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Posts Tagged ‘insurgency’

The ruins of Darulaman Palace, the "abode of peace" *

A watering can salesman, near the palace **

Literally, the “abode of peace”, Darulaman Palace was ruined as rival Mujahideen factions fought for control of Kabul during the early 1990s.   Today, it stands as a deeply cynical symbol of Afghanistan’s future … a country ruined by insurgency and government corruption.  But Darulaman also stands for a wildly hopeful future … a vibrant country rebuilt by Afghan entrepreneurs with the help of NATO and others.

I’ve been away from Afghanistan for over a year now, and I’ve found the time and distance have made it harder and harder to maintain perspective of the country and its people …

Clearly, it’s time to wrap up this blog.

Thanks to all who’ve taken the time to read my favorite posts:

And also my most popular posts:

Bottom line:  Fare well, Afghanistan.  And farewell …

* Photo by ET1 Peterson, USN
** Photo by Shah Marai, AFP/Getty Images

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Afghan children wait for donations*

An Afghan skater waits for the future**

There are a TON of great charities supporting the people of Afghanistan…I’m hopeful I’ll get many more suggestions.  But for now, these are my favorites:

Afghans4Tomorow – An organization working to rebuild Afghanistan, through health, education, and agriculture projects…such as a training program to make fuel briquettes (as an alternative to increasingly scarce wood) and the first Science Fair in Afghan history!

OLPC Afghanistan – The One Laptop Per Child vision…to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power computer…is compelling.  The OLPC hardware and approach are less so.  But for now, OLPC seems a good way to move the children of Afghanistan into the digital age.

Pakistan Flood Relief – Pakistan is the home of Al-Qaeda, a strong Taliban movement, nuclear weapons, and now, the largest humanitarian crisis the international community has ever faced.  Much of the country remains flooded, but even when the waters recede, disease, and hunger remain…along with radical insurgents, who are only too happy to take advantage of the chaos.  Support to Pakistani children today–clean water, safe sanitation, vaccinations, protection from violence, and nutrition–will save Afghan lives in the future.  And likely, American lives as well.

Skateistan – The world’s first co-educational skateboarding school, and arguably the coolest charity in the universe.  Their video, Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul, is a great intro…you’ll understand why it earned “Best Documentary” and “Best Photography” awards at the LA Skate Film Festival last month.

Turquoise Mountain – An organization dedicated to regenerating historic urban areas in Afghanistan and renewing traditional Afghan arts and architecture.  Interestingly, it was established by Rory Stewart, Member of the British Parliament and author of my favorite book about Afghanistan, The Places In Between.

Women of Hope Project – Setting women free from poverty and oppression is a TALL order in Afghanistan, but Women of Hope is making progress.  Their embroidery project, for example, gives women the opportunity to sell their embroidered goods at Coalition bazaars throughout Kabul.  The income, though meager, means their children can attend school instead of having to work.

Bottom line:  Charitable organizations are making a difference in Afghanistan.  You can help.

* Photo by an unknown NTM-A volunteer

** Photo by Uggi Kaldan, at Reklamebilleder

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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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Kabul 02

Kabul in 2002: About as bad as it could get*

Kabul now

Kabul now: Not deteriorating**

Afghanistan: Not deteriorating!

This is another slogan the Afghan Ministry of Tourism probably doesn’t need.  But ‘not deteriorating’ is REALLY good news for a country that – less than a year ago – seemed to be in a death spiral.

Yesterday morning, the Stars and Stripes ran an article by Julian Barnes of the Chicago Tribune, quoting GEN McChrystal, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force:

I still will tell you the situation in Afghanistan is serious, I do not say now it is deteriorating.  We [made] significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 and we will make real progress in 2010.

Put another way, it increasingly seems the insurgency is loosing momentum.  And in a counter-insurgency fight, momentum is a Big Deal.

A friend of mine talks about the country as if it was a bowling ball, with the insurgents as a bunch of ants trying to move the ball backward and us – Afghans and Coalition members alike – as ants trying to move it forward.   For a while, the momentum was with the insurgents.  But the bowling ball is slowing, and soon we may even be able to turn it around.  Which is making many insurgents think VERY seriously about reconciliation.  The alternative (being crushed like an ant by a bowling ball) is looking less and less appealing to them by the day…

I’m not trying to overstate this, we – both Afghans and the International Community – still have a LONG way to go.  Or, as GEN McChrystal says,

I am not prepared to say we are winning, but I am confident we will see significant progress.

Bottom line:  Victory is far from inevitable.  And WAY too many ants will die in the process of stopping and then turning the bowling ball that is Afghanistan.  But the momentum is shifting…

* Photo by Ismail Eren, from DeviantArt

** Photo by Pietro Calogero, from his blog

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CSU

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

Mi-17

... 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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