Friday, December 30, 2011

And Now for a Bit of R&R

I'm at home now on an R&R break.  It's been a great time to do pretty much nothing.  Just being at home with my wife, dogs, and friends is enough.  Maybe I'm getting to be an old fart (okay, I already am an old fart), but I don't need to go traipsing off around the world, looking for exciting places to go and things to do.  No, thanks; Kandahar is exciting enough for me.  I just want some normality now.

Getting home was not easy.  I was supposed to leave on Wednesday, Dec 21, on a flight from Kandahar to Dubai, then on to the US.  But a dust storm rolled in on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning it lay thick over all of southern Afghanistan.  Visibility was down to 400-600 meters, well below the 800 meters minimum for the airline to land to pick us up.  They kept pushing the arrival time back, hoping that it would clear just enough to get the plane on the ground.  It was cold, too: sub-zero (Fahrenheit), with ice on the ground.  We milled around all morning, first outside in the freezing cold, then inside an unheated terminal, hoping against hope that the skies would clear a bit, but they didn't.  Finally, at around 4:30, they cancelled the flight.

Now we had a couple hundred people with broken flight connections.  Right at the beginning of the Christmas rush.  And all the flights out of Kandahar for several days were overbooked already.  Not a good scenario.  I got on the phone with our travel agents in Kabul.  These guys worked miracles and quickly got me rescheduled on a flight out of Dubai 24 hours later.  The flight from Kandahar was a different issue: the airline was trying to get a second airplane in to get everybody to Dubai, but that was still in the works.

Thursday morning, we woke to a slightly thinner, but still present, dust storm.  Then we discovered that the airline could not get a second airplane in, due to some issues with the airport and (presumably) Afghan government.  This was a BIG uh-oh.  One of my co-workers suggested that I try getting to Kabul on an embassy-run airplane and then flying to Dubai on an airline.  I made some calls and discovered that (a) an Embassy flight was leaving in about a half hour and (b) the miracle-workers in Kabul could indeed get me on a flight from there to Dubai.  I grabbed my backpack, found the duty driver, and made it to the flight line with minutes to spare.  On the flight to Kabul, I could see just how thick and extensive the dust cloud was: it lay like a thick fog over the ground, making any features such as runways completely invisible, and it extended for miles.

Once in Kabul, I was able to get over to the commercial terminal, again with minutes to spare, and got checked in.  Then it was on to Dubai, a 2 1/2 hour flight.  I couldn't believe it: I was finally on my way!  After landing and going through the passport control, I had a couple of hours to kill.  Dubai is a very modern city, bustling and active, with a huge expatriate presence.  Based on some recommendations, I went to the Irish Village and had my first really good meal in nearly three months, along with a fabulous draft beer.  Heaven!

Back to the airport later and onto Lufthansa for a flight to Frankfurt.  I had been happy with this, thinking that it would be good to break up the flight into two legs vice one long 14-hour marathon.  As it turned out, not so.  Lufthansa was fine, a bit better than United but nothing like, say, Air France.  The problem was Frankfurt.  I've been through this airport in years past, but this time, it was ridiculous.  Security is over-the-top: you have to go through security to get away from your gate, and go through it again to get to your next gate.  "Slow" is the operative word here.  Worse, Frankfurt is a maze without useful guidance.  If the flight you're looking for is Lufthansa, then there are signs everywhere telling you where to go.  If you're looking for another airline (and almost every international airline in the world is in Frankfurt), then you're out of luck.  No signs.  I finally stumbled over an information desk with a grumpy soul who pointed me in the right direction.  Despite a two-hour layover, I got to my gate about 15 minutes before boarding time.  My advice is to stay the hell away from Frankfurt.

After that, though, it was smooth sailing.  I was on United to Chicago, which was a piece of cake after Frankfurt.  Then the final short flight to Asheville.  Janis and the dogs were waiting for me in the terminal.  I was home, 42 hours after leaving Kandahar.  And I'd picked up a cold along the way.

So now I'm sitting here in my favorite chair.  My cold is pretty much gone (not quite).  Janis and the dogs are more or less used to me being here by now.  I've visited with some friends, taken care of some business, and had a wonderfully quiet Christmas.  Life is good.

I head back to Afghanistan next week.  There are things cooking that I need to work on.  But for now, I'm just enjoying being at home.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trying to Go on R&R

I got up this morning, grabbed my backpack, and headed for the air terminal here at Kandahar Air Field, intending to go home on R&R.  It didn't quite work out that way.  The reason?  Dust.

Yesterday, we had a big dust cloud move in early in the day.  It looked like fog - a gritty whitish-gray mass that settled over the base and gradually got more dense as the day went on.  This morning, it was still there.  Our group of traveller wanna-be's trooped over to the KAF airfield at 8 am to get checked in for the flight.  It was cold - there was ice on the ground outside the terminal, and for some reason that only makes sense to the military, we were not allowed to go inside for over two hours.  (For all of you who gripe about United Airlines' crappy treatment of prisoners - er, customers, at least they let you stand around inside a warm terminal while they muck up your flight).  Eventually, we got inside and discovered that there wasn't really any heat inside, either, so it didn't make a lot of difference where we were kept.

But as we stood around shivering, I watched the dust cloud get thicker and thicker.  Our plane was delayed, then delayed again, in the hopes that the air would start to clear.  No luck.  Somebody explained that planes have to have a minimum of 800 meters visibility to land.  Our visibility ranged between 400-600 meters.  In other words, about a quarter of a mile, give or take.

Finally, at about 4:30, they gave up and cancelled the flight.  A group of four of us hightailed it over to our office compound and got on the phone to our travel office.  Those guys worked miracles revising our tickets.  I'm pretty happy with mine: they have me flying on Lufthansa tomorrow, which is much better than United, and it breaks my long overseas flight up into two sections.  Now if they can just get me an aisle seat ...

Those tickets still depend on tomorrow's weather.  I hear that it's supposed to be a bit clearer.  The air service (a charter group) is arranging to fly two planes in tomorrow to fly out both today's and tomorrow's passengers.  A good thing, since both flights were over-booked anyway.

So.  With a little luck, at this time tomorrow I should be in Dubai, waiting to board a flight that will take me home.  I'm ready!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Three Days in Maiwand

Two Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

Three Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

The Listener
Graphite on paper, 9"x10"

Senior Leader
Graphite on paper, 9"x9"

I spent three days earlier this week in the district of Maiwand.  Maiwand is to the west of Kandahar City, on the border with Helmand Province.  It's an agricultural area with virtually no other types of industries.  Maiwand, along with neighboring district of Zhari on one side and the province of Helmand on the other, is the original homeland of the Taliban.  They still control the territory.  Afghan government influence is minimal but growing.  Slowly.  

During this visit, I was in several meetings with the district governor, chief of police, and other officials.  I also sat in on the District Development Assembly meeting.  This is a shura (a meeting of the elders) to discuss what they want to do to develop their district.  About 30 Maiwand elders were in attendance from various parts of the district.  I was a back-bencher, there to observe proceedings.  What better way for an artist to observe than by sketching?  So I took along my drawing pad and pencil, sat against the wall, and sketched away.  The four drawings above are the result.

As I've said before, Afghans have the most amazing features and are wonderful subjects for an artist.  They're very different from Western norms, very expressive, with different ways of dressing.  I could spend all day, every day, drawing and painting these guys.  Great fun.  My experience as a courtroom artist really helped here, as nobody sat still.  

The meeting itself?  Chaos.  There was much in the way of passionate speech about this and that, people pushing agendas, arguments and counter-arguments, debate, voting, more passion, signing of papers, scheduling of follow-on meetings, and so on.  Sometimes I'd look at the American officer sitting next to me and we'd just shake our heads and laugh.  You can't make this stuff up.  It was great entertainment.  As effective government, well, I don't know.  The district governor is still establishing himself (he's only been on the job for a month and is not from the district), so what he does with this group, and others, remains to be seen.

When not in meetings with the Afghans, I spent time with my primary contact, Carlos.  He's been there almost a year and is extremely well-versed in local governance and politics.  I was listening to the discussion in the shura while sketching, for example, and generally followed what was going on, but Carlos caught a lot of subtleties that I missed entirely.  Sometimes the fact that a certain individual says something, or doesn't say something, is vitally important.  As the man said, all politics is local, especially here.

I was also learning a bit about life on a Contingency Operating Base, or COB.  COBs are small bases with only a couple hundred people total.  This one is right on the edge of the town of Hutal - you can stand on the walls, throw a rock, and hit someone in the bazaar.  (Note: this is not recommended!)  Life on a COB is very spartan: tents, portajohns, gravel, limited supplies of just about everything, crappy communications links, a fairly well-equipped gym, and more MRAPs than you ever thought existed.  But it also fosters an esprit de corps since everybody's in the same boat.  You share what you have and help your buddy out.  Tomorrow, you're going to need your buddy's help.

All in all, a very productive visit for me and, hopefully, for Carlos and the rest of the Maiwand team.  I'm looking forward to working with them throughout the rest of my time in Afghanistan.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another Trip to Spin Boldak

I made another trip to Spin Boldak earlier this week.  Spin Boldak is the district in Kandahar Province (like a county in a state) that's on the border with Pakistan.  It has one of the two major border crossings that ISAF uses as a supply route.  Or it did until two weeks ago, when Pakistan closed the border to ISAF traffic after the shooting incident.  But this trip had nothing to do with the border crossing.  Instead, my boss wanted to talk with the key locals about the future.

His message was pretty clear: we're drawing down.  We're not leaving Afghanistan, but within three years, there will be a very small presence in Kandahar Province.  We're not doing lots of projects anymore, and we're not going to be a "shadow government".  Instead, they needed to work with the government structure to do the things that governments are supposed to do: build and maintain roads, provide schooling, provide a health care system, lay the groundwork for private-sector economic growth, and so on.  They need to get their government working now, while ISAF is here to back them up.  They can't wait until we're gone.

How did it go over?  Hard to say.  They certainly listened.  I saw heads nodding at important points.  Now to see what they do.

I was a back-bencher during most of this.  When you're with the Big Dog, he's the one who does the talking, particularly when we're talking about the big strategic picture.  I'll get my chance to talk with some of them later, when we're talking about specific "how to" points.

So, of course, I did some sketching when I could.  I swear, I could spend days drawing these guys.  Part of it is the fact that they look and dress so different from Americans, and there's that fascination with whatever's different.  That's why we all take photos on vacation, isn't it?  It's someplace different.

But in addition to being different, the Afghans I've dealt with have great character in their faces.  They've lived through experiences that you and I don't even like to read about.  They have a dignity and gravity about them.  But there's often an openness, a friendliness, sometimes even an eagerness, that's almost childlike.  (Not always - in one of our meetings, I sat next to a guy who wanted nothing to do with me.  But he listened intently to what was said and made some very sharp, focused, and interesting remarks back to the Boss.)

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

These were done during a meeting with district officials.  These guys were quite lively.  Some of their discussion was "I want ... " and "I need ... ", aimed at ISAF, which is how they've been getting much of their resources over the past ten years.  But as the boss made clear, ISAF's not going to provide much more, and they need to get their resources from their own government.  I could see from their faces that they were getting the message.

Later we talked with the tribal shura.  A "shura" is a meeting of the elders to discuss whatever happens to be the topic of the day.  Spin Boldak has created a very representative shura assembly that reflects its tribal diversity.  This is the meeting where I sat next to the guy who didn't want anything to do with me.  Watching the crowd, if you ignored the turbans, beards, and Afghan dress, it was like a community meeting anywhere in the States, except maybe more respectful.  They listened, thought about it, made their own points, and in general were actively engaged.  I hope I can get back down there for another shura meeting soon, only this time without the boss, so that I can better see their dynamics in action.

So what's the future here?  It remains to be seen.  Spin Boldak is a very complex place, much more so than any other place in the region, except maybe Kandahar City.  There are lots of power players, lots of different dynamics, and we have only a shallow understanding of it.  Not for lack of trying, but Afghan society, especially in a place like this, has undercurrents and behind-closed-doors deals and unstated understandings that outsiders will not, ever, know about.  I recently described Spin Boldak as a paper-thin layer of official government laid on top of a spaghetti-plate of real activity.  We're doing what we can to help develop that official layer so that the spaghetti-plate doesn't destroy itself later on.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Musings

Maiwand District Chief of Police
Ballpoint pen on lined paper, 7"x5"

A few days ago, I went out to the district of Maiwand to meet with the new District Governor and District Chief of Police.  It was an interesting trip.  I wound up sitting right next to the Governor and taking notes, so I couldn't do any sketches.  When we met with the Chief of Police, though, I managed to grab a seat to the side and was free to sketch away.  Here's the one of the DCoP.

The big news over the past few days has been the incident in the eastern part of the country where ISAF forces killed a number of Pakistani border troops.  Most of the news reporting that I've seen has focused on Pakistan's indignant response.  They've roundly condemned the attack as unprovoked, an assault on Pakistani sovereignty, and an international travesty.  Additionally, they've thrown us out of a base that we were using to launch drones and they've pulled out of the Bonn talks on the future of Afghanistan that just started.  And, in what will eventually affect me personally, they've closed ISAF's overland supply routes from the seaport of Karachi into Afghanistan for an indefinite period.  In response, we've issued our condolences to Pakistan, especially to the families of those killed, and launched an investigation into the incident.  Afghanistan has also issued condolences and tried to get Pakistan to come to the table in Bonn.  Pakistan, though, is in a helluva snit and does not want to play.

There is, of course, more to this story.  Afghan TV and print media are reporting that the Pakistani forces who were attacked had been shooting at an Afghan border village for some time, forcing residents to stay indoors.  These reports have also stated that an Afghan patrol, with ISAF backup, had come under fire from the Pakistani side of the border, which was what prompted the call for the ISAF attack helicopter to return fire.  I haven't seen any of this in Western news reports, though, only in Afghan.

So before everybody gets too excited and starts condemning ISAF forces as being trigger-happy cowboys (Pakistan's position), let's just wait until the investigation is done.  I bet it's not quite what we've heard so far.

In other news, I've been fighting a friction' cold for the past 3 weeks.  I'm sick of it.  SICK, I tell you!  It's knocked me on my butt several times.  I don't have time for this.  NyQuil and Mucinex and other drugs help the symptoms, but I want it to be gone.  Now, please.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

So What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

That's a pretty good question.  I asked it, myself, a lot of times before I ever thought to come here.  Most of my answers to myself were pretty negative.  If you read the papers, you'll think that the only Americans here are soldiers who are constantly getting in firefights or driving over IED's.  You'll also get the idea that Afghanistan is populated only by dirt-poor Taliban who grow poppies for the drug trade during the day and plot ways to kill Americans by night.  You'd think that we're wasting money by the truckload on roads that aren't built and buildings that are falling apart, and giving it away to corrupt officials and crooked contractors.  You'd probably think that we've got no strategy at all, that we're just reacting to whatever the Attack of the Day is, and lying to reporters about how great things are going.  And you'd be wrong.

The reality is far, far, far more complex than that.  I think it's far more complex than even Iraq was.  Iraqis, at least, have an appreciation and understanding of modern ways of doing business, of how government works, what industry is, what schools should do, and so forth.  They may not always act in accordance with what Westerners would do, but they have a fairly good understanding of modern society.  Afghans, in general, don't.  Their country has been in at war for over 30 years now and wasn't very advanced before that.  They've essentially been on international welfare for ages.  (And if you think we know how to get people off welfare, you haven't been paying attention to Detroit, south-central LA, or most any other major city).  The more I learn about Afghanistan, the more complicated it gets.  I'm not alone: this slide below was prepared for General McChrystal to illustrate just how hard it is here:

General McChrystal's response to this was, "When we understand this slide, we'll have won the war".  He wasn't kidding.  Anytime you do anything here, it affects everything else, one way or another.

So now that we've established that this place is hard, and that you the public are probably misinformed, the question is, what's really going on here?  Well, that's like the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant.  I'm just one of those blind guys, grappling with my own little corner of the elephant.  But I think my perspective is a pretty good one.

We're following a strategy that's being driven by a lot of things.  Time and politics are the two primary drivers.  There's a line in the sand that says that the Afghan government will be running the whole show by the end of 2014 and that international forces (including US) will play a minor and supporting role after that.  (Note that this does not say that all US and NATO troops will be out of the country, contrary to what a lot of pundits think).  This timeline is driven primarily by the domestic politics in both the US and Afghanistan.  That's the mission that's been handed down, so the US/NATO military forces, the various embassies, and the Afghan government, are all working unbelievably hard to try to figure out how to do it.

Our mission is to build the capability of the Afghan society, primarily the government, to manage their own affairs.  That means teaching them effective leadership and management skills and helping them build organizations that can function.  We're helping them establish ways to budget for, and then carry out, essential services.  We're building up Afghan security forces that can maintain control of the country and keep insurgents marginalized.  We're laying the groundwork for economic growth so that more people can have jobs and less incentive to plant bombs.

For years, we've been doing a lot of this stuff for them.  People told us they needed a road, we built them a road.  They needed electrical power, we put up a diesel generator plant and distribution system, and then provided the fuel to run it.  We became a "shadow government" because we know how to do things, while the Afghan government was not capable of providing those services.  But we can't do this anymore.  It's time to get the Afghans to learn how to do their own road maintenance, collect fees for electrical service, and provide fuel for the generators.  So we've shifted our focus to training, mentoring, and assisting the Afghan government to do these functions for themselves.  This has been going on now for a couple of years.  We've already transitioned some areas over to Afghan control and they're running the show there.  In three years, it'll all be under Afghan control.

I've been involved in planning efforts for our corner of Afghanistan, which includes the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Daykundi, and Zabul, all in the southern part of the country.  Our military and civilian team has been following an extremely complex and thorough planning process.  Basically it starts three years out with what the situation should be at the end of 2014, and works backwards, identifying what needs to happen in order to get to that point.  It identifies the risks, opportunities, hard-and-fast requirements for specific actions, assumptions, facts, best-guesses, resources, and much, much more.  There are dozens of people involved, representing dozens of organizations, all of which are putting some of their best minds to it.  For weeks now, we've been doing an iterative process: breaking off into specialized groups, brainstorming, identifying the key issues, discussing with other groups, comparing notes, re-working everything, doing everything we can to develop a solid campaign plan that can effectively achieve the mission, and is robust enough to handle the unexpected.  The end result will be a campaign plan that will guide operations over the next few years.

Little of this is visible to the boots on the ground, reporters, or others who have not been involved.  But the effects of the previous generations of campaign plans can be seen.  The district of Arghandab, that I wrote about a few weeks ago, was an unbelievably fierce battleground 18 months ago, but is pretty quiet now.  Most other districts around here are fairly quiet, too.  Yes, there are still kinetic operations going on not far from here, but the insurgency has been pushed way back.  Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan and Pakistan area has been torn to pieces.  The Taliban is still here and still effective, but it was never really popular, so their base of support has been seriously eroded.  We've made a lot of progress.  It's fragile, but it's progress.

The challenge now is to get the Afghan government to a level where they can sustain that progress by themselves.  The reality is that they're going to need a lot of help, both now and for the foreseeable future.  But that's our mission.  That's what we're doing in Afghanistan.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In the Spin Again

There's a bad case of the KAF Krud going around.  (KAF, of course, being the acronym for our own Kandahar Air Field).  I got the bug last week and have been calling its namesake all week ("kaf kaf kaf kaf").  Fortunately, though, my case was fairly short-lived, about seven days, but I'll have to live with the kaf'ing for several more, apparently.  Colds are no fun.

I just got back from an overnight trip to Spin Boldak.  We had a meeting between a headquarters team that I'm on and the military and civilian leaders in Spin.  The goal was to work through some of the planning and reporting requirements that will guide a lot of our efforts from here on.  As it turned out, we were in violent agreement with the Spin Boldak team on the general direction we should take; our differences were primarily in how some things had been worded, and the different interpretations that we'd put on them.  I think we're pretty much on the same page now.  A good feeling.

The rest of my team left after the meeting, but I stayed for the night in order to get a bit more familiar with Spin B and the players.  I got to see some of the Army unit's command and control, which was very enlightening.  I'll just say that they have a pretty good handle on the insurgent threat, where the insurgents operate, and how to respond to different kinds of activities.

This morning, I sat in on a shura with some village elders.  A "shura" is a meeting to discuss a particular problem.  Afghans are a very egalitarian society, meaning that they arrive at decisions by discussion and consensus.  This particular shura was called because kids in the village had been throwing big rocks at military vehicles when they passed through.  The rocks had caused some expensive damage, and the very act of getting close enough to throw these rocks meant the kids were putting themselves into danger.  So the Colonel called the village elders down to talk about the situation, get the kids in line, and to build some better bridges between the village and the military.  I think the meeting was successful.  The Colonel proved to be quite diplomatic, forceful, and effective.  The elders seemed to get the message and said all the right things.  The proof, of course, will come the next couple of times that military vehicles roll through.

I had no part in the proceedings, but was at the table anyway.  This time I brought my sketchpad.  I started doing a quick study of one of the elders.  He caught on to what I was doing right away and was very intrigued.  Then it turned out that he was one of the key village elders who set the tone for the rest.  I had to leave the shura early to catch the helicopter, but I pulled the drawing out of the pad and gave it to him across the table as I left.  He seemed to get a big kick out of it.  So that's my contribution to today's war effort: building bridges through art!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Death By PowerPoint

One of the major reasons that I was not keen on working at another headquarters command was pounded home to me tonight.  I sat through a 1 1/2-hour meeting whose sole purpose was to fine-tune the PowerPoint slides that will be given to a general tomorrow night.

You read that right.  We had 17 people (not counting me) in a conference room.  All but four were military officers, most of them at the Lieutenant Colonel level, meaning around 15-22 years experience.  That's a lot of horsepower, especially when you remember that other lieutenant colonels not far from here are leading thousands of soldiers into combat at this very moment.  But instead of combat, these guys were focused on briefing slides.  Over forty slides, none of which were legible from more than five feet away.  Each one had two logos, one title, multiple boxes, arrows, color codes, bullet points, 4-point font, and enough words to fill a Danielle Steele novel.  I could read the titles and maybe a headline or two over the bullet points, but that was it.  Even if you could read the fine print, it would take you half an hour to figure out what the slide was supposed to tell you, because it was so full of acronyms, compressed phrases, and Afghan-specific jargon.

I know the general that this briefing is intended for.  He's the kind of guy who loves to dig down into a topic, ask lots of questions about details, find the obscure little byways of an idea, and gnaw at it until there's no life left at all ... in either the subject or the audience.  And what's really scary is that these guys tonight are giving him a huge variety of topics to play with.  It'll take him six or eight hours to go through them all.  And he'd have a ball doing it, too.  Non-stop.

Not me.  I'm afraid I'm going to be tied up in another meeting tomorrow night.  Even if I have to make one up.

PowerPoint has been the bane of military operations for many years.  There was a great article in the NY Times a year or so ago that addressed it.  I used PowerPoint back in my own military career, but it was nowhere near as all-encompassing, nor as crammed full of data, as these presentations are.

I may be an 82nd "Chairborne", but I'm not a PowerPoint Ranger.  I'd rather pull out my toenails with a rusty pair of pliers than sit through tomorrow night's briefing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spin Boldak

Life is different when you're traveling with a general.  They go with entourages.  They'll have several cars to move everybody.  Helicopters wait for them.  When the group gets to wherever the general is going, there are people there to take and store everybody's gear, guide all the staff to their particular destination, and make sure that everybody is well taken care of.  They treat you like you're Very Important. 

I didn't have the heart to tell them I'm not very important.  The only ones who think I'm important are my dogs and sometimes my wife.  I just happened to be the designated staff officer to tag along on this trip.  But I didn't say anything, I just smiled and enjoyed it while I could.  Tomorrow, it'll be back to the real world: humping my bag and battle rattle (kevlar vest, helmet, and other heavy goodies) along a dusty road, waiting two hours for the helo to arrive (IF it arrives), trying to figure out where to go and what to do at the far end, and hoping to hell that I got off at the right FOB.  

Today's trip was to attend a quarterly operations briefing in the province of Spin Boldak, which is down on the border with Pakistan.  This briefing was special because it was being done by the Afghan National Security Forces, meaning the Army, National Police, Border Police, Customs, and the District Governor.  Now a US military organization could put on a presentation like this without breaking a sweat, although it would inundate you with 75 PowerPoint slides and detailed discussions of logistical and operational considerations that you would never have considered.  Not so with the Afghans.  This is still very new to them.  The men speaking today are smart in all ways Afghan, but many of them probably can't read and few have done much in the way of public speaking.  Still, they did a fairly credible job.  Very little of what they said was news to us, but that wasn't the point.  The goal was to get them to think about what it is they've done so far, what their goals are, what their resources are, how to get where they want to go, and how to put that thought process into words.  

Since I was considered Very Important, I had a front-row seat, right in front of the stage with the real VIP's.  That meant I couldn't nod off, scratch wherever it itched, or behave like I normally do.  So I entertained myself with sketching a few of the briefers instead, making it look like I was taking notes.  

This was the Chief of Police for the district of Spin Boldak.  He and his men have a very tough job.  This district has a sizable local insurgency.  More importantly, it has one of Afghanistan's primary border crossings with Pakistan.  There's a huge amount of traffic (well, huge for this area) going back and forth.  Smuggling has been a major occupation ever since the border was created and they're very good at it.  And the smugglers carry everything: war material in, drugs out, booze in, money out, people both ways, and more.  The Border Police are charged with taking care of the border, but the Chief of Police has to deal with all the district's related issues.  And he has to do it with a minuscule budget and people who often aren't paid for maybe months at a time.

This was the District Governor.  He also has an unenviable task.  Unlike American governors, Afghan governors don't have much power.  He doesn't make or control the district's budget, for example, since there isn't one.  All funds are apportioned to line ministries by the national government in Kabul, and the ministries control their own activities in the districts.  Imagine if your Department of Public Works was funded by, and answerable only to, a National Public Works Department in Washington.  That's what these guys have to live with.  They are, essentially, appointed by President Karzai to keep tabs on what's going on at the local level.  They kinda/sorta make the district's concerns known to the provincial and national level and maybe try to coordinate a few things between ministries.  Maybe.  And more than a few have been assassinated over the years.  Think you'd want that job?

But all in all, the briefing went well.  I had some good discussions with my contacts down there and met a few local Afghans, including the District Governor.  Then it was time for the Entourage to Depart, so off we went to catch our Blackhawk helicopters again and fly back to our base.  And then life returned to normal: back in the office, about a hundred emails were waiting for me.  Such excitement, I can't imagine.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Has it really been a week since I last posted?  It's been pretty hectic and the trip to Arghandab seems just like a couple of days ago.  I've been a travelin' man since then, having been out to the districts of Dand and Maiwand, as well as into Kandahar City twice.  We had another trip scheduled for today, but a bit of rain last night flooded out the roads.

These frequent trips are part of our effort to get everybody onboard with Transition.  That's transition with a big T, meaning it has all kinds of very loaded meanings.  Transition means the process of scaling back our efforts, shifting responsibility over to the Afghan government, and providing them with support and help while they get their own processes up and running.  It's a big, big task.  There's an overall plan that has been developed between the international community (mostly us, but with the participation of NATO, some neighboring nations, some not-quite-neighboring, the UN, and maybe a few others), all working with Afghanistan.  They've laid out the overall guidelines.  I'm part of the Regional Command South, which covers the provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, and Daykundi, and we have developed our own plan for putting those guidelines to work in our area.  So I've been going out with a few others to work with the small District Support Teams that are out in the districts.  We go over the plan and how it can/should be implemented in their specific area.

Since every one is very different, it's a challenge.  Some areas are fairly quiet and secure.  Some areas are "kinetic", meaning there's a lot of fighting going on.  Some districts have good people in the government who are trying to do good things.  Other areas are stuck with guys who may be corrupt, or don't show up for work, or are lazy or incompetent.  More than a few government workers can't read or write.  Kandahar City is a major metropolis with somewhere around 800,000 people in a fairly small area.  Other districts are very rural, with only a few thousand people scattered over hundreds of square miles.  Mullah Omar came from just west of Kandahar and that area is still heavily influenced by the Taliban.  But most of the people in the region don't like the Taliban, viewing them (correctly) as brutal thugs.  So every area is very different and requires a very different approach.

On one of my trips, I went out to Maiwand District.  This was a good trip.  The team out there, to include the civilians and the military, has a good grasp of what they need to do and we just provided some specific help.  After the meetings, we went to an old British fort for a celebration with the local Afghans.

Now when I say "old British fort", I mean it was built sometime around the 1830's.  "Old" to you and me, yesterday to the Afghans.  It still has its original wooden doors, as you can see above.  This was apparently the last fort the British held before they withdrew from Afghanistan altogether.  The celebration was for Eid al-Adha, which is a major Muslim holiday.  It marks the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael.  The American troops and civilians from the outpost hosted the celebration for local police and Army forces.  It was a lot of fun.  On the other hand, if I posted photos of the Afghans that attended, I could be putting their lives at risk, because this area has a lot of insurgents.  One step at a time ...

I've been able to do a little drawing on occasion.  This was made while waiting for our helo transportation back home.  Combat Outposts (COPs) are pretty basic places.  Tents, shipping containers, MRAPs, a generator or two, piles of water bottles, Hesco barriers (big cloth bags reinforced with galvanized steel mesh and filled with dirt, which makes pretty effective walls), gravel gravel gravel, and lots of razor wire.

There's lots more that I can write, probably because, when you're going so hard for so long, there's so much you want to share.  But not tonight.  Time to hit the rack.  Got an early morning tomorrow.  More soon.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is a pretty nice ride.  Noisy, of course, but as military helicopters go, it's pretty smooth.  A group of us rode in this Blackhawk up to the Arghandab district center today for meetings with the District Governor and with the commander of the US troops in the valley.

Some helicopters feel like they have to gather their strength to leap off the ground.  Not Blackhawks.  They'll be sitting there, whopping and vibrating, and then just lift up and away, with no fuss or bother.  We cruised northwest over the Kandahar City suburbs (above) and then over a mountain range and into the Arghandab River Valley.  It was really quite beautiful, a wide valley bounded with very steep, rugged ridges that faded into a white haze in the distance.

Just over a year ago, the Arghandab Valley was one of the most contested pieces of real estate in Afghanistan.  It saw some of the most vicious fighting between US Army troops on the one hand and Taliban fighters on the other.  An article in the Atlantic magazine last year, titled "The Last Patrol", brilliantly captures the ferocity of the battles here.  (I consider this article a must-read).

A lot has changed in the year since the article was published.  The Army soldiers who fought so hard were largely successful in pushing the Taliban fighters out of Arghandab.  The few Taliban who are left can only mount an occasional raid or plant IEDs.  They don't control the territory anymore and are seen by the locals as being the losing side.  Now the challenge is in building Afghan capabilities to manage their own affairs without the Taliban.  That means helping to establish local government, building police forces, re-establishing the informal shuras by which Afghans have managed themselves for centuries, and forging links between the local government, the provincial government in Kandahar City, and the national government in Kabul.

This is hard.  Afghanistan has been in constant war for over 30 years.  Few Afghans now have any memory of what peaceful life was like.  First it was the Soviets, then the warlords, then the Taliban, and for the past ten years, we've been gradually rolling up the Taliban up.  This has given Afghans a very short-sighted outlook.  Why plan for the future when you probably won't be alive then?  Grab everything you can now.  This mindset permeates Afghan ministries, which results in corruption at all levels.  Ordinary people see it.  And if they don't see it, they invent it.  Afghans are masters at conspiracy theories and apply them to everything.  If some company gets a contract, it's not thought to be because they submitted the best bid; rather, they must have paid a bribe, or there are tribal connections, or it's a plot by (pick your villain of the day).

The low-level police, for example, are very corrupt everywhere in Afghanistan.  And they have a reason: they are paid a pittance, not enough to live on, so they have to do something to make ends meet.  They do this by setting up checkpoints and shaking people down.  If you're transporting produce, gasoline, or some kind of merchandise, you hand a portion of it over; if not that, then pay a bribe.  Or get the crap kicked out of you.  Or maybe killed.  This is the normal Afghan's daily experience with their government "services", so it's easy to understand why they're leery of supporting it.  (The national police have a slightly better reputation, and the army is actually well respected.  The army is much more selective and enlist better-qualified people, so it's not surprising).

Today we needed to talk with the District Governor of Arghandab.  Shah Mohamad Ahmadi is an extremely capable Afghan leader.  He's working hard to cross tribal and village boundaries, build a working government, provide services, and keep the Taliban out.  He's not getting much help from the provincial and national levels, though.  We talked for a long time about the difficulties that he is facing, as well as what the future holds with the transition to Afghan control coming down the pike.  The Governor was quite candid and held nothing back.

Subsequently, we met with the American commander of Army forces in the valley.  He is also extremely capable, as well as quite candid about the difficulties that he and his troops are facing now, as well as in the future.

So what did I take away from all this?  Our troops fought hard, and many died, to free this valley from Taliban control.  They succeeded.  To keep the valley free requires a reasonably effective Afghan government.  The Afghans, with our support, have only been at it for a bit over a year and have made a lot of progress.  But it's very, very fragile.  Now there's a deadline facing us.  We (the Afghans and the US) have only a limited time to get their government functioning at some very basic level.  If we pull out too soon, this valley will revert to either warlords or the Taliban.  One is just as bad as the other, both for Afghans and for our own strategic interests.

In 1989, we declared victory when the Soviets left, and then we walked away.  The subsequent turmoil led to the Taliban rule and Al Qaeda presence, which in turn led to 9/11.  We can't let that happen again. Not after fighting so hard and paying so much in blood and money.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kandahar City Incident

One of our small bases in Kandahar City had a little too much excitement yesterday.  A small group of insurgents (around four, depending on the source) attacked Camp Nathan Smith with rifles, RPG's, and two car bombs (VBIEDs).  But they were pretty spectacularly unsuccessful.  Not only did they never breach the gate, but they were forced back into a nearby house, where some were killed by the Afghan police forces and the rest by a Hellfire missile.  Unfortunately, one of our interpreters was killed in the attack and a few others wounded.

The success story is that the insurgents were chased down and cornered, and some were killed, by Afghan security forces.  They were led by General Raziq, a very strong commander.  Think Dirty Harry in charge of a small army and you have a rough idea.  He's not what you'd call a "good" guy, but he's extremely effective.  General Raziq happened to be at a meeting at the base when the insurgents attacked, and within 15 minutes had his forces mobilized and the insurgents on the run.  (These insurgents were both (a) not too swift in their planning and (b) fabulously unlucky.)

This camp is where the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is based.  I have quite a few friends that I work with there, so I was happy to hear that all were safe.

Kandahar has been very quiet in recent weeks.  There has been little in the way of "kinetics" (military-speak for "shooting and bombing") throughout the city.  The airport, where I'm based, is several miles outside of town.  It has been the frequent target of rocket attacks, but in the two weeks I've been here, we've only had maybe three days with attacks.  The general feeling is that the insurgents are winding up the fighting season and laying up for winter.  Yesterday's assault, and another in a nearby town, were probably their "goodbye" messages until spring.  They won't be missed.  Not by us and not by the locals, either.  Most of the people here just want to live normal lives.  They don't much care who's in charge.  Well, yes they do: they don't like the Taliban because they're violent thugs, but they don't like us because we're infidels, foreigners, and wherever we are, there are Taliban attacks.  They just want somebody who'll leave them the hell alone.

We're working on it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting Up to Speed

The steep side of the learning curve is a tough place to be.  So much to learn, so little time to learn it before you feel like you're a boat anchor on an otherwise functional organization.  Having been through it so many times before, I know it's only temporary.

You have to learn to speak in acronyms when you're working with the military.  "I'm taking an MRAP to FOB Falcon to meet with the J5 in the MOST about the RSSA.  See you at the DFAC, then we'll RTB by 1730 for the BUA at the COB."  Acronyms have a half-life of about two years before they're overtaken by new ones.  Seems like about half the ones I used in Iraq have been supplanted by new versions, and some of the ones I used now mean something entirely different.  It's like learning a new language.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what it is.

Gradually, though, I'm getting there.  After sitting through six or seven meetings, reading a few hundred emails, and going through a dozen PowerPoint briefing packages, things are starting to make sense.  I'm recognizing terms and concepts and even a few acronyms here and there.  Finally, today I felt like I was starting to make substantive contributions.  I was in a meeting about one of the largest projects in southern Afghanistan.  Most of the discussion had been about typical project management issues: resources, timelines, coordination, and so forth.  All of which was valuable, but at this point in the campaign, the focus is shifting from building stuff for the Afghans to getting the Afghans to support and maintain the projects we've already done.  So I pointed out the new direction and asked how we were going to address it with this project.  Changed the whole focus of the meeting, which went on for another hour and a half.

And this is an important point, one that we've discussed several times over the last few days.  Remember when George Bush said we're not going to do nation-building?  That's pretty much the main thrust of everything we've been doing ever since.  In typical American fashion, our response has been to throw money and people at the problem and hope something happens.  So lots of people, mostly pretty smart and very dedicated, have been giving it their best shot for the past ten years.  And for ten years, we've been on the steep side of the learning curve.  How do you build nations?  Particularly when, as in Iraq, the nation isn't nearly as advanced as it thinks it is?  Or when, as in Afghanistan, it's still a feudal, medieval area that doesn't really have much of a government?

For years, our answer has been to give them things we think they need.  We built schools, but they can't find teachers for it, so they often sit empty.  We built clinics, but there's no electricity for them.  We put in diesel generators, but they can't buy the fuel.  And so on.  That's not to say that what we've done has made no difference: it certainly has.  There are more and more schools opening up every day and villages are recruiting teachers.  Clinics are staffed by people with almost no education (literally) but years of experience.  Businessmen are creating local Chambers of Commerce.  I'm seeing tiny baby steps of progress.

As T.E. Lawrence said, "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly."  This was true in Iraq as we gradually stepped back and the Iraqis took control of their own country.  It was slow and difficult, but by the time I left in the spring of 2010, they were capable of standing by themselves if they wanted to.  Now we're beginning to do the same thing with the Afghans, only they are starting from a much different base: much lower literacy, no infrastructure to speak of, no real economy, and not much in the way of resources.  And we have a definite timeline: in three years, they will be fully in the driver's seat.  It remains to be seen whether they can do it "tolerably" as a nation.  They're doing it now in some areas of the country, but not here, not yet.

Sure hope I can do something to help them along.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Settling In

Kandahar Airfield is a big base, with over 30,000 people running around on it.  The demographics are pretty skewed.  Most of the people are young, in their very early 20's.  Most are male.  Most are Americans.  Most are military.  I meet two of those criteria: male and American, but I'm no longer young and no longer military.  Still, despite the heavy tilt in a few key directions, there's a lot of diversity here, too.  Walk anywhere and you'll pass lots of different soldiers: Belgians, Slovaks, Canadians, French, Australians, Romanians, Czechs, Germans, Dutch, Singaporean, and more.  There are lots of contractors here from nations around the world: Russia, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, you name it.  There are a fair number of both military and civilian women.  And there are quite a few graybeards, like me, old fogies who make you wonder what the hell they're doing in a war zone.

And it is a war zone.  We've had a few alarms go off and every day the EOD guys (explosive ordnance disposal) conduct a few controlled detonations.  Recently, there was a rocket attack and the Taliban issued a statement claiming that we had suffered dire casualties.  In reality, it hit the sewage settling lagoon (aka, the "poop pond") and all it took out were some "brown trout".

Kandahar Airfield is my new base of operations for the next year.  I'm part of a mobile team that goes out to various places to help build Afghan capabilities to govern their own country.  I wasn't originally slated for this job.  I was supposed to go to a small team on a forward operating base (a FOB) to work closely with a particular district government.  But when I got here, suddenly they were talking about keeping me here at the headquarters.  Frankly, I wasn't happy.  I've done plenty of headquarters and staff tours - too many - and didn't want to sit around meeting with Americans all day long.  I could do that back in the States.  But then they put me on this mobile team and I'm happy.  It's a new team with some very sharp people, and we're going to be on the road a lot.  I'll get to see a lot of different places here in southern Afghanistan, rather than one particular small base.  Sounds good to me!

My living quarters are still pretty basic.  I'm going to be living in transient quarters for a few weeks since all the permanent rooms are taken.  Transient quarters are CHUs about 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, with two bunk beds in it and not much else.  When you've got four guys living in that small a space, it can get a little ... umm ... "musty".  At the moment, though, it's just two of us, and at least I've got a bottom bunk.  Bathrooms and showers are in another building about 20 yards away.  I'm just happy I'm not on a cot.

It's Friday night now, which means movie night.  Our command gets pizzas and shows movies on the T-walls outside.  Everybody pulls up a chair and enjoys a flick.  They just finished "Last of the Mohicans" and are starting "O Brother Where Art Thou".

So.  I'm checked into my new job and it's a good one with some sharp colleagues.  I've got a pretty good living situation, all things considered.  Gonna be a good year.

Friday, October 14, 2011


It's a beautiful day in Kabul.  The sky is a clear cerulean blue, with a light haze near the ground and not a cloud to be seen.  The temperature is around 70 with very light, ghosting, puffs of breeze.  The city is very quiet today.  It's Friday, the Afghan weekend, so there's no construction and traffic is at a minimum.  I can hear compressors from chill units here on the Embassy compound, a few birds chirping, and a little light traffic noise from out in town.

I'm sitting in a picnic area under some kind of tree that has round leaves.  You can tell it's had a rough life: branches have been sawn off or broken off and the trunk has a tortuous wrap to it.  The tree and I are surrounded by CHUs.  These are the shipping containers that have been turned into housing units.  The CHUs are wrapped and topped with sandbags, all covered up neatly with heavy tan canvas, in order to protect their people from incoming rockets, mortars, and small arms fire.  Most of these containers are divided into two living quarters, each housing two people.  Each one is equipped with a bunk bed, dresser, TV, tiny desk, tiny refrigerator, locker, and a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower.  This is pretty primo quarters, too.  Most CHUs in Afghanistan don't have running water.  I'm hoping that (a) I get a CHU at my assignment and (b) that it has running water.  I'm probably dreaming.

I've been to two nearby military compounds in the past couple of days.  As I noted previously, military forces are using shipping containers as their building block of choice for expeditionary construction.  I've seen some very large barracks - 3 stories tall, 10 units deep, 2 units wide - built entirely out of shipping containers.  You want office space?  No problem: plop down six or eight containers, plug in electrical power, fire up the air conditioners, open the doors, and you're in business.

Americans aren't the only ones using containers.  Afghans are, too.  On the road to another base, I saw lots of containers housing small stores, rug shops, gas stations, offices, you name it.  Afghans don't stack containers like Americans do, but they're just as imaginative in devising new uses for them.

As in Iraq, Fridays are the weekend.  That accounts for the quiet on the streets outside the Embassy compound.  The Embassy and international military forces stand down, too.  Over at the ISAF compound, soldiers from a variety of nations are playing soccer, sitting in a restaurant, or checking out the bazaar.  It's pretty cool to walk around and see all the different uniforms.  Germany, Italy, Macedonia, the Netherlands, and more.  The merchants running the stores and restaurants come from all over as well.  You can get a good Italian pizza made by a Chinese couple, or order Mexican burritos from an Indian.  An Afghan gent will be happy to sell you a variety of electronic gizmos as long as you pay in Euros.  Yes, Kabul is quite the international city.

I'm enjoying a bit of rest today while I can.  Things are going to change very shortly.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Kabul is half a world away from home and, at 5900+ feet, a lot higher than even Denver.  Each of these facts alone would wreck my sleep; combined, they've caused me a lot of aggravation over the past week.  But I'm finally getting adjusted.  I slept in until 3 a.m. this morning, which was a whole hour better than yesterday.  Tomorrow, I'm shooting for 3:30!

Our group of intrepid volunteers arrived in Kabul on Tuesday of last week.  We retrieved our bags in the airport terminal under an ad featuring a bearded smiling Afghan gent urging us to listen to FM 108, "For the Rock and Roll in all of us!".  Then we were herded into our armored SUVs and hustled through Kabul traffic to the Embassy.  Kabul traffic reminds me very much of, say, the Philippines, or Baghdad, or Bangkok, only with fewer rules.  "Cut-throat" doesn't even come close.  I'm glad I was in the back seat with plenty of heavy steel between me and the cars, trucks, and donkey carts outside.

We arrived safely and were quickly settled into our hooches, given temporary badges, and shown around the compound, our new temporary home.  Over the next few days we went through a variety of training classes such as security precautions, medical, Embassy organization, our mission in Afghanistan, IED familiarization and so on.  Meanwhile I worked to get a lot of nitnoid admin things straightened out.  My travel account, for example, has duplicate entries for a trip I took from Iraq three years ago; one of these entries is marked "closed" and the other "open" for reasons that are impossible to discern.  Another account is to be used to arrange travel within Afghanistan and, for some reason, they aren't letting me into it yet.  A third account is to be used to arrange international travel and I have no idea where to even find that one.  Meanwhile, I need to make some changes to my pay account, but they haven't given me a user ID and password.  Ah, bureaucracy at its finest.

While in Iraq, I commented on the ubiquity of temporary buildings, especially those made out of shipping containers.  They've taken it to a new level in Afghanistan.  You would not believe the office and berthing complexes that can be built, Lego-style, with shipping containers.  They can be multi-story edifices with large decks, long single-story rows surrounded by sandbags, stand-alone units, or anything in between.  My particular hooch is a shipping container.  It sits at a slight list to starboard and down a bit in the stern, but it has air conditioning and a functioning bathroom.  We call this a "wet CHU".  I'm happy to have it right now because in a week or so, I'll be in a "dry CHU", meaning the bathroom is in another shipping container somewhere outside.  And a few days after that, I'm apparently going to be in someplace even more basic.  More on that when it develops.

Over the past two days, I've been in contact with the unit that I'm headed to.  I've talked to a couple of people who already work there (or nearby) and have learned a lot about my soon-to-be life.  And I have to say, I'm pretty excited about it.  The mission is challenging, the living arrangements extremely spartan, and the operational environment a bit more exciting than I'd prefer.  But on the whole, it's a mission that needs doing and I can do it.  

So in a few days I'll finish up the last of my training here in Kabul.  Then I'll head downrange, visit with a couple of organizations that I'll be working with, and finally arrive at my assignment.  

Maybe by that time, I'll be able to sleep the whole night.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Hotel Rooms

My hotel room in Dubai.

My "hotel" room at the US Embassy, Kabul.  Mine is the top bunk.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Training Completed

For the past week, I've been in Indiana, going through training at Camp Atterbury and the Muscatatuck national training center. This was an intensive immersion period. We lived in conditions similar to those we'll live in in Afghanistan on a Contingency Operating Base (COB). We prepared for, and conducted, realistic scenarios in which we travelled to meetings in convoys, met with Afghan officials and villagers, and responded to attacks. We learned a lot about our mission. Most important, we forged some really strong teams in a very short time.

The week did not start well for me. I got to the airport in Washington a couple of hours before show time and discovered that my ticket had not been paid for. Yep, that's right, our admin section had only processed the first half of my travel preps. They'd made my reservations, but they hadn't actually gotten around to paying for them. And this was a Saturday afternoon. Think they're going to be in their offices working? Are you smoking dope? I got on the phone and called the travel agency that State uses. The first agent put me on hold and eventually disconnected me. The second told me to go home and they'd reschedule my travel for Monday or Tuesday. Not an option: training started that night. Finally, the third agent worked with me to find a duty officer in State who verbally authorized them to issue the ticket and State would follow up with the paperwork on Monday. So 45 minutes before takeoff, my ticket was issued. Whew! I was a nervous wreck, but I was on the plane.

We landed in Indianapolis and were then bused down to Camp Atterbury. The next morning (Sunday), we had an orientation briefing and then launched into a videoconference with the US Embassy in Kabul. For me, this made it real: here were the people that we will be seeing in person, and working with, in just a few days. Immediately afterward, it was off to the field where we got some familiarization training with pistols and then learned how to survive an MRAP rollover. This part included being loaded into an MRAP simulator and turned upside down. Getting out of an upside-down MRAP while wearing body armor and a helmet is quite the challenge, but we did. That afternoon, we were loaded into another bus and sent to the "COB", where we were issued our body armor, computers, bedding, given our berthing assignments, and basically settled in. We had a faux-briefing, military-style, that evening to set the stage for the week's activities.

On Monday morning the scenarios started in earnest. Every morning, we'd get into our group rooms at around 7 am, have breakfast together, and prepare for the day's meetings. We worked with our military security forces to plan the missions, convoy to wherever we were meeting the Afghans, conduct the meeting, and convoy again to the next scenario. In the evening we'd go over the lessons learned from the day's activities and then prepare for the next day. We'd generally hit the rack around 10-11 pm after going hard all day long.

I have to give kudos to all involved for the quality of this training. It was some of the very best I've ever had. Classroom training is one thing, but most people learn by doing, and this week, we did a lot. The pace was hard, the scenarios well-crafted, and all the Afghan roles were played by real Afghans. The role of a police chief, for example, was played by a guy who had been a real police chief in Afghanistan. A "village elder" really was a village elder. An imam had been a senior official in an Afghan bank. Most of our interpreters were extremely fluent in English - so much so that we were warned that most of the ones we'll work with in the field will not be as good.

So what were the scenarios like? We met with a provincial governor to introduce ourselves. We met with a district governor and tribal elders to discuss the reintegration of Taliban insurgents into the village. We tried to discuss agricultural issues with officials who wanted to talk about something else entirely. We went to a village where a house had been bombed by mistake, killing somebody and causing a lot of anger and mistrust. We visited a health clinic that had been poorly built under a US-funded program and was not being supported by the national and district governments. We were attacked by insurgents on several occasions. We drafted reports. We provided briefings to military commanders. We briefed the the US Ambassador on provincial issues when he came through on a short visit. Basically, we did things that we will be doing in real life in another week or two.

This past week was hard work, but it was a lot of fun as well. I had a great team. Among our group of six, there was a wide range of experience: Peace Corps, agriculture, international NGO, State Department, law, military, and business. There were no outsize egos and there were no slackers. Everybody led at some point and everybody had the experience of being completely lost at others. Everybody had a sense of humor about it all, too. At one point, we were meeting with villagers on a serious matter. We were sitting around a rug with the elders, cross-legged and with our boots and helmets off, deep in sensitive discussions, when a firefight erupted. Our security forces pulled us out and, with no time for dilly-dallying, we raced off through the mud in our socks, boots in one hand and helmets jammed on our heads with the other, laughing like fiends.

There were other fun times. The last night, our Afghan role-players held a party for us. It was Afghan-style: rugs on the floors, shoes off, men dancing to Afghan music, women grouped together in the back of the room, and plenty of great Afghan food. I sat and talked with one man who had been in several scenarios with us and learned more about him and his history. It was great.

So now I'm sitting in a hotel room near Dulles Airport. I did my laundry this morning and then mailed home a bunch of things that I won't need downrange. I'm putting together another box of stuff to be mailed to me once I get an address. I really don't want to go lugging two heavy duffel bags halfway around the world if it's not absolutely necessary.

And I'm enjoying hot showers again. After a week of living in rather austere conditions (think the worst KOA campground you've ever been to, including mud, gravel, and showers with no hot water, and you get the picture), it's great to be back in a civilized environment.

But this respite is short-lived. Tomorrow I get on the plane and head to my new job. After all this training, I'm excited about it. And nervous. But I'm really looking forward to it. This is going to be a long, intense, and frustrating year, but it's a chance to contribute to a much greater effort. How often do you get a chance to do something like that? You gotta grab it when you can and run with it. Time to run, then!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On To The Next Phase

My training in DC finished up yesterday. I have to say that what I've seen so far is way better than what I saw three years ago. These courses were very well laid out, with well-chosen topics and mostly good presenters. This week, we started with presentations and moved more into scenario-based role-playing. These demanded that we be involved and participating, and provided some excellent insight into what we'll be facing.

For example, in one role, I was on a small district-level team that was having trouble with a district official. He was always off for "consultations" in the provincial capital and never in his district. But as I put myself in his place, I realized that he couldn't read, couldn't write, didn't know what his job was supposed to be, wasn't from the area, was probably from a different tribal background, didn't know anybody, and was probably curled up in a fetal position under the desk, sucking his thumb and waiting for the hammer to fall. My job was to build his confidence, get him out to the villages and introduce him to the elders, and give him some of the basic tools to do something. Anything. Because the Afghan government doesn't have the resources to do it.

Next week, I'll be in an immersion course in Indiana. We'll be living on a pseudo-FOB (a Forward Operating Base), working with military counterparts also going thru training, and interacting with Afghans. We'll learn what to do if an MRAP rolls over and ride in a helo, live in tents and eat in DFACs. Should be fun.

So today, I have to wrap up things here in the DC area. There are some computer account issues that I have to straighten out, make a bank run, go by the post office, drop off a bag at the hotel I'll stay at next weekend, turn in the rental car, and get on the flight. Time's a-wastin'!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Week of Training

It's been a pretty busy week since my last post. I completed my first week of training for my new job. It was actually a pretty good course: every topic was important and most were taught by really good instructors. There were a few that were painful, such as the droning lecturer right after lunch (whiplash city, and not just for me), but overall, I give it high marks. This class was very large, and most of the people have experience in Iraq or Afghanistan already, some for up to five or six years. Only a few were first-timers.

This class gave us a macro overview of Afghanistan. It touched on its history, culture (repeatedly), government, economy, the US strategy, US and international organizations, dealing with the military, life at the Embassy and in the field, and much more. You can't teach everything, especially in one week, but this provided a good framework for the more specific training that will follow. This coming week, I'll be in a smaller group of people who are all headed for assignments in the field ("the field" being anywhere outside Kabul).

My bottom-line takeaway from this week's classes: Afghanistan is a much harder problem than Iraq was, and if we screw it up or pull out too soon, we'll have to go back again.

All was not classroom drudgery, however. We had a group get-together one night, and on two other nights I got to meet up with old friends. One is a friend from my Bosnian deployment - I hadn't seen him in 15 years. The other was a guy I worked closely with in Baghdad. And I'll see a couple more old friends this coming week. That's one good thing about passing through DC when you've spent time in the military or federal service. I also got to see my cousin and her son yesterday and have a wonderful dinner in Dupont Circle. I tell ya, I'm trying to make the most of the opportunities to hit some good restaurants while I can. Life's gonna change here really soon!

Today, I went down to the National Gallery of Art to get my art fix. I took my sketch pad and tried to learn a few things from the masters. Did I? I dunno. But it sure felt good to try!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Employed Again

This has been a hectic week.  I was in a group of nine new temporary employees who are all bound for Afghanistan.  We spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday getting paperwork done, badges made, inoculations injected, and training accomplished.  It was a pretty well-organized whirlwind of activity.

Wednesday was a maddening day due to the weather.  Tropical Storm Lee hit DC that day.  We had to do a lot of running around between buildings.  It seemed like whenever we had to go outside, it POURED, and as soon as we reached our destination and got inside, it quit.  And, of course, we were all wearing the standard DC civilian uniform of blazer, tie, and nice shoes.  All of which were quickly soaked in the morning, so we remained in various stages of damp/wet/drenched the rest of the day.  It rained Thursday and Friday, too, but we all decided the hell with protocol and went with our Afghanistan field uniform of work shirts, cargo pants and heavy boots.

Yesterday (Saturday), I went up to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin.  It was great to see them again.  They've watched me go off to quite a few adventures over the years: joining the Navy, going off to Bosnia, going to Europe after retirement, then off to Iraq three years ago, and now this.  They're not surprised by any of my foolish decisions anymore.  I always know there's a home base for me in Baltimore whenever I need it.

Today I went up to Gettysburg.  Recently, I discovered that one of my ancestors fought in the 2nd Mississippi infantry regiment and was wounded and captured at Gettysburg, and wrote about it in a blog post.  Since Gettysburg is so close to Baltimore, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity.  Last time I was there was about 45 years ago (ouch) and we didn't know anything about my ancestor then.

Quick summary: my great-great-grandfather was a private in the 2nd Mississippi.  On the first day of the battle, they attacked Union forces just northeast of Gettysburg.  They routed some, then turned and hit others from the flank.  But then they were caught in a deep cut in the hill for a railroad bed.  The sides were too steep to climb, it was too deep to fire out of, and Union forces were on the top of the cut and advancing down the tracks.  It was a killing ground before they surrendered.

Today I saw the spot where this action took place.  I have to say, exploring a national monument such as the Gettysburg battlefield is different when you have a personal connection to it.  Seeing the field across which my great-great-grandfather advanced, the ridge line where he helped route Union forces, and then the deep cut where he was trapped, wounded, and captured, was deeply moving.  Of 494 soldiers in the 2nd Mississippi that morning, 411 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  Numbers are one thing; knowing that one of those numbers was a personal ancestor is another.

Later, I went to see the site of Pickett's Charge.  The remnants of the 2nd Mississippi participated in that disaster.  Of 60 men who set out across the field, only one was not killed, wounded, or captured.  I stood on the spot where my great-great-grandfather's unit had started from and looked out across the field.  It was a very humbling experience.

Now I'm back in the DC area.  Gettysburg is behind me.  Tomorrow we start another class to get trained up for Afghanistan.  

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Adventure Begins

I'm officially a State Department employee again.  Today we were sworn in, got our CAC cards (special "smart" ID cards), had the nurses give us some inoculations (rabies and typhoid for me), filled out stacks of forms, and got to know our fellow classmates and support staff.  Tomorrow, we start the training program in earnest.

Getting here has been a long road.  I actually applied for this particular job back at the end of May.  A month later (late June), they contacted me, a kind of "are you sure?"check, and then about 10 days later, I was notified of my selection.  Then began the Paperwork Shuffle.  Lots of forms went back and forth over email to re-establish my security clearance, get my medical checkups completed, make sure I wasn't a war profiteer, sign up for a savings plan, and much much more.  But finally it was done and all that was left was to pack my bags and go.

While all that was going on, Janis and I were getting as much done as possible around the house to get ready.  I made sure the cars were tuned and tweaked and shouldn't need maintenance for a while.  We double-checked our own paperwork.  Janis has some special projects for the house, and we had to get things all lined up for them to get accomplished.  And we took some time out to see some of our friends and family.

As for the pending separation, we treated it in the time-honored American way: we pretended it didn't exist.  We talked as little as possible about it, and when we did, it was usually in a neutral, roundabout way.  But still, when you've been with somebody for 20 years, you can say a lot without actually saying a lot.  And we said a lot to each other.  So we're ready.

Tuesday was D-Day.  I had pretty much completed my packing the day before, so after walking the dogs one last time and having a great breakfast of machaca, we hit the road to the airport.  We were fine until we actually got there, and then ... well, it was tough, both on us and the dogs, who knew something bad was going on.  We got through it, though.  We've done it before and it actually does seem to get easier with practice.

The flight to DC was not the greatest: packed planes, delays, and crappy weather from Tropical Storm Lee.  We landed at Reagan National Airport.  I haven't been through there in 20 years, and let's just say that things have changed a bit.  They've got 10 pounds of facilities in a 5-pound section of real estate.  Picked up my rental car and promptly got lost, nearly heading straight into downtown Washington before realizing my mistake and dive-bombing across 2 lanes of traffic to head towards northern Virginia instead.  Nothing like trying to find your way through DC metro traffic at rush hour in the rain with only a vague idea of where you are and where you need to go!  I lived in the DC area twice before, but this place has changed (see previous comment about Reagan Airport).  I kept having this odd experience of knowing I'd been in this particular place before but not recognizing it at all .... kind of an anti-deja-vu feeling.  But I finally made it to my hotel, my temporary home for the next couple of weeks.  Had a gut-bomb at the McDonald's next door for dinner, unpacked my bags, and settled in.

Bright and early this morning, it was time to head into town.  I got there a bit early, which was good, and met up with the rest of my classmates.  We were run back and forth between several different locations.  Most annoying, whenever we had a long outdoor run, old Tropical Storm Lee dumped BUCKETS of rain on us, and as soon as we got to where we were going, it would stop.  We all spent most of the day in various stages of being damp, wet, or completely soaked.  No fun.  Nothing like dashing through a downpour and plunking your foot ankle-deep into an invisible pothole while wearing a DC-civilian uniform of dress pants, dress shoes, dress shirt, dress tie, and (soaking) blue blazer.

We survived, though.  Tomorrow, I'm wearing boots.  The hell with protocol. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What To Do In Asheville With Kids

An old shipmate of mine is coming into Asheville soon.  He asked for some recommendations for things to do with his two 3 1/2-year-old kids.  I checked with an expert (a friend of ours who has three small kids), combined them with my own recommendations, and thought I'd share them here.

Downtown Asheville.  Downtown is very walkable.  Most of the buildings date from the early 1900's to late 1920's and have been fixed up.  Tons of restaurants, coffee shops, stores, galleries, and so on, most of which are local and not chain stores.  The fun part is bounded, more or less, by I-240 on the north, O Henry Ave on the west, Patton Ave on the south, and N. Spruce on the east, with another nice bit on Biltmore Ave (Hwy 25) running a few blocks south of Pack Square.

Health Adventure (  It's right in downtown Asheville on Pack Square.  It's a participatory, hands-on, interactive, science-oriented place that explores health, biology, and physical sciences.  Lots of fun for kids.  Open 10-5.

Splasheville.  This is in Pack Square, next to the Health Adventure.  It shoots random jets of water in the air.  Kids can run around in it and get soaked.  Better bring some towels and dry clothes.  Read about it and some other water-oriented attractions at:

Carrier Park.  This used to be the old Asheville Speedway.  When it closed, the city turned it into a park, with a large playground, volleyball, basketball, picnic areas, nature walk, river overlooks, more.  Located at 220 Amboy Rd on the west side of Asheville.

WNC Nature Center (  This showcases the natural features of western North Carolina.  It includes a petting zoo.  You can see coyotes, bears, and other critters, too.  Located on the east side of Asheville; a bit hard to find but they have directions on the web site.

River Arts District (  This is where I used to have my studio.  It's the old industrial area along the French Broad River.  Most of the industry has moved out and been replaced by artists: painters, potters, woodworkers, sculptors, you name it, they're there.  There will be studios open - some are open 7 days a week, others catch-as-catch-can.  Some great places to eat down there, too: 12 Bones Barbecue (won a national competition on Good Morning America), the Clingman Cafe, and White Duck Tacos, to name three.  Plus a brewery.

Mountain Play Lodge (  It's an indoor play center located in Arden, just south of Asheville on Hwy 25.  

The Hop (  Homemade ice cream in sometimes strange but really good flavors.  The kids will probably go for vanilla or chocolate, but the adults can get things like salted caramel, nutella, avocado, mustard, or whatever the flavor of the day is.  Two locations, one on Haywood Rd. in west Asheville, the other a mile or two north of downtown on Merrimon.

Asheville's a great place and all the above just barely scratch the surface.  If you know of other cool things to do with kids, post a comment!