Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New Sketches

My last couple of posts have talked about some pretty heavy issues.  Time to lighten it up a bit.  Here are three new sketches.

District Official
Ink on paper, 7"x5" 

This guy is an official in one of the districts in this area.  He's a pretty sharp guy and I hope that comes across in this sketch.

 Poppy Farmer
Ink on paper, 7"x5"

A slightly different story with this one.  He was growing poppy in one of the districts down here.  That is, until the district chief of police and a horde of police and other officials hit the area.  Now his poppy field is destroyed and he's under arrest.  Not a good day.

Angry Poppy Farmer
Ink on paper, 7"x5"

This guy is another poppy farmer.  Where the other one seemed resigned to his fate, this one wasn't.  He's looking for somebody to kill.  Well, if somebody just destroyed the crop that was going to fund you for the next year, you'd be mad, too.

It felt good to do some drawing again.  I may have some more opportunities in the next couple of weeks, and I'm really looking forward to it!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Security Situation

A week into the Koran-burning incident, things here are still a little tense.  The number of demonstrations around the country has dropped fairly steadily, and there are fewer people participating in fewer demonstrations.  Karzai has stepped up to encourage people to show restraint, stop the violence, and give the investigation some time to proceed.  The provincial and district governors have echoed this line.  They've also encouraged (maybe the right word is "leaned on") the mullahs to calm people down.  

Fortunately for us down here in the south, there have been almost no violent incidents.  Yeah, we got a rocket attack a few days ago, but that's nothing to get too excited about.  More of an annoyance than anything else.  The bottom line is that things are quieting down, slowly and gradually.

One thing that does have people concerned is the shooting of the two American officers inside the Ministry of the Interior.  This is serious.  The Ministry of the Interior is not at all like our Interior Department - it's really the police forces and other law-enforcement groups.  The Americans were killed in an area that is considered very secure.  People have to have special clearances to be there.  And one of those people shot our officers in cold blood.  And escaped.  The Afghan investigation is ongoing and word is that they're on the trail of the guy.

Meanwhile, we've pulled all our "embeds" out of all the ministries.  These are the people that have been helping the Afghans build their government capabilities to run the country.  Now they're back on ISAF-controlled bases, or at their embassies, until such time as it's determined that the Afghans can provide better protection.  Believe me, the ministries will be feeling this loss before much longer.  

But while this assassin, and a few others around the country in recent months, have received a lot of attention, the performance of the Afghan security forces in general has been pretty impressive.  In literally thousands of demonstrations, it has been the Afghan security forces who have faced them.  They're the ones standing in front of the hordes of angry Muslims and defending the infidel Americans (and British, German, Dutch, Romanian, Albanian, Canadian, Norwegian, French, Slovak, and more) from attack.  And defending the Parliament building, airports, and other public facilities.  It has been a very dangerous task and many of them have been killed.  A year or two ago, this wouldn't have happened.  So my hat is off to the vast majority of Afghan security forces.

That said, there's still the question of trust.  The shooter in the Ministry of Interior is in the news now, but he has not been the only one.  Over the past two years, as the Afghan security forces have been built up, there have been increasing numbers of what we call "green on blue" incidents, in which Afghan security forces fire on ISAF forces.  Those of us out here have been talking about it for quite a while.  The Afghan security forces are, indeed, getting bigger and better, but at the same time, there are more uniformed members willing to pull a gun on one of us.  Not good.  

One final note.  The news sites have reported that Gingrich and Santorum have both denounced Obama's apology to Karzai over the Koran-burning incident.  I have to say that these comments are just more examples of why those two are not qualified for such an important job.  If official representatives of the United States (which includes all soldiers and US government workers over here) do something that profoundly insults the people of the country they're in, we owe them an apology.  Period.  I mean, if you go over to somebody's house and do something stupid that insults them or causes damage, you apologize, right?  You do if you're raised in a civilized society.  An immediate and forceful apology was necessary to even begin to calm the storm that this incident raised.  Obama did it.  George W. Bush did it, too, when a US sniper shot a Koran in Iraq several years ago.  But Gingrich and Santorum are now on record as saying they wouldn't.  Meaning they have no problems with needlessly increasing the danger that the people over here (including me) are facing.  So fuck you very much, Newt and Rick.

While on this topic, I have to say that I actually agree with something Sarah Palin said.  (Never thought I'd say that, but it's true).  She tweeted that Karzai owes us an apology for the shooting of the two officers in the Ministry of Interior.  She's absolutely right.  I'm waiting.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Koran-Burning Incident

By now, you've heard on the news about the Koran-burning incident at Bagram.  It's been a hot topic of conversation around here, and we're all on a heightened state of alert.  The story, from what we've seen in the news, is that somebody in Bagram tried to burn a bunch of Korans.  Some Afghans saw what was happening, pulled them out, and told a bunch of their friends.  All hell broke loose,

Reality is a bit more complex than that.  These particular Korans came from the detention facility.  The prisoners used them to write messages to each other.  When this was discovered, all the Korans were confiscated and stored somewhere.  There they sat until somebody decided they had to go.  What we figure is that some major told some lieutenant, who told some sergeant, who told some private, to move all the books.  Somewhere along the line, somebody who knew what these Korans were, and how they were supposed to be handled, told somebody who didn't know, to "get rid of this stuff".  Here in Afghanistan, that usually means to burn it.  So, probably, some 18-year-old private just thought he was doing what he was told.

The rest you know.  As of last evening, about four were dead in rioting and lots of people injured.  US and ISAF units all over Afghanistan are pretty much on lockdown, including here in the south.  But down here, things have been much quieter, probably because news travels slowly.  The officials we've spoken to understand that accidents happen, but have all cautioned that this is taken very seriously by the general Afghan public.  We've sure seen that up north and hope it won't play out the same way down here.

Some people have been very dismissive of the the Afghan reaction.  After all, they're just a bunch of books, right?  No.  To Muslims, it's the Word.  It's not that they're symbols (which they are as well), but they are literally the word of God.  And here is an infidel destroying the word of God.  Blasphemous.  We in the west are not immune to this sort of thing.  Years ago, an artwork titled "Piss Christ" was shown in New York.  It was a photo of a Catholic crucifix submerged in a urine-filled toilet.  The country was scandalized, Rudy Giuliani tried to close it down, and the clamor lasted for months.  Nobody died, however; a key difference between there and here.  But the underlying sentiment was the same: somebody had deeply affronted somebody else's religion.  Here it was accidental; in New York, deliberate.

So it will be interesting to see what happens over the next week.  Will southern Afghanistan erupt the same way that the north did?  We don't know.  But we're ready.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Working with Really Good People

In my last post, I wrote about an example of dealing with people who are walking problems.  There are a lot of them here.  There are also a lot of really sharp people here, people who have been places and done things that most folks on Main Street can only imagine.  One of the things I like to do is to sit in the DFAC over a plate of Mystery Special and ask them some kind of leading question, like, "so, how did you come to be in the State Department?"  The responses will often just blow you away.

I was talking with one guy about the Mohammad and Mohammad trip (see previous post) when I asked that question.  It led to an hour and a half discussion.  He had done security for the Peace Corps for years, covering third-world countries over a huge area.  He'd also been involved in border security operations in Texas and New Mexico.  Before that, he'd been in Special Forces, and had been a Ranger in Vietnam.  (I had to drag that last bit out of him - guys who brag about being in a group like that are often making it up.)

I talked with a young woman who's covering education development in the province.  She was a teacher for two years before joining the Peace Corps and spending five years in Africa.  She worked in rural villages for a couple of years before managing logistical support for Peace Corps volunteers over a wide area.

Speaking of the Peace Corps, we have a lot of former volunteers who are now with USAID and working throughout Afghanistan.  They've been stationed everywhere: Central America, Southeast Asia, Africa, you name it.  The stories they can tell about the people they worked with, and villages they lived in, are amazing.  And very human, too: on a one-to-one level, people are basically people, everywhere you go.  It's how they do their "people-ness" that differs and makes things interesting, frustrating, funny, counter-productive, dumb, and innovative.

There's a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant in my office.  The guy's a ball of fire.  He used to run the Silent Drill Team at the Marine Barracks in DC.  If you've never seen the Silent Drill Team, it is a world-class performance: complex, close order drill with impeccable precision, carried out in silence.  The hard work and discipline that goes into it is unbelievable.  Our work is not nearly that intense, and he doesn't have to drive himself that hard anymore, but he's still on top of everything.  Don't cross the Gunny!

Actually, there are quite a few retired military guys out here.  They're all guys - haven't met any retired military women in this area.  They come from a variety of backgrounds: Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; officer and enlisted.  One guy in my office was on the same Navy ship that I was on when we did the exercise Teamwork 84 and "invaded" Norway in winter of 1984.

I could go on.  There are a lot of people out here with incredible backgrounds and abilities.  Most of them are a lot of fun to work with.  A few are dickheads and a couple are way out of their depth.  But that's life, isn't it?  On balance, I've got a really good crew.  Can't ask for much more than that.

Oh, and to follow up on my last entry.  Either Mohammad or Mohammad called Abdullah and they agreed to meet at a place that the handlers, Bob and Alice, hadn't planned for.  Then Abdullah blew off the meeting.  Meanwhile, Bob and Alice discovered that their office in Kabul had a branch down here in Kandahar, so they used their branch office to make the trip arrangements.  Which is what they should have been doing from Day 1.  You still can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dealing With Idiots

When I was going through training, quite a few of the instructors said that working with the Afghans was easy and fun, but working with Americans was a pain the royal keister.  This past week, I've really come to appreciate those remarks.  It has continually amazed me how people who should know better do things that just make no sense.

For example, early this week some Americans in Kabul decided that they needed to come down to our area with some senior Afghans to visit a particular location.  To keep my own butt out of the wringer, I'll call the Americans "Bob" and "Alice", and the Afghans will be "Mohammad" and "Mohammad".  Not their real names, of course, but real names give away organizations, which causes embarrassment, which would come down on Your Trusty Correspondent.  And embarrassing organizations is not my goal in this post; rather, I just want to highlight the kind of things we tend to do to ourselves.

Anyway, the real issue is that Mohammad and Mohammad needed to come down to resolve an issue that is essentially an Afghan problem.  Bob and Alice are there to "facilitate".  In practice, "facilitate" too often means "do it all" and that's what was happening here.  Instead of Afghans solving their own problems, we have Americans arranging schedules, transportation, setting up meetings, yadda yadda yadda.  I have seen that, when Afghans decide to resolve a problem, they're pretty good at it; but if they think we'll do it all for them, they'll let us.  Bob and Alice haven't seen that yet.

So Bob and Alice are now doing Mohammad and Mohammad's grunt work for them.  That's bad enough, but they're not doing it the right way.  For example, if you're going to take a couple of senior Afghans and their entourage somewhere, particularly into a hot zone like southern Afghanistan, you need to coordinate with the local military forces.  Did they do that?  Well, if they did, would I be writing about it?  Instead, Bob contacted a mid-level staffer at my shop (not military) and asked him to make a few arrangements, like getting somebody to drive them from one spot on the base to another.  Simple stuff, really, so the staffer started taking care of it, until we realized what was happening.  Whoops!  Time to slam on the brakes and start asking questions.  When we did, we realized that Mohammad and Mohammad needed to talk to Abdullah (another pseudonym) while they were down here.  Abdullah has some say over what's going on in the area, but has been ignored, and is not happy about it.  So we tell Bob and Alice that we want these three Afghans to meet, and by the way, here's the ISAF guy ("Fred"; yes, another pseudonym) that you need to talk to in order to grease the skids for the visit.

It's now four days later and time is getting short.  Bob and Alice have now been told four times what they have to do.  They have yet to do any of it.  And it's not hard.  They just need to tell Fred what their travel arrangements are and what kind of assistance they need.  That way Fred can coordinate with the guys in the field and let the appropriate people know about the visit.  Simple.  But apparently it's too hard for them.  All we know right now is the intended date and the intended place of the visit.  And Abdullah isn't included.  Abdullah's sitting back in his office going "WTF?"  Abdullah can be a real pain in the ass to Mohammad and Mohammad if he wants to.  He might want to after this is all over.

So I sent out another note to Bob and Alice tonight saying that they need to delay the trip a few days to allow time for the proper coordination (translation: "if you idiots had called Fred four days ago, we'd have it done by now") and you need to schedule a meeting with Abdullah.  We'll see what happens.  Or doesn't.

I have to say, this is the worst-coordinated event that I've seen so far in my time here in Kandahar.  Well, maybe not ... there was that time ... no, better not go there.  Anyway, sometimes dealing with Americans is the hardest part of my job.  Working in Afghanistan is walking a fine line.  You want to get the mission done, and you want to build Afghan capability, and sometimes those two goals collide.  And when they do, people sometimes go for the expedient solution rather than the right one.

And the funny thing is, if Mohammad and Mohammad just picked up a phone and called Abdullah, a lot of the issues would be solved.

You can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Title Sequence: The Pacific

There have been several very powerful movies made about war over the past decade and a half.  Saving Private Ryan was the first in the new breed that honestly showed the brutality of combat.  That continued with the television mini-series Band of Brothers and, more recently, The Pacific.  My wife won't watch those kinds of shows.  I don't blame her.  But when the shows are well done, I'm riveted.

The title sequence for The Pacific was particularly meaningful for me.  This one featured charcoal drawings of soldiers in combat, blended into brief clips from the show, along with close-ups of charcoal being dragged over the paper, disintegrating as it went.  As an artist, and as a military vet, these are powerful images.  I watched the sequence closely every time it played.

A friend sent me a link last night to a site that described how this title sequence was created.  It's on the website ArtoftheTitle.com, a well-put-together site that discusses how movie and TV title sequences are conceived, developed, and executed.  For The Pacific, they had about 2 1/2 minutes to set the stage, establish the idea of ordinary guys caught up in a unbelievably violent world, and create an emotional involvement with the viewer.  That's a hard task.

Their use of "combat art" was unusual and very effective.  The rough charcoal drawings are exactly the kind of drawings that a combat artist would make - quick, unfinished, capturing a split-second in a violent world, or observing a soldier in a quiet moment.  I'm as moved by those drawings now as when I saw them on TV.

What is so valuable about this article is the description of how they put it all together.  Part was a team effort: lots of talented people bouncing ideas off each other.  Part of it was putting together an "inspiration sheet" with lots of images - photos, drawings, prints, materials, some from war, some not - of things that they thought might be included.  This, I think, is a wonderful idea.  When I'm working on a new painting, I put lots of ideas into my head and let them percolate; often I'll do a lot of drawings, or collect some images on my computer or mark pages in a book.  But I haven't actually put them all up on a board to look at all day long.  This is something that I'm going to have to try, whenever I get a studio again.  (That day is coming ... )

From the inspiration sheet they came up with three alternative approaches.  Once they and the producers (Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg - you don't get much heavier than that) decided which to pursue, they went to work: drawing, drawing, drawing, photographing, drawing, combining, recombining, and drawing some more.  Hundreds of drawings and photos.  In the middle of it, they made some posters as a way to look at it from a different angle, and in the process came up with the iconic image of the soldier carrying his buddy.  They combined the drawings with video clips, reworked them to flow with the music, drew some more, and finally locked down the sequence and put it into final production.  Just the description of it sounded like a dream assignment.  Man, I would love to be involved in something like that!

The site has similar pages for title sequences for lots of other movies and TV shows: Batman, Fight Club, Mad Men, Soylent Green, The Naked Gun, and Zombieland, to name but a very few.  I haven't looked at any of them yet because I'm still fascinated by the whole process of making the sequence for The Pacific.

Go take a look.  If you're any kind of a visual artist, you'll find something here of value.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Panetta and the "End of Combat Operations"

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in the news for his comments on the future of Afghanistan.  The news media have screaming headlines about the "end of combat operations" in 2013 and a full pullout in 2014.  Pundits on both sides have jumped into the fray with their opinions, which appear to be wildly exaggerated no matter which side they're on.

Panetta's remarks shouldn't be much of a surprise.  All he's saying is basically what we've been working towards for a couple of years now.  We have been building up the Afghan security forces with the intent that they take over responsibility for the security of their own country by the end of 2014.  To do that, we're doing a gradual, phased transition, in which we step back as Afghans step up.  Some provinces have already been turned over to Afghan control.  This strategy allows them to lead the fight, with ISAF forces in support for a while, until it's all theirs.

Looking forward, there are three more fighting seasons (June to October) before that happens: 2012, 2013, and 2014.  For 2012, we're still leading the fight, at least in the south and east, but the Afghan forces are taking more responsibility.  In 2013, it'll be Afghans leading most of the fighting with ISAF providing support.  In 2014, the Afghans will have it all, while ISAF forces draw down from support to an advisory and training role by the end of the year.

The dumbest thing in the world would be to have ISAF forces leading the fight right up until the end of 2014, then turning to the Afghans and saying, "Okay, it's all yours, have fun."  That's a guaranteed formula for failure.  The phased approach allows Afghans to gain experience while still having a backstop - in other words, it allows them to fail (and learn) without jeopardizing the entire country.

So what Panetta was doing was just describing how our previously-announced strategy is going to be implemented.  Whether you agree with the strategy and timelines is a different matter.  Personally, I think the timelines are a bit ambitious - I think it would be safer for the mission to extend it by a year or two.  But I'm not at all convinced that the mission is worth the additional cost.