Earlier this year came the shocking revelation of an Air Force Chaplain at Bagram Air Field (BAF) who received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari, and who gave a sermon that appeared to exhort troops to proselytize. This is a crime under Afghan law that is punishable by death. That Chaplain directly fed into the propaganda operation by the Taliban, who claim that we are here to destroy Islam. The aftereffects still ripple through Afghan society. His actions, both in receiving the Dari Bibles and in his speech, may actually have tipped the scales in the minds of some to begin supporting or actually participating in operations against the Taliban and the GIRoA. His actions could actually be lethal; but not to the enemy.
Today an article was published in The Times (UK) quoting two U.S. Army Chaplains as saying that American troops in their two battalions are losing heart. It is difficult to explain the power of the urge to find these men of the cloth and grasp them firmly by the neck while calling upon the very stones of the earth to turn against them.
When Soldiers struggle with their purpose, it is clear that they are untrained in what that purpose is. They are kinetically trained warriors put into a political/military struggle where a great percentage of activity is not directly targeting the enemy, all while functioning in an environment where the enemy may target you anonymously with weapons that permit him to hide while he tries to kill you. They have been failed by their training. Many senior leaders cannot adequately train or supervise Soldiers in a COIN environment because they have not studied it themselves. I have met precisely one Chaplain who has actually read FM 3-24. Our Army is still struggling with COIN doctrine, and many of our Chaplains are wandering around lost while they could be of great benefit. These men should keep one thing in mind: First, do no harm. What they did by speaking on the record to this reporter was harmful. Calling the overall morale of our troops into question in front of a foreign media outlet boggles the mind.
In a strongly religious society such as Afghanistan, where Islam is woven tightly into the fabric of life and into the nature of conflict, what can a Christian Chaplain do? Again; first, he/she should do no harm. Secondly, he/she should read the book about this type of conflict and understand what it is that the Soldiers are involved in. He (going forward meaning either gender) should be able to assist a Soldier in understanding the nature of risk and loss in this type of environment, where a peaceful moment can be shattered beyond all recognition and with it the bodies of friends and colleagues. He, above all, needs to find his place in this from the perspective of our Soldiers and their purpose, that he can be the crutch for the spiritually and emotionally wounded. There is no place on the battlefield for the weak, and in this battle the mentally and spiritually weak are a particular liability. We cannot bear broken crutches with us. The damage done by these two men, while not on the par of the Dari Bible Fiasco, is actually only moderately less severe.
Understanding the nature of this conflict and the society, especially the religious nature of the operating environment, is difficult for anyone. As the primary religious and spiritual advisor to the commander and Soldiers, is the Chaplain making contributions that increase the realistic cultural understanding of the commander and his Soldiers? Is he making it his business to be the go-to guy on issues of realistic understanding of cultural norms? Is he finding his counterpart in the ANA or other ANSF and empowering both understanding and the tremendous effects that can be brought to bear by the RCA (ANSF equivalent of a Chaplain)? Can the Chaplain explain that Afghans aren’t offended by the inadvertent showing of the sole of the foot, as long as it’s not purposely done to insult? Can the Chaplain explain that waving with the left hand, when the right hand is full, is not insulting? Can the Chaplain help a Specialist learn simple greetings in Dari and Pashto, so that Soldier can get along better with his counterparts or civilians he may meet? Can the Chaplain explain the basics of Muslim prayer to a Baptist kid from southern Georgia, so that he can understand what and why his Afghan counterpart is doing?
The positive potential of ANA RCA’s is, in many places, untapped. RCA’s are usually educated, literate, moderate mullahs who can fight the Taliban message that the ANA and ANP are apostatic puppets of the Coalition. They can bring moderate education to village mullahs who are often illiterate themselves. Given the power of mullahs in Afghanistan to spread messages and themes, this is powerful. It has been done, and it works amazingly well. Are our Chaplains assisting and empowering the ANA and ANP RCA’s to do this?
The answer to the questions above, with extremely rare exceptions, is, “No.”
There is being helpful, and there is being harmful. Every person here in a uniform is by definition a counterinsurgent. Each and every action either supports the work of counterinsurgency or it harms it. Even a wasted action is harmful. You are either providing thrust or you are adding drag. There is no middle ground. Today, The Times may as well have carried the words of insurgents themselves, for just about as much harm was done. When a man, by virtue of his particular office, is largely unsupervised, he must find a way to make a positive contribution to the mission.
But first, he must do no harm.
Recently I got an email from a fellow milblogger who experienced a change of mission from Iraq to Afghanistan. Iraq didn’t bother him… he’s been there before… but he doesn’t know anything about Afghanistan. I thought about it and realized that what I was missing when I went into country was significant. Our young friend asked for a post on what he needed to know, but I realized that the knowledge that needed to be transferred could not be dealt with in one post. I also realized that there were others who had knowledge that needed to be provided. From this point, Bouhammer tells it better than I do, so I’m copying his post on it.
It started as a lengthy phone call between Old Blue and myself. Thanks to a private online chat group that a whole bunch of us milbloggers talk on, it grew to include Vampire 6 and WOTN. Four veterans of Afghanistan, Four milbloggers, Four guys who care about passing on the Afghanistan Lessons Learned (A.L.L.) to others that are deploying. 2009 is going to be challenging enough for this country in regards to Afghanistan and even more challenging for those that are heading over to risk their lives and spend a year away from home.
The last thing they need to do is worry about a lengthy ramp-up period to learn the unique challenges that the war in Afghanistan has to offer. They need to hit the ground running, which means having all the lessons learned already in their head.
This is where we come in. We call it A.L.L. and it is for all going to Afghanistan. We foresee this blog becoming the one-stop shop of knowledge needed in order to step into the country knowing all there is to know without having physically been there.
You can find it at http://afghanlessons.blogspot.com/
Go there to check it out, and if you know anyone heading to the “Popular, Forgotten War” tell them to check it out too.
This post is in response to a direct request from SGT Danger, who has experienced a change of mission.
First, read some basic history on Afghanistan. You don’t need to know a ton, but being familiar with the history there is a good idea, and Afghans are very impressed with someone who has taken the time, and had the respect, to learn about their history. Afghanistan has a long history and is a witness to many empires, most of which have run over Afghanistan like steamrollers. Afghanistan has been like the cartoon character who is run over by a car, struggles to his feet and has scarcely dusted himself off when he is run over again. And again. And again, ad nauseum. Afghans, particularly the Pashtuns, have been called xenophobic, and while they have some xenophobic tendencies, it is this role as the speed bump of history that has ingrained this.
In your research you will find that the Persians, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and more recently the British Empire and the Russians have all swept through Afghanistan. For some, this paints a picture of the indomitable Afghan. I tend to disagree, as the Afghans have indeed been conquered on numerous occasions. However, Afghanistan has never been the prize, more like a necessary bridge from where the conqueror was to where he wished to be. What the Afghans are, however, is survivors. The ominous name “graveyard of empires” is a misnomer. None of the great ancient empires were undone in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan was instead a way to measure the waxing and waning of these empires. They all swept through on their way to expansion, and then had to retract through Afghanistan again on their way back whence they came, leaving their genetic mark on the land. The Afghans, however, have survived. Afghans are not indomitable; they are consummate survivors, amazing in their flexibility and often playing foreigners off of each other and their domestic competitors.
More recently, the British and Russians have found great difficulty in Afghanistan, mostly through their own idiotic mistakes. These experiences in particular are held up as some sort of omen as to the fortunes of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. I caution you not to give much credence to such examples, for there are significant differences. No one through history has gone to Afghanistan for the sake of Afghanistan. What we are doing in Afghanistan is for their sake, but do not become confused; it is not because we are so selfless. It is because by doing the right thing in Afghanistan, we make ourselves safer. Do not buy in to any thoughts of whether or not they deserve our assistance. The question is in itself diversionary. We chose this mission eight years ago because it is our best interests. The Afghans need a lot of help. Theirs is a society that has been developmentally disabled by thirty years of warfare. They have forgotten how to govern even as well as they were ever governed. Forty years ago, Afghanistan was on its way towards modernization. Events since the deposition of the king in 1973 (the king died in August, 2007) have taken Afghanistan back until they are now ten minutes out of the stone age.
If you think of Afghanistan as an individual, this would be a person who has suffered repeated blows to the head and suffers from TBI and PTSD.
A basic understanding of this will assist you in your observations of Afghan behavior. Observations of behavior are critical; your best way to prepare for danger is to be able to recognize what normal looks like. It is only through learning what normal looks like that you will have any hope of recognizing what abnormal looks like. Being able to recognize abnormal behavior or circumstances will help you to stay alive and keep your Soldiers safe. At first, when you arrive, your “Spidey sense” will be alerting you constantly, overloading your mind and your emotions. Relax. Learn. In a short time (2-3 weeks) you will have seen much of Afghan behavior enough to know (mostly) what normal looks like.
Expect to see crushing poverty. Expect to see children who appear to be about four years old herding goats or sheep off by themselves in the middle of the day. Expect to see more Toyota Corollas than you ever thought were built. The general feeling has often been described as Biblical times blended with the Wild West with a touch of Mad Max.
Do not confuse illiteracy with stupidity. Afghans very often learn quickly by observation. They have a strong tradition of oral history. Be aware of why they are consummate fence-sitters, the ferocity of their lack of commitment born of a strong survival instinct. Understand that, often, what we see as corruption they see as the price of doing business.
Be slow to judge them by American standards. While the easy answer, it will only breed discontent in your own soul. There are many Afghans who are very glad that you are there. If you have close contact with them, you will quite likely be thanked by some for being there. There will be more on culture in further chapters.
The link to the history of Afghanistan above is to Wikipedia’s good synopsis of Afghan history. It’s not terribly long, and it provides links to any particular area you’d care to explore.
An excellent introduction to the modern history of Afghanistan and the development of the Taliban is National Geographic’s “Inside the Taliban.” This can be found in ten parts here (follow stu106 thread of ten parts on YouTube.) It can also be downloaded in full here.
There are other websites with more anthropological examinations of Afghanistan, like Registan and Ghosts of Alexander. Both are written by academics and offer insight that can be helpful. Joshua Foust, author of Registan, recently returned from Afghanistan.
Finally, if you get a chance to catch a screening of “At War,” a documentary film by independent journalist Scott Kesterson, miss an entire night’s sleep to do so if necessary. This film will give you a sense of what it’s like on the ground. It has been known to make veterans of Afghanistan experience the same rush of combat they felt in country. It’s that good.
Once you have completed the above (“At War” film optional based on availability,) you will have a passing knowledge of the land for which you are bound.
In partnership with Bouhammer, we are starting a new series of posts designed to help inform the thousands of troops headed to Afghanistan in 2009, some of whom expected to deploy to Iraq. Those who thought they were headed to Iraq now find themselves behind the power curve in coming up to speed on the peculiarities of Afghanistan. By request from SGT Danger, here is the first chapter in our attempt to help them to be more successful in A’stan.
List of Gear for Afghanistan-Updated
Posted By Bouhammer on April 27, 2009
Old Blue and I are combining our knowledge and experience to jointly publish blog posts under a shared Category called A.L.L.
A.L.L. stands for Afghanistan Lessons Learned, and is intended to document our knowledge and experience in a fresh perspective for any and all service-members who may be part of the upcoming surge into Afghanistan this year. He and I and maybe others (who could one day also join this endeavor in the future) have walked the walk and walked the ground. We have learned the lessons the hard way, so there is no reason for others do to do the same. The wheel has been invented and there is no patent on it.
This is the first “chapter” in this new joint blogging adventure. This list was originally published on this blog back on Jan. 26th, 2007. This is a list of good equipment to have.
The following list is from my experiences and from friends in Iraq that pertain to here Afghanistan also. Some of these won’t be needed until you get in country, so you may want to set them off to side for mama to pack up for you and send to you once you get settled. This listing has been the single most popular blog posting ever, here on Bouhammer’s Blog.
1. Any extra ClassVIII you can bring with you is good to have.
2. Wolfhook single point slings
3. Desert Tan Spray paint
4. Space blanket(s)
5. 100 mph tape, 550 cord, TP, other expendables you think would come in handy
6. Drop Leg Holster (blackhawk or SERPA) and Uncle Mike’s Paddle-Holster for wearing around every day (drop leg will wear a hole in ACUs over time). I also have one for my IBA so I can have my 9mm handy when in the gun hatch going through towns.
7. Weapons lube that DOESN’T ATTRACT SAND. (MILTECH or Remington Dry Lube only)
8. Two copies of addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, etc.
9. 2 pairs of GOOD boot insoles
10. A Good Tactical Flashlight (SureFire, even though you will get issued one with M4)
11. Red/White light L.E.D. headlamp
12. Spare pair of running shoes
13. MP3 PLAYER W/ x-tra pair of spare headphones
14. Enough batteries to last you 30 days
17. 30 SPF or higher Sunblock
18. Bar soap- for some reason its in short supply….almost always
19. Small compact rolls of TP. A lot of places make travel size, half the time you get to a port-a-potty the jackA$s before you ganked the TP
20. Baby wipes- 30 days worth. Expect that the power and water will either go out, or the water will be contaminated at least once a month.
21. Gold Bond Foot and Body Powder
22. Small clip on LED light-clip it to your IBA….it will come in handy….quite often.
23. Drink mix for 16/20 oz bottles of water
24. Weightlifting supplies
25. Small photo album with pics from home.
26. Hand sanitizer (small bottles to put in ankle pockets)
27. More books/magazines than you think you will need.
28. DVDs, for you and to loan out for swapping purposes
29. Tactical gloves- military gloves are sort of clumsy ( I love the $9.95 whitewater brand gloves from the clothing sales). Also standard flight nomex are good.
30. Lens anti fog agent. Shaving cream works in a pinch, but you have to apply it every other day or so.
31. Good pair of shower shoes/sandals. I recommend the black adidas….lasted me all year.
32. Small pillow (air inflatable)
33. Cheap digital camera (at least 2.1 mp)
34. Boot knife
35. Gerber multi tool
36. Fabreeze-sometimes the laundry is few and far between.
37. Armor Fresh
38. Extra boot laces
39. Stainless steel coffee cup with screw on lid.
40. Soccer shorts/normal t shirt to sleep in, hang out in your room in
41. Sweatshirts for winter times hanging around
42. A couple of poncho liners for privacy, nasty mattress cover, etc.
43. A set of twin sheets with pillow case
44. Good regular-size pillow
45. One or two good civilian bath towels
46. Buy a good set (>$200) of winter desert boots. All they will give you is a regular summer set and a set of goretex lined for waterproof needs. Desert is a cold place at these altitudes in the winter time.
47. Bring a laptop!!! Also may want a PSP or some other handheld gaming device.
48. Get an external USB hard-drive (>120gb). You will need this to back up data to, and to store movies and MP3s that you will fall in on from previous teams.
49. Get a Skype account and download the software from skype.com. This is how I talk to home 95% of the time. If you call computer to computer it is totally free. You can also skype out from your computer to a regular phone for $0.021 a minute. There is nothing cheaper than that.
50. Decent headset with mic for computer (skype).
51. Webcam for video calls back home.
52. Bring a min. of 18ea. M4 mags per person. 9 that are loaded and 9 that rest. Plan to do M4 mag changeover once per month.
53. Bring 8ea 9mm mags, for same reason above. Change these over every two weeks.
54. Order a LULA mag loader/unloader. It will be the best $12 piece of plastic you every bought. I have 12 mags loaded at all times and when I do change over it will do it in a fraction of the time and save your hands, and save the ammo.
55. Try to get your state or purchase yourself one 12v DC to 110 AC inverter per man for your trucks. There are crucial on mission to charge personal items, cell phone, ICOMs, and especially ANA radios (they only have re-chargeable batteries).
56. Dump the IBA tac vest you get issued. Get a Tactical Tailor MAV chest rig (does not matter if you get 1 or 2 piece one as you want to keep the front open for laying in the prone. You don’t want mags pushing into your chest making it hard to breathe) . I wish I would have bought mine at the start. It makes a HUGE difference on the back and shoulders when carrying a loaded rig.
57. Get comfortable pair of desert boots. I wear only the Converse 8” assault boots (non-zipper ones). Oakley, Bates and several others are similar in style and comfort.
58. Bring some good snivel gear for the winter time. Extra poly-pro winter hat, gloves, neck gators, etc.
59. Lock de-icer for the winter time
60. Disposable hand and feet warmers
61. Canned-air, lots of it for electronics weapons, etc.
62. Lens wipes for optics
63. Screen wipes for computers
There are probably many other things that could go on this list, but a lot of that is personal preference. The purpose of this list is to provide some insight into things that could make anyone’s tour easier.
*Reprinted by permission of and in partnership with Bouhammer.