Posts Tagged ‘Coalition’

Band-e-Amir National Park makes a nice tourist destination. *

It's free of landmines AND flesh-eating wasps! **

No matter how long or hard my day has been, I know it’s been better than Ghulam Nabi Farahi’s.  He has what is surely the toughest job in the world: Deputy Minister for Administration, Finance, and Tourism, working in the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.

I’ve written about Afghan tourism slogans before (twice, actually).  But to help out the Deputy Minister — and with apologies to The Late Show — here are a few more ideas:

#10  Afghanistan:  Not bad, except for the giant flesh-eating wasps. In your bunker. Even though “giant flesh-eating wasps” sounds like something from a REALLY bad movie, they’re real.  In fact, watching them pull small chunks of chicken from your plate was just one of the many things that made Kabul dining an adventure.  But building a nest in the bunker closest to my office?  Well, that was just going too far…

#9  Afghanistan:  Cool, in a Mad Max sort of way. Anyone who’s ever driven Highway 1 knows exactly what I mean.

#8  Afghanistan:  The world’s toughest story problem. Inspired by this classic Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson.

#7  Afghanistan:  The crossroads of everywhere.  The graveyard of everyone. People have been trading and fighting in Afghanistan for over 50,000 years.  From the original Silk Road to the Modern Silk Road Strategy, and from Alexander the Great to tomorrow’s news, Afghanistan has a well-deserved reputation as a formidable trading partner.  And the graveyard of empires.

#6  Afghanistan: Where the kids are friendly. And have AK-47s. Eid Al Fitr is a three-day holiday at the end of Ramadan (‘Ramazan’, in Afghanistan).  Traditional gifts for children include dresses for girls and toy AK-47s for boys. Which means a bunch of boys standing at traffic circles shooting airsoft pellets at convoys…from REALLY realistic toy guns.  In general, they’re not being mean-spirited at all, that’s just what boys DO in Afghanistan.  All’s well…as long as the boys run out of pellets before a Coalition member in a gun turret gets spooked or an insurgent figures out how to exploit it.

#5  Afghanistan: Where the only law is the law of unintended consequences. Intervention in a complex system — and nowhere is more complex than Afghanistan — ALWAYS creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.  Like this.

#4  Afghanistan: In a horror movie when the music shifts to a minor key and you’re all, “Don’t open the door!!!”? Well that door leads here. Loosely based on the opening lines of this article by Eugene Robinson.

#3  Afghanistan: The major historical sites are expected to be landmine-free! A quote from the this article by Heidi Vogt about tourism in Afghanistan.  Really.

#2  Afghanistan: That’s not debris.  That’s just air. Overheard after a rocket attack.  Really.  It’s funny until you find out it’s too true to be funny.  During my time in Afghanistan, exactly zero NTM-A members died from rocket attacks.  Two died due to respiratory disease.  Not surprising, since Kabul has “the highest amount of fecal matter in the atmosphere in the world,” according to Pushpa Pathak.

and my number one recommendation for an Afghan Tourism slogan…

#1  Afghanistan:  At least we don’t have evil flying attack squids! Which makes it better than San Diego.  Really.

Bottom Line: All joking aside, Afghanistan has much to offer; with victory we’ll being able to enjoy it.  And as I’ve written, that’s worth fighting for.

* Photo by Paula Bronstein of Getty Images, from USA Today

** Photo by Stephon Sterns


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Afghan women line up to vote under Afghan National Police protection*

Workers take ballot boxes to a remote polling station in Panjshir Province **

Within hours, the polls will open for the 2010 Afghan Parliamentary elections

I supported the Afghan National Army and Police forces during the 2009 Afghan Presidential election and was relieved when the parliamentary elections (originally scheduled for May) were postponed.

So with apologies to Clint Eastwood, here’s my take on the upcoming elections…

The good:  People will vote.  It’s obvious, but we tend to forget that an election in a country like Afghanistan is a Big Deal.  Are Afghans racked by war?   Duh.  Illiterate?  Almost entirely.  Discriminatory?  Mostly…especially against women.   But despite all that, Afghans will turn out to vote tomorrow, choosing their representatives on a ballot (like this) with candidate icons and pictures.   And 405 of the 2,577 candidates will be women.

The bad:  There will be fraud.  With fake voter registration cards going for only 23 cents apiece, it might be more accurate to say there will be LOTS of fraud.  But there is some silver lining:  It shouldn’t be as bad as the 2009 Presidential elections, and both Afghans and the International Community are watching closely, so it should get better over time.

The ugly:  As Joshua Faust points out, there will be blood.  According to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, Afghanistan has deployed 52,000 Afghan National Police and 63,000 Afghan National Army personnel across the country to provide election security.  Additionally, NATO forces stand ready to provide emergency security, medical and logistical support.  But voters are a VERY lucrative target for the insurgents, and the Taliban is both ruthless and effective…

Bottom line: For good, bad, or ugly, Afghans will choose their representatives tomorrow.  Like Rat, in Stephan Pastis’ comic Pearls Before Swine, I expect the best…

* Photo by Tyler Hicks, of the New York Times

** Photo by Shah Marai, of Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

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Commando patch

Comm Support Unit adviser, proudly wearing the ANA Commando patch*

ANP Antenna

ANP radio antenna, supporting a District Headquarters in Wardak Province**

I’ve got a GREAT team of Coalition Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in my organization; here are three that really stood out recently:

Senior Airman Taylor is a technician working in my Operations  section, connecting NTM-A and CSTC-A.  He is responsible for the installation, operation and maintenance of the classified Coalition network (called Afghanistan Mission Network, or AMN) at Camp Eggers – 555 users, 360 computers, 25 printers, and 50 computer-based phones…growing every day.

Recently, SrA Taylor provided above-and-beyond comm support to the Joint Planning Group charged to relook the Command’s mission and way-ahead.  This has been an incredibly high-visibility effort, involving multiple meetings with LTG Caldwell, the NTM-A Commander and CSTC-A Commanding General.  SrA Taylor engineered and implemented AMN connectivity for the group despite starting with ZERO comm infrastructure in their designated meeting space.  He connected over twenty senior officers with secure comms and enabled in-depth analysis across fourteen different staff sections, allowing the group to chart the way forward for the Command.

Electronics Technician First Class Peterson works in my Afghan National Army Communications section, supporting ANA command and control.  He serves as the satellite communications trainer/adviser for the ANA Communications Support Unit (CSU).  As an adviser, ET1 Peterson helped the CSU with their first operational deployment, ever.  I’ve written about this deployment before, but the short story is until ET1 Peterson and the CSU arrived, the Commando Brigade Headquarters had only radio communications.  Only two days into the deployment, Commando leaders had video, voice, and data comms with the National Military Command Center,  allowing them to effectively respond to the 18 January insurgent attacks in Kabul.  And today, the Commandos are participating in major combat operations in and around Marjah, in central Helmand.

Additionally, ET1 Peterson provides direct support for the American Forces Network (AFN) television broadcast  system on Camp Eggers.  He helped replace cable and perform maintenance on the Camp Eggers AFN system.  In the process, he isolated and fixed an intermittent problem with AFN reception affecting our headquarters building.  These trouble prevention and troubleshooting skills earned the personal recognition of LTG Caldwell.

Last but certainly not least, Lieutenant Commander Stewart serves as the Radio Fielding Branch Chief in my Afghan National Police Comms section.  He’s driving a $10 million plan to install over 400 VHF radio repeaters throughout Afghanistan, enhancing the tactical command and control capabilities of the ANP.  He developed a strategy to use existing commercial cell phone towers, saving significant time and money compared to building towers from scratch.  LCDR Stewart is also finishing up a UHF radio system installation here in Kabul.  This is a trunked system which allows almost unlimited talk groups…which means local police, fire fighters, medical providers and other first responders in the capital can use their radios simultaneously, without stepping on each other’s voices, even during a major crisis.  He has already started operational testing; I expect the the system will soon be functioning as designed for more than 3,700 users.

Finally, LCDR Stewart has been directly responsible for working with Afghan Ministry of the Interior officers to field more than 300 vital pieces of radio equipment for Afghan Gendarmerie Force units participating in Operation Moshtarak near Marjah.  Afghan and Coalition forces are currently clearing the area of insurgents; LCDR Stewart’s radios will help Afghan police forces hold the line against an insurgent return, providing the Afghan government time and space to build capability within the area.

Bottom line:  I offer SrA Taylor, ET1 Peterson, and LCDR Stewart as shining examples of the best qualities of this Command – agile and adaptive, culturally respectful, and innovative.  It is my pleasure and my honor to serve with them here.

* Photo by ET1 David Peterson.

** Photo by ITC Greg Laskowski.

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Print Plant

The MoD Print Plant, without mines


Civilian and military Print Plant workers*

Your slightly-cryptic but cool Afghan phrase of the day:  The hand is a flower.

In America, wild flowers exist…fields of bluebonnets, columbine, and bear grass bloom without human help.  And fields of dandelions bloom despite human help!

In Afghanistan, not so much.  There’s PLENTY of dirt here, but without nurturing Afghan hands, few – if any – seeds or bulbs would ever flower.  Thus, “[due to] the hand, a flower exists,” usually translated as…

The hand is a flower

I learned this phrase while visiting the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Print Plant.  The Print Plant is a real gem.  There, soldiers and Army civilians work together to print everything an Army needs…stuff like certificates, forms, posters, maps, training materials, and manuals.

The Print Plant is located in an ornate building, originally built in the 1930s.  When the ANA first moved in though, just over 5 years ago, the facility grounds were still littered with Soviet air-dropped landmines…I guess clearing the roof was more than a little sporty.  But Afghan hands cleared the building and then, with Coalition hands helping out, trained and equipped the men and women of the Print Plant.  Today, the MoD operates and maintains the Print Plant machinery with only a little help from a supporting contractor.  And they do all the graphic design work themselves.

Unfortunately, this level of autonomy is still rare within the Afghan National Security Forces.  But the MoD Print Plant is existence proof that transition of responsibility to Afghan hands can work REALLY well.

Bottom line:  The best things don’t just spontaneously happen.  But Afghan and Coalition hands can make flowers grow in even the most unlikely places.

* Photo by LtCol Dean Vrable, USMC

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Coalition forces

Coalition members commemorate all those who've served*


Two minutes of silence, in honor of those who've fallen*

As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t do many ceremonies here at Camp Eggers.  But Veterans Day (also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day or Armistice Day) last November was an exception.

It’s a very powerful thing to pause, even for only a brief moment, and honor those who have served before us.  And it was even more powerful to do so, here in Afghanistan, with other members of the Coalition:  Albanian, American, Australian, British, Dutch, French, Polish, South Korean, Spanish, and Turkish forces alike.

Bottom line:  There’s a poem, famous within the Commonwealth, that speaks to  the need to keep the faith with our veterans:

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

Thanks to all who help hold that torch.

* Photos by SSgt Larry E. Reid, Jr., USAF, from DefenseImagery

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Waiting for Mi-17

Some things change: Afghan and Coalition forces wait for an ANA Air Corps Mi-17*


Some stay the same: A USAF C-17 drops supplies in Afghanistan**

It’s been pretty amazing watching the transformation of airpower in Afghanistan over the last 9 years.  Initially, airpower was entirely about the Coalition and almost entirely about killing people.  On the first night of the war in Afghanistan, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described attacks by B-2 stealth bombers from the continental United States, B-1 and B-52 bombers from Diego Garcia, 25 strike aircraft from the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, and cruise missiles launched from US surface ships, a US submarine and a British submarine.

By 2009, the Coalition’s ability to plan and execute precision strikes – with minimal loss of civilian life – had never been better.  But it wasn’t good enough.  For example, a UNAMA report that 595 civilians were killed by insurgents, compared to only 200 by Coalition air strikes in the first half of 2009 was interesting but irrelevant.  Because statistics don’t matter to the families of the 200 killed by air strikes.  Afghans and the International Community alike were asking, “I don’t get it – how come you guys are losing?

The answer?  We had the wrong focus.  Because, as Brig Gen Kwast, commander of the Air Expeditionary Wing at Bagram Air Base says,

Counterinsurgency is not about killing the enemy.  It’s about protecting the people.

So, on 2 July 2009, Coalition airpower changed dramatically.   As part of a far-reaching tactical directive, GEN McChrystal, the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, directed that air strikes could only occur under “very limited and prescribed” conditions, noting that “we must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civlian casualties…and thus alienating the people.”  Or as Dave “Smoke” Grasso puts it,

Every time I drop a bomb and kill one innocent Afghan I set the war back – even if I killed 100 Taliban.

In the ANA Air Corps though, arpower changed even more dramatically.  In 2005, there was no such thing as Afghan airpower.  Today, the Air Corps flies Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, and AN-32 and C-27 cargo aircraft, focusing on Presidential and other types of airlift, and battlefield mobility, to include air assault, medical evacuation and casualty evacuation.  NTM-A/CSTC-A’s Combined Air Power Transition Force, or CAPTF, supports the Air Corps by helping build aircraft capacity, Airmen, and infrastructure.  CAPTF advisers also help the Afghans perform operations, in direct support of the counterinsurgency effort.

But some things about airpower in Afghanistan never change:  On the first night of the war – only 45 minutes after the first bombs hit their targets – the US Air Force dropped 34,400 packages of food and medicine from two C-17 transport aircraft.  Today, we sometimes use a precision airdrop system, but we’re still dropping supplies in Afghanistan.

Bottom line:   Airmen adapt.

This post borrows heavily from articles by Noah Sachtman in Wired and  David Wood in Air Force magazine.

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

** Photo by SSgt Michael B. Keller, USAF, from Defense Imagery.

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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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