Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘winding down

2012 In Review And The End Of The Story. For Real, This Time

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

WordPress’ form letter of sorts about stats aside, it’s interesting to see the recap and how many unique hits this blog got. I’d like to think I told a reasonable story. It’s hard to make a job that often seemed mundane really interesting, but at the same time, I wanted to tell it like it is. Neither glamorous not awful, just a year in the life as it were. This recap WP did covered most of the period the blog did so it gives something of an idea of what was accomplished.

All I can hope is that anyone that read along found it interesting. That it gave them something new to think about. That it provided some perspective on a land far from home for most, but one full of potential, or beauty, of so many stories.

Though I mused about it in a previous post, today marks the end of the story. It’s January 4, 2013, and today marks the end of my post deployment leave, and the end of my Class C contract. My deployment experience is over, for this time around at least. Today, or rather, this morning, I’m oddly restless. It’s 1:48am and I don’t know why I’m awake. Maybe it’s my subconscious realizing that this chapter really is over.

I spent my holidays mostly quietly. I traveled to Ontario and reconnected with old friends. I picked up a job offer. I have the prospect of at least two more on the horizon. This weekend I’m working with my wife to start planning to move, because our fortunes seem to lie elsewhere. Later this morning I’ll close the book on several concurrent stories in my life and start on the next one. It will begin next week when I finally turn in all my desert kit. Then I travel to Ottawa, back into the warm embrace of the army for a few weeks while I wait and see how those other job leads turn out. Finally, in February, I will get to work on something new, what it will be I am not yet sure.

This, in a way, has been the story of my life for as long as I’ve paid attention, from one journey to the next. I always seem to land on my feet in the right place at the right time, which to me is a pretty good skill to have. Or maybe, it’s more of a knack than a skill. I don’t know, and I guess it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m pretty happy that things seem to turn out right.

Thanks for reading.

Written by Nick

January 4, 2013 at 1:58 am

Last Week In Camp

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Less than a week remains for me here now, before I start the long(ish) trek home.

It seems very strange, despite the fact that there is nothing really left to do. I went up to visit the Afghans I work with this weekend for the first time in a while, because I hadn’t been able to without an interpreter and security people to come with me. I was in the company of some Turkish officers from the Afghan National Defence University who are tasked with getting them to their final destination next year. I’m going to try to make one more trip up before I go, but for now, I’m basically marking time until it is done. There’s just nothing left  can do.

The trip home will be, to an extent, long and quite possibly frustrating – but that’s “endex” for anything – when you finish a course or whatever else there’s always a couple of days or administration that isn’t really any fun. We have gotten something of a headstart on it at least, with processing things like claims for allowances and so on. For example, get a $75/month allowance toward communications, basically. That works out pretty well, because internet service here costs $20/week. With the times I’ve been away from this camp, I didn’t actually have enough left over scratch cards for that, but I did have the receipts for my cell phone top ups, which allowed me to get the maximum claim back. We also get an allowance toward “morale/welfare expenses”, I think that’s what it’s called – basically, a couple of bucks a day for coffee, restaurant meals, massages, whatever else. For most people it is what they use to claim expenses for resort excursions when we go on Third Location Decompression – the stop on the way home, essentially. I had enough receipts to claim most of my allowance already, so I won’t have to wait for it when I get back home, which is nice.

Clerks also came by to help us understand what happens with our pay when we get home – because all the allowances we get here obviously stop, and we return to paying taxes on our income. I think I’ve wrapped my head around the balance in my pay account that I get to send home, or something remotely close to it. I am mainly concerned about having enough cash on hand to pay for my motorcycle when I get back. I’ll be able to check in on this some more when I get to the place where we start the process of clearing out.

Next major undertaking is to pack. I think I’ll have more than enough space, because I sent so much stuff home when I had the opportunity a few weeks ago. I’ve separated out all the stuff I have to turn in before I leave theatre to make it easier, in a nice big bag that I got from the Americans I taught at Bagram. I still have a few things I need to pick up before I go, too, but they’re mainly small and simple souvenirs, nothing that will really put me out. I’m leaving some things here for the next guy coming in too – things that will be of use to him, but of none to me. And I’ll sell my coffee maker to someone in the next day or two. Or give it away, whatever. It’s not as though I need to make anything off it. It just needs to get to a good home.

My last stress factor is about jobs when I get back – and that’s improving too. Recently an internal posting with my civilian employer appeared that I could almost swear was written for me. It has one major drawback – the position is based in Toronto – about the last place I’d want to go. Been there, done that, didn’t really like it. I grew up there more or less, and I find that living in the Maritimes agrees with me much more. That said, I have to think bigger than that. Really, the biggest annoyance is the suburban sprawl and utter lack of ability to drive out into the countryside easily, or to beaches, or whatever. That’s the great thing about Halifax I’m looking forward to getting home to – being ten minutes from downtown, but out into the country almost as quick.

I guess we’ll see what happens. I have the option to return to what I was doing before I went on this adventure, but that isn’t nearly as appealing to me at this point.

I have to wonder what it’s going to be like to be at home for the first time in eight months – it will be almost eight months to the day from when I walked out my front door to when I’ll walk back through it. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal, but it’s going to feel awkward. It’s also going to be strange to go back to a work environment where taking off for an hour mid-afternoon for PT isn’t the norm. Reintegrating with that sort of lifestyle will be strange. I remember when I finished me infantry officer training, when I spent most of the final days in the field in full battle rattle, I was happy not to have to wear that for a while – until the first day back to work when I had to wear a tie, and I just couldn’t get used to it… I guess there are always transition issues, right?

Written by Nick

October 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

Musings For Which I Have No Title

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

More Scaling Down

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Before I write much else, it seems like someone is really desperate for info on Camp Clark because I get a lot of hits referred by search terms related to it. So let me answer a few of those – with the caveat that I was there for about a week several months ago.

1. It’s hot. Like most of Afghanistan. Not as hot as Helmand or Kandahar, but not as pleasant as Kabul. Look for weather reports from Khost City (sometimes spelled Khowst City), which is very close to it.

2. There is no PX there. At least, there wasn’t. There’s a couple of Afghan shops that should get you what you need, and I got the impression that it wasn’t hard to get to FOB Salerno, which had a pretty big one, though it was destroyed in an attack not long ago. I presume it’s been rebuilt though.

3. It takes a couple of days to get there from Bagram, because by the time you fly to Salerno you’ll have missed the flights for the day. Unless they’re expecting you, anyhow. But when I went, they were expecting us and we still had to wait. By the way, the transient quarters there are terrible, make sure a flashlight and earplugs are handy when you arrive, of course, they should be anyhow.
Hopefully that takes care of all the searchers.
More progress here. I’m now going over all the fun of taking over more of the staff duties since in a very short time I will be the last Coalition advisor at my school, and I’m basically completing the closeout work. Our ANA partners won’t move to their “permanent” home until sometime next year, so I’m trying to get everything in order for them to be able to function well after I’ve gone, which is essentially a matter of trying to ensure they have contacts to get what they need to keep functioning, and finding someone who’ll take a little bit of responsibility for maintaining contact with them. It’s not enough work to justify someone replacing me, but there’s still things that need to happen after I’m gone.

I’m feeling like I have little left to do, but that I’ve accomplished something while I’ve been here. One thing I dreaded the thought of was disrupting my “normal” life to spend time here only to find I was tilting at windmills. I knew that if I expected to change the world, I was in for an unpleasant dose of reality, but if someone was to ask me “did you make any difference over there?” I think I can probably say yes. How enduring it will be I don’t know, no one really knows what will happen here post-2014 when ISAF leaves and the ANSF and GIRoA are expected to go it alone.  Afghans tell us that everyone is getting prepared for what they view as some kind of inevitable fight and fracture of the country – but whether that will happen I’m not totally sure given that there are commitments to continue economic and military aid beyond then. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they left a government that was stable with its support, it was only when they collapsed and that support withdrew abruptly that the power vacuum that lead to the civil war was formed.

I’m not at the point of counting days, though I could. I know now when (subject to change, which is the only constant in life!) I will leave camp. I know when I’ll get on the flight out of here. I know when my flight is expected to land at Fredericton Airport. I don’t know when or how I’m getting home from there yet, but I know when I should be back in Canada and have a rough idea of when I’ll actually be home. And if things are lined up right, I have a trip plan afterward (which I think I’ll probably use to conclude this blog, as the ideal epilogue).

It’s amazing to think that in an environment where random violence is such a possibility, that things you cannot predict or anticipate can happen and change the world in a split second, that the idea of going home actually is the largest stress factor for a lot of us. I think it particularly hits reservists hard, because we’re not just going back to a nice spot of leave and then back to work with the same unit. I’m going to have to pick up almost immediately where I left off with my day job potentially, and depending on how things settle, I won’t have the time to take any real sort of break, because I’ll need to get working on making deals that will continue my income once I get home and my Army pay stops. That to me is far more stressful than really anything here and it’s what I’ve only just started to have to deal with.

I have ideas in mind of what I’d like to do career-wise, and while I’ve been deployed, suitable jobs have come and gone, now I’m waiting to see what will appears, there’s a few prospects I’m looking at, and that’s something I’m putting a fair bit of time (and a lot of satellite phone minutes) toward as I wrap things up.

This weekend, I’m planning to pack all my gear, doing a substantial initial purge of things I don’t need that I’ve accumulated, just to see how much stuff I can fit and if I have enough room for everything – otherwise, I’m going to have to get some stuff packed up to mail. I’ve discovered that in packing my UAB I sent stuff home I wish I’d mailed, and also, I managed to send two pairs of uniform pants home instead of one shirt and one pair of pants, so I can mail the surplus shirt, and be happy that laundry service turns around quickly. I’ve got all the stuff I have to turn in before leaving that I don’t use regularly sequestered away to make things easier there, and I know what luggage items I’ll have access to when so I can plan that packing accordingly. Not only will this serve the useful purpose of forcing me to clean my room, it’ll actually let me know what is left to do.

And for the next month and a bit, I’ll ponder what on earth I’m going do when I get home.

 

The Hundredth Post

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According to WordPress, this will be the 100th post I’ve put up here – but that does include the stuff I’ve reposted from other blogs. Nevertheless it’s an idea number having passed a bit of a milestone. Yesterday we held a small ceremony to mark the official transfer of responsibility for our institution to the Afghans. Normally, this is known as “1-Alpha” – or more formally, “Capability Milestone 1A”, the end of a series of milestones determined by what the ANA has gained the ability to do on their own.

However, we can’t officially declare CM1A just yet on a technicality, because the permanent location for the organization isn’t ready yet. They’re occupying a temporary facility while the Afghan National Defence University is being constructed at Qargha, just west of Kabul. So, while their NTM-A advisors are being withdrawn (I will officially be the last one), I’m charged with preparing some “handover notes” I can give to some people who will be in a position to lend support during the interim period, as our ANA friends do still have some logistical challenges of a nature probably too complex to get into here.

Essentially, my job’s almost done in the sense that I’m here for not much longer to make some final connections for our partners, and to do up some nice public affairs stuff about what we’ve accomplished. And to prepare for the trip home.

Fittingly enough that’s underway. I’ve packed up my UAB, which made me try to figure out what I wanted to keep here and what I was okay with sending home – I think I’ve gotten my stock down to the point that I won’t be stuck trying to pack everything into bags that are too small. I’ve started to segregate the stuff I have to return before I leave – or rather, to find the stuff I was issued, but don’t use, and pack it in one place so I’m not scrambling for it. Most of what I sent home was of the same nature – stuff I needed when I got here and it was 20 below zero, for example.

It’s going to be a long few weeks until I leave, I fear – but we’re all working on things to fill the time – professional development stuff, finishing off courses, looking at courses to do, I might even try to do one last shot of PD for the ANA instructors, if I can get interpreters. Ours have all been released back to the company that supplies them to get new jobs.

I’m also planning things for when I get home – doing route planning for a long motorcycle trip that I’m going to try to squeeze in before winter. Basically, heading all the way down to Arizona where my parents spent the winter. They’ll likely have left before I get home, but the plan is to head there, leave my bike there for the winter, stay a few days, and fly home, then get on with the business of returning to work. But I’m still having to research things like the weather – because that obviously will come into play at the early stages. I really want it to be possible, but we’ll see.

Written by Nick

September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

And Then There Were Three…

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 1, 2012 at 12:57 am

Back To Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Feet Of F*** All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Happy Pachino Day

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hitting The Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

June 25, 2012 at 2:02 am