Archive for January, 2010


Soldiers of the Comm Support Unit set up a satellite dish ...


... in direct support of ANA Commando Brigade operations *

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the Communications Support Unit (CSU) is three companies of well-led ANA communicators, trained to deploy and quickly set up fully functional command centers.  Anytime, anywhere.

Earlier this month, they did exactly that!  On 16 January, the unit deployed elements of Aleph Company to Rish Khvor, just south of Kabul, to provide direct support for the ANA’s Commando Brigade Headquarters as they get ready for upcoming operations in central Helmand.

Previously, the Commando Brigade Headquarters only had radio communications.  For anything but short messages to and from the National Military Command Center (NMCC), they had to send runners–almost a 2-hour convoy.  Within a day though, the Commandos had video teleconference, telephone, and commercially encrypted data capabilities.  Only two days into the deployment, these links were used operationally, connecting Commando leaders with the NMCC to help put down the 18 January insurgent attacks in Kabul.  Finally, within three days, the Commandos were at “full operational capability”, with 25 phones and 18 laptops operating throughout their headquarters.

The unit’s support during the attacks in Kabul was a Seriously Big Deal – the first operational deployment of the unit, ever.  But as perhaps an Even Bigger Deal, this was the unit’s first-ever NCO-only deployment.  I have a small team of eight military advisers that work with the 400+ members of the CSU.  They’ve been pushing hard lately to develop the unit NCOs as leaders, and training the Afghan officers to trust their NCOs.  It appears those efforts are actually paying off!

Coincidentally, on 16 January elements of Bey Company deployed as well.  They traveled to Pol-E-Charki, east of Kabul, with field phones and switchboards to support an Army Command and Staff Exercise for the 215th Corps.  The 215th is a new unit, developed specifically to partner with the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand.  During this period, Jeem Company remained on “ready alert” to support the NMCC or emerging taskings…for example, CSU planners are now working with Coalition SOF, the Commando Brigade, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense to deploy communications capability for Commando units working from Khandahar.

Bottom line:  Only 5 years ago, the Communications Support Unit was a good idea, a funding line, and three ANA soldiers living in a bombed-out building, hunting for firewood.  Today, it’s an amazingly capable unit, on par with the best deployable comm units in the world.  And it’s an honor and a privilege to be part of that evolution.

* Photos by ET1 Peterson, USN


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USAF pararescueman provides medical care to an Afghan*

First aid class

A PRT medic hands out first aid kits for a class in Panjshir**

Medical support is a Big Deal in Afghanistan, providing perhaps the best return on investment of anything the Coalition is doing.   This is largely because, in an academic sense, medicine is one of the few areas where we – the Coalition and Afghan central government – have a ‘significant and useful asymmetrical advantage’ over the insurgents.  Or said another way, where we can do stuff for the Afghan population that the insurgents can’t.

See, the  insurgents can provide justice…in a way.  A brutal, nasty way to be sure, but justice nonetheless.  And they can provide jobs and economic benefits…in a way.  Of course they’re jobs founded on opium and blood money, but they’re jobs nonetheless.  And they can provide security…in a way.  Insurgent security is pretty much just a protection racket, but still, it’s security.  Regarding medicine though, the insurgents can’t do jack.  And the Afghan government can.

Most Coalition medical professionals are focused on providing medical services to Afghans – from trauma care and evacuation to preventative medicine – throughout Afghanistan.  But there’s also a team of 160 military members and 15 contractors focused on the medical systems of the Afghan National Security Forces:  NTM-A/CSTC-A‘s Medical Training and Advisory Group, or MTAG.

MTAG advisers face TONS of challenges in Afghanistan.  Many clinics are difficult to locate and assess due to security issues or their remote locations.  Many are severely understaffed or not staffed with qualified personnel.  And many are simply inadequate…for the current patient load, let alone the load expected as we continue to grow the Afghan National Security Forces.

But the MTAG team is making progress.  They’re training doctors, nurses, medical logisticians, combat medics, and trauma assistance personnel.  They’re purchasing pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies, radios, and ambulances for use by ANA and ANP medical providers.  And perhaps most importantly, they’re working with the medical staffs of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense, with USAID, and with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to build the lasting institutions of a sustainable medical system.

Afghanistan’s Armed Forces Academy of Medical Sciences runs a 7-year program here in Kabul.  Almost unbelievably, the second class will graduate in just a few months.  

Bottom line:  With perseverance like that, it’s no surprise the MTAG team believes quality health care, sustainable resources and personnel, and accessible care for ANA and ANP beneficiaries are achievable.  Even in Afghanistan.

* DoD photo by SSgt Angelita Lawrence, USAF, from DefenseImagery

** DoD photo by SGT Teddy Wade, USA, from DefenseImagery

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Khan Neshin

The Afghan national flag, raised above Khan Neshin castle the first time*


An all-too-common sight at Camp Eggers: US, Afghan, and UK flags at half-staff...

I always appreciate seeing the Afghan national flag flying from a building or tower.  To me, it represents a symbolic acknowledgement that Afghanistan is more than just a loose collection of tribes…that there’s a real nation here, proud and strong.     

There are conflicting descriptions of what the colors represent, but I like this one, paraphrased from Flags of the World:    

The three colours of the flag represent a different page in the history of Afghanistan.  The black represents the 19th century era when Afghanistan was occupied and did not have independence, red marks the fight for independence and the green shows independence had been achieved.    

Additionally, the colors have specific meanings within the Islamic faith.  We’re taught that green stands for service to Allah, red for sacrifice, and black for martyrdom.  Along those lines, I see the flag colors as symbolic of the members of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Coalition serving here in Afghanistan.  To me, the green vertical represents service, writ large…service to each other, our families, our Service, our nations, and the God of our choosing.   The red vertical is the sacrifices we make in order to build Afghanistan and protect its people…for some, a blood sacrifice.  And the black signifies those who have given their lives for Afghanistan…445 Coalition members and 1,030 Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army members in 2009 alone.    

Bottom line:  Strips of cloth can be damaged easily, especially in a country like Afghanistan.  But a flag represents an idea, and ideas are bulletproof.    

* USMC photo by Cpl Aaron Rooks, from USCENTCOM

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Money-changer in Kabul, with afghani, dollars, and other currency*

ANP checkpoint

ANP highway checkpoint...keeping people safe or shaking them down?**

Afghanistan: Less corrupt than Somalia!

That’s not exactly the kind of slogan the Afghan Ministry of Tourism wants, but unfortunately, that’s the best they can do.  According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is the second-most corrupt country on the planet.  Only Somalia is worse.  Haiti is a whopping eight spots higher on the list.   And that has a direct impact on the counter-insurgency fight here in Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Security Forces performed well during this week’s attacks in Kabul, but as Alissa J. Rubin of the NY Times found, Afghans like Noor ul-Haq Uloumi, a member of Parliament who sits on its Defense Committee, can’t help but wonder, “How come these terrorists are able to come all the way from the border to Kabul with all their ammunitions and stuff?”  The obvious answer:  Corruption.  “There are many reports of cases where guards have been bribed to enable criminals or insurgents to move through an area…if we cannot eliminate corruption in the government and cannot make a government based on the rule of law to serve the people of Afghanistan, this corruption can bring many of such attacks.”

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime recently released the results of a survey on Corruption in Afghanistan, and it’s sobering.

Poverty and violence are usually portrayed as the biggest challenges confronting Afghanistan.  But ask the Afghans themselves, and you get a different answer: corruption is their biggest worry.  An overwhelming 59 per cent of Afghans view public dishonesty as a bigger concern than insecurity (54 per cent) and unemployment (52 per cent).

Obviously, as part of the Coalition supporting the surge in Afghan National Security Forces, my focus has been almost entirely on security.  But it’s clear I need to take a broader view.  Part of that is simply keeping a more watchful eye on the senior Afghan communicators with whom I interact.  They have ample opportunities for corruption – selling permission to use radio frequencies, forcing contractors to pay bribes (commonly called “pen fees” if a signature is needed to complete a bureaucratic process or “walking fees” if it requires simple facilitation), and smoothing the transfer of communications equipment through Customs.  I haven’t seen much, if any, of this.  But I haven’t been looking closely.  Another part is providing support to efforts like the Ministry of the Interior’s Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) and Anti-corruption Hot Line call center.  The biggest challenge, as a communicator, is that these efforts require a level of computer security not often seen in Afghanistan.  There are not many electronic records in Afghanistan worth killing for.  The electronic records of the MCTF and the telephone records of the call center may well be exceptions…

Bottom line:  Perhaps the Editorial Staff of StrategyPage say it best:

Behind the war is the real battle for Afghanistan, and the future of the country…poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and corruption.  That’s the real war.

* DPA/Corbis photo by Marcel Mettelsiefen, from Time

**USAF photo by TSgt Francisco V. Govea II, from Defense Imagery )

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ANP respond

Afghan National Police respond to the initial attacks*

ANA Commandos

Army Commandos corner the remaining insurgents**

Those who watch the Postometer to the right are probably wondering if I’ve lost my mind.  As I type this, Google News is showing 1217 articles and 91 images regarding today’s attacks in Kabul…and I have the audacity to write a “cautiously optimistic” post?!?

Well, yes.

When the attacks started today, my first concern was about the people in my directorate.  At the time of the attacks, we had a number of people working with Afghans “outside the wire”…we knew where they were, but we didn’t know exactly where the fighting was, so – as always – the situation was a little tense until we determined everyone was “all present or accounted for.”

My second concern, though, was about the Afghans we had trained, advised, and equipped.  Soldiers, policemen, and policewomen were in the streets, using short-range and long-range radios to coordinate the fight against the insurgents and gain medical support for the injured.  They were also in the National Military Command Center, the National Police Command Center, and other locations, using video teleconference systems, telephones, computers, and surveillance cameras to gain situational awareness and coordinate the responses of subordinate units.  And we – Afghan and Coalition communicators alike – were responsible.  I knew we’d done well, but at that point I could only hope it was good enough.

It was.

Could we – the communicators, I mean – have done better?  Certainly.  Over the next few days we’ll conduct hard-nosed after-action reviews, looking at what went right and what went wrong.  And we’ll become better for it.

Over the next few days we’ll also learn and share stories about the heroes…a policeman, perhaps, who stopped a vehicle-borne IED at an entry control point, giving his life but protecting everyone on the other side.  Or a soldier perhaps, killed while retaking one of the hotels.  And we’ll become better for it.

Bottom line:  It utterly rots that 7 terrorists were able to attack soft targets in Afghanistan’s largest city today, killing 5 and injuring 70 during 6 hours of fighting.  However, compared with the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, (where 10 terrorists attacked soft targets in India’s largest city, killing 173 and injuring 308 over 2-1/2 days of fighting), it’s clear the Afghan National Security Forces did pretty well.

* AP photo, from BBC News

** AP photo by Ahmad Massoud, from the NY Times

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Father and son

An Afghan soldier in Kabul, with his son and AK-47*

M-16 training

SSG Sokolowski trains Afghan soldiers to fire the M-16**

Afghan phrase of the day: “762 retirement.”

There’s no real retirement plan for members of the ANA or ANP.  We’ve done a bunch of work to put together an affordable yet decent retirement plan, but (as in any other country in the world) something like this is a HUGE political deal, so it’s seriously wrapped up in Parliament.  Not having a decent retirement plan is–for obvious reasons–a big contributing factor to corruption.  In a very real sense, skimming *is* the retirement plan.  Or at least the preferred one!  The other is the “762 retirement” plan.  See, the insurgents use AK-47s, which take 7.62mm (in the US: 30 caliber) ammunition…

Which reminds me, there’s an ongoing issue on whether to issue M-16s or AK-47s to the Afghans.  M-16s are the classic U.S. automatic rifle, and AK-47s are the classic Soviet (now Russian) one.  In sterotypical Cold War fashion, the U.S. weapon is much more accurate, but also much more expensive and complex.  So even though there’s a lot to be said for supporting U.S. weapon makers, there’s also a lot to be said for making the AK-47 the standard weapon here.  One of the biggest selling points for the AK-47, especially as we try to accelerate the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces, is that the training program for AK-47 qualification is much faster than the corresponding program for M-16s.  Everyone thought it was just familiarization, but there’s another issue that’s just recently surfaced:

Like I said, the M-16 is far more accurate.  If you hold an M-16 correctly, and aim correctly, and breathe correctly, and squeeze the trigger correctly, you WILL hit your target.  100% guaranteed.  But that isn’t necessarily a good thing in a culture where death should be Allah’s call, not yours.  You do all that with an AK-47 and there’s still a fairly good chance you’ll miss.  Allah’s call.  And if you hold it at your waist, aim basically downrange, and breathe and squeeze however you want, I can pretty much guarantee that the only person who’s gonna get hit is someone Allah WANTS to be hit.

Bottom line: Every day here brings new and REALLY interesting cultural insights…

* Photo by Michael Kaiser, from deviantART

** Photo by SSgt Larry E. Reid, Jr., USAF, from Defense Imagery

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Volunteer community relations mission

Unloading clothes and toys for a volunteer community relations (VCR) mission*

VCR football

Playing soccer (or football, to the rest of the Coalition) on a VCR mission*

One of the most important things we do is volunteer community relations, or VCR, missions.  Led by NTM-A chaplains from Camp Eggers, volunteers distribute clothes and toys to places like schools, orphanages and medical centers in Kabul and surrounding areas.  During the run-up to the Presidential Elections last year, the security situation in Kabul was the worst it’s been during my tour.  Many days, roads were ‘black’, meaning we could only travel on them for absolutely mission-critical activities, and even then, only with the permission of our most senior officers.  But even on those days, the VCR missions went on…the Command clearly demonstrated that VCR missions are a vital part of what we’re trying to accomplish here in Afghanistan.  And that makes sense:  VCR missions provide hope to Afghans that have none, and as the Afghans would say,

The world lives on hope.

In general, VCR missions take place once week.  Unfortunately, because of the security and transportation challenges, only a handful of people can go on the actual mission.  So the chaplains select randomly from the list of people who help out at the ‘VCR sort’.  This first part is truly a sight to behold: Scores of military and civilian volunteers putting order to the massive chaos of items donated by individuals and charities from all over the world.   It starts with a human chain, passing hundreds of boxes from the VCR storage area to a nearby open space.  The volunteers then sort the boxes into smaller piles, organizing them by type: clothing for infants, boys, girls, men, and women; toys; blankets; jackets; winter shoes; normal shoes; and so on.  Then it’s almost like Halloween:  A non-stop line of people with bags, stopping at houses, and receiving treats.  Except in this case it’s a line of volunteers with bags, stopping at each small pile, and receiving donated items from that station.  By the time a volunteer has looped all the way around the sort area, his or her bag is jam-packed with a complete mix of donated goods…one family’s worth of stuff.  A quick stop to tie off the bag and pick up another, then it’s back for another round.  The whole thing happens VERY quickly and with a very little formal organization…almost like a bunch of ants taking on a task that’s WAY too big as individuals but easy as a swarm.  Which is really the whole idea of the International Community’s work in Afghanistan…

Bottom line:  VCR missions change lives…both the volunteer’s and the recipient’s.

* USAF photos by SSgt Larry E. Reid, from Defense Imagery

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