The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

YA DON'T |

June 29, 2010

YA DON'T
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 6/29/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA

Framed Smenos Bermal valley Long before my days as an air force officer, my attitude was shaped by a couple of things my dad liked to say. For example, the famous cautionary, "Ya don't tug on Superman's cape, ya don't spit in the wind, ya don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger (who?)..." and so on. Years later, after some real-life experiences of my own, I would like to add the following: "Ya don't engage in a protracted counterinsurgency in Afghanistan."

A few years ago, as a deployed operations officer supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, I served in the eastern part of Afghanistan for about a year. It was one of the most difficult experiences in my life. Planning missions with little or no solid intelligence, working every day beside flakey Afghan foot-soldiers, and placating corrupt and greedy Afghan officers, it was hard to quantify progress, or even common purpose, in the day-to-day struggle to be everywhere at once in that desolate, war-torn, corner of nowhere. During some of those soggy, cold, disappointing nights, at war using intelligence qualified by the word "maybe," and uncertain on whom we could rely, many of my fellows and I often resorted to a steady stream of colorful, creative complaint and criticism aimed at anyone or anything that could be even remotely tied to our suffering. 

This kind of commentary often drew a laugh, or at least a grin, from our permanently sour faces, and helped to ease the emotional burden of such a seemingly thankless effort. I'll never forget one particular night in our ops center, during which one of the convoys we were monitoring was attempting to breach the walls of a far away qalat. This structure was suspected of housing heavily armed and dangerous anti-coalition militia forces. The men we had on the ground for that mission were all quite young, several fresh out of basic training, very few with any combat experience at all. 

Meanwhile, nearby, a fort full of veteran "allied" soldiers sat playing World of Warcraft over a US-supplied Ethernet connection. Though we all knew those idle hands betraying that evening's death-defying mission were more than capable and completely available to assist in subduing a very real threat to our security, a poor structure of communication channels and a non-existent chain of command made it impossible for the mission planners to reliably call upon any allied support at all. Those "night-elf bitches," as we referred to our allied brothers-in-arms, in bitter jest to one another, were simply no-shows in a war they considered to be "not their problem." This was simply unacceptable, and yet there was nothing we could do about it. So, we carried on alone, and complained a lot. Is that so hard to understand? 

(For those who might be curious, that night's mission was a success. However, in my opinion, it was at too high a cost of precious blood, effort and much-needed equipment.) 

I can easily sympathize with similar frustrated rhetoric from others. Now when I did it, I had the advantage of not being within ear-shot of a reporter from a major US magazine. (Oops). When I did it, I was a nobody whispering nothings to no one in particular. And that sad anonymity was the price I paid for the freedom to criticize others in such a hostile manner. When I did it, I was not the senior military officer representing the US presence in the Afghan war. When I did it, it didn't matter. 

The recent statements expressing well-earned and justifiable frustration made by General McChrystal and recorded in Rolling Stone magazine, regarding his difficulty with US and allied leadership in Afghanistan and abroad, seem to have struck a nerve with our sensitive citizenry, many of whom, while US and allied forces fought for their freedom, were at the mall trying to decipher their "sleep number," or at home "jail-breaking" their iPhones.  To these "victims," so appalled after TiVo-ing Chris Matthews or Sean Hannity, I would offer the perspective of someone who understands the cathartic need for sardonic humor in the face of crushing adversity. 

There is a difference between insubordination and the expression of opinion. It could be said our nation was, in part, founded upon this principle. And if anyone has earned the right to a patient differentiation between the two, it is our men and women in uniform. It seems fairly obvious that a public figure such as a general is not allowed to speak his mind to such a degree, even to utter heartfelt frustrations related to an ongoing war to which there appears to be no end in sight. That is a sad, but likely necessary, fact of life. Though my sympathy for McChrystal is hard won and true, I am again forced to recall another of my father's sayings, upon which I often reflect when feeling insubordinate or fed up: "You don't have to like it, but you do have to do it." 

Man, I hated that one. My father's immovable and unchallengeable edict, evoking the very core of personal responsibility, has echoed through me during many unhappy moments in life. It has always interested me the way my father's first axiom seemed to dovetail so well with this second bit of wisdom. As if to say, if you do engage in unwise behavior, it is now your duty to see it through to the conclusion, regardless of how undesireable that path may seem to you. So, now that the insatiable hunger of a bloated blogosphere has been awakened by the leaked private comments of one of the most besieged men on Earth, leading to his resignation and the appointment of the honorable General Petraeus in his stead, what now? Perhaps this "scandal" better serves as a jumping off point for some much-needed redress of a calamitous situation. 

Yet another solid principle to which I was exposed while serving in the US Air Force was "Don't criticize until you can suggest a solution." Perhaps the reason why so many Americans are disappointed in the recent comments by the General is that much of the current counterinsurgency strategy was his idea. An idea to which Congress committed another 30,000 American troops, while facing increased disagreement and condemnation from our coalition allies. It's not hard to understand the world's mistrust in Afghanistan's leaders. President Karzai is often said to have toyed with the idea of reuniting with the Taliban. Our other "ally" in the region, Pakistan, doesn't provide much encouragement either, especially when people face the fact that the Taliban itself was originally a Pakistani concept. 

Not to bore anyone with an amateur history lesson but Pakistan gave birth to the Taliban, as students of Sharia law, many of whom were displaced Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion, trained in Pakistani madrassas and sought to reclaim their home from a hostile attacker. Many Afghans had remained behind to fight the Russians, and were, coincidentally, trained to do so in large part by the previous incarnations of George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and contributed to the formation of the earliest components of what we now know as Al Qaeda. Yet as it stands, we act as if we share a common purpose with Pakistan, and not as if they are politically, and perhaps directly, related to those we seek most to defeat.

Another quick war story: I remember standing on a promontory in the eastern part of Afghanistan, known as Bermal. My companion was a Lieutenant Colonel from a Marine Corps reserve component under whom I served as part of the joint task force. He pointed east to distant settlements on the horizon, telling me he had strong suspicions that they housed and trained anti-coalition forces working for the Taliban. As I observed his imposing armored figure, bristling with frag grenades, knife handles and ammo belts, I asked him why we didn't just plan a mission for his Marines and go get the bad guys. At this, he indicated the ground at our feet and said, "This is the Pakistan border, son. We can't touch 'em. They might as well be on Mars."

In light of our contradictory relationship with Pakistan, it might behoove the US to consider another option in the region for support against the fundamentalist wing of the Islamic community, namely our ally and partner India. In India we might find a largely secular and pro-West ally interested in a similar vision for the region, and one who is ready and willing to assist. Such an evolution would require great patience, flexibility and diplomacy along with a renewed will to contain the terror-exporting industry of nihilistic madmen in an underdeveloped corner of the world. It wouldn't be easy, but it might actually yield results. There are many Americans who will not like this plan There are many who will grumble and complain. Pop-culture magazines will have no shortage of counter-arguments, complete with ill-advised criticisms of leaders and allies. It's impossible to please everyone, that's America.

But they don't have to like it, they just have to do it. Thanks, Dad.

Editor's note:   Matt Smenos was a frequent early contributor to this site during 2006-2007.  His numerous posts include DOHA, I DREAM OF DJINNI, OLD SCHOOL, LATE-WATCH DUTY, MAHN, SIGNS and WHEN MATT GETS HOME, some of which were included in the Sandbox book.

ARE YOU SETTLED? |

June 25, 2010

ARE YOU SETTLED?
Name: Andi
Posting date: 6/25/10
Spouse: Returned from Deployment April 2010
Milblog: Spousebuzz

It seems with military life, we're always "settling." I don't mean settling in the "settling for less" way. I mean settling in the sense that military life is ever-changing. Military families are always moving and settling in a new house and a new community. Settling into new friendships and relationships. Our spouses are often gone for lengthy periods of time so we settle into a routine when they leave. And when they return, we settle into another routine.

Settling. We do a lot of that.

SpouseBUZZ LIVE is an event for military spouses, a day to bond with one another and discuss our lives as military spouses. At our very first SpouseBUZZ LIVE event in Killeen, Texas several years ago, we featured a panel which focused on the emotional part of military life; combat deployments, reintegration, etc. Young spouses lined up in droves at the microphone. Some simply wanted to be heard. They spoke of crackling phone calls from the FOB which were interrupted by incoming mortar rounds. Phone calls are generally rare and cherished during a combat deployment, but these sorts of calls left the spouses feeling helpless and afraid. 

Others sought advice. Do you really tell your spouse what’s going on at home if it’s bad and there’s nothing he can do about it? There wasn't a dry eye in the house and the collective, “I hear ya, sista” support was palpable. This went on for quite some time and we finally had to end the session because we simply ran out of time. The next few events followed much the same pattern. Spouses yearned to talk about the tough stuff.

After each event, we send surveys to attendees and ask their opinions about the program to see how we can improve it. Over the past year or so, I've seen a trend develop, both with the surveys and in person at the events. Spouses aren't nearly as focused on the emotional aspect of military life. They want to laugh. They want to be entertained. They want to bond. But they don't ask many questions or offer many stories about the harder side of military life. And when they do, it’s generally presented in a humorous way.  Granted, this is not a scientific study and to be fair, we’re talking about a five-hour event that takes place a few times a year. But, there has certainly been a sea change, at least with these events. This is interesting to me.

The military community had to pivot overnight after September 11. Combat deployments became the rule and not the exception. Pre-9/11 spouses had to adapt to an entirely new way of life. Newer spouses married into a military fighting two major wars. It seemed everyone was on shaky ground in unfamiliar territory.

We've been at it almost nine years. The fear, worry and sleepless nights will never go away while we're at war. Separation and reintegration will always be huge issues for military families to cope with, but based on what I've witnessed, I'm wondering if the collective community has "settled" into a new normal?

Could it be that the shaky ground has finally given way to firm ground? That once unfamiliar territory is now recognizable? Have spouses adapted and settled into the new normal?

I think it’s possible. As one young spouse recently told me, “War is all I’ve known.”

None of us are chomping at the bit to experience a separation from our loved one, but we’ve done it before. And we’ve survived. Many have even thrived. For all the heartache, loneliness, uncertainty and fear, most of us have become stronger and we’ve found that for all the downsides a deployment can bring, there are also opportunities. This, in my view, is a testament to those on the homefront, often referred to as “The Silent Ranks.” They don’t don armor, they manufacture it from within.

Even so, I’m sure many of us look forward to the day when we can settle back into a boring, training-only existence. But now that I think about it, that means relinquishing total control of the television remote, going to bed at a decent hour and having to actually cook on occasion. Well, there are worse things...

RC SOUTH |

June 22, 2010

RC SOUTH
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 6/22/10
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

I've traveled to the south (Helmand Province) several times now. Much of my time has been spent with the Brits at Camp Bastion, Nad e Ali, and now Lashkar Gah. From a COIN standpoint, while there is work to do, the Brits are doing better. The current Brigadier has taken a quantum step forward with a directive to execute a standardize tool pack that includes an ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk for each operational area.

This directive will pay tremendous dividends in each locality. It’s also a change. Using a standard toolset may sound like common sense, but it’s not a forgone conclusion by any means. Because of training, which has been mostly kinetic in focus, units have arrived on the ground in Afghanistan for years knowing lttle about counterinsurgency. The British are by no means alone in this at all, and they are actively addressing the issue.

Americans, for instance, have focused largely on kinetic tasks and we have scared the crap out of our Soldiers in training. Young Soldiers are convinced that danger lurks everywhere. Implicit is the idea that aggressiveness and estreme suspicion are what is required to survive. Also implied that only the unwary are killed. Many young Soldiers, NCOs and officers come over here determined to be too smart and aggressive to die here. We have failed to truly prepare our Soldiers, and especially the leaders, for what is required of them in a COIN environment.

Along with this has come an ignorance of the doctrine available. Of American field grade officers and senior NCOs who arrive at the CTC-A, the consistent answer in informal (“raise your hand if…”) polls is that 15% have read FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Still, the number of units on the ground who are willing to attempt COIN rather than counter-guerrilla type operations has markedly improved. The British currently on the ground are among these. This is part of my growing optimism.

It’s true that there are enough examples still, even among the British, that a “sharpshooter” could tear holes in my observations. I could point them out myself. What I’m talking about is a trend. The Marines have also had some successes, but I was depressed to hear a battalion-level Marine Warrant Officer explaining how his unit had arrived without any COIN training whatsoever -- but that they had killed eight or nine bad guys since arriving a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to scream. My compatriots told me that I showed enormous gentleness in my questions. I don’t blame him. Really, it’s not about blame.

Obviously, there is still a lot of hit-and-miss COIN going on. It’s the training back in the national training bases that sets the tone. One Army unit, somewhat lionized by a previously acclaimed independent journalist who recently left after a lengthy embed, trained not on COIN, but from the old Counter-Guerrilla Operations manual. Their actions showed this as well. They managed to rack up the highest casualty rate of all Army units currently in theater and were subsequently removed from their operational area and given a different mission. The journalist, who would have had you believe that he was with a unit doing great things, unfortunately doesn’t know what good COIN looks like. He was offered a seat during the COIN Leader’s Course last August, but he begged off citing, “Time is money.” Had he come, he may have had the knowledge to better report on what he saw. Sadly, the untrained observer will do things like that. Education is a key.

The current training requirements are not driven by what GEN McChrystal wants to see executed on the ground. That, however, is about to undergo a massive change, driven by a memo by no less than the Secretary of Defense himself.Watch for more on that.

The point here is not to indict anyone. The point is that we are learning. Granted, it could have come sooner, but this has been a learning process. The changes do not bear fruit immediately. Set your expectations for a tough summer, but expect progress. Indicators such as the British in the areas aroung Lashkar Gah and their forward-thinking Brigadier are keys to the developing trends. Much more work is going on behind the scenes, even in the States, that will change the trajectory of units that will deploy in the months ahead. McChrystal’s strategy, and the support being generated from the SECDEF on down, will begin to alter the outcomes as units employ these techniques because they were trained in them prior to arrival in-country.

EIGHT THINGS I LEARNED FROM MY UNCLE SAM |

June 17, 2010

EIGHT THINGS I LEARNED FROM MY UNCLE SAM
Name: Charle Sherpa
Posting date: 6/17/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

I've recently begun listing off all the lessons I've learned while wearing my country's uniform for more than 20 years. Here's a start:

1. 'LIFE, LIMB, AND EYESIGHT.' EVERYTHING ELSE IS SMALL STUFF.

I wish I'd maintained the clarity and perspective I had after I first deployed. Everything was simple, especially when you applied the criteria used for declaring an "significant event" in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Downrange, if a soldier or civilian was at risk of losing life, limb, or eyesight, you had yourself an emergency. It was time to coordinate medevac, move people and equipment, and wake the commander up. Otherwise, it wasn't something to get all spun up about.

It works for parenting, too. Especially after some sort of spill.

2. PLAN BACKWARDS

Here's how backwards planning works: Identify the deadline by which something must happen, then identify in reverse each step required to get there. I once thought this was obvious -- until I found myself working on a church committee. The group was headed up by fellow congregant who was a professional "process manager." He was very good at identifying "inputs" and "outputs," and not so very good at setting deadlines. Drove me insane.

The Army teaches you how to avoid the trap of analysis paralysis. State the mission -- the who, what, where, when -- then, plan to make things happen. Then, make it happen.

3. YOUR TEAM NEEDS MORE TIME THAN YOU (NEED TO) THINK

Also known as the "one-thirds, two-thirds" rule: To optimize their chances of success, your teammates need twice as much time as you will in making the plan. Take one-third of the remaining time for yourself, and allow them two-thirds of the available time for preparation and rehearsal. Give people as much information as you can as early as you can. That way, even if your plans change, they'll be further down the proverbial road than if you had horded information until the last possible moment.

The best plan at the last minute will likely fail, because people need time to make it their own.

4. MAINTAIN NOISE AND LIGHT DISCIPLINE

When we were dating, Household-6 took me on a reunion trip with some former backpacking camp counselors. Given my Army training, I spent whole days freaking out about wearing bright colors, banging metal, and traveling in non-tactical formation. After I figured out that we were more likely to be attacked by a bear than with hand grenades, I was able to lighten up a bit. (Get it? "Lighten"? I crack me up.)

In uniform, however, I still try to minimize noise and light while out in the field -- even though I'm probably standing right next to the biggest inflatable structure in the forest, along with enough loud-humming power generators to power a small building. Even given these conditions, I trust that my red-lens flashlight will keep me safe, unheard and unseen.

I am like a ninja that way. A ninja who lives in a circus tent.

5. USE RADIO-TELEPHONE PROCEDURE, OVER

Here's a confession: I gave up trying to lose the habit of speaking in radio-telephone lingo a long time ago. Instead of "bye-bye," I close my telephone conversations with "OUT." When I call someone -- even a good friend, I'm likely to identify myself like I would on the radio: "Friend? THIS IS ..." For the record, Scout, they're called "procedure words" or "pro-words."

Years later, I knew I'd married well when Household-6 was about to give me some information over the telephone. When she told me to "PREPARE TO COPY," I fell in love all over again.

ROGER, honey!

I realize it all sounds a little silly, of course, but there's some family tradition here, too. Maybe that's really why I keep doing it. For the longest time, for example, my parents would talk over little Sherpa's head by using the same international phonetic alphabet the Army would eventually teach me. Example: "Time to give Sherpa a Bravo-Alpha-Tango-Hotel."

Take the first letter in each word. Get it now? I sure didn't.

Even if a kid can spell, the phonetic alphabet adds another layer of encryption. Used in short bursts, it's a parental Enigma machine.

In another example, I remember listening to my mother talk to my overseas Air Force father via some sort of telephone-to-radio link. It was a Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) call, that reached all the way into our kitchen telephone. I remember that Mom had to say "over" at the end of each thought, to let my father know it was his turn to talk. I also remember wondering how, exactly, my father was on Mars.

"I love you, OVER ..."

6. KEEP YOUR KNEES BENT

Whether you're on guard duty, or standing in some hours-long formation while 16 bloviating general officers wish you luck and give you advice, it's a good idea never to lock your knees. People pass out that way.

You can stand for hours with your knees bent slightly. Think of it as skiing, without the hills, the scenery, or the fun.

7. THE WORST THING ABOUT GETTING WET IS GETTING WET

Some of my basic Army training took place at Fort Lewis, Wash. That's when I learned that parts of Washington state qualify as sub-tropical rain forest. It rained and drizzled constantly.

We had meager rain gear in those days -- a rubberized poncho was about it. The worst part of the experience was when you were still a little dry, and you started to feel the soggy, creepy cold crawl up your skin: Your boots got wet, your socks got wet, your pants got wet -- you got wet. After that, it warn't nothing but a thing. You still had to watch yourself for trench foot or hypothermia, of course, but the worst thing about getting wet wasn't the water, it was getting wet. Everything after that was just more of the same.

8. SEEK RESPONSIBILITY, TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

I remember seeing a squad of infantry introduce themselves, one by one, to an audience of us new recruits. Each one sounded off with name, rank, and their function on the team: "Grenadier," "rifleman," "radio-telephone operator," and the like. After naming their position, they'd rattle off their responsibilities: "I am responsible for ..."

The squad leader stepped forward last. "I am responsible for everything my squad does, or fails to do."

I can't tell you how many times I've waited to hear a political or business leader say something like that. Step up, say your name, take ownership of what happened. Tell people what you'll make happen, and let yourself be judged on performance.

Be responsible.

 

ONE DAY AT A TIME |

June 14, 2010

ONE DAY AT A TIME
Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 6/14/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan

I walked into the chow hall and could not help but notice that it was festooned with American flags, streamers (red, white, and blue), and other pieces of celebration. I asked one of my colleagues, with whom I was eating, what the occasion was. He informed me, with some surprise, that it was Memorial Day.

Three days before, there'd been a massive TIC (Troops in Contact, a firefight) that consumed the Battalion. Elements from almost every Company were involved. It lasted 18 hours. None of our guys got scratched, somehow, though a couple vehicles got shot up. Sometime around two in the morning, the Battle Captain, 1LT F, walked in to my room and said: "Sir, I'm at tracer burnout." He looked it, too. I knew how he felt. I felt the same way.

The next day, sometime in the evening, I walked into the Battalion TOC at the same time as 1LT F. I asked him how things were going, and he said, "Better than yesterday. You know?"

"What happened yesterday?" I asked.

"The TIC, don't you remember?"

"I'm just thinking about today," I responded. "Today's good."

He laughed.

"The key to deployment is taking it one day at a time," I said, leaving the TOC.

This was the lesson Afghanistan had to teach me last time, and has been the lesson I've been learning ever since. Saying it, experiencing it again like this, I feel that I truly understand what it means to take things as they come, and to live in the moment.

Having said that, of course, I am also aware of how precarious and fleeting that experience is.

Memorial Day. A day on which I went on patrol, and got some stuff done, and had BBQ for dinner, and slipped out of the office to write this post before prepping for the next day's mission. A pretty good day.

 

SURPRISE! |

June 11, 2010

SURPRISE!
Name: Andi
Posting date: 6/11/10
Spouse: Returned from Deployment April 2010
Milblog: Spousebuzz

Here's your weekend feel-good video. Do grab a kleenex, though...

 

TRENDING POSITIVE |

June 09, 2010

TRENDING POSITIVE
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 6/9/10
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Afghan Quest

Obviously, the posts this tour have been few and far between. There are a number of reasons for that, including the massive amount of information and knowledge that I’m exposed to. It’s hard to take it all and present it in a way that makes sense short of writing big papers about it. There are lots of complexities, interactions and initiatives. It’s difficult to gel them into concise pieces. There is also the factor of priorities. My ability to contribute and to influence events, meager though that ability may be, is more important than writing about what I see. The trust of my leadership in my discernment is more important than demonstrating or sharing what I have been exposed to, which is considerable.

I have been back in Afghanistan for about ten months now, and my perceptions have run the gamut during that time. There have been times that I have been so frustrated that I could spit. I have seen things from time to time that have just flat disgusted me. That being said, the overall trend is very positive.

I know that there are those who decry the changes in the Rules of Engagement that are nearly a year old now. Michael Yon has recently begun spreading what I can only describe as a meme about Soldiers patrolling around some corner of Afghanistan and being prevented by their command from chambering a round in their weapons. This is not and has never been the intent of COMISAF. If this is indeed true, which I have never seen or heard any evidence of, concealing the identity of the commander who has generated this type of directive is in itself a dangerous and
irresponsible act. Personally, you would have to prove to me that anyone is actually doing that.

What I do see is more and more Soldiers and Marines doing their level best to apply creative solutions to complex tactical situations, both kinetic and non-kinetic. I see Soldiers and Marines, who could easily kill, sparing lives and leveraging local relationships by allowing communities to take a positive role in correcting their local citizens. A favorite example of GEN McChrystal, which I have personally heard him use, is the example of observing an individual emplacing an IED. In GEN McChrystal’s example, there is a choice; you can kill the individual, or since you already know where the IED is, you can arrest the man, neutralize the IED, and take the man to the village elders and offer them the opportunity to sort him out. It’s all about empowering the local authorities to make decisions and encouraging them to control their own populace. It’s also about the second and third order effects of the perceptions of that populace about their security when gunshots and explosions ring out in their neighborhoods.

Like you, gunshots and explosions in the neighborhood doesn’t make them feel safe.

Now, some may say that the live capture scenario would never work. The fact is that it’s been used and it has worked. Or, you can do like one Marine unit in Helmand did recently and send a simple, one-line report:

"Observed one individual emplacing IED. Engaged with Hellfire."


The Hellfire option does work to resolve the initial issue. It kills reliably. It is also the knuckledragger’s first answer to the question. (This is not about Marines. The Marines are doing some really fine work in Helmand. Some units get it more than others, as is the case with the Army. It is about the action and the thought process, not the flavor of American servicemen involved in the incident.) Every action has second and third order effects. The knuckledragger will opt for the easy, pyrotechnic answer (“Ooooooh, sparkly!”). It takes much more thought and effort to use the other method. Now, granted, there is not always the opportunity to sort the man out while he still has all his pieces rather than just sorting the pieces of the man out later. But more and more often, units on the ground are making the harder call. That’s just the beginning.

Last year, I wrote that there are many things in Afghanistan that are not best addressed by the Army or Marines. Stability Operations, and their subset, COIN Operations, require actions that are not typically military. As I pointed out before, Afghanistan has governance and economic development issues that the Army is not best suited to addressing. Other organizations, such as the State Department and USAID, had not been leveraged in Afghanistan. Just as we needed a military “surge,” we needed a “civilian surge” as well.

The “civilian surge” has had some successes. A lot of bright, talented people have come into the country. Many came in with stars in their eyes and hearts full of noble purpose. Afghanistan quickly beats the starry eyes out of a person. You either come to see reality or you quit. There are some self-evident examples of those who do not have the resilience, intelligence and courage to continually push against the seemingly Sisyphean rock, witness Matthew Hoh. Many of these bright, energetic people have come into the country with purpose and have integrated their spirit with the reality with very positive results. We need more of them, but the ones who have showed up are having some very positive effects. Using the District Stability Framework, they are doing systematic, logical program design instead of just going for the default answers typical of our earlier efforts; build a school, build a road, build a clinic.

These civilians brought capabilities that have expanded the capacity-building efforts necessary to heal Afghan society, the economy and establish governmental ability to provide basic services. Efforts at providing conflict resolution mechanisms that leverage traditional Afghan methods and structures are slowly chipping away at the primary service that Taliban shadow government has offered successfully in many areas; courts.

Are there still problems and misfires? Of course. But there are more instances of getting a 75% solution than there were several years ago. Is a 75% solution workable? Yes. You don’t have to be a perfect counterinsurgent. You don’t have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than the next slowest guy. The insurgent in Afghanistan is not faster than the bear. The bear, in this case, is the populace. The populace, on the whole, doesn’t like the insurgent, therefore the insurgent is inherently slow. You just have to be faster than a guy who has hobbled himself and continues to hobble himself. So, this bear prefers to eat the other guy, but will eat you if you insist on being slower.

There is still considerable corruption in the Afghan government. This is a big problem which must be addressed. Is it being effectively addressed? Time will tell. It slows efforts to fix what is wrong, and fixing these wrongs, addressing those grievances, removes any traction other than intimidation that the insurgency has. There are numerous stories of successes and failures at the grassroots level. While the Afghan people resent high-level corruption, which seriously dilutes redevelopment efforts, they are most affected by failures at the grassroots level. The corrupt sub-governor is more of a threat, because of his direct influence on the perceptions of people at the district level, than the ministry level official who is skimming from contracting efforts at a national level. Both need to be addressed, but the most direct impact is made on the people by sorting out the district level actors. That doesn’t mean that both cannot be addressed simultaneously. There are signs of effort. Again, time will tell.

While there are examples of commanders who absolutely don’t get it, (such as a brigade-sized element who used old counter-guerrilla doctrine as their basis for training and were subsequently kicked out of their assigned operational area due to their overly kinetic focus and the resultant backlash from the local populace and insurgents) there are more units who are making an honest effort at conducting effective COIN operations. This is a very positive sign. The multinational operational environment makes for some serious challenges, and the British and French in particular are making progress with using doctrine consistent with COMISAF’s intent. These are very positive indicators. I have had personal experiences with both and have worked directly with officers of the British and French armies both at the theater level schoolhouse and on the ground. I have generally positive experiences with them.

The best indicator of effort at the institutional level, as far as I’m concerned, is education and training. This is where many of the changes that are under way are first evidenced. Our own forces are the weather vane, but other nations are key as well. Institutional changes are very slow in coming. The Marines, with their smaller structure, find their ship easier to turn. The Army, on the other hand, is like turning a train where the tracks run straight. Very recent events are hugely encouraging. The Secretary of Defense just published a memo that puts in place a change mechanism to change the training model for units deploying to Afghanistan. I look for this to have a huge impact on the readiness of units deploying to the theater to conduct effective COIN operations by pushing the education to a point earlier in the deployment train-up cycle.

The effect of pushing the education piece earlier in the cycle is to inform training. Training is less effective without context. Putting the subsequent training into a context, a mindset if you will, educated in the principles that are to drive the behaviors will make the conduct more consistent. That’s not the extent of it. The actual tasks are about to change, including the methods. Folks, we are seeing the development of task, conditions, standards-based training for COIN. This is the way that military forces know how to train.

In reality, it’s the way that industry trains effectively as well. Industrial training methods are based on lessons learned from military training. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. The military had to figure out long ago how to quickly and effectively train groups of people to do tasks consistently.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to see units in action on the ground from the organizational level to the dusty boots level. I’ve been in a position to hear directly the experiences of others just like me who have been elsewhere simultaneously. I have seen and heard the amazing successes and the abject failures. I am encouraged. I am disheartened to hear some reporters whose depictions are clouded by an apparent lack of counterinsurgent understanding and, in some cases what appears to be petulant anger. I am disheartened because the American people are searching for answers. Many thirst for understanding of what is happening on the ground. More than just individual stories of sacrifice, endurance and courage, the American people want to know; is this working? Are we making progress? What they have gotten is often not a coherent answer, and it is at odds with my perceptions.

I am encouraged. As an NCO, I have no right whatsoever to evaluate such an officer, but someone who knows has to say something out loud; there is no doubt in my mind that I am being led by the the right man for the job. There is no doubt in my mind that the General “gets it.” There is no doubt in my mind that I can trust him. (I’m sure he will feel so much better to get my lowly endorsement.) There are many challenges to functioning effectively in such a joint, multinational environment, but there is progress. We are having positive effects on a much more consistent basis. Our training is about to take a quantum leap. There is improvement in the Afghan contribution to all three lines of operation; military/security, governance and development. It’s not just an “Afghan face,” it’s increasingly Afghan solutions implemented with assistance… and sometimes without. It is hard. This summer will look, at times, desperate. That’s because our enemy is feeling the pressure. Don’t let the activity fool you. Look beyond it, and look beyond the desperate reporting as well.

We’re not “there” yet, but we’re making progress, and there is reason for optimism.


Note: On his site Old Blue responded to some comments made about this post. The follow-up piece is here.

SCHOOL DAZED |

June 02, 2010

SCHOOL DAZED
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 6/2/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

I've taken to calling them "ball-peen hammer" moments, these times when some sudden thought regarding overseas deployment smacks me right between the eyes, and leaves me smarting, blinking back tears.

Last week, it was "Kindergarten Roundup" for students in our school district. Parents and their
soon-to-be-students visited the elementary school for about 45 minutes one afternoon. We got to meet teachers, check out the library and classrooms, and ask any last-minute questions. Oh, and there were cookies, too.

The principal is a former teacher of kindergarten. From across the room, you can feel the love she and her staff have for their jobs, as well as their young charges. She calls the students "kiddos," rather than students. I'll take that alone as evidence that she likes her job, likes kids, and is confident about both.

"You may think that they look too young and small right now," the principal says, a little randomly, "but you'll be amazed about how much older and more mature they'll seem by the end of the year."

Ouch. Hammer-time.

I'm stumbling around blinking for the next couple of minutes, particularly as I watch my little warrior-princess lead the charge toward the classrooms. Yes, I'd already registered the fact that I wouldn't be around for Lena's first day of school, but intellectual preparation apparently has little to do with emotional preparation. The principal's off-handed remark brought home the fact that I'd be missing much more than the first day: I'll be missing hundreds of days of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Hundreds of bedtime stories and school projects. Hundreds of lost moments and little victories.

I'll miss watching Lena grow up to be a first-grader.

Because of this elementary epiphany, I'm glad I took the opportunity to leave work for an hour, so that I could see where Lena will go to school. I even managed to snap a few quick pictures of Lena in her new classroom, as well as of her posing in front of her new school. I'll pack those pictures away in my rucksack for later, for when both of us face our big first days alone.

It's a big world, and there's lots to learn.


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