Education & ANA Discussion – Part 1

ANA classroom.

Famous playwright and poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  Today I returned to the ANA literacy classroom for another interactive exchange of information.  This time I was bearing gifts that included notebooks, pens, and pencils for the students.  This immediately got the ANA soldiers attention when I entered the classroom.

The class just finished conducting a religious ceremony celebrating their Prophet’s birthday and commemorating his death, which happened on the same day but 62 years later.  Omid, my interpreter, said it would be appropriate to say “Maloot Sharif” to the class during my introduction out of respect for their Prophet who is responsible for giving Muslims their Holy Quran.  So in my best Dari pronunciation, I practiced my Dari and started my interaction with the class.  Today’s classroom was filled with more than 100 students/ANA soldiers.  Almost every chair was filled and they were lined against the walls.  All eyes were upon me as they listened to my questions.  Ten minutes before going to the classroom, I jotted down some questions concerning education.  Although I am pretty self-confident and comfortable speaking to them, I am not ready to engage in a theological discussion with them as I did yesterday with the ANA Mullah and Religious Officer.  Instead I am trying to stay with non-threatening themes so I do not upset them or endanger myself.  I don’t think this is the right forum to have a religious debate, nor do I care to.  Instead, I want to focus on topics that I can learn about their viewpoints and perhaps I can resolve some of their burning curiosities too.

ANA Mullah and Religious Officer hand out notebooks, pens, and pencils.

I approached the first soldier and inquired on whether he had had a chance to graduate from school.  Due to the many years of war, he said his village was destroyed and he was unable to finish school.  For an instant, I was silent trying to imagine what this soldier lived through in having his village destroyed.  It’s so hard to comprehend these tragedies and sometimes I am at a loss for words.  We can read about it in books, but to experience it first-hand is incomprehensible.  Despite not being educated, he still seemed to understand the importance of a formal education.  Through the interpreter, he said: “If we have knowledge, we are going to have eyes, we can see everything.  If we don’t, then we are going to be like blind.”  He also surprised me when he agreed that everyone was entitled to an education including females.  I really thought there would be some participants who disagreed with the idea of females attending school.  But this was not the case today.  Prior to class, I had jotted this question down and was prepared to make the argument of why females should be allowed to attend.  I was going to detail the importance of having midwives to help with one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates at birth along with having female doctors, teachers, etc.  But I couldn’t help thinking about this man’s village being destroyed and it was distracting me from my thoughts.  I also recalled a proverb or a variant of it, “The eyes are the window to the soul.”  This was so true with this soldier.  His eyes were pale and dull looking and lacked any luster or sparkle, almost to the point of hopelessness.  It’s the same look I have seen many times on the faces of the Afghan villagers.  Is this what happens after enduring 30 years of war?

I directed my next line of questioning to another soldier concerning their thoughts about the Taliban burning down the schools and preventing people from being educated.  In response, he said: “The real Taliban aren’t the ones who are doing this.  Instead, it’s the people who train in Iran and Pakistan” who are burning down the schools.  He also added: “A real person, a real Muslim, a real Afghan, would not do that.”   In this class, this seems to be a recurring theme where the students say the neighboring countries are training Taliban and insurgents who are responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan.  To be cont’d …….

ANA Mullah’s Perspective

Note:  My intent is not to offend my Muslim readers and the context below is based on my research and my memory of an intellectual and theological conversation with an ANA Mullah.

ANA Mullah.

It was another one of those unpredictable days, not knowing what was in store for me as I ventured over to ANA land.  We held our typical morning meetings, shook hands with our ANA counterparts and practiced greetings in our best Dari enunciation.  I briefly met up with the PBO officer who was being hurried off to conduct an equipment inventory.  My ANA Sgt Major was boarding a helicopter and flying to a conference.  So with mentoring, this only left the Religious Officer Assistant (ROA).  My interpreter Omid called him on his cell phone and he was in and wanted to chat.

As we were walking up the hill, I noticed a large grader was smoothing out the piles of gravel that was dumped

ANA grading piles of gravel.

there a few days ago.  Somehow the grader was miraculously fixed and the mounds of gravel were being leveled out.  I had to take a picture and inquire how this Caterpillar grader was magically repaired.  Through my interpreter, I learned the grader had a bad battery and it was simply replaced.  Wulah!  Just like magic, the grader was operational again!  Later on I learned the Australians gave some pointers on how to use the grader, because the ANA driver did not angle the blade and was attempting to smooth out the piles by keeping the blade at a 90 degree angle.  Small victories!!

Our next stop was the Religious Officer’s building.  He is in charge of the ANA literacy program and the religious curriculum.  When we walked into his office, I was pleasantly surprised to see the ANA Mullah sitting in a chair.  Although the Mullah is short in stature and a man of few words, it’s always an educational experience to hear his viewpoints.  After a few pleasantries, (greetings and handshakes), I initiated the conversation by inquiring about my previous visit to their classroom last week.  The ROA has a tendency to dominate the conversation and he provided me some positive feedback.  He attributed some of the student’s viewpoints due to lack of education and heavily influenced by rumor and propaganda.  He said majority of the students liked me and Americans, but they do not like the Brits.  The Brits have been accused of allegedly ferrying Taliban militants from the south and dropping them off into the Northern provinces along with providing them weapons.  I felt this was preposterous, but the RAO explained this is how gullible these uneducated soldiers are.  In fact, part of the religious curriculum is teaching these new recruits how to properly pray and ablution (cleansing of the body before prayer).

I turned to the Mullah and decided to probe at him with some neutral questions.  On a previous occasion, I tried to delve too fast into a controversial issue and he wouldn’t respond.  Instead the RAO would defend his position and I got the impression that the Mullah knew everything, so he didn’t have any questions for me or curiosities.  So today I took the pace slower, hoping not to offend him.  I learned he was placed into an Afghan madrassa at the young age of 6 years old.  For the next 15 years, he would study the Holy Quran and undergo a detailed religious curriculum.  By the time he completed his training, he had memorized the entire Quran.  At a later date, I hope to learn more about his religious studies and daily life inside a madrassa.

I surprised the Mullah and the RAO by informing them that I had read the English version of the first 2 chapters of the Quran.  Then the RAO surprised me by revealing an English translation of the Quran wrapped in an expensive silk cloth.  I knew better not to touch the book and even clarified that with my hosts.  However, if I were to conduct an ablution, even as a Christian I would be allowed to touch their Holy book.  An ablution is when a person washes their face once, both arms up to the elbows, part of the head, and washing the feet up to the ankles.

Our next topic was a bit of a historical question to me testing my knowledge on the origins of the Quran.  My research paid off and I detailed according to Islamic belief that the Angel Gabriel appeared to their Prophet Mohammad and revealed the verses used in the Koran.  The verses were initially memorized by his followers and later on recorded in writing.  The Mullah corrected me on some parts of my historical knowledge, but for the most part I had passed.  This is when I saw an opportunity to inquire more about the term of “infidel.”  I knew this topic could be treading thin ice and lead into a theological debate, but it was a risk I was willing to take.  I started my sentence with a question, “Were you aware that the Christians first used this term in the 14th century to label people who were non-Christians”?  Then I inquired, what does this term mean to Muslims.  The RAO who is very educated and knowledgeable would interject before the Mullah would have an opportunity to respond.  I sensed he was almost protecting him, just in case I would ask a “gotcha question” which was not my intention.  The RAO went into a long dissertation explaining about the differences/similarities in Christianity and Muslim faith and how extremists use this term for non-Muslims.  He also revealed that some of the students in the classroom also viewed me as an infidel because they were not educated.

The Mullah at times would utter a few words and the RAO would expand on them.  For instance, it is permissible for a Muslim to marry a Christian and vice versa.  However, I was also aware this is permissible, but the children will be raised as Muslims.  The RAO explained that every faith wants to continue and expand and Christianity is no difference.  But I also pointed out that if a Muslim converts to Christianity in a Muslim country, the penalty could be death.  But in the United States, Christians can convert to become a Muslim without penalty.  I also understand and respect the cultural laws of Muslim societies, even though I may be in disagreement with the penalties imposed.

I made a point to tell the RAO that I would like to hear from the Mullah and this would be an opportunity for everyone in the room to learn.  So if he could refrain from dominating the conversation, I would appreciate it.  Everyone in the room laughed.  I asked the Mullah about women wearing burqas and the rationale behind it.  He said it was in the Quran and detailed that women must be protected because men look at women in a sexual way which leads to rape, adultery, etc.  Only the husband should be allowed to appreciate her beauty.  I inquired where in the Quran did it say this, he said the next time we meet he would show me.  I did not want to offend him or his knowledge by testing his memory of the Quran since it was only 3 feet away from him.  That would be disrespectful.  Instead, I responded with a question that raised all of the eyebrows in the room.  First I inquired “Isn’t it wrong for a man to lust upon a woman who is not his wife and doesn’t this violate the Quran”?  I was correct with this assertion, but then I spoke without really thinking.  I said, “Then men in Afghanistan are really weak and can’t control their lust and as a result the women are forced to wear burqas.  Futhermore, if all of these men were really devout practicing Muslims and adhere to the Quran, there would not be a need for the women to wear the burqas”.  The RAO could not stay silent any longer and in defense of Afghan men he tried in vain to attribute this to people being uneducated.  Unintentionally I may have come up with a “gotcha question.”  The Mullah only smiled and did not respond.

My time was up and we clarified the details about speaking with his classroom tomorrow.  So tonight while I am typing this entry, I am trying to construct some questions that will not inflame the class, but also provide an opportunity for me to learn and in turn, they might be able to learn something from me.

Runt Runt poses for camera.

When I returned from ANA land, I stopped to see the camp puppies.  “Fat Boy” was adopted by the interpreters and will be kept at “Terp Village.”  A contractor is going to adopt the brown female named “Runt Runt”.  The remaining puppy is going to stay at the camp for now.  He has a dislocated leg which may have been accidentally injured when the mother laid on her puppies at birth.

Camp puppies in their box.

Later in the afternoon we had a few drops of rain and I was able to capture the rainbow image with my camera.  Tomorrow I will speak with the literacy class and it should be another educational day.

Rainbow seen from the camp.

ANA Surgeon, Gravel, and Puppies

Army 1Lt with ANA Brigade Surgeon.

I suppose when you read the header, you are wondering what these words have in common.  Other than this is what I saw today in Afghanistan, they are not related.  After the morning Battle space Update Briefing (BUB), I accompanied the Army Lt and the ANA Brigade surgeon to his office to discuss a future project.  The ANA surgeon has been active and supportive with our Village Medical Operations and looks forward to more in the future.  Coincidentally during my travels here, I visited the village where he was born.  It’s a small world, even in Afghanistan.

Army Lt improvises and uses refrigerator for whiteboard.

As you can tell from the pictures, the ANA surgeon’s office is very sparse looking. It has a flimsy metal gray file cabinet containing patient records, cheap particle board desks, a dented refrigerator and a rather large television set previously donated by a mentor.  Although not in the picture, the patient bed behind the curtains is quite simple too.  Much of the furniture still in use is either from the Soviet era or donated by past mentors.  The Lt couldn’t find a whiteboard to write on, so he improvised by using dry erase markers on the refrigerator.  Hmmm..Lt is this how you teach Social Studies back in Chicago?…lol.  The Lt was discussing the distribution plans for the new emergency ambulance kits that recently arrived.  It took 2 years to get them and now most of the shelf lives of the medical items are expired.

ANA truck dumping gravel.

In Fort Riley during our embedded training team instruction, we were taught that some of the repetitive ANA issues that will surface is firewood, fuel, soldier pay, and gravel.  I could probably write several pages on each of these topics.  Today’s mission was to have the ANA relocate the gravel.  It was delivered and dumped into large mounds several months ago.  Many of the roads in ANA land are dirt and become muck when it rains or snows.  In addition, since there are few sidewalks leading to buildings, they have the same problem.  The gravel cures this problem and alleviates getting stuck in a vehicle or sinking past your ankles into mud.   I think the AF Captain intentionally had it dumped near the US complex to see if the ANA garrison and ANA battalions could jointly utilize their resources to accomplish this task.  Sounds simple, but it wasn’t.  One battalion would have to supply drivers, dump trucks and a front end loader, while the garrison would provide a grader and then of course who was going to use their fuel allotment to make this happen.  Lastly, coordinating a date to make this all happen took several months of pointing fingers and miscommunications.  But alas, today the dump trucks and the front end loader showed up and the gravel was relocated to ANA land.  Now we have to wait for the ANA grader to get repaired so it can be spread out evenly.  It’s been broken for several months, but nobody thought it was important to notify maintenance to repair it.  So it’s anyone’s guess how long the gravel will sit in strategically positioned smaller piles.

New camp puppies.

Patience, patience, and patience is a prerequisite in becoming an ETT mentor or combat adviser.  I have to constantly remind myself of this. This is why I joke and sometimes am ecstatic about celebrating small victories.  There are many days during a mentoring session when you feel as though you have run your head into a brick wall.   So it’s always refreshing to see something to relieve this tension.  Today this relief came at the sight of new camp puppies that have been carefully guarded.  The mother of the puppies recently died, but her offspring have been weaned off her milk and they are able to eat solid foods now.  But of course, they won’t pass up the opportunity to lap up a saucer of milk …. lol. The biggest puppy has been affectionately nicknamed “Fat Boy.”

Puppies drinking milk.

A Lively ANA Discussion – Part Two

My ANA Sgt Major.

Today I was reminded of a famed quote about perceptions or misperceptions by Greek Philosopher Epictetus who said: “We are disturbed not by the events, but by the views which we take of them.”  This quote was stuck in the back of my mind as I continued on with my discussion with the ANA soldiers.  My ANA Sgt Major in his booming and commanding voice was trying to keep order as many of the soldiers were trying to interject or voicing their opinion among themselves.

One soldier stood up and was initially chastising all of the countries trying to help out his country.  “We know which countries are really trying to help us,” he claimed.  He also kept repeating “We are not donkeys,” referring to the Afghan people as not being  dumb.  Then he provided a solution by suggesting that each country participating should take one of the 32 provinces.  In defense of foreign countries providing aid, personnel, or money, I said, “Every country that is helping is providing something of value.”  Also, [thinking to myself] assigning a province to each country wouldn’t work either, because some countries only provide a handful of soldiers and equipment.  But I appreciated his response and suggestion.

I continued the conversation by inquiring about the poppy situation here, since Afghanistan is responsible for producing 90% of the world’s opium.  Three provinces previously declared poppy-free have returned to growing the lucrative cash crop and had their status removed.  Apparently, as more provinces resort to growing alternate crops, this unintended action has driven up the price of opium.  The fundamental economic laws of supply and demand are applicable here.  But I was surprised when one soldier responded to my inference that the Taliban also funds their insurgency from the poppy profits.  “They really don’t make much profit from the sale of poppy,” he said and blamed neighboring countries for supplying money to fuel the insurgency.  This is only a partially true statement because according to information I have received the Taliban has benefited and received hundreds of millions of dollars from the poppy/opium trade.  They are also levying a 10% tax on the farmer’s poppy crop before it’s even sold.

The most surprising statement came from a very boisterous soldier, who alleged “Your country is not here to help Afghanistan!  First, you took control of Iraq and now you want to take control of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Asia!”  Before I could respond to this allegation, my ANA Sgt Major said we were out of time.  So I used this final minute to thank the class and assured them that “we are here to help your country and want you to take control of your national security so that we can all leave.  I have been here for almost an entire year helping your country and want to return home to my wife.”  I thought our discussion was over, but a patient soldier asked the ANA Sgt Major if he could ask one more question.  “With all of our technology why can’t we locate Osama bin Laden,” he inquired.  “Despite our superior technology we still can’t find him.  This is why we have to depend on the people to tell us where he is and then we will take him out,” I explained.  I thanked the class for their time and they abruptly got up and departed for their next appointment.  Next week, I am tentatively scheduled to see them again. This was an enlightening experience and I look forward to having more dialogue with them in the future.

To listen to a part of our conversation, click on this audio link Visit with ANA – 56kbps-1

Army Brigadier General Chinn with ANA BGen.

Later in the morning, we had a visit from Brigadier General Clarence KK. Chinn serving as deputy commanding general for support of Combined Joint Task Force 82 and Regional Command East in Bagram.  The former West Point graduate was given a tour of our facilities and met with our ANA general.  Then our Brigade XO and others provided him an informative PowerPoint

Brigade XO ETT leader briefing future operations.

briefing on the “way ahead” for future operations.  General Chinn made a good observation and gave us a point of contact to order microphones and headsets so we don’t have to delay waiting for the translation.  This is a great idea, because our briefings are so long and drawn out waiting for our ANA counterparts to speak and then have their words translated by the interpreter.

During lunch, we received a short notice mission.  In two hours our combat mounted patrol would be on the road in support of an urgent situation that arose last night.  While preparing the vehicles and within one hour of

Army Major briefs Brig Gen Chinn.

departing, we were given the order to “stand down.”  Our mission was canceled.  This has been happening quite frequently lately, but we remain flexible and ready to support any mission given to our team.

In local news as reported by the New York Times about an incident that happened in our Area of Operations last night:  A group of about two dozen Afghan national police officers may have defected to the Taliban, according to American and Afghan officers here in Wardak Province.  The police officers left their posts in Chak, a remote district of Wardak, just before midnight Wednesday, and on Thursday morning a spokesman for the Taliban claimed that the officers had surrendered to them. “They left with all their weapons, two trucks and machine guns and heavy weapons,” said Maj. Abdul Khalil, the police chief in the Jalrez district, just north of Chak. Major Khalil said there had been a dispute about pay. “We don’t know if they have gone over to the Taliban, or they just ran away, or what has happened,” he said. “We’re concerned, though, because they took heavy weapons.”

For the complete story read this link:  New York Times: 25 Afghan Police May Have Joined Taliban

A Lively ANA Discussion Part One

New ANA recruits practicing their marching.

Last night I couldn’t sleep well and stayed up late preparing for my discussion with the ANA soldiers.  I was invited to speak with a group of ANA soldiers attending literacy training.  Part of their curriculum is religious studies and one segment of the class covers infidel misperceptions.  Although I am not an infidel, but considered by some Muslim extremists as one, I agreed to open myself up for questioning.  I was hoping not to get into a theological debate, but just in case, I spent several hours researching the Internet and even read the English translation of the first 2 chapters of the Quran (Koran).  To say the least, it was very interesting reading.

Omid, when you come to the US, we will have to discuss fashion statements. Just kidding, lol.

My interpreter Omid and I visited the ANA Sgt Major and over a cup of chai, we discussed the morning agenda.  The Sgt Major would introduce me to the class and then I would take over.  We all walked into the classroom and it was completely full of 50-60 ANA soldiers.  The Mullah had just finished with the religious studies portion.  The Sgt Major gave me a brief introduction and then the floor was given to me.  I started off by using non-threatening and informative questions.  I learned one soldier was a student and another was a farmer before joining the ANA.  Randomly I would select soldiers and ask them neutral questions.  One soldier stood and patriotically declared he joined the ANA to help protect his country, while others said they did it for the money.  The former farmer soldier confirmed the ANA is paying much better than they did in the past.  In a recent initiative, the ANA and ANP were given pay raises to compete with the Taliban payouts and the strategy seems to be working.

Feeling more comfortable with my audience, I started asking opinionated questions.  My first question was their opinion about American forces.  Initially, I got anticipated responses that we were there to help them with their country.  But one soldier said, “Some of us like Americans while others don’t.”  My next line of questioning dealt with the events of 9/11.  The first soldier I asked was not aware of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  I was rather shocked, but considering the background of these men before joining the ANA was understandable.  So to resolve my curiosity, I asked the question to the entire class.  Only 3-4 hands went up out of a class of over 50 people! But the one soldier, who watches the news, briefed the class of the events that transpired.  As the conversation continued, one soldier felt strongly that the coalition forces have defeated Al Qaeda and they are no longer in power and not able to attack the United States again.

My next step was to open up the floor for questions addressed to me.  I was feeling pretty confident and didn’t think I was opening up Pandora’s Box.  It didn’t take long before hands were flying up and I was being peppered with questions.  The first questioned asked concerned civilian casualties in the war.  The soldier wanted to know with all of our technology and information systems, why were innocent civilians being killed in this war.  I anticipated this question would come up due to the recent casualties in Operation Mushtarak in Helmand Province.  I explained that the Taliban would hide in a house and use civilians as human shields.  So when we drop a bomb, then it kills everyone inside the house.  This is when a Pashtun soldier chimed in to defend the innocent civilians.  He explained how the Taliban force their way into a house and the occupants are helpless against the armed intruders.  I followed up again by detailing how the Taliban use our rules of engagement against us and hide behind the women and children and continue to shoot at the coalition forces.  Thanks to the media publicly detailing and explaining our rules of engagement,  the insurgents now are using our rules to their advantage.

The next line of questioning was really more of soldiers making a statement and expressing their opinions.  One man stated “Afghanistan has a lot of fighting for 30 years, Muslims killing Muslims.”  Another chimed in how “Pakistan and Iran are interfering in their country and not allowing them to have a good or peaceful life.”  He continued on how these countries are providing money, weapons and insurgents to the war.  To be cont’d ….

Round Table Discussion Part II

While sipping my green tea and chewing on some cheap Afghan candy; two more ANA officers came to visit my ANA Sergeant Major.  They exchanged pleasantries with everyone in the room and sat around the SGM’s round table.  He poured them each a cup of chai and then we all started an intellectual debate and conversation over the present and future development of Afghanistan.  When time permits; I really enjoy engaging in these types of conversations because I learn so much from the information exchanged.

One of today’s topics revolved around the inept and corrupt justice system in Afghanistan.  In actuality, there are two justice systems in most of the provinces.  There is the main governmental one and the other one is administered by the shadow Taliban.  Swift and often brutal justice is administered by the Taliban.  The government justice system is perceived as corrupt and decisions easily are swayed by bribing judges and court officials.  Recently I read the local newspaper about a land dispute.  The matter was originally resolved by the Taliban in landowner A’s favor.  But landowner B disagreed with the outcome and took the dispute through the government system and they found in his favor.  Landowner A is alleging B bribed the judge to sway the decision.  I also read an article where a high court judge was asked whether judicial decisions were fair and influenced by bribes.  Not surprising, the judge didn’t directly answer the question, but responded “the government just needs to pay us more money”.  In addition, people in power are basically immune to any prosecution.  The newspapers have been noticeably quiet on the corruption investigations that made the headlines shortly after President Karzai took a firm stance on eradicating government corruption.  Save for the former mayor of Kabul, I haven’t seen any updates.  This platform was also suspiciously absent from the issues addressed at the London Conference.

Our small group also discussed the challenges faced by the new recruits who are uneducated.  The monthly salary being offered to new recruits is slightly less than what the Taliban is paying, but is more honorable.  The problem is low ranking soldiers commonly steal items from the base, vehicles, or equipment and sell them for profit at the local bazaar.  However, the commanders aren’t totally clean either and find ways to make additional money too by using their rank and position.  Or the other big problem being battled is teaching the ANA soldiers to take care of their equipment and vehicles.  It was phrased to me like this:  “If a soldier uses his own money to purchase an item, they will take care of it.  But if the government provides them an item, they do not treat it the same”.  This would explain why their vehicles are routinely damaged or not properly cared for.  Due to lack of training or education, ANA soldiers have been known to pour engine oil into the transmission or power steering reservoir.  But the real kick in the teeth was when they placed the blame on my government for supplying an endless supply of replacements.

I listened intently and before interjecting to defend my government, allowed them to finish their statement.  Projecting blame on the US government seems to be a popular held perception.  One common thread is the lack of accountability of the billions of dollars being donated by the US and other foreign nations.  The Afghan government is being given billions of dollars to support the ANA, ANP, and other governmental institutions.  However, it is alleged, much of this money is being siphoned off as consulting fees, contracting fees, bribes, subcontracting and the cost of doing business, etc.  This money is then used by the people in power to live a lavish lifestyle.  The problem arises when the villages outside of the capital city do not benefit from this infusion of aid.  Sure some of it trickles down, but the majority of it is expended elsewhere.  I was a bit stumped on how to argue my position, because my mind kept drifting off and referring to a NY Times article I read about the congressional Black Caucus in the US.  Formed as a philanthropic organization, they spent more money for conferences and other expenses than they did in providing college scholarships.  The difference being in the United States, this is perfectly legal.  But in Afghanistan, they don’t have Political Action Committees or lobbyists.  Instead, they have nepotism and tribal alliances that are enriched by their relationships to the people in power.

At one point in our friendly exchange, I was asked point blank, “What can we do, what is the solution?”.  Suddenly all of the eyes in the room were focused on me.  They were honestly looking at me to provide a resolution to their country’s problems.  I had to come up with something and perhaps my high school years of competing in National Forensic League (Speech and Debate) had prepared me for an educated rebuttal.  But not today, this was a question to be solely answered by the Afghan citizens.  But I did interject that one of the keys lies in educating the children and the Afghan people.  The various ANA battalions and brigades realize the importance of education and offer literacy training to the soldiers.  So it’s important they attend these classes and by working together, maybe they can slowly overcome their tribal biases. The ANA SGM is firm about his soldiers attending these classes too.   In addition, since the Taliban was removed from power, thousands of schools have reopened and the children are being educated.  These same children are tomorrow’s leaders.  I don’t know if this was an adequate response, but it seemed to provide a glimmer of hope.

Round Table Discussion

Afghan kids playing near C-Wire.

It didn’t take long for Mother Nature to correct her mistake of yesterday’s warm weather and return us back to colder temperatures.  In fact in the afternoon, we were treated to some small snowflakes that subsequently melted and turned to ice as the mercury continued to plummet.  I’m sure the much higher elevations are experiencing even more frigid temperatures than we are exposed to, so I’m not complaining as long as our heater does not freeze up over night.

ANA PBO officer.

My mentoring session this morning turned into quite a surprise and disappointment.  I discovered my ANA PBO had accidentally deleted one of the spreadsheets we have been actively working on this past week.  He wasn’t going to freely admit his mistake except he was frantically populating data in a new spreadsheet.  Had this been a child, perhaps a good scolding was in order, but there wasn’t much I could say or do. Fortunately and unbeknown to me, I have been working on 2 different spreadsheets with the same data and he was cutting and pasting information.  So at least most of the English translation part was saved on the surviving spreadsheet, but the algebraic formulas I input have

Bilingual Dari keyboard.

disappeared into cyber space.  The PBO was planning to work late today in a valiant attempt to restore the lost data.

I purposely cut this mentoring session short so he could work on restoring the spreadsheet.  My interpreter and I hiked up over the hill to visit the ANA Sergeant Major.  He was already boiling hot water for chai in anticipation of our arrival.  I really enjoy talking with the SGM, because he is informative and brutally honest with me.  While the tea was brewing we talked about the Salang Pass and tunnel rescue operations.  His Kandak sent 17 soldiers to help with the rescue efforts to help pull out vehicles that were swept up in the powerful avalanches.  He said one car they helped to retrieve had 6 occupants.  Five of them were dead, but a 6-year old girl managed to survive the encounter.  If anything positive came out of this, was a sense of national pride as ANA, ANP, and government and private organizations aided in the rescue of over 2,500 people.

ANA soldiers training.

Tomorrow is Liberation Day celebrating the last Soviet soldier departure, 15 Feb 1989.  This led to the SGM giving me a little bit more insight what it was like when the Soviets finally left Afghanistan after 10 years of brutal occupation.  He contradicted a book I was reading about how Mujahedeen treated the Afghan soldiers during the Soviet era and the years that followed.  According to my book, The Other Side Of The Mountain:  Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, the Mujahedeen would try not to purposely kill the Afghan soldiers.  Often many of the Soviet-Afghans would run away from their posts or easily surrender to the Mujahedeen warriors.  But according to the SGM, this wasn’t accurate and the Mujahedeen would kill their own countrymen because they felt betrayal since these men joined the Soviet forces that were responsible for annihilating entire villages and over a million people.

We also briefly discussed the period following the Soviet departure.  This is was a dark time in their history and dominated by civil war between the competing warlords for power.  It’s also what led to the destruction of the city of Kabul and thousands of deaths along with indiscriminate destruction.  Some of these same warlords are the influential people who helped to keep President Karzai in power or currently hold high government or military positions under his administration.

In my attempt to understand the current state of affairs, I am trying to analyze the events of the past leading up to the present environment.  But it’s difficult to find historical testimony of what really transpired after the Soviets left and the vacuum of power that was eventually filled by the Taliban.  Most people are reluctant to discuss the civil war that took place between the factions.  Even in Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner, he subtly refers to blood money without explanation.  When I try to discuss this period with my ANA counterparts, they generally change the topic or offer little of value.  It’s almost like this is an issue of shame and perhaps only to be discussed and debated among their own people.   Their nonverbal gestures speak volumes too.  It’s quite common when this topic is brought up, their eyes drift to the ground or they nervously clasp their hands together.  My ANA SGM typically strokes his bushy moustache and purposely breaks eye contact with me.  Perhaps this is one area of questioning that should be left alone…to be Cont’d..

A Tale of a Printer and an Ink Cartridge

Former Russian O-Club surrounded by snow.

Being an ETT mentor is a challenge, but working with antiquated computers, printers, and software poses a test in itself.  But before I get into equipment issues, I need to set the stage properly.  Last night at our 5 o’clock meeting we received an administrative tasking concerning accountability of equipment, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and communication equipment for our ANA forces.  The deadline was set for noon tomorrow.  Sounds simple enough, surely in eight years the ANA have developed some sort of accountability list or database to track the items being given to them.

Winter picture of Tajbeg Palace.

Surprisingly, they have an accountability system.  The problem is that it has not been fully translated into English.  This is where I come in, because I have been working on deciphering the codes, model numbers, etc. of the equipment issued to them even though I have never seen or been exposed to mortars, howitzers, and the labels the Army has come up with.  But with the help of my interpreter, I am able to muddle through it.  Often the room resembles a game of charades to help explain or describe the item in question.  Another method is the use of crude hand drawings (think Kindergarten level) on paper.   Without having access to internet, I am still puzzled by some of the nomenclatures.  For example, I was unsure what a KPVT mtd on BRDM or an M-113 or M-557 is.  This is the only information I have and since I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it to my ANA counterparts either.  Yet I need to find out if they have any of these items.  Hmmm…ok..

The ANA Property Book Officer was only available for 30 minutes and is the only one who holds a printed copy of the “Holy Grail” property book listing.  But he had to leave shortly and asked his assistant, an ANA Lieutenant (LT), to make a copy before he left.  The LT placed the pages in the printer and they became jammed.  After clearing the paper jam, PBO had to leave and assured me that the listings could be printed from the data base.  I never thought printing a document would turn into a fiasco, but it did.  The assistant printed a list out, but after reviewing the data, I realized this was old data, so we would have to try again.  When he attempted to print the listing again, the printer generated an error and was out of ink and paper.  The paper was an easy remedy and since I recently picked up a whole box of ink cartridges from the Army Supply store as free issue the cartridge issue would be easily rectified.  If nobody took these cartridges, they were going to dispose of them, so I took their entire stock.  Unknown to me at this time, the shelf life expired and the HP printer will reject them and flash an error message.  But I also had the foresight to have my interpreter visit the local bazaar and pick up some other cartridges in case these didn’t work.

I gave the assistant a black ink cartridge to install in the printer.  The HP printer accepted it and we were back in business.  I waited a few minutes and noticed the assistant had a puzzled look on his face.  He couldn’t get the computer to print the data.  Meanwhile I sipped my customary cup of chai and watched as the assistant disappeared out the door.  A few minutes later, he came back in with another printer and attached the cables.  This printer happened to be out of ink too, so he transferred the ink cartridges from his printer to this one.  Just like magic, the computer cooperated and the printer spit out the spreadsheets at the speed of a moving turtle.  Did I mention a prerequisite in becoming a mentor is having the patience of Job.

Precious time was ticking away and after several more rounds of charades, my Captain and I deciphered through the data.  We met our deadline with an hour to spare.  As for the data accuracy, I am saving that for a separate entry because I found several errors that will have to be corrected unless the basis of issue has changed to 4 each M-16 rifles per person.  Oh, before I forget, an M-113 and 557 is some sort of Armored Personnel Carrier (APC).  The KPVT is a Soviet machine gun and the BRDM is a Soviet amphibious armored patrol car.  Note to self:  Add these words to your new coalition forces vernacular.

One last tidbit I omitted.  Several years ago a US contractor provided computers and printers to the ANA.  Since then, only certain models are authorized.  As a result, the printer model in my PBO is not authorized.  Therefore, he cannot obtain printer cartridges through the Minister of Defense logistical supply system.  Requests have been placed through the ANA supply system for new printers.  The MOD released 2 printers for the use of several thousand soldiers.

Vixen, the puppy: Where is that dog house you promised me?

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex did not have time to take pictures during this assignment. But he sent a few others from the past few days.

Tea and Coffee

Slushy roads at ANA land.

Last night it snowed all night and in the morning we had about an inch of fresh snow.  I followed someone else’s footsteps for my morning trek to the latrine.  Later in the morning the fresh snowfall would melt creating slushy conditions.  On the camp, we are fortunate to have a bed of gravel around the b-huts and walking paths.  In fact, it seems

New recruits training outside in the snow.

like the whole camp is a gravel pit that was spread out evenly and then structures were placed on top of it.  The gravel allows the snow to melt easier and due to the drainage, we don’t have large puddles of standing water.  Outside the camp is a different story.  Slush and mud best describes the terrain in ANA land.

Today was a real treat

My ANA SGT Major sipping a cup of tea.

and I had an opportunity to see my ANA Sgt Major.  He has been gone for quite awhile.  His wife needed some medical treatment and he took her to Pakistan for surgery.  This seems to be a common occurrence here.  I don’t want to paint all of Afghan doctors with a broad stroke, but based on testimony from interpreters and my ANA counterparts, the civilian medical care provided here is substandard.  According to them, the medical personnel seem to be focused on making money and not really taking care of their patients.  My interpreter said if you argue with the doctor about expired medicine shelf life or mediocre care, they have an arrangement with the Police who will remove you from the facility.  Often they prescribe cheap medicines that are ineffective.  As such, Afghans drive to Pakistan for quality care.

Tribute to Mujahedeen fighter during Soviet era.

The Sgt Major and I had a good conversation about various topics including corruption, history and future.  He provided me the history behind the rock soldier outline on a nearby hill.  This was a tribute to a former Mujahedeen fighter during the Soviet era.  This “champion” served under Massoud’s Northern Alliance.  After the Soviets departed in 1989, this stone artwork was constructed in honor of this fighter.  After winter passes, the Sgt Major has offered to give me an up close look at this sculpture.

Planning session with ANA officers.

After sipping 2 cups of green chai with the Sgt Major, I attended a meeting with other ANA officers.  The Army Major in the picture was introducing them to “American Chai”, better known as coffee.  I plan to add this picture to my collection of officers doing physical work….lol.  What you don’t see is when he first poured the coffee from

Army Major Pouring coffee for ANA officers.

the carafe, the lid came off and he made a mess.  Better to leave pouring the coffee to us enlisted personnel….lol.

Even though winter is upon us, this has not diminished the on-going training of new recruits.  Every day I see new squads of recruits being transformed into soldiers.  Today I read in the local newspaper that the Karzai administration is contemplating implementing conscription for the country.  For me personally, I think this is a great idea.  This would support the expansion initiative of the national security forces, but it would also give the young men an opportunity to serve their country, form teams with other tribal ethnicities and teach them a skill and enhance their literacy.

In other local news, intelligence operatives foiled a bombing attempt by insurgents who used a donkey laden with explosives.  The donkey had four remote-controlled and more than 40 kilograms of explosives strapped to its back.  I’m uncertain whether the Taliban are trying to get creative or perhaps they are running low in suicide volunteers for their warped ideological cause. Almost every day, the local paper prints how many insurgents and Taliban are being killed by the ANA, ANP, and coalition forces.  Perhaps that image of going to heaven and being greeted by a multitude of virgins is being questioned and males are reluctant to give their life for such a misguided cause.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still brainwashed followers who believe every word that the one-eyed Mullah Omar spews from his mouth and these are the ones who are not going to reconcile and will fight to their death.  This will be evident in the much telegraphed NATO offensive of the Taliban strong-hold of Marjah in Helmand Province.  The insurgents are digging in and preparing for a fight.  Meanwhile, hundreds of civilian families are fleeing the major opium-production town to avoid being caught in the middle of a crossfire.

Love, No War

The weather has created some messy conditions here.

The weather here has been see-sawing back and forth for the past two days.  At night we get pelted with small snow flurries which turn into rain the next morning.  Then later in the afternoon, the temperature changes again and the precipitation forms large feathery snowflakes before repeating the night cycle.  This

Brand new ANA Ford Rangers.

see-sawing of precipitation has created slush and a muck dirt mixture on the dirt roads we travel.  Considering this is the same mud they make their bricks and cement mixture to build their walls out of, it’s important to scrape it off of your combat boots before it dries.   The other day my interpreter and I tried to take a short cut between buildings

"Love, No War" painted on an Afghan truck.

and found our boots quickly sank into the muck and then attached itself like glue.  By the time we had reached the asphalt road, our shoes had expanded by double in size and in weight.  What a mess!

In the pictures are a new fleet of ANA pickup trucks, 7-tons, and up-armored Humvees, compliments of our US taxpayer dollars.  As the

More donated school supplies and Beanie Babies arrive at the camp.

size of the ANA forces expands, so does their requirement to have more vehicles to transport the troops and logistics.  While outside the camp today, I spotted a truck that caught my attention.  Judging by the words and symbols painted on his truck, I may have found an Afghan “tree hugger” … lol.  I think it should have said “Love not War” or perhaps it was restating the popular Vietnam 1960’s anti-war slogan “Make Love not War” might have been the intended phrase.  But his variant of this expression “Love, No War” was noteworthy and was deserving of a photo to be added to my archive of unique Afghan truck photos.

Students at Oak Grove Middle School packing party. Thank you for the AWESOME job!

Amidst the snow flurries, I transported another 20+ boxes of school supplies and Beanie Babies to my storage conex.  The conex is bursting at the seams and needs to be reorganized so I can accommodate more boxes.  Thanks again to everyone for all of their generous donations.  The schools will reopen in March and I will be able to distribute all the

Rick Grant (left) and Benjamin Smet of Oak Grove Middle School in Cleawater, FL trucking some of the donated supplies at the packing party.

donations and make some children very happy.  Liisa recently visited Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, FL and collected another carload of donated school supplies.  Two former military personnel, Benjamin Smet and Rick Grant, who are now teachers spearheaded the drive and their enthusiasm was passed onto their students who took up the cause and filled boxes with donated school supplies.  I also had a chance to communicate with them via Skype and thank them for their energetic spirit in supporting this humanitarian cause.  But what really moved me were the powerful words composed in a poem by an 8th grade female student. Thank you again, Ana Benz, for this poem.  Ana has given me permission to share it with my readers.

The Afghan Student

Words of the adults engraved in my head.

I stare and think while laying in bed.

These thoughts running through me of what he said.

“Boy, you’re the future.”

Kids are always slacking away.

Forgetting homework, letting their brains decay.

But I’m here in a different situation.

Across the world in blazing heat, a fiery sensation.

My people struggle with a war to be fought.

And only one thing is sought.

Education.

The kids and myself all want to learn.

To be educated and not watch my village burn.

People are fighting to help us be free.

But we want to help, hear our plea.

Echoing sounds of not one, not two, but hundreds of kids.

Their voices can’t be contained, not even with lids.

They want to learn, but their supplies are low.

If you do help, slowly, but surely, it will show.

The small pen or pencil you lost.

Or the barely used paper you tossed.

You take it for granted, that small little tool.

That little thing can provide the fuel,

To start a spark that will start a fire.

A fire of education. A fire that we require.

With a pen at a time.

We can all climb.

Climb that ladder that leads to freedom.

The freedom, we desire.

Hear our pleas and help us.

One lost pen is another’s sword.

By:  Ana Benz, 8th grade student, Oak Grove Middle School

Ana Benz, 8th grader, interviewed by WUSF Radio's Bobbie O'Brien for a news story that will run on 89.7 FM.

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