A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘training

Looking Ahead

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It’s commonly written that combat tours are hours of boredom and seconds of insense rushes of energy. Working as an advisor isn’t really like that – frankly, we do get bored a lot of the time, because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, and while most of us have what one senior officer described as that distinctly Canadian type-A drive to do stuff, to make things happen, to fix problems, we’re forced to try not to do so, because the whole idea is to create conditions where the Afghans have to deal with their own problems rather than us doing everything for them.

In the last few days we’ve gotten some visits from some high-priced help to talk about the high level view of NTM-A’s mission, how things are working out, an the way forward. The whole point of the mission is a transition plan to hand all responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to ANSF, and doing so has three planned phases in terms of reductions: the first one is to pull about 50% of support out, the idea being to stress the systems as much as possible so that we can see how things will work with lots of time left before 2014. Then 30%. Then the final 20% will leave, and the ANSF will have sole responsibility for national security.

The key message to us – and it didn’t surprise me – is to manage our expectations, and to realize that we won’t turn the ANSF into modern, Western-style military and police organizations. It’s simply not a realistic expectation. There are too many problems to overcome to do that – and it simply wouldn’t be a cultural fit. Instead, what we want to do is at least give them some ideas to work with on developing Afghan Right institutions. What we need to do wherever possible is demonstrate good ways to do things and hope that our partners glean some ideas out of seeing our actions.

It’s happening at all levels, which is good – one of the main efforts is to develop the NCO course – I posted before about how integral good NCOs are to western armies, and so even at the highest levels of NTM-A, Generals go to meeting bringing their Sergeants Major, and expect that their ANA counterparts have theirs with them. If they don’t, then the meetings are cancelled. I think that’s absolutely brilliant, because it shows how important the message is about effective command teams – and that’s the way we frame them now – as a team of an officer and an NCO – each has specific responsibilities and roles, but the two together are integral to any team’s success. Showing our partners how that works is important, because they don’t really get the value of NCOs yet.

It was a good opportunity for us to ask questions, voice concerns, and so on. I have to say, I have an almost infinite amount of respect for a senior leader who tells you to say what you mean, and then says “If you’re not man enough (it was an all-male crowd) to ask me tough questions or say what’s on your mind, then frankly, I don’t really care about your point of view, but if it is something I can influence, good or bad, then say it.” And people did. And his answers were frank as well, which was excellent. There were candid statements about how things were done wrong with training the ANSF, how focuses were put in wrong places, and so on, but there’s effort being made to right those wrongs, and that’s productive.

I’m on the front end of one of those transitions. My organization has already seen its manning cut dramatically, and when my tour ends, this organization will be done – completely handed to the ANA to run with. So we’re working to make sure it has the best possible chance of succeeding, which includes decentralizing as much training as possible, training and developing ANA instructors as much as possible, and helping them put in place the structures they’ll need to make things work without us here. We know – I know – that they will abandon a lot of things when we go – that’s been seen in places like Iraq, where a lot of the systems the US military put in place for the new Iraqi Army were discarded as soon as the Americans left in favour of time-tested ways of doing things. The Afghans will do that here too. So all we really can hope to do is give them more tools and ideas to work with.

I will say, candidly, that if we’ve had unrealistic expectations of the end result of developing the ANSF, some of their officers have also had unrealistic expectations. A conversation with Afghan military personnel about stability and the future rarely gets far without a mention of Pakistan. It’s hard at times to avoid the impression that Afghans think of Pakistan as being responsible for all the evil in the world, despite the fact, as my interpreter put it, that “Afghans sold off their country for a few more rupees” and have some responsibility too. There are ANA officers I’ve met who think they should be equipped and trained as an expeditionary force to go to war with Pakistan to resolve the interference. This is of course a ludicrous idea for many reasons. Efficacy aside, since the West is paying the bills, we’re not interested in paying for that. What we want the ANSF to do is be able to defend the country, deal with insurgent threats, and allow the government to exercise sovereign control over the whole of Afghanistan, so that effective governance can take hold, and the country can essentially get back on its feet.

A lot of criticism gets leveled at ISAF for trying to paint the rosiest picture possible of transition progress, and I can’t blame them for doing that. That’s what Public Affairs folks are for – to handle messaging. That said, there’s been a lot of successes in terms of ANSF ability to plan and execute operations and that bodes well for the future. Even when there have been big attacks on Kabul, for example, what they’ve demonstrated is an ability to respond fairly well, with fairly minimal support – and that capability grows constantly. It’s all too easy to criticize what has been done and what capability exists because we haven’t managed to turn Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy with a thriving mixed economy. But there’s no reasonable prospect of doing that – there never was.

I think the best summation of realistic expectations runs something like this – paraphrased from a senior officer: “Afghanistan will be a horrible place to live for a very long time.” That’s probably fairly true – but even for that it will get better over time, and that gives us something to work at.

Written by Nick

May 8, 2012 at 9:03 am

Dealing With Bad Press And Perceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Busy Week

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

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

Which, because of the shura, were all closed.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Getting A Look At City Life

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A few days ago, I went with my boss out to visit another training facility, one which is looking to us for advice on how to improve on the quality of training they are delivering in the field we’re experts on. They have been delivering their own training, but are trying to standardize what they’re doing with what is becoming ANSF doctrine. The meeting was relatively quick and simple, with a view that we’re going to review their training package, see how we can improve it, and help them with some instructor development training if needed. The idea, after all, is to build the capacity of the ANA to not only operate, but to also train their own people. We don’t just want to teach them how to do things, or teach them doctrinal concepts. We want them to own those ideas and be able to continue teaching their people. That builds sustainability.

More interesting than the meeting itself was the trip, which gave me a chance to see a lot of Kabul city life. Being somewhat sheltered in a camp limits your ability to really understand what goes on in the country, I do interact with Afghans constantly, and I enjoy getting the chance to learn about their lives, but it’s not the same.

Winding down the roads I got a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city – roads were lined with little shops and kiosks featuring people of all descriptions out to earn a living. A lot of them were tradesmen: carpenters, metalworkers, and so on. There were mechanics shops working on the 150cc motorcycles that are everywhere. Taxis. Shops selling everything from gas canisters for cookstoves to door and window frames, and so on. And people everywhere. What was interesting was seeing lots of kids coming and going from schools. I asked one of the interpreters about that,because the times seemed odd, and he told me that schools are generally run in “shifts” so kids come and go throughout the day to maximize the use of the facilities.

The schools we passed seemed mostly to be girls’ schools – they were all over the place in their sharp blue uniforms and white headscarves. That, I suppose, is a sign of progress, although Kabul is different than the rural areas, probably what you might call more “progressive”. In my view, though, any amount of children going to school and getting whatever education they can is progress. And girls in particular, though one wonders how long they’ll be in school. Still, basic literacy will be a good start for them, rates of literacy here are tragically low.

There were also a lot of markets – large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even bananas, which I thought would be a rarity, were on display. Bakeries, too. Naan/footbread is a staple food here, so there’s lots of bakeries, displaying loaves of various sizes in windows. The Afghans who work in our camp usually come to work with bags full of it, it’s their main meal during the day. Every now and then our interpreters bring some for us too, which is always a welcome treat. There’s nothing quite like it at home.

What did strike me, though, is the amount of garbage everywhere. In theory, we could probably revive the Afghan economy very quickly simply by paying people to pick up the tremendous amount of litter that’s on the streets and in the gutters. That does actually happen in some places, but not where I was. I don’t know how much there is in terms of municipal services in Kabul though, but perhaps someone entrepreneurial could come up with something. I saw an interesting documentary some months ago about Cairo, Egypt, where a whole economic system emerged to deal with waste management. Now, viewed through western optics, the idea of a class (or ethnic minority as it were) “relegated” to being trash collectors seems awful, but the fact is that this group did alright. They recycled huge amounts of Cairo’s refuse, including using organic waste to feed the pigs they used to support themselves. The system worked until Cairo started contracting out waste management (which residents apparently find doesn’t work as well) and the government culled their pigs during the swine flu paranoia. Incidentally, the Kabul Zoo was at that time home of the only pig in Afghanistan, which was quarantined.

Perhaps there is scope for some sort of system like that to emerge, who knows. It wouldn’t be pig based like the Zabbaleen in Cairo, but something might be possible.

It does make for a good argument for urban planning and sustainable growth, but Kabul doesn’t really have that, because people have streamed into the city over the last few years, and no one even really knows how many people live here. Housing is in short supply and extremely expensive, so what basically amount to shantytowns have emerged everywhere, and disputes over land ownership along with them, because as I understand it what records did exist didn’t survive the civil war.

Housing, thus, will be another challenge that Afghanistan will face. If economic activity continues to be concentrated here, as well, it will likely only get worse as people will migrate in from the rural areas.

Written by Nick

April 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm

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

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

Getting there was an experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

April 9, 2012 at 6:56 am

Please, Don’t Fret About Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

March 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

Thirty Days

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Today is my thirtieth day in theatre. It’s a small milestone, a month here, but it’s still a great one – it feels as though I’ve been here longer in some ways, now that I’ve got routines established, social networks in place, and a pretty good idea of what it is I’m doing here. A lot of people who were here when we arrived have just ripped out, and we’ve got some new arrivals to get introduced to. What always amazes me with military people is that you become fast friends, and people I’ve known for only that month leave with just as much significance as people you’ve known longer.

In fact, one of the guys who left this morning to make his way back to his unit in Kuwait, and eventually back home to Minnesota, is planning an epic round the world type trip that includes plans to try to meet up with several of us that have just arrived when we go on our leaves. He’s collected all the dates to try to arrange an appropriate itinerary, and through the wonders of Facebook and so on it should actually have some degree of possibility.

I have been amusing myself in my spare time with planning out my leave in more detail, so that when the time comes that I can actually start having things booked I’ll have a solid idea of where to go, what to do, when to do it, and so on. If I don’t use up all my HLTA money on flights and railpasses, I think I’m going to rent myself a nice touring bike for a couple of days while I wait for my wife to arrive in Germany to meet me. Rentals are much cheaper in Germany than in Canada, and so I can get my mitts on a nice BMW tourer, or a Harley-Davidson, or something that will do the trick. I thought about trying to rent my proposed new bike, but nowhere in Frankfurt-am-Main seems to rent them.

I can’t wait to explore some new cities and some history with my wife – we’ve not had the chance to do all that much traveling together in the last few years, and so it’ll be a great experience to do it. The trick for her is to make sure she has the time off work, which has been something of an issue so far, but we’ll see how it works out. There are numerous ways to deal with such problems.

My month ahead looks somewhat interesting. I’m headed out to one of the regions as part of a Mobile Training Team, and we have a course starting here as well that I’ll be involved in. I’ve just been involved in the course we give to new arrivals, as we have some guys in replacing people getting ready to go home, and I’m starting to get the impression that there’s really a point to my being here. There were moments I wasn’t totally sure about that. I just basically tried in those moments to learn as much as I could about what’s going on around me and figure out how to make myself relevant. It’s easy to look at tasks here as impossibly large, but when you realize that incrementally there are loads of small things that make differences, it’s easier to handle. I guess that’s something that military service is good at getting you to understand – when you face a daunting problem, break it into smaller ones and attack each individually.

Things have seemed a little unsettled for the simple reason that the school I work at is in the middle of transitioning, we’re working at shifting responsibilities from us to the ANA – and so what the people we replaced did doesn’t match up directly with what we’re doing, and that’s fine. It’s just an adjustment to define what exactly we need to do going forward to meet our goals, because the school’s plan is to hand off increasing amounts of responsibility to the ANA over the next few months. They have some things to develop their capabilities on, and some things they do well, we just need to help them along.

So how’d I spend day thirty? Well, Friday is our “weekend”, we don’t start work until 1pm. I got up at 10:30 after a nice sleep in. Last night I was out to trivia with the Brits (and we didn’t win, sadly!) and was in the office fairly late doing travel research, so it was nice to not have to get up early. This afternoon we were up to the range to do some Quick Reaction Drill shooting – basically, you’re sitting at your desk and someone decides to turn green-on-blue on you – how to react. Of course, the odds of that are rare, but there was an incident at Kabul International Airport where an Afghan Air Force Colonel, who was apparently about to be busted for using ANSF aircraft to smuggle drugs, shot eight people dead before killing himself. The victims were all armed and failed to react effectively. One of them, apparently, had a pistol but instead had a cellphone in their hand.

It was good just to get out, enjoy the weather, and get some shooting in. It looked like rain for a while but it turned out okay in the end. The best part: at ranges at home, after shooting you have to pick up all the brass (spent casing). Not so in Afghanistan. Within seconds of our completing our shoot, a bunch of ANA soldiers descended from the hills beside the range and furiously collected all the brass in no time flat. It was something of a sight to see. I guess it’s because they can sell it for scrap. Whatever the case, it doesn’t bother anyone, and saves us doing it.

Written by Nick

March 23, 2012 at 11:32 am

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