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.