Monday, May 24, 2010

Through the Windshield

It's not the worst way to see a country - through a windshield - but it certainly isn't the best. Most of the countries I have visited were safe enough to get out and walk around in. I like visiting markets, eating out at restaurants, chatting with people.
I am lucky that my job requires me to travel. The law that provides our raison d'etre requires four trips a year. I have done eight in the last six months and hope to do at least eight more.

Most often, I am in the back seat when not in Kabul. I am the "guest" of the forces whose job it is to work daily with the Afghan forces or to conduct patrols or (re) construction projects.
I envy them the ability to get "out of the wire" daily and interact with the people. I know it is tremendously frustrating at times for a US Army captain to "train" an Afghan Colonel, but can it be anymore frustrating than another powerpoint presentation?

So while I would prefer to drive, any trip outside of Camp Eggers is by definition a good one.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dogs and Soldiers Keep Out

I apologize for this rant. I normally laugh these things off, but I am using the blog as a form of therapy tonight.

We got kicked out of the US Embassy for swimming yesterday. You'd think there’s a story there. You might think it involves alcohol, nudity, and raucous behavior. Nope. Just the fact that we are soldiers.

The State Department is very jealous of perogatives. We were told that they have very strict and limited funding and so using their washers and dryers, their pool, their volleyball court, would stress the budget to the breaking point.

This would be believable if: we were carting off buckets of water, wheelbarrows full of sand, or even knew where the laundry facilities were and didn't want to use the free laundry service at our camp.

Friday morning until lunch we have "off." This is the only time, perhaps four hours a week, that we could possibly use the pool. And if the State Department people stayed on the Embassy compound and didn't use anyone else's services, then I would find this to be fair.

Of course, this is not reality. They descend like locusts every Friday and Saturday (they get two days off a week, not four hours a week) to strip our camp store, or PX. The line for lunch and dinner swells to hour long waits because of the two hundred or so Staties who come for a change of scenery and barbecued burgers.

I once tried to eat dinner at the Embassy with some FBI types. I was unwelcome. The FBI guys had to pay my way in. Somehow the FBI doesn't consider the Army to be beneath them.

If the military must visit the Embassy for official duties, we are told our weapons must be concealed. Rifles of any sort are forbidden. They are too scary and give the wrong impression that there is a war in Afghanistan.

I guess it's like a country club: the elite Staties with noses in the air and teeth clenched want to keep their lawns green and pool clean while retaining the freedom to slum with the low-class soldiers.

Maybe someone could write a country song, or better, make a movie.

Oh wait, Caddyshack. I just don't want to be Danny.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Driving in Kabul

Writing the instructions for how to drive in Kabul for my office:

1. Don't be stupid.

2. You have the Right of Way when:
- your car is ahead of theirs;
- they hesitate;
- they are smaller than you (most of the time);
- they flinch first;
- you can convince them you are NOT stopping.

3. Stop at intersections - NEVER. Turn left, right or go straight through as if they have the red light every time.
4. Traffic circles in Kabul are not directional - just go where you want to.
5. Stop for National Directorate of Security checkpoints only when the RPG is pointed DIRECTLY at you.
6. If they point the RPG at you, close to within 20 feet as slyly as possible - it won't go off, honest.
7. They are ALL one-way streets - or rather, they are all TWO way streets no matter what the traffic or sign may say...

8. "Smile and wave" or "Cute and Cuddly" are great attitudes to have, but "I will bring all my people home no matter what." is better.

9. Convoy "Success" is measured by Everyone Home Safely. Everything else is negligible.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Reality Bites

This photo is in black and white not for effect, but to tone it down. I make light of things on this blog, but there really is a war going on. I wish it were a clean one. As clean as war could be, that is. There haven't ever really been wars in history that involve only the people who want to fight them.

I don't believe that this war will be won with guns. The trite phrase of "winning the hearts and minds" while cliche garbage comes closer to the truth of this war than any other. War is the ultimate expression of politics - persuassion at the end of a gun or the last word in any argument.

This is a war of Information. A war trying to establish the supremecy of ideas and ideology. The gun fire is just for effect. Effect upon the minds of the populace, of the press, of the politicians.

Maybe most wars are fought this way in "modern" times. But with the media of today it is so much more potent and pervasive.

So when President Karzai makes inflamatory remarks against the "West," it is that much more serious. When the NY Times prints an article discussing the supposed hopelessness of our presence here it is an attack against our "cause." And when the USA Today prints an article about the ineffectiveness of the Afghan Government for entertainment purposes and "eyeballs" on their paper, they are playing on the side of the "bad guys."

If it's about ideas and ideology, any support for the "other side's" position or any comment criticizing "our side" no matter how deserved is an attack.

This isn't a call for censorship or a demand for us to develop a propaganda machine. But it is a call to recognize that words are weapons. Today's battlefront may take lives with guns, but the war will be won by one idea proving superior to another. By enough people choosing one idea over another. It may take a gun to protect that idea, but the idea is the thing. Not the gun.

The AK-47 variant, the Chinese Type 56-1 in this picture is an example of an idea - the Russians invented it. The Chinese copied it. An Afghan insurgent got it. Then died with his brains all over it. His idea proved insufficient to the task.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Sometimes pride in your uniform, your job, your appearance is taken just a little far. This was not a joke, this was a real picture of his weapon.
This "jingled" weapon isn't that common, but decorating trucks, weapons, and other implements of war is an age-honored custom here in Afghanistan. I guess pink doesn't carry the same meaning here.
Another thing I have learned to love is the saying "There is NOW and NOT NOW." It's wonderfully zen, but not wonderful for getting things done. We mostly use this in terms of planning or the lack thereof. It doesn't necessarily apply to the Afghans.
We have many many many many many many many (many) chiefs out here. From many (times 50) countries. Each country brings political legitmacy with them - very important that - but also good ideas and political agendas and baggage. This makes getting things planned, resourced and executed challenging.
When putting a plan together, the different parties - coalition and Afghan - all bring different priorities to the table. Their national pride is often at stake. It is often misunderstood, out of place or ridiculous from our perspective. I am sure the policeman in the picture was just bringing a little pride to the formation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I am not sure if this police car impresses me in the attention to detail the police paid to it or....
makes me laugh - or both.
We are out here trying to build an Afghan National Security Force. There are many successes and many failures, but one thing that stares you in the face every day is that the culture here is not all that similar to that in the US.
For example, we issued enough pistols to the Ministry of Interior for every policeman to carry one in the country. One thing we overlooked is that here, only the officers in the organization carry pistols. Regular police carry AK47s. So, in most of the arms rooms I have inspected, boxes of unissued pistols are stacked to the ceiling.
There are many issues with training the police. In my opinion, the biggest is that it is hard for active duty military people to do. It requires a different mind set, an understanding of different culture not just of another country but another service and way of life. Infantrymen are not good policemen.
The funny thing is that the National Guardsmen from the US are much better at this than the regular army guys. They have the experience of performing a very wide variety of jobs that they aren't trained for and so are much more adaptable and flexible. We need more of them as mentors.
And the guy who decorated this truck for the police. We need many more of him.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Which one is more cute? Little girls with headscarves off to school or a HMMWV with whitewalls? It's really a difficult call, but I'm going with schoolgirls. Maybe it's the Sailor Moon Backpack.
The variety of uniforms I encounter around Afghanistan is another cute thing. If "cute" is the right word. With just American uniforms, you have Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines each with their own camouflage patterns. But it gets better. Each has their own version of flight suits, so we're up to eight, then the Army is testing six more patterns of camoflauge, so what? 14 patterns? And then the Navy has its tan dessert pattern that everyone else has abandoned, but has also come up with what I can only call "aquaflage."
The best part is when someone tries to quote uniform standards and regulations. Really? How can anyone tell? And then there are another 15 countries or so represented on our camp each with another four to ten types of uniforms.
Does any of this chaos of uniforms make sense when the word "uniform" is violated by the the very presence of so many different styles?

The little girls in the picture are uniformed to go to school and look to be marching in step. That's more than you can say about where I work. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Luxury and Translations

Morale is high. Except when it's not. And while I have a ton of things to write about, this picture is pretty much going to say it all for me today.
Thank you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


We traveled to Aybak and as we pulled in these boys came running up smiling and clowning demanding I take their pictures. Everywhere we go, the people here are generally friendly and will return your waves, smiles and greetings. The kids especially are open and engaging and pick up English at amazing speed.

The articles published in USA Today produced interesting reactions here. We fielded calls, held meetings, made calls, and generally scrambled (chuckling) at the reactions of people. "Damage control" is one phrase heard several times yesterday. "Nice knowing you" was another.

How people react to a given stimulus always depends upon their perspective. Leaders try to think how others will perceive an action, a policy, a report, or at least, good leaders do. In today's world, information is the new battlefront and news stories and rumor control are extremely important. The 1857 mutinies throughout the British Empire in India were started and spread by rumors. Perception and information management are newly rediscovered battlefronts.

So the fact that the children of Afghanistan are so quick to smile and greet us when we roll in to town with armored HMMWVs, helmets and guns, and maybe a smile and a wave, is a good sign. It's too bad that pictures like these don't often make the front pages of newspapers. It would probably send a better message.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Good times

We had our team written up in USA Today, today.
It wasn't totally accurate. That's probably because the guy who wrote the article didn't get three weeks of classes, three weeks of indoc training in country, and had zero military experience. Sort of points out that our world is completely alien to most people.

Military language - even service to service - can be almost incomprehensible. It creates a barrier between us as any foreign language can do. Our team is made up of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, but we have overcome cultural and linguistic traditions to form a close team. We now have our own inside jokes, traditions, and shorthand for speaking and communicating.
The articles that came out may make us look professional or not, depending on your frame of reference. The articles did cause a tremendous amount of mirth here, though. The misquotes and misconceptions have led to a lot of ribbing and joking. Lots of it is macabre and most of it would be incomprehensible to anyone outside our office.
The whole point of this note is - we find our humor and breaks where ever we can. It brings us closer together, passes the time more quickly and hopefully. brings us home quicker.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mine is Special

The 1228 mission leads to interesting discoveries. Captured and seized Taliban weapons are often in varying states of repair. One of the weapons pictured above was obviously loved more than the others.
Growing up in the 1980's as some people much older than I did, AK-47s and the mujahadin were almost mythical. The fight against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan using their own weapons against them seemed to be almost poetic in its justice.
20 years later, those weapons are still here. So are the weapons from fighting the British, twice; a lot of weapons shipped in by the Nazis; weapons from the US circa World War I and World War II. Just a lot of weapons.
You quickly become a specialist in identifying which country the 20 types of AK-47s come from. It's fascinating, but in the end, not a very marketable skill. Or at least outside of a niche market.

Friday, March 12, 2010

How You Treat Your Dog

I think that how you treat your pets says a lot about who you are. I find it interesting that stray cats and dogs in the US are extremely leary and shy. They run, they hide, they generally avoid people.

In Afghanistan, they tend to come right up, nose your hand, and then collapse in a nap at your feet. Cats and dogs alike are so much less afraid of people here. No incidents of firecrackers tied to tails, no deliberate cruelty to cats, no rocks thrown at dogs.

Even though dogs are considered unclean in many Muslim cultures, the Koran enjoins Muslims to treat animals kindly. Buddhists and Hindus, perhaps because of belief in reincarnation and karma, also generally treat animals kindly.

Why is it in the US that our strays are so afraid? What does it say about our culture?

And the dog in this picture? His name is Tony and he's just sleeping through one of my briefs. All the soldiers standing there wish they could do the same.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Met with State Department guy today. Good man. Wants to get the job done and has an amazingly huge portfolio. Wears a suit – very nice gabardine with a blue plaid shirt and multi-hued tie – to a meeting in a beautifully appointed conference room with some smelly Army guys carrying guns.

Our State guy mentioned that he didn’t see why anyone would take the embassy seriously when they were living in squalor, so the posh living conditions were to send a message to the Afghans, “See how we live? We’re Americans and you should trust us because we know how to roll in style.”

We were having culture shock over the swept streets, fresh paint, suits and shiny faces. To the Army guys, living in luxury when the rest of your mission is living in the dirt, seems a bit much. Complaining about it seems beyond believable.

Justifying it by believing you have to maintain appearances? I am just not sure how to touch that one…

So a picture of a guy driving a minivan full of sheep seems to say what I am trying to express: huh?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Formal Familiarity

I walk to work each morning. 15 minutes brisk walk through six checkpoints, past the Pakistan Embassy, the US Embassy and several homes and safe houses. My favorite part of the walk is getting the opportunity to practice Dari, Hindi, and Tagalog.

There are thirty or so armed guards at various points along the walk. Afghans, Indians and Nepalese, and Philippinos all greet you with smiles. The Indians and Nepalese are easy: "Namaste." Philippinos: "Mangadang Umaga, Como Esta?"

The Afghans are the most fun, though: "Sopbahire! Hubas dee? Chatoras Dee? Janajoras?" Maybe add a "Lapajab Chatoras?" If you are more familiar.

The culture here has a strong tradition of formality that actually eases conversation. They greet you each day asking about your health, your day, your family, your job. They wish you a good day and thank you for inquiring into their health and circumstances. Every encounter requires a handshake, firm, but longer than an American one.

A walk that should take 15 minutes can stretch to 30 minutes or even and hour after declining twenty invitations to tea and to have a small bite. They will unhesitatingly offer you half their meal every time.

The formality of their greetings has quickly become a familiarity and welcome start and end to each day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Culture is fun to study and really fun and surprising to note how others (mis)interpret yours.

This one is a little off-color so be warned. Funny, thought-provoking, but off-color.

We recently worked with some Afghan police and noticed that one policeman did not carry his own weapon or equipment. He had another man carry it for him. The boss had a beard. The bag man was clean shaven with a hint of eye shadow. I will leave unsaid any conjecture about their relationship. But we had it explained that the bearded men wear the pants and the clean-shaven ones take other roles.

In the US military beards are forbidden. Mustaches are allowed, but discouraged. Infantrymen look at guys with mustaches as undisciplined.

How do the Afghans look at us?

Saturday, March 6, 2010



I am writing this blog from Kabul, Afghanistan. I am on a 12 month tour assigned to the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan. Or the NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan. Or the Office of Security Cooperation - Afghanistan. The names keep changing to protect the innocent.

What I do, though, is pretty clear: I work in the Joint Task Force 1228. The team is responsible for (by law) Registering all small arms provided to the Afghan National Security Forces; Tracking the Origin, Shipping and Distribution of Defense Articles provided; and End Use Monitoring. If you really want a detailed brief about this, email me and I will send you a power point brief, notes, and copies of the laws. It's horrible reading, but a fantastic job.

I am US Army Major, Foreign Area Officer or FAO, with a Southeast Asia background. While that doesn't seem to tie in to Afghanistan that well, the job I do is a classic "FAO" job. We do similar things in most countries we work with.

So, the blog is going to NOT be a detailed report of daily activities. It is NOT going to be a political soapbox. It is NOT going to be official in any way.

It WILL be, I hope, a small window into one soldier's view of Afghanistan and his work here; a little about Afghan people, a lot about Military Culture, and at least as irreverant at times as Catch 22 and MASH without the anti-war political messages. I hope.

Final Disclaimer:

I really don't know what I'm talking about.

Friday, March 5, 2010


The photo was taken on the way to inspect a depot. The kids come rushing out for convoys because gunners often throw candy. The cynical side of me thinks of them as canaries - when the kids don't come out it's time to start looking out.
But I had a rough day and to combat it, I took a pageout of my Mom's book. She has a tiara that she wears around when she wants to feel special. I don't have a tiara, but I do have a VIP Pass. So I clipped it to my uniform and sported it around that evening to dinner. It failed miserably. No extra dessert. No extra lobster tail. No special seat. No one even noticed the badge, though I did get punked out by a Sergeant Major who didn't like my unit patch. He didn't blink at the VIP Badge. Maybe I need the tiara.

On the Road to Aybak


Foreign Area Officer or

Funded Adventure Overseas

I like the second a lot.

I will soon be looking for sponsors when I finish with the Army. Any takers?