August 29, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan


Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 1

Kabul, Jan '11: With a few of the locals.
"When someone asks, I realize that I have about 30 seconds to condense years of frustration, painful memories, self-justifications, introspection, conversations with comrades, insecurity, guilt, resentment and humble prayers into an answer that is honest and accessible. Because the moment I open my mouth, interest and comfort begin to wane."

The above is written by Jonathan Raab, a soldier with the New York National Guard, whose post A Soldier Answers the Inevitable Question: 'Why?' is an excellent summation of the motivations behind deploying again back to a place like Afghanistan. I think most of us can relate to the isolation that often accompanies being back in the States, whether in conversation with friends or strangers, or just in that "petty" or "self-absorbed" culture which seems to dominate our daily lives far too often. When it's already tough to feel that you've left the most meaningful work you could be doing, it eats at you.

This question -- "Why would any sane person want to return to risk life and limb in a war that has no clear objective and faltering popular support?" -- is one that I was asked repeatedly when preparing to return. And it is a question that I now ask a friend who's about to go for a very long stretch of time. While we've spoken so much that I already know the answers, I still am blown away by the willingness to fork over the next three years of one's life to a cause that, despite the best efforts of literally hundreds of thousands, is on shaky legs.

There is no easy answer. But we go anyway. And guys like Dave agree to go for years -- and dedicated friends such as John and Pam have already logged years there. Truly incredible people, all of them.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 2

So what's the latest on the mission?  The item below is based on an interview just last week with the commanding general of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Caldwell, the man responsible for standing up, training and equipping Afghan security forces. My thoughts on a few excerpts follow, because I can't help myself.

Afghan Forces Need Help Post-Pullout: Commander

Lieutenant-General William Caldwell indicated that several thousand international trainers could be needed to support the mission until at least 2020 in an interview with AFP.

"I'm very confident that the Afghans can in fact take the lead for security by December 2014 -- there's no question they can do it," Caldwell said.

I'm heartened to see the honesty about what the Afghan government needs from us, at a bare minimum, beginning to emerge. And I would still take any bet against our involvement being done by the end of 2020. As for the all-important "take the lead" by 2014, well... Expect some continued gymnastic semantics in order to demonstrate that a true transfer of security control takes place by then.

Some diplomats and Western officials in Kabul suggest it could be up to 10 years before the Afghan government can afford to fund its own security forces...

He put the figure for this at "maybe 3,000 people, uniform-type people, police and army" plus financial support to help the Afghan government pay for the security forces, possibly for another six years.

These are still incredibly optimistic -- probably completely unrealistic -- estimations, in my opinion. And that of anyone familiar with economics and/or the state of Afghanistan in 2011. But it's the nature of the beast, I suppose. Only in increments does a venture of this scale continue apace.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Questions Caldwell
U.S. Army Lieutenant-General William Caldwell.
(Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez-Fonte)

Finally, I've got to give a blog shout-out to my Army brother Steve in Kuwait (at the moment, I think -- they bounce around) on the occasion of his birthday this week. He sent a recap of his platoon's recent partnership training in Kazakhstan, which I take the liberty of sharing below. This type of cross-cultural combined multinational training happens a lot more than most Americans realize, but few and far between are those who've carried it out in the world's largest landlocked country!

Ah jaqse, brother. (He tells me that essentially means, "It's all good")...


Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 4

2LT Steve with Kazakh colleague Serj, Aug '11.


     2nd Platoon recently received the opportunity to travel to Kazakhstan to take part in the multi-national tactical exercise Steppe Eagle, now in its 9th year. As the Kazakhstan Government celebrates its 20th year of independence, they held their most populous exercise to date, hosting troops from Great Britain, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan and the United States to help their bid for certification into NATO. Our platoon arrived in the former capital city of Almaty on August 1st, and fell under the oversight of Army Central Command (ARCENT) who controlled all the logistics of the American ground troops, including a National Guard infantry company from Colorado with whom we shared our living space.

     During the first week on ground, 2nd Platoon spent time getting adjusted to new surroundings and temperatures (much cooler than Kuwait!), refining our tactics in preparation for the start of training, and getting to know some of the local Soldiers and cadets that occupied the compound with us. The Opening Ceremony for the training was held on August 8th and included a dazzling concert displaying various cultures of the local people, demonstrating their musical and artistic talents. The following day, our platoon received AK assault rifles with which to go through situational tactical exercises, which we did for three days before beginning the field training portion of the exercise (FTX). The AKs were definitely different (and much louder) than the weapons we are used to firing, but working with them was a unique experience for most every Soldier. During the 3-day FTX, we trained around the clock executing both day and night operations which included guard tower security, vehicle check point, quick reaction force, and patrols every other hour.

      We also got the chance to wear some civilian clothes and get to travel outside the training area on Culture Day. Starting on the morning of August 13th, we rode a bus to Almaty to see the War Memorial; then rode up to the scenic overlook site of Koktobe for lunch; and after visiting the vast marketplace in the city, we had a buffet-style Kazakh dinner and even got to enjoy a couple alcoholic beverages if we so chose too. In addition, right before the Closing Ceremony on the 18th, we enjoyed another “fun day” as the Soldiers broke down into teams and competed in Sports Day against the Kazakhs in soccer, volleyball, track, and tug-of-war among other events.

      Unfortunately we did have multiple cases of a virus-like sickness arise among the Platoon, and overall would have liked a bit more side-by-side interaction with the Kazakh Soldiers (both points were brought to higher command’s attention post-exercise). But we were all thankful for clean latrines, good food (with a lot of help of two of our Platoon’s 92G personnel “cooks”), ample internet access, and the overall experience gained from taking part in such a multilateral exercise. This is definitely something all of 2nd Platoon’s Soldiers will enjoy telling their grandchildren all about some day.


On Going Back:
I have spent 50 years trying to live the American Dream, but mostly just getting by. I am at the age where people start looking back at missed opportunities, and I totally understand why someone might choose to return. They are making a difference. In the hour it takes to mow my lawn, someone there is changing another person's life for the better.

I wish I had seen such an opportunity when I was younger, and realized the importance of it.

So, to your efforts, I say 'Well Done!'


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