Thursday, November 16, 2006

And so winter begins

The rains have hardly stopped in the past several days. It is getting colder every day. The Afghan soldiers huddle with their hands in their pockets and heads tucked into their shirts. It seems that it is going to be a cold winter.

I received a package from my Godmother earlier this week. A loaf of her famous Zuchinni bread, wrapped so tightly in foil and ziplocks that it was still very moist. I shared half of it with my office mates, the rest I brought down to the "Five Story" our word for the Afghan National Army Headqarters of KMTC and shared it with the soldiers and officers of the G-3 staff. They were delighted. It was nice to "break bread" with these men and to realize that we all share in each other's hospitality. Each day, I am served almonds and raisins, pistacchios and other snacks with the ever present Green Chai as we discuss our training plans and objectives.

In the words of my British counterpart, Maj. Tony Lancashire "We must'nt forget the importance of the Chai, Ahnald. It is about the only escape these blokes have from their daily druggery." Ah, Chai.

The snow is clear on the mountain tops surrounding Kabul. It will hopefully bring some peace to the fighting and some time to recover and prepare for the Spring, which we all anticipate will be a very difficult one. For now, a cup of tea to ward off the cold.

-out here

Monday, November 13, 2006

Darulaman, Ruin of Lost Royalty

Yesterday morning, several of the key leaders of the Training Assistance Group made a trip out to Darulaman at the Southwestern corner of Kabul to inspect the Afghan National Army post there and to evaluate it for additional purposes. After a trip through the center of the city, which is never an easy tour, we arrived on the far side of town. It had rained intermittently for two days and the skies had finally broken open with sunlight. The dust and smog of the bowl of Kabul, so much like the environment of Los Angeles in the 1960's, had been tamed for a short while and the air lacked its acrid taste and smell.

Driving along the Kabul River, we are an instant spectacle in this urban ruin. Two M114 Fully UpArmored Hummers, gunners up and loaded for bear, each vehicle over five tons of hardened steel outside and sardine can tight chassis on the inside. With a six and a quarter foot frame encased in its own fifty pounds of body armor, then stuffed into the driver's seat, it makes me look forward to a visit (or six) to my Portland chiropractor, Dr. Kelsall, on my return from this tour. I like to drive, both in general and while on patrol here in Kabul. I trust my skill, but it also gives me a sense of situational awareness with the ability to do something about it if that awareness realizes danger.

After splashing through pond-sized puddle after pond-sized puddle of muddy brown water we came upon it, the Rubbled ruin of the King's Palace. Built in the 1920's in a time of liberalization of attitudes toward the West, it was a target for three decades of civil war and particularly during the 1990's. Nothing but the frame remains in much of the structure, a ghost of its previous splendor. Further up the road, the Queen's palace is not much better, through from her perch atop a hillside, her violation is more clearly witnessed by the passing crowds.

It is beside this shell of "what once was" that one of the brigades of the Afghan 201st Corps makes its headquarters. Like a sentinel at a tomb, the expanding Afghan base develops every day, its views unobstructed from its perch at the foot of the mountains. The American trainers, although based at their own FOB (Forward OPerating Base) have the view at the left, every morning, an ominous reminder of Afghanistan's past grandeur and current plight, a state at war with itself.

At the end of our mission, my deputy, Capt. Dan Miner and I got some practical exercise in conducting "Afghan Intramurals." Seeing a game of Volleyball in progress, we walked over to inspect and were immediately pulled into the game, becoming the permanent servers for the entire game. Dan and I are trying to work with the Religious and Cultural Affairs Officer in developing an extracurricular activities program for the soldiers here at KMTC. From Thursday at noon until early Saturday morning, there is little for these young soldiers to do. Many do what soldiers do, talk, sleep or get into trouble with each other. We are hoping to offer them a few alternatives, from competitive soccer and volleyball to traditional music and dance instruction (The graduation dance is uniquely Afghan), to artistic competitions in painting murals in the common areas. we will see how it turns out, but we are off to a good start. These men want to know that they are our peers, ready to fight when it is time to fight and ready to play when it is time to play. Yesterday was a day to play and, championed by a lanky Hazara with an awesome spike and his set-partner, a teen aged Pashtun, my team won!

As we all said to each other as we high fived each other on the way off the court, "Yak Team, Yak Jang!" One Team, One Fight!

-out here.

Friday, November 10, 2006

ISAF, Rugby and Rain

It has been a long time since I joined the game on the field at ISAF. This morning, a team of Royal Marine Commandos and I made the trip to the ISAF HQ to join the other rugby loyalists on the one grassy field in all of Kabul. Although I haven't played for a few months, I got few assists in toward two goals and, in the process pulled a muscle like so many weekend warrior athletes back home. It was a good game and a good sweat.

We toured the Bazaar at the ISAF HQ, the largest I have seen. It is normal to see so many people haggling for bargains on either rugs or trinkets, jewelry or scarfs, wood carvings but very strange to see the debates that come from the bartering of DVDs. The list of pirated movies and TV shows is endless. You can get each and every season of The Sopranos or Lost, Desperate Housewives or CSI, a copy of Superman Returns or X-Men 3, or any other film you can imagine for about $3-5 a pop. Tables and tables of compact disks, ready for the viewing. What do you do in Afghanistan when you have your down time? Watch TV, of course! Seeing an Embassy employee in a dispute with a local Afghan about how 'one of the disks for CSI Season Five didn't work but, no, Season four and three played fine' was almost surreal. Remembering that we are in a war zone where people are armed to the teeth defending those who barter for CDs is sometimes hard.

As we prepared to leave, the first drips of our first real rain began to fall. Then it began in earnest, no meek shower this. It started to pour, rapidly the lack of proper drainage was evident as so much of the city became waterlogged. The roads, always dangerous for reasons that are obvious, now posed a new threat, they were slippery and wet. We stopped on the way back to our base at the British HQ, Camp Souter, named for the lone surivor of a famed battle in the British- Afghan war. He wrapped himself in the Union Jack and covered it in his uniform lest the colors be stolen and crept back across the Khyber Pass back to the safety of Pakistan a century ago. Now as I stood on the base named for his legacy, the downspouts opened and it just poured. Stuffing myself into the backseat of a Toyota Landcruiser with two other fully armored men is comical but necessary.

We returned to a 'busines as usual' environment back at Camp Alamo, Soldiers and Sailors, Airmen and Marines doing laundry and enjoying a lower tempo during a rainy afternoon. What we all would give to come home to a fireplace in our homes, curled up with our loved ones and enjoying a Hot Toddy as the raindrops fell outside.

-out here

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rangers Lead The Way

In January of 1995, I graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger Course. Returning to earn my Tab after the Infantry Officer's Advanced Course, I graduated as a Captain, having not earned the distinctive left shoulder tab after my first attempt as a young lieutenant years earlier. In finishing the last phase of instruction, in Camp Darby, Florida, "The Swamp" Phase, we were nearing completion. Two young rangers had been recycled into our platoon. They had been enrolled in the course for close to four months, having had either medical or performance shortfalls in earlier phases and were pretty miserable but maintained the "Intestinal Fortitude" to complete the mission. For the uninitiated, in Ranger School, you have no rank, regardless of phase, regardless of status. If you are a "Stud" or student, you are just a roster number or "Ranger."

Well, these two Rangers did not make the peer evaluation of this phase and consequently, the Ranger Instructors or "R.I.s" decided that, since they didn't pass their "Peers," they would be dropped from the course. This hit them hard and dampened the morale of the entire platoon. However, they were both good soldiers that had each earned a "Go" on their patrols and, in the eyes of their fellow students, were deserving of graduation. I was part of a group that organized and drafted statements that we submitted to the R.I.'s of our group on behalf of these two soldiers, arguing that they were good men that had what it takes to be ranked as members of this elite fraternity of men. We basically convinced the chain of command that they were deserving of the Ranger Tab and that they had just had the bad luck to join a platoon that was, by then a well oiled machine that had gone through the mill together.

The Commander of the Ranger Training Brigade spoke to us after hearing of the situation and singled our platoon out for living up to the third paragraph of the Ranger Creed. That paragraph starts with "Never shall I fail my comrades."

Why the story about Ranger School? Well, the commander of the Ranger Training Brigade was then Colonel Galen Jackman, now Major General Jackman, the Chief Legislative Liaison for the United States Army. Maj. Gen. Jackman visited us yesterday to gain a better understanding of how U.S. and Coalition Forces are working with Afghanistan and how the ANA is stepping up to the mantle of leadership in bulding a National Army. After a briefing from Afghan Brig. Gen. Wardak and I on the Afghan and Coalition efforts here at the Kabul Military Training Center, Jackman enthusiastically took the opportunity to reenlist two members of our task force here in a war zone; issuing them their reenlistment oaths from memory. We later toured the base to show him the excellence of the ANA and the expansion of the post.

It was good to meet this Ranger leader again and to know that he was now the offical liaison to the Congress, the House of Representatives of which has just shifted to Democratic control for the first time since 1991. It was also an honor to have had the opportunity to remind him how a short, ten-minute pep talk he had given to a group of twenty hungry, field-hardened Rangers eleven years ago stays with some of us to this day. Having men and women that have walked the line in every leadership capacity from platoon to brigade sized organizations is an important factor in the way the modern United States Armed Forces fields it top executive leadership to key posts. It is a factor that sometimes eludes similarly diverse global organizations in the corporate world. It is so important that those responsibile, in Jackman's case, to brief the highest levels of the Legislative Branch, clearly understand the tactical and operational levels of warfare as well as the National Command Strategy that they must also move within.

It was good to share fraternity with this leader.

Thanks to 1st Sgt. Don Weber for these great pictures.

RLTW! (Rangers Lead The Way!)

-out here

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Parliamentarians, Canadians & NATO all in a day

The days go by quickly when you are immersed within your work. Joseph Campbell's priceless advise to "Follow Your Bliss" is an axiom I have tried to live by for years.

My bliss yesterday was in making sure that as many people as possible had a favorable visit to the Kabul Military Training Center, but the running never stopped as I went, like a vintage Bowie record, from station to station. I started by meeting with my Afghan colonel for the weekly staff meeting, I try to meet him in advance but this morning it was little hectic and I got there right before the meeting commenced. We had our meeting and then I had to trek back to my side of the compund to meet about a dozen retired Canadian Generals that serve as the media's "Talking Heads" or military experts for all the media in the country, sort of like our Barry MacAffrey or David L. Grange, resident ranking military experts that can give an informed opinion to the media. But how these guys managed this boondoggle of a trip, escapes me. From there, we had to get back to the Afghan side of the camp for a confirmation briefing with the senior Afghan officers about several ranking government officials that were coming within the hour. We were being visited by the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Mister Qanooni. He is a very charismatic leader that ran against Karzai in 2004 and is widely perceived by many as a likely candidate for the presidency following Karzai. He was truly an amazing guest, an eloquent and passionate speaker and a hero to many. Having survived a bombing attack by Gulbudyin, he now walks with the assitance of a cane.

Working with my Afghan counterparts, we had organized a pretty detailed schedule for he and about two dozen other parliamentarians to witness. then, Incha Allah, they decided to change the plan...that morning!! Realizing that we had a change and change, although constant, is not something that many senior leaders like to see on something as well coordianted as a visit by senior elected officials, I realized it was my job to brief Lt. Gen. Eikenberry on his arrival.

Eikenberry is pretty much most respected American in this country. He has been here off an on for almost the entire five years that we have been in Afghanistan. I saw him here when I first visited Afghanistan with Maj. Gen. Alex Burgin, the former Adjutant General of Oregon, in 2003. In the words of one of the Afghan Colonels I met with later, "General Eikenberry is the number one friend of Afghanistan. He was with me when we stood up the first Kandak and he is here with us still. He knows that we will succeed. He takes the time to talk with us as we are fellow soldiers and he always remembers who he meets. He is very special to us and he is a good friend to Qanonni and President Karzai. He respects us and we respect him."

We took the entire delegation out to the rifle ranges to witness some of the marksmanship training that they were exectuing. He organized a media engagement there on the range, which according to the theatre public affairs officer, was a major success. We then returned to the main post to join the Afghan private soldiers in their mess hall for the lunch meal. It was a great opportunity to sit with the new soldiers. The meal was actually quite good, consisting of a large serving of rice, mutton and a vegetable stew with an apple and a large piece of Naan (flatbread).

I brought my interpreter with me, Zabih and kept him close throughout the day. We are almost inseparable during the days here. One of the soldiers tried to keep the paring knife that he so admired. After lettting him look at it, I decided to recover it, explaining through Zabih, "You know I had better take that back as I am sure that someone could use that in a bad way in the barracks." The soldier laughed and nodded, shaking my hand and explaining through Zabih that he thought I was right.

We then left the dining facility and returned to the Alamo. Then, almost immediately after all of this, 1SG Weber leaned into my office and explained that we had a team of about a dozen senior leaders from NATO Headquarters in Brussels that were at the KMTC HQ awaiting our arrival for a briefing. It was a surprise but, I introduced myself to the German Colonel Winfried Quandt "Guten Tag, Mein Oberst! Wie Gehts ist Einen? Ich heisse Major Strong von dem Americanische Grupe "Training and Assistance" hier bei KMTC. Ich bin Chef der Operatzionin. Wie Heisen Zie, Bitte?" in German and then said my "Bon Jours" to the French and my "Bon Giorno" to the Italian Colonel before reinforcing my Afghan Colonel's briefing with a hard copy of our briefing to take back to Brussels.

In parting, I traded contact information with the senior delegate to take to Msr. Eric Brintet, an old friend who remains the Controller des Armee' for NATO in Brussels. Eric was a French Armor Captain in Berlin with me and he and his wife, Alix, were friends of ours in Berlin during the early ninties. Margaret and I stayed at their flat in Paris several times.

So that was my Halloween Day in the Central Asian Highlands of Afghanistan!

(Note: Some of this was adapted from a letter to friends back home)

Special thanks to Afghan Army Captain Shapoor for the photos of Minister Azimi and I and Speaker of the House Qanuni.

-out here