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...

Friday, July 22, 2011


July '11: Never far from Afghan-looking rocks in Boulder

I mulled over this post's name for awhile, trying in vain to arrive at a title/theme that described in some way both Afghanistan's current state and my own.  In the land that time forgot, the situation is ever-changing, while my post-deployment life is still stagnant in a professional sense.  Working for peace and stability in Kabul was purposeful and in the national and international interest, but the idea of replicating that significance in anything stateside is something I find exceedingly difficult, to say the least.  I stubbornly want to live in my (still recently) adopted home of Colorado, but haven't made progress towards reconciling those desires of what I personally consider satisfying employment and ideal environment.  Perhaps the shadow of impact and interaction in Afghanistan does stalk me again, as it did for much of the time between 2006 and 2010.

Karzai's "surrogate father," Jan Mohammad Khan

In Afghanistan's power circles, it must be President Karzai and his senior allies sensing the shadows creeping closer.  Closely following the assassination of his brother in Kandahar came the killing this week in Kabul of his longtime mentor and power broker in Uruzgan province, Jan Mohammad Khan.  While the headline and premise of the story below may at least border on the sensational, it does seem that Karzai is becoming further isolated all the time...a trend that has tended to result in his reaching out to Pakistan and even "soft" Taliban with increasing frequency.  You don't achieve lofty positions without making enemies, and in Afghanistan it is a particularly lethal wrath you often sow...for the cagiest, the name of the game is survival.  As for its impact on the national psyche (and by extension, our goals there), I can't say it any better than my friend and former director Dave did:

Another old-timer killed. Conventional wisdom is that the Taliban will lay low until the completion of the American withdrawal. I disagree. The next 18 months will be far more violent than the last. Tighter rules of engagement will reduce American losses, meaning that the violence will be off most American's radar, but Afghan civilians, soldiers, and police will suffer greatly.

Afghanistan government under threat after second assassination in a week

LtCol Qahar addresses regional police PAOs in Balkh province
(Qahar is an old friend of mine from the Defense Ministry)

All over Afghanistan there still remain stories of progress among the security forces: new achievements and strengthening capabilities all the time.  The great question, of course and as always, is how much time is needed...and how much we as a Coalition are willing to spare.  I was pleased to read this week about a milestone in the north, which you can read about below.  Particularly meaningful to me was the role of LtCol Abdul Qahar, in uniform in the photo above, since I recall the day he learned he was to be designated the new Public Affairs Officer for the Afghan National Army's 209th Corps, located in Mazar-e-Sharif.  Wishing him, his soldiers, and the advisors/mentors who work with them daily, the very best as the transition train rolls on.

“We need to send one message to all Afghan people,” said Qahar, through an interpreter. “We need to show people our joint effort in the transition [of the country’s security to the ANSF].”

ANA hosts first northern public affairs conference

One aspect of our Afghan effort that never fails to amaze me is the quality of individuals we have in so many crucial roles.  Attached below is a story that highlights the kind of extraordinary service member who exemplifies sacrifice and dedication.  From a tenured position as a Long Island high school teacher to a Navy corpsman taking care of Marines in volatile Helmand province, Darryl St. George's story is one worth reading (for more, you can click on the 'Morning Edition' audio clip at the top of the web page).  Jarheads find reasons every day to appreciate the "docs" in their midst who provide care...and St. George is clearly one who returns that appreciation for the trigger pullers.

"I couldn't think of being with a better group of guys than these Marines. They've got more heart than anybody I've ever met," he says.

NPR: A Teacher Leaves The Classroom For Afghanistan

On a lighter note, I enjoyed this item sent to me by a friend in Kabul, and thought it worth sharing.  Some of these points I've covered before or at least touched on (particularly those referring to food and culture, of course -- and the only proper use of "Afghani"), but it's an interesting and informative look at some of the distinctions that many Afghans eagerly point out, should you have the opportunity to gain their friendship and conversation.  Until next time, then...

BBC: Ten facts you may not know about Afghanistan

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Other Karzai

Elders meet with Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar, 2009
(photo via the New York Times)

Despite the relative lick of attention it received in the United States, the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar yesterday was an extremely significant development in Afghanistan.  By all accounts, Karzai was essentially the uncrowned King of Kandahar, head of the provincial council and known as "Mr. Fix It."  He seemed to have his hands in everything that took place in southern Afghanistan -- much of the crucial 'Pashtun belt' -- and was alleged by many to be profiting handsomely from the drug trade as well as other lucrative illegal enterprises.  Technically a staunch ally of the NATO-led Coalition, his forces nonetheless served his best interests, it was often said.  Most importantly, he delivered whatever his brother (President Karzai) needed in Kandahar, and the head of state reciprocated by allegedly protecting him and his businesses.

The problem, of course, is "What now?"  As I wrote in a quick note when posting the link to Facebook, it is often said that nature abhors a vacuum.  Those who seek to reach their goals through fomenting instability and violence, however, love one.  And this killing will almost certainly create a power struggle or struggles as various families, tribes, gangs and consortiums fight for the pieces of AWK's empire.  It's not going to be pretty.  I remember hearing what a problem it presented to have the president's own brother profiting from all he did and essentially running the south with impunity...but I don't recall hearing any realistic alternative solutions, unfortunately.

NYT: Half Brother of Afghan President Is Killed in Kandahar


"Sure, you would like to shake the hand of the Navy SEAL who capped Osama bin Laden. But you have a lot more riding on whether Lt. Gen. William Caldwell’s mission is successful."

A well-written piece in the Marine Corps Times last week focused on my most recent command, NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, and its commanding general.  The article highlights the immense challenges facing the command, the differing political views (here in the States and among allies) on its viability, and most gratifying to those of us who've served it, the tremendous importance of the mission -- given our nation's stated goal of leaving behind a "good enough" government backed by a capable Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.  Although troops all over the country can find themselves in mentoring roles, it is on this relatively small training command (only 2-3% of ISAF as of last year) that the 'main effort' really hinges...transition is the name of the game, and NTM-A has the ball on it.

Lt. Gen. Caldwell takes command of NTM-A, Nov. '09

MC Times: Caldwell aims to build up Afghan forces

Finally, I wrote of my younger brother Steve in my last post, currently deployed as a 2LT in the Army.  This is a fitting time to mention my older brother, former LCDR Patrick (aka Slappy), US Navy.  He celebrates 40 years of livin' today, and set the example for me to try to emulate as an officer and a leader.  I would say gentleman too, but I don't want him to suffer flashbacks of Lou Gossett Jr. terrorizing him as he tried out for the Navy.  Happy birthday, brother!

As a sobering reminder of how long four decades can actually be, this is a photo titled "Kabul, 1970" which I've seen on a few internet archives.  It's unfathomable for anyone who knows the city now...

Friday, July 01, 2011

Big changes afoot...

"There will be some battles, there will be suicide attacks, and bomb attacks. But we in the Afghan forces are prepared to replace the foreign forces and I'm confident the army has enough capacity and ability."
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, on the coming transition period. 

Reuters, 6-29-2011: Smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel

Within one week of that statement by my dear colleague Gen. Azimi, known to you who've followed along as Spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, came the latest test of that resolve -- an assault on Kabul's iconic Intercontinental Hotel this past Tuesday.  The link below provides details, most troubling of which may be the accounts by witnesses of some police fleeing the scene rather than fighting the insurgents.  As always, I caution those trying to understand the security situation there to separate army from police, a practice made all the more difficult by the insistence of the training command responsible for their collective development to lump them together into a vague "Afghan National Security Force" category.  As we often pointed out in my office, we are not the "Armed Force" of the United States, and that doesn't even take into account law why we foist a strange term on their makeup of security forces is beyond me.

Afghan Taliban sends message with hotel attack

More significant than the most recent attack, though, is the drastic change in war -- er, counterterrorism -- policy just announced by our administration in the US.  If the early speculation is correct, it amounts to a complete and total re-imagining of how we plan to combat our sworn enemies in the not-too-distant future.  My initial reaction is that limiting our effort, at least in Afghanistan, to strikes of a "targeted, surgical" nature appeals to most of the American public (at least those aware that we are at war) who are weary of a long conflict and its costs and sacrifice, and to a largely risk-averse leadership anxious to see fewer Americans return in coffins.  My concern, however, is that abandoning an approach of more carrot than stick will greatly fray the trust between coalition members and the Afghans...the very trust desperately needed to obtain intelligence that will deliver 'enemies of Afghanistan' to justice, rather than settle old feuds between families or tribes.  The fewer boots we have on the ground (both military and civilian), the harder it is to tell when we are being played by one side or another.

White House unveils retooled plan to hunt al-Qaida

I'll say it a million times if I have to...beyond a core group which mainly hides safely in Pakistan, the Taliban today is not one cohesive entity, as it's often thought of and may once have been.  It's often a moniker of convenience, more akin to a collective term for an array of those who have an interest in bringing down the Afghan government or taking over regional control, whether it's fundamentalists in the South, arms dealers on the Pakistan border in the East, or Uzbek separatists in the Northwest, or any other insurgent group.  It takes a great deal of conversation on the ground by many participants, leading to long relationships built among the community's influencers, to sort out who is who and what the various agendas really are. While this report focuses on al Qaeda, its implementation in Afghanistan specifically may mean what many of us someday expected: A pull back from nation-building and a reborn reliance upon 'light-footprint' death from above.

The big lurking question is, again, how ready are the Afghan military and police forces for vastly increased responsibility?  The answer, I'm afraid, is not very.  As I observed back in 2006, it will take generations of effort to stand a chance of leaving a nation capable of fending off takeovers from within and from its often-nefarious neighbors.  Abandoning that, while perhaps necessary from our national self-interest, will most likely have dire consequences for its survivability and the protection of its women and minorities...and that should at least be acknowledged by those making the decisions.

NCO graduation ceremony, Camp Ghazi - Oct '10

Another point worth mentioning is that TRANSITION is so much more than just training forces to ably fight the enemy.  It is everything imaginable, from introducing basic hygienic practices to the slaughterhouses which feed the army to teaching handyman maintenance to unskilled workers.  It is rudimentary literacy training (as often detailed), not to mention administration, communication, logistics, etc...the list goes on.  A recent story from NTM-A highlights how early in that process we still are, at this point in time.

Coalition plans first building transition to Afghans

That must be the clearest day ever in dusty Kandahar

On an entirely different subject, this week marks my younger brother's deployment to the Middle East as a 2nd Lt in the Army, and I couldn't be prouder of Steve.  He's mature beyond his age, and he'll need it as a platoon leader taking on various training missions in a few different countries.  It's a strange feeling being on the other end of a deployment in the family for the first time in many's not me off to parts unknown, it's the kid who arrived when I was beginning high school!  If he manages to blog on his experiences, I'll certainly link to it...he's in for an interesting adventure over the next year.

Jan '11 - Year of transition for our family, too

Last year at this time, I wrote of how I better be doing something special for the Summer Solstice, and visiting him during his last days before leaving Fort Lewis was exactly that.  In fact, we caught the legendary Solstice Parade in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, and then ushered in the longest day of the year with in Olympia (WA) with my good friend from NTM-A, Chief Gordon.  There are worse ways to greet the Summer than catching up with an outstanding leader over delicious craft brews and standout bluegrass music while wishing my brother a safe and successful deployment.  As our dad is fond of saying...Vaya con Dios, hermano!

Crusty major & fresh-faced lieutenant - Seattle, June '11

Good times in the Pacific NW w-Chief Gordon

April 2011 - Reuniting with my director Dave Beeksma in LA.
The highly inappropriate backdrop for two Afghan hands was my idea.

Just because...