Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Kabul

Into The Last Month

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It’s actually less than that, because I will be home before October is done – I have very little time left here, actually. It’s just as well, I suppose. While I’d love to stay longer if I had a productive role, my job is basically done, and it’s time to go.

We ended September in a fitting way, with an early morning photograph of the Canadian contingent here to start it off. Rather amusingly, after the whole camp contingent got a picture, the two main organizations then split off to do their own – then there was me, because I’m the last man in mine. Not a big deal, it’s not like I like being photographed in the first place in general.

Later on in the day, some high priced help arrived for our medals parade. Anyone who serves 30 cumulative days in theatre is awarded the General Campaign Star – South West Asia. Beyond that a series of bars recognize subsequent lengths of time. At the time the medals were ordered, we were not over the required 210 days to have our rotation bars awarded as well, but I will get mine when I get home, it’s apparently already being delivered to my unit to be presented to me, possibly to coincide with my Canadian Forces Decoration (CD) (a long service medal, marking 12 years of service in the CF – which I’ll be due for in January). I think that’s probably wishful thinking because most CDs aren’t awarded until long after the milestone, but who knows.

So in preparation we were sized (the process for forming up a parade so that it looks “even”) – but eight months of doing no drill meant that it was more of a gong show than anything precise looking. It was good for a laugh, and went to the lecture hall on camp, when the Task Force Commander, his Sergeant Major, and the Deputy Commander and his Sergeant Major arrived. They got right on to business, stopping to chat with us as they presented us our medals about how things had gone, what we were going back to, and so on. It was nothing particularly major.

Then, however, something unexpected happened. There were two Task Force Commander Commendations to be presented, the first went to an NCO here who distinguished himself during an incident that happened a few months ago, well deserved. The second… was me. I was caught totally by surprise.

The organization I worked for was American run. It has long been a source of laughs to us the sheer number of awards handed out by the United States Military. Canadians get awards for doing exceptional things, generally. Americans, it often seems, get something for showing up. However, I was made aware that the staff of the unit had put forward our names for awards. We were led to believe, however, that since Canada does not – how did they put this in the TSO I read – accept awards simply for doing your job, they were turned off by the Honours & Awards Committee. I thought nothing of it. What actually happened, through means I’m not familiar with, is that my US award nomination was turned into a TF Comd Commendation. It’s a pretty neat recognition I suppose, something only about 10% of the Task Force got.

As is the custom, I got handshakes and congratulations immediately after, as we headed off to a barbecue prepared by Khan, our amazing Language & Cultural Advisor. And, as is the custom, it was less than 24 hours before that turned into a fair bit of ribbing. But all in good fun. Being a little proud of it, I shared a picture of the presentation and the wording of the citation on Facebook – which elicited a tirade from the other Canadians here this morning. Later in the day, I got tasked to deliver an ethics brief for everyone, which was humoured as “my effort to get another commendation”. I smirked and asked if I got three TF Comd ones, could I trade them up for the next level up, which comes with some bling? Like how it works at a fair on the midway? That’s how things generally work though, we get a bit of a laugh at anything we can. At the end of the day, I got a bit of recognition for what I did, and that’s pretty cool.

The next couple of weeks, I’ll start packing up, organizing things like my claims package to get all the reimbursements I can get, and so on. And I’ve got some idea of what’s going on with work, which is making me quite happy, I think everything will come together nicely. There’s very little else I can do for now, really. Things are really winding down, and I can’t believe it’s flown by as it has.

Day 210. Really. And Not Counting Days To Go.

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I have to apologize for not really posting a lot of pictures. There’s a few reasons. OPSEC/PERSEC is the main one – and to be honest, I don’t have that many that are interesting. I can’t publish pictures of anyone here without their consent at the very least, and I’m just not that interested in pursuing it. But if you want to see pictures of anything, well, comment and ask and I’ll see what I can do. The other limiting factor used to be bandwidth – uploading pictures used to take forever, but it seems my ISP has upgraded speeds here quite a bit in the last little while.

It’s Friday, which means a pretty slow day. This is officially “the weekend”, so things slow down a little. I’ve spent a good chunk of it down at the shops on camp, at a little cafe run by a young Afghan named Sam. Fridays they usually have a special on for lunch and dinner, and so today I went to see what it was – today it was kofta qorma – meatballs in a qorma sauce. Simple and tasty, and a nice break from monotonous DFAC food. Sam wasn’t around when I got there, but he turned up a little while later and sat while we chatted over coffee and shisha about his future plans, about Afghan culture, about the world in general. He’s worked on our camp for about four years, and speaks excellent English, as well as some Spanish, and has taken a lot of time and initiative to learn about the culture of the people who come to the camp. He’s one of those Afghans who can tell other people in this country that we’re not what we are sometimes made out to be.

It was sitting there that I started contemplating what going home will mean. I’ve been here for about seven months now, the surroundings feel like home, there’s a community here. We play trivia together some nights. We watch movies together others. We have fitness training together. We live in pretty close confines and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to be unfriendly or not get along. Even people I didn’t especially like when we deployed here, I’ve gotten to know better and get along with a lot better. A while back, during workup training, I wrote about an exchange I had with someone on the way to the range who turned out to outrank me and who wasn’t amused by my comments to him. I then found out he was going to be on the same camp as me, and at first, he was an annoyance on a lot of issues. Fast forward a few months, and he’s one of my workout partners, turns out to be a really decent guy with a good sense of humour, you just have to get to know him a bit. That’s how things go.

In a few short weeks, I’ll have to pack everything I can (hopefully it’ll all fit – otherwise I’ll have to mail stuff) and start the process of going home. That means no more trivia nights at the Brit Club. No more movies with the contractors behind there shacks a couple of nights a week. Everything turns into Facebook contacts to try to keep in touch. I will say, though, that that works pretty well – a lot of the people I work with who’ve gone home do make a point of keeping in touch, and we’re even planning a sort of reunion trip next year.

What’s feeling really weird is that I’m now, technically, an “Afghanistan veteran”. Veteran of what I’m not really sure. I’ve always felt kind of uneasy with that term, even a few years ago when I started dealing with Veterans Affairs about an injury I got in training years ago that continues to cause me problems later in life. Anyhow, the significance of the date crossed my mind today because today I have officially been deployed 210 days, which means I will have earned a rotation bar to my General Campaign Star, the medal I will receive for this deployment.

Getting the GCS itself is a little contentious in some ways. It’s the same medal that is worn by those who were deployed to Kandahar on Op ATHENA. When we shifted to Op ATTENTION there were some who suggested a different medal should apply so “we” wouldn’t be confused with “them”, who were in the thick of the fighting in the south. However, it was dismissed, and with some good reason: most of those people weren’t out at the Sharp End either. And besides, everyone who’s been here knows what they did here, and shouldn’t feel any need to either prove it or justify it to anyone. The way I look at it, the relatively comfortable go we’ve had was made possible because of the work that those who came before us did. What “bling” I have on my uniform is mostly irrelevant.

Still, I expect in some ways it’ll feel awkward amongst friends of mine who were there. I never had to attend a ramp ceremony (on this side, anyhow – I’ve been at Trenton when a good friend was brought home to make the trip down the “Highway of Heroes” in December of 2008. I’ve been lucky here that none of the bad things that can happen have (knock on wood, I’m not gone yet). We’ve had some interesting close calls, but that’s about it. So despite the fact that there are “Afghan Vet” groups out there, I don’t think you’ll see me showing up to one – because I just don’t feel like it’s something I have much right to claim. I came, I did a job, it was nothing all that special I often think.

Written by Nick

September 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

Musings For Which I Have No Title

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It’s been a crazy few days, both in Afghanistan and around the world. This film that some clown in California made has touched off all sorts of nonsense. Last Friday we were all rather anxiously waiting to see what was going to happen after Friday prayers. That’s when religious leaders tend to offer their opinions on what the broader public should do. Fortunately, it seems, they did not endorse violence. In fact several religious leaders were basically saying that Allah would look after it. And Friday night, it turned out, was pretty quiet. There were protests yesterday on the Jalalabad Road on the other side of the city, and while they got violent with burning cars, tires, and so on, they didn’t impact much at all. This morning we learned of a bomb attack on a bus load of contractors, as well. That happened on a road I’ve traveled many times near the airport. It’s lined with wedding halls and often referred to as “The Vegas Strip” because they are brightly lit up at night. Interestingly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a thug who rubbled Kabul extensively with artillery rockets during the civil war) – or rather, his group, Hezb-i Islami (the Army Of Islam) claimed responsibility for the murder of a number of foreign contractors as well as some innocent bystanders. He’s not been involved in any recent attacks, so this is an interesting and strange development.

I’ve been working with the contractors here on writing up reports and answers to RFIs (Requests For Information) for higher formations about what the future holds for the schoolhouse when we leave. I’ll be candid. I have no idea what will happen – but I think there’s some determination among the key ANA people to keep it going, and I’m happy with that. I’m not going to get too wrapped around the axle about it. We came, we did what we could, and hopefully, some of it will stick. There’s a temptation for us to get really really wrapped up in things to the point that we’ll just frustrate ourselves. We have to work on the concept of managed expectations, I suppose. We put the best effort we could into creating the product that we are leaving, and what happens next is beyond my control, so there is no sense in stressing over it.

In better developments, I managed to fit the carpet I bought into my rucksack, and should still have enough room to fit everything else in. If I get stuck, I’ll just mail it – but it’s better to get packed with my stuff. Mail’s taking forever, anyhow.
I’m also planning out my next adventure – a cross-country (or rather, across America) motorcycle trip when I get back, weather and career situation permitting, as part of my decompression plan… lots of nice highways and byways to ride, and I’ve lined up some home-stays with generous hosts that should make it even more interesting.

Written by Nick

September 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

And Then There Were Three…

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We said goodbye to the last Americans on our team last night, and our rapidly dwindling team is now just three – dropping to two shortly, and finally, it’ll just be me for a few weeks until it’s time to go home… This is a good thing though, it’s part of how things are supposed to go. While our Afghan counterparts haven’t moved into their final home and that won’t happen for a few months yet, they are functioning (more or less) independent of a great deal of mentor support. They’re running their own courses without our resources. They’re sending out training teams. They seem to be carrying out the administrative requirements necessary for the operation of the school. In short, we’ve worked our way out of jobs.

Next week we’ll hold a small ceremony to officially commemorate the transition of authority, which entails me making what may be my last mentor meeting trip to the school to coordinate, and my last job will be making sure the necessary linkages are in place for them to draw the support they need from the Afghan supply system so that things function. There was talk about me having a handover to someone who’s coming on the next rotation, but I don’t think that will happen, and there’s not going to be enough to justify a job for someone for a whole tour – rather I think the better plan is to make sure that the advisor team at the higher formation our guys belong to know who we worked with and they have a way to get in touch if they need to.

It’s going to be a very quiet few weeks for me I suspect – I’m going to be moving into a new building with the contractors we have, and I think probably doing a fair bit of reading and possibly contributing to some new doctrine work. And I’ve got some PA products to put together and other little things before it’s all finally done. I’m trying not to start counting the days until I get home.

Written by Nick

September 1, 2012 at 12:57 am

Back To Work

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My leave is over and I’m back in country. It was an amazing three weeks.

I was a little apprehensive about how things might go meeting up with my wife – and parting ways at the end, but it actually went just fine. After I spend a couple of days in France and Belgium visiting Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate, and various military historical sites, we met up in Frankfurt and carried on to spend the next two weeks in Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Budapest and Vienna. From Vienna she went back to Canada and I proceeded on to Jordan, seeing the incredible wonder of the world that is Petra, as well as Jerash, Ajloun Castle, the Amman Citadel, Madaba, Mount Nemo, Wadi Mujib, and Wadi Rum. I fittingly spent my last night in a Bedouin camp in the desert, and went out in a jeep to sit on top of a big rocky hill to watch the sun go down and contemplate. Later, after a feast of maqlouba, an awesome Jordanian dish, the generators went off and I saw stars like I’ve never seen them before. I barely slept before we headed back north for a dip in the Dead Sea and a trip to a Turkish bath then back to Afghanistan. I spent a lot more money on the trip than I had planned originally, but I don’t have any regrets – it was probably the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken and will be hard to top.

I arrived early in the morning and was rather disappointed to find out that I was going to be sleeping in a transient tent for a few days before I could get a ride back to my camp. With one uniform and a rucksack full of dirty laundry. To my good fortune, I didn’t get any objection to trying to catch a helicopter flight back, and quickly headed to the air movements office to find out if I could get a Space A flight back. The next morning I dragged my gear to the helipad to learn that my flight was cancelled – but again fortune smiled and it was put on later and I got a seat.

Things have changed a lot here. The staff has been rapidly shrinking, and I came back to find out the seven Canadians who were here when I left on leave, there’s two of us now. And the other one will likely leave next week to be reassigned. So in a few days, it’ll be me and the director, who leaves mid-September. I’m literally the guy turning the lights off at the schoolhouse, when we call transition complete. I might wind up with a replacement after all, another officer who will work with the higher command’s advisory team to act as point of contact for the ANA’s COIN Training Center until they move to their permanent home, the Afghan National Defence University being built at Qargha, just west of Kabul.

I’m now having to start making plans for returning home. In a couple of weeks I have to turn in my UAB (the stuff I’m sending back to Canada in advance) to be shipped home, which means thinning out a lot of stuff, though that will make my room a little more organized than the disaster it currently is – I’ll send home all the cold weather kit I brought with me and don’t need to go back, the suits I bought here, and things like that. I’d like to get my holdings down to just what I actually need for the last stretch and to get going after I get home.

Once that’s done, it will remain to be seen what the flight plans are for going home – which chalk I fly on and so on. I know which one I’m slated for now, but depending on what’s decided about whether I have a replacement, I might actually see that change. And plans change anyhow from time to time, that’s just the nature of the beast.

The real variable I’m trying to wrap my head around though is what happens when I get home. Not just the “when will I actually get home”, because I know I’ll land in Fredericton and head to Gagetown and have things to do there before I get released to go back to Halifax, but what happens then. I’ll have about a month and a half to two months of leave (I haven’t quite figured out the formula yet) where I will still be getting paid by the army, but after that, my contract ends and I revert to being a Class A Reservist, and I will need to make sure that income is flowing in.

This is something of a quandary, though I think it stresses me more than it needs to. My civilian employer granted me a military leave of absence, meaning that I am good to go to return to my “day job” when I get back. The trick is, I don’t want to go back to what I was doing before, not that specific job. I do have the luxury of working for a very large company with all sorts of options, and I’ve started looking at postings to see what grabs my interest, but as of this moment, nothing really has where I live – and I’m not sure I want to move either. Quite a predicament, isn’t it? I guess we’ll see, a lot does change in a few months. They recently posted jobs that were really of interest to me and I’ve been in touch with a few of their recruiters/HR folks to get an idea of what’s coming up.

There’s also a prospect of returning to Germany to teach on another course like the one I did in June, which I’m following up on though that’s only a couple of weeks, and a couple of career courses that might be doable if I play my cards right and follow them directly after the tour. There’s generally an unwritten proscription on such things for Regular Force folks, but in my case, I’m only too happy to knock some of this stuff off while I have the chance.

What I really want to do is go back to school. Without waxing philosophical about it – I shouldn’t have left school when I did. I was sick of being in class at the time and wanted to start making money, so I quit with an undergraduate degree when I should have gone to law school or something. I’m actually looking into the prospect of trying to do school part time. I just need one of those patrons. Or maybe I should write a book about my experience here and the bigger picture from the perspective of someone who’s seen what’s happening. I’d probably sell … well … maybe 100 copies. I don’t think that will do it.

It’s interesting watching things wind down. When I got here and the staff was much bigger, our schedule was pretty full of training events we were attending, of upcoming courses, meetings, writing material for courses, getting translations done. We occupied a large building that we’ve progressively given up parts up to others. My days used to start with planning toward the next training trip I had. Then it was toward going on leave. Now I’m back, and there’s just a few loose ends to tie up and no trips to plan for. In fact, a couple of days ago we went up to a couple of other camps to get some business done – first to Camp Phoenix so that my American colleagues could mail home their excess baggage (they don’t get UAB shipped like us) and then to Camp Eggers for the director to go to some meetings on the future of our organization. I had nothing really to do with any of this, so was a bit surprised when I got told I was going. Because they needed a Truck Commander. That’s how small the staff has gotten – it took all but one of us to have the people we needed for the convoy to go off. I also got to drive (which was funny in a way, my colleague Tim The Battle Bear acted like some combination of my dad when he taught me to drive and a driving examiner critiquing me as I weaved expertly through the insanity of Kabul traffic. It ended just fine though.

So that’s the current situation here. I’m trying to figure out how to fill my next few weeks mostly.

Four Feet Of F*** All

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I decided not to use the full word in the title here, I’m not sure why because while I’m pretty good about moderating my idioms (doesn’t that sound smarter?), sometimes the slip out. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, I guess. The title is written on the “current operations” board in our S3 (Operations) shop, I think it’s a naval term as it’s a US Navy guy who put it there. He just started his journey home, as did our S2 (Intelligence)/Movement Operations/Public Affairs/Signals/IT officer, who also in response to a sexist comment by me about sandwiches and her being the only female here, made me an absolutely wonderful sandwich with a nice note. She played along with my sense of humour, and did a fantastic job here on everything. It was particularly cool because she’s a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, someone who’s normally on a warship, and she volunteered to come here, learned the language, got stuck right into the culture, and lamented on Facebook as she was leaving about leaving a city she has grown to love. She certainly spent a lot of time exploring it on convoys, and her efforts to build relationship with the locals were amazing. She’ll be missed.

That’s the way things are going here, though – the cast is dwindling, and it’s a bit sad as voices your used to hearing in the office gradually go silent. There’s no one new coming, we’re all headed out of here over the next few months.

A few days into Ramazan things are very quiet for the most part. We had a brief period where we couldn’t go down to see our ANA partners so things really slowed down. They did run a very successful course with a substantially larger number of students than normal, though it was a bit hectic for me. When we first got here, we had the tailors make us some “Catherder” morale patches, and I felt like replacing my unit patch with it for a while, to see if anyone noticed, and because it was apt. It took literally the entire staff here to manage getting the students on to camp for lunch and then back off, but it seems my diplomacy skills both with them and with our security people (who are generally a great bunch of people) helped.

Normally the students are from the Kabul area so we didn’t think there’d be much demand for them to stay at the school while they were on course, but a few of them came from further afield – one from Kunduz, one from Mazar-e Sharif, one from Baghlan, and one from Parwan. We had arranged transient accommodation inside our camp for them, but then learned that having an ANA escort for them wasn’t enough – we had to have a coalition person escort them everywhere and monitor them even overnight. So I put my diplomacy skills to work to persuade them to sleep on the ANA side, and with blankets and pillows they eventually agreed to do so. And were actually happier to do it since it meant they could go up the road in the morning to get naan and so on.

I did have to bring them to supper each night, but it was an interesting experience, and my basic Dari (aided by a little dictionary I picked up at Camp Phoenix before I went to Germany) and their rudimentary English went a long way. Generally conversations with Afghans revolve around where you are from, your family, and what you think of Afghanistan. They can conceive of Canada as a country far away somewhere but really that’s all they know. They tend to think it’s some part of America (which I guess, in the sense of North America, is true). They are eager to know where in Afghanistan you’ve been what you think of the place. My universal response is listing off some of the places I’ve gone and I always tell them that I am eager to return some day as a tourist, to actually see the rest of the country – hell, I’d like to just be able to explore more of Kabul, other than through the windows of a vehicle.

They’ll always ask if I’m married, and I learned that the concept of a wedding ring doesn’t make sense to them (in fact, they’ll often ask what the ring is), and of course, how many sons I have. Being married for as long as I have been and not having kids isn’t an acceptable answer particularly, so I’ve learned to a) understate how long I’ve been married and b) dodge the question with one of the great catch-all phrases in Islamic cultures – mashallah. It basically means “God’s will be done” – more specifically, it can mean “because that’s the way it is.” Very useful. Similarly, just about any commitment can be ducked with “inshallah” – “if God wills it”. It’s the best “maybe” ever.

Walking back to the gate one night, one of the students said, “You should come to Kunduz to visit it. You will stay with my family in my home, and I will show you my part of this country.” These offers are common. And they’re actually quite serious. In fact, we were all invited to one of the ANA instructors’ homes for dinner one night. When we said we regrettably weren’t allowed to go, he lamented that it was too bad, but he understood. He then pointed out that the Russians did that all the time and didn’t see why were so cautious. The reality is, most of us would love to accept such hospitality, but we are barred from levels well above us.

I was pretty happy that the course feedback was good, though the ANA wanted us to help them with the practical exercises which we use on coalition courses so they can adapt them. The school director in our last meeting jokingly said “You’re lucky it’s Ramazan and I’m obligated to be well-behaved, because otherwise I might want to fight you” over not running this training previously, which we had talked about. I realized he was clearly joking so I didn’t get wound up over it. I explained that while we were happy to help, they needed to plan the training and we’d help make it happen, so all was well. We did hash out a plan to run some advanced training for their instructors before I go on leave, which started today. Basically, our products are modularized in three levels – Mod 1 and 2 are the basis of all ANSF training, and realistically, almost all coalition/NATO training. Mod 3 is fairly advanced set of classes which the ANSF aren’t ever going to need to teach, however, it seemed that there would be some value in giving them exposure to the concepts so they could improve their depth of knowledge. It’s good to be able to do that to deal with what we call “sharpshooters”, people who ask more difficult, on-the-spot questions requiring more knowledge. We know that the ANSF know the lectures they teach inside-out but rarely go beyond that.

This morning I met them at the gate and brought them in to the office while we set up, and as usual you have to go through the barrage of questions, how are you, how’s your family, how’s your health, how is work, how are your spirits, etc. I say “barrage”, but don’t get the idea that it’s in any way inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s how Afghans are, and it’s part of any meeting. In fact, it’ll probably rub off on me quite a bit, just as the custom of placing my right hand over my heart after saying hello to people is now something of a reflex we do even amongst the coalition folks here. We set up the lecture and I started to teach. Normally, I keep either a coffee cup or a bottle of water close by, but as it’s Ramazan, I decided not to. I was mainly worried about my interpreter, Faisal, because I was making him talk a lot. He was fine however. Halfway though the class, the senior instructor says, “why don’t you have some water?” I replied, “It’s Ramazan, I’m not going to drink in front of you!” They all laughed. “We know you’re not fasting, just us. We won’t be offended.” All I could say was, “Well, I may be an infidel, but I respect the custom and I will not do that. I appreciate your consideration, though.” This elicited more laughter, but aptly tied in to a concept I was in the middle of teaching, about how to get to understand and win the trust and respect of people. It worked brilliantly.

For now, I’m basically counting down the days until I go on leave, as it’ll be very quiet here for the next little while. I’ve got pretty much everything I need – some more camera accessories came the other day and I’ve been playing with them all and learning how to take better pictures. I did find out that I paid way too much for my camera (damn you, AAFES!), but realistically, the better deals I found couldn’t reasonably have been accessible – the vendors don’t ship to APO addresses or to Canada. So I can’t really whinge. I also got a nice huge box from Mountain Equipment Co-op – a backpack, clothes, and shoes – all stuff I’ll need for the trip that I didn’t have with me. I had to get one pair of pants hemmed here, for $4. It wasn’t the best job, but I don’t really care that much I guess.

I’ve also been patronizing the tailor here a bit – I’ve bought a new suit, a couple of sports jackets, and a tuxedo, all for ridiculously good prices, and the quality is pretty excellent. I think I will likely get myself a couple more suits before I go home, but it’s funny seeing how much some people are spending there. I was looking at carpets and jewelry as well. My colleague got himself a triple loop and other jewelers’ tools to evaluate the stones on offer and has decided they’re not worth much though. I do want some lapis lazuli though, it’s beautiful.

I got a massive care package (well, four of them) today from an organization back in Canada which has been awesome to me, it actually came in yesterday but I wasn’t around to collect it. The Canadians across the street saw the contents list and openly mused about simply “forgetting” to tell me about them and just helping themselves, but one of our drivers thwarted them. I did share the spoils though, I have enough junk food to last a while, and some school supplies and trinkets to hand out when we see kids around – which doesn’t happen as much now as it had previously – but we’re looking to find a school to take them, or the local nationals who work here as they all have children.

When I return from leave, there will be very little left to do other than the transition to Afghans – after that, I’ll still have quite a bit of time left here, and I don’t really know what I’ll wind up doing. One of the Canadians here has already been moved to another job, one more is likely to be moved shortly, and our leadership is actively seeking new jobs for us as we work ourselves out of where we are. I have no doubt that something will be found for me to round out my time. I have an idea of when I’m going home too, the first draft of our RIP (relief in place) plan is done, and I don’t think my position will change in it. I do think I’ll be in for a new job though before I leave – hopefully something interesting. I don’t want to have to move camps especially, but these things happen.

For now, I’ll just stay flexible, and see what I can do to help make our transition a success. Boredom is a real enemy, so I’m trying to find ways to fight it – to stay motivated. We’re working on studying for the LSAT as my colleague and I are both musing about going to law school and as such will need to sit the admissions test in December. That’s helping keep the boredom at bay when there aren’t things going on. We’re also working on cleaning up the office, packing up things we don’t need, and that sort of thing.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

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.

Hitting The Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

June 25, 2012 at 2:02 am

Back To Kabul – And Kabul Traffic

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While Helmand was an interesting trip, and it was good to see some different places, meet some different people, and catch up with some of the guys who were up here in Kabul with us before being dispatched out to different parts of Afghanistan, it wasn’t that productive, really. Originally, we were supposed to be bringing down some of our ANA staff to RC(SW) to validate and certify instructors there, but then word came that they couldn’t travel. So we decided we’d go down, observe their training, and basically give them the info they need to validate them. By the time we were getting ready to go, it turned out that training wasn’t even going to be running, so we conducted more of a liaison/close out visit, with a vital secondary function of delivering luggage, which I think I mentioned already.

We did meet some of the ANA staff at their training centre, and got a tour of the facilities, which was good – it was a sort of “professional development” experience to see what is working in that region, which was of value. Part of the “lessons learned” in all this is that what works in one place will not work in another, and we’re coming to realize that decentralization is the key to making things work here, that is a constant challenge with some of the culturally institutionalized structures of the ANSF. Getting leaders to delegate to their subordinates in order to achieve more efficient results can be very, very hard. We are working on it in any way we can though. Whether it will succeed though is not totally clear. I’ve appreciated the candour of some senior people who will readily say that not everything is going perfectly, that priorities weren’t always right, but we learn, we adapt, and we carry on. Overall, I think there’s a foundation for things to work the most part. And that isn’t a “toe the party line” statement, it’s sincerely my impression.

That said, we know that things aren’t perfect. Coming back from the airport yesterday, we saw some ANP who had stopped a vehicle and were, according to our interpreter, most likely shaking the driver down a bit. As we waited to get by, the cop hauled off and punched the driver through the window. And that was the second such event I’d seen just on that ride – the first one was an ANP slugging a guy at a traffic circle, though it looked like they got into some friendly banter afterward, so I don’t really know what to make of it.

That leads me into driving here. I don’t think I’ve been able to convey enough how amazed I am by convoy teams and how well they manage to get around, because Kabul is an absolute nightmare to drive in, in ways that baffle me. Most intersections in the city are set up as traffic circles. Sure, they’re not common in North America (except perhaps in Nova Scotia, where they’re being used increasingly in all new road projects and retrofits), but the concept is simple enough for anyone to grasp. Traffic in the circle moves in one direction. Want to make a left hand turn? Enter the circle going to the right (counterclockwise) like everyone else is supposed to, then exit when you get to the road you want.

Or, in Kabul, just wait until the traffic police (who are pretty close to useless!) directs you to simply turn left as though the traffic circle is just some sort of obstacle. And they wonder, one supposes, why traffic is always such a mess.

They also love going the wrong way on divided roads, which are fairly common here, because it’s too much of a hassle to turn right and proceed to the nearest spot to turn around when you can just simply go the wrong way and everyone will get out of your way. Add to this pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists all going wherever they want, and you start to really wonder how they manage not to have accidents constantly. It boggles the mind. We discussed this while stuck in traffic yesterday though, and one of the drivers had a pretty good hypothesis. Western drivers, he posited, know the rules of the road which are fairly rigid, and when they are deviated from they don’t really know what to do. Their vigilance is reduced by a perception that no one would break the rules. Kabulis, however, understand that there are no rules, and you cannot possibly anticipate what will happen at any point, so driving requires a delicate balance of the aggression necessary to get through traffic to your destination, and vigilance to protect your vehicle.

Makes some sense to me.

Written by Nick

June 21, 2012 at 1:15 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