Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Death By PowerPoint

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.

Courses, Sandstorms, Leave Plans, And Motorcycles

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks here, mainly with coursework. I completed a couple of courses which were both incredibly interesting, and incredibly frustrating at the same time. The first course on counterinsurgency featured some long days, but generally interesting material. The second course was on the District Stability Framework, the “way forward” in taking care of the non-kinetic aspects of building a stable Afghanistan. In military speak, “kinetic” operations mean basically killing people (ideally incorrigible insurgents who deserve it), “non-kinetic” operations are those which do not involve the use of force. Ideally, we want to maximize non-kinetic operations, I guess you could say. The reality is that at this point, dealing with security is a responsibility we want to shift to the ANSF, while ISAF works more toward advising and capacity building and draws down toward 2014 when the majority of coalition forces leave and Afghanistan, we hope, can start to take its first steps on its own. There will be a lot of support required in those initial steps, but it’ll be more in the development aid area, vice military aid.

DSF was interesting but in a way frustrating, as I suggested above, because the civilians involved in the course have a very different point of view from the military, and in group practical exercises it was hard sometimes to overcome the biases we carry toward each other. It was also made difficult by the fact that all of the facilitators usually involved were not available, leaving the lion’s share of work to a friend of mine, a junior officer from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who is actually the guy I’m replacing. He did a brilliant job of fending off some difficult questions and challenges and managed to keep things mostly on track. Mostly.

I was supposed to miss the last day of the course, because I was all set and rather excited to accompany my institution’s director on a liaison visit to one of the regions where we support courses, out in eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad. I had my bags all packed, threw on all my battle rattle, and came to the office ready to catch a ride to the HLS to board a helicopter, only to learn that I had a missed call on my phone from the Operations Officer calling to tell me that due to a dust storm (my first), helos weren’t flying for routine operations, and we weren’t going anywhere. I was disappointed, and I suspect my roommate was too, because he was going to get the place to himself for a few days, and I happen to know all too well that I snore like a bastard, so I’m sure it’d have been appreciated.

Fortunately, there’s another trip planned to another site in a couple weeks’ time, and hopefully that one won’t be impaired. However, I understand Kabul’s spring is sometimes called “120 Days of Winds”, and if they’re like today’s, well, who knows what will happen. We’ll just have to watch and shoot, as the saying goes.

I have to say, my first sand/dust storm was interesting. The way the sky looks, the way it feels, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, and stupidly I didn’t grab a camera. However, it’s supposed to continue for a while, so I’m sure I’ll have the chance. I’d like to add more pictures here, but uploading them is a nightmare as I work off a ridiculously slow connection and it’s painful at times.

My fallback plan to occupy my mind was starting to plan for my leave. I got word a few days ago that my dates had been changed. I had one of the last leave blocks, and they’ve apparently eliminated that block so I got moved earlier, to August instead of mid-September. That’s probably because I’ll likely be coming home a little earlier than originally planned, but that’s the nature of the beast. This causes a little problem because my wife had the time booked off and it’s not clear that she’ll be able to change it, but we’ll hope for the best with lots of time to work on resolutions.

I think I explained a bit about HLTA before – it’s basically a travel allowance for when we go on leave that’s based on the cost of traveling home to Canada, but it can be used to go to a “third location”, and to bring your next of kin to meet you there. What I’m looking at doing right now is flying to Frankfurt, Germany, and meeting my wife there (because she should in theory be able to get a direct flight from Halifax), spending a couple of weeks exploring Europe, and then I’m going to head back here with a short side trip to Jordan. I’ve wanted to see Petra for as long as I’ve known it existed, and conveniently, I work with a Jordanian Army officer here who’s not only stirred that by having the camp plastered with Jordanian tourist posters, but he’s also offered to help organize the trip for me. My wife might come, she might not. But I played around with flight schedules and managed to make it all work potentially, and without even spending all my allowance (yet, anyhow), so we’ll have some to use on rail passes or something like that. It’s a long way off, but starting to plan for it makes me have something to look forward to, and when I get back from leave, things will be winding down nicely here.

My other occasional diversion is motorcycle shopping. I basically consigned my bike (a 2003 Suzuki Intruder VS800) back to the dealer who hooked me up with it for a steal, and should have a good chunk in trade for when I get home. Most of what I save up from being here is going to deal with paying off debts and retirement savings and things like that (and to making the leave trip awesome), but my one “reward” for deploying is a new bike. I’m looking at a Suzuki VStrom for the simple reason that I want a touring bike, and frankly, that bike’s pretty incredible as a commuting bike, a long haul tourer, and so on. I thought I’d go for something more “classic”, but it really struck me when I first saw one at the dealer. I’m debating between the 650cc version and 1000cc version, but I think I’ll go with the 650. It’ll be cheaper to insure, and according to all the reviews I’ve seen, more than adequate for the long rides I like – including quite possibly a tear down to Arizona where my parents winter. I’m thinking ride down, leave the bike there for the winter, fly back in the spring and ride home (via a different route), but we’ll see. My wife may have different ideas about what I do right when I get home.

Well, I don’t have much else to report on for now – things are good. We sent off a few people who are headed home, and there’s something of a tradition of roasting departing team mates, which last night turned into a good ribbing of each other’s cultures, primarily done in the form of YouTube videos. My contribution was introducing our American and Coalition Friends to Rick Mercer’s Talking To Americans, and ribbing our Italian brother with the hilarious “Europe & Italy”, a crude but funny animation on cultural differences that I found to be 100% true in the week I spent there in 2005. Good laughs make the thought of someone leaving “for good” easier, but reality is that life-long friendships are made here, and military folks have an amazing and constantly expanding networks of people who will insist on offering hospitality whenever you’re in the neighbourhood.

And with that all said, I’m going to bed.

What, Exactly, Are We Doing Here?

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A lot of Canadians don’t even seem particularly aware that there are still about 950 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan these days. In part, it’s probably because there haven’t been casualty reports lately (save, unfortunately, for MCpl Bryon Greff, who was killed not all that far from where I’m sitting right now typing this). Most people thought the reporting that our mission in Kandahar has ended meant that our commitment to Afghanistan has ended, but it of course hasn’t. I’m interested to see what the Public Affairs folks here do to keep getting the word out, and unless my primary duties preclude it, I’m even considering offering to try to help in a more official way. We’ll see what happens.

So, what are we doing here? Well, in broad terms, we’re here as part of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan, contributing to efforts to train and develop the Afghan National Security Forces. There are Canadians working at a number of ANA and ANP schools, helping them develop the ability to deliver their own training to their soldiers and police, so that they can build sustainable, professional security forces. There’s a massive number of military trades represented among us. Infanteers, Artillerymen, Signallers, Pilots, Intelligence folks, Logisticians, and so on. A chunk of the 950 or so is the National Command and Support Element, the people who keep us fed, paid, organized, led, and so on – but the majority are advisors, I think.

But still, that doesn’t really answer the question, so here’s what I can do. Here’s what a day in my life looks like right now.

I usually (and usually means “for the last few days”, since it’s pretty early…) get up around 6:30-7. I don’t usually go to the gym first thing in the morning, and there’s a twofold reason for that – I don’t like getting up early, and it’s usually busiest then, plus my day allows me to go later, particularly for the torturous but awesome circuit training that the Brits run most afternoons.

I walk to the office (which is not exactly far – maybe 150 metres?), drop off my laptop and whatever else, and head to the DFAC for breakfast and to fill my mug up – right now generally with tea, because the coffee here is terrible, and I have some amazing Hot Rod tea from World Tea House in Halifax with me (which reminds me, I need to get more sent over!). In theory, I’m supposed to be in the office at 8, but generally I meet my colleagues at breakfast, and we head back when we head back. Our ANA counterparts and interpreters usually arrive around the same time.

Where I work is one of those schools, and my job is part of what’s called the Validation Team, part of the Mentoring Cell which aims to improve the Afghans’ ability to deliver training to their soldiers. Right now, we’re between courses, so the ANA have undertaken a sort of  self-validation/professional development project with their instructors. This is real progress, something that the Coalition has been trying to get them to do for a long time, and they’ve now embraced it (and framed it as their initiative, which is fine). What they’re doing is what we call teaching mutuals – that is, the instructors are teaching classes to each other, allowing them to essentially rehearse in a safe environment. They critique each other, and we are there to also provide some critique. It’s interesting sitting watching the lessons and having a Dari interpreter translate for me – though they’re generally very familiar with the material (they could probably teach it effectively!), so what we’ve been doing is asking them to come up with points where they didn’t explain things well etc so we can target them with questions.

My first few of these I didn’t have an interpreter for all of, but I still was able to provide some good feedback on general teaching styles. One of the instructors has the same problem I do – he talks really, really fast – gets excited and loses people. I was able to take him aside and tell him some strategies I use to deal with that, and this morning he taught again, a much better performance overall. That’s tangible progress.

Once those are done for the day, I’ll usually retire to the office, check email and see what’s going on in the world, we have meetings about upcoming events, that sort of mundane stuff, and then the gym or whatever. The letter of the law says we are “on the clock” and have to be in uniform until 8pm (though gym time is included – PT kit is, after all, a uniform). Back to my room or the office to watch movies, check Facebook, write blog posts, Skype with my wife or my parents, and that sort of thing, and up and at it again the next day.

When courses are running, we do the same sort of thing – monitoring lessons, but we don’t say anything, there’s no critique during the class. One of our goals is to get the Afghans to discover a process we use called AARs – After Action Reviews – a debrief of what was done during the day, essentially. That will allow them to learn from what they’ve done. We’ve also got advisors here to help them get better with logistics, planning, and administration so the school will function better. That’s the milestone we want to hit before we go. Things do take time here, but what I’m seeing – even in a short period of time – is that there’s progress being made. The Afghans we work with are genuinely invested in taking responsibility for their country and serving it loyally – and that’s what this place will need to have what we’re trying to build endure. I’m generally an optimist, but I really do think we can pull this off.

Written by Nick

March 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Down To The Short Strokes

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I knew this week was going to be terrible. I don’t have a clerk working for me at the moment as he’s on a course that I’m sure will benefit us all when we leave. Thus, I had to very quickly learn how clerks work their magic in order to get my entire contingent’s files in order.

It’s a good thing I tend to be a quick study. Monday night, the S3 (Ops/Training Guy) and I “stayed after school” going through about 80 files making sure they were set to be turned in to the Orderly Room, where they then go up to be signed off by the CO to confirm the member is ready to deploy.

The file includes all sorts of different components, the key to which is the Personal Readiness Verification form, which all sorts of people have to sign off as being “Green”. If anything isn’t Green, then we can’t deploy the soldier. Turns out that a good chunk of the files aren’t all Green, and so we were trying to figure out who needed to be fixed, what they needed, and how we could go about getting it done. It was a long night, but a fairly successful one. We had our boss stop in for a while so he could sign off his component, and he made a point of commenting on how well we were working together. The mutual desire to get the hell out of there was probably the best motivator we had.

As of tonight, we’ve got most of them done and turned in, and tomorrow I’ll have the last of them done, or at least most. There’s some troops with some issues that have more complex fixes, but I’m going to sent them into the clerks with a proposed plan, and they should be good to go before the drop dead date, when the sole person who can do the final signoff gets on the plane. That should be enough time. Of course, part of the hold up was that some documents were missing and no one bothered to tell me that there was a file in the Orderly Room where they were also collecting outstanding items. A good chunk of the stuff we were waiting for was there.

My other trick is the collection of another, unrelated document. By its nature, it’s got to be handled in a specific manner, and that’s complicating things a bit. I’m done 90% of them now too, but the last few were on a memory stick that belongs to someone else, and now I’m trying to get it back from that person who’s been off on training. Should be sorted tomorrow, but it’s annoying. And normally, it’s not even the S1’s responsibility – “we” just “volunteered” because the Ops guys who normally responsible for it are working like rented mules right now trying to sort out the last of the training requirements.

Friday at 4pm I’m out of here. Friday. 4pm. The Barrack Warden will come by, make sure I cleaned my room, and kick me out. And it’ll be back to Halifax. With a stop at St-Hubert in Moncton for dinner – because I haven’t had it in a long time and it sounds really, really good. Serenity Now.

It’s not done yet, of course – so much to do. I started packing today. Problem is that I basically have the luggage I can take overseas here with me – but a lot more stuff than I will be taking and I have to try to fit it all in. I’m going to have to ask my wife to bring an extra bag with her when to finish packing. I have a system set up though – I’m trying to pack my carry on back exactly as it will be when I go (Less my Kindles. Yes, Kindles, plural. I have two.) and leave it as it. The amount of stuff that has to go in there is rather ridiculous. I was thinking I’d put my laptop in there. But it’s not going to fit, I don’t think. It’ll go in my barrack box.

I think it’ll all fit just fine – though it takes some planning. The key thing I have to take into account is that my battle rattle has to go in a duffel bag, and be packed in such a way as to ensure that when I get off the plane, I can get to it immediately and be able to throw it on for the ride to our first stop. Everything else I cram in that bag (clothes, most likely) has to go underneath my PPE so it comes out quick and easy.

I can’t tell you when I leave, exactly. Nor can I tell you how we’re getting there. I can tell you it’s going to take a long, long time traveling and that I don’t sleep well on planes so I plan to overdose on something that will knock me out until we get there. On arrival in Kabul we are heading to something of a reception centre where we’ll clear into ISAF/NTM-A and get our bearings before getting dispersed out to our actual “hometowns”. I’m not actually even sure I can say much about where, specifically, I’m going. You’ll have to forgive me for erring on the side of caution. However, I’ve got public affairs as one of my secondary duties, and I’ve already started asking about things like a social media strategy, and maybe that’ll change the way I go about this blog. ISAF does have a presence (@ISAFMedia), and they actually spar routinely with a couple of Taliban propaganda Twitter accounts. I swear, I’m not making that up. Check it out. The Taliban are @alemarahweb, and also @abalkhi. At the rate of casualties they claim, they would have had to have killed probably every single Canadian ever deployed there. It verges on the ridiculous – but the actual personal jabs are what are priceless, when they happen. In fact, it’s happening right now. See here, Taliban claims a great victory. ISAF mocks them here. Taliban jabs back here. ISAF’s telling the truth, of course. The Taliban would claim earthquakes were their doing without thinking anything of it. Welcome to modern war, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s actually a couple of guys “over there” whose job is solely to monitor social media to make sure there’s no OPSEC violations. And there have been some pretty insane ones. Some inadvertent, and some so categorically stupid I cannot believe that they happened. One of the things they just made a point of telling people about is geotagging in photos. Lots of people take pictures with smartphones blissfully unaware that the phones use their GPS to encode where exactly the photo was taken. I learned about this a few years ago after realizing I’d tweeted pictures of my home. The geotags would have made it exceptionally easy to find. I have, obviously, disabled that function on my iPhone, and most pictures you’ll see on here will come from a non-GPS equipped camera, so there’s no risk there. Why, as they said, do the enemy’s recce for him? I don’t plan to, so you’ll have to forgive any time I’m intentionally vague.

Anyhow, I can’t believe that work up is coming to an end – that I can see, as it were, the end of the tunnel. There’s a stack of DAG files between me and that end, but it’s dwindling.

Friday. 4pm. My own bed. Home cooked meals – my wife is a staggeringly awesome cook, you see. A few weeks to chase down some last minute admin and relax – I go on leave almost as soon as I get home.

A little housekeeping, by the way. I’m starting to build up some links on the sidebar for you. I’m also going to do up a “suggested reading list” for those interested in this blogs – books I’ve read and thought were of value. I’ll probably get that done during my leave.

 

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

Focusing In On The End State

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We’re getting toward the home stretch for sure. Combat first aid wound up well – a good, thorough, and frankly relevant and intense course was probably the best training I’ve seen so far here. Interestingly enough, one of the instructors was a young NCO I trained on his PLQ (primary leadership qualification) course a few years ago and had back the following year as an instructor. He’s doing alright for himself after leaving the Primary Reserve to join the Regular Force.

The course is taught over two days, the first day being mainly theory – the basics of paramedicine, essentially. It’s a crash course in anatomy and trauma management, essentially. It takes what you learn in Standard First Aid courses and rearranges the priorities to make dealing with trauma the primary emphasis, with the equipment that we carry. That equipment is pretty good and being constantly improved upon, but at the end of the day, like any tools, its effectiveness depends solely upon the skill of the users. We therefore got introduced to it all, and put into situations that were realistic enough to get us thinking.  With the limited time and huge audience we didn’t get the intense casualty simulation that often comes with the training, but when you’ve got people taking the material seriously, it’s going to give you the desired effect.

The only thing we cannot simulate is your own reactions to seeing first-hand the impacts of attacks. There’s a combat psychology aspect to this that we haven’t covered intensely in this workup but most people at least in the Army have either been formally introduced to in some aspect of training, or have learned about from their own study of our art. The key to dealing with this revolves around an expanded version the Cooper Colour Code – which was developed by a USMC Marine Colonel, Jeff Cooper, who is an expert on firearms training. The key is to keep yourself “out of the black” – a situation where the natural reaction to combat stress renders you unable to effectively perform anything. The great concern is that in the wake of an incident, those people who need to react and start rendering aid will be in Condition Black – heart racing, brain unable to process information properly, fine motor skills effective. We train on drills so that what you have to do is no longer a conscious thought process, but simple reactions.

Training done right will push you into the red, at which point your heart is racing, your breathing is laboured, you start to get tunnel vision on your objective, and your brain is struggling to process the information around you that you need to remain situationally aware. We train to understand this physiological reactions and to manage them. Studying this has led us to change the way we teach people to use their weapons, to teach them breathing techniques that will aid them, and so on. We don’t do that perfectly yet… and that’s a big, big pet peeve of mine, but I’m not doing this to rant about things I want to see changed. I know we’re getting there. But that’s a discussion for another time, and probably for another forum.

Today we’re working on cultural awareness training, which has been somewhat interesting, but at the same time for me it’s kind of boring, because I’ve read extensively on Afghan history and culture, and while I’m getting some insights from our advisors, the rest is kind of slow. I’ve got another day of that tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be better.

Tonight, however, was especially interesting. We got a visit from the Commander of Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command (CEFCOM), who had a lot to tell us about his insights into the mission we’re embarking on. It wasn’t a lot of blowing smoke up people’s arses. It was a realistic assessment of what we’re going to do, and that to me is good, because having a realistic context in which to work means that we’re going to have realistic objectives. Setting up to train Afghanistan’s security forces – or rather – to enable them to train and sustain themselves will make a difference there, and is what we haven’t done an effective job of for the last ten years. It seems like the overarching concept isn’t an unrealistic view.

We will face a lot of challenges. Afghans in the age bracket that the ANSF recruits from have a literacy rate of 14%. That means 86% of them are unable to read or write. These are things we take for granted in a country like Canada, but a country which has been devoid of an effective education system creates that sort of problem. Corruption is endemic, of course, and we will never eliminate it, to suppose we can is folly, so instead, we just have to try to work around it to focus on effectiveness. We have to hope that political will to support the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stays intact. The “green-on-blue” incident in which 4 French trainers were killed and 15 wounded the other day shook the French resolve. Comd CEFCOM put it best – the insurgency needs to work to break the bonds of trust that make ISAF work – between ISAF armies and their ANSF counterparts, between the Afghan civilization population and their police and army, and if that breaks the link between us, the deployed soldiers and the people at home then it is far easier to push us to give in.

I guess, then, in some way, I’m going to play a direct role in all aspects of that. My job is to help the ANA training system work better, by enabling them to do for themselves, rather than us doing for them. And more importantly, I’m going to tell you the story – the story of one contributor, but part of a broader Canadian story. The fact is, we’re not going to have the kind of media attention that operations in Kandahar ever did. When you really think about it, actually, the fact that Afghanistan isn’t splashed all over front page news right now is an indicator that something is going right, but it’s also creating a risk that the public won’t realize we are there. I want to counter that – I want people to know – to remember – that even though the intense fighting in Kandahar is over, even though hopefully we’re not going to see so many corteges traveling the Highway of Heroes, there are still 1000 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan working to make sure that that country can stand on its own and that we won’t have to worry about the costs of a failed state. We’ve paid it for 10 years.

I hope it’ll be interesting. It’s getting close to the next chapter – to “go time”.

And we’re just about done…

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Today started off with the chaos that is almost the norm here, the cynical side of me notes. I headed down to the Base Theatre this morning, arriving in excellent time to stand in the longest Tim Hortons line I’ve ever seen, albeit the fastest, to get a much needed extra large black. I began to settle in for some lectures collectively called ETHAR – which I think stands for Explosive Threat Hazards And Recognition. We used to call it Mine Awareness Training, but the spectrum of things that go boom in theatres like Afghanistan are much more broad than just good old-fashioned landmines (which, rest assured, are abundant there). After we sat around for a little while, we learned that the training had been moved to the LAV Barn, and so we figured out carpools to get there. Except it wasn’t actually there either, it was in a smaller vehicle hangar nearby. We did make it there.

ETHAR training is actually relatively interesting when taught by engineers with a lot of hands on experience, as our instructor had. He was a C-IED (counter-IED) specialist and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) technician. He had a lot of stories to tell to add to the PowerPoint that we’ve all seen numerous times. It’s good to make sure we get the refreshers on the drills though, because they are important. All sorts of things that go boom exist in Afghanistan, and it’s good to stay current on how to avoid them, obviously.

At lunch I had to break from that to go deal with my UAB, which took a while to get done. Our boxes were inspected, tagged, weighed, and loaded into sea containers to start the journey to Afghanistan. Apparently, they’ll go by sea to Europe somewhere and then be flown into Kabul. We’ll see them at some point, but no one can guarantee when, meaning of course nothing that’s in there can be anything you can’t live without. I was amused to realize that one of my MOBs was slightly overweight (they didn’t worry much about it). It contains the coffee maker, coffee, and some other consumables. Declaring a coffee maker non-essential was tough, but had to be done.

Last minute running around capped the day, and tomorrow I have to finish the last thing, my passport application. It turns out the forms I had today were the wrong ones, and I had to find a guarantor for my pictures and so on, which I got done this evening. In the afternoon we get briefed on our Rules of Engagement for the tour, and then a final dismissal parade at 4pm. My ride to Halifax wants to load the car during lunchtime, and wants to be out the door not later than 4:30, as bad weather’s expected and he wants to get home before it. Fair enough!

This evening I took a look at some MilBlogs out there – official and unofficial ones, and it’s given me some ideas about how I’m going to overhaul the blog over the next few weeks (in theory!). I’m going to start using WordPress’ categories function to sort all the posts by stages of the process, and, amusingly drawn from one blog, by the attitude of the post – the good, the bad, the funny, the cynical, and so on. That’ll make things better for reading. I’m also going to try to learn about formatting and build something more interesting. Lastly, I do want to start trying to incorporate more pictures into the blog, as I’m trying to take as many as I can. It’s just a matter of making the effort to add them, instead of playing World Of Tanks or whatever else I distract myself with instead.

Things will be quiet over the holidays, because I’m planning to take a week down south next week if I can get my leave in order and find a good last minute deal, and I’ll be headed to Arizona in the new year to visit my parents for a few days. I won’t have much to say about tour plans during that time, so don’t worry, I’m not abandoning this just yet.

Long Day

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I can’t shake the cold, it’s driving me nuts. Hopefully getting home this weekend to start Christmas leave and sleep in my own bed will help.

Today dragged on forever, because my only really critical thing to get done was my hero pic, and it was done by about 9:30. It looks alright, says I who hates being photographed, but I’m hoping it will never be needed, obviously. I also had a picture done for my ISAF ID card at the same time.

We did get some more information though on what the plans are for where we’re going and what’s happening there. Nothing certain, and nothing I can really talk about in detail anyhow. Again, it’s all max-flex and I’m not really staking plans on anything.

My UAB is now all sorted, catalogged, manifested, and ready to be turned in. I solved the excess of crap problem by pawning my suitcase off on the S3, who has literally nothing in the boxes, but will be partaking in the coffee machine’s labours. It was a pretty fair tit-for-tat. I still don’t have much for civilian clothes in there for my leave, but I figure I’ll just order stuff closer to my leave dates and that’ll work fine, particularly when we have a feel for delivery times and so on.

We got more detailed handover briefs from the people we’re replacing, and while I’m not going to say they paint a bleak picture, they’re basically confirming my own ideas about adult education in general, as it were, and the idea of building a professional army from the ground up. We are definitely going to have a lot to do, that’s for sure. We’re still working out some of the manning. It seems that there’s not much to do on the S1 (personnel administration) side for the camp I’m at in terms of administering the Canadian personnel there, and so the current guys have split that job with the S6 (communications/IT) job. We think that I might wind up working with the S4 (logistics) guy. I don’t have a background in that, but with a Canadian logistician there as the lead advisor I will still be able to help with things. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that department it looks like. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.

The S3 was busy today working out how to cover off all the training we’re missing before we go, with the cease training date they have in mind of February 3rd. We aren’t due back to Gagetown to start training again until January 16, which doesn’t leave a lot of time. The price, it seems, of the pretty slow pace early on is going to be a ridiculously busy few weeks before we leave on embarkation leave. We’ll be working weekends and evenings it looks like to get everything done – there’s a lot of checks in the box to be had for a lot of people, myself included, and we’re going to have to shoehorn it into a relatively small space. There’s a plan a foot, at least. We generally say “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but this one hopefully will.

We also got an idea of when we’re leaving town, and that means my draft leave plan should work, because it doesn’t have any issues with certain time restrictions. This too makes me quite happy.

Tomorrow, more death by PowerPoint for the morning, UAB turn in in the afternoon, and I have to finish packing up to leave for the holidays. That probably needs to include a thorough cleaning of my shacks, which requires a vacuum cleaner. Which I can only get between 9-4. I’m not sure how I’m going to work that one out. But I’ll figure something. I can’t leave the place a mess when I go home, I’ll only have more to contend with when I get back.

Written by Nick

December 7, 2011 at 12:34 am

Professional Development Day!

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When I was a kid in school, a “PD Day” was a Friday off. Not so in the Army. Today’s main thrust is an endless slew of briefings on a variety of subjects. Law Of Armed Conflict, Rules of Engagement, Media Awareness, Information Security, and Staff Procedures are the order of the day.

This week’s been productive. My staff duties are getting done ahead of most camps, and I now have all of my mission kit, having picked up my new rucksack yesterday.

A few years ago, the Army embarked on a project called Clothe The Soldier, which for a while was dubbed “Tease The Soldier” as a lot of stuff took a while to get fielded. The last major item I didn’t have was the rucksack. To design it, DND turned to a bunch of scientists, engineers, and generally smart people to design an incredibly sophisticated modern load carriage system. While it may be awesome, it’s easily the most complicated piece of kit I have ever been issued, so much of my evening went to assembling it, the most difficult part of which is custom bending the frame stays which are made of 1/8″ aluminum bar stock. Don’t think I damaged the furniture, and I think I got all the angles right.

How it’ll work on top of a flak vest with ballistic plates, I’m not sure. I don’t think they thought of that. I still have a lot of adjustments on it to play with. It’ll look good in the corner of my room since I doubt I’ll have any operational reason to have it on.

I got off to a rough start this morning though, my nagging cold of the last few days took a turn for the worse, and so I skipped PT this morning and headed to the MIR (medics) to get it sorted. Two hours after being hmmed and hawed over by a couple of Med Techs, I was sent back to work with a fistful of OTC meds, and probably don’t have a dreaded sinus infection.

The briefings haven’t been terrible, fortunately, because some of the presenters have been pretty good. The JAG Officer who did the RoE brief could have a second career as a comedian.

At lunch, we headed back to the LAV Barn for “the dip”, treating our uniforms with Permethrin, a potent (illegal for general use in Canada) pesticide to deal with mosquitoes. We’ll ignore that at Kabul’s altitude there are no mosquitoes, but the Army has SOPs and they haven’t been updated for this Op yet it seems. (Update: Permethrin is also effective against arthropods – spiders – and that’s why we are issued it.)

Part of the Media brief covered social media, and it was interesting. It’s a good thing to touch on here. While there is a particularly robust rule in place, it’s not really practical. I follow a pretty simple rule of thumb that you’ll see. Actually, it’s more like rules.

You won’t see me publish my full name. It’s not because I want to be aloof, it’s just a basic PERSEC thing. Most of you know who I am anyhow, but the random reader doesn’t need to know that to follow the story. Similarly I won’t disclose the identities of my coworkers to protect their information.

The nature of this mission is such that there won’t be thrilling stories of kinetic operations anyhow, but even if there was, I won’t have anything to say about them until long after the fact. Likewise, while I’ll tell you about what we are training on, I can’t and won’t get into specifics of TTP’s, the specifics of how we do things. Plenty of that stuff is readily available via various channels anyhow, lamentably, but I won’t add to it.

All I can really tell you about is my experiences, my knowledge, my story. I think it’ll be reasonably interesting even with colouring inside the lines.

All that is left today is to hang my Permethrin soaked uniforms to dry over the weekend, and then off home for the weekend where I’ll be spending some quality time at Costco filling my MOB boxes with tour goodies.

Written by Nick

December 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm