Saturday, March 31, 2007

Spring Break at the Alamo

So one thing that the command group has done better at the Alamo than at any other location in Kabul is to get members of the team to enjoy working together as a coalition team. Due, above all else, to the relative security we have here in Kabul, the leadership was able to schedule a "Spring Break" party for members of the Training Assistance Group and their guests. In addition to the sea of coalition guests that prepared their own special dinners for the party, we hosted the Air Force Rock Band, Max Impact, for a concert that night. It surpassed our Halloween jaunt for festivity and was a great release from the daily grind.

Authorized to wear civilian clothes for the first time for many of us, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen were able to relax and be themselves while enjoying great food and super music. The band even got me up on stage to join them on my Afghan drum. Once they started playing Earth, Wind and Fire tunes, it was sort of a must.

The following day, the band played for the Afghan privates on their day off. It was unquestionably the first time these guys had seen anything like it. It was a great day for the Afghans and a good day to share each others cultures.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Not my Oregon, but Our Oregon

This afternoon as I was preparing for another meeting with my Afghan counterparts, I was cornered by a fellow Soldier that is preparing to leave Afghanistan after serving for a year training the ANA.

"Hey, Sir, how about if we take down that Oregon flag you've got hanging up here on The Alamo and burn it?" "What?" I asked. "Well if those bastards want to burn the American Flag and a mock up of a US Soldier I think that that is the least we should to to recognize their efforts."

He then explained the imagery going around the Internet of fringe idiots integrating into a rally in downtown Portland, Oregon. Burning a U.S. Flag and burning an effigy of a Soldier a group of about two dozen infiltrators tried to make a "statement" in what was otherwise a peaceful rally to oppose the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

As an American Soldier serving in Afghanistan after mobilizations to Iraq and New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Lakes Charles immediately after Hurricane Rita, it is hard to look at imagery of the Arlnene Schnitzer Concert Hall with its big "PORTLAND" sign in lights serving as the backdrop for such ignoble disrespect and to know that this image somehow represents to now millions of people across the world what my state is all about.

But it is not our Oregon. Our Oregon is a place where our Governor sets the tone for all Governors in the United States by making it a policy to attend the funerals of each fallen service member to which the family offers him welcome (of the 84 to date, he has attended all but a handful). Our Oregon is a place where both sides, right, left and all those in between, have set a tone of civility in their disagreements. Whether the bold anti-McCarthyism of the late, great Democratic Senator Wayne Morris, or the recent questioning of motives for continuing our war in Iraq by Republican Senator Gordon Smith, we have found civil methods to express our opinions and ask questions of our leadership. What is fascinating to me is that Portland, Oregon had the largest, peaceful demonstration in the entire nation on the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Yet a handful of idiots identifying themselves as anarchists crashes an event of this level of magnitude and that is then seen by some Drill Sergeant in Afghanistan that then recommends that we burn the Oregon flag because it somehow represents those people.

An Editorial written by a friend at The Oregonian reads in part:

The march through downtown Portland near the fourth anniversary of the invasion was a loud, colorful expression of this new majority sentiment. Old folks, children, men and women marched the streets in force, reinforcing the message of last November.

Marches like this are the way wars are fought in the arena of public opinion. But their message is tainted by the actions of a small group more keen on delivering an outrage than an argument. And because their actions fit the definition of outrageous, they provide grist for passionate people on both sides of the debate.

Sadly for the 15,000 or so, the sidebar demonstration undermines the dominant message of peaceful dissent. The goal of an anti-war march, it would seem, would be not to win over the most committed supporters of the war, because they won't be persuaded. And it's not to win over committed opponents, because they are already persuaded. It's to woo the great moderate middle of the electorate that decides the outcome of any national policy debate. And those members of the middle shrink from the callousness of a masked man burning an effigy of a soldier.

As the demonstrators surely know, this did nothing to advance an argument. Indeed, it contradicts the feelings of many anti-war protesters, who tend to believe that the people of the military have served honorably but have been misused by their government.

But if the words "Portland" or "anti-war protest" now conjure images of a burning effigy in uniform, then that is a shame.


Much like the Taliban represents a very small portion of the population of Afghanistan, the "Anarchists" and their ludicrous message do not represent me or my home State of Oregon. They represent a small-minded, immature minority of ignorant fools looking for a vehicle to communicate their rage. Again, like the Taliban here in Afghanistan, they seem to want to do anything to draw greater attention to their cause than what actually exists.

The fools that made my city and state and, indeed nation look bad, are just fools running a fools errand. The Taliban would welcome their mindset here in Kabul.

From Kabul

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” - President George Washington

Friday, March 23, 2007

Na Ruz Salaun Mubarak

The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar much different than the Roman calendar that we use. As a consequent, we have been here not only for 2006-2007, but for 1585. Now, with the New Year, celebrated as Na'Ruz after the arrival of the New Moon, a cresent moon risinig over the clear skies welcomng a time of renewal.

My Deputy, Capt. Dan Miner and I, after working through many of the ongoing efforts of analysis of our redeployment plan with Lt. Cdr. Outcalt, Master Sgt. Persson and Sgt. 1st Class Ping, decided to enjoy the late afternoon sun by playing some frisbee. Once we realized the muddy gravel pit we were playing in wasn't the friendliest, we went over to the Afghan side of our compound with two frisbees and several bottles of water and asked the Afghan Soldiers to join us. Slowly, one by one, they came out onto the parade field and joined us in learning the basics of throwing the "Flying Disk" of the Whamo Corporation across the tarmack field that they use for marching practics and upon whihc they will graduate in the weeks to come.

They caught on quickly and were soon giving the two Americans a run for their efforts. We divided them into Team Sia and Team Sudz for Black and Green as some were in the black track suit they use as a PT uniform and the others were in their Army fatigues, which are predominantly green.

After playing for an hour, we took a break and talked. Fortunatley one of them was fluent in English and served as my "Tarjaman" or Interpreter. I told them how proud I was to serve with them and that, while we may be from different countries, we were now brothers as they became Soldiers. I held up my fingers separately and said, "Each one of these fingers is one of you. This one is Hazara. This one Pashtun. This one is Uzbek. And this one is Aimaq. This one is Turkmen. By themselves they are not very strong." I playfully sturck the Soldier closest with me with one finger then the next. "But together," I said balling my hand into a tight fist, "This is Afghanistan, with all of its people working together and it is strong and powerful." To make my point I simulated striking it as a blow to the chest of the closest Soldier, stopping as it actually made contact. "You are all one group now and are stronger for working together. As private Soldiers, you have the hardest job and must survive the roughest conditions, but the more you apply yourself and the better you learn your lessons of your sergeants, the better Soldiers you will become nad the better Afghanistan will become."

We continued to play for another hour (The guys on the Sia team won, man these guys are competitive) and I gave them one last rally before leaving. As I left, one of the Soldiers, my Tarjaman, asked if I had any American news magazines to practice reading English. He and another Soldier, originally Indian and older (23), asked for anything that would inform them about the world and in English. I grabbed some old copies of The Economist and Time as well as several copies of the ISAF newspaper printed in English, Dari and Pashto. It was very appreciated. I wished them a Happy New Year and reminded them that I would come back out to play with them again next Friday.

A good way to start a new year.

-From Kabul

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Real Change Comes Slowly in the Land of the Mountains

The mission of mentoring change within the Afghan National Army ANA is the primary mission of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix. The Training Assistance Group or TAG, which I have been assigned to now for seven months, mentors the Kabul Military Training Center or KMTC. We are the school house. If Afghanistan were the United States, we would be Fort Benning: Basic Training, NCO Training and Officer Candidate School all in one.

The mission has expanded tremendously since we arrived here in the Spring of 2006. Then, the KMTC was graduating 650 private Soldiers each month into the ranks of the ANA. We are now graduating 2,000 every month. Despite exponential growth, the prioritization of effort goes to the war fighting units, most typically in the South and the East. While it is not impossible to build an Army while it is fighting a war (we have been helping the Afghans to do so for almost six years now and doing the same on a much larger scale back home simultaneously), it is not the preferred method. Given that the Afghan's culture is one built upon "Pashtunwali" a code of conduct for norms of etiquette as well as vengeance, it is not in their cultural norms to say "No" in any way shape or form to a superior. While we in the West are often hailed for the directness of our culture and our ability to respectfully disagree, the Afghans will typically take the path of least resistance if it means eithr losing face or causing a superior to lose face. Thus, when a General comes to visit the training center, it is seen as impolite to explain problems with resources and instead to allow him to focus on the shrubbery surrounding the Mosque.

Why does this have any bearing on the mission here? We have been doing hero's work here in training Soldiers, Noncommissioned Officers and Officers to a high standard, but we have been doing so with resources that are constantly in competition with our war fighting peers.

A Note: I write "We" because I consider "them" to be "us." I refer to my Afghan Colonel colleagues as my Uncle, Hashim and my Big Brother, Aziz. Their fight is my fight and they are my family. We have become that close.

In the past several weeks several of us have been trying to get our arms around this predicament: how to continue to grow the army while maintaining the high level of excellence from the institution without degrading the effort to supply trained officers and NCOs to the war fighting units in the field. As Coalition members, we have done our best to fight for the resources, both human, logistical and capitol, that will make our institution of greater value to the people of Afghanistan. Sometimes in not so polite terms, but usually with enough emphasis to make the point. Simultaneously, the Afghans have realized that now is the hour and have given in to the need to raise such issues to the senior leadership of the Army.

Well in the past two days, this place has been a General Officer Circus. There has been more Afghan Brass than I have ever seen outside of the Ministry of Defense. Enough voices have raised this concern that the leadership is finally making the changes that we have all anticipated for so long.

We expect to gain a considerable amount of human resources in a very short time, to better be able to train the Soldiers to a high standard before moving them into the fight. We have learned that many of the logistical resources (billetting, training areas, mess facilities and others) will be fast-tracked. It is as if the Lunar Eclipse has brought with it an emergent knowledge that not all worthwhile training can come from an "OJT" style of orientation once Soldiers hit the front. Almost as if the austerity we have faced in the past several months has been a necessary Evil, drawing attention to the plight of the Soldiers of KMTC, while the commanders and their garrisons waited patiently until the senior National level leadership was able to draw its own stark conclusions.

Whatever the cause of this turn of events, we here at KMTC, whether Afghan, American, British, French, Canadian, Ghurka, New Zealander, or Polish, are delighted to hear. Perhaps there is more to the Pashtunwali than we can ever understand.

Before arriving here in the land of the Hindu Kush, I learned an old Pashtun Proverb. It roughly translates: "For a hundred years, I waited to extract my vengeance. When I acted, my fathers' cursed my impatience."

For some things, we must wait a long time. Independence is something that will not happen on our timeline. But it is something the Afghans pray for. That and that we will be patient with them.

-From Kabul

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saint Patrick's Day; Golf and Lamb...Kebabs

I could hardly pass the opportunity up. Major Ian Pruden, the Lead of our NonCommissioned Officer Training Team, and his Sergeant Major, WO2 Roman Cioma, had invited me to join them on Friday for a trip to the Kabul Golf Course with their Afghan Counterparts. I had heard that it existed from our Commanding General back in Camp Shelby, but getting the chance to actually see this level of progress in Afghanistan was something not to miss.

We left early in the afternoon, driving through downtown until we were to the Northwest of the City center. It was a quiet, cool day with a cloudy haze that mellowed the attitudes on this, the Afghan weekend. It took us about an hour to drive to the outskirts, all the while viewing a Kabul that evaded description from our seige mentality life within the confines of HESCO barriers and "Texas T" Walls. Sgt. Maj. Cioma had previously been stationed up in the North by Mezar E' Sharif and his driving was expert. We made it to the course, located in a heavily treed, grassy hillside up by the Kabul Reservoir. It is a place that Afghans come to enjoy time with their families, picnicing and playing in the cool, greenery and fresh air coming off the lake.

Shortly after we pulled in to the parking lot, we met up with Lt. Col. Sabor, the commanding officer of the NCO School at KMTC, and his executive officer and his Sgt. Maj. We then met the manager of the course, Abdul, who introduced us to our Caddies. Mine was an eleven year old boy named Jowid. We planned to join them on the course, but their idea was much more the camaraderie that came from sharing lamb kebabs and naan after we had exhausted our selves on the green. With Cioma as our body guard, we presented a secure posture, despite enjoying the relative relaxation. The clubs were old and filthy, the course lacked much of a green, but that fact that we were enjoying a low optempo day on a Golf Course in the capital city of the former home of the Taliban, seemed hard to believe.

I teed off from the peak, driving my first ball a couple of hundred
meters down range. That was one of about five great hits to come from my experience on the "Green" as I realized it had been 21 years since I had swung a club. The memory of my old Scottish friend Alasdair Watt echoing in my head from our time at New Mexico Military Institute together. We were out on the driving range in early 1986 and I damn near hit a Colonel with my ball. "Aye, Strong, A.V., yeoor no freakin' gulferrr, thas' fer shure, Lad. Ye jes' watch me fer now on." And, thus, 21 years later, yesterday, was the first time I had picked up a club since...seriously, a career Army Officer, not golfing.

I suffered through about five holes....suffered only because Alasdair's two decade old warning kept echoing truth in my game. If the course had not already been pockmarked and cut up from goats and the occassional landmine or cow bone, I would have been billed for the abuse I had offered it. Jowid, my reliable companion found my ball each time, whether he had to jump into the drainage ditch, look behind the inadvertent bush, or under the stray piece of barbed wire. He was a good kid. At one point, Ian Pruden had offered his interpreter a dollar if he out-distanced him in a tee. He never had to pay his 25 year old "Terp."

I offered the same to my eleven year old buddy. Not only did he outshoot me, his form and focus were impressive to witness, an Afghan Tiger Woods in a dirty jacket. At the end of our five holes, we rejoined our Afghan counterparts for a lunch of kebab under an enormous pine tree near the Golf Club House (identified by the spray painted title on the side of the building).

We rapidly immersed ourselves into an in-depth conversation of the state of affairs within the Afghan National Army, the situation we were facing at the school house of KMTC, and the current and near future environment of their country. After a delilcious afternoon meal of salted, grilled kebab, naan bread and fresh tomatoes, mint and onions, we prepared our departure. As we got ready to leave, Elias, the interpreter, offered us to stop at his father's home, quite near the course. We accepted and, after a short drive were greeted and welcomed warmly by his father, an Afghan Colonel in the Ministry of Defense.

We were seated on pillows on the floor and immediately offered hot chai, sweet honey cakes, nuts and raisins. We discussed each other's travels and the plight of Afghanistan for almost an hour. He reminded us that times like this are what make this visit worthwhile, getting to understand a foreign culture, broadening one's knowledge of the world. This from a former flight engineer who had travelled all over the Eastern world, a man who wanted his five children to see and experience as much as possible of the world, so that they could return to Afghanistan and make it a better, safer, place.

In the words of Sergeant Major, "This is quite a civilized way to spend a Friday afternoon, Sir."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Angleterre vs. France (RUGBY)

It is Rugby Season and the big game for Camp Alamo is England versus France. We planned the event so that our French counterparts would return to Alamo for the evening's activities, near beer, Ghurka Cury plates and a widescreen viewing of the match. And what a game it was.

By the first half, France was up 12-9, but the second half was a quick-paced Enlighs defeat of the French. All this in a room of French and English Soldiers and Marines. The best part of the entire night was witnessing the opening of the game, with each room full of French and British singing their National Anthems.

During the game I had everyone present sign our official game ball (the same as used in teh match), with the winner signing in Silver Ink (Lt. Col. Charles Newitt had the honors).
A great match and a great night.

From Kabul

Saturday, March 10, 2007

5,840 Days of Renewal

Today, March 9th, was the 16th anniversary of my being married to Margaret Mary Towle. 5,480 days ago, we hosted about 150 friends and family in the shaded garden of our home in Los Feliz, in East Los Angeles beneath Griffith Park and its famous observatory. "The Villa," is an Art Deco era apartment complex that always reminded me of something you would see in a film noir from the 30's, much like Margaret. It was our home together while we studued English Literature at U.C.L.A. Palms swayed in the tradewinds as we were pronounced man and wife before parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, friends and those dearest to us, including many who now smile down upon us from the Heavens.

We have since lived in Berlin, Georgia, Hawaii, Olympia, Portland, and Salem. We have travelled across Europe, the United States and Mexico and even into Canada. We have danced in Prague, toasted Le Bon Nouvelle Année beneath the Eiffel Tower, walked the Maasai Mara in lion country in Kenya, hiked through the Olympic Forest, bathed in the Nordsee, overlooked the Grand Canyon, bodysurfed the North Shore, and laughed and loved on four continents.

I am so glad to share my life with such a bold spirit, elegant soul and beautiful woman as my dear beloved wife, Margaret. Sweet Heart, I miss your sweet carress and tender kiss.

Thank you for sharing your life with me for sixteen years. I love you.

From Kabul,


Saturday, March 03, 2007

A New Beginning of Hope


It has been too long since I have actively maintained this log of ideas and thoughts, experiences and adventures. Today was a unique day in our journey here as we were able to make a significant impact on the people of Afghanistan.

Due to the impact of war on this, one of the three poorest nations on our planet, the crisis of refugees is epic. Many refugees flee from the more violent states to find homes in calmer areas. Many flee the country and cross the Pakistani border, like so many of their previous generation. However, Pakistan has started to crack down on the border crossings and has limited its openness to Afghans.

Here at the Kabul Military Training Center, or KMTC, we have a range complex of over 14,000 acres. While much of this land is occupied with various firing lanes and ranges for small arms, crew served and indirect fires lanes, there is also areas that are predominantly used for maneuver exercises. some of this land has been used as a refugee camp for the past several months. The camp, now home to over 1,500 refugees of Southeastern provinces, exists on the Eastern border of the KMTC property.

Our public affairs officer, 1st Sgt. Don Weber, a close friend and experienced soldier, has been working with his Afghan counterparts over the past month, trying to coordinate an effort to alleviate some of the suffering of these homeless poor that live here among us. His efforts and those of the Afghan National Army soldiers he has worked with, came to fruition this morning.

Coordinating with the donated supplies manager at Bagram Airfield (BAF), home of our higher headquarters, the CJTF-76, Weber requested several tons of much needed food basics. Weeks later, we received over four tons of cooking oil, wheat, salt, sugar, and flour. On Friday, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Afghan Soldiers distributed the food stuffs into over 200 individual "Family Packs" so that each family on the list would get some of each of the supplies. Further, we packed over 200 two gallon sized plastic bags full of donated children's clothing, socks, jackets, blankets and stuffed animals. By the end of the afternoon, the team had filled two full CONEX Trailers full of supplies.
Initially we had planned to do our relief mission earlier this week. However, the weather dictated otherwise. It snowed and, though it cleared up the following day, it left a muddy pit where we had planned to distribute the food. The delay also gave us some time to continue to plan our mission. We would now conduct our mission on Saturday morning. The weather looked to be good and that would give us three days for the mud to dry out.

We got up early this morning only to see that it had been snowing since about 4:00 a.m. By the time we got over to the CONEX's to start loading the supplies in our seven and a half ton "International" trucks, the snow was coming down thick and wet. Our mission would take us on a several mile drive with over a dozen vehicles sent downrange in several serials. It was going to be cold and wet.

I gathered everyone together for a final review of our operational plan, reviewed key items like uniform (we would keep our armored vests, helmets and eye protection on), time lines, threat conditions and contingency plans in case we were to be engaged by enemy activity. Finally, we reviewed the most important rehearsal of any operations, "Actions on the Objective." In other words, how we would distribute the supplies.

My advanced team left at 8:00 a.m. along with the Military Police Officer, Maj. Chris Graves, and his team of 40 Afghan Military Police, loaded up in four Ford Ranger Pick-ups. We drove out through the snowy range, seeing lots of Afghan Army training happening in the frozen high desert. When we arrived in the area of the town, we had a problem we had not anticipated...the Malik (or mayor) that we had planned on linking up with to help us control the distribution and crowds was not there. Apparently five goats had either escaped the night before or had been stolen from their pen. This left us to deal with the brother in law of the Malik, a man named Wazir, likely for the province he came from. Through our interpreters, we explained our plan and that we would need his help to get the supplies distributed and the people controlled. We had a list of personnel that the Malik had approved earlier and we planned to call names and send people approved forward in order to maintain control of the maddening crowd.

Eventually, the Malik arrived and we explained our plan. We would have two distribution points, one for food, one for clothing. Our Chaplain's assistant, Specialist Henson, another great member of the many Army Specialists, never mind Chaplain's Assistant's own their own Steakhouse restaurants in Kentucky?... Well, Henson (Coded named "Salvation Six") would do his best to control the kids and distribute candy and tooth brushes.

That rapidly spun out of control, as the grabbing and pushing and pulling and fighting is part of these kids lives. Henson did an admirable job of keeping them under control, withholding the goodies if they started to act poorly.

The food and clothing distribution, although we had some headaches with it initially, went very well. We had a solid security effort, and everyone had a job to do.

It took us about two hours once we got set up to get all of the supplies distributed and spread as much relief to these people as we could.

At the end of the effort, I asked the two Maliks and two of the elders to come forward. For their assistance and leadership, I presented each of them with a quilt that had been sewn by my mother and her friends of the Bandon Quilter's Guild. They were given to them to share with their wives and mothers and daughters. I explained that each of them had been woven by hand by fellow mothers and daughters back home and that the women would likely appreciate them most. The Malik, after kisses to my cheeks had firm handshakes and hugs, explained that he would give the quilt I had offered him to his mother in law, as she was always concerned that he wasn't providing enough for man.

Overall, we were about seventy people doing the best to make a difference to those that need the help the most. All of us felt that we made a difference and that was made the day into a great one.

We reloaded our vehicles, moved to an Rally Point away from the plying hands of the children, got a solid accountability and started our convoy back home. Once we arrived, we exited the vehicles, had a brief discussion about the pros and cons (we call this an AAR for After Action Report) of the day, then invited our Afghan counterparts to join us for an American Style lunch.
I think Captain Miner even got our interpreter, Zabih, to have some French Fries (It was not student, french fries?)

From Kabul,