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, November 18, 2011

Tidbits from The Front

Northern France, 1917

Although where is "The Front" these days, anyway?  I'm glad you asked (didn't you?).  It's a topic with which most current military members are familiar, but the general public, not so much.

As far as I can tell, the term was popularized in the American consciousness back in World War I, when trench warfare produced very clearly defined lines of battle.  Those obvious front lines and rear areas generally continued through the Korean "police action" (we technically stopped calling them wars then), and progressively got more muddled with each conflict involving the United States.  In every case, there has always been at least some action that defied the designated battle lines, but by now it has become gospel that there is no rear area.  Soldiers and Marines who are regularly engaged in combat with insurgents in the south and east of Afghanistan may dispute that, with good reason...because regionally, there still often are.  But this year's spate of attacks in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere demonstrate that in a counterinsurgency, lines are rendered largely meaningless.

I find it difficult to get this point across to civilians who routinely ask, "Were you on the front lines?" or absolve me of such danger with, "At least you weren't at the front."  Believe me, I'm grateful that I wasn't on patrol in Sangin...but that doesn't mean that my risks were nil while a fobbit at Camp Leatherneck or especially Kandahar Air Field was in mortal danger.  Some who reside at Camp Eggers or the embassy are routinely out and about with officials (both Afghan and Coalition) whom the enemy consider to be high-value targets.  The Front is all relative.  And in the case of my headline today, it simply means Afghanistan.

Somewhat refuting my case, as I mentioned already, is the experience of those troops in the hot zones of the country, since physical lines of battle do still exist in places.  Here is an example of one in Kunar province, where I participated in operations five years ago and where our footprint (and unfortunately, that of the Afghan National Army) is now much-reduced...

It is a part of Afghanistan so isolated that when the Second Battalion, 27th Infantry arrived here from Hawaii in April, villagers thought they were Russian soldiers. The road serves as the region’s unofficial border with Pakistan: from its eastern side the Taliban influence politics in local villages and use mountain footpaths to bring weapons in from the wild tribal areas. American and Afghan security forces operate largely from the west.

I can't find if I wrote about it on this blog back then, but some Marines from 1/3 (ironically, also stationed in Hawaii) encountered the same confused reaction when we sat with village elders during Operation Mountain Lion in 2006.  We found it incredulous then that so little was known about the world beyond the Pech Valley, especially of what had taken place in Afghanistan...I suppose it's even more incredulous now.

Still, the training continues by the men and women of our armed forces and those of a couple dozen allies, in the hope that Afghan security forces can take the lead in providing national security.  Below is one encouraging story for those who believe change is possible even in the most stubborn places.  The bravery of these women who join Afghanistan's security forces never fails to amaze me.

“Day to day, for women in Afghanistan, Taliban are a big threat to them. I don’t care about the Taliban. My God is with me.”

Now, a two-parter to follow that left me shaking my head...

One thing many service members can agree on, whether they risk life and limb daily in remote combat outposts or rarely leave built-up bases, is that the regular presence of a friendly dog or cat can boost morale tremendously.  It's even more crucial for the former, since the canines "adopted" by troops often detect deadly danger out of service to their masters, and the felines control rodent populations of inviting FOBs.  Even in Kabul, regularly feeding my Casper and her brother gave me something to look forward to each day, as I often wrote...and leaving them was bittersweet, especially just as she had given birth to a litter.  This scene described is absolutely heartwarming, bringing me back to that bond and giving me even greater respect for the true dogs of war who willingly sacrifice their safety for the warriors who take them in.

The irony here is that only a few days ago, our Department of Defense (through the Army and the Marine Corps) made it even more official that no contact with animals is permitted over there, due to the death of a U.S. Army soldier who'd earlier contracted rabies.  The policy was already in place; it was just loosely enforced in many spots due to the aforementioned tradeoffs of keeping pets.  My feeling is that while his death was tragic, it was avoidable, and the knee-jerk reaction will cause more harm than good...these dogs obviously provide desperately needed love and support to their adopters.  Just get freakin' tested and re-tested if you get bitten or suspect any other transmitted illness...a little leadership can enforce that.

Finally, there's this item.  I'd caution against interpreting it as anything more than it is (and surveys are notoriously unreliable especially in Afghanistan), but it represents hope -- maybe significant hope -- that the people will resist a return to Taliban rule in the future...

A survey released Tuesday by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation and funded in part by the U.S. government found that 82 percent of Afghan adults back reconciliation and reintegration efforts with insurgent groups. However, it said that the number of people who said they sympathized with the aims of Taliban had dropped to 29 percent compared with 40 percent last year and 56 percent in 2009.

AP photo / Musadeq Sadeq, via

Once again, incidentally, the only noteworthy coverage of the traditional Loya Jirga currently taking place in Kabul is of the failed rocket attack two days ago.  FAILED being the operative word there.  One errantly struck a market a half-mile away, wounding one, and the other was even farther from the mark.  While news is news, wouldn't it be more responsible of the press to report half as stridently on what's taking place inside the tent, and maybe of the strategic context in which it's taking place?