Saturday, December 29, 2007

Meeting, Greeting, Learning, Seeing

Getting settled in a new area means more than finding a place to stay on the FOB, knowing where all the infrastructure is, and getting a temperature check on the fobbit factor. I am pleased to report that the new landlord is very professional and has a low fobbit factor. Even the meetings here are very simple and direct and quickly over with.

In short, I'm impressed.

We are also getting to know the local ANP, their leadership, where they are, where their trouble spots are, readings on corruption levels, and the efficacy level of their systems. The team that is RIP'ing out have been great, of course. These guys have emplaced a framework that we will work to expand. Everything is incremental.

Our first couple of trips out to see the local ANP commanders and their facilities have been normal. It takes a little while to establish the relationships. Afghans are always very friendly, but to truly get to know them takes time. And, in my experience, there are some that I have already shaken hands with who are not completely about serving their country. That is an unfortunate fact. As we get to know them better, and as we have more involvement in helping them to get their systems working, those men will become more evident.

The first trip was incredibly short, just time for a handshake and a look around the district center that is being built.

The second trip, in the opposite direction, took us quite a bit further and we spent a lot more time. We were doing an assessment on some of their facilities. The new bunch that we're working with are a lot more participatory in these types of things, actually employing their own resources to accomplish these things.

That's going to take some getting used to. It's good... it's just a very different way of operating.

CPT Mac and I were introduced to the district leadership and after a short exchange we were invited for chai. Chai is very important. Its importance is greater than you would expect from a simple act of sitting down to sip a hot beverage. It is a social experience that means a lot more.

For one thing, it allows the Afghans to be hosts to us, their guests. Hospitality is one of the 8 tenets of the Pashtunwali (I hope that I spelled that right.) While not all Afghans are Pashtuns (40% are,) I have found that overwhelmingly, this is reflected in Afghan culture.

Which is why the Taliban have served me chai. If it is on a day when they are not choosing to fight you, if you show up in their village, you will be invited for chai. If you accept, you generally have nothing to fear.

These gentlemen were doing their Afghan best to get to know us, and to set the stage for an honorable relationship. To an Afghan, to be inhospitable is shameful. They were making sure that we got off to a good start, and they did well. We had some very pleasant conversation and got to know a little about each other and what the general condition of their district is.

We also met a local schoolteacher who apologized for his very good English skills. We discussed the future of the children that he teaches. We agreed that there is a lot of work to do in Afghanistan, and that these children will take Afghanistan to a whole new level.

Too soon, it seemed, the others were ready to go. When we do things around here, if there are multiple functional areas to be serviced, they all get serviced in the same mission. We had to assess another project that is intended to help another small village with some flood control issues that they have.

The Lieutenant in charge of overseeing the development projects for that village explained to me that they had to make sure that all the village elders were present and that there was a true consensus before we would fund a project, so that one or two could not work against the greater good of the village as a whole.

Not all the elders showed up for the Shura, so we had chai and discussed the state of the current project before taking our leave. We looked at the flood device they are building with material that we have purchased for them. This is their project; they are the ones that asked for this, and they are doing the work.

The conop back to the FOB was uneventful.

The process of getting to know these ANP leaders and their soldiers will take a little time. My last bunch took a little time, but we wound up being great friends. It says a lot when one of them shakes your hand and then just hangs on to it as he walks with you, explaining what he sees going on in his area of responsibility. It's a little uncomfortable to an American to have a grown man hold his hand, but it is a sign of deep friendship here.

I'll know that our ANP truly feel that we are working to help them and that we understand them well when they begin to do that.
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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas In The Land Of Sandcastles

Christmas wasn't, and it was.

The past weeks have been all about a slow journey to a new assignment. I've run into a number of people who I've already met and gotten to know a few new people during the journey of less than two hundred miles. It has taken that long to go such a short distance.

On Christmas Day, the journey finally ended. CPT Mac and I arrived at our new duty station. We both came from other provinces to replace the provincial team here. The two of us will replace the three who are leaving in a couple of days.

Christmas morning hadn't dawned yet as I loaded all of my gear into a humvee trailer for the conop* to the new FOB. I scarfed down a quick breakfast and before gathering the very last of my gear, I called home.

As the Afghan dawn began to break over me, my family was having our traditional Christmas Eve gathering at my sister's house. All the siblings and our kids always get together at her house on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning we are occupied with our respective broods; but Christmas Eve is for the whole family.

I spoke for a few minutes with each of my siblings and all of my kids. For a few minutes, I was there with them, and I could feel the feeling of comfort and serenity that comes from being with my children on Christmas Eve enjoying the family. For those few minutes, it was Christmas.

Then I crammed my sleeping bag into its stuff sack and that in turn into my remaining duffel bag and schlepped it out to the waiting humvee. I dropped the mount into the pintle, the machine gun into the mount, and slipped the ammo can into the rack on the side of the mount.

We got radio checks with each other and lined up for our movement. The SECFOR were all set, and before the sun was fully up, four humvees left the ECP* and headed down the road.

Behind the gun, turret faced to the side as we were in the middle of the convoy, the morning wind was cold. People were already in the street, and I did as I always do, waving to show them that I was aware of them, show respect, and get a temperature check. Most were friendly. I continued this all the way to the new place. The further away from the main road up the long valley, the more less-than-friendly people we encountered.

Although most people would return a wave, some would ignore the wave and just stare with a curious look. A few would look unhappy. A very few would not be able to contain their negativity and would actually shake their heads no. One indicated his holiday greetings with a single finger.

That's unusual. "Merry Christmas, chucklehead," I thought towards him as I looked further up the road.

At least he wasn't armed. You can flip me off all day; just don't shoot at me. That's when I get irritable. Especially not on Christmas.

We had no such problems.

We arrived without incident at our new neighborhood, run by elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Seems like a nice enough place, surrounded by mountains; beautiful in that stark, Afghan way. Two mountains in the distance, about 25 kilometers away, bear snowy caps. The rest are the striated browns, tans, and granite grays of the Afghan mountain country.
It was still a workday, and we dropped our gear next to empty cots in a floored tent. This tent will be our shelter for a few days until the team that we are RIPing* leaves. It has a wooden floor and stalls for privacy, and it has heat.

It also has a cricket that thinks my Timex travel alarm is the sexiest thing it has ever heard.

The rest of the afternoon was spent learning a little bit about our new AO* and the general lay of the land within the FOB. We were briefed on the following day's mission, and I tried to make this post. The internet situation here is miserable; absolutely, completely, beyond believably miserable. The system here wouldn't even load Google's login page.

I had a picture to share of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree here on the FOB. It is hopeful in a pathetic sort of way. The system will not allow me to load it. The only reason I don't shoot this computer right this second is that I left my 9mm in the tent and the guy next to me won't let me borrow his weapon. I think he knows what I have in mind. It took me so long to get on to Blogger that I'm terrified to turn my head, much less go retrieve my pistol.

The computer lives another day.

Everywhere you go, there are things that work well and things that don't. I really have very few requirements to be truly content. I would like to have my own place to stay. Most people of my rank in this country have a room that they can call their own; usually plywood walled-off cubicles in a plywood shack called a B-hut. I would like the same thing.

I like to have decent sanitary facilities. Nasty showers that smell vaguely of cabbage boiled until slightly burnt are not a plus.

Internet that works. My primary means of communication is the net. I have not mailed a letter since I've been in this country, but I've written tons. Of course, there is the Adventure to keep up with as well.

There are a few other nice-to-haves, of course; good food is a plus, for instance. But the big three above are key to the misery scale; unless, of course, I'm doing something absolutely fascinating.

The month that I spent with my ANP in the valley, sleeping on cots next to my humvee and roaming the valley in search of trouble was the best single month of the entire deployment to this point. I loved what I was doing. I look back on it with nostalgia. It also had not a single one of my big three. Not one.

It did have a high fascination factor, though.

Everyone here loves the FOB. It is very nice. The sanitary facilities are acceptable. Most people place good food higher on the scale than internet access, though. The food here is good. "Christmas dinner" was very good.

To me, it wasn't Christmas dinner. I had Christmas dinner at the crack of dawn on a cell phone in Jalalabad. My butt was in Jalalabad, but my heart was having Christmas 7100 miles away.

conop = convoy operation
ECP = Entry Control Point (the heavily protected gate to the FOB)
RIP = Relief In Place
AO = Area of Operations
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Monday, December 24, 2007

By Request

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "COIN Operator":

Blue, I have couple of questions, if you don't mind giving a government lesson. What is the set up of their local government? Who do your ANP officers report to? And how does all of this work with a culture that is traditionally tribal? Thanks for writting such great posts, stay safe and keep up the good work.


My reply:

That's a great question, and one that I can't believe that I haven't addressed before; so here goes...

At the village level, the tribal system is alive and well. The villages are ruled by the elders. The village has a Shura, or council, that consists of the elders. The Shura meets on a regular basis to make decisions on village issues and at times to dispense justice concerning minor (and sometimes major) matters. The village also has a Malek, or mayor.

Each district also has a Shura. The district will also have a sub-governor. The Provincial Governor appoints the Sub-governor. The President, Hamid Karzai, appoints the Provincial Governors directly. This is sometimes a bone of contention among the locals who know about our system of representative government, as the top officials at the district and provincial level are appointed and not elected.

The Police are a separate entity. They are the Afghan National Police, and do not derive their authority from local government like our state and local police do at home. They are more like the German Polizei, true national police.

The ANP belong to the Ministry of Interior (MoI.) The Minister of the Interior is the top official. The ANP do not report to, nor do they rely upon the pleasure of the various governors. This was done to limit the ability of the governors and sub-governors to suborn the Police.

They still try, though. There are repeated attempts by governors and sub-governors to order the Police to do or not do various things. I have had experiences with several sub-governors who are just as crooked as the day is long. They attempt to co-opt the Police into supporting their shenanigans or coerce them into leaving their cronies alone.

The District Police Chiefs are usually Lieutenant Colonels, occasionally Majors or full Colonels. The Provincial Chief is a General, but this position is often filled with a full Colonel.

I hope that this gives an idea of the structure of local government in Afghanistan. There are many permutations of how these relationships manifest themselves, of course.

I have not, personally, seen any of the above positions held by a woman, although I believe that there is at least one female governor. I'll see if I can find out. It is certainly not the case in the provinces in which I've worked.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

COIN Operator

I was whelped as an Infantryman during the Cold War. For the past nearly 26 years, I have trained as a combat arms soldier, all but a short few of them as an NCO. Over half of my career has been spent as a senior NCO. I have always been a conventional warrior. The Cold War, had it gone hot, would have been a conventional struggle of epic proportions.

Thankfully, that did not happen.

The war that did happen even as the Cold War died a whimpering, twitching death was a conventional struggle of briefly epic proportions. It was an armored clash that rivaled the largest tank battles in history.

Ever since Desert Storm, everything that we have done has been unconventional. The struggle that we find ourselves engaged in is an insurgency. I find myself involved in a counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. My brothers find themselves in a multi-faceted counterinsurgency fight in Iraq. Whether you choose to believe it or not, we are involved in a global Fundamentalist Islamic counterinsurgency. Some call it Islamofascism.

Warriors expect to fight. We expect to close with, engage, and destroy the enemy. We have an image of what a warrior is, and what we're supposed to do.

Counterinsurgency, or COIN, is different. The most effective parts of the COIN fight do not involve tracking down armed insurgents and killing them. The Police mission especially, which is not the mission that I volunteered for, is a different fight altogether. Just to be clear, pretty much none of us volunteered to be ANP mentors. We were pulled away from our chosen courses and set upon a new one. Being obedient soldiers, we took up our new mission and moved out.

To establish the confusion even more deeply, the ANP look a lot like a light infantry unit... they carry AK-47's, PKM belt-fed machine guns, and RPG's. The coalition forces have a tendency to use them like light infantry to augment their own forces.

I suppose that's some kind of progress. Two years ago, the ANP were getting shot up on a regular basis by coalition forces.

The thing about being a warrior is that we have this image of warfighting, an image that was established and reinforced over many years of training. But what we are doing as mentors here is warfighting on a whole 'nother level. Our job, especially with the Police, is not as much killing the enemy as making him irrelevant.

We do that by separating him from the populace. Most people here (most people anywhere) don't care who is in charge. They just want to be left alone. They want to be left in peace to raise their families. On each end of the spectrum there exist people who actively support one cause or the other, but the vast majority really just want to be left alone. They are swayed by a number of things to lean one way or another.

Some of these things are universal. Whoever provides the most secure environment for them to raise their family will earn points. Whoever provides basic infrastructure to ease their lives. Whoever provides a framework for basic services, such as water, electricity, roads, and education. Whoever provides a framework for advanced services, such as health care. The side that accomplishes these things will hold more sway.

Some of these things are discrete to the culture that exists. In Afghanistan, as in any Islamic culture, the religious ramifications hold sway as well. Religion is woven into the fabric of daily lives here. The side which holds the moral high ground gains a lot of legitimacy, even at the expense of the provision of services.

We in the United States live with the benefits of an irrelevant enemy. There are those who would happily change our government. There are those who, for either political or criminal reasons, attempt to subvert our government in large and small ways. Going by the definition that is in play in Afghanistan; that being that drug lords are insurgents, we can apply this to our culture. Drug lords are insurgents. They operate an enterprise as if it were a business, as if our government does not exist, except as a danger to their business.

They seek to subvert our governmental agencies by recruiting insurgents within the governmental framework; for instance, paying police to look the other way. They employ their own militias; hence, drive-by shootings and turf wars. They do, in places, operate as a shadow government. They hold sway in tiny areas that police cannot fully control.

But they are, for the most part, irrelevant. They do not have any place close to the capability to sway large portions of the population, nor of gaining popular support on anywhere near the scale that would be required to force political instability or the disruption of services by the legitimate government.

The same goes for the various elements that would forcibly change our society in the political arena. The white supremacists of the Idaho outback are, for most of us, irrelevant. They may irritate us, and we may abhor them, but neo-Nazis are not a threat to the everyday peace and security of my children. Neo-Nazis are irrelevant.

The armed persons on our streets are in our own employ. We the People, through our trusted agents whom we elect, hire, train, field, and discipline Police officers who enforce the irrelevance of criminals and political nutcases. This is not to say that these people cannot affect individuals, but they cannot, as a rule, affect everyone.

Our real job here in Afghanistan is to cause the anti-government militias to become irrelevant. If the Taliban cannot sway the people, and if they cannot walk around openly to intimidate the people and attempt to exert their shadow government over the population, then they become irrelevant. If they sit in their compounds outside the bounds of everyday society, if they make their proclamations and rant about this and that but cannot inflict themselves upon their neighbors, they have become irrelevant.

There are myriad problems that face the establishment of law and order and the general development of the Afghan National Police. We are working on these issues with various degrees of success. We, imperfect people faced with massive deficiencies to correct, make progress sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. We sometimes come up with failed plans and policies. We make mistakes.

But our primary job is to influence, massage, mentor, and improve. For a warrior who has trained for over two and a half decades that the preferred method for making your enemy irrelevant is to render him inert, it is a mental leap of Olympic proportions to shift to causing irrelevance via mentorship.

The secondary method for the COIN operator is to cause irrelevance through the forceful application of the dirt nap; inertia being provided by the added weight of six feet of earth.

As COIN operators, if we are actively hunting Taliban, then we are probably not doing what is most effective. If our ANP are being mentored, and are doing their jobs, they are keeping the villages secure. Secure villages will be unwelcoming places for the Taliban, who will bypass them. In that village, the Taliban are irrelevant. They have ceased to be an influence except for those who support them actively.

This does have a tendency to produce the expulsive urinary reflex in the newly irrelevant political excludee. It pisses him off. So the first sign that you are doing the right thing is often that you are shot at more vigorously.

If you are not pissing off your enemy, you are irrelevant to him; and therefore he only shoots at you for sport, if at all. This is probably the biggest reason that many of the Mujahid are sitting this one out; we are not doing things that are objectionable to him. He has no stake in our loss.

When our enemies are experiencing the expulsive urinary reflex, that's when all of those warrior instincts and training will come into play.

The hardest part of being a COIN operator is getting past that mindset that tells us that if we are not busily slaying our enemies, we aren't doing our jobs. But the most cursory examination of successful insurgencies reveals that the counterinsurgents were too busy trying to kinetically silence the insurgent to accomplish the task of rendering him irrelevant.

First, we have to define what our real goal is with the group that we are mentoring. With the ANA, we are working on building a culture of warfighters. With the ANP, we are trying to build a culture of ethical law enforcement. We must ask ourselves, when planning missions with the ANP, "Is this an ANP mission? Does this accomplish the tasks of local security, local rule of law, or local government legitimacy?"

If the answer is no, then we need to examine what we are doing. It's probably not the right thing.

The ANP are the key, at the local level and at each local level, to winning the COIN fight and therefore the war in Afghanistan. When the guy with the gun walking around in each village is an ANP, and life with armed ANP walking around the neighborhood is better than life with armed Taliban roaming the streets, then we will have won.

The Taliban will be irrelevant.
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Saturday, December 22, 2007


The night before last I had an opportunity to participate in a uniquely American ritual. I went to a USO show and saw the modern equivalent of Bob Hope, whom my parents revered for his USO contributions; Robin Williams.

He's my freakin hero, for a number of reasons. But one reason is because he came here to do a performance in a snow storm and entertain a bunch of American service men and women.

The show included Miss America, Lance Armstrong, Lewis Black, Robin Williams and Kid Rock. The whole reason why we made the several hour journey up through the magnificent mountain passes to from J-bad to Kabul was because the young'uns wanted to see Kid Rock. They needed adult supervision, so I went.

I wanted to see Robin Williams.

We took a Navy Commander to Blackhorse, dropped mail off at the Kabul Military Training Center, and proceeded to Camp Phoenix. The weather was miserable; cold and sleeting. It would improve, though. The sleet would soon turn to snow. We settled into temporary shelter in a b-hut, got some lunch, and set about a number of small tasks that we had to accomplish before the evening. Those tasks were the putative reason for our trip to Kabul.

Kid Rock was the spur in the hearts of the young'uns.

The Big Voice came alive about an hour before the scheduled show time of 2000 (8 pm) and announced that the show was postponed till 2030. Oh, well... I was due to be in Afghanistan for the rest of the day, anyway. No problem.

At 2020 a pretty sizable crowd had gathered outside the large Camp Phoenix chow hall in front of the stage made of two truck trailers. An Air Force DJ/Comedian was attempting to entertain the assembled throng with partial success. There were more delays. The weather.

I had opted for my hot weather boots. Hmmm. Not a very bright decision for an old grunt. I wondered when the stinging would set in.

Finally, the entourage arrived. A clot of uniformed and un-uniformed people gathered near the makeshift stage entrance. Roadies began to zip onto the stage to preposition microphone stands and instruments. Every time someone came onto the stage, the crowd erupted in appreciative applause. It became a crowd joke; each individual who entered that big box was roundly applauded.

Finally, a pair of women came out and began pelting the crowd with what I assume were giveaway items. None came our way. Someone said that one of them was the Admiral's wife.

"What Admiral?"

One would figure that unlike the confused naval personnel found scattered around this country, an Admiral would have a great enough affinity for water that he would have realized that Afghanistan is landlocked and as much in need of an Admiral as the Sahara is in need of penguins.

Not so. This Admiral is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Whoa. He gave a short speech, praising us and our international compadres for our efforts and leading into the show. I filmed it. I don't know why. It used up the batteries in my camera. Another brilliant move from the old Sergeant. Swift.

"His wife throws like a girl," observed someone nearby in the crowd.

Miss America was exactly what Miss America should be; waaaay too pretty for Afghanistan.

Lance Armstrong explained how he had forgone a trip to Hawaii to come and see us. I know exactly how he feels. I gave up Hawaii for this, too. It was a bonding moment.

Lewis Black was very funny. His urbane, sophisticated humor was nearly too gentle for the damp crowd arrayed before him. Just kidding; the guy drops the f-bomb like a fleet of B-52's, and the crowd roared.

Finally, Robin Williams! I struggled with my camera, not knowing if any of the pictures were taking because every time I took one the camera shut down. Someone was taping the show for the folks at home, and those of us trying to view the show from the 8 o'clock position were treated to a non-stop show of his backside as he aimed his plastic bag-covered camera at whoever the entertainer of the moment was.

I reached for my right thigh and thought the better of it.

I've never been a huge fan of Kid Rock. Nothing against him... I even like some of his music. I just never really connected with him. We never shared a lost Hawaii bonding moment. But he's a great entertainer. He didn't have a band... just a guitar and his voice. He had the whole crowd singing and laughing. Great job.

As each entertainer came off stage, there were a few who would find their way over for pictures and to try to get a personal photo with them. Each performer seemed very gracious about the whole thing.

In the end, I felt as if I had been treated to exactly what I had wanted. I saw a USO show, Afghan style. Our experience in Afghanistan is uniquely ours. Afghanistan is not the same this year as it was last year, or will be next year. This is not WWII, it's not Viet Nam, it's not any other war. This one is our war, and we've had our USO show complete with the new standard-bearer for the USO. Thanks to everyone who gave of their time to come and do that for us, but thanks a lot to Robin Williams.

Oh, and vote Jack Nicholson for President. Walk softly and carry a big iron.

The next morning I was in the MWR room when someone came in and was obviously new in town, asking about what it took to get on the internet. I glanced at the ruckus, but I was pretty focused on what I was doing at the moment. As I stood to leave, I glanced at the civilian a few feet away.

"Hmmm... that guy looks familiar," I thought.

He turned and glanced at me. Oh, yeah; Lance Armstrong.

"Hey, thanks for coming," I said.

"No. Thank you for coming," he replied. I saw a chipmunk moment coming on and dodged it.

He was a very nice guy. We talked for a couple of moments, and I took my leave. Just a regular guy in a strange country trying to check his email.
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Jalalabad. The last time that I was here, I was fairly new in-country. Jalalabad, or J-bad as it’s called for short, is a very different city from Kabul. It’s much lower in elevation, and the weather’s completely different. It’s a stone’s throw from Pakistan, just over the famous Khyber Pass. Rudyard Kipling wrote a great deal about Afghanistan, mentioning many of the battles that happened in this area.

Jalalabad was the destination of 16,500 souls who left Kabul in a British column in January of 1842. Only one, Dr. Brydon, actually arrived.

Jalalabad was not subjected to nearly the level of fighting that Kabul was. There is nowhere near the destruction in J-bad. Not being the capitol, which warring factions desire to possess, was a boon for Jalalabad. This appears to be a thriving city, full of life and bustle.

This is not my final stop on my road to a new assignment. It’s a temporary stop on my way to somewhere a few hours away. My new team isn’t here yet, but in about a week I should be on my way. I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the present company.

Several individuals are here whom I met during the operations in The Valley up north. Chief Mark Boole, SGM Storey Teller, SGT Teaworthy, and SPC Bisquit came down here shortly after the operations up north entered a more sustainable pace. They are all good guys, and there were a few hugs exchanged when we saw each other again. Their terp, Rif Raf, is a great terp with a good sense of humor. We all shared experiences in operations in The Valley.

I had met LTC Rejo (“Rehoe”) at the leadership conference in November, where he spoke about treating the local nationals with respect by greeting them with local gestures of respect. He had impressed me then as a man who really “got it.” Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned to respect him even more.

He’s going to be my boss a level up for the next few months, and I’m really enjoying my time here because of his knowledge (third tour in Afghanistan) and his deep understanding of the Afghan culture, traditions, and his knowledge of applied counterinsurgency.

Chief Boole and SGM Teller had told me that he was a good guy, but I didn’t really put the face to the name until the end of the day that they all showed up at Dubs to pick me up. When I finally saw him, it all registered. “Oh, yeah… the guy who spoke of the value of being respectful.”

At the leadership conference, LTC Rejo had spoken for a few minutes of how he deals with people when he rides in the turret of the humvee; which is all the time. He waves, shouts greetings to people in Pashtu and occasionally Dari, and bows his head with his hand over his heart, a traditional sign of respectful greeting.

When we treat the man on the street with disrespect, he will go about his business; and when he talks to his family at home or his friends at the bazaar, he will relate the story of how the Americans were ugly to him. This is a society with a deep oral history. Word of mouth carries a lot of weight here.

Look at the literacy rate.

Now, LTC Rejo realizes that being open, friendly, and respectful to the local population does the same thing. LTC Rejo rides high in the turret, where he can have that contact with people. He is also safer that way. The reason is that people here actually enjoy seeing him. They feel as if they know him, at least a little. He is a real human being who shows enough respect to address them cheerfully in their own language, using words that mean, “Hello, how are you? Are you healthy, is everyone okay?”

“A salaam aleikum!” (Peace be with you.)

There is simple tenet of counterinsurgency that states, “The more secure you make yourself, the less secure you are.” This is a good example of how that is true. While others hunker in their turrets, protected by the armor, they are not real to the people. They are space aliens who may be killed indiscriminately without feeling.

LTC Rejo, riding high in the turret, making contact with the people, is safer simply because he is a man. He is a man who is treating the man on the street as a man. These men who he waves at every day come to feel that he is a friend. He has stopped and spoken with many of them.

Many of them have his back.

If someone were to attempt to set LTC Rejo up for an ambush or an IED, someone along that route would do something to thwart it, either by messing up the plan or by tipping the Colonel off. He is safer by being less protected.

In a counterinsurgency, popular opinion is a critical factor. It is a pendulum which is hinged at several points. When that pendulum swings greatly in one direction and becomes lodged there, the fight is over. Popular opinion is won one opinion at a time.

When LTC Rejo speaks, I listen. There is a lot that I can learn from this man. I am very comfortable, having a sense that I am learning from someone who really knows what he is doing.

This is the type of man who should be teaching counterinsurgency. This man belongs, when his time here is done, at Ft Riley. This is the type of man who should be training the people who come here. This officer would not waste people’s time. He would save lives, time, and money.

The students wouldn’t believe him at first, though. It’s counterintuitive; but it’s true.

Of course, there is a lot more to counterinsurgency than riding high in the turret and greeting the local population with words of respect and greeting in their native tongue. The Colonel is well versed in all of that. Influencing and mentoring are not exact sciences, they are inexact arts.

A really good job done in mentoring doesn’t have the symmetrical perfection of a garden spider’s web. It looks more like the web spun by the spider dosed with caffeine or even LSD. But it does form a web which provides a framework for a society launching from the dark ages into the 21st century as if catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier. That web can be improved by the next group. This is not an overnight work.

It is the work of a generation.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

One Third And A Wakeup

It's been eight months since the plane touched down at Bagram. That C-17 ride was the most physically uncomfortable plane ride that I've ever had. The C-17 has palletized seats that roll into the aircraft and lock into the floor. They look like airline seats.

They are not.

What they are is fiendishly clever torture devices specifically designed to cause pain, numbness, and stiffness. I am convinced that this is so that there is no encouragement needed to get those on board the plane when it lands to absent themselves as quickly as possible. It also has the secondary effect of making your first steps in Afghanistan seem pleasant by comparison.

I remember how strange it all was in the beginning. I remember being amazed at the international village that was Bagram at first sight. I remember wondering if I was going to get lost trying to find my way back from the chow hall to the flight line where we awaited transportation to Camp Phoenix.

That seems like it was forever ago.

I remember the first ride through Kabul and the sensory overload of the turbulent river of humanity, animals, and machines that swirls around you as you pass through it like an alligator. Those first few times it was like an alligator on acid... senses overhelmed, overcautious, perceived dangers everywhere.

There were the speeches from unseasoned officers who spoke as if they actually knew what they were talking about. They warned of the same dangers, spoke of ineffective TTP's,* and prognosticated about what danger would actually look like as if they had seen it themselves.

They were just trying to do their jobs. Each of us, internally, was doing the same thing to ourselves. We saw the SECFOR guys from the Kabul FOB's driving in a super-aggressive manner, and we assumed they were professionals. We assumed that they knew what they were doing. We imitated them. This is how you stay alive.

No, this is how you piss off the local nationals. Those SECFOR guys, gate fobbits on wheels, had no idea what they were doing. They threw water bottles at local national drivers as if they were passing out candy. They pointed machine guns at the least provocation.

They didn't drive like they knew what they were doing, I now realize. They drove like they were scared. To us, at the time, they were veterans. Now, in retrospect, I realize that they were just tower guards on a day outing.

Not that there's anything wrong with tower guards. Thank God for them. Thank God I'm not one of them. The point is; they don't really spend a lot of time outside the wire, and when they do they have a distorted view of the danger level involved.

Since then I've learned that you have to be relatively aggressive, or the local nationals will cut you off. In Kabul, that is. You've just got to get out there and let them know that you know that you have the right of way. There is no reason to ram, rarely a reason to scream or throw water bottles and almost never a reason to point weapons at them.

None of those guys had any overt desire to actually shoot someone. They did, however, have a strong desire to remain unharmed. Their leaders should have helped them to calm down. That was a failure in leadership. I didn't see that then. I didn't know what I was looking at.

The person most likely to shoot a local national unnecessarily is a fobbit. Armed fobbit=danger to the locals.

The fobbits are all armed. Yea.

Horns are okay, though. Afghan drivers need to focus forward in the chaos and rarely use the multitude of mirrors attached to their vehicles. Mirrors are for jingle, not for situational awareness, it seems. Horns assist local nationals with their situational awareness.

Humvees need better horns. They sound like old Volkswagens with anemia. Something along the lines of a foghorn would be nice.

Now, it all looks so clear. I laugh at myself in retrospect.

It takes a while to get to know what normal looks like. Your greatest safety lies in knowing what normal looks like so that you know what abnormal looks like. When someone, or a group of people, is behaving abnormally, that's when it's time to poise for an attack. The guys say that their "spidey senses are tingling."

Most times, nothing is wrong. But that's when you become hyper-aware. The rest of the time, you literally cannot afford to remain hyper-aware. I think that's how people wind up with PTSD.

I did realize when I was home that not being hyper-aware for me these days is hyper-aware for people at home. I'm sure that'll wear off with extended periods of time in a relaxed environment. At home, though, it was annoying. I was constantly scanning around me, and I realized that I ignored women and children until I had checked all the men for signs of hostile intent or aberrant behavior. Then I checked everything else. Eye contact drew my attention immediately and I had to remind myself that everyone was assumed friendly in Ohio.

The thing is, that's not what I consider hyper-aware here. I just consider that being aware of your surroundings.

I still make a habit of waving a lot; instant temperature check on mood and sometimes it causes dead giveaways.

Driving out in the provinces is a totally different protocol. Most places, they are used to the drill. They also aren't nearly as resentful as the Kabul drivers, who have had quite enough of fobbit drivers on their hyper-aggressive day outings.

There are many other things that I've learned since I've been here. I've learned that Kabul is no more a microcosm of Afghanistan than New York City is a microcosm of America. It is its own entity, whole and nearly complete in and of itself. It is magnet and repellent, it is capitol and symbol, it is heaven and hell all at once in its compressed humanity. Millions of souls, each seeking their own way, all forming in their aggregate a living organism that is truly enormous and completely out of any one's control. It is a parabolic mirror of Afghan society, focusing the energy and ethnic variety of Afghanistan on a very small piece of terrain.

Let's see... I've learned that our training at Ft Riley was wholly inadequate. We didn't train realistically, and we either didn't train at all or trained very little for the types of missions that we do most.

I've learned that we overcome that deficiency readily.

I've learned that the biggest factor in play here is adaptability. You just have to do the best that you can with what you have and then be a drama queen when requesting anything, because the squeaky wheel gets whatever lubricant is available.

The most dramatic drama queen doesn't get anything, so it's got to be skillfully played. No Gone With The Wind scenes. A little subtlety goes further.

I've learned that the geographically closer squeaky wheel gets the available lubricant more quickly, with no regard as to wait times or level of need. Unless they do a Betty Grable, in which case they still get nothing. The Clark Gable reflex kicks in.

The American experience in Afghanistan varies widely. Some areas get no activity, some areas get excessive activity. The fobbits of Bagram may never leave the confines of that most august enclave for their entire tour. The fobbits of Phoenix may only boast two conops in their entire tour.

Fobbits abound.

The young men out in Kunar get shot at nearly every day.

The young men and women at Bagram and Phoenix get shot at never. Ever.

Fobbits are necessary, and generally they are quite acceptable creatures unless they become Black Ops Store junkies or FobaThors, or Fobasaurus Rex's. FobaThors are fobbits with dramatic tales consisting of "This one time, at FOB camp..." stories of heroic imaginings, like the time they nearly fought the vicious Chicken of Tagab.

"I am FobaThor, deadliest of all the fobbits! Gaze upon my Black Ops gear and fear me!"

Then, of course, comes the dreaded Fobasaurus Rex. The F. Rex often takes the form of a logistics daemon who somehow forgets the reason that a logistics system exists and begins to terrorize needy supplicants who drove hours to get there, often denying the presence of needed supplies and bellowing at their customers with F. Rex roars that sound a lot like, "You don't understand how the supply system works! First, you gotta submit a..."

"Okay, did I mention that our phones don't work out where we are and the internet is something that we vaguely remember?"

O once nailed an F. Rex right between the eyes. It roared at him, "You don't understand how the supply system works. Lemme 'splain this to you..."

To which O replied, "No, let me explain this: You order the bullets. I shoot them. Get more bullets. I'm taking what you have."

Chalk up one stuffed Fobasaurus Rex head for O. I love that guy.

Another sub-species of F. Rex has a fetish for reflective belts and specializes in smoking enforcement and ensuring that tower guards are completely miserable at all times. I have seen senior officers in this country perform acts of dereliction that in previous conflicts would have resulted in firing squads and they get away with a medal. A young Specialist in a tower in a FOB that hasn't been shot at in ages takes off his helmet and gets an Article 15 and loses rank.

Justice? Denied.

The main visual difference between the F. Rex varieties is a different stripe pattern.

Most supply and logistics people do amazing jobs to get the stuff that we need out to us. Most are nearly overwhelmed with the magnitude of their tasks. Most are hamstrung by the fact that we are the forgotten front. Everyone is preoccupied with Iraq, and we get what's left.

The civilian contractors up at BAF who provided maintenance for our up-armors were the coolest people who have ever been born. If I needed blood for my power steering fluid, they would slice their own jugular to get it. Fabulous. Those guys deserve a medal.

We don't train our line units in counterinsurgency. We train them as maneuver units, and they are damned fine soldiers; the best in the world. However, they often don't play well with others. Treating your host country's forces with disdain is a huge mistake. I saw this mistake blatantly made out in The Valley by junior leaders. It made an impression on the men who I was working with, the Afghans. Everyone can tell when they are being disrespected, even in another language; and it is not a motivator. In fact, it is not a positive in any regard. To my Afghans, the American platoon making this major error did not look like a force that they wanted to emulate; they looked like assholes. Ugly Americans.

Those young Americans, even if they read this, would never put it together. They see nothing wrong with their behavior. They will go home and tell stories about how f'd-up the Afghans were. That's like making yourself look better by racing against a guy with broken legs. They will totally misrepresent the progress being made here and unwittingly perform the same function as PVT Beauchamp, degrading our efforts and calling into question the very reason why we are here.

Fortunately, they didn't see that from all the Americans they dealt with. The other small group of American combat forces out there were very patient and had a sense of humility. They were also a bit more elite. The higher the level of training and self-sufficiency at the small unit level, the more respect they showed for others.

It's a reflection of us as a nation, though. We are an isolationist, myopic country with tremendous arrogance and a complete misunderstanding of the depth of what we are involved in. We are not global citizens, but we are global consumers. The fact is that we do actually look down on the rest of the world. The rest of the world gazes back at us in amazement, wondering what in the hell we are thinking about to feel so self-righteous.

We should point with pride to the buttprints on our national couch. We have given the world 90210 and Baywatch. Oh, and music television and excessive consumerism. Fear us. Respect us.

We developed the sitcom. Don't ever forget that.

We don't have to give away the farm and please everyone, but there's a huge difference between pleasing everyone and treating them with disdain.

We need to look at our training model. We break young trainees of many other bad habits, but we reinforce the arrogance. Something wrong here. Yeah, okay, you jump out of planes and you're a bad-ass... have some humility, kid.

It starts with leadership.

I've seen a huge difference between how we are treated here and how the Russians were treated. Everyone fought against the Russians except the ones who worked for them. In this conflict, most of the people aren't fighting on either side. There are Taliban, and they have their supporters, and there are the ANA, who are enjoying a growing reputation among the populace, and then there are the local governments who vary greatly in effectiveness and ethics. The ANP, being local, often do not enjoy local favor due to corruption and shaking down the populace. We are working on that.

Be that as it may, a lot of mujihideen from the old days are sitting this one out. There are a lot of places where we see the remnants of old Russian vehicles and we never get attacked there. This is significant because the Afghans always use the same ambush points. They go with what has worked for hundreds of years.

On the other hand, the Russian response to being shot at from a village was to raze the village. We have to have an act of Congress for someone to drop a bomb. We pass out candy that doesn't kill and toys that don't explode. I think most of the Afghans can see the difference.

And, we have never gassed them; always a plus in the hearts and minds arena.

What else have I learned in the past eight months? I will have to reserve much of that for later, as I don't want to get into ranting at the nobility at this point. I've learned that I like Afghans... most of them, anyway. I've learned that I can do my job in this war. I've learned respect for the local national forces that I've worked with and I've earned their respect.

I've got one third of my tour left. And a wakeup. I'm sure that there's more that I've learned, but this was a little stream-of-consciousness, and now it's all receded like a wave from the high water mark. It seems like yesterday and ten years ago that I was looking at getting to the 1/3 complete mark with a sense of dismay, wondering if I could really take it for that long. In about three weeks, I will become a "double digit midget" counting down to seeing the people who I know and love after having done my job.

No one can ever take this away from me. The biggest things that I have learned are inside. They are for and about me on the inside. I am tried and tested inside myself, and that's what really counts. I have seen myself in circumstances that I could only have imagined before (and a few that I could never have imagined) and I know what I do when the chips are down. That will be with me always. Many things can be taken from me, but not that.
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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Separation, Reunion, Revolution

When I volunteered to come to Afghanistan, I volunteered as an individual soldier.

When I was at Ft Riley, I was a member of an ad-hoc team. Shortly after we arrived in-country, three of us were split off from that team, but we became our own little family. A couple of months later, we got a new Colonel that pulled me away from that team and swapped me out with a Major.

The two teams were more together than apart during the better part of the time between then and now, except for the month that I spent living in the valley with my Afghan team during the operation. During that time, O, Maniac, Major Stone Cold, and I each were off on our own with a small SECFOR* team and between 80 and 100 ANP. We ran into each other at intervals during that operation, each little reunion a small joy in the midst of the apparent chaos.

We bonded with the guys from South Carolina who were tasked with keeping us secure as we worked with the Afghans. We each had our little team. Surferdude, Cookie Monster, T-Dog, Burt Schtickem, Coopage, and Gonzo were all from that fine group of men. There are others from that group who I haven't written about... yet; Pineapple, Tater, Headspace, Sparky, Crash and Sack, the Hometown Hero.

We got to know these guys and came to care about them just as much. South Carolina, you have a lot to be proud of in these fine men. I trust them with my life, as does O and the Maniac. I'll never forget them. They leave in January, just over a month from now. They are already bowing towards the door.

Be that as it may, we worked together a lot. We shared similar experiences and projects. Recently, the team that O and Maniac are on have been going a different direction, and I've gotten to see very little of them, and my work was becoming less and less exciting.

I had an opportunity to move to another team that was shorthanded, and so I asked to go. This was rumored and rumored, and it finally happened. I arrived today at Camp Dubs, where it all started for me almost eight months ago.

I feel like a totally different man now. I'm not, of course, but that illusion is there.

Once again, I'm on my own. I have no idea what the next several months hold for me. I do know that I'll get to be in a whole different area of the country for awhile, and that I'll get to see a lot of things that I never would have seen up in the old province.

When I arrived back at Camp Dubs, almost all of my original team was here. I got to sit with some of them and have a cup of coffee and chat for a few minutes.

It's good to see them, and they're great guys, but we've had pretty different experiences. It was a small but happy reunion.

When I left my children, I was alone. When I arrived at Ft Riley, I was alone. When I was separated from the only two guys with whom I'd been a team, I was alone. Now I'm going downrange in a different direction, and again; I'm alone. I came to war as just me, and when I get off the plane at the end of all of this, it's going to be just me. My kids and I will have a small but very happy reunion.

If any of that sounds like complaining, it's not. I knew all of that going into this.

When I chose to come to war by myself, I knew that I would meet other men and work closely and not so closely with them. I knew that I would make friends, possibly for life, with men that it would be a challenge to get together with ever again.

Today, Burt Schtickem offered me a place to stay if I ever decide to go to Myrtle Beach.

God love him.

This isn't a complaint. It's just what there is right now, the sensations that I feel. I look at my experience with this deployment, and I see that theme running through it. That's what this has been for me... separation, reunion, and revolution; not necessarily in that order. So far, my experience has been the richer, in a way.

But there is pain, too. I said goodbye to some very fine men today, possibly forever. That hurts, I don't care who you are. We have been through all kinds of experiences together in the past months, and I've gotten to see their character.

To every action or inaction, there is a consequence; good or bad. These sensations are just a natural consequence of the choice that I made to come here. This newest decision has its consequence, too.

Now I have just enough time to really bond with an entirely new group before I RIP* out in April.

One thing that I know is this; I will be fine. We will bond. We will get to know each other, we will get to work together, and we will come to respect each other. Then it will hurt all over again in a few months when it's time to separate from them. It is the way of things, especially war.

In the meantime, there is discomfort. There is that feeling of separation, of missing those guys who I woke up near only this morning. There is the anticipation of the unknown, again. There is the laborious task of getting to know someone new in a stressful environment.

When you deploy as part of a unit, you have the common bond already. Everyone knows each other already. Everyone shares the struggle. The families back home share the struggle with each other. There is the built-in sense of community.

There is also time for ceremony and ritual, things that mark the passages with little gateways.

The ones left at home have organized support.

When you make the choice to come as an individual, you forego all of that willingly, with knowledge. Knowing does not mean unfeeling. These sensations are part of the experience here, and a repeated part of my Afghan experience.


I'm ready for what comes next!

SECFOR = Security Force
RIP = Relief In Place; to be replaced and leave.
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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Afghanistan and Afghans; Random Observations II

Afghanistan is starkly beautiful. The landscape stands in sharp relief against the sky. There is very little gentleness in the land, and the rock itself makes dramatic statements in so many instances that the drama and violence of earthly birth become a theme.

The very seams of the earth are exposed here. In huge rock formations jutting hundreds and thousands of feet skyward, the layers of rock and the sharp prow of the mass that has cut itself free of the earth like a tooth cutting through gum are so clear, so evident. It almost looks too simple. Yet, it is chaos; a mosaic of gigantic proportions. There is just so much geologic violence, the slow-motion reshaping of the earth captured in time-lapse; our whole era is in just one frame of the sequence.

The dust here is not the silica dust of a sandy desert, but finely ground rock. It has the smell of rock. The scent after a dampening rain is that of freshly moistened stone.

Before I came here, I thought of a largely barren land, but much of what I've seen has been cultivated. I realize that this has a lot to do with the area in which I've been working. I've written about the management of water by the farmers, which enables the cultivation in the first place. More of the land is cultivated than I had ever thought. There are many more trees than I had thought there would be.

The earth is not the rich brown earth of Ohio, but a pale tan that appears to be poor, yet the Afghans typically grow and harvest more than once a year. The earth here is made of the rock, and is apparently full of minerals.

I estimate that 80% of the agricultural activity in this country is not mechanized. Many fields are still plowed using oxen. As the winter approached, all of the dried weeds and stems in the fields were gathered in and the fields were plowed. Fields of rye and winter wheat were planted.

I'm not sure if the gathered brush is used to feed the animals or is used to burn for heat.

I saw teams of men in the fields making rows with a simple tool that looked like a short-bladed snow shovel with a loop of rope attached to the ends of the blade. One would shove it into the ground and the other would pull on the loop of rope, pulling the earth into an elevated row.

A mile down the road, another man accomplished a similar feat with an Allis Chalmers tractor.

I've driven through villages, and I've walked through villages. We get a lot of different reactions. The children generally greet us enthusiastically when we drive through a village. They know that sometimes, but not always, they may get a treat.

What impresses me is when they point to the palm of one hand and tap it with their index finger. They are asking for writing supplies. I love that.

Not all of them do that.

Some of the boys will pick up a rock as the convoy approaches. If nothing is dispensed, the stone will be cast at the gunner on the last vehicle. I've discovered that if I point right at the youth with the stone, he will become embarrassed and unable to engage his target.

"You're busted, scooter."

When we walk into a village, it's a different story. The children will generally gather around. Americans are apparently fascinating. Of course, if someone brought a trained monkey into the village, they would have the same reaction. They stare a lot.

When we walk into a village, the women make themselves scarce. We rarely see them, and when we do, they are peering shyly around corners. They are every bit as curious as anyone else, but they abide by the rules of their society as best they can.

When we drive through a village, we invariably surprise women going about their daily lives. We often see them flipping their burqas back over their heads. If they don't wear a burqa, they often pull their scarf over their face. I've seen women hide their faces behind the blade of a shovel as they walked.

Some women stop and turn their backs and stand perfectly still, as if they are pretending that they aren't really there. Sometimes they will assume the Afghan squat and become a blue triangular rock. They have been told that our ballistic-protective eyewear (thank you, WileyX) enables us to see through their clothing.

This is actually quite common. Even some of the ANP are convinced that we can see through clothing. We deny it, but they still believe. Now that's an effective IO campaign. Somebody has got to hire that Taliban guy who comes up with and propagates these stories. We need to have him teach our PsyOps guys.

After that, we could get him a job with RJ Reynolds.

In some places, the kids have gathered around in fascination, but if I walked near them, they ran. This is unusual behavior. I asked Sam the Combat Terp why they were running. After a quick conversation, he informed me that the children had been told that Americans like to eat children.

Cool. Some of these people actually believe that I'm a cannibalistic x-ray vision terminator.

Incredible cosmic power... itty bitty living space.*

Most of the children know that we often have goodies. Some of them have become like the bears of Yellowstone. They are aggressive, and demand baksheesh. Baksheesh is a gift. I will most often not give anyone who demands baksheesh anything.

Items that have been demanded of me include; candy, my pens, my sunglasses, my knife, my Gerber tool, my watch, my pistol, a radio, soccer balls, and my boots. Not all of these demands were made by children. Grown Afghan men have demanded all of these at one time or another.
On more than one occasion, I've had to defend my property. Once it was an Afghan laborer with a brazen attitude and temporary custody of my Wileys. The other occasions involved ANP and ANA.

One ANA officer asked what I used my Gerber tool for. "Everything," I told him. He asked to see it and carefully examined it. To my amazement, he put it into his shirt pocket and thanked me. I was aghast. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"Baksheesh," he stated flatly, patting the pocket that now contained my property.

"Baksheesh neys!" I asserted. He acted as if I were backing out on a promise.

We went back an forth for several minutes. I finally got the idea through to him that I was willing and able to hurt him to get my property back. He relented and surrendered my Gerber. I no longer allow anyone to touch my Gerber. The same with my WileyX PT-1's. Nobody gets to check them out, either.

Afghans believe that Americans are all incredibly wealthy. We are. By their standards, we are all incredibly wealthy. The ANP and ANA think nothing of asking how much money we make. They do not seem to feel that, "It's none of your business," is a valid response.

Sam started telling them that I make $400.00 a month. They weren't as demanding about baksheesh after that. Of course, that may be because I won't let them touch my Gerber or my Wileys anymore.

Afghans do respond to logic, but they will often concoct a story that suits their purpose in a given situation and challenge you strongly to get their way. This aspect of their culture presents a challenge to my patience, but being patient pays off.

For example: One day I had encouraged the group of ANP that I was working with to do local security and presence patrols. I coached them to send out three small patrols, each to go out about a mile or so and loop back in like a daisy petal. One of these patrols wound up moving three and a half miles down the valley to the bazaar.

While there, one of the ANP, who had been smoking hashish, got into a minor altercation with a local smartass. Due to a verbal affront, the stoned ANP smashed the young local man in the face with the muzzle end of his AK, leaving a very deep gash in his face from the front sight guard on his weapon. My two medics, SGT Surferdude and SPC T-Dog, put eight stitches in his face.

They did such a fine job that the man is left with a much less noticeable scar than the injury should have caused. T-Dog is going to be an anesthesiologist one day, but that day he was a pretty fair plastic surgeon. They did great work.

Colonel Jhala stood up for his men to a fault. I would later work with him on this issue. His obstinate support for his soldier caused a major rift in the local politics and damaged ANP relations with the local villagers to a great degree.

When I began to investigate what had occurred, the first story I got from both groups was closest to the actual truth. As they realized that I didn't find the actions of the stoner to be acceptable, they told me progressively worse stories until they finally informed me that the man had tried to grab the ANP soldier's weapon, and so he had struck him in self-defense. Yes, yes, they all agreed, that was what truly happened.

This was supposed to be more plausible because about a year ago, an ANP was shot to death in this same valley with his own weapon.

It took about an hour the following day to disabuse them of this falsehood that had become the accepted truth. Afghans are a perfect example of, "That's my story, and I'm sticking with it." I had to dispel each aspect of the tale with logic until the lie was obvious and at that point they dropped their defenses and agreed that the soldier was wrong and should probably be disciplined.

I've seen the same behavior in Shuras. They float explanations until all are agreed that one story sounds pretty good, and that becomes the accepted truth. This is a problem that will need some work, because this is how they tend to do business.

It begins to make sense why their calendar says 1386. This is a behavior that helps keep them in the dark ages.

I've got a tremendous amount of optimism for this country. I would love to see how far they have gone in fifty years. It's hard to picture, but there are other examples. Years ago, there was a communist insurgency in a tiny, underdeveloped, primitive country emerging from the chaos of WWII. The colonial power who had been in power there was attempting to set up an independent country as it divested itself of an empire that was no longer feasible to maintain.

The terrain was tough, the enemy committed. But the former colonial power's army became an agile, learning organization that began to think without heed for the boundaries of the container (they thought outside the box,) and this army developed and adopted radical new strategies that worked. It took over ten years, but the counterinsurgency fight was won. The communists were defeated, and a society healed and came into the 20th century.

The laptop I'm writing this on was assembled in Malaysia.

* Robin Williams as the Genie in Disney's Alladin
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Sunday, November 25, 2007


I met a patriot today. I met a man who is not in the military of any country, but he is most certainly a patriot. He is a manager for the company that manages our terps, or interpreters. He is an Afghan-American. He lived in the United States Since the early 80's.

Shortly after he arrived in the United States he became an activist for his native country, first as an opponent of the communists, and then as an opponent of the Taliban. He worked to raise awareness among the decision-makers of the events in Afghanistan and the threats to the security of not only his native land but to the rest of the world as well.

As he spoke, I realized that I was talking with someone whose patriotism rose to a level that most of us cannot understand. This man lived in the United States. He got a degree and worked as an accountant. He has a family in America. He has a life. Why in the hell is he here?

He is not just an Afghan patriot (or expatriot, if you will) but an American patriot. His understanding of how the events in Afghanistan over the past 30 years have been shaped, and how those events came back around to shape our present, is unparalleled.

He spoke of the struggle to bring to light information such as the use of chemical weapons by the Soviets. We all remember hearing of these abuses, but this man was one of the people who actually brought those facts to light. This man was one of a group of Afghan expatriots who were still patriots. Their weapons were information and awareness.

While we were busy providing Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, these men were bringing back information on how the missiles were being used and who was getting their hands on them.

He spoke of the events, and of the mistakes made by more than one administration, without rancor. He described how he and his compatriots had tried to warn of the involvement of Osama bin Laden's group before they had even taken the name Al Qaeda. He explained how, when the Soviets left, the Arabs influenced the Mujahideen to attack the Afghan Army, to execute its officers.

These men had tried to warn two administrations of the growing influence of Osama's group on what was to become the Taliban. They provided information on chemical weapons research and attempts to develop chemical terrorist weapons with the help of a prominent North Korean chemical weapons designer to the Clinton administration.

He spoke of how we (the United States) had been very interested in Afghanistan until the Soviets left. He spoke about how they had warned against leaving Afghanistan on its own in the days following the Soviet departure, and how their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

He explained the results of this indifference, the twists and turns and sub-plots with amazing detail and clarity. He explained as only an Afghan could what had happened in those days of turmoil that had laid the groundwork for Afghanistan to become a hotbed of Islamic extremism and a training ground for terrorists.

Over the centuries, Afghanistan has rarely been the prize. Afghanistan has the misfortune of being at the crossroads of history. You could say that it is the crossroads of history. Nobody has fought for Afghanistan simply for the sake of Afghanistan itself, but to interfere with or stymie their opponent. They have fought to hold the crossroads or simply to pass through en route to whoever they really wanted to attack.

The Persians, the Macedonians, both Khans (Genghis and Kublai,) the British, the Russians... all wanted something other than Afghanistan, but found that in order to get what they truly wanted, they had to pass through Afghanistan.

We used Afghanistan to stymie the Soviets. It worked, and while we were at it we unwittingly watered the seeds of Islamic extremism. This man is a walking chronicle of the events that brought forth the birth of the Taliban and the emergence of Al Qaeda as the preeminent threat to security and peace in the post-Cold War world.

He also spoke hopefully of the future of Afghanistan. He spoke of economic opportunity, about education, about providing the tools for Afghans to become productive members of society. This man has seen how truly small this world is, and knows first-hand that what happens in the kheyls of Afghanistan impacts events all the way on the other side of the world.

There is no room for isolationism in the United States anymore. Those who wistfully dream of closing our borders and hiding within our North American enclave, safe from the world and protected by saltwater security systems at our front and back doors are so sadly mistaken as to be pronounced pathetic.

We are citizens in a global society, and what we do has ramifications far beyond our previous imaginings. Our little intrigues and games, twisting the knife in the side of our enemy of the time, fed an enemy more insidious than any specter the Soviet superpower could have generated. While we were busily interfering with their hoped-for conquests and influence, we fed a disease.

It's Orwellian, really. We are being tortured by a virus we fed while swatting at a bear. It helped kill the bear. Now it's threatening our health as well.

The man I met today, whose name will remain a hidden piece of history, saw and understood the development of that virus. He spoke into uninterested ears as the virus mutated and replicated. He saw the direction that it was taking, and how we were unwittingly assisting in the genetic testing of the strain.

He also understands the cure. It is not giving the Afghans anything, but enabling them to get it for themselves. The cure for the disease is bringing these people opportunities to do something other than carry a weapon and fight.

Or, we can kill them all.

I'll take Option A for a thousand, Alex.

It's difficult to truly understand the gratitude so many Afghans have expressed to me for being here. It's difficult because, in some small way, the insanity of our own twisted reflection in the funhouse mirror of our media has left its mark on my mind. Like some rhetorical narcotic, it dulls the true perception of what and who we are.

I have been thanked many times for being here. I have been thanked many times for leaving my family behind to come here and help. One of our soldiers said recently that Americans could learn a few things about family values from the Afghans. Afghans have a tremendous amount of loyalty to their families. They truly understand the sacrifice of not seeing your children for months on end.

Yet still I've wondered at times if they weren't just being polite. Afghans are incredibly polite people, by and large.

This man thanked me for coming here and doing what I am doing. He meant it.

I had to thank him. This man was perfectly safe at home in America. He gave up his job to come here and make sure that we could communicate with our Afghan counterparts. He doesn't have a huge, important job. He is not a mover or a shaker. He is a worker, a part of the machine. He doesn't wear a uniform. I won't use his name for his own safety. He is doing what he can to be useful.

For the past 30 years, he's been doing what he can to be useful.

The man I met this morning, quiet and unassuming, finding a way to contribute in any way that he can for a span of approximately 30 years... now he's a patriot.
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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving In The Land Of Sandcastles

Happy Thanksgiving!

(From left to right) Cookie Monster (in the helmet,) Burt Schtickem, Old Blue (myself,) Coopage (removing the .50 from the turret,) The Colonel, and Gonzo.

We thought we were going to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the most dangerous firebase in the province, but that plan changed before breakfast due to a late night email barrage between two Colonels. It's not important what it was about to anyone but us. The end result was that we took a nice long drive in the land of sandcastles, policed up some Joe's, and returned to Bagram for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner with the Fobbits. Nice and safe. It's amazing how we can go from potentially having Thanksgiving in a place that was rocketed yesterday to dining as guests of the Fobalonians.

This morning before we rolled out was for our moment of thanks. I looked at the small group of soldiers gathered around for our now perfunctory convoy brief and thanked all of them for the privilege of serving with them. We gave thanks for the fact that none of us has died. We gave thanks for the brotherhood that we have found in our tiny group. We gave thanks that our families are safe at home.

Then we said our prayer, which we always have before we roll out. The Reverend Cookie Monster said it for us, as he does most mornings. He's very good at it, and he nearly always thanks God for the talents and abilities that each of us brings to the table.

I thank God for the presence of these men. I look around and I see some of the best men that I have ever known. They are not supermen. They are a slice of America, and they cheerfully serve under what may not be the most uncomfortable of conditions, but certainly under difficult conditions.

I thank God for the humor that they bring to their jobs. We laugh a lot. We make fun of ourselves, our foibles, each other, the Afghans, our officers, our terps, and the weapons that have been shot at us.

I thank God for the privilege of serving my country. I thank God for being blessed with these soldiers that are grouped here.

We thanked God together for each other.

Then we went out and did our jobs.

I lost my brakes today and found out that I could navigate the mountain switchbacks by using the transmission and the transfer case. I was grateful for not smearing my humvee down a mountainside.

We toasted our families at dinner. All of us miss our families, and we would much rather be having dinner with them. We all reminisced about what Thanksgiving is like at home. It could have gotten maudlin, but it didn't. It was bittersweet to share, each in his turn, about how this day usually goes when we are home.

Instead of getting weepy, we shared our experiences and gave thanks for what we do have. We have each other, and we feel damned lucky and truly blessed.

Next year, we will have our families, and a small part of us will miss the other men who sat around the table today. We will, in a small way, miss the comraderie and the familiarity that comes with pain shared. Not enough, though, to give up the time we will have with our loved ones. We will have already paid that price.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Afghanistan and Afghans; Random Observations

I know that I've talked about Afghanistan and how beautiful it is. I've also talked about Afghans. Forgive me if I repeat myself on any of these observations. I'm just kind of going through things that I notice about both.

There are more rocks in Afghanistan than anywhere else on earth. In places, you would swear that they are actually farming them. This is the easiest place on Earth to roll an ankle.

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but there seems to be plenty of water in the area where I work. The local farmers manage it really well; they direct and divert the water to where they need it. Afghans are more likely to kill each other over water than any other single reason. We have seen a group of men rush up to a man who was hacking into a small ditch with running water in it and beat the tar out of him with shovels because he was apparently violating local water policy.

Wow... what if your neighbors came over and beat you with garden implements because your toilet was running all night or you had a sprinkler on?

In Afghanistan, hacking is not a computer crime. It is a water crime.

Where farmers manage the water, things grow. Where they do not, it is rocky and barren. It's a fluid situation.

The soil does not readily soak up water. It rarely rains, but when it does, it puddles quickly and the puddles last for days.

The fields are mostly fairly small, perhaps an acre or two, many are smaller. Many are bordered with three to four foot tall mud walls, and all of the vineyards are surrounded by five to six foot high mud walls. Every field is bordered with irrigation ditches that are most often dry except when in use.

Afghans let their livestock roam free a lot. It is not uncommon for a cow, or a small group of cows, to be walking unattended down the road.

Afghans use a lot of donkeys. Not mules; donkeys. The little ones. Our guys consider the gray donkeys to be lucky and the black ones unlucky.

That's a joke. When there is nothing else to do on a convoy, someone will call out lucky and unlucky donkey sightings. The gray donkey of good fortune is always greeted with enthusiasm.

This is only among our small group. I don't think most guys give them a second thought.

Donkeys carry everything from very heavy looking loads to Afghans. Today we saw a guy riding a donkey full-out. It was hilarious. He looked like Icabod Crane on a pony. Mostly, the donkeys never look like they are in a hurry, and they seem to trudge.

The only enthusiasm you ever get from a full-grown donkey is a sudden raucous braying display that occurs early in the morning like a rooster crowing and then again at irregular intervals during the day. We still do not understand what sets them off. The rest of the time, they look like they wish someone would shoot them.

Eeyore was an Afghan donkey. I never understood that until I saw Afghan donkeys. I wondered after seeing the Afghan donkeys if A. A. Milne was an Afghan veteran of the British Army. He wasn't. He did serve in the British Army, but that was in WW-I. He surely spoke with veterans of the last British campaign in Afghanistan, who surely spoke of the mopey donkeys of Afghanistan. Eeyore was born of these conversations, I'm sure.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. Eeyore is an Afghan. The makers of the cartoon simply left out his heavy accent. Imagine, if you will, Eeyore with a heavy Afghan accent. See? It makes the character all the more comic.

Even the tail makes sense. If you had ever seen an Afghan ladder, or the wiring jobs they do between houses, the nailed-on tail would make perfect sense. Again, my point; Eeyore is... you guessed it... an Afghan.

All manner of domestic animals can be encountered on the plains, hillsides, and roads of Afghanistan. It is not uncommon to brake wildly to avoid sheep, cattle, and even chickens. How they keep the animals straight is beyond me. Who knows who owns that chicken we just slammed on the brakes for?

Does anyone? Or is it a community chicken? It certainly can't be a wild chicken. What would a feral chicken look like?

Here you must share the right of way with herds of sheep and goats. While in the United States we have to run public service messages to remind motorists that bicyclists are also permitted to use the road system, it is not uncommon to come around a bend in the road to find the road clogged with a massive herd of sheep or goats... or both.

We slow to a crawl and honk our horns, trying to make our way through the mass of animals.

Many of the animals roam so unconcernedly that they simply do not seem to care if they are hit by a humvee or not. On the way to a mission at the very end of July, my crew and I had an encounter with a herd of sheep. A single young ram detached itself from the herd and wandered out in front of my humvee. It actually walked straight towards my humvee. We slowed to less than walking speed, barely edging forward.

The ram was apparently an extremist. He sacrificed himself, vainly attempting to disable my 6-ton vehicle with his body. It was a valiant effort, but his sacrifice went for naught. How can any animal be killed by a vehicle moving less than a mile an hour? Jihadist ram.

It is a fairly common practice to send the cows out in the morning with a donkey for a leader. Apparently cattle will follow a donkey. Perhaps the donkey has some method of maintaining bovine discipline. They must use these methods out of sight of humans. Perhaps they only practice their cattle mind-control techniques out of sight of Americans.

The wily Afghan cattle herding donkey. I wonder if Eeyore had that talent. The world may never know; there were no cows in any of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Bother.

Afghans are fairly brutal in the methods they use to guide their animals through this world. They often sling rocks at their animals to let them know that they are in the wrong place or to speed them along. They are also fond of sticks. As we pass a herd of whatever the animal du jour is, there is always at least one person swatting enthusiastically with a long stick, urging his animals out of our path.

Most Afghans do not like dogs. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because dogs do things like eat fecal matter and sniff each other's posteriors. Most of the dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. Dogs that actually live with a family are kept for protection or for work.

The exception seems to be the Cuchies (pronounced "Koo-cheez.") Cuchies are nomads. At certain times of year you can see families of Cuchies moving along the roads with their herds of goats and all of their worldly possessions strapped to the backs of camels.

Camels can carry a lot. It's amazing.

The Cuchies keep enormous dogs, and the dogs seem to be treated better than the average Afghan dog.

As for your average Afghan dog, I haven't seen many of them that didn't have some kind of physical problem, probably caused by human beings who think nothing of winging a rock at a dog for no apparent reason.

The Cuchi migration south this year was the first migration that I had witnessed up close and personal. That means that we drove past them as they headed south along the road with their entire family, herd of goats, super-sized dogs, and a few donkeys. The people walked, the camels hauled amazing loads, the donkeys moped along with their medium-sized-but-big-for-a-donkey loads. Something was missing.

There, among the massed tentage, twelve feet off the ground, would be a Cuchi baby peering out at the world.

Just as an aside, you just know a Cuchi baby has to be cute. They are. Cute little Cuchi babies peering at you from their perch atop loaded camels. It's too cute for words. The less well-to-do Cuchi babies are tucked amid the family riches atop a donkey. They are cute, too.

Afghan babies lead adventurous lives. Afghans are doting parents, but they do things that would make Britney Spears seem overly cautious. A few days ago I saw what appeared to be an eighteen month old sitting between the gas tank of a Chinese motorcycle and her daddy's lap, cruising down the road.

Try that in your neighborhood and you will likely end up in court and in the newspaper.

The next day I saw another dad on another Chinese motorcycle with his family. Mom, burqa-clad, was on the back with a sleeping baby dangling like a rag doll, sliding off her lap. This is normal.

Cuchies, the gypsies of Afghanistan, may sound really cute, but there is a reason why they are still nomadic. Nobody messes with them. I think they all act like they're lucky when the Cuchies decide to squat on their property for the summer. "Oh, you're so lucky! You got Cuchies this year!"

Some bizarre form of Afghan denial.

Perhaps they view it like some kind of ailment. "Poor Achmed."

"What's wrong?"

"They got the Cuchies this year."

"What a shame. They should have gotten the vaccination."

They have to deal with it somehow. Cuchies are apparently meaner than hell when aroused. Last year, the Taliban in our valley killed a Cuchi. The Cuchi retaliated by killing over twenty people.

Don't mess with the Cuchi.

I realize that these thoughts are disjointed and seemingly random. How do you describe a place and a people like this? There are so many little things that I notice and find interesting or odd.

It will take another writing or two to get out all of these observations. Perhaps I never will. I just wanted to document and share a few of these.

The last observation I will make is that Afghans are beautiful people. There are variations in their appearance, but many of them have striking facial features. I would have to say that a disproportionate number of them are very good looking.

A lot of people remember the beautiful Afghan girl with the amazing eyes from National Geographic Magazine. There are lots of girls here who are that striking. Of course, once they reach the age of twelve to fourteen they are covered in burqas for the rest of their lives, and so I rarely see the faces of adult females, but there have been occasions. Today was one of them.

We surprised a family as we rolled down the road in our humvees on a conop. The woman, who was following her husband, had her burqa thrown back. She heard us suddenly and turned her head. For a split second, before she could turn away, I saw what anyone would consider to be an amazingly beautiful face. Then she turned away, and it was over.

Many of the young girls who we see along the roads are amazingly pretty. It's just something you see a lot of in Afghanistan. I don't know why, you just do. Perhaps it's just the region that we're in.

I thought perhaps it was just me, but I showed my pictures to a few friends when I was home and a couple of them remarked how good-looking Afghans are.

Now, if we could just get them to behave as a nation instead of a loose confederation of tribes, we'd be in business.

I'll part with that. There are more observations to record, but I'm tired of typing right now. It's been another long day, and there is another one tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. We are going to the most dangerous place in our province to have Thanksgiving dinner at the firebase. I'm grateful for a lot of things this year, including the priveledge of being here to serve my country. I'm also thankful for the health and safety of my family. I'm grateful for the fine people I serve with. I'm grateful to be an American.

The Afghans don't have Thanksgiving. They call it Thursday.

That's Panj-shambey in Dari.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

A Marathon: The Wounded Warrior Project

I ran into a team member of my original team from Ft Riley today. As you may have figured out from reading this blog, I do not use anyone's name, not even my own. It's my way of keeping OPSEC for my family and myself and for my cohorts.

Now, I'm going to break OPSEC. >GASP<

With his permission, I would like to reveal to you CPT Mike Keilty.

CPT Keilty is a West Pointer, a veteran of Iraq, who did his initial active commitment and was transferred to the IRR (Inactive Ready Reserve.) He began law school last fall. He is a Bronze Star recipient.

Scant months before his time in the IRR ran out, CPT Keilty was notified that he was being activated to fill out a team to go to Afghanistan. You can imagine his joy at this new opportunity to interrupt his life and serve his country. Many who receive the same news avoid their responsibility, but CPT Keilty heeded the call without question.

He is now in Afghanistan, stationed just outside of Kabul.

CPT Keilty decided that he was going to train for a marathon. He has been training for this for months now; since just before we came to Afghanistan.

I ran into CPT Keilty today at Bagram, where I had brought the team to take care of some maintenance issues on one of the vehicles. It was good to see him. He explained that he is going home on leave. He shared that he is going to run the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18th, while he is home on leave.

He is running to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. CPT Keilty has managed to raise over $60,000.00 for the project. Isn't that amazing? From Afghanistan, he has raised that kind of money to help severely wounded warriors.

Well, I'm amazed, anyway.

The first Marathon was run to bring news of a battle. Now it is being run to care for the wounded of this one.

I break OPSEC because I would like to ask you to consider helping CPT Keilty in supporting this project. Please go to and go to the Special Edition section. There you will find pictures of CPT Keilty and how to make a donation and receive a special T-shirt.

CPT Keilty stated that 100% of the proceeds from the T-shirts goes to the Wounded Warrior Project and programs that are selected by the families of three warriors from CPT Keilty's high school who gave their lives for us in Iraq. Pictures and biographical stories of these three men are also on the page.

So, please stop by and read about four American heroes from the same small high school and what one of them is doing to honor the other three. Consider helping CPT Keilty to help severely wounded warriors.

Before we came into this country, we were told to bear in mind that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Caring for our wounded warriors is a marathon, and not a sprint.

Thanks, CPT Keilty. Good luck in the Philadelphia Marathon, and good luck with the project.

Now, if you go to the next post in line, you will find part two of the story of Day One in Our Valley. Please consider reading it as well.
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