Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘War

Heading Downrange

with 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

The Wrap Up

with one comment

Finishing off the last week of training. It’s getting a little bit crazy around 2RCR because we’re now at the point where in addition to trying to meet all of our training requirements we are also trying to complete a lot of last minute administrative requirements. All those things covered in the DAG now have to get sorted out for the last time, and we’re also coming to grips with a lot of new things that have fallen out of the woodwork. For some of the contingents it’s made more complicated by the arrival of a whole lot more Reservists when we came back from Christmas leave. They have to be pushed through all the processes a lot faster than normal because of the shortened timeline. We’ve got only a couple of these guys, so it’s not so bad. That said, our camp clerk is away on course now and so I’m doing a lot of the work catching up on the paperwork – or at least getting people to do it. One of the specific things is a form we need completed for everyone which has a complicated, specific requirement, and to make it extra complicated, it is a Protected document, meaning it can’t be transmitted by email without encryption. So, I collected these all on a memory stick, and reviewed them. No good. Most of the troops hadn’t read the instructions on how to complete the last part, so I had to kick them back out to be redone.

While I’ve got all this to do, I have my own training to take care of. I’ve knocked off my first aid training, as I mentioned, and went on to Personnel Recovery, which I didn’t get to see all of because of the Unit Ethics Coordinator Course I started today. Go figure, in response to how the first serial of the PR course went it was condensed from two days into one. The UEC course is actually somewhat interesting, in no small part because I did a little bit of coursework on it in university, and one of the officers who profoundly influenced my career studied it more in detail. That would be LCol Ross Cossar, currently the Commanding Officer of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. Then-Major Cossar was published in the Canadian Army Journal in Fall 2008, with an article worth reading entitled Unethical Leadership And Its Relationship To Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have an interest in military psychology I strongly recommend reading this. Further, it cites some excellent sources, including the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, specifically his books On Killing and On Combat, both of which are widely viewed as required reading for those in uniform.

Grappling with the impact of ethics on military service has had a profound effect on the Canadian Army. Most Canadians will be familiar with the Somalia Affair, the torture and murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment during a deployment in that troubled country in 1993. While that event itself was horrible, it exposed a much more deep and troubling problem in the Canadian Forces, pervasive leadership flaws which directly impact our effectiveness as an organization. It was far from the only such incident, and they’re of course not confined to Canada, but it was probably the first, most profound such incident. It was the Somalia Affair that helped drive the interest in ethics that led me to sit in the classroom in which I found myself today.

Militaries have a unusual role in society. We are charged with the responsibility to defend the national interest, including with the right to use violence to do so. As such, you might expect that we have a specific contract with the nation with respect to that responsibility. For example, in Canada and any other democratic society, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, with an emphasis on separation of the two. Canadian Forces members are barred from standing in elections or holding public office while serving (there are apparently some exceptions, but they’re rare), or from engaging in political activities where they may be seen as speaking for the CF. We are expected to hold ourselves to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than the average member of the public because of the role we have.

What happens when the opposite happens? When militaries fail to meet that standard? The repercussions are severe. In fact, in history, the cost of such developments can be mission failure. The Vietnam War wasn’t a military defeat by the North Vietnamese in the sense that their firepower and technology allowed them to defeat the US and their South Vietnamese allies (by the way, if you want to read an amazing account of that, I’d suggest Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval). Neither was the 40th Army driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen because of their strategic or tactical acumen. Rather, in both cases, the national will to keep spending blood and treasure there was destroyed. Media – social media, the internet, and the conventional media – can make that process very rapid indeed. Witness reactions to the video of Marines urinating on corpses. Or the Haditha Incident, where photos came out that made clear that what had actually happened (the murder of innocent bystanders, basically) had been covered up. We risk that same problem any time we deploy. The fact that everyone has camera phones these days, that things can be spread via the internet rapidly, underscores the idea that the whole world is watching all the time.

In most cases, the right thing to do is fairly simple. It’s obvious. There’s no debate or discussion. Sometimes, however, we face choices where there isn’t an obvious palatable option, and the role of ethical training is to help soldiers understand how to apply the ethos that we have developed – and to know where to go for help should they be unable to resolve a dilemma. Not that we’ll always have all the answers, but it’s a good start. And we’re also realizing and understanding that if mistakes do indeed happen, that it’s better to be transparent and address them head on rather than hoping they go away. That applies as well to the military as it does to any industry or to anyone’s personal life. Think about it: as a child, was it ultimately better to hide or lie about what you might have done, or to work to accept responsibility? It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

The course focus, though, is on how to convey these messages to our soldiers, to get them to understand and buy into the Army Ethics Program, to be able to lead them through good discussions about issues and cases that allow them to understand and apply the values we want them to embrace. How to be a better facilitator, as it were. I think it’s a great skill to build on – it’ll help me as an advisor, it’ll help me in my civilian career, it’ll be incredibly valuable. And part of the perk of doing what I do is that I get all this training for free. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about Reservists, but a fact to which more and more are starting to become attuned.

This is only the start of a bit of waxing poetic I think I might do – but I think it’s as important as just recounting what I’m actually doing. As always, let me know what you think.

Written by Nick

January 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Focusing In On The End State

with 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeper Thoughts On Training

with one comment

First aid training is done. Well, Standard First Aid, anyhow, Combat First Aid starts tomorrow. It’s going to be a relatively relaxed course I think though, being that it’s the weekend, and the idea is to actually learn as much as possible. Some of the kit we get for our own med pouches is stuff I haven’t really used, though, so it’ll be important to pay good attention, I have a lot to learn. I’m realizing as I think about the course that while I’ve set up my SORD rig in a way that I think is mostly functional, I have my med pouch in a place that is only accessible from one side – which might actually not be the best idea from the perspective of planning for its use. I think I’m going to move it.

I feel like such a snob going to ranges and so on with non-combat arms types using the SORD. The whole reason people started using this sort of hit is that the tactical vest we normally carry has a couple of significant flaws. The main one has to do with the placement and design of the ammunition pouches. The tac vest has four single magazine pouches that carry 30 round rifle magazines. They sit high on the vest, which makes them awkward to use. Back when it was designed, the idea of carrying five magazines when going out on an operation seemed reasonable. Afghanistan showed that wasn’t enough. Most people wound up carrying at least ten. The position, in addition to being inefficient for rapid reloads, didn’t bear the weight properly.

With a chest rig, you can carry your magazines lower and more accessibly. I have them low and mainly on my left side, because I’m right handed, allowing me to grab them with my left hand, and swing them up rapidly into what we call “the workspace”. It’s ergonomically superior to the awkward motion required with the tactical vest. I have the pouch that will hold my pistol magazines mounted higher, as the workspace for it is different, and I can do everything right in front of my face that way.

I will note that the other major problem with the TV – the “one size fits all” problem that wastes lots of space for those who carry a machine gun as a personal weapon – isn’t really solved by the SORD rig we have been issued, because as yet there’s no pouches suitable for machine gun ammunition. However, other than the force protection folks, people generally aren’t carrying anything but rifles or carbines anyhow during the normal course of business.

So, why do I feel like a snob? Simple. So many of these guys I see have the mag pouches mounted high, and the problem is in fact made worse by the design of the mag pouches, which have a larger foldover flap. This is a smart compromise, because they can be closed relatively easily. I just don’t think they get why they’ve been given the kit they have, and perhaps that the fault of some people who aren’t sharing the knowledge. Normally, even “customizable” kit comes with a pretty strict set of directions about how it will be used. We’re not getting that direction, instead we’re being left to the soldier’s favourite term – “personal preference”. When that preference doesn’t have knowledge to shape it, well, people just go with what they know. I’ve shared mine with some people, but when someone who’s barely handled a rifle in their entire career blows me off, well, what I can I do? I’m not an expert by any means, nor do I have any authority to tell them what to do. Some people just don’t want friendly advice I guess.

There’s a second problem that it seems we (the combat arms types) have to try to break people of. We have had for many years something of an obsession with rifle magazines. We have created a culture so obsessed with retaining those magazines that it leads people to do things in gun fights that are dangerous. Our experts will tell you that when you need to change magazines, you just dump the empty one, get the fresh one loaded, and keep getting rounds downrange. However, we’ve all been taught to make sure that magazine doesn’t get lost, and I don’t really know why. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that they’re prohibited items – to have one other than as a military/law enforcement person at work is illegal. It seems we’re worried that one lost in a training area might wind up in the wrong hands or something. It’s certainly not a cost issue, they’re about $7 each or something like that if you lose one (which I haven’t in a long time).

There is an old, and possibly apocryphal story about a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, in the process of reloading the revolver he was carrying. Someone highlighted that the spent casings from that revolver were found in his pocket – suggesting that during his reload he had fiddled around to get the casings into the pocket because he would have been conditioned to do so on ranges, rather than simply dumping the cases to reload quickly. We’re conditioning people to do the same thing, but it’s getting weeded out I guess. It’s like our need to restructure the way we train people on their service rifles, because combat arms folks rather quickly get told “what you learned on basic is wrong”. Because it is.

What got me thinking about that was a series of events today. This morning I read about a green-on-blue incident involving French soldiers in Kapisa Province, which is near Kabul. Four were killed by an Afghan National Army soldier who was in a unit being mentored by the French Army. That as a headline was awful enough, but then I read the whole story – that 15 French soldiers were wounded in the attack. One lone ANA traitor created 19 casualties. How did that happen? One source explained it: they were unarmed. That I couldn’t believe. The idea of being unarmed at any point there is to me simply ridiculous.

The attack has prompted the French to “reconsider” their role, and suspend operations for now, mainly because of domestic political pressure I’m guessing.

The problem, the concern that I’m developing is that lots of people deploying who perhaps aren’t taking enough opportunity to train on the skills that they hopefully won’t ever need, but should have. I’m going to be surrounded by almost all combat arms types, so we’ll be out honing skills constantly, but I guess I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t do that. I guess it’s just the way that even as a Reservist to think about those skills. There is, also, the fact that I shoot recreationally, and I probably know more about firearms than at least 2/3s of my colleagues. I take the stuff seriously, because it’s my job.

I also was struck by something that happened during the trip to convoy ranges. After drawing our weapons, we were loading up into MSVS trucks to go out to the training area. SOP for us is when you’re loading a vehicle, you unload and clear your weapons. There are of course exceptions, but this wasn’t remotely close to being one. Additionally, when you’re going to a range, weapons handling is particularly important, for reasons I shouldn’t need to explain even to non-soldiers.

So, we’re on the truck. I was last in on the left, and as I tend to, I started looking around. I spotted a loaded rifle in the hands of someone sitting across from me. Incidentally, in our terminology, loaded means that a magazine is mounted on the rifle. Whether it actually contains ammunition or not is not discernable by appearance. There was almost certainly no ammunition present, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still not done. So, I said, “Hey man, what’s with the loaded rifle?” and shot him a bit of a glare.

I didn’t realize he was a Major. But hey, that should have meant he knew better.

His answer? “So, when I catch you doing it, I can use the same tone?”

What tone? I didn’t use a “tone”. I did highlight a significant safety infraction. That’s all.

And you’ll never catch me doing the same thing. Because I’m a pro. And we don’t do stupid things like that.

Or we shouldn’t. I don’t.

It’s not that I have a lack of confidence in our training or my peers. I don’t. I know that they’ll be able to do what they need to do, and that we get some of the best training around. I’ll be interested to get a lot more experience seeing how ours stacks up against our allies while I’m away, but what I’ve seen in limited experience tells me we’re well ahead of most of them.

It’s just that I sometimes wonder if people just brush it off, even when there’s lots of people who’d happily coach them.

Written by Nick

January 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

A Harsh Reminder

leave a comment »

It’s been enough that when people who aren’t military hear where I’m headed in a few months I always get asked “But aren’t we pulling out of Afghanistan?” and I have to provide the recap of what’s going on there.

Yesterday morning I read the initial reports on a few incidents including the one in Kabul. Before I set off for my day’s events I heard 13 Americans died in an attack near Kabul. Over brunch with my wife I heard the update that one of them was actually a Canadian.

Canada’s military is very small and playing Six Degrees of Separation is easy. Chances are if you don’t know someone personally, you know someone who does. Getting to a third degree is almost certain if you don’t.

So we all wait with baited breath to hear the name, to find out if it is someone we know, as though it’s somehow better if we don’t. We run down a checklist of who we know over there and wonder when we heard from them last.

And finally, the name comes out. You feel a brief sense of relief that it wasn’t someone you know personally. Then you realize that doesn’t matter, that the loss is still tragic because some part of the family is feeling it that close and we know how that feels, I do for sure. Been there done that.

And so we honour the fallen, thank them for taking the risks they did, and we resolve to carry on.

RIP Master Corporal Bryon Greff. Not in vain.

20111030-092214.jpg

Written by Nick

October 30, 2011 at 8:16 am