’t seen before.

After the polls closed, we went with the ANA to several different polling sites to pick up the ballots. As I watched the ANA throw the plastic crates full (or not so full) of ballots onto the back of their trucks, all the while hoping we wouldn’t start taking rounds, I thought to myself, “so this is how it (democracy and voting) happens”. Unfortunately, many of the cartons for the completed ballots were empty, but we did end up picking up some 14,000 ballots in an area that did not include any real population centers other than small villages. You’d be surprised how many Afghans can fit into those small villages though.

We almost managed to get back to the district center with the ballots without receiving any enemy contact, but…then it wouldn’t be a day in Kunar Province without someone shooting at you from up in the mountains. Normally, we’d stop the convoy and return fire, but on election day we were more concerned with getting the ballots secured in the district center, so despite the burst of machine gun fire and RPG shot our way from about 1000 meters out (much too far for an RPG, which probably why it landed 200 meters short of our truck), we just pushed onward rather than stay and fight. Running away from enemy contact felt like a bit of an ignominious way to end our tour since that was to be our last convoy, but I couldn’t disagree with the decision. Having an RPG rip through the back of one of those pickup trucks full of ballots would not have been good.

It appears the turnout for the election as a whole was low, but in any event we survived it with only a couple of ANA lightly wounded. And now we turn our full attention toward getting out of here as our replacements have arrived and are ready to take over.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Elections writeup

I wrote this piece for, which is why it contains elements of other posts.

Afghanistan’s election is coming up on Thursday. Here in the northeastern part of the country, conducting an orderly election will be a difficult task, to say the least. This region, due to the high mountains and its shared border with Pakistan, is a well-known insurgent haven. Our enemies inhabit the high ground and getting up there to deal with them is tough.

Nearly every engagement here involves the insurgents shooting down at us from above. When that hasn’t been the case, the enemy has been shooting at us from inside a village on the other side of a valley. Fighting an enemy while he’s inside a village presents its own set of concerns.

Conducting day-to-day operations here is difficult. Holding an election here against the wishes of our numerous enemies will certainly be interesting. Not only are we sure to see more attacks, but we’re also sure to have less support in the form of air since those air assets are likely to be needed everywhere else as well.

Coalition forces just don’t have the numbers to control much of the vast hinterland in this northeastern part of the country. Those air assets in the form of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and fighter aircraft are a vital part of how we get things turned in our favor once the shooting begins, but we’ll make do with or without them.

Generally speaking, if we don’t have a paved road leading to an area, we don’t control it. Geographically, the province sits in the middle of a mountain range. The mountains are interspersed with valleys carved by streams fed by melting snow runoff. The only flat areas you’ll see around here are the areas around the streams. Those flat areas vary in width from a kilometer to maybe 10 meters across. Given the challenging topography, road building is a difficult task. Where roads have been put in, bases and security have followed. Without a paved road, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are regular, which prevents a strong U.S. presence.

We focus on the larger population centers, which are not surprisingly generally located in the larger valleys. Of the many small valleys branching off from the larger ones, we control the terrain at most a couple of kilometers in. Far down into some of these valleys, we haven’t had Americans go in years. This fact hasn’t stopped the unnamed, unseen planners on high from deciding to put election polling sites in some of these places. Exactly how we’re supposed to secure a place we don’t ever go, in addition to all the other sites in our normal area of operations, is a question which has occurred to many of us in recent weeks.

Thankfully, as the election creeps closer, reality is beginning to set in, and numerous planned polling stations are not going to be opened. We’ll consolidate some, and others will just not be available, necessitating the local people taking a longer trip to vote. It will be the courageous family that decides to take a trip down an unsecured road while bearing voter registration cards. The insurgents aren’t always in the mountains…they do come down to the roads to conduct checkpoints, often with an IED in the road between us and them to prevent our arrival in a timely manner to deal with them.

For an election you need ballots. It’s Afghanistan’s election, so U.S. forces aren’t supposed to escort or handle the ballots. As embedded trainers with the Afghan National Army (ANA), my unit is exempt from this guidance. And so, on our way to pick up the ballots yesterday, we got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we’re still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield. Armor is a good thing to have when the element of surprise is not on your side. The firefight was a nice way to welcome our recently-arrived replacements to the joys and adventures of life in Afghanistan.

We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don’t venture…and are not going to venture for this election. The Afghan National Police (ANP) refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case we’re not helping.

If not the Americans or the ANA or the ANP, who’s going to take the ballots up there and provide security for the election, you ask? Well, in Afghanistan, when the official government representatives aren’t doing the job, the responsibility falls to the traditional power brokers, i.e. the local elders. Turning over official election ballots to citizens who hold no official capacity may not be how things were drawn up by the 10-pound heads who wanted to hold an election in a war-torn country in the midst of raging insurgency, but as someone in the news stated recently, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.

If even the elders can’t guarantee the security of the ballots and the ballots end up getting burned in a bonfire in the square next to the village mosque — well, at least in that case, the insurgents have clearly shown themselves to be destructive agents and enemies of their peoples’ freedom of choice. In the past, just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid like schoolbooks in places where we thought it would get burned by the insurgents before the local people could get their hands on it. Something similar may end up happening with a small portion of the ballots.

However imperfect, Afghanistan will have an election on August 20 and new elected officials will take up their posts sometime shortly thereafter. Undoubtedly, some of our enemies will abuse the election process and the general lack of security in this region to get themselves elected. But I reckon we’re on the right track if they’re playing by our rules and participating in the process, whatever their ultimate motives may be.

I’m just thankful I get to be here to see how this thing turns out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Sometimes it’s really quite amazing to see the disconnect between what the unseen, unknown planners on high come up and the situation on the ground. Let’s just say originally this area was to have quite a number of polling sites. And as the election creeps closer and closer, everyone is coming to the realization that we just don’t have the manpower to provide security for all of these places. In many cases, it’s not so much the number of polling sites as it is the locations. We simply do not control much of the environment out here. Where we are we control, but it’s a big hinterland and we can’t be everywhere. And where we not…the Taliban are. Most of the little valleys out here don’t have a security presence more than a couple kilometers in. To put a polling site out deep in a valley where no Coalition forces go means we have to rely on local elders to provide the security for the ballots and the election itself.

Handing over election security to a local elder who holds no official position seems a little strange and could certainly lead to some odd results, but it’s not a perfect world and no election is perfect. Getting the people to go through the process, however flawed it may be, is the important thing. If that process doesn’t get off the ground at all because the ballots got burned by the Taliban, well, at least the Taliban in that case have shown exactly where they stand regarding peoples’ right to choose their leaders. Just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid knowing it would get burned by the Taliban. Something similar may end up happening with the ballots.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


We were lucky enough to have our stay extended here to cover the election coming up on the 20th. I’d feel a little better about staying if they’d let me vote – I reckon I’ve done enough for this country by now that I’ve earned that right, but oh well. Given that I don’t know much about the candidates or parties involved, I suppose it’s just as well that I don’t vote. What I do know is that 40 some odd persons are running for president. Such a large and divided field would seem to provide significant advantages for the incumbent, though there’s to be a runoff if no one obtains a certain percentage during the first vote. It seems pretty certain that Karzai will remain in power.

We obviously don’t really concern ourselves with the candidates or politics involved. We’re here to see that an election takes place with minimal chaos. The results are irrelevant to our purpose. I have no doubt that the people are reasonably well-informed about the candidates, but I ask myself how exactly an illiterate person votes. Whether these people really understand the process beyond a very superficial level is another question I ask myself. The other day we were rolling down the road and I saw a billboard with a woman in a burqa holding out a voter registration card. I took the billboard to be an encouragement to the local people to vote. The billboard got me thinking about the election and the compatibility of democracy and elections with a society that covers its women in burqas. You'd think that freedom from the burqa would come before the right to vote...but it's coming the other way round here.

Seems to me the Islamic world has a taste for Western ideas and goods, but hasn’t really assimilated those ideas into their culture in a meaningful way. A rich Islamic country can import the best cars, but they can’t create them. They can watch Indian movies but won’t produce them. They can even throw an election, but is it destined to be anything more than a legally sanctioned power grab? (Of course, most elections in around the world are really just that.) Is there really a debate of ideas going on here? Do they really respect differences in opinion? More importantly, does the average person here really think they can make a decision that will have an effect, positive or otherwise, on his or her own life? The whole idea of changing or bettering your state is alien to most of these people. On the one hand, Islam provides the people with some solace and contentment in what must be a difficult existence, but isn’t it primarily their religion that hinders their existence and makes it so difficult to begin with?

Well, we’ll give them their election. We’ve gone out and talked to local people about the election and asked them about voting, whether the Taliban have been around threatening them, etc. We’re often told that the Taliban have one message and we have another: two competing ideologies. The local people don’t necessarily find one or the other better. The Americans stand for personal freedom and democracy. The Taliban stand for a society ruled by its interpretation of Islam, which is unfortunately such an extremist and corrupt interpretation. Even so, frankly, given where the culture in Afghanistan is at this time, the Taliban’s message seems more appropriate in some ways, since this society is much more akin to medieval Europe than a modern democracy. The world has become a small place though, and since we do in fact share this planet with the Afghan people, it’s probably in our best interest to do what we can to drag them into the 21st century. And however culturally unready they may be for an election, I wouldn't underestimate the appeal and power of freedom and democracy once a society becomes accustomed to it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009



I appreciate the questions in the comments. I’ll try to answer them as best I can. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do have opinions, which albeit are based on a small part of the country and one particular unit. I’m quite certain what I’ve seen is representative of the country as a whole, but I could be wrong. At any rate, I’ll throw my two cents out there and people can take it or leave it. If anyone has facts that refute what I have to say, I’d be interested to hear them. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s anything I would enjoy more than having my opinions on the ANA attacked by someone who hasn’t lived with them and been on the ground in combat with them.

I’ve actually asked various solders in the ANA why they joined, and they all without fail answered that they did it to fight the Taliban and because they like the soldier’s life. In a few cases this may be true, but in my opinion the main reason an Afghan joins the ANA is money. The ANA pays relatively well, about $180/month with free food, a place to lay your head at night, and a good amount of leave. Moreover, few job opportunities exist in Afghanistan. If the army is the one hiring, then you take what you can get. We’ve seen an uptick in recruiting for the US armed forces over the past year, which I’m pretty sure is a result of the down economy, not a sudden uptick in patriotism or adventurism on the part of our young people.

Regardless of anyone’s motivation for joining the ANA, the important thing is how they act when they’re here. If these guys were serving in the ANA because they really wanted to be here and not for a paycheck, I’m confident we’d see a little more motivation on their part. Teaching class to them is roughly akin to teaching kindergarteners, and that goes for the officers too, not just the soldiers.

The ANA can often talk a good game, but where the rubber meets the road, they’re usually not making things happen. There is usually a large disconnect between what the ANA commanders say they want to do and what actually happens on the ground. Either the commander on the ground is unable or unwilling to make a decision to react to recent events, or excuses will be made for inactivity and blame passed around for long enough until the issue is forgotten.

So what is the ANA really? A jobs program. It’s a necessary jobs program, and a necessary part of the country, but at this point we’re not getting much return on our investment. We baby the ANA and don’t utilize them the way we should. Of course, on our level we can’t tell the ANA what operations to do or not do, but somewhere up on high those demands can be made…after all, we’re paying all the bills here. So long as we let them get away with it, the ANA are more than happy to sit back and watch the US forces do most of the work. I’ve made all these points before so I won’t rehash them anymore. Suffice it to say, I’m starting to believe local militias are the way to go. Local militias are local, and as such have a vested interest in the security of their area. The ANA come from all over the country…their vested interest is in their own security. Since the ANA leadership has little sense of duty or will to make their soldiers work, the result is an army that often does little more than occupy a base and turn food into excrement.

But they're getting better.

Monday, August 10, 2009


"Change hurts.  It makes people insecure, confused and angry.  People want things to be the same as they've always been because that makes life easier.  But if you're a leader, you can't let your people hang on to the past."  - Richard Marcinko

It’s funny what powerful forces habit and comfort zones are to our behavior. When I was patrolling every day, the thing I dreaded most was being sent somewhere where I’d be cooped up on the base every day. Now that I’ve grown accustomed to being confined to the base, I don’t really relish going out. I don’t dread going out, but I certainly don’t look forward to it the way I used to. The heat may have something to do with it, but I think the change in my preference is mostly due to inertia – people are more comfortable doing what they’ve been doing. The ANA remind me of this fact every day, as any change in their behavior moves at a glacier-like pace at best, despite our efforts. It takes a conscious act of will to break a habit, whether it be doing something or not doing something. I’ve never been much of a creature of habit, as I seem to have a high tolerance and even need for change and uncertainty, but even so, breaking out of my comfort zone can meet with some resistance within myself at times.

At any rate, I did go out for a couple days recently. Basically, we drove up and down a road and ‘conducted foreign policy’ by talking with different townspeople in villages we don’t normally frequent. Meeting with local people in a non-formal setting, i.e. not involving sitting down with chai etc, is an enjoyable aspect of the job. I dislike meetings in formal settings for the simple fact that they tend to go the same way most of the time, with us being asked for different economic development projects or items and our asking information in return. Suffice to say we give more significantly more than we get in those settings – a fact which accounts for my antipathy to the process.

The non-formal encounters on the street can involve much the same thing only on a smaller scale: instead of being asked for 500 bags of cement we might instead be asked for a pen, but we can usually shrug off such requests and just shoot the breeze for awhile before the novelty wears off for all parties. My policy is to give something only when not asked; no use encouraging a beggar’s culture – though this is unfortunately exactly what’s going on here on the macro scale. The results of these operations are hard to measure, but if nothing else they do give us the opportunity to "showcase the ANA".

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Getting shot at

“To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive.” – Carl von Clausewitz

There were a number of reasons why I decided to come back into the Marines and do this job, but one of the biggest ones was that I wanted to experience combat, and by combat I mean someone shooting rounds in my direction. I’d spent plenty of time outside the wire in Iraq, but I never had anyone shoot at me or my unit, though I'm confident that any veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan will tell you that the insidious IED threat is much more discomforting than the threat of small arms fire from a ridgeline across the way (though the days of Afghanistan being strictly a 'shooting war' with minimal IEDs are certainly gone for good). Walking around knowing you're being watched by men with machine guns that want you dead can be disconcerting, but I'll take it any time over driving around waiting to get blown up.

At any rate, my time in the Marine Corps simply did not feel complete without combat that I could participate in actively. I suppose the Marines must do a very good job of 'conditioning' us, as I came into the Marine Corps for the adventure, travel, and leadership experience - experiencing combat had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision to become a Marine, though at the time there were no wars going on.

Before coming over here, I’d heard plenty about what the ETTs were doing, and so I had a pretty good idea when I volunteered for this job that, depending on exactly where they sent us, I was likely to get as much or more combat that I could ever want. Since experiencing combat was a stated goal for me from the outset, I can comfort myself that I’ve achieved that one goal, though through all the TICs (troops in contact) I’ve been involved in, I’ve seen the enemy exactly one time and I’m not even 100% about that one.

I think I was lucky that in that I was eased into combat. My first TIC took place while I was on my first base a mere hour after I first arrived. Being shot at while you’re on a base and behind barriers or a big gun of your own is not that big of a deal, though it took awhile to get used to the sounds of rounds flying over my head. Rounds were regularly flying around the area while I was at my first base and those TICs were really pretty fun.

We got shot at while on patrol during my second day. Luckily, we were near an Army observation post (OP) when it happened, so we all ran behind the OP and returned fire. Or most of us returned fire, I just observed since we had plenty of other shooters and the incoming rounds weren’t very voluminous or threatening to us in our covered position. That TIC ended with a bomb being dropped on the house where the rounds were coming from. I can remember at one point poking my head over the barriers to look around and then hearing a round ping off the humvee right next to me. At that point, I incredulously thought to myself, “Really?! Are you serious? You guys are really going to shoot at us like that?!” I guess I was kind of offended in a way. However, we were in such a secure position behind the OP, and I had no real responsibility for anyone other than myself since we were still in the process of trading out with the previous ETTs, that the TIC was really pretty basic with minimal chaos for me personally.

The next big one came when we were hiking up a hill into the higher part of a town. When the insurgents starting shooting from the ridgeline next to us (they initiate most all engagements) I ran for the nearest cover and ended up stuck behind a bombed out house with ANA firing over my head from behind me and insurgents firing over my head from the other side. My trusty terp was right there next to me; we actually sat there shaking our heads and laughing nervously for a few moments before I got myself together and made a few contributions of my own to the noise.

I guess the seriousness of it doesn't completely set in till you nearly get whacked. Suffice to say, crouching behind a small tree and a pile of rocks as they get riddled with bullets is an experience I won't soon forget. We usually know roughly from where the attack will come from (the insurgents are every bit as predictable as we are) before it hits us, so we can respond quickly with direct and indirect fires (dismounted patrols kill and injure the enemy most often with fire support in the form of mortars, artillery, and helo support), and the ANA are very dedicated to immediately pouring maximum fire outward to suppress the enemy, so we're more than able to respond effectively to what the enemy throws at is, though they nearly always get the first round off.