Journal: A Marine’s Eye-View of Afghanistan

11 Society, Cultural Intelligence, Military

AF Burning
AF Burning

11 August [sic]

Tip of the hat to MILINET

I received this from a friend who didn’t know that Mitch “Taco” Bell is the son of very good friends from my church.  He is an airline pilot who was in the USMC reserves and several years ago volunteered to return to active duty and requested service in Iraq.  He’s got a great web site, the link to which he provides in his message, that is well worth looking at.  I’m not sure who is the original sender of Mitch’s message.   Best, Jim

1. Mitch “Taco” Bell, our area Marines For Life Commander, gives his AARep/SitRep  of the situation in Afghanistan.  This is not some superficial product of a dilitante, but rather an insightful, unvarnished, and candid analysis that shows the military professionalism that exits in our field grade officer Corps.

These are some of my thoughts on Afghanistan.  It’s long, but if you think the others would like to read it, please pass it on or send the link www.thesandgram.com

Semper Fi,
Taco

Afghanistan?

“How do you fix a problem like Maria???”

The song from the Sound of Music reverberates in my head as I sit here thinking about the situation in Afghanistan. How do you fix a problem like Afghanistan? When I tell folks that I served in Kabul, I think the number one question asked of me is, “What do you think will happen in Afghanistan?” I hate to say that my reply isn’t always positive. Our job there, and in Iraq, has come at a great price for America and her allies, and I firmly believe there are still lots of bad guys there who need to be given the chance to meet their maker, but maybe we need to change how we do business. These are my personal insights on the war there, good, bad or indifferent. They do not reflect the opinions of the Marine Corps or the administration.

The country:

Let’s face it; Afghanistan’s current calendar is in the solar year 1388 and they are still a hundred years from Columbus discovering America. They use the Hijri date which is the Islamic calendar starting in the year that Mohammed immigrated from Makkah to Madinah. In the cities, they have cars, electricity, TV and radios, but that is mainly for the wealthy, while you still see donkey carts clogging up traffic for the average person. Even in Kabul, a major city, the majority of the population is uneducated, and they rely upon their Imams or religious radio programs to tell them what is going on in the world. We have a real problem with functional illiterates who are serving in the roles of the Government.

When a thing called “Rank and Reform” came out for the Army and Police, many generals and officers down the line were demoted because they couldn’t pass a simple reading/writing test. There are programs in place to attempt to educate these officers but it’s slow; resulting in lots of “pissed off” folks. In many cases, the officers who were demoted were actually outstanding leaders who compensated for their loss in office skills with great finesse in the “field.”

By no means am I implying that they are stupid; in fact, they are very smart and savvy as demonstrated by the one eight-year-old boy I met in Kabul who could speak English, German, Russian and French all of which he learned working the famous “Chicken Street” district (dead chickens hanging from the shops). Given the proper environment, he could be on the fast track somewhere in the world, but is destined to grow up selling maps to foreigners on “Chicken Street.” The thought of adopting him was crushed when they told me they would never let an Infidel take a Muslim boy back to the states.

They still lead a very simple life there. The nomads (Kuchis’s) wander the countryside, and you see their erected black tents everywhere with camels, standing like statues, nearby. Flocks of goats herded by young boys are plentiful as you pass overhead in helicopters. Read James A. Michener’s novel “Caravans” published in 1962, not much has changed since he wrote that. The average person lives in mud adobe-type houses, some with great walls erected around them. They do love their walls, that is for sure! They would fit right in where I live in Texas, for every house has its’ privacy fence!

I took a trip to OP Spur in Nangahar looking up at the famous Tora Bora Mountains. While waiting around I had a discussion with another young boy through my Terp [interpreter] and it went like this.

Boy: “Where are you from?”

Me: “I’m from Texas which is in America.’

Boy: “Oh you are from the other side of those mountains to the North?”

Me: pulling out an orange from my bag and a sharpie pen, I started to draw a rough map of the world with an “X” on one side of the map and another where TX would be. “We are here and my family lives on the other side of the world in Texas here.”

Boy: With huge eyes and a firm voice, says, “No, you are lying; my Imam says the world is flat, and you came from the other side of those mountains.” To the North is where the Russians came from, who are white like me so I could see where the locals would think this.

I tried to explain that “no,” in fact the world was round, but it was a losing battle. He really freaked when I told him that Americans had landed men on the moon that was brightly lit up in the sky. These great kids live a simple life and grow up only knowing what the Imam tells them. How can a country be so backwards in time whereas if you flew over the mountains to Manas Air Base in Kyrgystan just north of Afghanistan, you see life in the 21st century? They are only separated by a Mountain?

Politics:

Very corrupt with lots of nepotism and buying your way into a position of authority, that sort of thing. Very similar to the United States, I guess, when you look at our politicians in Washington. It’s hard to force an Afghan guy out of office for taking a bribe which is a standard way of life for them, and then read in the news about a U.S. Congressman from Louisiana with $90K in his freezer from an undercover FBI sting operation. In that respect, we Americans are very hypocritical when we tell them to correct their actions like they are little children. You have guys in the top positions there who are trying, and then you have the one minister who owns a horse farm in Middleburg, Virginia. When he is making $980.00 dollars a month, how does he afford that? Guess he married rich. There was an Afghan-American from Plano, Texas, who the FBI are still searching for somewhere in this world. He was in charge of the Afghan National Police payroll and disappeared with his family taking a little over 20 million dollars of taxpayer money. You don’t see that in the news much. Lots of money is getting dumped into programs there, not just from the US, but from around the world, with greedy hands ready to take it.

The Economy:

President Karzai has to beg for pledges every year from the world to help Afghanistan. I want to say that he received nearly $20 billion in pledges last year from the donor countries with the US giving the most. How much longer will that go on before folks get tired of dumping money into a black hole? They, unlike Iraq who has oil, have no National GNP to help out. It’s a land-locked country and they grow great poppies, but that’s about it. President Karzai has control of the districts right around Kabul, the Governors in the 34 provinces could really care less what he thinks. They have no way to tax the populace (the average guy makes $200 a month I think) so the local Governors would sic their police chief out on the Ring Road with his cops to set up check points (Highway built by the Russians that does a big circle around Afghanistan, the lifeline of commerce) to hold up Jingle trucks and cars to fleece them of money. We are fighting this with the FDD program (Focused District Development) where we try to reform the local police. The local police get paid $100 dollars a month on average and after the guy stole the $20 Million in payroll, the U.S. Army started up an Electronic Funds Transfer (direct deposit) system for all the guys who go through the new bootcamp training. This was to ensure they were paid on time every month. Some of the local Governors were a bit miffed because the old system was “one dollar for you, two for me” so the poor cop would have to go shake down more cars to make up for the loss of his pay. The funny thing is, the Army pays $150.00 a month, so a cop will get trained, then go AWOL to join the Army. While he’s in training, he’s double dipping for a couple of months until the system figures out that he’s not a policemen anymore. Then you have the daily scams we bust like selling the gas we give them on the black market, replacing the brand new tires on the police cars for busted retreads and begging for more, selling the new army boots needed for patrols and giving their guys flimsy plastic green boots my grandmother would wear in the garden, selling weapons, trading in old captured AK’s for new ones then selling them. The list goes on. The new training has take hold in some places but they still fall back on what they know best, making a buck to support the family.

So if your country is living in the 14th century for the most part and you rely on outsiders to support you, the question begs, how much longer before the outside resources dry up? I used to hear this comment all the time, “This place is like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Making it look pretty, but the ship is still going down.” It’s a profound comment when you think about it, and I’m sure President Karzai is wondering the same thing and if he loses this election, I bet you that he ends up in some nice condo on South Miami Beach.

Justice:

The Italians were suppose to handle teaching the Afghans and setting up a justice system. It’s all dorked up. Role of Law is a big issue right now and I just went back to Kabul last month on a team that did a four week long assessment of the prison/corrections system there. First of all, the BTIF up at Bagram, you hear a lot about it in the news and because it’s secret, they will talk bad about the place. I’ve seen it and can tell you that the prisoners there are WELL treated by a staff that is professional and dedicated to taking care of them. Then on the other side of the coin, I toured the Afghan prisons near Kabul and can say that while I wouldn’t want to be there, I think their prisons are probably better then some in India or Pakistan. There are lots of problems right now though, where a Taliban guy is captured and then released because they were able to substitute another body to take his place. They will pay this poor guy to go to prison in his place and take care of his family financially so he doesn’t mind doing the time.

We are trying to enforce our ways of thinking on them (Western style) and they are still in the
Shura/14th century mode. The local cops will take Mohammad the thief back to the tribal elders who will make him cut their crops for a month, or dig a potato cellar. That is their way of dishing out punishment and they think we are crazy for wanting to have a court system when they can do this. I can say that sometimes this is a good thing. Then you have the daily injustices out there like arranged and underage marriages, rape, and biased laws against women that would make any normal person cringe. We visited the Kabul women’s prison where gals were sentenced to a couple of years because they ran away from their abusive husbands.

Religion:

This is a hard one and the root of the problem that will never be solved. Bottom line is they live and die by the Koran. The funny part is the majority have never read the Koran thus, back to square one. They only know what the Imams tell them. Major General Stone, who speaks fluent Arabic and revamped the prisons in Iraq, had over 2,000 hours of interviews with prisoners. He would ask them questions like “Why do you hate Americans so much?” they would answer that it is written in the Koran to kill us. The General would get these guys enrolled in simple classes to teach them to read, give them a vocation and the return on this was incredible. Once they could read, it opened a whole new chapter in their lives when they realized that they were willing to kill themselves for nothing but lies. Heck you have the Taliban kidnapping young boys in Pakistan and sending them to training camps to learn how to take up the fight against the Americans.

The Afghan Constitution describes “Islam as its sacred and state religion. A system of civil law is described, but no law may contradict the beliefs and provisions of Islam.” Now you see the double standard that is in place right now. The West wants them to conform to our ways and they are sort of set in theirs and the Koran trumps all. So that means a good old stoning party on Saturday night for the girl accused of not wearing her Burka or trivial things along these lines.

The Borders:

It doesn’t help that radical Islam spreads like a virus among the poor and uneducated in the world, and that Pakistan allows huge puss pockets of Taliban to exist in their country. They are so heated up over India, that they ignore the problems on the western border of their own country. They are trying now, but not addressing the issue like they really should; thus we fight an enemy who escapes across a border line into a friendly state to rest and regroup. Then you have Iran to the West. They aren’t much help either, for they allow “Freedom Fighters” direct access across their borders to join the fight in Afghanistan. Once again, how do we fight this there when we can’t enforce our own borders with Mexico?

Outside Help:

I am not a big fan of the UN because I view them as the folks who like to spend your money, and take all the credit while pissing all over the American efforts every chance they get. This example happens ALL the time; a plane drops a bomb on the bad guys in some village. The UN goes to investigate reports of mass civilian casualties. We pay Afghans $200 dollars a body if we make a mistake. I think we pay them money even if the death was caused by the Taliban. These folks aren’t stupid. When they have the chance to fleece us, they do so by creating inflated body counts of the dead for the money. Their customs, which we abide by, don’t allow us to dig up these mass graves to confirm the dead, so we pay. These graves might have a few bodies in them along with trash, but the UN reports to the world that we killed fifty folks when in truth, maybe four. The FBI is bringing out those machines that act like side scan radars to penetrate the ground and actually count the bodies. Until then, we’ll continue to pay like idiots, and the UN will tell the world that we are the bad guys and in the same breath tell us that we aren’t doing enough.

So how do you fix a problem like Maria? You can’t, she is who she is and will continue to sing and cause trouble. How do you fix a problem like Afghanistan? Education, if the Taliban would allow them to have schools and not dump acid on young girls. Religious education that comes along with being able to read the Koran so they can see that no where in there does it say, “Kill American’s and infidel” like they are brought up to believe. Other then that, it’s up to the folks who get paid a lot of money to think through the big picture stuff which I freely admit I don’t always have. Time will tell like what happened in Iraq. I would never have bet on the turnaround there after my tour in ‘05 where we lost 1-3 guys a day sometimes, either wounded or killed in the Anbar province.
So when you ask me what I think will happen, I’ll tell you that troops are manning the pumps to keep the Titanic afloat and working hard, not ready to give up the ship yet, but they are getting tired.

Semper Fi,

Taco

PS, this is a response from a Col I highly respect that was one of my bosses there.

Taco:

Over all very well written. A couple of comments: I believe the average Afghan makes $20 per month, not $200. You don’t fix Afghanistan because through the eyes of Afghan’s it’s not broken. It’s broken only though the eyes of westerners, and most particularly the European westerners. If we want Afghanistan to be like the West there is an argument that it is broken. The Afghans must be thanking their God for the good fortune that not one but two super powers have invaded them enabling them to financially “shake down” both just as your example of the Police check-points on ring road. Can providence strike three times with the invasion of China someday? Who is to say if wiping your ass with your hand and washing with water is any less effective than using toilet paper when both techniques get the job done? Corruption is a way of life; one handed corruption puts food on the table while two handed corruption makes you rich. Justice is based on the Islamic belief of “honor and loyalty”, not right or wrong. In spite of cultural differences, wasn’t it originally about the Al Qaeda?

The bigger issue is how did we, the US, loose focus? How did we develop a logic path that said Taliban by allying themselves to Al Qaeda made them terrorist when in fact they are Insurgents? Anyone know of any reports that the Taliban plan to attack the US once they are restored to political power in Afghanistan. If we are fighting the global war on terrorism, perhaps we should fight terrorists not insurgents. If the terrorists have moved on from Afghanistan the basic tenants of the art of military warfare would suggest we move on too, either to press the fight or conclude the fight over. Protecting America from terrorism in my opinion has nothing to do with bringing Afghanistan in to a new century 15th or 21st. Destroying the village in order to save has it has issues but only becomes more ludicrous while at the same time you are building nation capacity.

Very Respectfully

The Colonel Who has been there.