A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Big news here: (No, not all those little changes concerning the new Commanding General of ISAF, the new Minister of the Interior, the new Chief of General Staff of the Afghan Army...those moves are small potatoes compared to this...) I finally got this blog un-blocked from my network!  The wireless I was using went down for good, so there was no way to update for awhile. 

Now I can type what you're reading right now...I just can't post any photos.  Which won't work for us either, really, because visual stimulation is the only way I can reel you good people into my web of blarney.

So we'll try some descriptive writing here on the next go 'round, with a link or two thrown in for flavor.  Tell me how it turns out!  Please don't be shy, people...sure I'm thin-skinned, but feedback really does validate the painstaking loss-of-precious-sleep effort your beleaguered author puts in.

This story details some of the daunting challenges faced by my command, NATO Training Mission -  Afghanistan, as it works to build the nation's police force and transform what exists into a credible and professional organization.  My former boss, who just re-deployed stateside from his yearlong deployment, doesn't mince words!  Link is below, followed by a few key quotes and my comments on each...

NATO retools in a key mission: Building an Afghan police force

- "Police couldn't shoot, or if they shoot, they can't hit," he said. "Half the police force is still untrained and on the streets. And then there are the reports of corruption."

(You can't begin to fix something until you acknowledge what's wrong in the first place. And far too often, the Coalition has shied away from doing that these past 8 years. So you might say I'm enjoying serving for a command that points out how broken the institutions actually are.)

- Because many officers are illiterate, "some of these guys never even realized how much they were supposed to be paid," Breazile said.

(A great example of an improvement that introduces something we take for granted -- automated pay -- and in the process transforms an Afghan generation's expectation of receiving what they are due, not what the paymaster/corrupt boss feels like giving after taking a hefty cut.)

- The makeover, which began late last year, is largely aimed at attracting a higher-caliber recruit and offering incentives to keep him in uniform longer. The inducements include signing bonuses and -- a first -- literacy classes, a powerful draw in a country where only 20 percent of the adult population can read and write.

(Think of the effects this could potentially have, along the lines of our postwar GI Bill for the WWII generation. I know some folks involved in the literacy program, and they are excited as hell to expand it.)

- A revamped, eight-week training program supervised by foreign paramilitary officers is improving marksmanship and basic military and survival skills. Soon it will be expanded to include veteran officers, NATO officials say.

(This is why the Gendarmarie and Carabiniere and other similar 'national police forces' are here en masse as trainers...not only to shape and advise Afghanistan's own Civil Order Police modeled after them, but to train existing police officers throughout the country.  This is urgent with most of the frenzy of training programs and schools that NTM-A provides, oversees, or funds; the courses cannot accomodate the number of students who need it.  On top of that, long-term schools are being built or planned for just about any specialty you can think of, for the Afghans themselves to train the next crop of green recruits.)

Let's conclude this post with a guest author. I am a big fan of the way my fellow Marine in Kabul introduces the day's media summary. Here is today's so you can judge for yourself. Cheeky? Yes. Accurate? Hell yes.

TABLOID TACTICS: Six insurgents met certain and violent deaths in another literally and figuratively suicidal attack, this time on J-bad Airport. These insurgents bought a brief headline in exchange for their lives…
Taliban attack on Nato base in Afghanistan is 'repelled'

SNL WEEKEND UPDATE MOMENT: In a text message to The Associated Press in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said six homicide attackers killed 32 foreign and Afghan security forces at the airport….Really? Seriously?

(By the way, fans of this blog may remember that base...I was working from Jalalabad Air Field with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, from March to May of 2006. Remember when "the last Marines in Afghanistan" left, and we few individual augments behind? Yeah, that lasted about a year until the leathernecks were sent in again. The more things change..., you know?)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Link Stew

(Sorry for the previously non-working links. I cannot overstate the difficulty of posting anything using the systems at my disposal! Should be good now if you want to check them out...)
If you thought you would be getting photos and descriptions of an Afghan delicacy, you're out of luck. Because by "link stew" I only mean you will get a stew of links to other places.

It's the 1st day of Summer, says the calendar, which means that I once again spent the longest day of the year in uniform.  I've got to halt that trend sometime.  Two years ago, I spent a couple of months on partnership exercises with Marines from Chile and Peru during this time of year...which was great, except that naturally -- below the equator -- it was the shortest day of the year for them.

So if I'm not spending the next one in Hammerfest, Norway; or Ireland's Hill of Tara; or Scotland's Orkney Islands; or back in Reykjavik, Iceland; or Alaska or Maine or any annual festival somewhere else...then call me out as a fraud, please.  And if I'm here, well...then I've either lost my mind, been offered a lucrative position in the Afghan government, or gone the warlord route and built up my own 'security force' (here in the 'stan, that usually = private army).

Having said that, it was a great day to be in my job here...lunch at a TV station with the Ministry of the Interior spokesman (possibly even better, getting to zoom around town in the middle of his convoy -- which usually gets you through traffic in a fraction of the time), followed by a massive graduation of 1,104 new Afghan National Police officers.  I got to drive past the old royal palace of Kabul -- though still formidable, now a ghostly wreck set back from the city, and to wonder at what was, what might have been, and what still could be for this hardscrabble city with such a desperate recent history.

On that note, check out the two photo essays below...the first is a recently-unearthed collection of photos from Kabul in the 1950's and 60's.  It's pretty remarkable: you'd think you're looking at Mexico City or some other place utterly different from the mangled (but still vibrant, in its own way) city there now.  The second is simply a beautiful series of photos by teenagers separated by thousands of miles of distance and culture...

Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan

Record stores, Mad Men furniture, and pencil skirts -- when Kabul had rock 'n' roll, not rockets.

Afghanistan through Teenagers' Eyes

What happens when you give cameras to a group of Kabul teens? You see Afghanistan not as a place of war and violence, but as a country where children still play and life carries on. 

I'm sorry, but not only am I not going to make eggs right now, I am dragging myself to the rack and crashing.  My eyelids are like lead weights.  Hope to get pics up tomorrow.  G'night, friends!

See the below link for much more on challenges faced by the ANP now arriving in greater numbers in Kandahar, and by the Coalition men and women who train them...

U.S. Bolsters Afghan Police to Secure Kandahar

Monday, June 14, 2010

Training a Kandak

A few days ago I tagged along on a media "engagement" to catch some of a Kandak Validation/Assessment.  What the hell am I talking about, you ask?  Good question.  A kandak, as loyal readers of Afghanidan may recall, is an Afghan battalion-sized unit...and a validation/assessment is a necessary step each one must pass, prior to being deployed in operations.  So the kandak is evaluated on its performance in the areas of command & control, training, sustenance, equipment, and personnel...whether it even has soldiers in key positions, for example.

Wagon train in the Old West? That's what I was thinking, too...

This commander wonders when the pie-eating contest portion of assessment is going to begin...

To draw back the lens a bit, this critical series of tests lets the Afghan National Army (ANA) leadership and the Coalition know whether a not a kandak is 'fit for duty', something NATO Training Mission Afghanistan is called upon to do.  The teams conducting evaluations are often U.S.-based, but can be Canadian, German, Spanish, French, Romanian, Hungarian, or -- coming soon -- Slovenian.  There is a significantly ramped-up effort to not only field capable fighting units, but to build a system by which the ANA will continue to certify its units as combat-ready or not...and if they're not, to fix the problems.

"I'm outta here...this gully is definitely ripe for an ambush."

There's no denying that it was a pretty gorgeous day to be spending in the training area...

We visitors got an up-close view of the ambush portion of the validation/assessment, in which the trainers and evaluators spring a surprise attack on the kandak (from a place where the kandak should be expecting one).  After a couple hours' wait and the onset of a minor sandstorm, the ambush was underway.

Red crescent designates a medical vehicle, just like our red cross.

The four photos above were clearly taken by a skilled photog (who shall remain anonymous for now) with a fancy camera and a superlative lens.  But the artsy two below?  That is all me and my reinforced Olympus Stylus Tough, the titanium-plated camera for klutzes.  It's all in the framing, I say...

You're still reading this post?  All righty then, you deserve a reward.  Here are some shots of Kabul Rock City at its morning finest, from the drive out to the training area...

 Bustle and billboards will choke some roads and circles, and then give way the next to open expanses of seeming wasteland.  This city makes Philadelphia look well-planned by comparison... 
(Now don't get all worked up, Philly Pholk -- I'm just in dire need of a good cheesesteak.)

Beverly Hillbillies, Kabul style.

See the bus on the left?  It bears the last message I expected to see in Afghanistan..."Love Not War."  How cool is that?  
Goodnight from Kabul, all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Scenes of the city

As burqas and veils flew past in a blur, and old men and children milled around much more slowly during stops, I attempted on a recent drive through Kabul to capture a bit of the city's appearance to fresh (though tired) eyes...

It's "Abbey Road", Kabul version 2010!

"My friend, how do you keep from getting tripped up in the shawls and manjammies when you ride this contraption downtown?"

"Brother, can you spare a -- whoa, is that an Escalade heading this way?"

I don't know why I liked this one...maybe two cabs actually in the same color scheme, maybe the masked man approaching, maybe the snow-capped mountains beyond...but probably the earthquake effect of one very bumpy ride for taking 'happy snaps.'

One of the bright spots of driving around this mountainous city is catching a glimpse of the still-white Hindu Kush, no matter how warm a Summer day it feels like in the dirt-colored dust bowl below.

I was astounded by this mosque when we first drove upon it.  After hearing so often that nothing survived the Afghan civil war -- and the particularly brutal urban warfare of Kabul -- intact, it was a sight to behold.

The banks of the Kabul River, actually with some water in it.  No one's about to confuse it with the Seine, but I felt a twitch of excitement upon seeing it in its city.  The last time I was in country, I only saw it flow (with much more volume) much further East...

"We got shades here! You can't begin to look like ZZ Top without your cheap sunglasses, man! The beard only gets you halfway!"
I'm not usually the type who'd wax poetic about billboards...I think you're probably sick in the head (or more likely, the heart) if that's your idea of urban beautification.  But here -- where it just signifies choices, trade and normalcy to a foreigner like me who wants to help "normalcy" along in any way possible -- it's a sign of hope.

Rather than attach one of the countless stories being cranked out daily by the crush of news media in Kabul about Afghanistan's shifting politics, its bad dudes in powerful places, or the associated blame game with all of that, there's this one.  There's a war going on...and grunts like these are setting out on patrol every day, unsure each time if it will be their last -- but unswerving in their determination to make the land safer.  I'm humbled to wear the same uniform as them...