March 12, 2008

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 3/12/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I've been back at my current FOB for over a week now, and have made a conop* to Kabul and back in the meantime. The day after we got here, we made a major thrust into the country to the north of here, which is generally accepted to be "Indian Country." It was sudden, it was in force, and it was a surprise.

The enemy did nothing.

He didn't fail to act because he was so frightened of our massive firepower. He just didn't know that we were coming, and it was too late to throw an impromptu party, so he watched how we operate. He noted how we move, what kind of weapons, how long our helicopters can stay on station, and where we appeared to be vulnerable. He noted what kind of things we seem to be interested in, and where our vehicles seemed to have problems.

We returned completely unscathed. For some, it was their first foray into such territory. To me, it was just like any trip into The Valley. As I wrote to a friend recently, it's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.

That friend, who happens to be a professional writer, clued me in to a co-worker who had coined the phrase (no, it wasn't Forrest Gump), a writer for The Washington Star. That was my trivia for the week, and now it's yours.

Speaking of The Valley, I had my last trip into The Valley while I was in Bagram. My old team was going down there, and I was waiting for a flight to my FOB (they don't happen every day) and I couldn't sit on my thumbs while my buddies went down there, so I hitched a ride as an extra gun. It, too, was uneventful. A convoy got shot up there the next day, but our trip was like a drive in the park. Box of chocolates.

I got to talk with some guys down there who worked a little with my old bunch of ANP, and one of the guys told me that the ANP there still talk about me. I can't explain how that makes me feel. Having the respect of the Afghans I've worked with so closely means the world to me. It was one of the coolest things I've heard all year.

I also got to have one last operational ride with O and the Maniac and Jacques Pulvier. MAJ (Stone) Cold was there, too. He's being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel any time now. There is some justice in the Army after all. That man is one of the finest officers I've ever met in my 26 year career.

In about a week I will leave this FOB where I've only spent a couple of months (and been gone for almost half of one of those). I've gotten to work with the local ANP, but not like I came to know the men up in The Valley. It takes awhile, and some shared difficulty and challenge, to establish that kind of bond. There hasn't been that kind of time or challenge here. They're good guys, and I love working with Afghans, even when they are three different flavors of f*#%ed up.

If it weren't for missing my kids so much I'd stay for a few more months, except my own Army is seriously pissing me off. I've seen so many things I never thought that I'd see from my own team. I've seen things I can never write about, and I don't want to get into bashing, but I will say that I am shocked, dumbfounded, amazed, and pissed off.

None of the above relates to any acts of barbarism or war crimes, let me say that; it's more acts of extreme parochialism and fraternal cannibalism. Try to make sense of that, if you will. I am sick of it, and so I will go home. I will write about some of it later, and I will write some of it for Army eyes in the vague and mildly insane hope that it will make a difference to someone somewhere who can do something about it. We repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot by shooting our brethren in the foot and thinking that it is not, in fact, our own foot.

Many of these things are institutional problems, just the way it is, more or less.

We are winning this war, no matter what anyone says, no matter what the New York Times says, we are winning. The improvements that I've seen since I've been here are many and significant. I've seen so many roads built, so many soldiers trained, I've seen rank reform begun within the ANP, I've seen corruption uncovered and worked on, I've seen soldiers who get paid on time when in the past they were getting paid late and getting shaken down for it. I've seen the ANP receive new equipment, I've seen them begin to function. I've seen it spreading like an inkblot.

The ACM* have ratcheted up their violence, sure. It's desperation. They have to. The GoA (Government of Afghanistan) is extending its influence further and further into previously ungoverned areas. The Afghan National Army is no joke; they can fight, and when they do, the ACM usually come out mauled.

The Afghanistan National Police are ten times more likely to be killed in combat than their ANA counterparts. Hopefully that number will start to decrease. The ANP are the last piece of the puzzle. When the guy in the village with the automatic weapon is an ANP and life under the ANP is better than life under the Taliban, then we will really win. Then Afghanistan will really win.

I think that we're on the way to that end, if we are allowed to continue -- and if they will send enough mentors over here so that every district in every province has a mentor team.

We are not winning because we are master counterinsurgents. Our line units are apparently completely untrained in counterinsurgency. We've got some young soldiers who were sent here to train ANP on soldier skills, who not only are untrained in counterinsurgency but don't want to hear it, either. We are doing a terrible job of evangelizing counterinsurgency doctrine, the only doctrine that will win against an insurgency.

We're not winning because we're so damned great; we are winning because there are enough Afghans who really want a better country and are willing to put their butts on the line to have it.

When you speak to someone who has been here and tells you they hate Afghans, know this; you are speaking to someone who doesn't get it, who was too damned lazy to try to get past the differences and see the men inside -- one of the people who feel superior by virtue of what they have that was freely given to them, not because they are inherently better or because of some earned superiority.

They will complain of Afghans not being able to read. Remind them that they can read not because they are so virtuous, but because they live in a society that will not permit them not to go to school. They will complain of Afghans being primitive, but they themselves did not build the water treatment plants, or the power stations that make them so advanced. That was all there when they were born into their pristine hospital beds.

They will complain of corruption, when most of them have never had to worry about feeding their family on a salary that is woefully short of what it takes to feed the kids. They will feel that their education makes them superior; or that they use silverware to eat with, or even because they are Christians (I once had a Captain explain to me why all 26 million Afghans will find their way to Hell because they are not Christians. I don't think he's alone).

None of these things are things that they have done for themselves. So we are superior by nature of our birth. Nobility, we are.

Smokey, one soldier who is struggling with the concepts of counterinsurgency, came here to kill everything he sees (let's see how long that holds up when he gets shot at the first time). He explained to me how hard he worked to get his college degree in graphic design. I told him that he has no idea what hard work is until he's seen an Afghan work acres and acres with a hoe and a shovel.

We are arrogant, self-centered people, and our Army is a reflection of the nation. Yes, we are winning in Afghanistan. No, it's not really our victory completely. We would not, could not, win without the dedicated, uneducated, illiterate, Hell-bound savages whose bravery is often unbelievable.

Don't ever tell me that the Afghans need to put some skin in the game. I've put four of them in vinyl bags with their skin in pieces and seen the rest of them continue to do their jobs. They lost two more in the same way in nearly the same spot. Another was shot clean through the head, and his brethren kept going into that same area. That's skin in the game, and in the earth, and in the grave.

Yes, sometimes there are acts of cowardice. I've seen more amazing feats of cowardice from an American officer who will go home claiming to be a hero. We are not superior by nature of our births, or the training that our Army can afford to give us. What makes a man superior is his actions, and I could point to many examples where we do not deserve that title.

We train our soldiers to be arrogant. Is there no way that our soldiers can be superbly trained and confident without having to look down on the rest of the world?

So, when you meet the guy who hates Afghans, know that he never got it. You may give him an opportunity to explain, perhaps, that he is tired of Afghans; they require a lot of effort to understand, and sometimes to tolerate things they do that will never make sense to us. Sometimes being tired of them will be stated as hate, but it is not the same. If he still insists that it is hatred, then welcome him home and pray that he is never again sent forth as an American counterinsurgent. We do not need him.

I'm going home soon, and I've still got stories to tell.


CONOP: Convoy Operation

ACM: Anti Coalition Militia (Not all ACM are Taliban, many are also HiG, or Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin; they are the militia of the HiG party, led by warlord Hekmatyar Gulbuddin. They claim to be a political party. There are other smaller ACM's also, like Jamyaat. The main ones in the areas where I've worked have been Taliban and HiG.)


You are conscious, welcome home! Thank you for your awareness and commentary. We need more people of your caliber in our military, leading our military.

I want to read more from you, and still I want you back with your family - for that is the key to the future, a fine functioning family. Your posts have said it all, do remember that much of our Army is better than the few that really make us want to blow it in place, and those regular units that don't know counterinsurgency just haven't had a chance to read your posts and talk to you and walk with the Afghans to war. Keep in touch and speak outloud - they won't love you in Washington DC, but most of the world doesn't think much of "SuperPower" posing. God Bless

Xenophobia in this day and age of information is quite inexcusable. I'm thankful that you got some of the younger soldiers to challenge their assumptions about other cultures.

Well put. It doesn't change. You will, of course try. It won't fix the core problem; arrogance. Our American Way is a myth of superiority backed by massive firepower. It isn't a reality like courage or fortitude. It is imaginary.

If it means anything, you're never alone. It happened in my war, and I have a few stories to tell. But not here. This is your war, your thing, your story.

Thank you for sharing it.

To old blue:
You're great. You lay out- with great clarity- the self-centeredness and arrogance that we Americans may die by if we do not get on a better course. Too often we don shallow goggles when judging others. This is bad in so many ways, and I thank you for articulating the problem and reminding your countrymen- both in the service and out- how we can and should do better.

Here's to you and others who give the gift of awareness.

Amen, brother. You understand!

It's posts like this one that keep me, a confirmed anti-Bush liberal, reading the Sandbox almost every day. It's redeeming to know that there are at least a few people serving the country who understand the changes that must happen before we can offer effective help where it's needed. Maybe, just maybe, people who think like you can calm the turmoil in this battered region instead of making it worse.
Keep talking, Old Blue! We need to hear your voice and your stories.

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