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