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, February 29, 2012


For once, I don't know what to say.  I've been dwelling on our future in Afghanistan all month, long before fellow advisors were shot dead in a ministry where I would sometimes work, long before the riots even kicked up.  And now, for what seems like the first time in over ten years, everyone everywhere has something to say...few, of course, know what the hell they're talking about (in my humble opinion).  Some certainly do.  I'll attempt to discuss in a following the post the tragic killings at the Interior Ministry, and the grave fallout from that.

Some background, in case you're just catching up...

Afghanistan Koran protests claim more lives

An Afghan friend asked in an email the very same question that baffled my former comrades as we discussed the incident that triggered it all, the day it became widespread public news... Why would they burn the holy Quran of all things, and if they had to, why on earth would they leave evidence of that for Afghans to see?  This has all been pretty well obscured by everything that has transpired since, as Americans in increasing numbers angrily demand that we leave, now.  But it's so incredibly frustrating.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, has presented such convincing evidence that we just aren't learning a thing, if members of our coalition -- 11 years into this conflict -- order the burning of the population's most sacred relic...and then leave half-charred examples behind for locals to discover.

Some apologists have pointed out the reason for the burnings: detainees were passing inscriptions to each other in the texts.  Well then, handle it delicately...urge Afghan authorities to deal with it appropriately, for example.  And don't claim from the highest levels later that it was inadvertent.  Others have said, "So what? It's just a book! Now people are dying."  That is true...but it belies a grave misunderstanding of how fragile an environment this counterinsurgency presents.  You play the hand you're dealt, and the hand we've been dealt is Afghanistan, with all its immense challenges and sensitivities.  You cannot hope to win over a population when you're found to be burning their Quran...that should have been made 100% crystal clear by now.

Some personal context is relevant here.  When a previously obscure "pastor" named Terry Jones (pardon my cynicism over that title -- he lacks even a degree in theology) decided to make a point by announcing his plans to burn copies of the Quran in 2010, it ignited a round of deadly rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world...just based on the intention of a few radicals in Florida.  He relented then after public pressure from many, including Gen. Petraeus, but then would eventually do it anyway after a "trial" in March 2011, and further mortal riots ensued.  It was evident from my conversations with Afghan colleagues, based solely on the threat, that it mattered little how relatively insignificant this man was and what his rights are in the United States.  What mattered the most to them, as senior military officers and Defense Ministry officials, was how this act would go over with the Afghan people...since it reflected upon US troops, and Afghan government and military by extension, a dark stain of insult to their religion and way of life.  Those perceptions were emphasized over and over throughout that period, by thoughtful and intelligent men who want only stability and progress for their country.

Protestors outside Bagram, eight days ago.

We spoke often, with our counterparts/advisees and within our training command, of the repercussions from Jones's intention, and that's what we were trying to prevent by bitterly opposing 'statements' such as that.  Many in the United States angrily denounced the good general and others who took that stand, in the interest of our protected right to free speech and (I believe) a genuine desire that Afghans would begin to show greater tolerance for viewpoints at odd with theirs.  But it's simply impractical, as those on the ground know too well.  Our mission, at least in my training-focused command, was to build the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and institutions so that they could protect their people and gain their trust.  We were trusted by our colleagues, but the 99.99% of Afghans without international advisors had no one to trust but their family/tribal/religious leaders, who saw a culture in their midst that would burn their holy book.  And regardless of the circumstances, that's what they see now...only it's being done directly by those in uniform.

Meanwhile, the fighting among armed combatants continues, far from the glare of Kabul and the other cities.  This could have (should have) been the story of last week...

Marines sweep uncharted areas of Khan-Neshin during Operation Highland Thunder

Or even better, this could have been it.  It warms a skier's heart, that's for it should the heart of anyone who would like to see a positive sign of peace and stability in Afghanistan...

Afghanistan set to host second national ski race

Friday, February 03, 2012

Groundhog Day: Peace?

Note: I have absolutely no idea what is going on with the spacing and font sizes on  I've tinkered with it endlessly, and what's on my editing screen winds up nothing like what displays.  It should be single-spaced, and in a consistent font you can easily read.  Just know that I'm frustrated...and may need a new template or entirely new hosting site.

This time last year...CO-bound from NC

I continue to look back a bit lately, as almost every date over the past few weeks brought to mind something or other from a year prior.  It's not as if the days of January and early February 2011 were so individually significant once I was stateside and reunited with family and friends, but they're etched in my consciousness as reminders, at least for now.  I think a great deal of the previous year's emotions, observations and frustrations were jammed up, and I was much more interested in enjoying the fruits of a existence uncontained by wire and guard posts than I was in processing that weighty jumble.

Jan '11: happy arrival at BWI with a new old friend

1/31/11: Arapahoe Basin, CO - Hindu Kush with lifts

1/31/11: Skiing = welcome break from the blues

Almost anyone who's been deployed at length, whether on ship or out in remote FOBs, will tell you that Groundhog Day holds a special meaning.  Not Feb. 2nd per se, but the phenomenon that the Bill Murray movie made all too real: the sinking feeling that every single day is merely a repeat of the last.  It's a very STUCK feeling.

As predictability is about the last quality I regularly seek in a routine, I've come to realize that I experience more of that sensation now than I did in Kabul.  The major difference, of course, is that it's within my power to change my current situation, whereas orders are orders, and responsibilities require a certain daily diligence.  It was anything but an ordinary day for me six years ago, when I attended my first memorial service in theater...

AfghaniDan: Farewell to a brave Marine

Rather than a large rodent anyway, I prefer to think of the 2nd of February as the birthday of James Joyce...properly commemorated in my college days with a session of music and reading of passages from the iconic author at a local pub -- to this day I thank you, Dr. Jim Murphy, for that fine tradition.

"There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present."

On to the present... Peace talks.  If you're looking to become seriously baffled by what exactly is taking place -- or about to take place -- or possibly about to potentially take place, in Qatar -- or Saudi Arabia -- or Qatar and Saudi Arabia simultaneously, feel free to continue reading.  Here's a choice quote...

It is also not clear whether the United States would welcome two tracks of talks, especially if it is excluded from one track, though American officials have said often that any negotiations would ultimately have to be “Afghan to Afghan.”

Got that?  It's clear as mud, even by US-Afghan diplomacy standards.

Afghan Officials Consider Own Talks With Taliban

Aref Karimi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Perhaps it feels like Groundhog Day for the Afghan people in the larger scheme of things, with generally a longer view of history and the forces taking shape, despite a much shorter average life span...for it looks to me like a sequel to the devastating civil wars of the 1990's could still take shape unless the will of the people prevent it.  Coalition forces are exiting over the next two years, the reconstituted and confident Taliban enjoys the support of Pakistan's ISI and will almost certainly at least share power, and the former Northern Alliance would like to preserve strong ties with the West but is severely hampered by the rampant corruption associated with it.  Most Afghans say that the public does not want draconian Taliban rule, and I believe they are right, but with a crucial qualifier: given the choice between Sharia-backed law and order and unchecked corruption, I believe the rural majority currently fence-sitting will choose the former once again...and in a land where 75% of the population lives in rural areas (wait, that's a utopian's dream, right?), that's enough to force at least a split if not a tragic re-run.

While I don't take every word of what I've read from the report at face value (and neither should you, for reasons laid out in the article), it would be foolhardy to dismiss it entirely.  Brig. General Jacobson's cautions are relevant -- this is largely the perspective of the recently-detained being interrogated, and there are likely various motives for saying what they say -- but to then add this comment could strike the public as being very...inflexible.  

"No reason for ISAF or the Coalition to believe that there is anything to be changed."

Excerpts from the report itself can be found in the link below...I think it's an important enough compilation to peruse.  You may notice that I did something below against my inclination toward complete editing integrity, and changed the BBC's capitalization manipulation of NATO.  I'm sorry, BBC...yes, you're English and all, and should be the authority on this, but it's not "Nato" and it's not "Isaf", which turns them into what could be mistaken as Finnish and Algerian first names, respectively (no offense to either culture).  They are organizational proper names, in all capitals.  I'm waving the American flag and not relenting on this one.

A more optimistic view of prospects for peace is espoused by Yahya Massoud, brother of the late national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud.  It's worth a read for its insight and advised course of action, though I'm afraid that a key component of his approach involves a robust ISAF presence locking down the border with Pakistan -- something that increasingly looks to be unavailable as an option, as Coalition troops depart and turn over areas to Afghan security forces.

This passage in particular stood out, as it falls within my former 'lane'...

So far, the government has missed an opportunity to use the media to advertise the Taliban's shortcomings and rally its supporters in popular protests against the insurgency. The voice of the people must be heard on this matter. Media, civil society, and local leaders should open channels to express popular resentment against the Taliban -- and ISAF and the Afghan security forces should publicly commit to ensuring their safety when they undertake these efforts.

I believe he has a good point, in that the government (starting at the very top) can do much more to criticize the Taliban and rally the opposition...but that's the intent of a government looking to strike a deal with that opposition.  There, clearly, is the divide between President Karzai and his former allies.  Resentment of the movement is expressed by other officials more often, most notably the Ministries of Defense and the Interior, but their orders come directly from the presidential palace too.  The problem with ISAF committing to ensuring safety of leaders down to the local level is that it's foolhardy to make promises that can't be kept, and too much of that has happened already.  Despite the best of intentions and the most diligent of security, breaches happen and informing happens...too much, in some quarters.

A closing excerpt, also from brother Massoud, serves as a poignant reminder to those who -- in the interest of peace, withdrawal or general naivete -- believe that a kinder, gentler Taliban is upon us...

Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country's history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.