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.


February 03, 2012

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan

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 February 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

Anyway, rather than thinking of a large rodent 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 1990s 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.


Greetings from Denver, CO Major Dan! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and God bless you for serving our country!

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