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...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ANCOP sendoff

Though taken months ago, these photos -- the above and some of the ones below snapped by the irrepressible and supremely talented Pam Smith -- are screaming to be shared.  They are from a sendoff ceremony for a kandak of ANCOP about to deploy to the south.  What is that again, you ask?

 Afghan National Civil Order Police is an elite police force created to serve as a national asset, on the model of Italy's Carabinieri or France's Gendarmerie...which makes the numerous trainers from those and other countries which field such a force so necessary.  Most countries may have a version of it, in fact...a national police force for restoring or preserving order in emergency situations, akin to the way an individual state in the U.S. might ostensibly use its National Guard troops.

Papa Smurf prepares his troops for inspection by the general...
(sorry, I just couldn't help it)

Gen. Mangal arrives to an anxious reception...

"You better watch your step!"  That's good guarding.

ANCOP's mission is to provide civil order presence patrols, prevent violent public incidents, and provide crisis and anti-terror response in urban and metropolitan environments.  They have 5 mobile brigades, stationed in the key populations centers of Kabul, Paktia, Kandahar, Helmand and Herat.  Most noteworthy thus far have been their deployments to Kandahar, in order to bolster security there in what's been a deteriorating situation.

"And since you look green, I'll just take that now."
I love this shot of Pam's.  In fact, this whole series...

"I said, I'm nervous as hell, SIR!"
(the troops genuinely adore Mangal, who I call the gentle bear)

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. MacDonald joins Mangal in the review of troops.  And this kid says "Please let it end!"

All has not gone smoothly, of course.  ANCOP units have been applauded for the job they've done in some places, and struggled in others.  Attrition has been alarmingly high for a number of reasons.  But the pride these soldier-policemen display was evident on this day, and the faith put in them to advance respect for Afghanistan's police is significant.

"I just can't look!"  (no, no - it's prayer, of course)

An impressive moment at the outset of the ceremony... the unit chaplain, a young mullah, called out a beautiful prayer.

Another solemn moment of prayer went out to the deploying cops...

"See no evil"?

The ANCOP motto is "In Service to the People"...and they better mean it if they seek to win over the population, which has grown accustomed to the corruption too often found in Afghanistan's police forces.  Typical of the system is baksheesh, or bribes paid to police officers for simply avoiding arrest, warranted or otherwise.  ANCOP officers have a whole lot of the desired security framework of the country riding on their shoulders, as they seek to build a reputation of honest and supportive (yet more lethal) police.

All this took place directly under the brown hills of Kabul.

Naturally, I couldn't stop wondering about the old fort high above.

My near-constant sarcasm aside, I found the sendoff to be a moving event.  General Mangal spoke from the heart about the duties of the national police, the honor they must exhibit, and the sacrifice they may be called upon to make.  He speaks softly, but with authority and a wealth of experience, not to mention a common touch.  Brig. Gen. MacDonald has an inspiring story of her own, as one of the first female cadets ever enrolled in West Point, and also spoke with the authority of one who has spent over 30 years in the service of her country.  But it was the portly colonel pictured below who really stole the show, building with emotion as he exhorted the troops to make their country proud.

Back at the ceremony in the baking sun, the 5th speaker drones.

My man on the left says it all.  How much longer?

"It is my honor to serve Afghanistan!"
The shout-out after receiving an award is always a highlight.

Over in Potbelly Row, the old guard was hurtin' too.

The force is now exchanging the uniforms seen in these pics, the same uniform worn by Afghan police in localities around the country, for more combat-ready digital camouflage fatigues.  Here is a story about the roll-out of those unis, and the deployment graced by their debut.

Les Afghans et la Gendarmerie surmontent les obstacles pour construire un centre international

Oh, you can't read le francais either?  Quelle honte!  You're just not as international as we are at NATO Training Mission Afghanistan.  Well, that one is actually about the construction of their regional training center.  Here is the one I promised...

Elite Afghan police unit deploys south with new uniforms

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Braadar Urdu

Goin' through the motions by now? My folks have commissioned their sons into the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Don't they seem too young to have managed that?

(Title translation: Army brother.)  This post is a shout out to my little bro Steve, who celebrates a birthday today and begins his real period of military service tomorrow.  Two months ago he was commissioned as a shiny new 2nd Lieutenant, as was my cousin Liam, and I couldn't be prouder of them.  Since I was here and not there, I'll take the unusual step of posting photos from some places I was not (well, with on).

Two Huvanes at once...what the heck was the Army thinking?
U of Scranton commissioning, May 2010

As these two lieutenants begin formal schooling in active military service, I want them to know a few things...and not just that they are still kids to this suddenly very old-timer.  First, your family is behind you always, and will support you in everything that you do.  Crucially, you will encounter days that make you regret like hell the decision to join up.  Even as a Marine, I have experienced more than my share of those, and you joined the Army, for God's sake! (har de har)  Grit through them, and try to remember how noble it is that you made the decision to serve your country and earn something much greater than a paycheck.

Oath of Commissioning at U of Delaware, May 2010

Trust yourselves -- you are outstanding young men with great values, so lead by example.  Always take care of your soldiers...they've got lives, families, dreams of their own, and you owe it to them to do everything you can to enable their success.  And finally, you can make things better.  Don't simply go along with the way things are always done ('big Army' way?), when those ways can be improved.  Never quit trying...and you'll keep on making us all proud.  OK, unsolicited speech over!

2LT Goo breathes a sigh of relief with his sister Kate...

How cool it is to have bubbly nieces celebrate with you!

Here's the exception to my absence, to which I referred: With the help of smart people on each end, we managed an oath-by-Skype on the day reserved for family commissioning, one before the formal one pictured above.  So I had the honor and privilege of delivering the oath of office to my brother by the grace of modern technology.  Sure, two-way sound failed, but he could hear me, so it counted, alright?  It was surely the highlight of the early days of my deployment to pull that off.

Great shot by my sister Meg...whose husband served here with me.
But what is this young officer looking at?

This guy! The proud older brother, aka crusty old Marine.

Of course I owe the guidance of my own early service to my big bro Paddy the Squid, who led the way.  Notice my attentive godson taking heed of all this..."Are you saying that I'm next??"

While the rest of the clan gathered for the commissioning and graduation events, I came to appreciate that I've gained new lalahaa ("brothers" in Pashto) here.  It's funny how that works sometimes.

Is that a beer garden behind Joe and me? Now don't get any funny ideas...there are only nonalcoholic choices, believe me!

Despite my expression, I couldn't be flanked by better colleagues...

...or better cultural advisors, my lalahaa Esmat & Qais.

I count my blessings tonight, both for the family I'm blessed to have and the colleagues I'm blessed to work with.  It's impossible for me to imagine doing all that we do here (and managing to laugh about it) with anyone else, just as I can't imagine holidays without an enormous, raucous, loving family back home.  My eternal gratitude go out to all of you 'family' members, by blood or by bond.

Monday, August 23, 2010


(No, not that kind of "commando" sick people, you!)

Headquarters building, Commando Brigade

Time for leftovers...I hope you don't notice.  Back on July 4, I arranged a site visit with the Afghan army's Commando Brigade, located a bit outside the city (there were no hot dogs or fireworks...thankfully, in this case).  Reminding me of this visit recently was a press conference in which the Defense Ministry's spokesman extolled recent successes of the units which receive a level of training unlike any other in the ANA.  And while I won't go sans drawers if I don't have to (ugh, is he still on "commando" references?), I will go sans captions for a bit.  These are a few from the drive out there.  Can you tell how excited this city boy was to be in the country?

OK, one caption...
Who says you can't take a siesta in mid-morning?

One fast and bumpy hour-long ride, which began in Kabul traffic jams and concluded past herds of sheep and deserted villages, got us into the badlands of Logar province and the home base of the commandos.  The billboard above challenges young men to see if they've got what it takes to join the Kung-fu SEAL Ninja Marines known as Commando...or something to that effect.

Three pals from the late 70's...and a yank who was four at the time.

The commanding general is not a colonel but a brid genral, or brigadier (wait - a brigadier general commanding a brigade...hmmm...why didn't we think of that?).  More importantly, he is said to be highly appreciated, respected, even loved by his troops.  My colleagues passed on a couple of anecdotes supporting that.  What struck me the most was his lack of aloofness (his loofness, then?), rare in my albeit limited experience of palling around with Afghan general officers.

The guard among display cased flags is mandatory for garrison HQs...the other guy is standing there for fun.

One of the greatest challenges we face in trying to build a meritocratic army is the entrenched model preferred by too many current senior leaders, a model that will take many years to alter.  The prevailing mindset within the military and other security forces here is that a general is lord and master, to be catered to and tiptoed around, and all others are unworthy of opinion and incapable of independent thought.  It's not confined to just the Afghan army, of course...anyone who has spent enough time in the military has surely seen it exhibited somewhere.  When soldiers and young officers of any nationality see servitude below and excess (or worse, corruption) above, demoralization sets in quickly.  But in the race to train a lasting force, capable and dynamic leaders who earn the respect of their troops must be given the chance to take the helm. 

This bridmal was positively excited to see a Marine on deck - he had attended a USMC drill instructor course.

The mentality of patronage and absolute rule when in positions of authority extends further down the ranks in various forms, and can be exhibited by a dagarwal (colonel) or dagarman (lieutenant colonel) or lower, depending on the situation.  Surely the same turan (captain) or bridman (lieutenant) who is treated like dirt by his superiors on a daily basis learns just one thing -- that he should exhibit the same behavior towards his own bridmalaan (sergeants).  It's an overly hierarchical structure that the trainers of NATO are working tirelessly to break.  Afghan systems are too often centralized to the max in the old Soviet style, rendering junior leaders powerless and concentrating all decision making in the hands of the most senior.  All of this makes it all the more admirable that good soldiers and officers still sign up and still stick around, out of love for their country and a desire to shape the way its armed forces develop.

"Sorry buddy - I'll run the obstacle course with you next time."

A few more scenes from the drive back out, and this brief travelogue will come to a close.  Hopefully I'll have a mission excuse to return and witness some training here.  Advisory positions at the Ministry of Defense may be important for development of the services, but riding a desk all day is no substitute for training a proud new force at the action level in the field.

"Dang it, AfghaniDan, you were told to beat it!"

Plug time, of sorts...for more on the commandos, see this recent story by an outstanding military journalist from NATO Training Mission Afghanistan's PAO.  Til then, don't forget your undies.

Afghan Army grows by more than 900 commandos

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bigwigs & VIPs

Afghan National Army recruiting poster

August 19 was Afghanistan's Independence Day: a fine day to be a friend of the Ministry of Defense, where they hold the largest commemoration of it.  As it turns out, it's a short ceremony...and if you're stuck collecting up weapons and sitting it out because your 'friends' didn't tell you that President Karzai's security detail is calling the shots and won't permit them anywhere nearby -- even on Coalition troops -- well, you just might miss it.  But at least you could still get to see lots of colorfully attired folk mingle on their way out from it!

The grounds of MoD: miles of roses, with TV Hill in the background.

Alas, my mutts Casper & Shaamook are still absent for Ramazan...I hope they've got a second home for the month! So this bomb-sniffing shepherd had to stand in for them on this day.

Those who remember Sesame Street, please sing with me now: "One of these guys just does-n't belong here!"

Standing center group, just to the right of the bold Navy chief in cammies, is Minister Wardak, one of the country's most powerful figures.  The Soviet-style uniforms are something that a lot of us would love to see change.  To many Afghans, they are still indicative of a dark era...and to many Coalition advisors who work to build and modernize an Afghan army, they are too indicative of an overly centralized system of patronage.  There is hope in some honest leaders, including even a few of the old hands, to set things right.  But as with everything, it takes time, and we are racing against a clock...

Yodel time! I didn't get to meet this signore, but something tells me his has got to be a Tyrolean regiment.

Speaking of Soviets, look at this...real live Russians in Afghanistan! Grabbing the opportunity to pose with the Naval Attache and his very KGB-reminiscent cohort, in the unlikeliest of lands.

Another irresistible one for Chief's wall...a pose with a British officer. Naturally, Independence Day is the 91st anniversary of the treaty ending the THIRD Anglo-Afghan war. As I've joked to a few of our allies by now, "Don't you guys ever learn? Now we're mixed up in it!"

"Hey what's going on down the road?"
"I heard AfghaniDan was here, and with a camera!"
"Well, quick - distract him with General Joe Kool and Afghan Obi Wan Kenobe!"  Done. 

Here are a few more, shot by the skillful Davis, who was NOT high on Meow Meow at the time...

Even the top dog has a smile for this guy's lens.

So the unusual couple of days didn't end there.  On Friday the word went out to interested parties to meet with Sen. John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for lunch.  Being neither a resident of Massachusetts nor a current eater of daytime meals, I wasn't initially tempted.  But having never taken up one of these VIP occasions, and interested in doing my part to give visiting government officials the straight scoop on how it's going here, I showed up anyway...

"So YOU'RE the guy writing all those Yankees-bashing posts? Bravo!"
"Thanks, JK! It's in my blood!"

"Did I tell you this guy was a riot, or what?"

The laughter in the photo is honestly baseball-related, as he was glad to meet a Sox fan letting him know the latest standings...something I haven't tracked well myself this deployment, but what can I say -- my bro Paddy and sis Kate do their best to keep me up to speed.  Kerry's first question when he sat down, after politely making the rounds of introductions and filling his plate at the buffet, was where I was we could share the hope that if Boston can't make a miracle run with an injury-decimated team, Tampa Bay can beat out the Yankees for the division.  Hey, I can charm just about anyone.

As the photographer put it, Sen. Kerry makes an "Uh oh" face when the AfghaniDan is talking...

Regardless of one's political leanings (and I know that the entire political spectrum is represented among readers of this blog), you would probably have been impressed at the senator's approach to this lunch.  After the quick baseball bit, he turned to all of us and asked for our honest opinions on how the training effort is going, how the Afghan people are responding lately, and so forth.  It was a candid conversation, and I took the opportunity to share what I hear from my host colleagues regarding pervasive corruption and popular support for the insurgency in places vs. support for the Afghan government.

"Holy cow! This guy is either full of blarney or gunnin' for my seat!"
(Ed. note: I most certainly am, and certainly am not.)

For more on the reasons behind Kerry's sudden visit, see the link below...

Karzai: Anti-corruption units can be independent

(From another story on the Kerry-Karzai meeting came this quote regarding the persistence of corruption at high levels: "It's going to be very, very difficult for us to look American families in the eye and say, 'Hey, that's something worth dying for'.")

An Independence Day banner adorns the trees of the ministry.

For one more glance of Kabul today, here's one that caught the attention of my office.  Hash hound harriers here?  Yep...and one of the humanitarian doctors recently slain in Badakshan was one, sadly.  But they run on...and as one who'd love the freedom to run outside the wire (not to mention, to drink a beer afterward!), I am very envious.

Kabul's frustrated expats run the streets