Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan

Hitting The Wall

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I’ve done my best, through some 85 posts or so, to tell a good story, and an accurate story. I’ve tried not to sound too cynical on days I do, but likewise, not to sound like I’m just churning out some feel-good propaganda either. I’d like to think I’ve kept a pretty good balance – because what matters more than anything else is telling the truth. And it’s not always rosy.

As is clear, and I’ve written about before, we’re not going to be staying here forever. There has to be a transition plan to hand over responsibility both for security and for the operations of the Afghan National Security Forces to the Afghans, and when NTM-A got going, there was a complex set of criteria established to measure their capabilities and establish milestones at which point advisory support could be withdrawn. Those have changed because of a lot of forces (a change in direction on how to do it – starting with sharp drawdowns of coalition advisors first, so that critical fracture points can be seen early and addressed for example), but in concept they’re good.

I’ve seen a lot of good acknowledgements from ISAF (which is why I’ll include them) that some things could have/should have been done better – there was so much early emphasis on churning out ANA triggerpullers (i.e. infantry soldiers who could be posted into kandaks and immediately deployed to restive areas in the south) that developing all the Combat Service Support structures for them was neglected, so the ANSF has a minimally functioning logistics system that is now being addressed. A good argument could be made that in hindsight, we should have built those structures first, and then started churning out combat arms soldiers.

We shifted out mindset from “Afghan Good Enough”, which could sound dismissive to “Afghan Right”, a term which better represents what we want to accomplish. What “Afghan Right” means is something that works for them. The structures, systems, processes that work for western militaries won’t work here (and working in a multinational environment we quickly learn that even amongst out NATO allies, there’s a number of different ways to do things we have had to learn and adapt to), but what we have sought to do is provide some ideas that our ANSF partners can use to develop their own systems. It’s made complicated by cultural issues – both remnants of a Soviet trained and organized military and Afghan culture in general, so we only try to offer ideas and then work to build the linkages they need to make the systems work.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the military, what’s called “the 4 shop” looks after logistics/supply issues. There are various letters that go with the numbers to denote all the staff positions, which I explain a little in the glossary. So, let’s make this simple: at the school where I advise, the S4 is the officer who deals with logistics and supply. He’s been having a hard time trying to get parts and maintenance for the vehicles that the ANA own on their Tashkil (basically the Table of Organization & Equipment), because when he sends the requests to the G4 (the next higher headquarters, the branch that “owns” them), they go nowhere. So, we look for where things break down by getting a copy of the paperwork and sent it to the advisors all up the chain to try to figure out where the breakdown is and to fix the linkages.

As we barrel toward our transition (the date of which has changed repeatedly, always getting closer), we’ve shifted from dealing with the training end of the business and more toward making sure that the school is functional. It’s kind of a complex situation now, because they’re sort of orphans – we’ve moved them from a coalition camp to an ANA compound down the road. They’re only there while their more permanent home is constructed as part of the Afghan National Defence University located just west of Kabul in Qargha. For now, it seems, no one really wants to support them.

There’s also some bizarre personal dynamics in play, and I can’t really get into them in any detail, save to say that we sometimes work uphill against people who aren’t so much interested in our mission as in other motivators. It’s because of this I titled the post “Hitting The Wall”.

Since I got back from Germany, I’ve been trying to find a way to get more busy with mentoring, which has become a little easier based on the fact that a few of our team have gone on leave and we’re juggling tasks around. I went to a cordial meeting with the school staff to learn about some of the issues they’ve been having to try and help sort them out, and they went well. The other day, I set off with the Chief of Training, another mentor, and one of our instructors who is also trying to get more involved in mentoring for a meeting to discuss what the ANA have on the go for their training events. When we all worked in the same place they’d give us copies of their schedules, and we would accompany them to some of the training sites to monitor the training and help develop their instructors. Since their move we haven’t gotten as much information on this – mainly because there’s less casual interaction.

So our meeting started off as usually, friendly, casual, and we got some info on some upcoming events, and discussed some more professional development we could run for ANA instructors, based on what we had done when I first arrived, having ANA teach classes to each other and then doing a feedback session afterward to help them learn from each other. All seemed well, until we went to leave and a huge group from their higher headquarters arrived and started asking us about what we’d accomplished, why there was such a small training staff, etc, etc… it was not a comfortable experience and we bailed as fast as we could.

So we’re left basically in a position where we have to pass this on to higher levels of authority to try and sort it out. The instructors we work with – who still have passed to come onto our camp and do so frequently to eat at our DFAC (which, according to a blogger at the New York Times, is the worst dining facility in Kabul, and we agree!) – still are friendly and we want to make sure they’re set for some measure of success, but we’ve gotten to a point where what was a pretty good relationship on the staff side is no longer so cordial. The driver seems to be that they want more “stuff” from us – carpets, furniture, computers, whatever – without realizing that we’ve equipped them with everything we have to give them, and the rest is supposed to come from the ANA supply system, with which we’re happy to help… it’s just gotten that petty.

For now, we’re feeling a little useless while we try to sort this situation out – Ramadan is coming as well when a lot of things will slow down (though I’ll be on leave for a large part of it), and there’s yet again pressure to move our end date to the left despite there being so much more we could do (both here, and with our regional teams which are basically being closed out when Ramadan starts), so the feeling of being unable to accomplish a lot is doubly frustrating with this recent turn of events.

Written by Nick

June 25, 2012 at 2:02 am

Back To The Sandbox

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After a long night flight to Dubai (which I sort of managed to sleep on, but in such a way as to leave my neck aching severely afterward, and a six hour layover in the world’s most famous Fly-In Shopping Mall (which is what DXB basically is, and why Emirates offers lots of cheap flights all over the world that connect through it), I boarded my flight back to Kabul and made my way back to camp.

I spent the last few days in Germany obviously finishing off work on the course, and we managed to wrap up early after a really well done interactive demonstration of what we teach done by one of the British students who’s sort of their subject matter expert already and was just coming to deepen his knowledge. Had we known about his version of our “COIN Skit” we’d have done it earlier on. We wrapped up around lunch time and headed off to Munich to start the trip back.

First night in Munich we stayed west of the city and explored around a bit, next morning I used Hotwire to find somewhere a little more central and the remainder of my team dropped me off there and then headed to the airport. This gave me a chance to visit a camera shot and pick up a zoom lens for my new camera (a Nikon 1), and set off to explore Munich, which I did without a particularly detailed plan. I headed to Marienplatz and up the tower at the Neues Rathaus to get some pictures of the city, and then I just basically walked around until finally I got to the English Garden and decided I was tired and wanted to head back to find some dinner and sleep. Munich’s subway system, while looking a little dated, is pretty efficient once you figure out how the fares work, and it dropped me near my hotel and a convieniently located doner kebab joint.

In planning what else to do, I had been interested in visiting Dachau, which is basically a large museum. Part of the Rules of Engagement from 9D (my wife) about our trip when I go on leave is that she’s not too interested in much WW2 historical stuff – so I wanted to knock off some key points, and Munich was basically where Hitler got his start and the Nazis rose to power so what better place to do that? I decided to take a pair of tours with the fabulous Radius Tours, led by Steve, an ex-close protection guy, UK expat, and history buff.  First, we boarded a train to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich. It was a very fascinating and very sobering place to visit, and interestingly, a group of German soldiers (in uniform) were there as well. It leaves you wondering how exactly such things could ever have existed, and how, with such reminders of atrocity, human beings manage to keep visiting such horror upon others.

Three or four hours’ walking around does not really do the site justice, but it was enough to get an initial appreciation, and knowing a lot of the history already meant it was just adding to that knowledge and putting it into context. We headed back to the train station and I found some lunch before the second tour, the Third Reich walking tour. While I read up on some of the major sites in Munich, Steve actually helped me find some less known ones, and added more to the story – Hitler’s favourite nightclub, Das Kuenstlershaus, still stands on Karlsplatz. The fountain in the Botanical Gardens, a classic piece of Nazi artwork when you realize what it is, sits unassumingly behind the courthouse. And just behind it, I was amazed to see a Nazi Eagle still on a state building, its swastika removed. In fact, in Munich, you’ll notice a lot places where Nazi symbols have been removed from doorframes and buildings, once you see one, and that’s what Steve was so good at pointing out. We passed the hotel where the SA was formed, the beer hall (now closed) where Hitler often held court, and the top floor of the Hofbrauhaus, from which Hitler took control of the DAP and the Nazi Movement was born.

There’s several examples of Nazi neogothic architecture to be seen, like Haus Der Kunst, the House Of Art, a large museum that was designed by architect Paul Troost, who inspired Albert Speer’s designs for other Nazi buildings. Steve told us that when Hitler was laying the cornerstone, the hammer broke, which he perceived as a bad omen, and Troost died of pneumonia a year later, never seeing the building finished. Wouldn’t have known that without a good guide.

That, I guess, is the beauty of a good guide, you learn all the stories you’d miss walking around, even though I find it frustrating to be on someone else’s pace at times. Guides like Steve are good because they just get stories from others and build them into their tours, which makes them more fascinating, particularly in the case of Dachau where he’s met so many survivors and their families, but also the families of some of the staff of the camp who have their own perspective.

So, I’m back in country – my longest stretch to spend here now over, because my upcoming leave breaks up the remainder of my stay into smaller chunks, and I can’t complain about that in the least. We’ve got some work to do over the next little while (including, for me, getting a handle on what the other Canadian Captain here does because he’s just headed off on leave and I’ll have to take care of his responsibilities) as we prepare to transition this place over to the ANA and go home. I’ve also got to get myself moved into my new room (if only I can get a hold of the keys!), and my camp finally has laundry service, so for the first time since being here I had the luxury of simply dropping off my laundry to be done for me. Kind of nice. Except I’m out of socks apparently – I have some buried in my rucksack while I’ll pull out today when I move, I guess.

That’s my life for the moment. Oddly enough, I’m kind of glad to be back here.

 

Written by Nick

June 12, 2012 at 2:52 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.

Dealing With Bad Press And Perceptions

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I have to learn to stop reading comments to online news stories. And columnists who are armchair generals.

One thing I hoped keeping this blog would accomplish was educating people a bit about what Canadian soldiers, ISAF, NATO, all of us are actually doing in Afghanistan. I think it’s an important undertaking, because frankly, most average people on the street barely have any idea where Afghanistan is on a map, let alone understand what brought us here in the first place, what’s happening now, and what’s succeeding.

I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader giving the glossed-over story, but I’m sure most of you can understand why I have to be cautious about being too candid. The news, however, is generally pretty decent, without having to spin it.

One of the comments I’ve seen a lot goes something like this: “We’ve been there for ten years! How come we’re still needing to train these people?!” or something along that line. As one comment to a recent post mentioned, I might have been a little unclear about how long we’ve been training – efforts to build and train the Afghan National Army aren’t new – they’ve been going on since 2002 or so. That said, it’s not something that’s quick to accomplish.

Consider what we’re starting with. Afghanistan by 2001 had endured 23 years of almost ceaseless war – both the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. Even from 1996 onward, there was still fighting against the Taliban. And prior to the Soviet invasion, starting with the Saur Revolution in 1973, there was fighting to various degrees throughout the country. As a result of that, a vast swath of the county’s population, especially its youth, are woefully undereducated, and illiteracy remains a massive problem throughout Afghanistan. In recent years, literally millions of children are now getting educated and learning basic literacy.

Militaries are composed of a few different groups of people. In most modern militaries, there’s three main groups – the Officers, the Non-Commissioned Officers and the Other Ranks. In Canada we call them NCM’s – Non-Commissioned Members. You can also see it commonly broken down into Officers and Enlisted Men. Training Officers isn’t particularly difficult, you want reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated people who can make sound plans and have leadership qualities. Training NCMs – your private soldiers, as it were, is also not particularly hard. In both cases, you need to have training institutions, actual course material and structures to train them with, and competent instructors to do that training. Now, where do you find those? In NCOs, generally. In the Canadian Army, both NCMs and Officer candidates receive the bulk of their training from NCOs – how to dress, how to do drill, how to read maps, use compasses, live and work in the field, and so on. Officers learn tactics from other officers, and tactics are their responsibility, but NCOs make Western militaries run. They handle what we often call “beans, bullets, benzene” – food, ammo, fuel, and so on. They are the backbone of our militaries because they can get all the administration done to make things work. A good NCO is priceless to an officer. From him (or her, of course), the officer will get counsel based on long experience, and will be freed of many of the menial tasks he might otherwise need to do so that he can focus on his job. As a platoon commander, my 2IC at times cooked meals for me, made sure I had coffee, and even a few times physically put me to ground (ie, to sleep) so that I’d have enough rest to be effective. They are priceless.

And they take a long time to train and develop. In days of old, the Soviet Union, and armies it developed/advised dispensed with a proper, professional NCO Corps, opting to pick recruits (often conscripts) who appeared a little fitter or smarter than others, and immediately promote them. They were largely ineffective because they didn’t have any real experience, and even if they did, it was assumed they didn’t, even the most mundane tasks still required the involvement of officers. Contrast that to the experience of many Western junior officers who will have the experience of being “steered away” from a lot of things by their NCOs, with a gentle admonishment that things are well in hand.

Afghanistan was built on that model. Even though the training system is aiming to develop a proper, professional NCO Corps, it’s hard to get buy in when you are still dealing with a lot of officers from the Soviet Era – what my interpreter refers to as the “Communist Army”. (He jokingly refers to the new ANA as the “Infidel Army”).

Developing those NCOs takes time. A Sergeant in the Canadian Army will normally have about eight years of experience under his belt in the Regular Force – a little less in the Reserves, but still quite a bit of experience, not only being trained to lead, but also training other soldiers. You cannot accelerate that development process here in Afghanistan. Or anywhere, for that matter. It’s something that even newer members of NATO (ex-Warsaw Pact countries) have difficulty with, as I understand it. Building that culture of solid, profession, empowered NCOs who are trusted by officers to do their jobs takes time. We do what we can, overall, to teach by example, to let our ANSF peers see how NCOs and Officers should work together, but getting the idea of delegation and division of tasks to make sense to them is not easy.

We are at the point now where those things are starting to work, but it’s slow going. Training structures like branch schools exist, instructor development programs and qualification training for instructors exists as well, so that competent NCO instructors can be actively involved in recruit training, for example. However, from what I’ve seen and heard in discussions with other mentors, things are not at the point where NCOs are being effectively used, and that’s probably a cultural issue that will take a long time to overcome – possibly, some muse, until all those “Communist Army” officers retire.

Delegation of authority is another complexity – because authority is conspicuous power, and while from my perspective coming from a Western professional army, delegation of authority to make decisions to the lowest possible level is makes everything work better, that concept doesn’t yet fully make sense in the ANSF. If you read any of the myriad of journal articles on OMLT experiences with Afghan units, you’ll see that good planning and rehearsals for operations is impeded by the failure to delegate. In the CF, we’re taught a process called Battle Procedure. BP can literally be used to accomplish anything – it’s actually something most people do subconsciously in their daily lives when planning to do anything. One of the keys to it is time management. On getting a task from a superior, one of the first steps is a quick time estimate – how long do I have to get it done – what timings to I have – and ideally, how do I give 2/3s of that time to my subordinates so they can get to work on their part of things. What a lot of the reports and articles I read suggested is that this doesn’t happen, meaning operations are hastily planned without effective use of time, or any of the processes we use to make sure that all the leaders involved are well-coordinated, which we do through extensive rehearsals and war-gaming wherever possible – and we always make it possible in some way.

The other common refrain I hear is “these guys know all about fighting, why are we training them”. Well, some do know how to operate a rifle, but military organizations require a lot more than that. You need clerks, cooks, medics, storemen, combat engineers, artillerymen, military police, and all sorts of other trades to make a force actually function. When you try to mesh that with that problem I mentioned above – illiteracy and innumeracy – it’s complicated. For example, training artillery units is difficult when you have a lot of soldiers who cannot read maps or do math required to effectively employ the guns. While the ANA has some pretty capable field artillery guns, they’re hobbled by the fact that their units cannot employ them to provide indirect fire effectively. Similarly, administration of a large force is a challenge with that illiteracy. Managing pay and leave in a country with a primitive banking system and rudimentary transportation infrastructure is hard. But progress is happening.

I won’t into the potential impact of corruption too much, but you can imagine what could be problems. Hoarding or theft of equipment and stores (fuel in particular as I understand it) could be a major problem. We joke in our army about how supply techs won’t give us stuff (“but if I give you this new rucksack, I won’t have one on my shelf!”), but here the power implicit in holding equipment is huge – even broken/non-serviceable stuff apparently, even when there’s a system in place to get rid of it or exchange it. I don’t know if this is a broad problem – it’s just something that is common in anecdotes about Warsaw Pact legacy armies. There are advisors heavily focused on developing the supply system, and on the surface it seems it’s generally working.

Lest I sound like I’m painting a bleak picture, though, let me be clear – things are working. I met an advisor from the Consolidated Fielding Center where newly-formed ANA Kandaks roll out the gate constantly to deploy to their garrisons, and what he told us is that he’d watch their prep and be staggered by how ridiculous it often seemed – BUT – they got out the door. I’ll remind you of that descriptor, Afghan Good, or Afghan Good Enough.

As transition moves forward and the supports of the advisory teams get withdrawn from the ANSF, they’ll find ways to deal with these challenges. They will have to. Remember how a lot of kids are taught to swim, being thrown abruptly into the water? We’re not quite going to see that happen, but what will happen is the ANSF will be forced through the transition process to find their own way – to solve their own problems. They will use some of the tools we’re giving them, and they’ll create and improvise their own ways of doing things. The final product won’t look like a modern Western professional military necessarily, just as in the broader sense there was never any illusions about turning Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy. It doesn’t fit the historical context – instead, Afghans will find the solutions they need to move forward, ideally – and we’ll have helped keep the wolves at bay long enough for their sheepdogs to get ready.

They proved that they can do that last week during the attacks on Kabul – they had some support from ISAF – some air support and some Special Forces support – but they did a lot of the work themselves, in a way that minimized collateral damage and repelled the assault, and life in Kabul got back to normal pretty quickly by most accounts. That’s the progress that needs to happen. But media doesn’t tell the story that way. Instead, they talk about things like the Tet Offensive, compare transition here to the largely ineffective “Vietnamization” process during that war. But it takes a lot of shoehorning and exaggeration to map Vietnam’s history (and mistakes) onto Afghanistan. It sells newspapers, though – and slow progress doesn’t.

So, the key message I have? Things are working here. It’s slow because there’s a lot of factors you won’t likely read about in most critiques, or understand if you don’t have a military background, so what I’m trying to do here is provide some of that context to complete the picture a bit. I won’t give you the rosy, all-singing, all-dancing soundbite, but a more broad perspective ideally. I hope it helps you understand why we are here and why it’s taking time to get it right.

A Busy Week

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I’ve spent the last few days on mobile training teams – both with my ANA partners, and also as part of a team delivering some training to some coalition folks – Hungarians. It feels like I’ve been gone from the office quite a while, even though I haven’t – but part of that is from the conspicuous absence of some of the cast of characters – some of the key people are on leave right now, so it’s going to be a quiet little while.

The training I was part of delivering happened at KAIA – Kabul International Airport, which in addition to its obvious function has a lot going on in the area. It’s home to the ISAF Joint Command, among other things (and yes, you can find that on ISAF’s own website!). IJC hosted a women’s shura the other day, which conveniently coincided with our arrival. We had planned to go a day early to give us time to survey the facility we were using for the classes, meet the points of contact, and mainly, to avail ourselves of the many amenities to be found at KAIA. It may have the worst DFAC in the whole country, but it also has several PXs, a veritable strip mall of Afghan shops, and some great restaurants.

Which, because of the shura, were all closed.

So we basically were sitting on a base where there was almost nothing to do but go to the gym for the day.

The training itself went pretty well – on both accounts. Getting to the site of the first event was a little bit chaotic on account of Kabul’s terrible traffic, amplified by the heavy rain and notable lack of storm drains – entire roads were basically flooded out, we didn’t know this until we were basically stuck in it. However, things were good – the ANA instructor I went out with was excellent, the students were attentive, and we made some connections for people who have some interesting contributions to make to training, and want to participate. We’ll see how that goes. We also drank copious amounts of the best damned chai I’ve ever had, I don’t know what was different about it from regular green tea, but it was really good.

We did, finally, before leaving KAIA, get a chance to do some window shopping and get some awesome pizza from Ciano – which is basically the Italian PX. I browsed some other things I was interested in (among other things, I need clothes for when I go on leave!), but didn’t buy much, despite the valiant effort of a carpet salesman to get me to buy a stunning Kunduz carpet, but the price just wasn’t right, and I’m not buying any now anyhow.

I also spent 18 Euros on an hour long full body massage. Which was worth every penny, and then some.

Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, and given that there are several Australians on my camp, we’ll be out for a ceremony in the morning. It’ll be the first time I’ve worn my beret since I got here, and fortunately I was able to find it. Then it’s back to planning my next training adventure, probably the last chance I’ll have to do actual instruction here, because we’re having the ANA take the lead on that now, and any coalition folks who wanted to hear from us got their final notice a few weeks ago.

Written by Nick

April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

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Friday mornings are my “weekend”. We knock off work early Thursday and don’t have to be in the office until 1pm on Friday, giving me a morning to sleep in, and generally, we all meet for pancakes at the Afghan restaurant for brunch. It’s a nice little routine.

It’s now been eight weeks I’ve been here (actually a little more – I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Kabul International Airport on February 23) and I’m pretty well settled in. We’ve got a pattern of life mostly established, I work with a pretty awesome team of people, and we not only get our work done, we have a fair bit of fun doing it. There’s really no one in the cell I work in that I don’t get along with. Of course, we have extra incentive to get along, it’s not that easy to just move along.

Just like at home, we have training to get done, and we’ve now worked out a schedule to keep up on it. Things like ethics training are normal components of military life, and as one of the Canadian Unit Ethics Coordinators on the ground, I have a chore to run an hour refresher on a regular basis. We have first aid refreshers, ROE training refreshers, and of course range training.

Yesterday was a pretty rainy day in Kabul, and just as you might expect, it was also the day appointed for us to go to the range. There’s only a small contingent of Canadians where I work, but we’re close to another bunch, so we pool some of our training activities, so off we drove to the 100m range. It’s a rather unusual setting, more austere than a range at home, but that’s not shocking. The plan was to do some rifle zero confirmation (that is, making sure what you see through our optical sight matches where the bullets are hitting) for those who needed it, and then do some transition shooting. That means switching between rifle/carbine and pistol, which you might need to do if for some reason your rifle fails to fire and you need to get rounds down range.

Arriving at the range, which was a good test of the four wheel drive in the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser we had for the day, we discovered the rain had created a vast sea of sucking, heavy mud. Trudging around in it wasn’t much fun, and I found myself rather glad that I had jumped at a chance to do my zeroing already, because to do it right, you have to shoot from the prone, and laying in a mud pit wasn’t my idea of a good time. Transitions, on the other hand, weren’t so bad – but it went quickly, and I honestly can’t complain, because the wind, the rain, and the wet was just unpleasant, and I was happy to get back to camp and go to the gym to warm up. The range we went to faces into a mountain, but has lots of pasture land around, and several herds of goats and sheep could be seen, their tenders paying little attention to us.

On ranges in Canada, at the end of the day’s shooting, you have to pick up brass – all the spent casings. On courses, it’s common for staff to threaten some punishment for missing any – usually 10 pushups per casing. Here, before we could even imagine picking up any brass, the ANA tend to race down to take care of it. Brass is valuable, after all. The speed with which they work makes me think that they’re the closest thing to the mythical “brass magnet” that we suggest recruits should have brought with them.

One of the training/professional development events coming up will be a rather amusing fusion of my two careers – recently, a change to the retirement benefits Canadian soldiers get was announced. It’s similar to what was done for civilian defence employees last year, which kept me busy at my day job, so I’m going to run a little seminar for my colleagues who are impacted so I can help them understand what’s changing and the financial implications. Kind of funny to see my two professions collide, but I got enough requests that it only made sense.

Things are going well. Kabul is back to normal after last week’s attack, and I traveled through the city including past the site of one of the incidents shortly after and there was no real sign of anything having happened. Life has returned to normal, I think.

A bit about Kabul. I’ll try to get some pictures at some point, but it’s a bit of a crazy city. I’ve never seen traffic anything like it. Most intersections are traffic circles with police trying to direct traffic, but the reality is that they are trying to shoehorn chaos and it barely works. Add to this pandemonium seemingly aimless pedestrians everywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster, though it doesn’t seem like there’s that many real accidents. Most vehicles are Toyota Corollas imported from everywhere. Canadian ones are particularly prized apparently, and often have Canadian flag stickers on them. Where I used to live, in Oshawa, Ontario, an Afghan-Canadian who owned a pizza shop had a side business of buying used Corollas and sending them over – there were always several parked in front of his shop. There’s also a wide assortment of buses (often old German ones) and trucks (again, commonly German, with their original marking intact), and Toyota HiAce minivans, into which you can pack about 45 Afghans.. Often an Afghan license plate is simply put on top of the original German/European one. The other popular means of conveyance are motorcycles – generally Japanese or Chinese bikes, normally 150cc or so. They’re often adorned with all sorts of personalization – flags, stickers, tassels, and carpets on the seats. They make me miss bikes, but I’ve picked out my new one for when I get home.

Signs are everywhere advertising the latest technology – 3G phones are now available here, with Roshan and Etisalat rolling out their networks. Cell phone adds are most common, but you’ll see advertising for banks, insurance companies, and so on. Business is brisk, often in little shops, but new office/commercial buildings are everywhere as well, and there’s lots under construction (though it’s from buildings under construction that the most serious attacks have been launched). In addition to internet cafes and schools, you’ll see bakeries with footbread hanging on display (they generally sport fluorescent orange and yellow awnings, I’ve noticed), and butcher shops with meat just hanging out in the open – a little bit bizarre. Apparently, some of our guys saw a cow being slaughtered in the street in the city, locals didn’t seem to think anything of it. Not exactly what you’d expect at home.

What is most astounding is the sprawl, though. Kabul’s surrounded by steep mountains, and settlements are built all up them – little goat track-like roads lead up almost impossibly steep slopes to shanty towns which make me think of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. They’re a sign of the real problem – Kabul was a city of about 500,000 until just a few years ago, now estimates place its population anywhere from 2-5 million – and the city doesn’t have adequate housing or services for them. That’s an issue they’ll have to tackle over time – but how, I’m not sure.

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Transition

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Transition is the big buzzword for the entirety of NTM-A – of ISAF in general, and the goal of everything we’re doing here. We’re trying to build and develop the institutions necessary for the government here to be able to function. So the international community is involved in virtually every aspect of governance – security, economic development, fighting corruption, and so on. It isn’t a small job.

In my little corner of the world, we’re trying to figure out how to enable the Afghan National Security Forces to keep delivering the specific training that is our bailiwick. I work at what we call the “Centre of Excellence”, which means we control the course curriculum and make sure it reflects current doctrine, and manage the pool of qualified instructors. The trick is that keeping it all centralized in Kabul is not an effective strategy. Transition means that “we” becomes “them” – the ANSF. We’re gradually handing over the day to day operations to our ANA partners. They have some great instructors here, and of course some not so great ones. That’s not a uniquely Afghan problem, of course – all armies have that problem. They are presently running our “flagship” course at the moment, entirely with Afghan instructors, with us monitoring and validating the material. So far, it’s going pretty well. They’re getting slowly accustomed to the idea of having to plan for running training, but we still find that there’s a lot of cases where they cannot seem to plan ahead for even basic things. One has to wonder if they just know that we’ll swoop in and save the day. Why expend effort when you know it’ll work out anyhow? I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s a logical argument to be made that it could be possible.

However, the bigger challenge to deal with is trying to decentralize as much as possible. Right now, with our infrastructure and capabilities, we can send mobile training teams out to the various regional training centres. We can communicate by email, video teleconferencing, and so on. We can overcome the distance between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan with relative ease. As transition happens, that won’t be so easy, because the massive amount of ISAF resources will start being withdrawn. As a result, our efforts are building around making sure that the system that will be in place when it’s time for us to go will be functional at the lowest possible level. That means we’ll have a busy few months ahead, because we want to get as much of “the knowledge” distributed to as many qualified instructors as possible throughout the country.

Tackling that challenge has several issues, firstly coming to understand the training system that the ANA uses. I think it’s derived from the US military system (which is the source of a lot of ANA doctrine). When we got my initial explanation of it, that there are five “levels” of instructors, my colleagues and I were shocked trying to understand how that could possible work, it seemed far too complicated for really anyone. Fortunately, the briefing we got on the transition concept made it a lot more clear, it actually sounds like a formalization of systems we use, to a certain extent. The top level is the Centre Of Excellence, the group that knows the most current doctrine and creates all the training products, and then the the subsequent levels have levels of instructor training that corresponds with different degrees of detail. We have the material broken down to a basic level that is what a Private needs to know, that his squad leader/section commander can teach him, then various levels of depth aimed at different command levels.

What we have to do, by the time we reach our transition deadline, is have a system in place where the outlying regions can run their own training, at the highest possible level, without much direction or management from Kabul. We have to build it to work at a level where all the communication they’ll need on routine training matters can be done by telephone. We’re also advocating to get the Ministry of Defence to mandate our training, so that anywhere that is resistant to implementing it gets on with it – but we’ve found that’s not really a big deal so far, because our Afghan partners are pretty good at selling people on it. When we travel, we’re not only trying to teach people, we’re really pushing people to build our material into their training even before they’re mandated to do it.

If everything works right, we’ll be able to hand over the entire institution to ANA control, and they’ll be self-sustaining.

If.

It’s not easy. There are a lot of challenges. Obviously, everyone knows the basic ones – illiteracy and innumeracy make even the most basic tasks complicated. That’s improving though, because literacy training is becoming a big focus of the ANSF. In fact, someone told me a while back that it was one of the draws for recruiting – join up, and you’ll be taught to read and write. That has to be a huge incentive. Another significant challenge is attributed to the original organization of the ANSF by the Soviets even before the occupation. In Soviet-style militaries, the idea of a professional, empowered corps of non-commissioned officers doesn’t really register. In Western armies, NCOs deal with most of the administration, and also have a lot of training responsibilities. They have authority to make decisions and a respected for holding these rolls. In fact, a great deal of training I as a Canadian officer received was delivered by NCOs – they taught my drill, weapons, fieldcraft, and all the basic soldier skills. The only thing officers specifically teach is tactics. ANSF NCOs do not seem to have anywhere near this responsibility – but there’s a lot of effort going into developing a professional, effective NCO corps. The ramifications of this are significant though – even Canadian NCOs here – who are as qualified as I to teach (and in some cases far more qualified) don’t get to because it’s seen as being “wrong”. So getting a lot of things done involves a lot more effort than we’re used to because officers wind up doing everything. It’s seen as prestigious to have control over everything possible, whereas from the perspective of a western military, delegating authority as low as possible makes things run more efficiently and effectively. We train even the most junior solder “two up” – meaning he knows the basics of the job of the guy directly above him, and the guy above him. We don’t expect them to be expert at it – but they have the basic tools to take over. And we expect them to be able to make decisions based on knowing the bigger picture plan in detail. We prize initiative, Afghans prize deference to rank/position/seniority and discourage initiative. A junior officer won’t likely challenge his commander, an NCO absolutely won’t, not even to present a good idea. We have to try to work on that, but it’s not something we’re likely to change.

That’s why we talk about Afghan Good or Afghan Good Enough – it’s not meant as a pejorative or a dismissive term – it’s just a realization that we can’t change everything, but if we can start inculcating some of the basic concepts that make things we do work better, then we’re making some progress. If we can harness the collaborative approach to governance that Afghans understand and apply it to military structures, we can probably approximate initiative. If we can get key people throughout the country to understand more concepts, we can make sure that the ANSF as a whole gets trained better. If that momentum keeps up, then we can see a functioning institution developing. As we withdraw our support – that piece of the puzzle of Afghanistan’s future can come together. And if all the different trainers and mentors and advisors can accomplish that within their little piece of the enigma of Afghanistan, then everything can come together for this country. Yes, it sounds very idealistic, but it’s possible.

Part of supporting that process, I went to a fairly high-level mentor conference the other day- probably over my head. It was more focused on the operational mentoring which goes on at ANA units, which Canada used to be involved in, but has since withdrawn from. It was interesting to hear the discussions about some of the challenges that are being dealt with – logistics being a major one, illiteracy, cultural complications, and so on. The fact that different people got together to discuss them, and that ideas were shared about dealing with them shows there’s potential for progress. As part of the USA’s plans to shift to more Security Force Assistance they’re building in a lot more emphasis on improving advisory capacity including these sorts of “Professional Development Days” and it seems like a good idea.

Written by Nick

April 19, 2012 at 1:21 am

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Here, from another blog I quite enjoy, is some info on what happened yesterday, and a pretty good take on it. I particularly agree with the derision about the comparison to the Tet Offensive. That’s probably the most nonsensical comment I’ve ever heard. It was nothing like Tet at all.

Written by Nick

April 16, 2012 at 3:00 am