June 16, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan

Minaret of the great mosque of Mazar-e-Sharif, Nov 2010.

I've been working on this entry for more than a week, and still struggle with whether or not it's a good use of time and effort to blog about a place and experience that are further removed from my consciousness all the time. It's not that I don't still follow every development that I can out of Afghanistan, and it's certainly not that I'm lighting the web on fire with my pace of "updates" -- it's that I doubt that I can contribute a worthy narrative when I'm not there. So while my search continues for something purposeful on this side of the world, and really the clarity and peace to determine what that something may be, it seems backwards sometimes for me to attempt to revisit the past or even do my best to highlight its present from a vantage point in the States. It may just be my personal frustration, but it keeps me from sharing the trove of photos and stories I still have from this deployment.

Riders enroute to play buzkashi, Nov 2010.

It's been well over a year since I dove into the advisory role that became my life for most of 2010, and the debate in this country is again heating up over the anticipated drawdown of US forces (NATO allies and other Coalition partners each have their own internal pressures centered on the same question, of course). What everyone wants to know from those of us who've served in Afghanistan, it seems from casual conversation, is when the troops will come home, or (still) why we are even there. The cost appears to be mind-boggling, and the effort thankless when indicators are raised that point to failure or stagnancy. For every story of a successful counterinsurgency program in one district, it seems there is another of a worsening security situation -- and target dates for transition and the like seem to be based more on how much time can be squeezed from reluctant politicians, rather than realistic estimates of what it will take to leave a stable, functioning government and nation in our wake.

Residents of a village outside Mazar, Nov 2010.

In particular, the increased rate, audacity and lethality of attacks in the north of the country have many worried. I was personally shocked when I learned that the UN personnel killed in the post-Koran-burning riots of early April were in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city seemingly stable and safe enough to be in the forefront of complete transition to Afghan security and administration. The capital of the northern regions had effectively already been handed over, from what I could tell -- and politically that wasn't too surprising, given that it was the power base of the Northern Alliance, those most amenable to the current Afghan government. Massoud territory, to put it simply. But lately it's not moving in the right direction, as the assassination of police chief Gen. Daud Daud recently demonstrated.

"The Taliban are spreading like wild fire," said an angry Mohammad Jan, who had come from neighbouring Kunduz province.  "Try and take the road from north-eastern Baghlan province to Takhar via Kunduz. You are guaranteed a Taliban ambush."

BBC: Ominous signs for Afghanistan's north

Aftermath of the attack on the UN agency in Mazar.

Another story from last week points to how heavily dependent the Afghan government is upon US, UN and other international funding. While this is an issue apparent to anyone with an understanding of how we are proceeding to achieve stability, there is shockingly little knowledge of (a) how much we actually are collectively spending, (b) how little capacity there is for internally generated net revenue, and (c) how little we know about what plan there is, if any, to significantly change the situation by 2014, the supposed Year of Transition. Usually I try to vary my sources, but few news organizations are covering developments in Afghanistan with the regularity that the BBC is.

BBC: Afghanistan faces 2014 "cash crisis" when troops leave

US foreign aid -- now in "wheat" form!


While the conclusion that "misspent foreign aid can result in corruption" is the most hilariously obvious understatement of the decade -- and a mere fact of life in Afghanistan -- the need for "more scrutiny" of contracts is just as obvious and just as evasive, no matter how many Coalition positions are added to do just that. From what I saw at the level of senior advisors to government ministries, there are numerous initiatives around the country to start or re-start profitable enterprise, agriculture and trade...someday. There are very few that likely will fit that profile within three years. The obstacles are just too many. So once again, a note of caution: If you believe that by the big year 2014 that we'll be out of Afghanistan, in terms of troops and serious funding, without a total collapse of every gain we've made,then I've got a Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge to sell you. Name your price.

On the good news front, the rapid boost of literacy programs for Afghanistan's security forces is highlighted in this story. One of the lessons learned at NATO Training Mission Afghanistan is just how operationally crucial, how sorely needed, and how beneficial to all of society these programs can be. It's a classic example of what some observers call mission creep, but what others point out as a necessity for mission accomplishment. If you say that transition is the goal, but the forces to which you're transitioning can't count to ten or write down names, then what's the point?

NTM-A: Literacy enhancing ANSF training, professionalism


Could the pen actually be mightier than the sword?


Dear Major Dan: While you bravely struggle with your existential crisis, which I believe to be a continuation of your service, why not keep on with this "minor" task of shining a light on the GWOT in Afghanistan? Dearest Major, we civilians need your voice, your insights to keep awareness of this war in the public arena, please! As you said, "few news organizations are covering developments in Afghanistan with the regularity that the BBC is." Shame on us. Thank you for continuing to be part of the solution, not the problem. Remember what Annie Savoy says in "Bull Durham" - "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self awareness." Persevere. We need you, and you are appreciated. Thank you again, and always.

I am anxious to see what comes's pretty so far..

Agree with GalPal! Keep it coming.

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