Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘army life

Site Stats And So On

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WordPress, which hosts this little blog, is pretty neat in that it offers me a bit of a “statistical analysis” of where hits come from – what countries, what sites refer, and even what people type in to Google or other search engines that gets them here. Some of the Google terms are bizarre, I must admit. Some of them make me laugh, and some are totally random. What’s interesting is that a lot of them are questions that I could actually probably answer if someone posted comments to ask the question rather than just realizing that the search terms haven’t gotten them to where they want to be.

Some of them are pretty simple: How long is the flight from Leatherneck to Kabul? About an hour and a half. Add half an our or so on each side while they load and unload kit. Oh, and in that 30 minutes, expect to be sitting in stifling heat with no airflow. Hydrate before you go.

Is there a PX at Camp Clark? Not when I was there. There were Afghan shops that sell everything anyhow.

What’s the daily routine of a soldier in Afghanistan? There isn’t one – everyone has different jobs, different demands, different op tempos. Someone wanting to know for themselves if they’re deploying would have to ask the people they’re replacing.

Why don’t Afghans get along? Actual search term the other day. Complex question, not one I’ve got the scope to answer, but reading Afghan history will help.

Where is the massage place at BAF? Near the PX off Disney Drive. It’s inside the barber shop which is around the corner from the Harley-Davidson dealership and more or less behind the Pizza Hut. One hour is $30. Make sure you bring PT shorts.

How can I convince my Afghan mom to let me use tampons? Wow. Er, well, I got nothing for that, you’re on your own there, anonymous Google person. That is probably the most bizarre one of bunch so far.

Lots of questions about care packages. All I can say is ask the person you’re sending them to if they want anything specific, because it varies. We get all sorts of strange and bizarre stuff.  Popular things around our way are freezies and microwave popcorn, but for people living on more austere FOBs, well, those aren’t so useful. Universally useful things are those little drink crystal pouches, the single serving ones, Starbucks VIA coffee packs, beef jerky, candies that don’t melt, and things like that. But really, if you’re sending one to someone specific, just ask them what they want.

It’s interesting to see where all these hits come from, because it’s not as though I actually make any effort to “promote” this, and it’s as much for me to remember stuff as anything else, while telling stories a bit.

So much for those plans!

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Our range day didn’t happen, because apparently there’s not quite a perfect system for coordinating when the range can be used. We used to go up onto the ANA garrison to use their range, but a range has been rebuilt closer to camp and just opened. Well, sort of. See, because we are in a fairly densely populated area, ranges aren’t just, as one of my Twitter mates said, “thataway…” – you can’t just shoot anywhere in a populated area. The new range is set up reasonably well, but there’s a road that runs behind it to one of the local “tourist attractions”, and it turns out that being a really nice day there was a lot of tourists out and about. So after waiting to try to account for everyone so we could go live, we got word to just shut it down.

Oh well. It was a good little hike to get there in full battle rattle, I’ll call it supplementary PT or something, and life goes on.

As we were there, getting a team picture taken, our Sergeant Major (not the one I’ve mentioned before, who’s just gone back to Australia in fact), says “So I found this interesting blog last night about CTC-A and about someone who works there traveling to Germany.” I laughed, because while I’ve not hidden this (obviously), I’ve also not publicized it particularly. And because I don’t know how people will react, for PERSEC reasons as well, I don’t mention anyone by name or really at all – I figure it’s just a better way to do things, after all. But it is an interesting cast of characters here, one that’s changed several times while I’ve been here as people come and go and the institution gets smaller. What’s amazing about the place is that we pretty much all get along well, which isn’t always the way things go in any workplace, and when thinking of your regular average job, add into that that we work longer hours, and we live in close quarters too. It’s not like you have a social life separate from your work life really – they basically merge, albeit it not perfectly. We work out on different schedules. Thursday nights I play trivia with Brits, most of the lads watch a movie in the office – it varies a bit. But we’re rarely far from each other, we eat most of our meals together, and so on. I guess we’d have to get along whether we want to or not, when you think about it.

Written by Nick

June 15, 2012 at 8:02 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.

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

Some Real Military Tourism – Well, Business Travel, More Like

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One of the more interesting facets of my job is getting to see a bit of the country supporting training activities. Recently, the ANA instructors at my school organized a course to be run outside of Kabul, and as mentors we traveled with them to observe the course. We were prepared to teach if need be, because one thing that can be a challenge is getting instructors to where the courses are happening. This course looked like it was going to have trouble running at first because some of the staffing requirements weren’t being met, however, it did come together alright in the end. So off I went to Camp Clark in Khost Province, located in eastern Afghanistan, with two ANA officer instructors and the rest of my mentor team.

Getting there was an experience.

It started with a flight to Bagram Airfield, the main US air hub in Afghanistan. We spent more time on the taxiway in the aircraft (on the hilariously named “Inshallah Airlines”, a civilian contracted airline with connects all sorts of places in Afghanistan, hubbed out of BAF) then we did in the air. Arriving at BAF we had a chance to visit Green Beans for a Spiced Chai Latte (arguably the greatest consumable item in the entire country), have something to eat, and catch the next flight out to an American FOB in Khost. FOB Salerno is a fairly large place, home currently to “Task Force Sparta” (unlike Canada, the Americans give their task forces awe-inspiring names, we just use numbers). Unfortunately we didn’t have a flight lined up from there onward, and couldn’t get out, so we spent the night there.

The flight was interesting, seeing the mountainous terrain, and the patches of green from irrigated fields along watercourses that probably carry runoff from snowcaps down from the hills. As we went more to the east more and more green became visible, striking against the generally brown rocky terrain which some people call “moonscape”. Afghan homes are walled compounds, and it was bizarre to see some of them sitting appearing totally isolated throughout the wildly varied landscape. Gradually the settlements became more dense as we got to our destination.

FOB Salerno has an interesting nickname – “Rocket City” from the rather large quantity of indirect fire it receives – or rather, received as things have quieted down, chiefly in the form of Chinese-made 107mm rockets. No, none landed while we were there – and realistically, such incidents are generally rare anyhow. I knew this before going though, so I did make a point of noting where the bunkers were around us just to be safe. There wasn’t exactly any shortage.

We had a stroll around the PX, picking up a couple of things that I can’t get easily where I am, and hit the gym and the basketball court, where I displayed a complete inability to play that particular sport (which, sadly, is the case for most sports), so I recused myself and just went and did some cardio instead in the biggest gym I’ve seen here yet. Dinner was a pretty tasty Afghan chicken curry. We visited Green Beans again, and sat out on the patio (in the dark, there aren’t any lights on at night for security reasons there), and talked about all sorts of things until we realized we were all absolutely bagged. After a long day traveling, I went to bed in not the most comfortable transient quarters.

The next morning, we were up early to catch a flight over to Camp Clark where we jumped straight into delivering the course.

Now, Camp Clark is something of a well-kept open secret among all the different posts and bases and so on. Not only is it set in rather picturesque surroundings (mind you, so is FOB Salerno, and it has trees!), but it is home to a guy by the name of George Piccardi, who is probably the greatest contributor to morale ever. George is a chef who’s been there for years, and he does a lot more than is normally expected of a civilian contractor to keep up morale. A more detailed explanation of his contribution is here. George oversees great meals, and events that keep morale high. We enjoyed amazing steaks, great ribs, enchiladas, and all sorts of other goodies during our stay there, and given that there are almost no other soldiers but Americans there, we stood out so he made sure we felt welcome.

We only wish we could persuade him to decamp to Kabul, specifically to our corner of it.

The actual manager of the DFAC there, it turns out, is Canadian, he spotted my uniform and came over, looking rather stunned that there was a Canuck where we aren’t normally to be found – he too gave us a sincere “if you need anything, we’ll hook you up…” He’s been here for about as long as George, eight years or so. I don’t know how they do it, but people like this are what really make a difference in the lives of people deployed. We did a lot of extra PT while we were there, but I think I probably gained some weight from indulging in the various wonderful creations on offer.

The course itself was a smashing success, the Afghan students were engaged and saw value in the course material, offered suggestions on how to improve it, and gave us some ideas to work with for the future. We got requests to have chai with almost everyone there, but only were able to take up the offer with the base fire chief who was keen to show off his garden and gazebo, talk about his life and so on. We were then treated to a rather cryptic “demonstration” afterward. It’s interesting that in that part of the country gardens seem to be popular and a source of great pride to people. My mother would be impressed I think. My little knowledge of Dari was mostly useless there, because Pashto is the more common language there, and I’m pretty much useless with it. We did alright though, with both the interpreter we traveled with, and one from out there who gave us a lot of really great information, and told his story of growing up in a camp in Pakistan, teaching himself English, and making quite a decent life for himself.

I also got to present some of the all-important course certificates. Afghan graduations are something to see. The physical certificate is key – and we had some challenges getting them in time but managed by daring and guile to pull it off. The graduate, on being called, will march up (and Afghan drill is Russian in origin, sort of!), announce who he is and that he is ready to receive his certificate, which on being presented it is held high for all to say while he yells “To Better Serve Afghanistan”. It’s really something else.

Returning was more or less the same, though we lucked into a flight out of BAF just as we arrived (it was running late and we got Space-A), so endless waits were avoided. BAF is a massive place, huge amounts of air traffic – cargo aircraft of every description, including some more “obscure” types, like Antonov An-72 Coalers – a small STOL cargo aircraft with its engine nacelles on top of its wings, which give it a distinctive look. It’s done to improve its short field performance, and they can definitely stop on a dime, I noticed. I was craning my neck constantly, as something of an aviation buff, to see all the different aircraft, different liveries, and so on.

Arriving in Kabul, we visited an Italian-run restaurant for some expensive but very tasty pizza and had a stroll through the German PX where I almost parted with a good chunk of money on a couple of items, but I thought better of it and decided not to. I was a good decision – I found some of the stuff I was looking at cheaper elsewhere. We cruised back to camp through the city with remarkably little traffic, and I actually got a chance to see more of it in daylight than usual. It’s a strangely beautiful place in a lot of ways – especially if you don’t look too closely. There’s the city walls and ancient fortresses, the houses built up the sides of the mountains that look so precarious – and advertising for all the amenities of the modern world all smashed together. 3G cellular service has just come to Kabul, and ads everywhere let you know.

Now I’m back in the office getting organized for a busy month ahead. We’ve got a little more clarity on our own transition plans, and that’s great because it gives us something to work with in terms of planning. Works for me.

Written by Nick

April 9, 2012 at 6:56 am

Mail Call

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I returned from a little trip to discover a huge amount of mail waiting for me – two unexpected boxes.

One came from the Halifax MFRC, a box with some Easter Candy and some other goodies, and a couple of cards from school kids in Nova Scotia, so I’m going to have to send a letter back to their school at some point soon. I almost wish I had a photo printer, but what I think I’ll do is add some pictures to flickr and send them a link to see them. Or something like that. They apparently send along a box every season, which is great. It had some copies of The Coast and some other stuff. They also apparently had Tourism Nova Scotia send another copy of the NS travel guide, because I got one already and had another arrive. It’s just nice to see pictures of home. And maybe entice some of my colleagues to plan a trip there.

I got an expected box from my folks with some beef jerky and some Mexican candy (Pulparindo – whoever combined tamarind and chili is a genius) that they get down in Arizona for me – and also a Toblerone that I’ve hidden away for a “rainy day”. I also got a package from my lovely wife including some awesome fudge and some other things I asked for from home. It actually arrived in pretty good time, though the box of pashminas and other goodies I sent here hasn’t made it there yet. I’m still also waiting on my Keurig replacement, which as of last week was in Kuwait or something, but who knows when it’ll turn up. It’s just going to go back into my MOB because we have a functioning machine.

The funniest package, however, came from a friend of mine who’s a brother officer and my most common partner in crime before he moved to Ottawa. On packages, you have to list on the outside what is in the box, and his list was hilarious.

In the CF, for some reason, we choose a bizarre way of labeling/describing items. For example, the tunic/shirt I usually wear is officially known as “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR.” On my feet, I wear “Boots, Hot Weather”. We stretch these descriptions to ridiculous ends at times. Things like “Pencil, Mechanical, 0.5mm, High Speed Low Drag Type”. To these descriptions on our EIS (Equipment Issue Scale) the number you get is added. So it’s “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR, 4 each”.

So, among the items listed were “Coffee, freeze dried, hipster, 16 ea.”, “Mix, drink, sports, assorted, 20 ea.” and “Book, Reference, 1 ea.”. Maybe it’s not so funny to the average flat-faced civvie, but it got a good chuckle from everyone here. He also sent along some spices I’ll need to figure out good uses for, but if I don’t they’ll serve me well at home anyhow.

The funny thing is I’ve gotten so many offers for getting things sent over, but in reality, there’s not much I really need – we have so much of almost everything available, and I’m pretty comfortably situated to get anything else. If the shops here don’t have something, I can just ask and they’ll find it. Even that’s not a big issue. I have an allowance for myself of spending money (based on what I have to keep here) and I don’t get anywhere near it normally.

Written by Nick

April 7, 2012 at 2:38 am

Please, Don’t Fret About Coffee

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I know many of you have been worried about the coffee situation here.

It’s okay. We’re going to be okay. A massive stepdown transformer magically appeared which is powering the Keurig we “found”, and the wonderful folks at Keurig are replacing my machine anyhow, which is awesome. My colleagues are now scrambling to order their own K-Cups as I’m not planning on supporting them forever. We’ll survive okay.

In addition to that triumph, I’m also incredibly happy with the memory foam/gel mattress cover thing I picked up at Costco for my UAB. It took a bit of a struggle to get the thing on to my top bunk, but I think it’s probably just about the best $100 I have ever spent. Good sleep is key to everything, after all.

Beyond that, life is moving along just fine. We’re figuring out how the transition process for the school I’m working at, which will determine how long we are actually here. There’s a bit of a luxury in not having an end date, because I’m not “counting down the days” until the end. Officially, our redeployment plan starts in October, but we’ll have more clarity when the overall plan for the school I’m working at emerges. I’m hoping we don’t get cut too short.

I’ve got a Word document that I’m slowly building an itinerary for leave for – it is a good way to take a break from work to start doing research on the various destinations. I’ve got another month or so before I can officially book everything, but I’m mainly trying to figure out what to do in each of the cities we are visiting. Berlin has some amazing walking tours (and a zoo) that we’re planning on. Budapest has a very highly recommended guide that I think we’ll hire for a day tour, and Prague – well, Prague I haven’t really gotten to researching yet. But I know the major sites to start working with. I also am trying to pin down a budget for the trip, because while I want to enjoy it, I don’t want to blow everything. I’m so far pretty happy with the fact that my HLTA allowance should cover all the major travel expenses (flights and rail passes), and I’ve found pretty good accommodations for fairly cheap rates, without staying in pits.

The only real variable is my wife’s vacation time. She booked off the time I was going to be off originally, but plans changed and now she’s having some issues with getting the time off. Hopefully it’ll resolve itself in time.

April looks to be a busy month, with several training events happening, and some travel for me lined up. We’re experiencing some of the challenges of transition already, getting movements of instructors approved, getting lesson plans and resources sorted out, and so on. There’s even challenges with getting our own movements sorted out – everyone has to be accounted for, and with small groups traveling everything needs coordination, but in the end it’s all coming together, and we’re getting things taken care of. It should be a good chance to see a little more of the country, and to meet more of my peers, interesting things indeed. It means my roommate will get the room to himself for a while (which is probably good for him, I snore like a bastard), as well.

I’m also starting slowly to think about post-tour things – like work and longer term career plans, most specifically more education. I don’t know how it will all fit together, but I’d really like to return to school, even if only part time, because I think having only an undergraduate degree isn’t enough for me – I’ve got so many different ideas about what I want to do next that none of them have completely gelled though, and that’s making things complicated in a way. I know that I while I’m likely going to stay in the same field, but I don’t think I want to return to the same job, necessarily. I have something of a luxury in working for a very large firm with almost limitless possibilities though, so as my goals and ideas become clearer, I’ll start engaging them about where to go next. I’ve got some ideas, already, but they’re just not quite clear.

Written by Nick

March 29, 2012 at 2:41 am