Friday, May 23, 2008

Where Is Osama?

I have been asked this question many times since I've been home. I was asked when I was on leave, and people who I don't even know have asked me as well. I have often had to explain where I have been for the last year and a half while conducting business that I haven't been here to conduct.

Very often, the question is posed, "So, where is Osama?"

I have two answers: 1) Pakistan and 2) It doesn't matter. Where I was, I was looking for Mullah Mahmoud and Qari Nejat.

In the Tagab Valley, the biggest problems were the local Taliban leaders. Mullah Mahmoud was the "spiritual" leader of the local Taliban, and Qari Nejat was the biggest kinetic troublemaker on the ground. The HiG were a huge, but more subtle, problem as well.

I wasn't looking for Osama bin Laden. I was looking for Mullah Mahmoud most of the time. He lived in the Afghania Valley, a sub-valley that ran to the east off of the north-south Tagab Valley. There were several of these sub-valleys, but I spent a fair amount of time in the Afghania Valley.

My ANP and I captured two of Mullah Mahmoud's bodyguards. We searched his house. My ANP were yelled at by his mother for eating grapes from the vines overhanging the vineyard walls.

She demanded two dollars in payment. I laughed inside myself about that, remembering the line from the movie... "Two dollars! I want my two dollars!"*

We staged an all-night movement into territory that took myself, SGT Surferdude, and 40 ANP miles up the Pachalaghn Valley, where there had been no foreigners since the Russians had last been there, based on a tip that Mullah Mahmoud was hiding in a house up there. SGT Surferdude and I wound up seven and a half miles from the nearest Americans... all five of them... with hit-or-miss communications by radio and no cell phone signals.

We didn't catch the Mullah. We never did, at least not while I was there. If they have caught him since then I don't know about it. I heard a sketchy report that Qari Nejat was reportedly killed in the Tagab Valley, but no confirmation. That was just as we were leaving the country.

Osama wasn't the problem where I was. I had smaller fish to fry.

Mullah Mahmoud and Qari Nejat supported Osama, no doubt. I'm sure that they were cheered by hearing his sonorous tones on fuzzy cassette tapes smuggled out of the mountains of Northwest Pakistan. My problem wasn't really Osama, though. My problem wasn't really Mullah Mahmoud or Qari Nejat. They were simply an acute symptom of my chronic problem; the people of the Tagab Valley.

Those people had issues; have issues.

Everywhere we went and met with local leaders, we asked them about what their issues were. One issue that was consistent was unemployment. Their men had no work. Farming was the occupation in most of these areas, but with a population in the neighborhood of 40,000, the Tagab Valley doesn't have farming work for everyone. Unemployment runs high.

In Afghanistan, a man cannot start a family unless he can support them. First, he has to pay for his wife. He has to pay the bride's family a dowery; a "bride price." The price for a bride varies from province to province, but it can run as high as $10,000 (American.)

A wedding is the biggest party that you can have in Afghanistan. It's a huge event.

This is in an area where most people make less than $200/month. And many of them are unemployed.

Such a state of affairs breeds a lot of dissatisfaction. It also leaves a lot of young men with a lot of time on their hands. It leaves a lot of young men who have started families, and older men who have families, with a lot of time on their hands and families to feed.

Throw into that mix a group of people who "feel their pain" and have money to spend performing what CPT Mac liked to call "stupid human tricks," and you've got an insurgency with the ability to recruit.

As I've said before, most people really don't care who's in charge. Look at our own country; a lot of people don't even vote. Have a rainy election day and the numbers who do go down even more. That's how many people are so unconcerned with who's in power that they don't even make the effort to vote, much less fight about who's in charge.

A very low percentage of the population of the 13 original colonies actually took part in the American Revolution. Most just waited it out and dealt with the end result. Some fed or housed troops (on either side,) some provided minor support, most did nothing for either side.

In a situation like that which exists in Afghanistan, the same thing is true. Most of the farmers in the villages don't really care who's in charge, as long as they can raise their families in peace. There will be someone strolling around the area with an automatic weapon and the ability to impose some type of control. To most, they may have a preference, but that preference is not enough to fight over.

But when one of those groups is a significant employer in the area, fed by opium profits and Arab money, they can offer "employment" to those who are not ideologically committed enough to fight based on their personal dedication to the cause. Add the religious under(or over)tones of the Islamic righteousness of a pseudo-Jihad, and you have a man who needs money and can justify in his own mind why it's okay to shoot at other people, especially those foreigners who are there trying to help the elected government of Afghanistan establish control over previously ungoverned areas. Many suicide bombers are just the ultimate example of this.

A lot of American dissatisfaction with the war is based on our perception that we, as the world's preeminent superpower, are taking what appears to be an inordinate amount of time subduing a couple of relatively tiny and undoubtedly weaker countries. We see our task as "bending them to our will." With the world's most powerful, technologically advanced military forces, why in the hell would that be a problem?

Because we are not fighting against a conventional army wearing uniforms, requiring a logistics tail, establishing a "front line." We are dealing with insurgents who look just like every other average Joe (or average Achmed, if you will) in the valley.

Now, it's true that we're also dealing with a global Islamofascist insurgency; but that's another story... but that story interfaces with the tales of two little countries in the throes of rebirth in three important ways.

The first is message. By beating the drum of Islam, they open the door to legitimacy. Religion is one of the biggest reasons to kill in the world. Too many examples to cite; shouldn't have to. This is not the only component to the message of the insurgents; jobs, progress, addressing hopelessness, blaming the Kafirs for all of their problems, and presenting an image of the future are all part of that message. THIS is the "hearts and minds" type of stuff.

The second is money. It's beyond dispute that there are a lot of Arabs, even our good buddies the Saudis, who aren't willing to risk their own lives or country, but they will give money to the Afghans or Iraqis to buy weapons, recruit, whatever. Achmed Wilson's war.

They even have fund raising telethons.

The third is leadership. They do have a poster child. We did help create him, but to complain about our mistakes in the past is to distract ourselves from what we need to do now.

We, as a nation, think conventionally. We really really think that "cutting off the head" of the hydra is going to kill the beast. That doesn't solve the underlying problem any more than killing the poster child for any cause. He has power because he has relevance. Smokey the Bear would not exist if it weren't for forest fires.

This brings me to my REAL answer to the question of "Where is Osama?"

My answer is, "I don't care."

It's not about Osama. By being fixated on the poster child and not the disease, we set ourselves up for failure. What's the worst thing that we can do to Osama?

"Kill him," I hear the cry. Not true, any more than thinking that the American Revolution would have been stopped by killing George Washington. Ayman al Zawahiri would take the reins, just like we had Thomas Jefferson and a host of other committed men. We call our guys patriots.

The worst thing that we can do to Osama bin Laden is make him irrelevant. Reduce him to a raving old man hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, surrounded by a small but impotent clan of ardent admirers who cannot stir enough emotion in the population to do more than smile and say, "No, thank you. My family and I are doing fine. Thanks for asking."

What if King George had given the Colonies seats in Parliament and removed the complaints of the colonists? All but the most raving revolutionaries would have gone back to their families. The fringe would have moved to Idaho and lived on secluded compounds creating shadow governments on their ranches and waiting for over two hundred years for Janet Reno to send snipers. They would have become as irrelevant as our own modern day white supremacists, neo-nazis, and tax protesters.

The desire to kill Osama is driven by revenge. Revenge is not a motive for anything positive in this entire world. It is a powerful emotion, and it was the same emotion that drove our entrance into Afghanistan as well as our toppling of Sadam Hussein. The fervor that drove an overwhelming vote in Congress to approve the military invasion of Iraq (which many backpedal on now, claiming to have been lied to) was driven by this primitive emotional reaction.

Side note: Congress has access to the same intelligence. If they made a mistake, they made a mistake; but to claim they were duped afterwards is to fail to take responsibility for their actions. It's like a teenager crying out that it's not their fault that their homework didn't get done. Hey gang; grow up!

As our frustration with the failure for more immediate gratification grows and with the natural dimming, with time, of the immediate urge for revenge, opposition for the war grows. This frustration becomes, "I'm tired of this game; I want to quit."

If we do that, then we leave a motivated, mobilized enemy who has already demonstrated the willingness to attack us on our own soil, and a world who once again sees our inability (unwillingness makes us unable) to follow a task through to completion.

That's a really bad combination. Lethal, in fact.

What makes us a superpower? Is it our military? Well, we have a fairly large, indisputably technically superior military, but that's not all that makes us so powerful. We are ignoring the application of one of our most powerful weapons in the Global War on Terror, even while that weapon is being wielded in our domestic political struggles with the grace of Conan the Barbarian with a really big sword.

It's the economy, stupid.

Sorry; just had to use that phrase.

We have an enormous, resilient economy. Afghans are the biggest capitalists I've ever seen. Afghans will start a small business in a heartbeat. The Ferengis on Star Trek were patterned after Afghan businessmen, I just know it. Of course, the Klingons were patterned after Pashtun warriors, but that's another subject.

Afghanistan has tremendous natural resources and no way to exploit them for the benefit of their own country and people. They have no way to move those commodities to market them to the world.

What can we do?

Hell, I don't know; I'm just a paean Noncommissioned Officer. What I can tell you is that the answer isn't the Army, the Marine Corps, or the Air Force. Having the military fix a county's economy is like have a dentist do open heart surgery.

We can get the chest open, but just go ahead and hand us the Mixmaster for the rest of the job, because it'll make the end result quicker, but it won't change it.

I think that perhaps the government can provide some serious motivation for American companies to invest in these countries. I'm not an economist, but it seems that some things can be done, if we think about how to solve that problem.

The Afghans are willing to take anything that we give them. They are what... the third poorest nation on earth? But they are not a nation of welfare moms; the pride of providing for their families with honest work is strong in them.

Who was it that said, "Teach a man to fish...?" What makes us think that's not good advice in general?

Make Afghanistan an economic redevelopment zone. Tax exemptions, Medals of Freedom, free rides to the moon for the CEO and board... whatever works. When a guy has a job to go to in the morning, it's a lot harder to get him to run around in the middle of the night making money by planting bombs in the road or lobbing rockets at the local FOB.

Last year, there was a bidding war over who would get to develop a huge copper deposit in Afghanistan. The Chinese won with (if memory serves) a bid of $20 billion for the privilege of mining and exporting the copper (which is a very hot commodity.)

Guess where the Chinese are taking the copper? You guessed it... China. They are building a railroad to move the copper to China. What a boon in a country which possesses 15 miles of railroad. Do you think that perhaps other things besides copper may move on that railway once it is built?

I applaud the end result. I'm no huge fan of the Chinese, it will still help Afghanistan; so it's a good thing. The Afghans are the winner, with the creation of about 7,000 jobs, $20 billion in economic infusion, and a railroad to China to boot.

Those 7,000 jobs will also feed countless other jobs for Afghans who don't work in the mine; shops, services, and all the stuff that people who have money spend it on.

Oh, and US companies need to get ready for more, cheaper copper-based products from China. Hmmmm... wonder what you can make with copper that we make, too? Never mind... I'm sure it won't produce any competitive edge for the Chinese. Forget I mentioned that.

The Taliban is not happy about the copper mine. No big surprise; it takes away a big part of their message, and in that area it makes their local version of Mullah Mahmoud and Qari Nejat irrelevant. It also makes Osama pretty much a non-issue.

I'm not saying that the military doesn't have a role in this war; it is a war. What I'm saying is that if we don't address the other root causes, the struggle will be long and ugly, and we are born quitters on the world stage. If we don't respond in an effective way, the well-meaning myopic in this country will become stronger and we will be in real trouble.

Many of us have given a lot in this war. Some have given their all. Some cry out that those lives (and by extension my efforts) were wasted. The only way that these sacrifices have been in vain is if there is no end result.

It really does not matter if we kill Osama or leave him a Koreshian vestige in the mountains of Pakistan, railing into a tape recorder to those who no longer care; but if we do not leave him and his cause irrelevant, then we truly have wasted all of those lives, and all of the man-years, sweat, and loss of those of us who returned with breath in our bodies.

In most previous wars, we worked to render our opponents inert; incapable of further organized resistance. We beat them into a state of reasonableness. We destroyed entire societies in this pursuit, only to rebuild them in our own image, providing ourselves with allies and economic competitors.

In this war, we either render our opponents irrelevant, or me and my brothers, the sons and daughters, the fathers and mothers, the survivors and the fallen, become irrelevant; because it is our job to provide for the common defense, and in that we will have sacrificed in vain.

Our very first job, as a nation, is to understand what our goal really is. That which is nebulous is easily turned to the purpose of whoever has a cause.

Witness the current Presidential election process. Who has a plan?

Answer: Nobody. The only conversation is about how to employ (or unemploy) the military. Nobody is talking about addressing the basic situation which gives insurgents a foothold on the hearts and minds of these peoples, providing a base of power for the insurgencies.

I have said (repeating an unattributed quote) that this nation is not at war, but its military is. It's time to leverage the power of a nation. Not all patriots are military, as are not all solutions to our problems. Our biggest victories have come when this entire nation has been mobilized and galvanized behind a campaign for survival.

As an aside, I still cannot believe that there are so many able-bodied young who live as if there is no war going on. The various military services should have a waiting list. In WW-II, young men who were classified 4-F would sometimes kill themselves out of shame. No problems like that here in the States this go-round. It seems that we have already had our greatest generation.

Of course, Ernie Pyle was published in the mainstream media during WW-II. It seems that the media has had its greatest generation, too. My father's generation had Ernie Pyle. My generation has had Dan Rather. I think that we got the short end of the stick.

In WW-II they had a different term for CNN. They called it "Tokyo Rose." Railing about the media would be an entire post of its own. I can tell you this; if we wanted to get good and angry while in Afghanistan, we could watch CNN or the network news. The blatant ignorance and clear bias was enough to get good and angry over.

This is not about Osama. He is merely one of the main focal points for the rage of a people who are filled with hopelessness, fatalistic despair, religious bigotry, and powerlessness.

This Memorial Day weekend, we have nearly 5,000 more to memorialize than we did in May of 2001. Part of honoring the dead is to ensure that they did not die in vain.

In March, days before my team left Camp Phoenix to come home, we attended a memorial service for SFC Colin Bowen. SFC Bowen had been severely wounded in an IED attack on his humvee in January, while he was doing the same job we were doing. He finally succumbed to his wounds just before we left Afghanistan. He left behind a wife and small children. I did not know SFC Bowen, or his family, but O did. He spoke of SFC Bowen and his family with great respect. That's all I needed to know.

It was the only time in that country that I saw SFC O cry.

So my thoughts this Memorial Day include SFC Colin Bowen.

*"Johnny" the Paperboy in Better Off Dead Paramount Pictures, 1985
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Friday, May 9, 2008

Readjustment And Trivia

The Army warns you about readjustment and "reintegration." Oddly enough, a lot of it is true. They warn about depression, or let-down. They warn about the family and things that happen normally as part of reintegration.

A lot of it is true.

I never felt overly "jacked-up" in Afghanistan. It all felt pretty normal to me, actually. There were a few times when I knew that I could easily be killed, and there were several times when I knew without a doubt that if the ACM had chosen to hit us at that moment that I was in a very very precarious position.

I did, however, feel alert. There have been times here in the States that I have been inattentive, even though I was going through the motions. For instance, driving around town running errands but thinking about something else, to the point that I would suddenly realize that I had lost track of where I was. I never lost track so much that I was endangering other people or vehicles around me, just the bigger picture.

I was on autopilot.

That never happened in Afghanistan. I always knew when I was outside the wire what was going on, at least what was going on in proximity to me, even if the rest of the situation was unclear.

At the time, I wouldn't have described it as hyper vigilance; it felt normal, and not uncomfortable. I liked being outside the wire. I pitied those poor fobbits who never left the wire... there are so many of them. I couldn't have felt good about myself had that been my existence in Afghanistan.

When you get so used to having to have your "hand on the stick," being where you can put it on autopilot and get away with it causes the spring to uncoil. When the spring uncoils, the lack of tension sends a ripple through the rest of the heart and mind.

It's disconcerting.


Being back in American culture takes on a whole new perspective after having been in Afghanistan. The apparent inattention of the American public to the war, the seeming lack of support for the task, even with the apparent support for the individual, is something that requires some getting used to. It was my life for nearly a year and a half, counting the spin-up time and the deployment itself. To find it so trivialized in the daily life here is, for some reason, mildly disturbing.

I'll get over it.

I try to keep in mind that my brother, upon his return from Viet Nam, was encouraged by many to engage in physically impossible acts of self-love and was showered with dog feces at the airport in San Diego. I actually had to avoid running over people who stepped in front of me not to shower me with feces but to say, "thank you."

Like I said, I'll get over it.

It is truly the electronic age. The mess halls on even some of the smaller FOB's had a big screen TV in it, with military satellite TV. We often watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) Europe while we ate. This was not the case at the firebase at the top of the Tagab Valley, but in many other places there was AFN.

The "commercials" on AFN consisted of such things as OPSEC* awareness commercials starring "Squeakers the Mouse," an evil, yet unnamed cat that was constantly spying on Squeakers with apparent ill will, and an occasional guest-starring hamster whom I'm not sure had a name. Other "commercials" were such things as military organizations advertising what they did for the overall war effort ("We are the Logistics Command, supplying everyone with everything everywhere") and so on.

Apple did have an iPod commercial; it warned that wearing earphones on a military base is generally against regulations and exhorted iPod users to avoid incurring the wrath of military justice by being smart about not using their products in violation of post policies. It was done in the typical iPod crazy-dancing silhouette with white iPod wires style; and the silhouette was obviously wearing bloused combat boots, and then he was busted by a silhouette wearing an MP armband.

I thought that was pretty cool; a civilian company who paid enough attention that they would actually spend money to cater to the military market.

I've always enjoyed imaginative, humorous commercials. I used to quote the "Beggin' Strips" commercials in Afghanistan ("What is it? I can't READ!")

The amateurish Squeakers commercials were a stark contrast to the stylish commercials that even the most ridiculous of products sport here in the States. Smilin' Bob looks like a pro compared to the AV Club reject products that adorn AFN Europe.

Right now, though, the seriousness with which advertisers present their pleas for Americans to spend their money on trivial... well, there's just no other word for it but crap... it's just so glaringly obvious to me.

After having spent a year in combat, the vigor and earnestness with which such minor luxuries are touted just seems more than comical; make that nonsensical. Americans actually have the time to think about "increasing the size of that certain part of the male body" (eyes batting in amateurish seductiveness.)


Now, like I said, I enjoy products being presented with humor, and production value is much appreciated after having been subjected to Squeakers scurrying past a mousetrap baited with obviously paper cheese; but commercials that pander to the obviously asinine just grate on the soul.

My sense of being a "fly on the wall" in my own culture will probably decrease with time, but right now I am a witness to the slack-jawed amazement with which others can view our trivial thrashing about.

The network news is a whole 'nother issue. The American public has never been shown the truth about what is going on in the theaters of combat. They don't even pretend to try to present a snapshot of what is really going on; yet they will, with all seriousness (bordering on somberness,) present a fingernail clipping-sized snippet of deeply disconcerting "news" about something without ever really showing the value of what is being attempted, even accomplished, by a very tiny portion of our population.

No wonder that sizable chunks of the American public appear to be more than willing to vote for somebody, anybody, who promises to "bring the troops home." I can tell you one thing; if we "bring the troops home" before we can leave the two governments capable of governing their countries, then all those lives will be wasted, and we will find ourselves less secure than we have been in a very long time.

I didn't go to Afghanistan to win the war. I am not that powerful. It takes the efforts of many like me for a long period of time to do that. I saw a lot of actions/inactions that were completely counterproductive that end; but I also saw a lot of people performing small acts of greatness.

Keep this in mind; we are fighting a counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In history, there has never been a successful counterinsurgency that has been won in less than ten years. What we are doing requires consistent effort over a period of time. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. We are a nation of 50 meter sprinters. We need to be a nation of marathoners, a nation of patience, and a nation that views itself as a citizen of the world. That doesn't mean that the world should dictate our actions, nor does it mean that we need to seek the approval of the world.

The past year and a half have changed my viewpoint in a number of ways. None of the above means that I am anti-American. I love this country. While I am concerned about our country failing to follow through on this endeavor, thereby wasting my efforts and the lives of those who lost their lives in putting forth their efforts, I still have tremendous faith in both this country and the amazing Constitution that established our great nation. I tear up when the National Anthem is played, and I am stirred by the sight of the flag.

While I was overseas, America was the ideal... it was the paradise willingly left behind to dwell amid the hostility and mud huts and poverty and strange languages. America is an ideal that our terps aspire to, even a lot of the Afghans that we advised dreamed of how to get here, to be allowed at this huge table of peace and plenty. To be American.

It means so much more than I can convey with words. Many have tried to express it; I don't think that anyone ever will... just little bits of it at a time.

I'm not saying that America is bad, or trivial; but we do some absolutely inane things.

The biggest fear of most of the "good" Afghans that I dealt with is this; that we will leave. What they fear is real, and it is our pattern as a nation. We get halfway through and we get bored or tired and we leave.

And then the bad guys win.

Hey, I'm just wondering... what did everyone do that pissed off the oil companies so badly while I was gone? I cannot believe what is going on with the price of gasoline. How does a refinery strike in Scotland drive prices at the pump up ten cents a gallon overnight? Did the price of the fuel delivered to the zippy marts change overnight? Does anyone else see anything wrong with the "binocular price fixing" going on?

That's how the gas station managers I've talked with justified raising their prices.
"The guys up the street bumped theirs up to $3.79... so we went $3.78. Pretty smart, huh?"

Uh... yeah. Especially when you were charging $3.56 this morning. Did you get a new delivery that was more expensive this afternoon?

When I left the country, gas was $2.80-something a gallon. What in the hell have you guys been doing while I was gone?

Now, I don't think that there is some big cabal fixing prices on a national scale... maybe there is, but it's happening at the neighborhood level, too. One guy raises his $.15 a gallon, so everyone else goes $.13 to $.15 a gallon, too. Don't want to be left out of making an additional profit now, do we?

What would happen if one guy raised his prices $.15 a gallon and nobody else did? But that's not what we're seeing now, are we?

Tell me how that's not price fixing. It's not a conspiracy, but it works just fine all the same. We are even having our expectations managed. We are all set for $4-plus a gallon gas prices. We have been primed.

A lot of investors are taking advantage of this situation by speculating on oil prices. Even in Afghanistan we got the news that major oil companies had never made so much money in their entire existence as they did last year. With our economy already strained by a war that I view as necessary enough to jump through hoops to participate in, what kind of patriotism is that, to individually seek to profit so much by driving up the cost of what has become a necessity to the average American?

Okay... so there's a chunk of my reintegration shock.
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