10 March 2010

This is real

A few soldiers died recently in my province at a combat outpost. There was a major gunfight a few miles from my base. My war has been relatively quiet, meeting with contractors and traveling to villages to look at schools. How real the war truly is, but how blind we are sometimes to it. I hope that I can make the most of my tour here, and make a real difference, but the fighting seems like it is another world away. And yet it is so close. The contracts and the killing are interrelated, a massive struggle to gain popular support, like an election campaign where the other side likes to blow people up. And the stakes are huge. This country is the crossroads of almost every unstable region in the world except for Africa. Iran to one side, India/Pakistan to another, China getting interested in expanding its influence. The stability of these regions depends on the stability of a country that most people didn't care about before 9/11, mostly because it was stable (though brutal). The stakes are high and it is me more than the door-kickers who can win the war, win by supporting the government long enough and hard enough so that it can finally stand on its own two feet when the acceptable time comes. But I must stay alive to win, and the war, though it seems distant at times, is all around me.

That's all from the wall

04 March 2010

A Note on Pride

"A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon"
Napoleon Bonaparte

I write today about pride. Almost even more than pride in general is pride in one's own accomplishments. In order to set those apart who have accomplished greatly, the military has certain traditional markings to bestow. The first, and most well-known is the medal/ribbon, which is worn on dress uniforms. I have ribbons for rifle marksmanship, being on the best ship in the squadron, and achievement as a junior officer, to name three. Also, there are rating badges, like my "dolphins", the pin that shows that I am a qualified submarine officer who can save the ship from fire, flooding, or torpedo attack if necessary. One that is less known, especially to us Navy folks, is the combat patch

In the army, one organizational patch is worn on the left shoulder. This denotes the unit to which a soldier currently belongs, showing pride in one's current job. On the right shoulder is the combat patch, the unit patch for a unit (of your choice if you rate multiple) you have deployed with to a combat zone. A soldier's favorite combat patch is his badge of honor. A soldier without a combat patch is less than a first-class citizen, a non-hacker if you will.

It has come to my attention that some Navy PRT commanders, nameless of course, believe that the unity created by all of the soldiers wearing only a PRT patch (unauthorized in country, by the way) is more important than the pride in one's own accomplishment shown by proudly displaying your combat patch.

This may cause some discontent in the ranks....

That's all from the wall

02 March 2010

A Note on Corruption

There are a lot of accusations going around about how all the members of the Afghan government are corrupt, and that we need to stop the corruption. I can attest to the first part. But it's not as bad as you think, honestly. And here's why...

First, we have to define corruption, and then we have to acknowledge that we see corruption with the eyes of a westerner. So corruption to me is taking money as a member of the government (getting your cut) in exchange for making things happen. So, from a western perspective, are all members of the Afghan government corrupt? Pretty much.

But it's the norm here. And it used to be the norm in America. The goal here is not a corruption-free Afghanistan, but rather a functional government with an acceptable level of corruption. As our awesome (seriously, kick-butt) State Dept rep told me, "If they're 55-60% on the level, that's a win in my book." So good government officials here are not free of corruption, rather they just let their looking out for #1 not get in the way of the important thing, which is establishing a working Afghan government that can last. Once that happens, as people expect the government to actually do its job well, the corruption level will just naturally decrease as the greedy and stupid are punished.

Want an example? Some members of the provincial government actually threatened one of our BETTER contractors with being thrown in jail because of bad work quality on the road. None of the members of the government present had any knowledge of construction, nor any ability under the law to actually imprison. Squeezing the local contractor for a cut of the U.S. Government funds? Probably...

Ah well, life goes on. That's all from the wall.

28 February 2010

Getting into the swing (eight bosses, Bob)

Well here I am, almost done turning over my job (the rest of the PRT is still not even here yet, probably stuck in Bagram just like we were).

My job involves a lot of redundancy. There are no fewer than four "trackers", excel spreadsheets which must be updated because someone likes to look at them. In addition, there is an online (with slow connection speeds of course) data repository into which we must upload all of our documents concerning any project. We must have paper copies as well, naturally. And the signed paper copies must be scanned in and uploaded to previously mentioned repository. Paper copies must be kept for at least 3 years. Storage facility?? I think not.

Now on to missions. If the Brigade even approves a mission to go QA/QC (quality assurance/control) check a worksite (they think this place is like dangerous or something), the B.S. continues once we get back. QA visit forms must be filled out (actually a very useful tool). Results must be emailed to the contractor (makes sense). Then we have to upload the forms to previously mentioned repository. Any pictures we took on the visit? That's right, respository. Now, what does the colonel who commands Brigade (who won't let us go out to scarry places) want? Storyboards.

Let me tell you about a storyboard. A storyboard is an intricate Powerpoint slide (only one) that gives a snapshot of whatever you want the big man to see, showing as much information on one slide as possible, shown to the big man for 17 seconds before he says "Next!" to his lackey at the keyboard. Time spent looking at said storyboard: 17 seconds. Time spent creating storyboard? At least 30 minutes. One storyboard per mission, right? No, one per QA visit, one per conversation with Mullah/Shura/District Governor/Random Elder Dude.

End result? I will be completely amazed if I get any actual reconstruction work done dispite all the BS paperwork (although the repository is an excellent tool, if used correctly which we don't). Probability I will blow off storyboards until yelled at at least twice? High.

25 February 2010

Another day, another adventure

This post is slightly gross, so I apologize in advance. I experienced something that I hoped I would not have to, with only like 3 weeks in country: My first true Afghan poop.

No need to adjust your screen, you read that correctly. If you have ever seen video of Afghans, they have this squat that they do. It looks like a cathcer's pose in baseball, but they rest on their calves. It must kill their knees (not that the rest of them is guaranteed to live long anyways). Their bathrooms are missing an American/European/Rest of the World important feature. Something to sit on. How do they go #2? You guessed it. So I am waiting at the Governor's house in my BAV (Big Ass Vehicle) with the rest of the PRT bubbas waiting on a few people talking to the governor, and the afghan food I ate at lunch hits with a vengence. I go to the bathroom in one of the outer buildings of the governor's complex, and I see the afghan toliet, sitting there, mocking me. It is a porcelin goddess of it's own kind. Standing only about an inch off the ground (piping in the floor), its basically a porcelin hole with designated areas to put your feet. Now picture me, with body armor and gun, facing my most serious adversary yet. I leave the rest to your imagination....

That's all for now, ask me sometime about the waste disposal truck at the base...

23 February 2010


I am already getting restless here on the Base. I haven't been out in
a few days, and the base seems to get smaller with every day. I try
to blow off some steam by working out, but my workload (which is
smaller now because the guys I am relieveing are still here) is large
enough to keep me busy until at least 9 every night. Once they are
gone, I think I will be working every day (no rest) at least 12 hours
a day. Which is no more than I was working on the sub, but there is a
great difference. I was locked in the sub. Opening the door (esp. at
several hundred feet) was not really a preferred option. Here,
however, where there are missions outside the wire every day, there is
a wide world outside, but I sit like Budda in a six-foot cell (10
points for the correct reference). But my job is managing contracts
more than visiting the jobsites, so I get to get out of "the wire"
much less often. It's amazing how I can be no more than a few miles
from downtown, but the bustle and the people are a world away as soon
as I get inside the walls. I'm sure I will feel much differently
about the FOB the first time my convoy gets attacked (hopefully
never). Then it will have walls that protect instead of walls that
ensnare. But for now all I want to do is be outside the base, and all
I usually am is inside. Ah well....

I am really learning a lot about the mistakes of the past when it
comes to reconstruction efforts. When the PRT's came into Afghanistan
(starting around 2005), the emphasis was on dollar amounts.
Relationships were formed with local leaders, but they were centered
arond "what can we do for you?" rather than the more important
question of "what is wrong with the Afghan government". We placed
ourselves first, with several American assumptions in our minds. The
first was that we were the solution for all the problems of this
country. The second was that we had all the answers, and that
American answers work the best. What this attitude has created is an
Afghan government that is highly adept at living off of American money
and not one that is capable of running itself. It doesn't matter that
all the money in the central government is American, what matters is
that the government has the ability to split up and spend its
resources effectively, which it currently does not. In my province,
the PRT has spent the last nine months getting the provincial and
district governments to take a hard look and decide where to best
spend the money available to it (READ: PRT Money). Now the challenge
is to get them to learn to effectively use the systems in place in
their government to get the money (STILL AMERICAN MONEY, REALLY) from
the central government. Concurrent with that, we are going to try and
get them to learn what an operating budget is, and how if they show
the central government that they will need that money next fiscal
cycle, they might even have it before they need it. Maybe we can get
the director of Public works to use some of his money in the budget in
order to actually buy oil so it can be in stock when the road
maintenance equipment he has (from us) needs regular preventative
maintenance (imagine that).

If you ever really want to get depressed, just let me tell you dollar

That's all for this update from the Wall.
Via con juevos....

21 February 2010

Finally Here

I have unfortunately not updated my blog in quite a while, I blame being very busy at Atterbury, and then the lack of connectivity here in AF. But, believe it or not....

I'm finally in Afghanistan!!!

So now the real work begins. I am the CERP fund manager, here at the ol' PRT. What does that mean? good question. The Commander's Emergnecy Response Program was developed as a way to provide humanitarian aid from military units to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The money origianally came from millions on american cash that were found in the palaces of the former ruler of Iraq (now deceased). That money has long since been depleted and it is now money directly from the taxpayers.

So I hand out taxpayer dollars to Afghanis in order to build wells, and schools, and roads, and clinics, and other cool stuff. Easy right?

Wrong. First, there are the layers of beaurocratic BS. Originally, CERP was basically a bank account that commanders could use to tackle the humanitarian problems they saw in their areas of operation as they saw fit. Problem? Little to no tracking of MILLIONS. Some greedy military officers are in jail because they mailed home hundreds of thousands in CERP cash. Sooooooo....... how do you solve corruption? Make it harder to spend the money. Now CERP projects have to be submitted, and the paperwork filed in triplicate, and the right forms filled out. Now it's just more complicated to waste taxpayer money....

Not that what I am doing is wasting. The people here in Afghanistan desperately need to be brought out of the 16th century in more ways than just having Kalashnikovs and RPG's. They can't read or write, don't have clean water, but they can program a 2-way radio and wire it into an explosive charge. The women here hide themselves from our convoys as we roll down the street. The poverty here is amazing, the Taliban are one of the highest paying gigs in town, and they pay $350 a month (much more than the national army). There is much to do

Speaking of much to do, I must go to bed. It is late here, and the morning call to prayer will be ringing through the town with "Allah hu Akbar" in a few hours....

19 November 2009

Thinking Man's Army

17 NOV 09

What has surprised me the most about the training I have received is how intellectual both the teachers and my fellow warriors are (warriors is the new “joint” term for soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen). When a few minutes of down time comes our way, the number of IPODs coming out is actually very low. The number of books coming out is astoundingly high. I am not the exception in that I am trying to read as much as possible about Afghanistan as possible. While my training has been with only officers, I will not be surprised at all if the enlisted ranks continue this trend. I have seen one person pull out purely pleasure reading (Dune), but all the other books have been related to the War. Histories of Afghanistan, novels about the people and culture, even books about counter-insurgency in other wars. The culture of learning is fostered by the folks here at Camp Atterbury, where in addition to a crash-course in the languages of our provinces (Pashto in my case), we had nightly lectures from Indiana University on the Taliban, Afghan history, Pakistani involvement, and previous PRT experiences.

Given the mission ahead, maybe a thinking force is what is necessary. This is a battle which is fought in the mountains, in the cities, in the valleys, but it cannot be won there. No matter how valiantly the marines and soldiers fight the Taliban from outposts high above the villages, they cannot be defeated there. They can be killed, but not defeated. The only place that the Taliban can be defeated is in the hearts of every Afghan civilian. Insurgencies die when the populace no longer wills them to live. The IRA was not defeated by the British military or by the justice system. It was not defeated because the money stopped flowing in from Boston. It was stopped by an Irish population no longer willing to support it. Stopped by the fact that insurgents cannot supply themselves like an army. They must be supplied by the locals who want the insurgency to be victorious.

I think it is fitting that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are commanded by Air Force and Navy officers. This is not an Army job, and therefore it helps to have a fresh set of eyes on the problem. While we have experienced army officers in our teams, most of the leadership have never seen combat. My team is led by a Navy Pilot (who was the CO of Brendan’s Training Squadron in P-cola). The only PRT CO who has a combative MOS is a Navy SEAL Commander, which is extremely fitting, since this is just more special operations. We have already been told that a lot of our tasks have to be approached from an un-army point of view, like taking off your body armor to go visit the local governor. While markedly unsafe, it is important to show that we are not an occupational force, but a force to help. If we take fire from insurgents, responding with 155mm Howitzer fire will cost us dearly in the hearts of the villagers, even though it will definitely kill insurgents.

09 November 2009

You're in the Army now....

So this is my first post from Camp Atterbury IN.

Wow, this is nothing like the Navy. There are both good parts and bad parts to this. Weekend is not even defined in the Army dictionary. We got here on Friday (620 am flight out of Norfolk), and I was prepared to have my entire weekend wasted. I was hoping actually to skate out of here and see Navy play ND (and kick some ass, as it turns out!). Instead, we started my first part of training on Saturday. This would never fly in the Navy. I feel really sorry for the Air Force guys, because the only thing open on the weekends at an Air Force base is the golf course. So instead of nothing to do, I had no time to watch even a minute of the Navy-ND game. What is this first part of training? Seven hours a day of Pashto. Seven. At 5pm, my brain feels like absolute mush after it has been smashed continuously all day with a language that makes Russian seem common sense. And then there's the teacher. A Native of Afghanistan (good), he doesn't even know the difference between feminine and masculine words in his own language. This bodes extremely well. He teaches us to pronounce the words (but acts like it's soooo simple)(there are like nine ways to pronounce "da"), and we teach him about sentence structure. It's a work in progress. I think I'm ordering Rosetta Stone.

And then there's the Army. Several Issues Here....

1. The Army Combat Uniform. ACU's are an awesome uniform. Comfortable, tons of pockets, built in pockets to put in elbow and knee pads, pocket for pens, velcro name tapes and rank badges (so getting promoted is not much of a hassle like the Navy). It's durable, rugged, and has a digital camo pattern. Unfortunately, it blends into nothing. Nothing. It's not green enough to blend in with a treeline. It's too green and not brown enough to blend into the desert. Seriously, it's a combat uniform that makes us stand out like sore thumbs. HO-AH

2. Army regulations. Once the whole PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) comes, we fall under General Order #1 of the First US Army. In short: No civies, no alcohol, no going off base, no private vehicles allowed. I'm a plebe at USNA all over again. Also, we have reflective belts. From dusk till dawn, all personnel are required to wear reflective belts. Even in my Navy PT uniform (which is bright yellow and has releftive lettering spelling NAVY on both sides).

3. Army bases: Makes me know how nice we have it in the Navy. Evey building here is a trailer. Seriously. Think of the Palm Harbor Homes display on the side of I-45, and then make it acres. About 95% of the buildings here could be moved if necessary. The Exchange is the size of a large gas station. Golf Course? HAHAHAHA.

Well, I have to go study my Pashto

Asalam Alekom, everyone.

02 November 2009

Stuck inside of Norfolk with the Memphis Blues again...

Well, I will finally update my blog, this time with its original purpose-- to chronicle my adventures in Naval Expeditionary Warfare... (aka doing the Army's job for them). Let's get to the highlights of my last week. In five days, we managed to do about 2-3 real days' worth of work. Probably more like 1.5. We had training on the Army (apparently they do things differently than the NAvy),we had training on fraternization (apparently I'm not supposed to have nefarious affairs with enlisted women), we had briefs I've had a thousand times before. The only thing that surprised me in a positive way was the way we got uniforms. We tried on some uniforms, got measured on Monday. Friday, a nice neat seabag with all my army uniforms is ready for me, complete with my name stitched on the bag.

The nice feeling did not last long, however. The next base I'm supposed to be training at called Norfolk, telling them that they weren't ready for us, and to postpone us for a week. This does not bode well for future planning. So now I'm stuck in Norfolk for an extra week with not even a desk to occupy my time. So here's the run-down of week one....

1. My own army uniforms (pictures to follow)
2. My own gas mask
3. Dog Tags (make this seem all too real)

Well, I expect updates to be slow this week (nothing to do), but next week should be nice and exciting.