Sunday, September 11, 2011

"No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." President Abraham Lincoln

Leadership matters. I've never been more convinced.

\ˈlē-dər-ship\: 1. the office or position of a leader

2. capacity to lead
3. the act or an instance of leading

That's the Webster's definiton. Inapposite to President's Lincoln's view, the Afghan definition from years' past might be "the act of taking a stick to a person or a group of people until they follow you out of fear." Changing the notion that governance can only occur if by force is to change the very notion of what qualifies as leadership.

Napoleon noted that leaders are dealers in hope. Not a big Napoleon fan but that is exactly what everyday Afghans need. A good Afghan leader will inspire this hope. Good Afghan leaders are on the way.

I have had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. He is a Pashtun. He is pictured here with the Minister of Interior -- a legendary Tajik mujahadeen. Ashraf Ghani left during the Russian regime when his family was victimized by their oppression. He took advantage of his time away to gain a Ph.D from Columbia. He returned to Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 and instituted a new currency, a new financial system with no-deficit financing and a balanced budget as its cornerstone -- lessons learned from evaluating our country and from his work with the World Bank. He was touted as successor to Kofi Annan as UN secretary general and was a candidate for President in the last Afghan administration. He currently works for the Karzai administration leading the "Inteqal" process (Dari word for "handing over" or "transition."). He is hope for the future...impressive by any standard. But he's only one guy.

In my position as a Senior Advisor within the Afghan Ministry of Interior I have met many impressive Afghan leaders quite a few horrible ones and then guys who are getting a chance and with coalition assistance will become good leaders and learn by example. I am optimistic by what I have seen, but one key fact cannot be ignored. Much of the current leadership that is in place right now in Afghanistan were also in place during the past 30 years in one capacity or another. A few key leaders like Karzai and Ashraf Ghani are exceptions to the rule as they were abroad during most of the conflict...most folks in key leadership positions at the Ministries are survivors who have been in Afghanistan for the entire time doing what they do best (looking out for #1). They are not powerful because they are in positions of leadership...they are in positions of leadership because they have power bases collected over the years. It is most of these guys that need either need replacing or recalibrating.

In the police world, the European Union Police Mission in partnership with NTM-A and the Ministry of Interior has created an effective Staff College for Police leaders. Provincial and District Chiefs of Police (nearly 400) and other key Ministry leaders will cycle through training and many will be partnered with advisors to help leadership training stick. It is one of the more promising developments in the Police mission. This is the recalibrating part.

The replacing part will happen over time. But Afghans and some of these other key leaders are getting impatient. Some of the replacing is going on now and is led by courageous Afghans like my linguist and cultural advisor, Hamid Kohistani. He blew the whistle on a corrupt actor in the Ministry of Interior. In the past, that could have got him killed. In the present it was not without risk. Its this type of courage though that make him one of the key Afghan leaders of the future. It was my great privilege to work with him.

My other team -- a group of multi-ethnic attorneys including Tajiks from Panjshir and Pashtuns from both the north and the south, men and women, all work together as part of team of legal professionals. Working together in this fashion is a modern Afghan phenomonon and one that is common among the coming generation which is more literate, more educated, and more accepting of each other. As Minister Mohammedi noted: "Afghanistan is like garden with many beautiful types of flowers." I love the picture to the right as it is a microcosm of all that is right in Afghanistan. Multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-gender...all working together to make it happen. These accounts may be largely anecdotal and from my admittedly narrow perspective, but I can't help smiling with optimism.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

We Interrupt this Broadcast....

Please forgive this diversion from my train of thought (optimism in Afghanistan can wait a day). As of today, I have officially left the Army and all I can say is, "wow, what a relief!" You can't imagine a more satisfied group of travelers than we 16 Navy folk from Afghanistan who were pulled off a bus of Army guys on their way to R&R by one squared away Sailor who quite simply took care of us.

This is something that hardly ever happens in the Army. Don't get me wrong, the Army is great at reducing things to the lowest common demoninator, is an expert at mass troop movement and building up logistics heads. You don't want anyone else in a ground war than the U.S. Army, but damn does it suck to be in the Army. I don't want to relive too much of it, but the Navy is so much more about the individual in so many different ways. And this individual likes that.

That is all prelude to this simple and wonderful fact...I am now in Kuwait. I am no longer in Afghanistan. I feel like I can officially take the pack off. In fact, my shipmates in true Navy fashion would not let me carry my bags and started disassembling and unpacking some of my gear during the turn-in process which took...I don't know...5 minutes. No one in the Army helps you hump your gear...that is insulting. And, the Army would have packed this 5-minute evolution into 2 days...I am not joking.

Now I'm joking and this joke is illustrative...I was in the Dining Facility the other day and started to a joke about West Point. Four extremely large and impressive Soldiers crowded around the table and said, "we all played football at West Point...are you sure you want to keep telling that joke, squid."

"Well, not now that I would have to explain it four different times."

Honestly, I am extremely grateful to the Army for the valuable equipment, training and opportunity. While I never needed to storm a building in a four-man stack, or orient my way through the woods, or don and doff the bio-chem equipment that stayed in my duffle for a year, I was sure better for the training experiences. And the second-hand equipment that smelled like much more than an Army of one even before I was done with it, kept me alive. I am not being sarcastic (and I know you can't tell and Leslie constantly harps on me for this). The Army can train and equip and I am grateful. But I was much happier when my shipmates took it off my hands. I wasn't prepared for how amazing and happy this would make me feel. All part of the readjustment process.

And that is why we are here in Kuwait...for our warrior transition program. Before I got here I was like a lot of people who griped about this 4-5 day process. How do you effectively transition and decompress (particularly in a place as hot as the surface of the sun) when you really just want to be home. Well, I ate my words. This place is great and I now believe a few days of sitting around, getting your head right and just becoming accustomed to a different pace of life, with no one shooting at you, and without all of your thousands of other little coping mechanisms for living with the Army and in general living in a world without thousands of things most people take for granted.

The other thing they do here is make you feel like a hero and in so doing equip you for being treated like a hero back home. This is also great...because I tell you few people who do what we do really feel heroic about it and it comes with the burden of expectations, etc. The facts are stark -- there are 300 million Americans. About 4 million are serving on either active duty or the reserves and about 2.9 million have served "forward" in the past 10 years. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 tomorrow, I am proud to be counted in this very small number of Americans. Proud to be in the U.S. Navy...serving side by side with our Army brothers and sisters. Proud to be your hero.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reasons for Optimism in Afghanistan, Intro

I am not an optimistic person by nature...I am a generally positive person, but not optimistic. In fact, one of my great coping strategies is to lower my own expectations about situations so that if they exceed by low expectations I will be pleasantly surprised. Pessimism helps me stay positive.

I am however optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan. Note I do not call it a war or even the more technically correct counter-insurgency or armed conflict. "Situation" is a more loaded and ambiguous term and that's about right from my perspective.

There's a lot going on in Afghanistan. I will caveat my optimism and comments from this point on by saying that very few people if any have a good grip on the complexities of the Situation. In fact, the longer you are there and the more immersed you are in the culture, the politics and the personalities, the less you feel like you really know and understand. I have had a significant amount of immersion, but I don't pretend to know everything (if I did I would be a news reporter or a political correspondent). But I do know that winning in Afghanistan is not going to be evident in an iconic moment like Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon (that is him on the far right with Jim Lovell and an Afghan Nationa Army pilot in training in the foreground). Rather, winning in Afghanistan is when people trust the Government, when the Government cares for the people and when the Government can manage the Situation without us. And I do feel like they are close to getting there.

So with intro and caveat out of the way... I have four key reasons to be optimistic:

(1) There are truly great Afghan leaders out there...and leaders can be made. Leadership development is working (and is critical to resolving the Situation).

(2) There is a commitment to literacy, education and to the coming generation of young people, even among the most corrupt in Afghanistan.

(3) There is a burdgeoning nationalism.

(4) There is a wealth of talent collected in Afghanistan from the international community...people with ideas, energy and talent who do not accept failure and are empowered to succeed.

With each successive blog I will expand on these four point and in turn capture some of the more unique experiences from my time in Afghanistan.

But before doing that...some tidbits and factoids that I hope are also encouraging.

Since 2001, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product from legal products has tripled. The economic growth rate is on par with China and India (though admittedly starting from a lower base).

We frequently see large packs of girls heading off to school...incredibly satisfying images. To me there is no single anecdote or image more compelling than the photo of a policeman helping a group of girls across the street to go to school. Well this year more than 8 million children will attend schools in Afghanistan and a third of them are girls (this up from 1 million boys in the early 2000s).

80 percent of Afghans have access to basic health-care facilities, almost twice as many as in 2005. Infant mortality has dropped by a third, and the adult life expectancy is rising.

Perhaps most remarkable, half of Afghan families now have telephones (and many of the ones I know have as many as three). In 2001, almost no one had a phone as the Taliban wanted to rid Afghanistan of all vestiges of modern society. Today, the Taliban, no joke, even send night tweets.

Finally, unlike during the time the Russians were here, Afghans and others are immigrating back into this nation...not out of it. In fact, currently there are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan.

My optimism is guarded as you will see in the coming posts, but the glass is definitely half-full.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From the Earth to the Moon

It occurred to me recently that there are several parallels to our mission in Afghanistan and our mission to be the first to put a man on the moon...doing what the Russians could not, pouring tons of resources into it, doing it with real life American heroes, doing it on a political timeline set by a young, Democratic President, etc. I am sure you can think of some others...feel free to post in reply.

Why does such a parallel occur to it the lack of sleep, oxygen deprivation at 6000 feet, just wired funny? All are distinct possibilities, but in this case it is because I was fortunate to be in the audience when three American astronauts came to visit Kabul: Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong.

80 years old and still inspiring the masses. Everyone in our audience of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines hung on every word these U.S. Navy officers had to say. Their commentary ranged from the sensory...

Armstrong: "the moon is dark, the horizon is near, it is hot at 240 degrees and it smells of spent gunpowder":

to the political...

Cernan: "It is unacceptable that our great nation cannot put a man in outer space today...we gave everything we worked for back to the Russians.

To the spiritual...

Lovell: "the earth is so insignificant when viewed from the moon...all the conflicts, all the problems you can fit it all behind your thumb. We are all so insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe."

To those who don't know, Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. Gene Cernan was the last man to leave his footprints up there and Jim Lovell is most famous for leading the Apollo 13 mission -- one of our nation's most "successful failures."

Which brings me right back to Afghanistan. My particular unit's mission there was to build up the Afghan National Army and Police from the ground up in a culture of illiteracy, corruption, and using the same leaders that guided the country through 30 years of war -- a country whose key export is opium. You add to this mix, us "problem-solvers" -- highly educated Westerners, with predominantly Judeo-Christian backgrounds from nations on the demand side of the opium equation. To quote from Apollo 13, this is the square peg in the round hole.

This campaign has already cost us quite a bit of blood and treasure. And when you think of how long we have been here already and how much we have spent to get where we are -- well that stings. LTG Caldwell, our commanding general, recently and correctly noted that people's perception of the Afghan National security forces is only two years old. Two years? What were we doing the past 9? That is a fair question. I suspect many were asking similar, fair questions of the space program when the Russians beat us up there in the first place. But it is what we did in response that defined us as a nation...much like what we are doing between now and 2014 in Afghanistan will define success, failure...or both. I feel like after a year in Afghanistan I can speak with greater credibility than any sideline critic, talking head or newspaper reporter. With that credibility, I can honestly tell you that I am optimisitic. We are after all the nation that put a man on the moon. But is much more than that...and in the coming weeks I will chronicle all that is going right and what leaves me with such optimism. For one thing...and this is like a starts with the people who are now present in Afghanistan particularly in the police development mission.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Long Road Home

I am here early for my flight out of Kabul. The first step in a long road home. I am hanging out at a "Greek" cafe enjoying a latte, watching people smoke cigars, play chess (with an iphone timer) and listening to conversations in Spanish, Bulgarian, the Queen's English (these people should be at work!). It is a beautiful day. Not just because its my last in Kabul. It is literally beautiful. After a shit storm the day before (when it rains, the fecal matter in the inversion layer is washed to the ground--literally a shit storm) the sky is a radiant, clear blue. It's almost like Kabul is woman who after that one-night stand got up early, made herself up and is encouraging you to stay. "See, I am beautiful," says the siren. [Note: this is an homage to my father's writing style. The record should reflect that I have neither had a one-night stand nor have I even looked with desire upon a woman other than my wife.]

But the flies, the smell, the can't escape it. This is Afghanistan. As much as I enjoyed the adventure, the immense challenge, and the people this is nowhere I want to be. America, here I come. Honey, here I come. Back to your loving arms. My Afghan adventure is nearly to an end, inshallah.

I have much to say though I'm not sure all of it needs saying. I have new friends, great memories, bad memories, a persistent hacking cough, a different perspective, a new-found patience, a new love interest (Old Bessie, the Toyota Land Cruiser that saved my life), a profound respect for hand sanitizer, a bottled-water habit and stories to tell. It may take many beers or bottles of wine to get some of the stories out of me, but if you're game....

In the meantime, I hope to satisfy you and my own desire for self-expression with a flurry of blogs that I should have written months ago. They will follow no logical or linear arc...rather, a Joyce-ian stream of consciousness. It feels so good to be writing again...good to have the time. Good to be on the road. I'm coming home.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Has it really been four months since posting?

I can explain. Just after Christmas I received additional duties. It was then that I lost control of my schedule, lost track of time, and have been in sprint mode. 4 months later, I feel as though I have a lot to show for it. New Afghan advisees, new experiences and many new friends and colleagues. Chief among them, to my great fortune, is a group of Canadian policemen who now work with me. But more on them in a separate post.

I am on a leg of a trip back home for what I believe is some well-earned R&R. Well, if not well-earned, I am at least tired.

So here I am at a base somewhere, tired, but already relaxed. I have hours until my next obligated engagement. Hours of unstructured time. Hours to do whatever I want. Its strange. I caught myself walking slower, pondering the universe, eating at a comfortable pace, blogging.
I haven't yet decided if I like this sensation. Already feel lazy. Already feel like I need to be somewhere. Anxious. Idle time does this to me

Or maybe the anxiety is because I haven't seen my family in about 250 days. That's a long time, even for a Navy guy. Will I recognize any of them -- how they look, how they act, how they feel?
Will they recognize me? Have I changed? These are not new questions...but they are never fun. Reunion is actually one of the many challenges of a deployment. The best advice I received, is don't try to change anything or anyone...just fit into the existing routine.

"Existing routine" here I come.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

First, sorry for my recent absenteeism from the blogosphere. Have hit a patch of sprinting over here where I have had little personal time. Appropriately, we have slacked a bit during this holiday season...enough for me to wear this goofy hat.

While I have collected many experiences that I would like to share, for now I wanted to briefly share my thoughts and feelings on the most unusual and memorable experience of Christmas away from home.

This is my third deployment of 6 months or more since joining the Navy JAG Corps in 1995. Not a lot by Army standards -- I met some cat on deployment number 8 today. Not a lot by Navy standards as one of my Navy friends here is on number 6 (to include Iraq and Afghanistan). Three is a lot for me though...a lot for any Navy lawyer. And while this is number 3, this is my first Christmas away from home. It sucks people. Let no one, not even that guy with 8 deployments tell you otherwise.

That said, and with apologies to those who do not share my Christian faith, it is here and now (or in places like this) that one understands the true meaning of Christmas -- peace comes only with sacrifice.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9

For centuries, scholars have asked "why do the nations so furiously rage together." Not sure there is an answer other than they just do. It is the human condition. Reasons may vary from person to person, government to government, religion to religion, and so on...but there are those who would bring peace ----->

The reason I am here, the reason we are all here at this time is to bring security and stability to this region of the world. By bringing security and stability to the region, we hope to bring peace to both this land and to ours.

Peace has never come without a price -- and those in the military know that all too well. Irrespective of what you might think about our Generals and civilian military leadership, nobody likes this stuff. Nobody likes being away at Christmas...and that is one of the least of the sacrifices we make over here.

In the midst of these sacrifices, we seek to bring peace by building Afghanistan's security structures and Government in a manner that will result in something they can sustain. In my little world, we have built a police force of 115,ooo. We are equipping them to shoot, move and communicate as well as to read and write their own language and to understand and live by a code of ethics and rule of laws. We have made significant leaps over the past year with more ahead for the next. Time will tell whether our efforts bear fruit, but with these structures in place we will accellerate the simultaneous process of transitioning ownership and stewardship to our Afghan partners...and in so doing hope to build a lasting peace here.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not be afraid. John 14:27

We seek also peace for ourselves individually. Knowing that our families are cared for back home and knowing that our fellow Americans love and support us brings peace. I know that all over our country, in the most sacred of places, whether in the churches, synagogues, mosques, dinner tables, or neighborhood bar, people are giving thanks for me and others here. They do so without really understanding why we are here or the danger we face, but they appreciate our sacrifice. That brings peace. We have never been better supported by the American people...I have the care packages to prove it. Socks, baked goods, Hickory Farms, homemade cards, snacks, love in a box and more. They came from those I love and those I have never even met...a women's sewing club (with one dude in it who made brownies with liquor in them), a girl scout troop in Alabama and a VFW post in who-knows-where Florida to name a few. All brought comfort...and a little moisture to my eyes. At this time of year, it is tough to be away from home yet those of you at home have exported it here. God bless you friends for you make a difference. You brought least to me.

This time of year, my first to celebrate away from home, I more truly appreciate what I have back home, what I have here in a huge family of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines from over 40 nations (more on them in the next post), and what we all hope for in the coming years...peace. Merry Christmas from Kabul.