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Sunday
Sep062009

Sept 6

Sometimes you gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.  After seriously contemplating staying longer in this amazing country, I've decided to take a break, regroup, rest and plan my return, rather than stumble into it.  In the past week, I have met some remarkable people from all over the country - from Afghan security forces to coalition forces to civilians who are coming in as part of the civilian surge.  It was a counterinsurgency leadership training course near Kabul -- which is part of the coalition's effort to get everyone on the same page strategically.  What's interesting is how counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) is being applied here in a integrated way.  For the first time in many of their careers - all the parties who hold the power to make the effort in this country a success are in the same working groups - addressing problems together. 

It shows their strengths.  It demonstrates their weaknesses.  Sometimes the civilians chafe at the approaches suggested by the military.  Sometimes the thinking outside the box rocks the worlds of the military members.  But all appreciate the presence of the ANSF - who will be the frontlines of the war on terror, and the standing up of this once great nation.  

Just days before the terrible strike on civilians in the north of the country - members of Team Kunduz were working together - from PRT's (ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Teams) to ISAF infantry to ANSF to civilian advisors -- they all worked the impacts of their decisions in the face of certain problems together -- on large wipe boards.

This country is tailor-made for an insurgency.  Now that I am reading David Galula's Counterinsurgency: Theory and Practice - the Bible of counterinsurgency tactics, written by a French military officer and scholar in English in the early 1900's -- I can tell you - Afghanistan is PERFECT for this type of warfare, and as a result, the counterinsurgents must be PERFECT to counteract it.  It's a 'how-to' guide for what General McChrystal will do - with an eye toward more accountability for what will happen to leaders who do NOT follow this technique.  What's more -- it amply demonstrates that the US will truly have to take a page from the playbooks of other nations who have much more experience with this - nations like Australia which used this successfully in Malay (now Malaysia) or the lessons that the French learned because they were unsuccessful in Algeria.  

Basically - we've got to get to a place where we take off the body armor and the helmet, get into soft cars and fraternize - make friends with the people.  This can only happen when the kinetic part of the strategy is largely past -- and where soldiers can take a step of faith -- and trust the people.  The people don't feel trusted when the US response is simply to build bigger and bigger MRAPs to protect themselves from the IED's -- they dont' feel trusted when someone with an M-4 across his chest decides he wants to say 'hello.'  There will be a quintessential balance of fear and faith, whereby the soldier must spend more time reading people and understanding culture than reading a compass or adjusting a mortar's trajectory.  The former set of skills are those required in this, the likely future of warfare in the 21st century.

Perhaps this is where the civilian surge can be of the most help.  Many have the skills to advise on culture on how to approach the people -- but they must be personality-matched with their military counterparts and they must be extraordinarily flexible in their approach, for they will have to first of all learn a culture that is foreign to them -- that of the military itself.  This culture uses more acronyms than people on Capitol Hill. This culture thinks often in black and white, wants cut and dry answers and is uncomfortable taking off that body armor.  This culture is a mix of old-school soldiers and new-school thinkers.  They are the most educated group of people I have ever met.  In my experience, it's rare to meet anyone above a PFC who doesn't have a college degree.  By the time a soldier is a major - they may have earned at least one masters degree. I've met Lieutenant Colonels with three masters and full-birds with four.  On the NCO side - the sergeant majors either have multliple degrees themselves or they have the equivalent through reading and audio books.  The new culture of the military is one with a thirst for knowledge - so don't approach them with haugtiness or self-righteousness, understand that they motivated to be people of action -- they are the decision-makers.  They just need the right information to be decisive.  And in its absence, they will use what they have.  Civilians can fill the gap to make sure they have a variety of information in which to make their decisions.

Another thing civilians need to grasp - coming into this environment, is the need to network laterally - to other NGO's, other US Government agencies, because the amount of redundant development work in this country is staggering.  And culturally, some of that is necessary.  In some parts of the south, if a US or Coalition PRT openly meets with an NGO - particularly one which is ideologically neutral - it destroys that NGO's credibility in the eyes of the people.  So - those who are attempting to network and map the efforts going on would do well to provide that information at discounted or free rates to the civilian community.  Because this is no time for turf battles, particularly on the 12-18 month timeline in which the US, at least, wants to see progress.

This will mean that funding streams need to be coordinated - I know shocker!!! coordination.   I contend that if the military can do it (albeit slowly), the civilian side should be able to as well.  That may require some unprecedented reaching out - but isn't it worth it?  In this economy, can the US really afford to spend unlimited amounts of money without coordination - building schools and community centers in places where they're unwanted, only to find out that the Taliban either destroyed it within months of completion or occupied it.  There are regions where this still happens!  The American people are already turning away from supporting the mission in Afghanistan - not having the memories of 9/11 fresh in their memories.  Just wait and watch -- if the public psyche isn't returned to realize that the instability of this country does represent a threat - if the case cannot be made compellingly - then there's a lot of wasted effort here.  You must decide whether you think a growing insurgency with porous borders and supplied from both Iran and Pakistan, with a weak government can one again foster terrorism capable of threatening not just the US on its own soil but its interests in the region.  But if you do decide its worth it, then you  must support a further surge of troops, a prolonged commitment and a much less kinetic effort here than the shock and awe days of Iraq in 2003 or of Kandahar in 2001.  Because that is the direction the war will take, if the current strategy continues.

Just my thoughts on the matter after 2 months in country.  I look forward to any and all feedback.

Friday
Aug282009

August 25

Aug 25, 2009

Election week was crazy – lots of stories leading up to it – then General McChrystal the day afterwards – so have gotten a good volume of stories which is really unprecedented.  

On election day - spent the day getting rocketed in Wardak.  One literally went over our heads as I was interviewing the provincial governor about a Taliban ceasefire.  It was active to say the least.  I spent time between two voting locations and in the middle of it the mullah's house got hit by a rocket -- and we had two at one of the polling sites.  It reminded me quite colorfully of the real danger that we were in -- and yet, I had complete peace running around after these things to get pictures of the damage.  I did a bunch of radio that day - and that's about it.  Took a lot of pictures and they're certain to come in handy on future projects.  

Friday - just getting a chance to be around McChrystal and get a feel for his style and personality was good.  I'd say he's fairly stern, very serious and an intentional listener.  He wouldn't give any interviews but asked a lot of questions of the provincial governor, the sub-governor (kinda like a mayor) and the police chiefs.  He definitely wants to speed up training of the ANSF, so we'll see how that goes...as I've blogged before - it's no picnic.

The week since elections has been pretty low-key.  Turned a story that was a folo on the tribal police - were they or weren't they actually there?  

Now working on a piece about a women's shura and a think piece about military and civilians merging in strategy these days...TBA.

Friday
Aug282009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I’ve now been in this embed for a little more than a week. I came to Bagram about a week ago Sunday. Life is such a different pace than that first frenetic week I had – with ABbas. It has been much more isolated and lonely than I expected. Partially – because they really didn’t know what to do with me – partially because I’m a woman. FOB life is too easy. There’s no sense of the real effort of the infantry – but there is a real sense of the boredom and loneliness all those who deploy in support of infantry face.

There are dark, cold tents filled with bunk beds and bad mattresses (even though they’re brand new.) Each is set on boards above trucked-in grey gravel that makes you feel like you’re walking around in quick sand. Everywhere there are tents set against the great brown mountains of Afghanistan. It is an exercise in monochronism – like being in a painting by Rothco.

Anyway – I spent two days at the MOC at Bagram – finally got out to FOB Shank on Tuesday. Frankly, I was glad for the break at the MOC – I had a lot to file. I wrote four stories that Monday – one for Washington Times, USA Today, Catholic News Service, and one for FOXNews.com – well second revision. The CNS one and the FOX News one went right to print – finally. We had wireless Internet, and minimal distractions. I was sick on Monday – and it was a good time to be sick. I was close to the bathroom, close to the PX if I needed anything. Then two days at FOB Altimure – that was pretty uneventful. I did have regular Internet access though at the Medic’s station which was great. They were very kind to share with me. I got some more articles filed that way which was a mercy. 

I also met one woman who was my meal buddy.  In the army, it’s never good to eat alone. And yet so many people do. When you’re not on a mission, you mark time by eating, sleeping, showering and using the toilet. It’s enough to make you go mad. You have no contact that’s not mission-focused.

I had a couple of days with the boys at COP Baraki Barak – a cav unit that’s moved into a district center and co-located with the ANP and ANA. I was sick for an entire day, but I got a training story with the ANP on Saturday. We went to a target-shooting range. That was good stuff. I got some radio out of it as well. So it’s up and down…trying to use the downtime to learn, write, catch up on sleep, journaling, laundry and all the rest. There’s a rhythm being established….so that’s good.

I am now at a mega-fob – FOB Shank. And in the past few days, glory-be, I’ve gotten so much great people contact. I’m finally having great conversations. I came here Saturday night do get to mass for a story for CNS on the shortage of Catholic Chaplains. And I haven’t gotten out in a timely fashion. The Area where I want to get to – is just too violent. The unit I was supposed to be with just took 4 casualties – 3 fatalities, and one on the edge. They are only 12 man teams. So, they weren’t ready for visitors. I really just realized how lonely and isolated I had felt when I went to church Sunday night.

Friday
Aug282009

July 24th - Bamyan, Afghanistan's World Wonder

  

 

 


July 24, 2009

I have now seen and experienced one of the world’s most beautiful places in the heart of Asia – Afghanistan’s first national park, called Band-e-Amir.

We left early at 6 am. Abbas had arranged for his friend, a driver from Action Aid, the NGO he works at – to pick us up and take us there. Amir is a father of five, and a sweet-tempered, gentle man with a bright smile and a certain laugh. His forehead is deeply lined and his dark eyes, surrounded by a network of fine lines – that belie his young age of 38.

Amir Muhammad has already suffred much under the Taliban. Like so many here in the northern province of Bamyan, he is Hazara, which means, he is a persecuted, hated minority by the majority Pashtun ethnicity. At 28, his brother was shot to death in the face because he had shaven his beard. It was just a month before his wedding day. This morning, we visited the grave of his brother – and he swept away fhe dirt from the dari carvings in the clay tablet set into a cement block atop the grave. He sat and prayed as I photographed him, so grateful that he was allowing me to share this experience, yet cognizant of the fact that I could never, despite my own Jewish heritage, truly understand what it’s like to lose a loved one in such a horrific way.

This single province is the most peaceful in the country. There are no suicide bombers here, no suspicious glances, only open faces, curious to know a stranger as she passes by. They waved this morning as we headed to the bazaar to get some water for the trip and the makings of a lunch. They waved as we headed off for a three hour drive to Band-e-Amir, the newly designated national park of Afghanistan – it’s first.

I still remember picking up the Washington Post one morning – and seeing the photo inside the front page, announcing Afghanistan’s first national park. I had to see it, and to understand why a park was part of a development plan for this mostly war-torn country.

                       

 

 

 

 

 

July 21, 2009

No bad hair days

After years of fighting to straighten, lighten, smooth or curl, my battle is over.  The simple fact of covering your head every day is that you never have to ‘do’ your hair.  And it’s l-i-b-e-r-a-t-i-o-n time folks.  That’s good stuff.  I have three changes of clothes here in Afghanistan, plus a lovely hijab imported from Pakistan that I bought back in the states – I have already gotten compliments on it from the ladies.  My first day here, I wore a grey headscarf and my hijab over an underarmor tee and ex-officio hiking pants – oh, and don’t forget the lovely hiking boots peaking out ;-) to complete the look.  But I did feel a bit more feminine under the hijab, and at least one man told me I looked in keeping with Arab women.  With my dark eye brows and dark eyes, I’m a tad less western looking with covered hair, but every time that blonde peaks out – it’s a little bit of ‘whoa, she’s not from around these parts….’

Day 1:

This first week in Afghanistan – I am working with a local journalist named Abbas.  Once I shuffled around the airport with my enormous packs – thank heavens for handy carts – even in Afghanistan.  God bless the contractor who put those there!  I think it’s name is Military Construction – thank you!!!  I could not have gotten to Abbas outside the gate with quite the speed I did without that cart. 

I also have to give a shout-out to the person who helped me make the travel arrangements – going through Delhi and staying overnight is the way to go. It’s not only cheaper, but I got a good night’s rest on the plane, followed by a good night’s rest in a lovely hotel near the airport, and I loaded up on all the freebies in the bathroom – like toothpaste that will pass the checkpoint.  (Mine got confiscated in DC – oops ;-))  So I was able to hit the ground running on day one – a HUGE asset when time is of the essence.

So – Abbas greeted me with a new cell phone at the airport – yes cell phone service here is fairly reliable and a great connection.  I spoke to my mom, and she said I sounded like I was in the next room.

After getting all the registrations and credentials I needed, I went to the IEC, International Elections Commission to speak with a friend of a friend about the process and how the security arrangements will work.  I’m so glad Abbas encouraged me to take all my gear.  Because after a lengthy conversation with my friend of a friend (Afghans are big on respecting this – it’s a delight for a self-confessed networking addict. Imagine if all you had to say is I know so and so (even if you’d only met once, and it meant open doors for the rest of your endeavor…) – so after that conversation, I came to understand that this friend of a friend, though quite knowledgeable, is not the designated spokesperson – so he brought him in, and I did a radio interview.  I now have all that sound for my election coverage – as well as writing articles.  So even on day 1 – I feel grateful to have made a lot of headway.  

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July 18, 2009

 

And so the adventure begins – a morning full of errands, heaving my pack on my back, and carrying a second one, I am now outfitted for this two month adventure.  I managed to fit my body armor and helmet into my checked pack – and all my equipment in my carry-on.  I will be using a new macbookpro – 13” for size, a canon vixia hf10 HD camcorder with external mic input and SD/16gb storage capacity, and a Kodak still camera that shoots high-resolution stills as well as HD video in MP4 format.  It too is SD card based.  I’ve got an omni directional interview mic and a 14” shotgun mic as well as a Marantz PMD 620 for audio.  Fortunately, that shotgun mic fits nicely beside my tripod.  I’m also bringing a satellite-based Internet – just in case the military Internet doesn’t provide what I need in terms of reliability; however, it’ll be pricey for clients to access, so I’m hoping it won’t be necessary on a regular basis.

I continue to have this sense of pressing-on into the unknown – quite resolutely.  Despite the recent uptick in violence, I see my roles as necessary and the work even more so.  This will not be an easy or a short-term engagement, and it is a chance to see how our new president leads in one of the most tricky parts of the world to understand.  I hope to be able to bring a glimmer of my insight to this blog as I watch things unfold. 

The insertion of the marines in the rural south has certainly heated up the security situation, and it has focused Americans’ attention once again on a distant war.   I hope it will seem less distant through my reporting.  The area where I will be – is on the doorsteps of Kabul.  Despite practically being outer-ring suburbs of the capital city, Wardak and Logar provinces are seeing a Taliban anxious to control the nation’s two main transportation routes – both of which run through this region.  Paved roads are at a premium in Afghanistan.  

My hope is that the stories that I write, and the sights and sounds that I send back will show people the real challenges and victories that our troops are experiencing there.  Though our troops may look very much the same as they did in Iraq, they are fighting a very different war; a very different enemy. The brigade I’ll be with was diverted from Iraq to come to Afghanistan as the first part of the surge there under this president.   It is taxing their families.

They return at a time when the Afghans in some parts of the country are more receptive to Taliban involvement in their government, more skeptical than ever of our troops and our intentions.  We have come and gone so many times, they reason, why should they trust that we’ll stay longer this time?

I am full of questions, and I’m certain the answers will only lead to more.  But I will first of all, be safe in my quest for those answers.  And I thank you for coming along for the ride.

 

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