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...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Where things stand

A photo from my successor, Edward Faircloth. 
December, 2010

Since it seems impossible to avoid the ubiquitous questions about how his removal could/should alter our entire approach in Afghanistan, I feel the need to weigh in again.

It's dissipating already and inevitably of course, this sense of gleeful upheaval in America in the wake of Osama bin Laden's demise.  The few days following that bastard's takedown struck me as ones of tremendous relief and satisfaction for the nation, and for all of humanity.  The celebrations in my old home of New York City were a sight to behold, even from afar...all the weariness of a decade of the (ridiculously named) "War on Terror" or the (more apt but still terribly lame) "Long War" was broken up briefly for a moment of pride and even jubilation.  I understand perfectly well -- I think most of us do -- that it's not following the tenets of compassion and forgiveness to celebrate the killing of anyone, no matter how vile.  But for the good of civilization, he had to go...and we can sincerely hope that it weakens the movement he fronted.

I am bothered by the sobering thought that the other shoe -- the reminder that the fight against al Qaeda, and really any terrorist gang with an axe to grind or a West to blame, must continue -- is yet to drop for most of the jubilant or even relieved.  As for the perspective that the death of bin Laden weakens our case for staying in Afghanistan any longer, I can understand it on its face...if only in terms of logic at its simplest.  We sent our troops in to apprehend or kill those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and to overthrow the Taliban regime which sheltered al Qaeda and refused to turn them over.  But if the era of asymmetrical warfare has taught us anything, it's that things get quickly messy on the ground, and missions grow more complicated each day.  So what began as "Let's go get 'em!" transitioned to "Let's clean up this place" (with far too few troops), to eventually, "Wait, let's build the Afghan capacity to protect and govern themselves so we can eventually excuse ourselves without a failed state back on our hands."  And that's pretty much what we've been working on in earnest and with proper resources for only about two years.  There is a long, LONG way to go to see that through.

With colleagues at the Ministry of Defense, Jan. 2011
These are the type of good men who are targeted by insurgents for trying to build a better Afghanistan rather than a primitive one.

We're mired chest-deep, or maybe scalp-deep, in that mission now.  And I'd guess we're pretty damn far from anything close to a consensus on how much more we're willing to dedicate (whether we're doing that right is another story...more on that another time).  What those who'd automatically shut it down and bring everyone home might wish to consider is that we've left Afghanistan in the lurch before, with serious consequences...and that many commanders and even independent observers insist that we are making progress now ("fragile and reversible gains," but still, gains).  What those who'd continue the rebuilding endlessly might wish to consider is that the number of attacks by Afghans in uniform on Coalition members, or on their government, or on their own civilians, point to a worsening situation.  At the very least, we must be willing to constantly and truly re-evaluate our approach and have the courage to alter it as needed.

One of those incidents took place just two weeks ago at the base located alongside Kabul Airport; eight airmen and one civilian of NTM-A lost their lives when an Afghan pilot opened fire on them.  When attacks this disturbing were far more rare, I was troubled by the overreaction to them by those who didn't work alongside Afghan soldiers...and now I feel instead the helpless reaction from half a world away, wondering how many more our public (those paying attention, anyway) have the stomach for.

Memorial service at Camp Eggers, April 2011
Photo from Edward Faircloth

The week before that, on April 18, a bold attack aimed at the Ministry of Defense made headlines.  It unfolded just a few steps from where I worked most of the time there.  My trusted colleague and friend John was there that day, advising our counterparts in the MoD and Afghan National Army, as was one of our indispensable interpreters, Masoud.  As the news unfolded (it wasn't easy to find in US media), I experienced relief that my guys were alright, sadness that observant Afghan soldiers were killed, worry that the infiltrators got as close as they did to the minister's office, and fear that the will of the opposition -- no matter who that means -- could be greater than that of those who support the government.  It doesn't help that it's awfully hard for fair-minded, patriotic Afghans to support the Karzai & cronies regime.

Anyone wishing to dig deeper into some analysis of why Osama's death is not a game-changer in Afghanistan should read this excellent post by a blogger named Old Blue.  I particularly felt the passage below acutely...

Deceptively Satisfying (on 'Afghan Quest')

Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Osama bin Laden, BIH

"We will be relentless in our defense of our citizens and our friends and allies," President Obama said. "And on nights like this one, we can say to families who lost loved ones to al Qaeda's terror: justice has been done."

First, and most importantly: Bravo Zulu ("well done," for those not of the sea services) and thank you to the Navy SEALS, CIA operators and whoever else took part in, planned and gathered intelligence for the risky covert operation which delivered this enemy of civilization to justice.

The "BIH" in this post's title is in place of the traditional RIP (Rest in Peace).  I'm using it as shorthand for "Burn in Hell."  If you think for a moment of the nearly 3,000 victims of September 11, the sailors of the USS Cole and possibly the families of the Khobar Towers, the hundreds killed in the embassy bombings in Africa, the thousands killed by the Taliban under his financing, the 2,340 service members of 28 nations killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and the 140,000 or so service members there now, half a world from their families (not to mention the thousands of civilians for which I don't have the numbers) was really just one incredibly wealthy, warmongering, murderous Wahhabi "prince" responsible for setting it all in motion.

This is unusual terrain for a writer who tries to relate firsthand experiences, or at least sound off only on that about which he may know something insightful...but as much as everyone who cares about peace and justice has wanted to see Osama's demise for the past decade or more, I remain convinced that this development is mainly symbolic.  That does NOT mean that I dismiss its significance for that reason.  The symbolism that he embodied is still very powerful, and perhaps he was more involved still in al-Qaeda operations than we guessed.  I mean to say that from the perspective of one who has deployed to Afghanistan twice over the past five years, bin Laden has not been relevant to operations there.  He certainly was on my mind back in the aftermath of 9-11-2001, when I lived in the vicinity of New York City as it reeled and then rapidly recovered from the attacks.  And understandably, those in the Fire Department, the Police Department, and the Port Authority Police who were there -- not to mention, anyone at all who lost loved ones that day -- would have thought of the cretin more often.

In short, he may have been why we were there in the first place, but he did not define what we were doing there...not for the past nine years, anyway.

Operation Enduring Freedom, for all intents and purposes, ceased being about catching Osama bin Laden sometime after his escape at Tora Bora in December of 2001.  Fun fact: It was largely because of that particular complex that our nation's talking heads smugly parroted the notion that he was hiding in a cave ever since...while most reasonable analysts have concluded for years was that bin Laden was in a safe house somewhere, and most likely in Pakistan.  And OBL was really never a topic of conversation among those of us serving even near the border, which made it all the more absurd when some visiting journalists would claim to understand an operation and its environment, only to go on camera or go to print immediately speculating about Osama's location as if it had anything to do with the mission at hand.  Now that he's been taken out in the mansion he called his hiding place, we can quit wondering about his health and whereabouts, and maybe -- just maybe -- focus on clarifying what we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan and how we can best go about it.

Today I got to sleep in, then bike for hours into Colorado mountains, then watch my Mets (finally) take out the Phillies after 14 exhausting innings, and during the game, hear the news that bin Laden is dead.  My comrades still in Afghanistan go about their business, as do the tens of thousands on patrol in deadly environments each day.  I wish the big news meant that we can declare "Victory!" and call 'em all back pronto...but again, this fight hasn't been about him since its earliest days.  Still... Good riddance, ruthless murderer.  And keep working to secure a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, brave men and women of the Coalition, and brave Afghans who seek a better future.

"Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." -- President Obama