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...

Saturday, March 31, 2012

No one is safe

Ministry of the Interior, Kabul...where two advisors were murdered.

That is hyperbole, dear readers.  Most of our men and women in uniform, and those in civilian roles, are plenty safe...a lot safer than they'd be in some neighborhoods in our own country.  Those inside the wire, at large and secure bases -- which is something like 90% -- stand little chance of coming under any form of attack.  So this is not about them, and it's not about the trigger-pullers who've shouldered the lion's share of risk all along.  This is about the advisors, those from NTM-A and elsewhere throughout ISAF who are tasked with partnering with Afghan counterparts in order to get the job done.  And the job is nothing short of leaving a self-sufficient military and police force in place throughout one of the most volatile, unstable places on Earth.

Two American officers were shot dead at close range in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry on Saturday, a U.S. official said, as rage gripped the country for a fifth day... (Feb. 25, 2012)

The Afghan Defense Ministry went into a near-total lockdown on Tuesday after the discovery of 10 suicide vests and the arrests of more than a dozen Afghan soldiers suspected of plotting to attack the ministry... (March 27, 2012)

What's next?  Those on the job can't worry about that, despite the fact that Kabul seems to grow dicier every day.  The brass are attempting to mitigate the risk, by protecting advisors with assigned "guardian angels" who will watch their backs.  But I keep thinking back to two fellow advisors who were shot in cold blood at the Ministry of the Interior, in a building I often visited as one of my duties.  What would have prevented one of the ubiquitous guards from doing that, short of our treating a routine meeting like clearing a hostile building, sweeping rooms in full kit with rifle barrel first?  

June 2010: The then-peaceful grounds of MoI

An eager new guard we knew...would you trust him now?

I think now of the Ministry of Defense, to which I walked literally every day and sat for chai with my colleagues.  The morning routine was to squeeze into the office in which a dozen or so Afghan officers and soldiers would already be packed, to be offered a chair at their insistence (accepted only after the due amount of refusal), and to exchange pleasantries and small talk for a while before getting down to business.  Can I imagine that routine with a couple of armored-up soldiers crammed in there too, staring down the collection of guys in suits?  Or the more spacious sessions with Maj. Gen. Azimi?  No way.  In fact, when a few officers from another command joined us at meetings there, wearing their full battle rattle, it was all we could do to keep from busting up laughing...that was the security situation at the time.  But these days, if the presence of an "angel" or two will help prevent a rogue ANA soldier from spraying an AK-47 or detonating a suicide vest, then sure...I get it.  It just sucks.

Insurgents, meet Maj. Daoud.  You're not getting past him.

This is just one piece of an ugly trend, the murdering of Coalition troops by Afghan security forces.  Some argue that it's not a trend, but it's officially the second-highest cause of death for our comrades so far this year.  It's one hell of a successful tactic for an insurgency, and not a new one.  In some cases, the bad guys just luck out, reaping the benefit when an argument spins out of control, compounded by vast cultural barriers, resulting in a shooting.  That may be what happened earlier this week, when a pair of British troops were killed while on guard duty by an ANA officer.  Even when such tragic incidents weren't as common, we'd discuss and debate the 'end game' is it possible to equip and train a force of almost 300,000 new guys without taking on the chance that an occasional insurgent (or just a fed-up, stressed-out, ready-to-snap Afghan soldier) will get trigger-happy when your back is turned?  I guess by now we know that you can't.  And I just hope the trend doesn't continue.

And I wonder if the new MoD HQ ever got built...

In my initial posting of this, the not-even-wee-anymore hours of this morning, I neglected to include a note about the bravery of Spec. Dennis Weichel, and more surprisingly, the coverage of it.  If you're unfamiliar, Weichel was killed while rescuing an Afghan child from a gruesome fate, pushing him out of the way of a rolling military vehicle.  His story went viral by way of a Facebook tribute from his friends, and then the usually anonymous nature of 'cause of death' became public lore seemingly overnight.  The governor of his home state of Rhode Island was even there today to greet him on his final journey home.  To me, that is testament to the power of our rapidly-evolving information age: the groundswell of emotion once the story was out forced the more mainstream forms of media into coverage.  It's a more useful method all around than attempting to guilt people into it by way of a 'Whitney Houston vs. noble service members' comparison, which really goes nowhere.

For more on Spec. Weichel, and on the routine-yet-heroic actions of a medical unit in Paktika province, see the link below.  Our field hospitals and the daily work they do, almost always treating Afghans, and the crews who transport the injured, the sick and the dying, are some of the strongest recurring examples of the goodwill our men and women do sow...a rare chance to set aside the politics of 'why' and 'should' in order to see the best of humanity...

Good Deeds in Afghanistan Interrupt the Grim Narrative

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fallout from the massacre

[Ed. note: This was actually put together two weeks ago, as the date implies - it just didn't post until 3/31 because once again I was trying to align/fix messed-up no avail, as you can see. Sorry.]

Karzai asks NATO to leave Afghan villages

...the headlines scream.  Various press accounts state that according to President Karzai, "international security forces have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to (larger) bases" since "all efforts have to be done to avoid such incidents in the future."

Protesters in Jalalabad (AFP/Getty Images)

This is of course due to the biggest shit sandwich yet, one I haven't yet written about: the bloody rampage of an apparently unhinged American soldier, who slaughtered 16 civilians in their Kandahar homes on Sunday.  The news of the rampage sickened everyone who heard about it, and it outraged much of Afghanistan's didn't take much awareness to realize immediately, even half a world away, how strategically significant a setback this could be.  Of course at the same time, Karzai's response angers me, reminding anyone paying attention that his words and actions are always -- ALWAYS -- those of an opportunistic politician: "The massacre hurt the trust Afghans had in foreign forces." 

So his solution is to vacate the towns and villages.

True enough about trust taking a hit, but reverting to the unsuccessful feudal-colonial system of imposing security from only behind massive fortresses will rebuild that trust?  That is ridiculous.  One of the great failings of this entire counterinsurgency strategy was the amount to which that very approach dictated troop employment and operations for years, thereby sequestering the (menacing, sci-fi-looking, giant) Americans and their allies from the people who needed to get to know us and trust us...thereby surrendering the true battlefield -- the population centers -- to the enemy.  

July 2010: Women in a village outside Kabul

Karzai is doing what he always does in these situations: he's biding his time while gauging the lasting impact of the calamity of the moment, and then acting to personally capitalize on it.  ISAF is doing what it actually does a better job of lately: immediately and profusely apologizing, though to little avail since anger over the Quran burnings remains at a high level.  And the rest of us are trying to comprehend how one soldier can walk solo off an outpost and without an official mission, and how he can snuff out the lives of women and children whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jalalabad again: more protests (AP Photo)

It's an irresponsible practice to speculate as to what went on in the head of Staff Sgt. Bales.  Just as it's irresponsible of columnists in the United States and elsewhere, sitting safely and comfortably in their homes and offices, to deduce that it's the deployment cycle that did this.  Correct me if I'm wrong here, but at last count over 100,000 of our uniformed military have deployed three or more times without incident in this Long War.  So let's not chalk up the seemingly psychotic actions of a soldier who may or may not have just "snapped" to the fact that he was on deployment #4, or that he was exacting an irrational revenge because a buddy lost a leg previously.  The experts exhibit a collective shrug on the issue...which is worrisome.

“I think it’s definitely disappointing that we don’t know. I wish we did,” says retired Navy captain William Nash, a psychiatrist studying resiliency in Marine battalions.

Multiple deployments’ effects unknown on troops

I'm worried, as many are, about the effect this will have on trust (there's that word again).  Not just the larger trust referenced above -- that which the people must place in forces deployed far from home to protect them -- but more specifically, the mutual trust between Afghan security forces and their ISAF advisors.  Whether it's the team of colonels and civilians advising the Minister of Defense or the fire team of Marine NCO's imparting driving lessons to a platoon of green Afghan National Army soldiers, there must be a bond stronger than mere understanding.  There must be a belief that the other party is also risking something, and for the right reasons...and a conviction that you're on the same side.