Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘tradition

Happy Pachino Day

with one comment

Today is Pachino Day, the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily. The first Canadian Army unit I joined, as well as The Royal Canadian Regiment I’m deployed with now, were both involved in Operation HUSKY. Without getting into a pedantic history lesson, The D-Day Dodgers as they were known were the first force to really start making inroads into Hitler’s Europe, a year before the D-Day Normandy Landings.

It is customarily celebrated with a feed of spaghetti and the cheapest, most vile Italian red wine that can be found. We had the pasta, no luck on the wine tonight though as usual.

Otherwise there’s not a whole lot of exciting things to write about right now. Relations with our ANA partners have improved greatly, after a tense meeting we’ve gotten back more or less to normal, and they’re getting ready to run their next course which will be the last one we support them directly for – so that’s been most of my workload, making sure they have the stuff they need for the course, arranging facilities and so on, and trying to figure out how to get them prepared to take over everything.

I also spent most of the last week with the dreaded “gastro” –  some awful stomach bug that basically laid me out flat for a few miserable days, but it’s moved along. A couple of us got it after a trip to one of the local restaurants. Unfortunate. But over now, and hopefully that’ll be my only such experience. It happens to pretty much everyone at some point, so I can’t get too worked up over it. Being up all night came in handy when I got some Facebook messages from my former roommate (turned next door neighbour) at 4am who missed his flight back into theatre from leave, having dropped his passport in the airport and being denied borrowing. I managed to make some phone calls to help him sort himself out. Silver linings or something like that. He’s actually the second person who I had to bail out of a jam with their leave – friend of mine from my home unit left town without his visa for his destination, a bunch of calls and text messages finally got someone able to email a scan of it to him, and that was enough to get him on his way.

As I said, not all that much to say, really – life ticks on, there’s plenty of stuff I’d love to bitch and moan about, but this just ain’t the place to do that – and even then, they’re all pretty petty, minor things anyhow. Life’s pretty alright overall.

Written by Nick

July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Been A While

with one comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and I’ll get to soon.

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

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

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

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

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

ANZAC Day

leave a comment »

Today, April 25th, is ANZAC Day. It’s the 97th Anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, where allies landed against ferocious Turkish defence, and took massive casualties. There was a “sort of” Canadian connection, because the Newfoundland Regiment was involved in that campaign as well. For Australians and New Zealanders, the former having major presence on my camp, today is their equivalent of Remembrance Day, and so this morning we formed up to pay tribute to their fallen, but also to all those who went before us as we do on Remembrance Day.

Probably my favourite part of the whole thing is the tribute paid by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to those who fell after the war in 1934 – which if I remember right is actually inscribed on the ANZAC Monument:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and they are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

Lest we forget.

Written by Nick

April 25, 2012 at 1:16 am

Things I’m Learning More About, Ways Forward, And So On…

leave a comment »

My visceral reaction to the terrible event in Panjwaii has been somewhat tempered, mainly because that sober thought that kicks in on learning of something so appalling has arrived, and while of course no one is excusing what happened, we are all left wondering what caused it to happen – what’s the story behind the shooter. There’s some rumblings here about him, and as is usually the case I’m sure there will be more to the story when all the facts come to light. Nevertheless, it is a tragic incident and one that every single person here I think I can fairly assume wishes hadn’t happened and is forced to redouble their efforts at relationship building with counterparts by it. I think that’s all I can say. We’re still committed to what we’re doing here, we’re still seeing that there’s progress and a point to being here, and the talk of just giving up isn’t well received by those of us in-country. That, however, is politics, and it’s not our bailiwick. And it’s certainly not something I’m going to get into. It’s not my place. We’re here until we’re not here, and it’s not us that will decide anything on that matter.

A while back I posted about counterinsurgency, the crash course I took over a weekend back in Gagetown specifically. My job has actually pushed me into much more depth on that topic, which has been very interesting. I’ve had a particular interest for quite a while in civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) for quite a while, and COIN in general as well, so it’s fitting that I’m been doing a lot more work related to it and that’s what the focus of my time here will be on. It will stand me in good stead for some of the things I’d like to do with my military career in the future, after I leave this place. The fact is that dealing with insurgencies is likely to be a major aim of western militaries in the future, and as NATO works to redefine itself (and other alliances emerge), it’ll be something that is of interest to more and more people.

An ideal quote that I’ve heard about it is “You cannot kill off an insurgency.” It’s true. Someone I was discussing the future of Afghanistan and specifically the US role in Afghanistan in light of things like the BAF Koran burning incident and the shooting in Panjwaii basically tried to say “we should just  keep killing them (i.e., the Taliban) in such numbers that they are forced to seek negotiations”. It doesn’t really work that way. At all. The analogy I like best is a weed – it’ll keep growing back if you don’t dig out the roots – if you don’t address the root problems. And no amount of kinetic actions (which is a polite, more scientific sounding term for killing people) does that. Undoubtedly, there are people in the insurgency here (which is composed of several groups) that need killing, and that’s fine. I’m not going to say otherwise. However, that alone will not fix anything, because there are legitimate, real problems and grievances in this country that have to be fixed, and doing so will make the insurgency irrelevant. It will, as the theory goes, separate the population from the insurgency, build bonds with government, and ideally make Afghanistan a functioning country.

Counterinsurgency theory makes one point clear: politics is primary. Unlike conventional military operations where seizing and holding ground is what matters, in COIN, what matters is the population, and to win them over is something that cannot be done by military force. Military force facilitates other parts of the effort, but it cannot win on its own. There are numerous things that are required to defeat an insurgency, and all the JDAMs and trigger-pullers in the world cannot do those things – the building of bonds between the government and the governed requires much more.

I risk oversimplifying things here, and I really should just post links to so many agencies and initiatives involved in the process of dealing with Afghanistan’s “root causes”, but they’re so many that I’d feel overwhelmed trying to do so. I think, however, if I highlight just a bit of the picture I’ve still done a service to the average reader because while the information is out there, it’s not being found by the average person.

Afghanistan, first of all, can be argued to be not a real nation-state. I think that’s a big of a brash statement, and I’m not saying I fully agree, but it is an interesting argument. It’s in part the product of lines drawn on a map during The Great Game (specifically, the Durand Line, the border created with British India/modern Pakistan, is a problem) which didn’t reflect tribal boundaries. Most of that border is unmarked, most of it is essentially ignored by the people who live in the area. It’s uncontrolled.  While there’s something of an emerging national identity as “Afghans”, people still identify by their ethnic group, and it’s worth noting that essentially Afghanistan is a country of minorities – the largest being the Pashtuns who are estimated to make up 42% of the population, followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Balochis, Nurestanis, Turkmen, and other smaller groups. There are two national languages, Pashto and Dari. Both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam are represented here – Sunni being the most common, Shia being the religion of the Hazara. There’s never been a strong, unified national government really. Most rural areas are governed by traditional structures, which in the case of Pashtun regions are based on tribal structures primarily (the Tajiks, depending on who you ask, either long ago abandoned their tribal structure, or never had one to begin with). Those are largely influenced by ancient codes of conduct like Pashtunwali, which establishes a need to maintain honour, to offer sanctuary and hospitality to those who request it, and so on.

So, with this incredibly cursory explanation of the context in which Afghanistan exists, I hope you, the reader, get an idea of the dynamics which lead to the rise of the Taliban here, and why Al Qaeda found sanctuary here, and so on. Out of the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war, the Taliban showed up and provided swift justice and governance that lacked, and in some way security. Rooting them out will take providing those sorts of things, addressing economic concerns, and conveying a strong message that GIRoA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) can meet their needs and offer them a better life. Doesn’t that sound easy?

There’s been neat progress. A little town in Uruzgan Province, which is in the south, got sick of being a transit point for Taliban fighters heading to Kandahar and Helmand (two of the most restive provinces), so they basically raised their own militia and told them enough was enough. That was part of the impetus for the creation of the Afghan Local Police – forces selected by village elders to defend their own communities, trained with ISAF support, given uniforms and equipment, and built into the security strategy. They’re now active throughout the country, and address a void that ANSF forces haven’t gotten to yet. I say part of the impetus, because while this story is touted as being an ALP major success, I’m not sure it’s where it started. Related to that is a framework of improving governance in districts throughout the country – to make government relevant, to channel development projects better, and make sure that there’s reporting on how they’re doing.

There’s a program now running to reintegrate fighters who want to quit into society. It gives them a degree of amnesty (though there’s no codified amnesty, which allows the door to be open to prosecute people for things beyond the normal, expected things they’d do during insurgency), a little bit of financial support to transition, and helps reintegrate them into their communities, with rewards coming to the communities themselves. It’s a way out of the fighting with honour, and with a way to bring people back into their own village/tribal communities. It seems to work in many places, and recidivism is extremely low. The financial rewards aren’t significant, but instead it succeeds on the fact that many people are tired of fighting and there’s an enticement to help address those root causes in the communities.

The thing that has to be understood about the place is that those tribal structures where they exist in rural areas cannot be replaced by government. That won’t work. Similarly, the systems for justice that exist in those areas aren’t likely to be replaced by some system imposed from the national government – because for the most part, the processes in place meet community needs for resolving disputes. They’re able to address them quickly, in a manner relevant to the context of the area, in a way that’s accepted by the populace. Reconciling that with Afghanistan’s relatively modern, progressive constitution isn’t really easy, but there has to be some way to do so, because that represents the “Afghan good” we’re looking for – solutions that work even if they’re not what we see as ideal. As I understand it, the goal is that GIRoA will built its legitimacy amongst the people by harnessing those structures and those ways of doing things, and fusing them into their own structure for governance. So “we” – the various people contributing to stability, development, and defeating insurgency here – work to help the people of Afghanistan fit solutions to their problems in a context that works for them. We can help create that national identity of “Afghans” but it will need to be done in a context that respects all those other dynamics. But the work of really making it work and last must be done by Afghans – and more importantly – IS being done by Afghans.

When you take it to the simple level that I think you can argue that Afghans are like humans anywhere in their basic wants – to live in peace, without fear, with some measure of security (economic security included), and with a reasonable expectation that their children will grow up to live better lives than them, it seems that we can expect progress.

I will try – I really will – to come up with some expansion on these efforts. There’s lots of information out there, though it’s not all totally clear and easy to find, but I think with a little effort I’ll find time for I can try to create some order to it for those interested. There are so many agencies involved – so many moving parts – that they all have little tidbits to contribute to the story. I’m sure there are many sources out there which can present so much of this in a more academic way, and in truth, I could too – but it’s a bit more than I’m capable of at the moment, and I hope this overview is more effective at catching attention of a broader audience who will go and dig deeper if they see value in it.

Heading Downrange

with 3 comments

As best I can tell, everything is ready to go other than a couple of things to throw in the mail that I’ll probably take care of today. I’m basically set to go, so this will be the last post I’m going to put up before I take off.

The only thing I’m really not looking forward to is the trip itself – it’s going to be a long, long couple of days to get from here to there, I think my best hope is to find some sort of sleep aid, knock myself out, and ideally wake up just enough to do what I have to do at the stops along the way. I’ll figure it out. I’m looking forward to getting there, not least because an old friend from my old unit is planning to meet me on arrival, and one of the people I’m taking over for is a coursemate from a few years ago as well, it’ll be good to catch up a bit before they head home.

This week, as is my custom, I’ve been doing a huge amount of reading. I figure I may as well put some miles on my Kindle before I leave. Customarily I prefer non-fiction stuff – history, science, that sort of thing. I’ve read all the major works of history on Afghanistan worth reading, so I finally decided to read Khaled Hosseini’s books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I understand the popularity at last. You can read a lot of different sources on Afghan history. I’ll in particular recommend Sir Martin Ewan’s Afghanistan: A Short History Of Its People & Politics and Stephen Tanner’s Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The War Against The Taliban as good starts. However, neither of these books can quite capture the human experience in the way Hosseini’s books do. I can’t, of course, vouch for the veracity/authenticity of the tales, but paired with the historical context of Afghanistan, they seem like they’d be a reasonable accounting.

If you’re particularly interested in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, I’d suggest Lester Grau’s two books: The Bear Went Over The Mountain and Other Side of the Mountain (which talks more about the mujahideen experience). They’re not easy to find, but worth it. I tracked the former down in a Toronto library, the latter I’ve only been able to see extracts of, but it’s very, very interesting.

Fiction, well written fiction, captures the human dimension that history texts don’t really want to reach. I’ve never really read books that do it so well, perhaps it’s a function of wanting to try to understand the people I’m going to interact with better. Imagine: the younger men who we’ll meet as ANA soldiers and officers will likely have grown up without ever having known real peace or modern society. Afghanistan plunged into civil war in 1978, after all. Prior to that, well, prior to the bloodless coup of 1973, it was a relatively modern country, at least in the cities. The population was educated, the sort of fundamentalist tyranny that would come later when the Taliban emerged was unheard of. You get the impression from A Thousand Splendid Suns that the Taliban, on appearing on the Afghan scene in 1992, were welcomed not so much because people thought they were great, but because there was for once, some semblance of stability. The older folks we’ll meet – the ANA’s senior officers, for example, will have had the experience of Afghanistan under Daoud Khan, and King Zahir Shah, when it was very different. I hope it might just be possible to learn about their history from them over many cups of tea.

It’s that stability that needs to be created again, but in a way that also brings some chance for economic prosperity and for everyone to participate. That will take away the incentive for anyone to become “Part Time Taliban” because they need the money. The solution to Afghanistan’s problems, as it were, has little to do with military force. It’s going to be built upon allowing a generation to grow up in relative peace, with education, and with an ability to take good jobs and provide for families. Security, however, is a precondition for that, and that’s the part we’re contributing to. It’s vital, but it isn’t the answer.

On top of all that, I’ve been working on Dari as hard as is reasonable. It’s not an easy language to learn, because it bears so little resemblance to  any language I’m familiar with. I speak pretty decent Spanish, passable French, and some German – but all three of those languages have some linguistic commonality with English, through the influence of Greek and Latin. Dari, a dialect of Farsi, has no such connection. I’m finding the verbs to be the most complicated, because they use so many different forms and I can’t figure a way out to make sense of them. I’ve put more of a focus on speaking and listening than reading and writing because it’ll be more practical. I will, of course, have a terp to help with my day-to-day interaction, but I’d like to be able to make some conversation and have a basis to learn more. The program I’m using is giving me some good basis to do that. I even now know how to refuse offers, something that is the way things are done there. Apparently, when Afghans offer hospitality, whether a meal or a cup of chai, the custom is to refuse politely at least once, ideally twice, before acquiescing. It sounds a little like Italians – and apparently, with meals it’s the same thing. Saying you don’t want anymore guarantees another full serving of whatever is on offer. Saying “just a little more” brings just that, enough to leave as a sign of being done.

Lots to learn, indeed. I’m also learning numbers which might just come in happy in my quest to acquire carpets, though I’m rather scared to have them out where our cats can get at them. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyhow, this will be it for a little while, until I actually get downrange, and even at that, I’ll warn you in advance that it may take a while before I get settled in and manage to get on with the story.

Written by Nick

February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

The Day Job Comes To An End

leave a comment »

Yesterday was my last day of work in my civilian job, my leave of absence officially started. I spent the day cleaning up my office, getting some files organized, and saying a few goodbyes before I headed downtown to return my laptop, printer, and all that stuff. I walked out into a beautiful evening and what my father refers to as “gardening leave”, a few days off before I set off for Gagetown at some point this weekend, and the fun begins.

Today, though, I’m doing a video shoot for the company’s intranet that will be posted next week for Remembrance Day. Last year they did snippets on a bunch of employees with military connections and in the last few months they’ve started using video to feature different employees talking about all sorts of things relevant to the business, or our communities, or whatever. Kind of neat. Among other things they want me to talk about Remembrance Day and what it means to me. That’s an interesting question.

When I was growing up, it was about paying tribute to the fallen in wars long before my time, seeing older vets getting together to remember absent friends, and it was very vague. I understood why we did it, why it was important. I memorized In Flanders Fields even if I didn’t totally understand its message.

My first Remembrance Day in the uniform of Canada’s Army was in 2001. A new war was just beginning and it wasn’t clear what it meant. It was still a vague event, I went with fellow soldiers to tour the Legions and other service clubs, bought drinks for veterans and listened to their stories of WW2 and Korea.

By 2002 Canada had seen its first Afghan casualties and it suddenly had a different meaning. We actually were commemorating our generation. As each year went by, and more  names were added to the list of those fallen in the service of the country, we had more to remember. In 2006, for the first time, it was people I knew personally. By 2009, I was remembering and honouring a pretty close friend.

Each year, we gather at the cenotaph and pay homage to the fallen in broad, general terms. We stand in silence while Flowers of the Forest plays, we think of those lost, and when the parade is dismissed we head off to commiserate a bit over our absent friends. Each we honour in some unique way, each we feel the loss of anew, but we do this because it gives them an immortality that few will ever know.

Written by Nick

November 1, 2011 at 8:55 am