Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for May 2012

Alive Days

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An inevitability of living and working on close quarters with a relatively small group of people is that conversations get deeper and more involved. On this particular trip it is worse in many cases because there are just three of us on the training team, staying in the same hotel, planning our meals around each other, and so on. We do get along well so it’s not complicated. But the conversations get very deep.

Yesterday afternoon, we sat at a small sausage stand on the Danube, on a patio feasting on little bratwursts and sauerkraut, and we got into discussion about a lot of things, including absent friends. One of my colleagues had told me some of his stories, but never in depth. He wears a black bracelet that has become somewhat common amongst those who’ve lost friends in war. His bears the name of friend who was killed in a rocket attack on a base in Iraq, right in front of the PX. My friend had been invited to come along to the shops – something that’s common enough – and declined. Had he gone, he too would likely have been killed.

Military folks have a term for these: Alive Days. The day that they managed to avoid a grim fate. I neither have nor want an Alive Day – but I find the emergence of them to be something rather awesome. They complement the more solemn idea of remembrance of absent friends by celebrating survival as well.

They are sad days. My colleague recounted the last discussion he had with his KIA friend – about photographs he had received of his kids and his wife’s poor camera work. It laid bare for us just how real it is what we do, during the surreal experience of being in Germany instead of Afghanistan.

Written by Nick

May 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Culture Shock

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Today, after three months in Kabul, I headed to the airport early in the morning to catch a plane. I mentioned in a previous post about how I was getting a chance to teach at a training centre in Germany, and today was the big day.

For the first time since getting here, I walked around outside a camp or other secure compound, and did so without wearing body armour. I wore civilian clothes for the first time in months, a pair of jeans that are significantly too large for me. I couldn’t fit my boots in my suitcase, so I had to go with wearing them rather than Sketchers, but nevertheless it was a weird feeling.

Security at Kabul International Airport, the civilian side, is pretty tight indeed. My bags were x-rayed on the way into the area. Then again before I checked in, where I got frisked in more detail than I think I’ve ever been. I then checked in without incident, and sat in the terminal. Most passengers leaving for Dubai were westerners – contractors, diplomats, NGO workers including a Finnish woman and her two sons. She’s live in Kabul for twelve years, it’s the only home her kids have know. I have to admire the dedication of someone who’d commit to trying to help such a place so long. She laughed at my frustration at not being able to walk out in the city, to meet and talk to people, but that’s the reality of my job.

Two and a half hour’s flying brought us to Dubai, and what I can only describe as an overwhelming culture shock. I’m not used to so many people, so much… normalcy? Though I’d hardly call DXB normal! So much luxury, it’s a giant mall. But a Starbucks coffee and sushi for lunch was a welcome change from DFAC “food”.

We expected we could get into one of the lounges, because the team lead is one of those ultra platinum frequent flyers, but no such luck. The expected reciprocal privileges were not offered. Such is life, however.

I’m starting this post from an Emirates Boeing 777 – probably the greatest flight I’ve ever been on, and waiting for lamb curry for dinner, watching as the screen shows us flying over Iraq toward Turkey, and onward to Germany. Tonight, I’ll sleep in a hotel, in a huge comfortable bed. I think I’ll take a ridiculously long shower – if available, a bath! Such simple pleasures after three months.

It’ll be a busy couple of weeks or so working on the course, and then it’ll be back to Kabul for my next stretch – shorter than the last. In fact, I’ve completed the single longest stretch of time I’ll spend in Afghanistan. It’s going to be two shorter spans – broken up by leave – and then home. To what, I’m not sure. More shocks, I’m sure. But good ones.

Written by Nick

May 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

Been A While

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It’s been over two weeks, apparently, since I put up a post – I can’t believe it’s been that long, because BAF still seems almost like yesterday – it’s been busy here, a bit of a blur. We’ve moved offices, which was a bit of a gong show, because it left us with no access to our computer networks for a couple of days (despite assurances it’d be nothing more than a couple of hours… yeah right!).

We’ve been busy working on transition plans, adjusting to surprises about manning, and some other things that have cropped up. One of the Australians here came back reporting that he had received a rather prestigious posting, which means his tour will be cut short, as his new battalion will be deploying to Tarin Kowt before too long – he’s got to go home, move his family to the new posting, and then get set to come back.

Funny story though. He’s a bit of a Diet Coke addict (or, Coca Cola Light as it’s called in most of the world outside North America!), and has been known to vociferously complain when the DFAC runs out. So when he left, we began to accumulate as much of it as we could – taking a couple of cans out of the DFAC a day and piling them up on his desk. We had 225 cans for him. Which we had to move when we moved offices. But it was a good laugh for all. He brought back some souvenirs from Australia (including stuffed koalas, for the joke he’s been poking at Canadians about travel), and I’m going to miss having him around.

That’s the bizarre part of being in the military in general  – and here especially. We become family. We call each other brother not to be trite, but because that’s really what it’s like. The Army became my second family when I signed up. In many cases, they were closer and more important at propping me up during some of the most difficult and darkest moments of my life. But we do it because we have to. During one of those experiences, when a close friend of mine was killed over here in 2008, it was my brothers that help me up – and I did the same. Even people newly posted in to my unit who I barely knew did their part. We had just gotten a new Sergeant Major. The day we got the news and converged at work, he came up to me, among others, and simply said “I’m sorry about your friend.” There was no pretense to it – no faking that he knew him, as he didn’t – but those words were just right. Later, a mutual friend I told about that put it even better: “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.” I bolded it for a reason. It’s not an option.

We don’t really have much of that trouble here – we’re lucky. But we still have to keep an eye on each other, make sure morale stays high, crack jokes as needed, work to break the monotony. And when it’s time for people to rip out and go home, you have to wonder how that void will be filled. In our case, with transition, we’ll see more of it – we’re joking that the last one out has to remember to turn out the lights, and it will be a Canadian, we’ll be the last ones here.

We keep coming up with things to do. We’ve started a running club, which I’ve joined even though I despise running, which includes regular trips to a couple of grueling routes – one which is a 5km out and back – sounds simple right? Oh, wait: You climb about 500 ft over the 2.5km – actually, over a lot less than that, because the first kilometre is flat. But the view at the top of the hill is worth it. There’s another route up and down four hills – I haven’t tried it yet but might soon enough. And by the way, we’re 6000 ft above sea level. The air’s a little thin. I can’t wait to get down to somewhere low and see what it feels like.

Oh, and I’ll get to soon.

So, I have this nickname – Captain Good Go. I’ve earned it by getting to go on some pretty gucci trips – but one coming up is pretty much the gucciest of all.

Basically, I’m going to teach in Germany for a couple of weeks, as part of a three-man training team going to run some train-the-trainer courses. Pretty awesome, really. I’m honoured to have been selected to teach – the audience is comes from all across the NATO alliance.

It’s just a matter of sorting out how to get me there and back that has to be worked out – so I’m sure there are clerks all over the place cursing my name – but that’s fine. A wise man once said, “HATERS GON’ HATE”, after all. Let ’em. There’s also the small issue that I have basically no civilian clothes here – because my brilliant plan was to order some stuff online closer to my leave since I need new clothes anyhow – so I’ll be sporting some 5.11 stuff from the PX probably. Oh well, everyone will think I’m some kind of contractor. That’s their unofficial uniform. Or I’ll have to do a little shopping in Germany and look like some Eurotrash clown.

What else to include? A few days ago, I was up to Camp Phoenix on some personal business (that involved getting angry over pay issues, and sorting out details of my leave trip, which incidentally will be awesome), and our drivers decided to drop by the post office to see if we had any mail we could bring back to our camp. No small supply, but in it was three huge boxes of goodies from a group in Buckhorn, Ontario, who got my name and address from some friends. Awesome. Lots of good stuff – though we’re at the point of almost saying “we don’t really need anything else!”. I sent an email back to say thanks – pretty awesome that people do stuff like this, especially considering so many people don’t even know we’re here.

For now, all is well – my biggest frustration lately has been traffic – two and a half hours today to travel about 15km, but we went through a part of Kabul I’ve never seen before, which is kind of neat – at least I got to see something else new.

Looking Ahead

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It’s commonly written that combat tours are hours of boredom and seconds of insense rushes of energy. Working as an advisor isn’t really like that – frankly, we do get bored a lot of the time, because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, and while most of us have what one senior officer described as that distinctly Canadian type-A drive to do stuff, to make things happen, to fix problems, we’re forced to try not to do so, because the whole idea is to create conditions where the Afghans have to deal with their own problems rather than us doing everything for them.

In the last few days we’ve gotten some visits from some high-priced help to talk about the high level view of NTM-A’s mission, how things are working out, an the way forward. The whole point of the mission is a transition plan to hand all responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to ANSF, and doing so has three planned phases in terms of reductions: the first one is to pull about 50% of support out, the idea being to stress the systems as much as possible so that we can see how things will work with lots of time left before 2014. Then 30%. Then the final 20% will leave, and the ANSF will have sole responsibility for national security.

The key message to us – and it didn’t surprise me – is to manage our expectations, and to realize that we won’t turn the ANSF into modern, Western-style military and police organizations. It’s simply not a realistic expectation. There are too many problems to overcome to do that – and it simply wouldn’t be a cultural fit. Instead, what we want to do is at least give them some ideas to work with on developing Afghan Right institutions. What we need to do wherever possible is demonstrate good ways to do things and hope that our partners glean some ideas out of seeing our actions.

It’s happening at all levels, which is good – one of the main efforts is to develop the NCO course – I posted before about how integral good NCOs are to western armies, and so even at the highest levels of NTM-A, Generals go to meeting bringing their Sergeants Major, and expect that their ANA counterparts have theirs with them. If they don’t, then the meetings are cancelled. I think that’s absolutely brilliant, because it shows how important the message is about effective command teams – and that’s the way we frame them now – as a team of an officer and an NCO – each has specific responsibilities and roles, but the two together are integral to any team’s success. Showing our partners how that works is important, because they don’t really get the value of NCOs yet.

It was a good opportunity for us to ask questions, voice concerns, and so on. I have to say, I have an almost infinite amount of respect for a senior leader who tells you to say what you mean, and then says “If you’re not man enough (it was an all-male crowd) to ask me tough questions or say what’s on your mind, then frankly, I don’t really care about your point of view, but if it is something I can influence, good or bad, then say it.” And people did. And his answers were frank as well, which was excellent. There were candid statements about how things were done wrong with training the ANSF, how focuses were put in wrong places, and so on, but there’s effort being made to right those wrongs, and that’s productive.

I’m on the front end of one of those transitions. My organization has already seen its manning cut dramatically, and when my tour ends, this organization will be done – completely handed to the ANA to run with. So we’re working to make sure it has the best possible chance of succeeding, which includes decentralizing as much training as possible, training and developing ANA instructors as much as possible, and helping them put in place the structures they’ll need to make things work without us here. We know – I know – that they will abandon a lot of things when we go – that’s been seen in places like Iraq, where a lot of the systems the US military put in place for the new Iraqi Army were discarded as soon as the Americans left in favour of time-tested ways of doing things. The Afghans will do that here too. So all we really can hope to do is give them more tools and ideas to work with.

I will say, candidly, that if we’ve had unrealistic expectations of the end result of developing the ANSF, some of their officers have also had unrealistic expectations. A conversation with Afghan military personnel about stability and the future rarely gets far without a mention of Pakistan. It’s hard at times to avoid the impression that Afghans think of Pakistan as being responsible for all the evil in the world, despite the fact, as my interpreter put it, that “Afghans sold off their country for a few more rupees” and have some responsibility too. There are ANA officers I’ve met who think they should be equipped and trained as an expeditionary force to go to war with Pakistan to resolve the interference. This is of course a ludicrous idea for many reasons. Efficacy aside, since the West is paying the bills, we’re not interested in paying for that. What we want the ANSF to do is be able to defend the country, deal with insurgent threats, and allow the government to exercise sovereign control over the whole of Afghanistan, so that effective governance can take hold, and the country can essentially get back on its feet.

A lot of criticism gets leveled at ISAF for trying to paint the rosiest picture possible of transition progress, and I can’t blame them for doing that. That’s what Public Affairs folks are for – to handle messaging. That said, there’s been a lot of successes in terms of ANSF ability to plan and execute operations and that bodes well for the future. Even when there have been big attacks on Kabul, for example, what they’ve demonstrated is an ability to respond fairly well, with fairly minimal support – and that capability grows constantly. It’s all too easy to criticize what has been done and what capability exists because we haven’t managed to turn Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy with a thriving mixed economy. But there’s no reasonable prospect of doing that – there never was.

I think the best summation of realistic expectations runs something like this – paraphrased from a senior officer: “Afghanistan will be a horrible place to live for a very long time.” That’s probably fairly true – but even for that it will get better over time, and that gives us something to work at.

Written by Nick

May 8, 2012 at 9:03 am

A Week’s Trip To Bagram

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I’ve had a busy week or so – it seems a lot longer, though – time sometimes moves in bizarre ways here.

The greatest part of the job I do is getting to be on mobile training teams, though they’re not all that common. It’s even better when they’re MTTs I actually get to teach on, which is exceedingly rare given that my organization’s focus is on building ANA training capability.

I’ve just come back from a few days at Bagram Airfield (BAF in common speak), doing some training for some coalition folks – from Colonels down to Sergeants. They were really interested in having us come and present material to them, even though it’s not totally relevant to their jobs, but we figure the more people we talk to about our part of the world, the better. Counterinsurgency theory sometimes talks about the “oil spot” strategy – concentrating your resources where they’ll have the most impact at first, but knowing that if things work right, it’ll spread from there – so anyone we can talk to is probably going to be an asset because they might just get talking to some other people and our little spot will spread out.

I’d been there twice, technically – on the way out to Khost – but I hadn’t really spent any time there except to quickly find the DFAC, the PX, and the Green Beans. This time we were sticking around a while.

BAF is a sprawling airfield complex. It’s the USA’s logistics and air movements hub. Interestingly, it was originally built by the Americans many years ago (in the 1950s) at the height of the Cold War. It was then a major base for the Soviets after they invaded in 1979. Pictures hung in one of the offices we were visiting of what BAF looked like in 2001, mostly ruins, but now it’s grown to a hive of activity. Along the apron on any given day site cargo aircraft of all descriptions, military and civilian, unloading supplies for the campaign here. There’s also a lot of warplanes and helicopters based there. It’s a loud, active airfield 24/7. Most Americans who serve in Afghanistan enter and leave through BAF as well, so there’s always people coming and going. Suffice it to say that it is a much busier place than anywhere I’m normally to be found.

BAF was captured early in the invasion by Royal Marines, my boss (who is, of course, a Royal Marine) likes to point out, just as a little trivia.

Our course ran three days – and we include a day on either end for travel, because it can be… well… unpredictable. We had bookings to fly up there by helicopter and fortunately, they went relatively according to plan. I say relatively because we got bumped off our first flight out and put on another one, and our flight back was delayed significantly – more to that though, but I’ll get to the end of the story at the end of the story.

We were met at the passenger terminal by a young Captain who brought us to our lodgings – bunk beds in a massive transient tent – where people come and go constantly. It was also, just for added luxury, about 200 metres from the flightline. And featured no lockable storage. We made the mistake in hindsight of traveling with our rifles, which we came to regret having to drag them everywhere and learning they were not allowed in the gym at all. And really, there was no need to have them with us at all.

Things did start on a bit of a high note, by chance I noticed a poster in the PX for a Toby Keith USO show. I’m not a huge fan of the guy, but he does have some pretty funny songs that one of my colleagues plays in the office a lot, and so off we went. My Royal Marine boss, having no exposure to this “cultural icon” was particularly entertaining throughout. We struck up a conversation with some folks in the line and had quite a good time standing out on the apron while Toby and his band jammed in a hangar. I have to say I have a fair bit of respect for people that will make the trip to do shows for the USO, for not a lot of money I’m sure. Canada doesn’t really have an equivalent to the USO, but fortunately they open their events to all. They’ve even got lounges in a lot of airports in the USA I’ve taken great advantage of. I can’t say enough good stuff about them or their volunteers from my experiences, suffice it to say.

We left the show on a high note, bid good night to our “hosts”, and headed for the tent. The first night was loud, hot, and not particularly comfortable, but we managed to get enough sleep to be ready to deliver our material the next morning, and the audience was excellent – attentive, asked good questions, and so on.

The following night we cunningly disabled the heating in the tent, thinking it’d make things more pleasant to sleep. Wrong. Instead, we froze. Well, I did anyhow. I just took my ranger blanket (a super light sleeping bag/poncho liner/blanket) and it wasn’t enough at all –  wound up even using my towel as a supplementary blanket to no avail. Once I realized it was no win with sleeping, I think I felt a little better – resigned, as it were, to my fate.

Training wrapped up a little early which was alright, we had some time to stroll around the camp bazaar (where I looked at some more carpets – especially Herati silk ones, and some other styles I like, I think I’ll come home with at least a couple of carpets), haggled for some pashminas for our wives (and daughters, in the boss’ case), and so on. Our hosts worked in the same building as the Red Cross, so they suggested we go there to relax, unwind, and watch some movies. Sounded good enough to us, so we did. They had one of those Sharper Image massage chairs there, the kind they sell in SkyMall books on planes, and so I gave it a go – not as good as a real massage (which I got later), but quite awesome – I might even think about getting one of those some day, but I think the cost is ridiculous.

While there, we got a visit from Captain Christine Beck and Major Timmy. Timmy is a combat stress therapy dog, Capt. Beck is an occupational therapist. I’ll let you read the article that talks more about therapy dogs, but we were impressed to learn the impact Timmy has. He’s soon going to be leaving Afghanistan to go back to the USA, and Capt. Beck is hoping he will wind up at her base stateside so they can keep working together. I can understand why Timmy has a lot of success getting soldiers to open up about their stresses and mental health issues. The big problem you might read about with people who suffer from PTSD/OSIs is that there’s a stigma against getting help. Dogs like Timmy are apparently incredibly effective at getting people to talk, which is the first step of getting them help.

We also learned of the attack on Green Village in Kabul, which we’d been unaware of because of being away from “home” – and that President Obama had passed through BAF while we were there, we had absolutely no idea. We expected this might cause some disruption to our return travel, and whether it was the cause of not, we don’t know. But here’s how things work sometimes. We got told to be at the terminal at 6am to get our helo back “home”. We called the night before to confirm everything was good, but during the night some things happened that changed stuff. 5am I woke up, packed my gear, and started the hike to the terminal (it’s not a short walk!), only to learn on arrival that showtime was pushed back to 9:30. So I dropped my stuff, found the rest of my party, and we decided at least we could go for breakfast, check out the MWR, get some Green Beans Coffee (I’d go broke if we had one at my camp!) and we’d carry on from there.

No big deal.

But 9:30 became 10:30 became noon before we finally got on a chopper. I spent most of the afternoon in bed trying to catch up on my sleep. And I slept about 12 hours last night too.

I’m glad I fly with a Kindle and an iPhone with Angry Birds on it.