Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘War

How Things Turn Out

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I haven’t even hardly looked at stats for this blog lately, though I notice it keeps getting hits, a few here and there, for the odd search term that turns up, or whatever else. People come, read a page or two, and leave. Such is the Internet. I didn’t write this with much regard to that, otherwise I would have promoted it a lot more than I have. And frankly, it’s as much a reminder of stories for me as anything. Even the ones I can’t tell, there are cues salted throughout the posts which remind me of them, which keep them relatively clear in my mind.

What leads me to post again is a sequence of events that directly relate to this story. And I also want to circle back on something I wrote about last year that’s come into focus again. But I’ll get to that later.

When I started this blog, just after learning I was headed to Afghanistan, I shared it with my coworkers and was part of an internal promotion about their policies about hiring military/ex-military folks. This turned into more than I expected it to be and I wound up being part of big press push, which did actually shock me because I didn’t know about the scale of it until some people pointed it out to me.

So, a couple of weeks ago, sitting at home on my couch fiddling around with my iPad I get a note through Facebook from a name I don’t recognize. A friend of a friend, it turns out, who somehow stumbled upon the story that I was featured in which also covered veterans transitioning out of the military and into civilian employment. He searched for me on Facebook and found me based on the mutual friend. This man’s story is one I have heard before. He’s spent most of his adult life as an infantry soldier, and the years of physically intense work have finally taken their toll. His body can’t do it anymore, and so he’s about to be released on a medical category.

He tells me he would be in my debt if I could help him figure out how to find a job in the financial services industry because he thinks he would be good at it – he has the people skills that are the key to sales – the special sauce that you can’t teach people.

I tell him there would be no debt, and that I consider myself obliged to help him, as I would any soldier. As others have done for me.

A wise old Sergeant Major told me once, as I was trying to cope with the death of a good friend in Afghanistan, “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.”

Read that line again. Read it slowly and deliberately. “The life we have chosen…” We didn’t just take a job. We took on a lifestyle, not just work. Even me as a member of the Reserve Force. I became part of something much bigger than just a job. “…requires us…” This isn’t optional. It’s part of the deal. “…to hold each other up in times of trouble.” Even though I am “only” a Reservist, a part time soldier, my Regiment and the Army more broadly is like a second family. In some ways, they are closer than my actual family. That awful weekend in December 2008 when I heard that statement, I heard something else amazing. Sitting in a funeral home at the visitation for our fallen friend, one of my friends noted the number of people who turned up who we hadn’t seen in years. “Weddings and funerals, that’s the only time we seem to run into each other.” And then came the line that really stuck.

“Well, that’s family for you.”

That’s what it is. It’s family.

So, on with the story. I followed the emails with a phone call, and a long rant about Veterans Affairs greeted me, followed by an effusive if unnecessary apology. I know the experience. I fought Veterans Affairs to get an injury recognized as being service-related, and eventually threw up my hands and gave up – it was a minor claim and I just didn’t have the energy to keep at it. The system sucks though. They’ll deny your claim, then give you a lawyer to fight them. For ages. And the hope sometimes seems to be that you’ll eventually go away. Unless it’s a major, life-altering thing where you can’t afford to. But they’ll still fight as long as they can, in case you do finally break. I hate to sound cynical, and I know there are people working hard at VAC to make things better, but no one is likely to tell you it works well.

Armed with more information, I then shared the story with a military networking group I know. And within minutes, people I don’t know – and who don’t know the individual who sought me out – were already engaging. Some just tossed out ideas. Some gave contacts who might help. One offered to have his firm and connections in the industry try to help. One put me in touch with someone from Wounded Warriors who are getting their “release navigation specialist” to help my new friend – my brother whom I have never met – get what he is due and get on with his life.

So this ties into a second thing – and something I touched on ages ago in this blog – about the whole “Support The Troops” line. Last Sunday, an associate professor at Virginia Tech by the name of Steven Salaita published an article on Salon.com, a generally liberal leaning website, entitled “No, thanks: Stop saying “support the troops””. The subtitle/synopsis of the article is key: “Compulsory patriotism does nothing for soldiers who risk their lives — but props up those who profit from war”.

Predictably, right leaning websites, blogs, and so on seized on it. One, examiner.com, wasted no time attacking Salaita’s post by presenting excerpts out of context, and essentially excising what he had to say. As the internet tends to do, this elicited scads of comments. I am of the opinion that social media comments are often the best evidence of why our species is doomed, especially when they are anonymous. The responses were predictable: loads of “Internet Tough Guy” offers of violence or “Come say that to my face” statements. Loads of “Go back where you came from!”, which worked well with the photograph of Mr. Salaita included with the article, which evidences his Arab heritage. For the record, he born in Virginia. His father is from Madaba, Jordan (which is the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Jordan, I visited last year) and his morther is from Nicaragua, of Palestinian heritage. He omits any mention of religion from his bio, not that it matters. The comments get rich when they talk about how “the troops” are “defending his freedom”, while essentially attacking him for exercising his freedom of speech. That, in the words of my favourite high school English teacher from way back when, is a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

The article – as I have linked above – is worth a read. The author suffers from what I like to call the Dawkins Syndrome, after noted atheist and scientist Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins generally writes with a solid thesis in mind, and good arguments, but often falls into a trap of being unable to resist the urge to toss in some unnecessarily polemic statements which stop some from reading. In the middle of the article, you will likely spot where this happens to Salaita. I broadly agree with his premise though. “Support the troops” has become, for many but not all, a trite, vacuous, throwaway statement. It’s become a means of feeling better about not thinking critically about global events. I remember all too well when before the war in Iraq became reality that those who dared to question the wisdom of a war of choice against a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, and without evidence of the claims of WMD were told to shut up. “Why don’t you support the troops?” “Why do you hate your country?” I remember as well in those days that people said things like, “Even if you don’t agree, you have to support the President because we are at war.” It’s funny how that went out the window when President Bush left office and President Obama was inaugurated, but that’s a rant for another time and another place. What this is is precisely what Professor Salaita warns of: that “support our troops” as rote, as jingoistic patriotism in the form of slogans becomes essentially a demand upon the public that they not think, that they not ask questions, and that they not dissent.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and asking questions and demanding explanations should be the duty of citizens of a modern liberal democracy. Creating a mythical entity of “the troops”, who would take umbrage at being “unsupported” by citizens daring to ask why they are deployed where they are, is totally antithetical to that. It is repugnant to me. History is replete with examples of the horrible impact of a citizenry which stops questioning what its government does.

It is to me similarly appalling when politicians throw the phrase out, while their actions demonstrate nothing of the sort. This is not confined to any particular political party or ideology, that mythical entity of “the troops” is employed by all of them in different ways. It is fair to say that maintaining militaries is an expensive undertaking, and that it involves tradeoffs. Eisenhower long ago warned of the danger of the “military-industrial complex”, and he was right. Politicians must seek to strike a balance between maintaining such forces as are necessary to defend national interests and sovereignty, and providing any number of other social programs which are demanded by the broader public. The military must make do with the envelope it is allocated, and get on with the jobs it is given to do within reason. The problem that can arise is that politicians can easily make glib statements about how much they “support the troops” while giving them jobs to do for which they aren’t adequately resourced. Or they can make the statement while cutting the Veterans Affairs budget or overhauling benefits. Or voting against bills which seek to help veterans transition to civilian careers when their service is complete – either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often this is a matter of political necessity in trying to strike that balance I mentioned, otherwise, well, I don’t really know what drives it. I have ideas, but they’re not unique and you can read about them elsewhere from other writers.

You will perhaps note I’m not limiting my comments to what happens in Canada, and I am not about to start shilling for or attacking any politicians specifically. I can’t really, to begin with, because my position requires me not to attack government policy, and I won’t because that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. I am duty bound to serve the duly elected government and to support its decisions regardless of my personal opinion of them. Why? Because civilians control the military through the democratic process. And rightly so. I’m not going to write on specific issues because if you’re interested plenty of other sources do so. If I’ve kept you engaged this long and you’re interested I’m sure you will find them. If you get interested and get engaged, in whatever way you see fit, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

So then, is “support the troops” a universally terrible sentiment? No. Not in the context of understanding the risks of it. If you want to really, truly support the troops, then be an informed citizen. Ask questions. Demand answers that aren’t just glib throwaway statements, what in political science lectures are called “bromides” in reference to sleeping pills. Don’t just think of soldiers deployed wherever they are, but ask why they are there, whose interests are being served, and what their role is. If you want to do more, then I’ve provided links to organizations you might choose to support that make real differences in the lives of “the troops” and their families.

Do something. Don’t buy some ribbon magnet at Walmart (which literally does do nothing to support anyone but Walmart and the magnetic ribbon industry), give a donation to Soldier On or the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Look around your community and see what exists. I received some lovely packages from a couple of wonderful ladies who just wanted to make life deployed a little better and they can always use donations for those sorts of causes. Don’t have money to donate? No problem. You have time and energy and that is as valuable. Write a letter to deployed soldiers – they’re free to send generally, and if it winds up in the hands of someone like I was while I was “over there”, you’ll make someone’s day and get a response back. Write to your elected representatives and demand explanations as to why we are engaged where we are engaged, and don’t just take the answer and be gone but think it through and see if it really makes sense. Just do someting that’s more than blindly braying. Even if it makes you despise the military and its employment, I’ll feel more “supported” knowing your point of view is the product of thought and engagement than I ever will feel supported by some armchair general chickenhawk cheerleading for wars in which he would never fight.

Reminders

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget where we are.

Then something like this shows up on Facebook from a friend:

;

That’s a locker in a transient tent at an American base my friend was at recently for a course (one of the guys I went to Germany with, I mentioned the story about his friend who was killed in a rocket attack in Iraq I think).

While he was asleep ten feet from that locker, a mortar impacted and hit it. It was probably a Chinese or Russian 82mm. Had it detonated, it would have had a lethal blast radius of around 25 metres or 75 feet. Luckily for everyone in the tent, it didn’t. Either the fuze failed (which isn’t uncommon given that often the ammo is ancient and has been buried or otherwise poorly stored), or as sometimes happens, the idiots firing it forgot to pull the pin on the round. Regardless, that’s how random things can be, and how lucky.

And you know what he had to say? After they returned to the tent and saw the gaping hole? Referring to the brilliant cartoon series Archer we’re all fans of, he simply groaned “THIS IS HOW WE GET ANTS, PEOPLE.”

This kind of thing happens. A friend of mine deployed to Kandahar a few years ago forgot to pick up his laundry as he was returning to his shacks. He turned to return to the laundry facility and minutes later a Chinese 107mm rocket slammed into the building he lived in. Another rocket hit the bedspace of someone who’d gotten up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. It’s possible to get complacent, to forget where we are, to forget that things like this happen.

But as best as we can, we laugh about it. It’s kind of a warped gallows humour thing, but it takes the edge off.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Site Stats And So On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To The Sandbox

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After a long night flight to Dubai (which I sort of managed to sleep on, but in such a way as to leave my neck aching severely afterward, and a six hour layover in the world’s most famous Fly-In Shopping Mall (which is what DXB basically is, and why Emirates offers lots of cheap flights all over the world that connect through it), I boarded my flight back to Kabul and made my way back to camp.

I spent the last few days in Germany obviously finishing off work on the course, and we managed to wrap up early after a really well done interactive demonstration of what we teach done by one of the British students who’s sort of their subject matter expert already and was just coming to deepen his knowledge. Had we known about his version of our “COIN Skit” we’d have done it earlier on. We wrapped up around lunch time and headed off to Munich to start the trip back.

First night in Munich we stayed west of the city and explored around a bit, next morning I used Hotwire to find somewhere a little more central and the remainder of my team dropped me off there and then headed to the airport. This gave me a chance to visit a camera shot and pick up a zoom lens for my new camera (a Nikon 1), and set off to explore Munich, which I did without a particularly detailed plan. I headed to Marienplatz and up the tower at the Neues Rathaus to get some pictures of the city, and then I just basically walked around until finally I got to the English Garden and decided I was tired and wanted to head back to find some dinner and sleep. Munich’s subway system, while looking a little dated, is pretty efficient once you figure out how the fares work, and it dropped me near my hotel and a convieniently located doner kebab joint.

In planning what else to do, I had been interested in visiting Dachau, which is basically a large museum. Part of the Rules of Engagement from 9D (my wife) about our trip when I go on leave is that she’s not too interested in much WW2 historical stuff – so I wanted to knock off some key points, and Munich was basically where Hitler got his start and the Nazis rose to power so what better place to do that? I decided to take a pair of tours with the fabulous Radius Tours, led by Steve, an ex-close protection guy, UK expat, and history buff.  First, we boarded a train to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich. It was a very fascinating and very sobering place to visit, and interestingly, a group of German soldiers (in uniform) were there as well. It leaves you wondering how exactly such things could ever have existed, and how, with such reminders of atrocity, human beings manage to keep visiting such horror upon others.

Three or four hours’ walking around does not really do the site justice, but it was enough to get an initial appreciation, and knowing a lot of the history already meant it was just adding to that knowledge and putting it into context. We headed back to the train station and I found some lunch before the second tour, the Third Reich walking tour. While I read up on some of the major sites in Munich, Steve actually helped me find some less known ones, and added more to the story – Hitler’s favourite nightclub, Das Kuenstlershaus, still stands on Karlsplatz. The fountain in the Botanical Gardens, a classic piece of Nazi artwork when you realize what it is, sits unassumingly behind the courthouse. And just behind it, I was amazed to see a Nazi Eagle still on a state building, its swastika removed. In fact, in Munich, you’ll notice a lot places where Nazi symbols have been removed from doorframes and buildings, once you see one, and that’s what Steve was so good at pointing out. We passed the hotel where the SA was formed, the beer hall (now closed) where Hitler often held court, and the top floor of the Hofbrauhaus, from which Hitler took control of the DAP and the Nazi Movement was born.

There’s several examples of Nazi neogothic architecture to be seen, like Haus Der Kunst, the House Of Art, a large museum that was designed by architect Paul Troost, who inspired Albert Speer’s designs for other Nazi buildings. Steve told us that when Hitler was laying the cornerstone, the hammer broke, which he perceived as a bad omen, and Troost died of pneumonia a year later, never seeing the building finished. Wouldn’t have known that without a good guide.

That, I guess, is the beauty of a good guide, you learn all the stories you’d miss walking around, even though I find it frustrating to be on someone else’s pace at times. Guides like Steve are good because they just get stories from others and build them into their tours, which makes them more fascinating, particularly in the case of Dachau where he’s met so many survivors and their families, but also the families of some of the staff of the camp who have their own perspective.

So, I’m back in country – my longest stretch to spend here now over, because my upcoming leave breaks up the remainder of my stay into smaller chunks, and I can’t complain about that in the least. We’ve got some work to do over the next little while (including, for me, getting a handle on what the other Canadian Captain here does because he’s just headed off on leave and I’ll have to take care of his responsibilities) as we prepare to transition this place over to the ANA and go home. I’ve also got to get myself moved into my new room (if only I can get a hold of the keys!), and my camp finally has laundry service, so for the first time since being here I had the luxury of simply dropping off my laundry to be done for me. Kind of nice. Except I’m out of socks apparently – I have some buried in my rucksack while I’ll pull out today when I move, I guess.

That’s my life for the moment. Oddly enough, I’m kind of glad to be back here.

 

Written by Nick

June 12, 2012 at 2:52 am

Professional Development Interlude

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I’ve taken advantage of our schedule to see a little bit of Germany while I am here. German history has fascinated me for a long time. Watching the fall of the Berlin Wall is the first memory I have of starting to pay attention to news. I was 10 when that happened.

One of my friends happened to be in Germany on a task supporting a European exercise, and so I made arrangements to meet up with him. We spent an evening telling war stories over a great feed of Bavarian food.

On the way, I found myself in Nuremberg and visited the museum at the Palace Of Justice where the Nuremberg Trials happened. I can now say I’ve stood in Courtroom 600. The museum display was excellent. I also went to Dokumentationszentrum – the former Nazi Congress Hall, site of another museum about Albert Speer’s masterworks of Nazi architecture. I could have spent a long time in Nuremberg and will definitely need to go back at some point.

It was all a happy accident when I got off the Autobahn to figure out where I was.

The other museum I went to was OP Alpha and The House On The Border, which sits at the Fulda Gap, which was considered to be the most likely axis of advance for the Red Army in an invasion of Western Europe during the Cold War. OP (Observation Post) Alpha was a small US outpost that sat just 50 metres from the Inner German Border and is now preserved as a museum.

From there you can walk along the concrete brick road used by the East German Border Police to move along the fence. The path shows the evolution of border defences from simple roadblocks to single and then double barbed wire fences, to finally the expanded steel mesh fences and watchtowers, landmines, dogs and other methods used to divide the country. Quite a sight to see and take in.

I then made my way back down to Regensburg, winding around back roads and just generally enjoying the scenery. Part of the trip wound through the former East Germany, which 21 years after reunification blends mostly into the West, but I was impressed to recognize the Soviet style apartment blocks in one town, which were identical to those found in Kabul, where they are called Macrorayons.

The course is now winding down, and soon we’ll head “home”. Strange to think of it that way, but I do. For now, it is. It’s not as posh as a hotel, but comfortable and familiar.

Written by Nick

June 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Alive Days

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An inevitability of living and working on close quarters with a relatively small group of people is that conversations get deeper and more involved. On this particular trip it is worse in many cases because there are just three of us on the training team, staying in the same hotel, planning our meals around each other, and so on. We do get along well so it’s not complicated. But the conversations get very deep.

Yesterday afternoon, we sat at a small sausage stand on the Danube, on a patio feasting on little bratwursts and sauerkraut, and we got into discussion about a lot of things, including absent friends. One of my colleagues had told me some of his stories, but never in depth. He wears a black bracelet that has become somewhat common amongst those who’ve lost friends in war. His bears the name of friend who was killed in a rocket attack on a base in Iraq, right in front of the PX. My friend had been invited to come along to the shops – something that’s common enough – and declined. Had he gone, he too would likely have been killed.

Military folks have a term for these: Alive Days. The day that they managed to avoid a grim fate. I neither have nor want an Alive Day – but I find the emergence of them to be something rather awesome. They complement the more solemn idea of remembrance of absent friends by celebrating survival as well.

They are sad days. My colleague recounted the last discussion he had with his KIA friend – about photographs he had received of his kids and his wife’s poor camera work. It laid bare for us just how real it is what we do, during the surreal experience of being in Germany instead of Afghanistan.

Written by Nick

May 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm

ANZAC Day

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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

Just So You Know…

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As you’ve no doubt heard, a series of coordinated attacks struck the Downtown/Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul yesterday. It made for a long and “interesting” day for me, but all is well. Insurgents expended a lot of their weaponry, and got themselves killed, accomplishing pretty much nothing.

I think I like US Ambassador Crocker’s statement best: “The Taliban are good at making statements, less good at fighting.”

The important takeaway from our perspective: The ANSF dealt with the the incident almost entirely independently. There were apparently some NATO troops at one location involved in the fighting, but everywhere else, it was Afghans doing the job, according to all the news sources I’ve been looking at. (And that’s all I know!)

Written by Nick

April 16, 2012 at 12:21 am

An Interesting Week

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April is shaping up to be a rather busy month, actually.

It’s been almost frustratingly slow here at times. I don’t know how often I find myself feeling like I’m far too idle, but there’s nothing I can really do in downtime, save, perhaps, for one rather large project I’m considering, but it’s not necessarily likely to be of a tremendous amount of value in the context of the future of the school I work at – but it’s still something I’m considering discussing with higher. So I break up my day with workouts, checking out news sites, checking out social media, and trying to keep in touch with the world outside of the place I live. It’s funny, if you give it too much thought it’s a bit like living in one of those “minimum security prisons”. We can stroll the grounds, but we don’t really have much ability to go outside the walls at all. Even when we do, it’s a direct vehicle convoy move to another walled in convoy, basically.

In any case, April should be a little more interesting, we have some courses to deliver – or rather, our counterparts do. ANA instructors teach the courses, we mentor them on all aspects of delivering them, from the administration and planning, to validating the course content and helping develop their instructor capabilities. They have several planned, so all of the coalition staff will have their work cut out for them, and that’s a good thing. I would rather be busy than sitting around the office.

I did have some interesting times this week though. We were out to the range on a nice afternoon, though it briefly looked like it was about to pour on us. We were out to fire our pistols, including practicing some Quick Reaction Drill shooting (think “quick draw”). Definitely a skill worth having in an environment like this and one that bears a lot of practicing to build muscle memory.

Fact is, going to work here is mostly just like going to work at home. I have a schedule, I have routines. I just don’t carry a briefcase, instead I carry a pistol, but I don’t really even notice that anymore, it’s just part of the uniform in a way. We’re in a pretty secure environment all things considered so I don’t really give it a second thought. We are going to have to integrate more practice into our schedule, and I still have to take my rifle up to confirm my sight zero. I can only imagine how it may have been banged around in transit.

Our next big shock was discovering a huge box of Tim Hortons coffee – almost full! It’s the packages that stores use, and we have no idea where it came from. A friend of mine hypothesized it might have been leftovers from the store at Kandahar Airfield, which is possible – it has the name of our camp written on it in big black marker, but no mailing info to suggest it came from Canada in a care package. Whatever the source, we’re not complaining. A couple of pots were brewed today to the delight of the assembled masses.

A Big Ass Box Of Tim's

Hello, My Pretties...

Lastly, I had a trip out to visit one of the most fascinating (and perhaps most sad) places in Kabul – Tap-e Tajbeg, Tajbeg Palace, or the Queen’s Palace. Built in the 1920s by the rather visionary King Amanullah, it sits on a large hill in Darulaman, southwest of Kabul city. He built another palace, Darulaman Palace, which lies a little to the north. King Amanullah’s time in power was fairly short-lived, in part because of his progressive views and wanting to modernize his country. His wife, Queen Soraya, was photographed unveiled as a symbol of a change in the role of women in Afghan society, and this helped touch off a revolt that ended his reign just a few years after his palaces were completed. They survived him, and the Soviet invasion (which began at Tap-e Tajbeg when Soviet commandos stormed the palace to kill President Hafizullah Amin) as well. The palace actually served as the Soviet 40th Army Headquarters during the war.

Unfortunately, after the Soviets left, the palaces became strongholds of the various factions fighting the civil war, and both were severely damaged. Darulaman Palace is in far worse shape, but both are just ruins.

Tajbeg Palace

Tap-e Tajbeg - The "Queen's Palace"

Darulaman Palace As Seen From Tajbeg Palace

Darulaman Palace, from the entrance to Tajbeg Palace

Our visit included drinking tea with the Afghan National Army soldiers who maintain an OP on the palace grounds, and a walk through the ruins of the majestic three story palace. In places the original marble is still in place, though long covered by dust and rubble. The palace had an elevator in it, and features a large atrium around a grand staircase at the entryway. To the east of it is a swimming pool crumbling away. On the third floor, you can see where rockets, artillery, and mortars pounded the structure into its current state. Many rooms are scarred by fire. There are safes in a few places, one wonders what they may have contained.

Another feature: the interior walls are heavily covered with graffiti – going back to the Soviet era, but all the way up to the present. One of our guides explained that there’s sort of a code about it – no one covers anyone else’s work. One of the more haunting pieces is this:

Russian Christmas Mural

A Reminder of Different Times

We found this on the second floor of the palace, painted over the last Christmas the Soviets would celebrate within the Palace.

There’s graffiti from the civil war, including some elaborate pencil sketches, various slogans, a lot of “so-and-so was here” markings, and so on. They stretch all the way up to the present day as a sort of public art project. There’s a few Canadian inscriptions. When Canada operated in Kabul from 2002-2005, their main base was Camp Julien, and the Palace was part of that complex, observation posts were maintained in the palace and on the grounds, as I understand it.

I’ve heard that there’s been some work to catalog all the markings – to what end, I don’t know. One of my friends who saw some of the pictures I put on Facebook commented, “Imagine if those walls could talk…” In a way, they can, so I wonder what will come of the efforts.

I asked my interpreter what he felt seeing the damage. “Anger at the people who did this.” I have to wonder, though there is some discussion of restoring the palaces for official use (at an immense cost, I’m sure), if they may well serve as a good reminder to the people – “never again”?

I rounded out the week with a trip to the tailors, to pick up a Regimental Camp Flag I commissioned. It cost me the princely sum of $50. It’s not a perfect replica (the badge is disproportionately small, but it’s pretty decent for the price, and I got it mainly as a wall hanger, since there’s several such flags up in the office. We (my roommate and I) also had a couple of cheeky morale patches made up (one alluding to cat herding, another a “Chairborne” badge), which we can’t actually wear except for the brief moment we wandered into the Canadian TOC with them and got some laughs. We wrapped the day up with a trip to the coffee bar here, watching the surreal sight of a young Afghan barista with a very modern espresso machine making us lattes while Guns N’ Roses blasted from his stereo. We sat on the patio, slightly amazed by where we were doing this.

Afghanistan is indeed a strange, interesting, beautiful land.

Written by Nick

March 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm

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

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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.