Saturday, October 28, 2006

Halloween in the Alamo

In Muslim countries, Friday is the day of rest. It is the "weekend" if you will and while the work never stops for the task force and its members, Friday is typically a lower operational tempo day. For us, the Afghans are not training typically on this day and so our responsibilities are significantly less. It enables us to catch up on administrative work, as well as do laundry, run an extra lap or two or just enjoy a bit of a slower pace.

Recognizing that Friday was that low OPTEMPO day (Operational Tempo, roughly, Friday is "the weekend") and that Halloween would take place during the regular week for us, our Command Sergeant Major, CSM Robert Foesch, approved a Halloween party for the command for Thursday night. Many of the soldiers were carving Pumpkins that many of the interpreters had picked up off post and the designs were amazing. Altogether, I think there were about twenty of them lining the courtyard, gargoyles overwatching the troops. Unfortunately, I returned from a mission at Camp Phoenix just 20 minutes too late to see the costume competition, but on parking our HMMWVs, I was greeted by 1SG Don Weber, the TAG public affairs officer, asking if I had seen the costumes. Well, I walked through our building to where the festivities were taking place and, suffice it to say, seeing British Royal Marine Commandos in drag was an eye opener. The French paratrooper as the wicked witch was a treat and the former Legionnaire Lt. Col. with six foot extended arms and a ghastly face were definately a sign that I had missed a show of rare fare.

With food prepared by each of the coalition members (the plates of cheeses and French Bread disappeared fast) and the camaraderie of men and women from several different countries and military cultures, it was a good way to let down our extremely short hair for a brief reprieve. Three different varieties of "Near Beer," (The Becks and the St. Pauli Girl are a toss up for the best taste), a bonfire in the middle of the courtyard, guitars and fireside songs, as well as a lot of Cuban, Dominican and Honduran Cigars made for a rare treat in a war zone. For a brief period the anxiety seemed to go away, the soldiers became just friends bound together from austerity and hardship.

There is no assignment in this theatre quite like this one. It was a rare and wonderful night. The stars were radiant, the hilltops behind us illuminated in the darkness.

Trick or Treat!

-out here

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Strategic Corporals of the New Counterinsurgency

We had the most extraordinary visitor to the Kabul Military Training Center this morning. Dr. David Kilcullen is an Australian Army Special Forces Lt. Col., who is currently on loan to the U.S. Department of State as its Chief Strategist for Counter-Terrorism. He has written a piece that was published in Military Review this spring entitled "28 Articles." It is reflective of a turning of the tide in terms of shifting policy and the way that modern war is being fought. As he was in theater to meet with our ranking officer, Lt. Gen. Eikenberry, I was afforded the opportunity to bring him out to the KMTC to meet with the officers and non-coms that are leading the institutional training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army. What was initially supposed to be a briefing to a small collection of leaders became a briefing to over seventy leaders from the forces of the U.S., U.K., Canada, France and Romania. Service members from the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army of these nations, as well as the commander of the KMTC, Afghan Brig. Gen. Wardak, listened to one of the most informative presentations any of us had ever heard.

Kilcullen's experience is hardly that of an academic, although he can lay claim to mastery in that realm as well. As a commando with expertise in leading counter-insurgency campaigns in Indonesia, his knowledge comes from direct experience and involvement with leading Timorese irregular fighters in austere conditions and under dire conditions.

His presentation, based on his "28 Articles" which, in turn draws its title from a similar piece by the famous turn of the century master or guerilla warfare, T.E. Lawrence's "27 Articles," presented so much information, I took 16 pages of notes. Revolving around his 28 priciples that he has identified for fighting and winning counter insurgency campaigns, his presentation had such paradigm shattering statements of the obvious as "Rank is nothing, talent is everything" "Start Easy" and "Remember the Global Audience" but were explained with such infinitesimal detail in terms that every soldier in the room regardless of where they were in terms of rank, experience, military service or nationality, could clearly understand. In the words of our Deputy Commander, British Colonel Paul Farrar, "I have been involved in counter-insurgency since I was a young soldier in Northern Ireland in the late seventies. I have never heard a more practical and thorough presentation on fighting counter-insurgency and don't think I shall ever hear anything that should quite compare to what you have just presented. On behalf of all of us, I would like to thank you."

Kilcullen's presentation was just part of our discussion, as it later led to a private discussion of some major shifts in an emerging joint, coalition doctrine for fighting these types of campaigns. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating discussions I have ever had revolving around the concept of modern warfare. Too often those of us that are not in uniform tend to think of warfare exclusively within the frame of it being a series of uncontrollable events that make no sense whether in terms of outcomes or methodology. But Kilcullen's knowledge and mastery of the subject (which according to the very principles of his presentation is a subject that we cannot master) showed all of us that counter-insurgency, while itself is a terrible sequence of eventswithin the scope of war, is something that we ignore at our peril.

Currently the Taliban and other Anti-Government Elements have become masters of recognizing the global stage. As we have known for some time, the center of gravity for the enemy and, indeed partially for ourselves, is the world stage as portrayed by the international media. It is ridiculous to believe that we have a totally unbiased media that are merely reporting pure events without any reflection of opinion or, as many fellow military public affairs officers dangerously refer to as "slant." But the enemy here in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, are masters of this art that we prove ourselves to remain only novices at. They travel with embedded media teams that sometimes are not only reporters from legitimate media, but merely foot soldiers whose weapon is a Sony video camera rather than a Chinese AK-47.

In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, Michael Yon brilliantly addresses some of these challenges. In his article, this U.S. Special Forces veteran turned embedded photojournalist / milblogger extraordinaire (updated regularly at, exposes how little our strategic focus emphasizes Kilcullen's "Remember the Global Audience" advice. Linked at:
his article exposes that, as of last week, we have a total of nine embedded reporters in Iraq, only two of whom were from what we call "Traditional U.S. Media". Although, I no longer attend regular public affairs briefings, I know that a similar number of media are deployed across this theatre. It is a sad state of affairs when so many are paying attention and indeed demanding to be informed about what the few are doing on their behalf. With the extraordinary amount of treasure that is being poured into these campaigns, it seems strange to those of us on the ground that more citizens aren't demanding to know more about the state of affairs from the ground be asking their local and national media to provide more coverage of what is happening.

It is comforting to get emails from readers that enjoy the perspective of those of us on the ground, but this is a fight that is going to go on for some time and it is going to take a sustained effort to keep the global audience aware of the great work that the soldiers and citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan are conducting every day. I would encourage you to take the time to demand from your leadership more access to what is happening here on every front. We need to hear of your support and less of the war fatigue that comes from the comfort of a living room.

Thank you Lt. Col. Kilcullen for inspriing all of us that hear your evolving message of hope. We will win with leaders like you to help guide our strategy!


-out here

Monday, October 23, 2006

Angry, Hungry Privates of the ANA

On returning from this week's routine meeting of the senior leadership of the Ministry of Defense, our convoy reentered the Kabul Military training Center in the afternoon. As this was the last week of Ramazan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and one dedicated to fasting, prayer and charity, most training with the Afghans is concluded by one o' clock in the afternoon, enabling time for devotion and for rest. Devout Muslims are discouraged from excessive physical activity and from allowing anything to pass their lips, whether food or water from Sun rise until sunset.

We entered the compound through a side gate and were met with the streets packed full of almost a thousand Afghan privates under the watchful eyes of their drill sergeants. As I was in the lead vehicle, I told my driver that I was going to exit the vehicle to both ground guide our vehicle forward and to clear the area so that we could pass.

Just as I exited the vehicle, I saw the butt end of an AK-47 above the heads of several soldiers come crashing down. Great timing. I exit the vehicle right as a minor riot began amongst the private soldiers. I jumped into the scene to help get to the bottom of it and to see who was leading the charge. I waded my way through the mass of soldiers gathering around as several soldiers were assailing one private soldier on the ground, hitting him with helmets and the butts of their weapons. I separated several of the men from the young soldier that was on the ground and was glad to see my interpretter right behind me. "You! Stop! Now!" "You! Sit! Now!" Just when I thought that my luck might run out and as the realization that I was solo in a sea of hungry, frustrated, poor, angry, fighting young Afghan men, I looked over my shoulder and my commander, Col. Jim Lyman was right next to me, sorting through the same mess and getting answers in a more calm but confident manner. As I separated the men from the soldier in the mud, Col. Lyman methodically and calmly asked through his interpretter, "What happened here? Who is responsible?" We both emphasized the same point over and over. We would touch the shoulder boards of the NCOs (Sergeants) that were all around us, watching and doing nothing..."You are an NCO. A Sergeant. You are a leader of soldiers. NCOs do not tolerate this type of behavior. You are the leader! You are responsible for the discipline of these soldiers. They do not know better but you do, so lead them!"

They got the point and started to take the lead, forming up the soldiers and getting them back in line. Col. Lyman found out that one of the soldiers had taken a drink of water during the day while out on the range. Never minding that he was sick, that despite the rigors of Ramazan, there are allowances for taking water and rest if you are sick while fasting during Ramazan, several soldiers that had seen him had decided to wait until they had returned to the relative calm of the barracks to take out their vengeance on the young soldier that had broken with the credo of Ramazan. He was pretty bruised up and had a few small gashes on his nose and cheek. Nothing that wouldn't heal given time and some rest. But that, of course, is a luxury that any private soldier in basic training is hardly afforded.

I proceeded to lead our vehicle convoy through the reluctantly orderly crowd. We got back into Camp Alamo and Col. Lyman confided that he had his hand on the grip of his pistol the entire time. I was glad for his back-up and leadership. It was a hairy experience, just outside our doors, or, as the colonel puts it every morning "Just another day in the A."

-out here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


I am developing a much more grounded and trusting relationship with the Afghan Colonel I advise. He is a good man with much to offer and yet he is paternal and self-effacing in our company. It is strange but jovial. He wants very much to do the right thing for the right reasons, but as a man of limited civilian education, he often defers to my recommendaitons rather than make them his own. It is an interesting position to be in.

We spoke at length about an upcoming possible visit to the Joint Military Readiness Center in Germany of several members of the Afghan staff. As we discussed it, the television in the Colonel's office played an old Tom and Jerry cartoon in the background. The mouse and the cat were wearing Lederhosen and the feathered caps of the Bavarian style.

It was a silent but strange curtain to the reality play that I was involved with: planning an international training event for senior officers to the European continent while sitting in a mid-century piece of Soviet-architecture at the base of the mountains that become the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, viewing American cartoons about Germany with Dari subtitles.

All of this while remaining focused on the task at hand: mentoring my counterpart in the late morning as it was the last week of Ramazan and training will stop in the afternoon.

Again, Lawrence's counsel pervades... "for it is their country."

-out here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ministry of Defense - First Meetings

Today was another first for my experience of Afghanistan. I drove my new commander, Col. Jim Lyman and two of the senior Afghan officers we mentor to a meeting at the Ministry of Defense or M.O.D. The MOD is an enormous, highly secured campus of administration buildings that houses the leadership of the first national insitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It is a regular meeting that involves the leadership of the Army Staff and representatives from the training institutions in ensuring a system of training management across the theatre. It is an interesting endeavor. While we are there to mentor our staff counterparts, it is not our role to tell them what to do. It is a challenge sometimes not to add a comment to the discussion when you know that something needs correcting, but the preference is to prepare our counterparts for the meeting before the meeting and to get them to do the same.

In a system that has been based on a Soviet model for the past fifty years, it is hard to break out of the mold, but it is working and it is improving each and every day. Our senior commander is Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin and his deputy commander Col. (promotable) Mike Harrison make it their mantra to constantly remind every one of the same philosophy once espoused by T.E. Lawrence, "It is better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country...and your time is short." Or, in the unsecure version of our mission, "We are here to mentor the Afghan National Army for success, not to facilitate their dependence on others."

It is a long and slow process, but it is an honorable role to share.

-out here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Day Two: Trainer / Operator

It has been a while since I have been regularly blogging. There has been a tremendous change in my professional role here in Afghanistan and it has only become more exhilarating. In the two days since I have been assigned as the Operations and Training Officer for the Training Assistance Group, Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), I have hardly stopped.

My position is normally assigned to a Lt. Col., which is one grade higher than Maj. and a sign on trust and confidence from my command that I am honored by. The operational tempo here is no less than it was as the public affairs officer, but it moves at a different pace. Our role here is to be the advisors and mentors of the Afghan National Army's training leadership. The primary officer I will advise is Afghan Colonel Hasim. He is the Director of Training and Education, but is currently serving as the Chief of Operations and Training for the KMTC. I will do my best to meet with him daily and have for the first three days that I have been here. Through our interpreter, he explained "It makes me most happy when you and Capt. Miner are here." Miner, the assistant S-3, is a chunk of gold. He is an intelligent and decisive officer with a methodical approach to nearly everything he is involved with. It is very clear that he will be a tremendous asset in learning the needs, capabilities and shortcomings of the ANA.

This morning, we started our day with the graduation of Kandak (or battalion) 55. That is the 55th battalion of soldiers to have graduated basic training from the KMTC. It was an abbreviated ceremony as it is only the second week of Ramazan (Ramadan in Afghanistan) the month of fasting in the Muslim calendar. So they are prohibited from marching, exercise, eating or allowing anything to pass their lips from sun up to sun down. the ceremony had several speeches and the honor students were recognized before all of their peers.

Afterward we wandered around just under a thousand newly minted soldiers from all walks of life in Afghanistan. Some were in thei late thirties, some maybe in their forties, but most were in their late teens and early twenties. My name in Dari is "Jaglan Khaowie" or Major Strong. Most of the Afghans really get me to ham it up when they hear me say my name in Dari. They all start flexing their muscles and wanting me to do the same.

At one point, using my interpreter, I asked him to relay a message to all of them. "I have been in the Army for 21 years. I have seen many thousands of soldiers from many countries in that time. But nothing makes me more proud than to see the looks on your faces knowing that you have completed this training and are preparing to defend your country. You are great soldiers and you should be very proud of yourselves. Tashakur! Tabrik! Tabrik! (Thank you! Congratulations! Congratulations!") Then seeing the eldest of the group, a man easily in his late thirties or forty, I walked up to him and shook his hand and asked my terp to translate for me again, "You are a special soldier because it takes a lot to be the older more experienced man in a company of younger men. You must set the example for these young soldiers because they will relay on your experience and maturity to understand the challenges they will face." As the interpreter translated all that I said, the man continued to hold my hand, staring right into my eyes. The grey lined corners of his jet black beard lifted with his smile as he thanked me for my comments. He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me to him saying "Tashakur." It made me feel like those few minutes had made a difference to him and to the young soldiers surrounding him. It also seemed to elevate his status amongst them, recognizing anew that he was indeed the most experienced in life in Afghanistan.

From there we met with a group of MPRI contractors to discuss some of the details of building doctrinal publications for the Afghans. A group of three retired military officers and NCOs, assisted by three valuable interpreters that seemed to be doctoral level linguists, they were all very capable at the jobs they were doing in advising the Afghan commanders and their staffs. They are some of the unsung heroes in this conflict. It seems so easy to criticize the efforts of contractors when viewed through a lens of revolving door politically connected white collar suits in Washington that rotate from government to high level corporate positions in the money pool that flows into Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is different at the tactical level, where these men and women are continuing to serve the needs of their own country while assisting another with the skills sets that they have built over decades of experience in similarly challenging environments.
We then met with COL Hashim again and discussed some of the meeting notes and some recommendations about how best to get the newly graduated soldiers forward to their gaining units. We always have to remember that this is an operational environment and that these troops, for the most part, are going to be through into the fight within weeks from today. It is a thought that rarely leaves the minds of these trainers, mentors, advisors and the Afghans responsible for them.

The day continued with an office call with our commander, COL Jim Lyman, also of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which led to our departure for Camp Phoenix. Forming a two vehicle convoy, we loaded into our up-armored HMMWV, the M114. It is an impressive machine and one that has proven its worth again and again over the past three years it has been in the field. We loaded our weapons and did our functions checks of all the equipment, our radios and then I squeezed my six foot four frame into its compressing driver's seat, strapped on the helmet radio and we hit the road.

It is hard to explain to folks back home just how different this type of driving is from jumping into a contoured leather seat in an SUV or Sports car, Hybrid or luxury ride. It just is not comfortable at all. You are always looking for the threat, always talking to the two or three other people in the rig and always wearing no less than sixty lbs of gear on your body that covers every inch of skinn but your nose and mouth. Gloves, neck guard, helmet, body armor, uniform, boots, personal side arm and rifle, all on your body or within minimum reach while driving to a meeting less than six miles away.

We had our meeting, met with several staff officers. I went and got a haircut while there. The Khyrgistani women that work at the barber shop asked me what my wife looked like. I whipped out my pocket folder of photos that is always on my person in my cargo pocket and gave them the booklet, as one of them kept cutting my hair, the other asked to look at all the pictures. With images of my wife, Margaret, and I in Berlin and Prague, Monterrey and Paris, and shots of my boys in the lush greeen or snowy hills of Portland and Bandon, one of them asked "Your wife, she is photo-model?" "No," I explained "but she is my favorite model." "You are I think...very lucky man." I said that she was right and paid for the cut, left a tip and joined my crew at the rigs. We again loaded on our gear and hit the road, taking extra caution as we were moving at night. In the darkness, men of ill-intentions lurk in this country. And finding them is a challenge. We made it back in good time and called it a day.

They are long days here when you are deployed away from home. But they are wonderfully full with short moments of greatness that make it all worth while.

As I conclude the day, I am reminded of the words of the woman that cut my hair tonight...a lucky man indeed.

-out here.