Friday, July 20, 2007

Overheard At A Mission Planning Briefing

Afghan Intelligence Officer: "We know who the Taliban are, where they are, where they get their money, where they get their weapons, what their supply routes are, and which of them is not from this area and where they are from."

American Lieutenant Colonel: "That's great! Do you have this information in writing? We would really like to share this information before we begin this operation."

Afghan Intelligence Officer: "No."

American Lieutenant Colonel: "Well, could you write it down, so that we could all know where the enemy is and what we are up against?"

Afghan Intelligence Officer: "I cannot tell you these things."

American Lieutenant Colonel: "Why not?"

Afghan Intelligence Officer: "You are not cleared to receive this information."

American Lieutenant Colonel: "Okay, then... who can you tell?"

Afghan Intelligence Officer: "I can tell him." (Indicates Afghan General.)

American Lieutenant Colonel: "Fine, tell him, and then he will tell me."

Afghan General: Nods agreement.

This is the type of patience that is required of the work that we are doing.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Working With Afghans Is A Trip

We've had a bit of experience working with Afghans now, and it's hard to describe all the stuff that I've observed while working with them. I'm going to try to relate a little bit, though.

First of all, Afghans aren't like Americans in a number of respects. They not only have a different culture, religion, and history, but they also have a vastly different perception of the world around them. It's hard to try to figure out what's going through their minds when they are dealing with you... you'd probably be wrong, anyway.

I've dealt with Afghans now from the level of Provincial officials to the level of the lowest foot soldier, and sometimes these guys are just a trip. Afghans are all about the greeting. They are very cordial, and when you get around them handshakes all around are in order. When you meet them, they are invariably cordial and friendly. When you just see them out and about, their reactions vary. They are incredibly friendly if there is a possibility that you might buy something from them.

Americans could learn about customer service from Afghans.

Sometimes, they are funnier than you would think. While they have great senses of humor for the most part, some things that they do from time to time are just funny. Sometimes it's just a matter of their upbringing and what they live every day.

Afghans squat. They rarely sit directly on the ground, and if you tell them to take a seat or relax in the absence of furniture, they will squat on their heels, feet flat on the ground. It's not at all unusual to see circles of Afghan men squatting, talking over whatever it is that they discuss. This squat is a maneuver that I cannot perform. My ankles simply won't allow my knees to go forward enough to keep my balance. I squat on the balls of my feet... which gets tiring quickly. Afghans squat for long periods of time as naturally as if they were sitting in a chair. They can take an entire bath in a pitcher of water in this position, lifting first one foot and then the other as they wash themselves. This maneuver would leave me dirtier than when I started because I would fall down numerous times.

While Afghans can squat very well and perform complex activities like bathing all from this position, they cannot do jumping jacks. The Army calls jumping jacks the side straddle hop. Afghans doing jumping jacks look like a bunch of drunken Jerry Lewis impersonators. I don't know how they can exhibit such grace and can't get the simple motion of a side straddle hop.

Teaching them unarmed combat techniques brings about a similar show. Afghans seem to be very comfortable with slapping motions, but a punch seems foreign. Blocks devolve into slapping motions as well. They do seem to enjoy themselves, though. Takedown holds are executed with enthusiasm if not precision. Kicks are not their bag, either.

Marksmanship training with the AK-47 brings about challenges. The Afghan way seems to be "spray and pray." The Afghans were famed for their marksmanship back in the day of the British occupation... there were two in the 1800's. One resulted in 10,000 British leaving the Kabul plain... only one made it back through the Khyber Pass into what is now Pakistan. Now, however, the "spray and pray" technique is difficult to overcome. The Kalashnikov, being fully automatic, gives a satisfying volume of fire with all of the accompanying noise. It's not, however, the most accurate weapon in the world. Add the fact that it has a strong tendency to rise to the right when fired on automatic, and you have an inaccurate weapon that is almost impossible to control.

Some of the Afghans are pretty decent marksmen, but teaching good shooting techniques through an interpreter is a challenge. They are very competitive, though, so rewarding good performance makes them want to achieve that reward. Still, you will tell them, "Take a breath, let it about half way out, hold it, and squeeeeeeze the trigger so that the weapon surprises you when it goes off." They will grin and nod and the very next shot will be yanked by their wildly flailing trigger finger. The shot group will be scattered from the neck to the waist of the target by their errant breathing, and they will proudly show you how they hit a man-sized silhouette at 50 meters. You just have to smile at them and make the same suggestion. Finally you put up a tight shot group to show them what it looks like, and they realize that just hitting the target isn't all there is to it. Then they do it again.

It requires patience. Lots and lots of patience.

We taught them techniques to break contact if they are ambushed or they make contact with a superior force. They argued that they shouldn't "run away." They argued that they should stay and fight "the Dushman." "Dushman" is Dari for "enemy."

Did I mention that they are prideful and have a peculiar sense of honor?

Pretty peculiar, especially knowing that they have problems hitting what they shoot at when the range is over 50 meters and that they can't fight by hand to save their lives.

Some of them have spirit, though. It has been said that Afghans are the hardest working people in the world... until you put a uniform on them. I think that most of them are just ill-led. The leadership is top-heavy and a lot of them are just drawing a paycheck. Then you run into the ones that really care and are motivated. That makes it all worthwhile... except the job is to work with the poor ones and get them to be better. It's a tough job. Did I mention that it requires patience?

Patience... that most American of all values... not. We are an impatient lot. We want what we want when we want it. Soldiers are no different. American soldiers are ferocious. Many of them are itching for a fight... and being sorely disappointed. This is not that kind of war. The dushman only fight you when they think that they can surprise you in small enough numbers that they can survive the encounter... or they pot shot at you real quick and run.

The Afghans are not generally stupid, but they do things that Americans wouldn't find acceptable. One place we went recently, they had a latrine facility that had never had water hooked up to it. They had filled it up anyway. Yuck. Then they took to just finding a place outside and taking care of their business. There was a partial basement to the building, and some of them had taken to converting that into a latrine.

There were bunk beds in the hallway, and there was usually someone occupying the one nearest the door... but not always the same guy. Two of them slept on top of a conex outside.

That brings us to Afghans and electricity. Afghans do things with electricity that would kill normal people. They will strip a wire and shove it into an outlet. They will splice into a line quicker than you can say, "Don't do that." It's part of the famous Afghan ingenuity, the mother of "Afghan Engineering." It's the same spirit that causes them to weld a family conveyance to a motorcycle. But electricity has a special fascination for Afghans... they just don't go about it the same way that an American would. They will cut into a cable with an axe if they have to. The building mentioned above had a 12 volt battery wired to stuff throughout the building, with wires hanging everywhere. They just do stuff that we wouldn't think of doing... mostly because we don't have to.

The other day, I watched an Afghan man pouring gasoline into a running engine with a pitcher. There was fuel all over the top of the engine, but that was not the day for him to do his Richard Pryor imitation. He got away with it, just like he does every day... until the day that it goes wrong. Perhaps it never will. If I did that, there would be a bright flash and a mushroom cloud.

The funny thing is that there is a brand new modern diesel generator sitting in the building that the old gasoline generator runs next to. There are a network of cobbled-together wires running away from the old generator to the various buildings in the complex, laying on the ground. That is not a UL-listed hookup, trust me. The new generator has never been run. I still don't know why. It's been there for months.

Afghan Generals are a hoot. One of our terps got frustrated and hung up on a General one day. We laughed and asked him why he had hung up on the General. He said, "turn over any rock in Afghanistan... look there are three Generals!" There are some reforms underway to fix that.

These thoughts may seem a bit disjointed, because they are. I will have more thoughts to add to the subject sometime soon. We have been very busy lately and it's not something I can write about now. Later, however, there will be lots to write about what is transpiring. I will write about that when I can.
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Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Fourth of July

There have been so many things that have happened over the course of the last couple of weeks, but much of it I can't write about for reasons of OPSEC (Operational Security.) That's not a lame attempt to make myself sound more important, just a desire not to give away free intel that the enemy can use. Our enemy here is a cross between a Comanche and a teenage hacker. Most of them live in mud-walled khalats and have pretty simple lives, but between the few who are computer literate, the ties with Al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani help that they get, I never know if any information that I relate is going to give some tidbit to them that they don't already have.

Someday I will tell the story from my viewpoint. I've been amazed a few times during this deployment. These past few weeks are a hell of a story. As we say here in Afghanistan, "You can't make this sh*t up."

That being said, I move on.

The Fourth of July was, in one sense, just another day in Afghanistan. We did get a brief fireworks show, but it was in the wee small hours of the night and was not put on by the Rozzi family. We joked that we had, in fact, gotten a fireworks show on the Fourth of July, so it had been traditional.

We were in the middle of working with a group of Afghans to train them in basic infantry combat techniques, and we were going to wind up leaving the FOB where we were staying and heading back to Bagram. We commenced our day with movement shortly after the unbelievably early Afghan dawn. The mountains were shrouded in layers of misty fog that gave them a postcard effect that happens on some mornings. It's really beautiful in an Afghan way. We met with our group of trainees and secured a bunch of equipment and waited for the other part of our convoy to arrive. The temperature was already over 100 by 10:00.

The convoy route was becoming fairly routine, a combination of dirt roads perched on the sides of mountains with hundreds of feet of slope to the bottom and stretches through river valleys full of farms and family dwellings. We passed through the area where the kids always point to their hands as we pass, begging for pencils, pens, and paper. Some readers of this blog have sent comments to me offering to send some supplies, which I have distributed. The children of Afghanistan break my heart. I see my own kids in different circumstances, I suppose. Many of my compatriots do not share my soft spot for the kids, complaining of their begging behavior, but my heart just melts for them.

The other side of the coin is that when kids are around, the convoy is much less likely to be ambushed. The Taliban cannot afford that kind of affront to the local populace.

Some of the guys vociferously argue with me for giving stuff to the kids, exclaiming that it only encourages them. I have, on occasion, handed out pencils or a couple of sheets of paper and then told them, "That's all I have for you today. It was good to see you. Good bye." I shake their hands and wave goodbye, and they go. I think it's just good PR. As a parent, I always take a kindlier view towards people who treat my kids well.

The farms are their usual, well-kept Afghan farms. They don't look much like American farms. Americans rarely build mud fences, but every Afghan field has one. The guys kid that Afghans can make water run uphill to water their fields. They work very hard to make things grow and feed their families. The entire family works, too. I've seen four and five year olds herding the goats out into the countryside in the mornings. I've see women carrying enormous bundles of stuff on their heads.

Finally, we rolled into Bagram, the "Circle Dude Ranch." We have learned that only 7% of the population of Bagram leaves the wire. They call it "the seven of spades." The rest are called "Fobbits" or "Hesco Monkeys." Many of them will never leave the wire for their entire tour. It's a shame that they don't get to see the Afghans, the labor-intensive farms, the villages, the bazaars with connex-become-shops lined up side by side up the road. They will never see the kids walking back and forth from school with their backpacks filled with books and school supplies that were likely donated by American families. They will never see the women walking in the famous blue burka, like Halloween Trick-or-Treaters dressed as blue ghosts back in the States.

We had our first decent meal in days and then we got a quick brief from the commander on what the next few days looked like and hauled our stuff over to the transient housing area and settled into a plywood "B-Hut" to stay for a few days. After the heat of the FOB, the air conditioning felt like heaven. O and I changed into PT's (the Physical Fitness Uniform... shorts and a T-shirt with Army on them) and set out for the PX and Green Bean's Coffee. We were tired of FOBcoffee and O wanted a MOAC (Mother Of All Coffees.) Our brief had included the fact that the Today Show was live from Bagram that day and that there would be a concert by one of O's favorites. O and I attended... it turned out to be a rock band consisting of members of the 82nd Airborne Division Band. They turned out to be really good.

During the show that evening, there was a slide show on a screen on the left side of the stage. It was a continuous loop of scenes from the States. Part of it was a slide per state and territory with a representative picture and the state or territory flag in the lower left corner of the slide. The representative slide bearing the flag of Ohio was a view of downtown Cincinnati from across the mighty Ohio River. I almost lost my mind. It was so cool to see my hometown!

That was our Fourth of July. It started in the boonies of Afghanistan and wound up in a rock concert in the clamshell at Bagram.

I got a lot of email from friends and family wishing me a happy Fourth of July and saying that they were thinking of me on that day. I thought of them as well, and why I am here in this strange country dealing with Taliban threats, indigenous soldiers who require a lot of patience to work with, and high level leadership that leaves us hanging while they quibble with each other. Suffice it to say that the Fourth was a day to consider what America means to me... and it's all about those people; my family, my friends, the people that I love. Yeah, the ideals and the flag and all that, too... but it's really about the people and the places that we care about, know, and love.

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