Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tribute to the Fallen

Yesterday, I participated in a very solemn ceremony-- that of sending home a fallen soldier.  A few of us from the Embassy flew to Bagram to send off SPC Ryan Clarke, killed the day before.  I don't know much about him, his age, where he is from, even what were the circumstances of his death.  This much I do know, another young valiant soldier has gone home, and he died voluntarily for his country.  Many of us ask ourselves each day, why we are here.  Certainly, there are ethical arguments that, we as humans have an obligation to assist our Afghan brothers and sisters, and to help them defeat the horrible option of government by the ruthless Taliban.  Our government has yet to produce any significant or meaningful reason for the enormous cost of executing a war in a country such as Afghanistan.  The strategic objectives illogically and vaguely outlined  by the White House and endorsed by the intellectuals within the Department of Defense are not at all convincing.  As of yesterday, 1,317 Americans have died, 7,266 wounded-- for what?  For the Afghan people, for national security, for some rogue strategic ideal-- for what?

This much I will say, the American soldier is a volunteer soldier, and we do what we are ordered to do.  Upon arrival in the war zone, the mission is not to "defeat the enemy", it is to survive, and to help your buddy survive!  SPC Clarke gave his life, his future, a sacrifice that will be questioned by his family the rest of their lives.  No matter the explanations the historians will ultimately provide for our being here, this young soldier died for the ideals ingrained in us from the moment we begin our military lives.  Those ideals are based in Judeo-Christian values of honor, integrity, charity, honesty, the worth of life, -- that these virtues are bigger than us and are worth defending.  SPC Clarke gave his life for an ideal-- a belief that God has a plan for us, and there needs to be an atmosphere of freedom to fully learn, embrace, and live that plan.  There are organizations, and even religions that preach against this plan of happiness.  There are philosophies, tolerated, and even defended by many of our most Christian of neighbors, in the catalyst of political correctness.  SPC Clarke did not die defending tolerance of philosophies that burden and destroy man's happiness.

I have spent many years over the last 10 years in this part of the world, where an oppressive philosophy predominately dictates and absorbs the whole of nations.  There are some good lessons to learn from this, but there is also darkness and little hope of a free conscience where a man and woman can embrace happiness found outside of that philosophy.  I don't mean pleasure, I mean happiness, joy, hope, and love.  As this soldier's flag draped metal box was removed from the combat vehicle, and reverently moved to the aircraft waiting to take him to his family, a small brass band began to play "Abide with Me".  The hymn reads:
Abide with me! fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me!
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day.
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me!
I need thy presence ev’ry passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Thru cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me!

I pray that SPC Clarke's family may find peace in that fact that their son, husband, father, is in the arms of Him who abides with us all, and whose embrace lifts and comforts, when all others "flee".  When I witness these types of ceremonies, I am reminded of the value of each life to our Father in Heaven.  We Americans are successful in our military operations, because we understand the worth of souls, unlike the ruthless murderers that we fight each day.  We fight for each other, we fight for you, and yes, we even fight for the Afghan people, because their lives are also precious.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Still waiting for election results

It has been about 10 days since the election, and the officials are saying it might be weeks before results are released.  Why, you might ask?  Well, there were attacks, kidnappings, intimidation, ballot stuffing, fraud, etc., etc., etc.  A good friend of mine who has a family member in Parliament, told me that the Afghan officials think there was a less than 20% turn out.  This friend told me that his co-worker went to vote midday, and was turned around by armed security.  He crossed the street, saw a car pull up to the polling site, and witnessed several huge boxes being unloaded into the polling site.  One of the polling volunteers later related to this guy that there were only about 200 people show up to vote before the "armed security" closed it, yet there were over 3,000 votes counted!

The Taliban had warned that they would cause havoc and they did!  Terrorist attacks were carried out in 17 of the 34 provinces.  There was even a mosque destroyed, that was used as a polling site.  By the way, the Korans inside the mosque were burned along with the building!  Afghan officials declared the election a victory, because there were only 485 "violent incidents" with 11 voters and 3 police officers killed, and 45 people wounded.  That was down from 2009 elections, which saw 479 violent attacks, with 31 civilians, 18 police, and 8 Afghan military killed-- more attacks but less casualties.  I guess that is a victory, unless you were one of the 14 killed!

On the brighter side, US casualties this month are considerably lower.  Since the arrival of Gen Petreaus, our effectiveness of the combat strategy has improved.  We are utilizing our air capabilities with much more accuracy, a lot of that has to do with better intelligence.  As a result of this intelligence, our air strikes are directed at Taliban leadership, which has had impressive results.  This better intel, is due in large part of the Afghans finally being fed up with the number of attacks on Afghans.  Every day, I read of attacks on women, children, schools, and medical clinics.  However, in Pakistan, the Taliban is using a little different strategy.  During the floods last month, they were quick to react in delivering food and supplies to effected regions, mainly because of the pathetic, indifferent Pakistani leadership.  On a side note, American forces sent huge amounts of food, water, and medicine by helicopter, which was not reported to the Pakistani people by their own media.  Incidentally, the Pakistani government charged the US for the fuel we used to fly in these supplies!

As a follow-up to my story of the little girl that I see every Friday-- I saw her as I left our church services this last Friday.  She saw me at a distance, and ran to me with a huge smile.  she wanted to show me her new scarf that she bought with the money I gave her the week before.  Now, with new shoes and a new scarf, this little girl is smiling constantly.  She taught me her name-- which I butchered before-- it is Navid.  I will get a picture of her one of these days and post it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Afghan National Elections

Today marked the 2nd national elections in Afghanistan.  It began with an earthquake of 6.2, about 165 miles northeast of Kabul.  I was reading in my bed when just before midnight, my hooch moved (a hooch is my 10' x' 20' container turned apartment)!  At first I thouht it was a rocket attack, but I didn't hear any booms.  It lasted about 20 seconds.  I went outside, and could feel the rumble of the earth under my feet.  a few other people also came out of their hooches, and we all looked at each other and decided it was an earthquake. 

I had just dosed off about 3 am this morning, when I did hear a boom-- then another boom.  We were hit by rockets about 150 yards from my hooch.  There wasn't any damage, and no one was hurt.  The Taliban had threatened attacks today, and those were the first.  It is about 5 PM my time on the 18th, and the polls are supposed to stay open for another 2 hours.  The initial reports indicate that there have been small attacks all over the country, mainly in the south, and north east (where the Taliban is strongest).  There have been several Afghans killed, and many more wounded, and one candidate kidnapped!  Afghanistan has deployed 63,000 ANA (Afghan national Army), and 52,000 ANP (Afghan National Police) to assist in the security.  In the last election (last year, in which Karzia won with enormous corruption and fixed ballots), there was only about a 30% turnout.  I think they expect an even lower amount this election.  People just arn't willing to go out and vote when they know that 1) they might be shot,, and 2) the corruption in the balloting is so high anyway, so wants the point. 

The UN, NATO, and the US political powers and the American media will ultimately call it an historic election!  I have had many discussions with Afghans who work in the Embassy, as well as my Afghan government buddies, and I have yet to find one who will vote.  So, we have spent billions and billions of national treasure, and over 1,100 killed, with about 5,500 wounded to instal a democratic government with free elections!  Don't get me wrong, there are thousands of stories of individual successes, and thousands of Afghans who have been elevated to a new standard of living.  I have even had many Afghans thank me for my service to them, and that instills a very warm feeling.  There is so much good going on, but manly by individuals, not governments.   Our construction projects in infrastructure, schools, hospitals, government buildings, etc., is enormous, and impressive.  But as the old statement of Christ says, it is better to teach a man to fish, than just give him the fish!

I do have a real fun story to relate.  I go over to a military base in the green zone (secured zone where all the embassies are) every Friday for my church meetings.  Outside the gate, there are little kids selling different kinds of wares, who virtually attack each person who gets near the gate!  A few months ago, I was "attacked" by a little boy about 8 yrs old, and his friend, a girl about 11 or 12.  I told them that I didn't want to buy anything, but if they would learn my name, I would give them a dollar.  My name is on my uniform,  They looked at it, and finally the girl said, "plate".  I said, close enough and gave them each a dollar.  I watched them both run off a short distance to a parked car, and gave the money to a man in a nice suit (these kids were not in any way middle income-- they appeared very poor)!  I was furious!

A couple of weeks later, they hunted me down again, and I told them I was upset that they gave the money to the man in the car (I said this through an interpreter).  They told me that they have to give the man the money, becasue he gets them in through security.  I took them around the corner where the man in the car couldn't see them, and told them I would give them money if they promised me they would buy them selves some shoes.  They agreed, and I gave them each $10-- alot of money considering that most Afghans earn about $400 - $600 a year).  Well I hadn't seen either one of them for over a month, and this last Friday, the little girl (whose name is Navidat-- I think) came running up to me and showed me her new shoes!  I gave her some more money and told her the next time, I wanted to see her with a new dress.  We will see what happens!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

AZ Cowboy has influence on Afghan National Policy

Now that I have your attention, let me explain the title.  I sit on a working group, that ultimately provides input to the development of Afghan national policy as it relates to customs.  The working group consists of members of ISAF (the name of the NATO HQ, which stands for International Security Assistance force), Afghan Customs, representatives from Minister of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Commerce, Defense, and the Presidential Palace, also, representatives from USAID, US Dept of State, Treasury, and occasionally, Dept of Homeland Security (the customs arm), and of course, US military logistics liaisons (me).  Our aim is to try to assist Afghanistan in making their border management more efficient, and of course to determine ways to generate revenue, i.e, tolls, and taxes.

I am certainly no border/customs expert, but part of my job here entails the  processing of customs import documents, and coordination with Afghan customs officials to ensure our monthly usage of fuel (30+ million gallons/month) flows effectively into the country.  Afghanistan currently has no internal fuel production (that is an interesting story of itself, that I will tell at another time).  Anyway, our working group met a couple of days ago to address some real critical items that had the potential to undermine our ability to freely import fuel and dry cargo.  That particular day, we had an interesting collection of personnel.  Besides the Afghans, we had a German, a Pol (Poland), 2 Brits, a Slovakian, a Belgian, and a lawyer from Estonia!  No think about that-- at one time or another, all of these were former enemies (except the Belgian).  Here we were, united in trying to develop policies that would not only improve Afghanistan, but provide unmolested support to our troops fighting together a common enemy!  My favorite person, is the Slovakian, who I tease that he was former KGB.  He is built like a bull, is bald, has very prominent cheek bones, and his accent reminds you of a Russian spy!  He is, however, extremely bright, bold, and has a marvelous sense of humor.

Anyway, collectively, we came up with some ideas for the Board (called the JCB--Joint Coordination Board) which met today.  One of the things that topped the list, was an idea I came up with.  The Afghans, by treaty, cannot tax military imports for use by coalition forces.  They hate this agreement, because of the incredible number of trucks that bring food, water, toilet paper, ammunition, repair parts, fuel, etc., from the port in Karachi, Pakistan into Afghanistan.  Well, currently, there is no strong trade agreement between the 2 countries that allows Afghan trucks to transit in or through Pakistan.  As you know, Afghanistan is land locked (the establishment of current borders being decided by the British in the late 1800s).  This has really put Afghanistan at a disadvantage for both export (to the east-- China, and India), and import through a sea port.  So, Pakistan is getting all of this transportation revenue (contracts in the billions of $) and are able to enter Afghanistan tax free (because they are contractors to coalition military forces).  It is a legitimate complaint.  Recently, however, under US and NATO direction, the countries developed a trade agreement, that would allow Afghans transit rights through Pakistan.  Well, under constitutional laws of both countries, these agreement has to be ratified by their respective parliaments.  The Afghan parliament ratified it very quickly.  However, the Pakistanis have not moved very fast.  Their lack of decision, they blamed on the recent flooding in Pakistan as many members of parliament were directly effected.  The reality of it is, is that many members of parliament own the very transport companies that are receiving the billions of US $s.  They do however, know that international pressure will ultimately force them to ratify the agreement. 

In the meantime, the Afghans wanted to impose a "tax" on the Pakistani trucks, under the guise that the tax is on the "trucks", not the US and Coalition governments.  This is not a valid argument, however, because our treaties specifically state that no tax will be imposed on our cargo, or our contractors carrying our cargo (because we all know that we will end up paying the tax anyway because the contractors will pass the expense onto the American tax payer).  So, this dumb old cowboy from Arizona suggested that we allow time for Pakistan to ratify the agreement, and spend our efforts pushing the political and diplomatic powers to pressure Pakistan to sign the agreement, then focus our attention on the issues at hand-- smooth, efficient flow of military cargo.    Anyway, I was at the table today, amongst Afghan leaders and US/ISAF military leaders who sit on this board, when my proposal was presented.  It seemed to meet with every ones satisfaction, including the lawyers, and the proposal will be presented formally to President Karzai later this month!

Do I have confidence that ultimately the Afghans will wait patiently for diplomatic pressure to ensue?  NO!  they will go ahead and implement the tax in a couple of weeks right at the point when millions of gallons of fuel and thousands of container trucks reach the border for crossing.  They will instruct their border officials to stop passage unless the toll is paid.  This same thing happened a couple of weeks after I arrived, and it will happen again.  Anyway, it was fun to be apart of this multinational gathering at this high level of policy development. 

On another note, the Afghan elections happen in 2 days, and we are expecting increased violence all through the country as the Taliban attempts to stop people from voting (mainly because about 15% of the candidates are women)!  I will update you on that on my next post.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Passing of 9/11

I am writing this on 9/12, at the close of 9/11 for you all in the states.  I have reviewed all of the Intel reports today of actions yesterday (9/11), and didn't see any US soldiers killed over the last 2 days.  What a blessing!  I did see a very heartwarming story of the announcement of first living soldier of OIF/OEF (Operations Enduring and Iraq Freedom) to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.  SSG Steven Guinta will be the 8th US soldier to receive this honor-- the other 7 recipients received the medal posthumously.  He is a 25 year old who had served 2 tours in Afghanistan, was wounded the first tour, and received the Bronze Star (a combat medal for heroism).  On his second tour, in October 2007,  his platoon came under attack while on a patrol wherein his platoon was separated.  He exposed himself to heavy enemy fire trying to recover a fellow soldier who had been wounded.  After dragging his buddy to cover, he saw two Taliban terrorists dragging away another wounded soldier.  SSG Guinta, killed one terrorist, wounded the other, and was able to recover that soldier as well. 

I can say, that heroism occurs every day here, as these elite American youth carry out their difficult missions all over this country.  I have said this before, but when ever I see these men and women come back from missions, I am so humbled at their attitudes and courage.  I travel "outside the wire" (meaning outside of the security of the bases) 2-3 times a week, and I know of the uneasy feelings, and fear that accompanies you until you return to the security of concertina wire and heavily armed guards!  I, however, go out in an unmarked Toyota SUV with an Afghan driver, a satellite tracker, my body armor and 45 rounds of 9mm ammo.  It seems abit ludicrous, but I am actually safer than the soldiers who travel in convoys in heavily armored vehicles, with lots of fire power.  They are targets, and they are the ones that see most of the IEDs, rocket, and small arms attacks.  I have followed convoys on a couple of occasions that did receive attacks, and it is an extremely frightening experience.  So, I can state, with real knowledge, that these young people are impressively courageous, and deserve our up most respect and honor!

I have been reading with real interest the last several months, many of our on-line news papers, trying to get a feel for how they respond to events over here.  I can tell you, that there is certainly an agenda to distract, mislead, and cloud the real war in Afghanistan.  I deal with many Afghan leaders, and I see first hand the corruption, and misuse of American Tax payer money.  In June, shortly after I arrived, I received reports that trucks carrying supplies and fuel for coalition military forces were being detained at the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  They were being held up by Afghan Border Officials because of some "toll" being assessed per truck.  Under international treaties signed by our respective governments, supplies imported for support of coalition forces are tax exempt.  My co-worker (who processes import documents for all dry cargo) and I (process import documents for fuel) immediately left the "wire" and drove to the Customs Department.  We met with the Deputy Minister of Finance, to see what was going on.  He declared that the Minister of Finance (who by the way, is one of the most corrupt) had declared this toll on the contractors' trucks, not on the military, as it is their sovereign right to raise revenues for their country.  We were able to negotiate a 10 day moratorium to allow us to report this up to our leadership, and react.  This was clearly a direct violation of our treaties!  The next day, we met with one of the Ambassadors (there are 5 ambassadors here) who told us that was not his issue, it was a military issue!  Ultimately, this event reached the Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton), who were prepared to take this up with Pres. Karzai if it did not get resolved before the 10 day deadline.  Well, on the 10th day, the Minister of Finance decided to "table" it for now, but wanted to re-negotiate the treaties as we were hindering their ability to generate revenues.  Over that 10 day period, we had over 1,500 containers of food, water and supplies, as well as almost 10 million gallons of fuel held up on the Pakistan side of the border, causing a huge security risk, and food/fuel supplies reaching critical levels!  We also incurred millions of dollars of demurrage fees by the Pakistanis. 

I don't need to tell you of the hundreds of billions of dollars we have already pumped into this country.  Where do you think that money has gone-- to infrastructure, medical improvements, agriculture improvements, education, military and police force development?  Yes, some of it has, but most of the hard cash that we have given directly to the Afghan government, left this country on pallets, destined for personal bank accounts in Dubai, UAE.  The Minister of Finance has purchased 4 beach front properties in Dubai himself!  I don't want to give the impression that all Afghans are corrupt, and that our "investment" in this country has not done any good.  I work with another high level government official, who is just the opposite of the Minister of Finance.  He works in the Minister of Foreign Affairs (the equivalent of the Dept of State).  He and his family stayed here during the Russian occupation, and the Taliban rule.  They fought against both, being part of the Mujaheddin.   Most of the other current Afghan leadership, including Karzai, fled the country when the Russians arrived, but returned when we provided security, and offered to put them in office.  Many of the agencies here, including USAID, Dept of AG, Dept of Homeland Security, but especially the military, have done incredible things, building many roads, schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure, and have attempted to train and equip an Afghan army and police force.  I get asked many times if we should be here or not, and although I don't agree with most of the arguments for our presence here, but I will say, that we have been extremely charitable with a people who have never had any country or people care for them the way we have.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Whats with the Koran?

     It seems now that all the American media is interested in is a nut in Florida who wants to burn a Koran.  Our own government is also obsessed with this guy.  People fear that this man's actions will cause severe repercussions by offended Muslims, and the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  I think this man is a nut, but let me tell you, I see anti-American demonstrations about every other day here in Kabul-- Muslims chanting "death to America", at the same time their government is mad at us for not bailing out the Kabul Bank!  So if this guy burns the Koran, does that mean that I will see more demonstrations? 
     It seems that all these politically correct people do is apologize for our Constitution that allows us freedom of speech.  We call this guy "fanatical", but call the murderous Taliban  "insurgents".  What is wrong with us?  The government and media are afraid of offending our enemies-- they live in fear that if we burn their book, or make a cartoon of Muhammad they might do something to us.  Well, since I don't see the media talking much about casualties these days, let me bring you up to date: we have lost 5,696 Americans killed in action, and 39,168 wounded in action as of yesterday (not counting the civilian deaths on 9/11)!  What did they die for? 
     There is a new policy here in Afghanistan, called, "Afghanistan First".  It is "policy", meaning that our priorities are not the safety of our troops, or that they get their supplies on time, it means that we make sure that all our effort go towards "nation building", helping Afghanistan become a democracy, like ours.  I don't think anyone in Washington ever asked the Afghan people if they want a democracy.  So, we are suffering casualties almost daily pushing our democratic values (values that when exercised in a manner not acceptable to the White House or Hollywood, we apologize for) on a culture whose religion does not allow them to embrace.  And, we live in constant fear that we might offend the enemy if some American exercises his Constitutional rights. 
     To give you an example of "Afghanistan First", the British troops in the south were running out of food a couple of weeks ago due to the inefficiency of the Afghan Customs Department-- they would not release many containers of food until they had completed the correct paperwork (which they had had for weeks).  So the British soldiers went on combat rations (MREs) because we couldn't get the interest of our leadership.  As a matter of fact, it took several weeks for this issue to even be raised to the diplomatic and general officer level.  Yet, when Kabul Bank collapses, the US immediately released $300 million in "Afghan deposits" to aid the failing bank, because there wasn't money in the bank to pay their police, military, and teachers (where was the money?  the bank had lent hundreds of millions of dollars to the top 3 share holders, 2 of whom were related to top Afghan leaders). 
     What happened to the people that looked in the eye, of the most powerful Army and Navy on earth, and said, "give me liberty or give me death"?  Were those people afraid they might offend the British leaders or people?  Did they apologize to the King for their despairing remarks of his tyranny?  Is burning the Koran right-- of course not.  But lets put this in perspective-- it is an insignificant man in Florida doing something irresponsible and disrespectful.  Legal-- yes, the right thing to do-- no, and that's it!  Our soldiers die every day for guys like this little preacher in Florida, and we die every day for those who make good decisions.  The point is, that we are willing to die for the privilege to have choices!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A controversal, but powerful video

Hey everyone this is Britt. My friend Seth Adam Smith created this video centering around Jon McNaughton's newest painting entitled "The Forgotten Man." It's very powerful and a definite must see. I hope that our President and other leaders in Washington watch it for it is not only a slap in the face to them, but a lesson they need to learn. I hope you all enjoy!