Monday, April 30, 2012

The long sojourn...

Thinking of a place such as Afghanistan as a place to vacation or retreat seems odd on the face. Work, mission, objective, focus... they are all adjectives for what becomes the same thing: a time away in a region of the world that consumes you and everything you set out to do. The longer you are there, the more normal the absurd becomes. What starts as a conflict zone evolves to a part in the movie "Brazil," a blend of insanity and chaos: "Don't fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating."

Afghanistan has been called many things, from "ancient civilization" to "the grave yard of empires." It is all of those and so much more. A place where time seems to take on a different form, where the laws of physics seem to have their own rules, and where the endless process of humanity and survival seem to be elevated to a level of time-honored tradition. At the center remains the theme this blog set out to answer... the narrative of a people and culture deeply removed from the verisimilitude of what might otherwise be told as a story of mythology and lore. 

At the core of all of Afghanistan is its people. Tribal by root and steeped with traditions long lost or forgotten in the modern world, there remains a common thread of valuing the bond that is made with the spoken word. What you promise you must deliver. 

We are now close to eleven years into a war. I think it is fair to say that collectively as a society we are tired, even exhausted, from it all. The memories of the origins of this fight have been lost to the more immediate concerns of job, house, family, loss, want and concerns for an uncertain future. When you overlay the complexities of a foreign people, an antediluvian culture and religion, and the compounding frustrations of trying to protect our interests while elevating a foreign people's existence, Afghanistan is that point of mental overload where we throw up our hands in despair and ask ourselves why we even bothered. Was it worth it? Was it worth the blood we shed, the emotional wounds or the financial cost? Should we have just leveled the place with a nuke and called it a day? Perhaps. 

Like so many things with war, clarity is left for historians and time. Afghanistan knows that all too well. It has lived through countless empires mostly unchanged. As we interact with its people we see ourselves as we were over a thousand years ago. For most that provides a point of introspection as well as a question of how or why a people would choose to remain in a world the West has long since left in the review mirror of progress. That reality is rooted in its religion, void of reformation and steeped in the mystic power of a god and pages of text that most have not and cannot read.

There is always some piece of romanticism that surfaces, asking the questions about a simpler life and connections to the land... that reflection of ourselves, the challenges of modernity and our twenty-first century pace of life; it is a voice of genetic memory more than reality. Few would ever seek to live in dirt huts alongside with the goat, or cow or chickens that will eventually be part of a future meal. Or to live with fears of roaming bands of thugs that use a holly book as a cover for murdering your fellow tribal members that choose to deviate from the norm of repression of ideas and thought. Romanticism in Afghanistan is for the decadent and foolish of heart. 

Afghanistan is a place of endless cycles of endless cycles. Change is slow, and too often based on looking back before moving forward. Accountability is about looking up to god and praying for the strength to get through the day. A land with hidden codes of conduct that take lifetimes to learn and lifetimes to forgive if violated. To seek an understanding of Afghanistan is a study in chaos and Zen awakening wrapped into a Sushi roll and served served on rice. It is a search into the extremes of our own art and convention where realities are blended with our own spaces of instability and insanity. Unless we are to accept the role of a "god" and provide as one would, Afghanistan will not change. Ironically, that is what we were in the beginning: the great power that delivered a people from oppression with offerings of hope and change. What we didn't realize is that we had were expected to pay the bill for the dinner at the end of the evening.

Returning to the movie "Brazil," a fictitious television interview offers a dark piece of wisdom: 
"How do you account for the fact that the bombing campaign has been going on for thirteen years."
"Beginngers luck."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Living with the Enemy

May 2007. I had just arrived home after a 15-month embed that included 13 months in Afghanistan. Soon after getting home I received an email asking me to call a friend of mine from Special Forces. I had spent two months with that SF unit, an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) in the northwest area of Uruzgon Provence. I picked up the phone and called.

“Scott, do you remember Barry?”
“Yes. He was your interpreter.”
“7th Group intercepted his communications. He was working with the Taliban. They found a suicide vest in his room.”

Barry’s family had been abducted by the Taliban. They had threatened to torture or kill them unless he provided intelligence on the Special Forces units he was attached to as well as details on the fire base layout. Barry was considered loyal to the ODA team that I had been with. Through translation and participation in operations he had been privileged to a range of information that could have compromised not only that ODA team, but future teams as well. But Barry’s loyalty was deeper for his family. In trade for suiciding himself and killing the soldiers that he worked with, Barry’s family was to have been given a guaranteed financial stipend estimated at $50,000; enough money to support them for years.

Local nationals are hired to do a wide range of jobs on fire bases. From interpretation, to construction, to food service and janitorial. Some are hired through the US military, others through KBR. The wages offered make these jobs highly desirable which results in having local nationals a regular part of the personnel landscape on these fire bases. Yet history seems too easily forgotten. In WWII, both the Germans and the Americans new the value of placing operatives inside a fire base, especially working in areas near latrines or in dining halls as a sure way to collect the latest intelligence.

More recently, the threat of locals sympathizing with Taliban forces and working on fire bases was discussed in an article in the Washtington Post, written by PJ Tobia, titled “A War’s Impossible Mission." (Link to article) Detailing the Army tribunal of West Point graduate, CPT Roger Hill and twenty-year veteran, 1SG Tommy Scott, for supposed “detainee abuses.” Though Hill would later be forced to resign with a General Discharge, his non-compliant interrogation methods revealed what the FBI later confirmed... that Hill’s interpreter and workers on his firebase were in fact working with the Taliban. Hill’s closing statements to the tribunal paints the picture, “Please know that seeing your brothers whittled down one by one by a cowardly and ghost-like enemy is difficult.” Indeed, and Hill paid a heavy price with the sacrifice of his career. Many of the detainees were set free.

In November 2008 prior to Tobia’s ariticle, an interpreter was quarantined for possible Taliban affiliations in the fire base in Bermel. Arriving in the dining hall for lunch shortly after the election results announcing then President-elect Obama as the new President of the United States, an interpreter engaged myself and a Captain sitting with me in conversation. During the course of the short discussion, the interpreter proclaimed that he was happy because our new President was Muslim, since he was raised Muslim, adding, that we “were now all infidels.” The Team Chief initiated an immediate investigation. The use of the word “infidel” is typically only used by Taliban and anti-American forces. The head interpreter was questioned, and he agreed with the US officers assessment. The interpreter in question was confined to the base until his scheduled time for leave back to his home in Khowst. Once that date arrived, he was allowed to take his leave, but with the foreknowledge that he was to be transferred to a larger base if he was to continue working in the same capacity. However, following his leave, he never returned.

Most recently, in a fire base I visited several week ago, signs were posted throughout the base including latrines, and the phone and computer rooms, warning soldiers to be ware of Operational Security violations and information leaks. Incidents have occurred in the past few months that have given local nationals working on the fire base access to important intelligence. The posted signs validated the continuing threats and challenges in this war.

As the US military tries to extend a hand of friendship and hope, there is an over-willingness to embrace Afghans as friends. While that bond may develop over time, our two cultures are still very far apart. Locals continue to have to walk the razors edge of a sword as they reach for hope to the US in one direction, while weighing the long term prospects, religion, family safety and security in the other. A careless slip and they lose their livelihoods or their lives. It is in effect a perpetual balancing act. What seems to be lost in all of this is that we are the occupiers fighting an often invisible enemy. They are everywhere and nowhere all of the time.

Footnote: As I sat and ate lunch today outside of the dining facility, I watched a local national working for KBR count paces near the garbage can; a common technique used to create a mental map of locations within the fire base. His actions went unnoticed by his supervisor. Only myself and the fire base Mayor, an E5, took notice.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Settling in...

My stay in Bagram was short. I was number 34 on the "Space-A" list when I arrived in the morning for the Chinook flight. I knew the probability of getting on the flight was slim, but I stayed around for the roll call to ride out my fate. Things worked out. Calling me by my last four of my social, I was checked off as present and officially manifested on the flight. Putting my bags in the back of a truck, we loaded onto buses and were shuttled to the waiting Chinooks. We were then broken down into groups by destination, reclaimed our bags, and loaded in reverse order. Within an hour we were on our way. 

The Chinook has become one of the iconic images of the war in Afghanistan. Passengers are seated on each side, the length of the entire airframe,with bags and cargo piled high in the center. The flights are never about comfort; only about getting there. The Chinooks are the Army's workhorse, a literal air taxi that is the backbone to troop and cargo movements throughout the country. With a legacy stretching back to Vietnam, the Chinook has both a practical sense and a historical nostalgia tied to a timeless aspect of modern warfare.

The fifth stop was Gardez. Flying first south to Kabul then East over the mountains and snow capped peaks, we arrived. Unloading is always a joint venture. Everyone pitches in, grabbing bags and boxes without concern for ownership, only interested with taking off all items intended for the destination. Speed is always the focus. Once unloaded, our backs now turned to the spinning rotors, the Chinook lifted gracefully into the air, as the rotor wash and accompanying dust swallowed us in a torrent of momentary chaos. As the dust settled, we moved quickly to find your things, and begin moving to the awaiting vehicles. A few minutes later I had arrived; a place I had been several times before. FOB Lightening... it had a strange sense of returning home.


This is now the fifth day since my arrival. The week has raced by. Yet today seems like the beginning. As the force structure in Afghanistan has been changing, those changes have impacted the latitudes granted embeds. For the past five days, working closely with the Public Affairs Officer and the firebase Commander, a full-bird Colonel and veteran of Operation Anaconda some 7 years ago, we have now created the foundation from which I can move forward to capture the stories I seek.

Afghanistan is not a country that allows for a quick visits nor easy access. It is as complex geographically as it is politically. Stories told in one region, often don't apply to another. The key to telling any story here is time. And that is something that years of tribal structures have taught the Afghans. To understand the story, one must be here long enough to experience it.

After a few days of settling in, I was invited to join the Colonel for a lunch with the Afghan Army Corp Commander. A General by rank, he speaks English along with several other languages including Dhari and Pashtun. Near the end of the lunch he looked across the way to where I was seated. With a modest expression of a man worn by years of war, he commented on our first meeting back in 2006. Then in a soft, yet commanding tone, he said in front of all of his senior staff seated around the table, "I am glad to welcome back my old friend and may he have continued success in telling the stories of Afghanistan." With that he rose from the table, shook hands with the American commanders that were present, and headed out the door. 

To be acknowledged as a friend within this culture, is for the Afghan's a blessing from God. It is a gift I hold close, as I step forward into the stories yet untold.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bagram: the hold over

The flight from Kabul was a short 15 minutes on board a Blackwater Aviation aircraft. For all of the negative press Backwater has received, their aviation operations were impressive. Gate to gate, bags loaded then unloaded, security checked and back in our hands was just under 30 minutes. With my paperwork processed I proceeded on, to check on my next flight.

The next flight was cancelled. The following flight full. One thing about travel in Afghanistan is that you are often left to your own to make the necessary follow on arrangements. It is also about relationships. The words from an SAS friend kept running in my head,"Always carry a reserve." My reserve was people. A few phone calls later and a bed was secured for the night through base media operations. Then a 1715 show time was advised to try and get on the rotary flight as "Space-A". In the meantime other options were being sent to me via my Blackberry from the Colonel I will be working under in Gardez.

My arrival at the rotary wing passenger terminal was none too early. The severe weather and numbers of flight cancellations has created a back log of soldiers trying to get out. The scheduled 1800 start time for reserving Space - A had already begun as I walked in. 

An hour later I was presenting my media credentials and travel documents to the Specialist working the counter. "Blood type...Last four... You're good to go, Sir. Check in is at 0600 local tomorrow morning." Next stop if all goes as planned : Gardez.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, April 3, 2009

First leg : Kabul to Bagram

0500- As I was finishing my packing, I noticed the coffee maker on the shelf next to the double bunk. It was used, stained from the many pots of coffee from past visitors. On the right was a bag of Starbucks dark roast. Near the bottom of the bag, under the labeling was a hand inscription in black permanent marker,"Thanks for your service."

My bags were stacked at the door as the John Deer Gator drove up. We threw my gear into the back and took a five minute ride to the staging point near the front gate if Camp Phoenix. Along the way we stopped for cup of coffee to go from the dining facility. Four creamers in and the coffee still looked black.

After a thirty minute wait, we were told to load our bags onto the up-armored bus. A few minutes later we were at Kabul International. Now it is a matter of waiting. Next stop : Bagram. 
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Thursday, April 2, 2009

War in context

How one sees war has a great deal to do with perspective and distance. For soldiers it is seldom a choice, but a result of tasking and job speciality. There are a multitude of experiences never documented, leaving those back home to rely on the journalists to capture the moments and connect us to the broad range of events that constitute the genre of conflict.

As I look over photos from wars past, I am struck by one that stands out among all the rest.  A photo by the man who mentored me, David Leeson. It is not about death, or the rage that engulfs the onslaught of battles, but about a human moment within the context of a world turned upside down. It is a photo of three soldiers jumping into a pond, captured with the skill that only years of photography can yield. It is a moment that connects us all to the common humanity which we all share. The juxtaposition being the days of steady fighting that defined the early days of the second invasion of Iraq.

Yesterday, I was told that CNN had established a new news bureau here in Kabul, relocating from Iraq as that war has begun tapering off. According to an unidentified source here in Kabul, the CNN bureau has notified the Army that it will only cover kinetic, or direct action operations; that it will not provide any coverage for humanitarian or reconstruction efforts. It was added that their position is what CNN's viewers demand. I wonder? Or is it a case of the giant imposing its will.

Opinions are shaped to a large degree on what is available to see and read. If CNN holds to its position of only reporting on kinetic actions by the military, how will that shape the public's perception of this war. Afghanistan is many things, and as a counter-insurgency fight, the humanitarian mission is an essential part of core strategy. It should be the responsibility of journalists to present that context to encourage debate, rather than steer a way of thinking or shape an outcome. One thing is for certain, coverage focused on kinetic military operations draws viewers, and viewers translate to advertising dollars.

Between May 2006 and May 2007, I was one of the few American journalists embedded with the US Army. Now that the interest in Afghanistan has been reforged, a product of President Obama's campaign, journalists are flocking here in droves. There is a two month back log of embed applications for parts for the country with an ability to move around that remains challenging at best. So what is behind the recent increase? Where was the coverage in past few years? Was Iraq really more news worthy than Afghanistan? The soldiers that were here didn't think so. In the Summer of 2006 there were over 60 ramp ceremonies alone; a solemn tribute to the fallen before they are sent home. I attended more than I care to remember, but found myself wondering how that war, was any less important than the war in Iraq.

Whatever the motive for the latest surge in media focus, it should remain the intent to tell the stories of war within context. War is not one thing, but a mixing of the best and the worst and all things in between. Afghanistan is all of that. Let's hope that the stories that are told create the balanced picture that is deserved.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kabul by Taxi

Military movevement in Kabul is awkward and time intensive. My military ride was diverted so in order to make the 1530 briefing time for my embed I took a local Taxi.

Things will only get more interesting from here. 
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Old attitudes, a new war

In a recent article in the print edition of Stars and Stripes written by Jeff Schogol titled, "4,000 4th BCT, 82d Airborne paratroopers going to Afghanistan to train security forces," (Saturday, March 28, 2009), Schogol quotes an unidentified Pentagon official in reference to the training and mentoring mission of Afghanistan's security forces, as saying, "Until now, the military has relied heavily on inexperienced National Guardsmen to fill out the teams..." The quote has created considerable stir and rightfully so. (Stars and Stripes has removed the original link to the article, redrafting the online post with the quote removed. The only remaining "smoking gun" are the thousands of print copies distributed throughout the world on US military bases.)

What the article's comment reflects is a pervasive attitude within that Regular Army that draws back to an image of the National Guard as an under equipped, under trained force from the years following Vietnam. The Guard of today looks and operates nothing like the Guard of years past. Following from 8 years of war, the National Guard now has more combat experience within its ranks than its overshadowing "big brother." And unlike its overshadowing "big brother," the National Guard maintains both a domestic mission profile along with its combat mission profile. (Think back to Katrina and the Lt. General Russel Honore's push to get 82d Airborne on the ground to secure the city. The security was done by the National Guard; the 82d was prevented from doing anything other then presence patrols less they risk violating passe comitatus.)

What has been seriously overlooked in Afghanistan is how much impact the National Guard has made. Having been given the mission of training the Afghan National Army in 2003, the National Guard has been the quiet force behind the majority of training of Afghanistan's national army and security forces. That mission was further expanded in the Fall of 2006 when Brigadier General Pritt was directed by Major General Durbin to implement a training and mentorship program for the Afghan National Police, taking over for the failed efforts of Dyncorp. Pritt's and the 41st Brigade's efforts have been given little attention in spite of the fact that the training program was put in place in a record three months, without any additional funding or man power resourcing. That success can be directly attributed to the Guard's ability to adapt to varied mission sets by tapping into their civilian skill sets; something the Regular Army lacks. To date the National Guard continues to expand its training and mentorship role throughout the country.

As the big Army prepares to take over more of the mission here in Afghanistan, it would be well advised to look towards the National Guard, among others, for guidance. The attitudes that somehow the Guard is inferior need to be left in the past. Afghanistan remains a counter-insurgency fight. That demands flexibility and quick adaptation to circumstances. The National Guard has proven itself capable in that area with lessons learned worth listening too.

Monday, March 30, 2009


The weather is overcast as I sit here looking out through the double glass doors onto a section of the runway at Delhi International. Passengers to Kabul are easy to spot . There is the way they dress of course but it is more in the eyes. The American across from me is nervous as if wondering what awaits. The Afghan eyes speak of histories and stories never told...

I am now just waiting. There is no rushing things in this part of the world.

0615 am
29 March 2009.
Twenty hours later, after a short attempt at sleep, I sit here in the community computer room typing this entry. Camp Phoenix is familiar. I walk around here with the familiarity of a regular visitor. Yet so much is changing. New facilities being added, new barracks being constructed - this time from steal rather than wood. The plans are laid on to tear down all of the wood living huts and replace them with metal container rooms. The idea of "temporary" or "short term" is quickly being overwritten with "lasting" and "extended stays."

Within in all of this is the already present uncertainty of command structures. Unity of command has remained one of the greatest obstacles to military operations in Afghanistan. Special Operations forces have approached this as a counter-insurgency fight. The Regular Army has tried to adapt, but ultimately has struggled with its own histories and pasts, unable to leave its own culture forged on years of cold war thinking, national armies and the politics of careers. The unrecognized paladin's being the National Guard, who along with Special Operations groups, have been responsible for training and mentoring the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Police. What Special Operations forces and the National Guard have in common is the common goal of building the army and security forces so that it is the Afghans fighting their own fight; to get the job done and come home. Any reference to victory is just a parenthetical buzz word for some form of exit strategy.

But like so many things in this part of the world, one must wait and see. Time seems to flow at a different pace here; a part of the world where time seems to have actually remained still. But even that is changing. Nothing here is it as it seems.

As my Afghan friend reminded me yesterday morning as I got out of his car to enter Camp Phoenix, "Trust no one. You are back in Afghanistan."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The time in between...

New Delhi, India. The step off point for my third trip to Afghanistan. I'm sitting here in the receiving area of Indira Ghandhi International Airport, waiting for my flight to Kabul. It's now 1am, and my flight is at 730am.

India is the half way house between third world and first world. A mix of western and ancient, tradition and trend. The eight hours I have between flights is time to transition and focus. I grab an expresso and a fresh Somosa, connect to the internet and watch taxi cab drivers vie for position just outside. Car horns seem to be the universal language of travel.

Afghanistan was a place that was once foreign to me, that has slowly become part of my life. At moments during my packing, it almost seemed routine. But I know better. With my ride arranged from Kabul International to Camp Phoenix, it is now only a matter of waiting.

Time to my flight: 6 hours.