Posts Tagged ‘Coalition’

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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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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Vehicle Division

SMSgt Schell at the Central Workshop Vehicle Division


A well-maintained hand-cranked winch, 130 years old

Central Workshop is the National-level depot maintenance and production facility for the Afghan National Army.  Visiting there is like stepping into a Dickens novel…if Dickens was writing about counter-insurgency operations.  Want your AK-47 barrel re-blued and a new butt-stock created from scratch?  Central Workshop’s the place.  Need to smelt and cast a bunch of new insignia?  Likewise.  Need to repair an artillery piece with a blowtorch and sledgehammer?  Definitely the Central Workshop.  Need to install a new power supply in an HF radio base station or a new encryption board in a VHF hand-held?  Um, not so much…

At least that was the case before NTM-A/CSTC-A‘s Logistics Training and Advisory Group (LTAG) arrived.  The LTAG has a team of 10 US service members assigned to advise the 1100+ soldiers of the Central Workshop.  These advisers live at Camp Eggers, but work “outside the wire” alongside Afghans, almost every single day.  They have raised the capability and capacity of the entire Central Workshop…facilities and engineering, production control, quality assurance, test equipment, the weapons shops, the machine shop, and on and on and on…

But dearest to my heart is LTAG’s support to the Central Workshop Communications Division.   LTAG advisers have developed the environment the Comm Division needs to succeed: facility upgrades, spare parts, and test equipment coming soon.  They’ve also developed the soldiers the Division needs to succeed.  As I mentioned in a previous post, NTM-A basically took the five best radio maintainers in the ANA and trained them up even more…they’re now officially certified to train others, bringing the ANA one small step closer to being able to sustain itself.

But according to SMSgt Schell, the Senior Enlisted member of the US Adviser team, the toughest part of the job isn’t the technical challenges.  Nor is it the attitude of the Afghans…Central Workshop soldiers are–almost without exception–motivated and eager to learn.  The toughest part is convincing other Coalition members of the Workshop’s potential…”selling hope”, as SMSgt Schell puts it.  A great example is the Vehicle Maintenance Division.  Right now, the Division is largely without work, because the Coalition has put a “do contract” in place (where the contractor does the mission for the Afghans) instead of a “teach contract” (where the contractor teaches the Afghans how to do the mission).  Certainly, vehicle maintenance is tough, even within the US military.  Imagine it within a country at war, with a barely-functional supply system and a frighteningly illiterate workforce.  But Central Workshop soldiers understand maintenance discipline and have a long, proud history of finding a way to overcome any maintenance challenge.  There’s a hand-cranked winch in the machine shop, for example, that can lift a little over 3 tons.  It was made, from scratch, 130 years ago.  And it still works flawlessly.  There’s no doubt the Central Workshop has a LONG way to go.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll get there.

Bottom line:  The Afghans have a phrase that sums up the effort nicely:

Drop drop becomes a river.

Five instructor-qualified radio maintainers is just a drop.  And the outlines of a “Vo-tech”-style vehicle maintenance program is just a drop.  But with the help of motivated LTAG advisers, there’s a river coming, fast.

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It's safe to fish now in the Paghman river, Wardak Province*

Someday, we'll ski these mountains, just west of Kabul

Drew Brown had a great article in this morning’s Stars and Stripes, in which he discussed the path to victory in Afghanistan with GEN McChrystal, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and US Forces – Afghanistan.

I’ve talked to  MG Ali, my counterpart in the Afghan National Army, about what victory would look like.  To him, victory is being able to invite his Coalition advisers back to Afghanistan for a fishing trip near the village where he grew up.  The way he tells it, there was a GREAT fishing hole there, but because of the insurgency, it’s now far too dangerous.  There’s good news though:  Because almost nobody fishes there any more, all the fish have become both big and stupid.  Victory is an Afghanistan where you can fish safely with friends.  And that’s worth fighting for.

To me, victory is being able to go skiing on the Paghman mountains, just to the west of Kabul.  Seriously, Kabul could very easily become a PERFECT ski and snowboard destination.  Think Denver, but with more snow and cheaper lift tickets.  Of course the Soviet-era land mines would have to go, but one look at these mountains and you know it’s doable.  Not quickly of course…I’ll probably be too old to ski before it happens, but the work we’re doing here now is going to make it possible.  Victory is an Afghanistan where my kids can ski (or more likely, snowboard) near Kabul.  And that’s worth fighting for.

Bottom line:  I like GEN McChrystal’s view…

There’s no way to put an exact timeline on it…the Afghan people will determine [what victory is].

* Photo by Õnne Pärl, from her photo gallery

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There's not much copper or fiber optic cable here; cell and microwave dominate

The highest microwave site in Afghanistan...and maybe the world*

Infrastructure in Afghanistan is a Big Deal, mostly because there’s just not that much of it.  It’s hard, at first, to even imagine how bad the roads are, how precious electricity and mostly-clean water are, and how primitive much of the housing is.  But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how far the Afghan comm infrastructure has come.

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a TREMENDOUS ways yet to go.  But the Afghans have (relatively) robust microwave networks crisscrossing the country, fiber optic cable is being laid at a furious rate, and the country has gone from exactly zero cell phone coverage to over 10 million subscribers in less than 7 years.  Pretty amazing.

It’s not easy to put the towers up, either.  Afghanistan is one of the highest and most mountainous countries in the world, so there’s a VERY short construction season.  Further, the contractors involved have to work through the same logistics challenges faced by the Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition security forces.

And once a site’s up, it’s hard to keep it running.   Insurgent forces will of course sometimes target towers carrying police or military comms.  But the Forces of Chaos are an even bigger threat.  Heavy snow and winds will peal antennas from tower structures, screw up power lines and solar panels, and sometimes even topple the towers themselves.  Useful items like solar panels, batteries, and cables will go walk-about.  And even the most reliable electronic components fail…usually at the worst possible moment.

Bottom line: Towers, and the signals they bring to even the farthest reaches of Afghanistan, matter.

* Photo by Afghan Wireless Communications Company, from their photo gallery

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The jezail, made with a captured flintlock, a comfortable stock ...


... and a rifled barrel, laid waste to many a British soldier.

Rudyard Kipling is most famous of course for all his stories and poetry about India.  But he also wrote about Afghanistan.  His Arithmetic of the Frontier is about the second Anglo-Afghan War (which was going on when he was 14, growing up in India).   Here’s an excerpt…

A scrimmage in a Border Station,
A canter down some dark defile.
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.

In 1879, it was well-educated British soldiers vs. Afghan insurgents with deadly-accurate rifles.   130 years later, it’s Afghan National Army and Police forces, plus a huge Coalition vs. Afghan insurgents with Improvised Explosive Devices.

Bottom line: Afghanistan = timeless.  But not necessarily in a good way…

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My Christmas tree, with origami ornaments

Charlie Company's Ops Center, during an exercise

The Communications Support Unit is a bunch of Afghan soldiers who provide deployable comm support to the Afghan National Army (ANA).   They’re organized, trained, and equipped to deploy up to three separate locations and quickly set up a fully functional command center.  Anytime, anywhere.

It’s a large unit (400+ people), and we support them with a small team of advisers (8 people, plus a few contractors and interpreters).  The other day, I was able to sit down with the Comm Support Unit Commanding General, some Coalition special operators, and part of my team, to sort through comm support to an upcoming operation.  Very cool.

Bottom line:  I got exactly what I wanted for Christmas…a great team of communicators (Coalition and Afghans), working together to crush the Taliban.  Ho ho ho!

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