Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When the Baddies Get the Goodies

So an opportunity for a course recently presented itself. It's a training course that certain soldiers would eventually need for their promotions. There are tons of those courses out there, but what makes this unique is that the major Army training command (TRADOC) realized that there was enough of a critical mass of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan who needed the course to warrant an iteration being run...for three weeks, all the way over here.

Sounds good enough, right?

A lot of the soldiers from one of the busiest, most-tasked sections here (the Engineers) actually need this for their MOS. Several of them tried to sign up, but eventually their OIC (Officer-in-Charge) realized that if they all took it, his section of guys would be as useful as a hockey cleat for a three-week period in the middle of the deployment.

So what did he do? Without many better alternatives, he just told his guys that they could either take that class, or have R & R leave...but not both. Predictably, every single guy took his name off the list.

And who'd that leave? The folks who are already skating by without half the responsibility of the first group (who, ironically, need that course and will eventually have to take it back in the States), and who just want something "cool" to add to their military resume and look even better on paper.

For what it's worth, I'm not involved in any of this directly (I neither needed that course nor signed up for an in-theater junket), but that gives me some credit for objectivity. Objectively speaking, then, situations like this tend to suck.

The busiest, most-engaged people get indirectly *punished,* while the skaters get a chance to break away and then look even better on paper in the end for having done it. This happens on active duty all the time...too often, the folks that find their way into all the non-operational tours wind up with the best professional and civilian educational opportunities, while the deployers just sort of miss out.

As with a lot of things associated with large bureaucracies, I'm not saying I have a better answer. I don't. But when I hear grumbling about this sort of stuff in the chow hall, I can empathize.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thinking Locally, Drinking Locally

One of the crown jewels of Kabul's "New Economy" is the Bagrami Industrial Complex, which is located about 7 km east of downtown. Inside the Bagrami Industrial Complex, a huge Coca-Cola bottling plant was opened in 2006. Some residents complained that the $25 million investment, made by an Afghan family mainly based out of Dubai, could've been better directed towards hospitals or schools.

The plant, however, directly employs 300+ people, and indirectly employs a couple thousand more ('indirectly' here refers to the drivers, store owners, streetside vendors, etc.) Those jobs help put Kabul on the road to stability, and that stability will enable the existence of needed institutions to help the city get on its feet and stay there.

I'm glad to know that all the Cokes, Diet Cokes, Sprites, and Fantas in our chow hall are bottled in Bagrami. Not only does the local purchase help stoke the local economy (and because we pay market rate, we're not creating an inflationary burden on Kabulis), but it means we don't have to rely on a long logistical tail to get the products. No ships to load up in the Persian Gulf, no port call in Karachi, and no hazardous trek through the Khyber Pass to get American soldiers and contractors their sweet, nutrition-free drinks.

That's a better way to do business. I know sodas aren't much good to begin with, but I'll also admit I enjoy them from time to time...and it's nice to know they're coming from right down the road.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Up Time

There's no shortage of comparisons out there between the experiences of deployed soldiers these days and those of past wars and conflicts.

In the past, soldiers had way fewer creature comforts. No unlimited Baskin Robbins, not to mention unlimited food and water, in a chow hall inside a landlocked country with a semi-functional road system, for instance. No wireless Internet to keep up on news from home. No DSN switches at Hanscom for free phone calls home 24/7.

There were also a few, uhh...creature comforts that soldiers enjoyed that are now prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It might surprise you, but technically no soldier out here can have a sip of beer or look at prurient images.

But this has all been said before. And we've all heard the narratives...the old guys were tougher, the new guys are better-trained. The old guys could get by with less, but the news guys have a broader mission set.

Here's one key difference that's often overlooked: In a break from ALL past conflicts, to include everything from well before the Vikings right through Desert Storm, the experience of a deployed Officer or Sergeant on certain bases, in certain positions, is marked by virtually no 'downtime.'

This has everything to do with connectivity.

Ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine from the pre-Global War on Terror (GWOT) era about his or her deployed experience, and you will inevitably be regaled with stories about waiting and boredom. Now, if that person was in a combat zone, that boredom may have been punctuated with brief spasms of violence, but that violence was likely followed by more...boredom. Those periods were necessary times for bonding with fellow teammates, and for the physical healing that comes with sleep, and for giving the ol' adrenal glands a break (the old term 'battle fatigue' actually has to do with what happens when the adrenals are taxed dry).

Years ago, whenever you were moving somewhere, that's basically all you could've been doing. Anytime you were waiting to move somewhere, that's probably all you could've been doing. Once your mission had been wrapped up, your weapons were cleaned, and your patrol debrief was done, there's not a whole lot more you could've done.

These days, not so much. We're wired for sound and effect in our workspaces, our living quarters, and even in our MRAPs. Our leaders understand we're human, and need time to sleep and to workout, but there's a pretty clear expectation of responsiveness to all the various forms of communication that we have. I sit at a desk with three machines (one unclassified, one on an Army network, and one on a NATO network), and inboxes that are hundreds-deep with messages. If all I ever did was try to read and respond to them all, I never I prioritize the most important ones in order to keep my boss and the rest of our staff as informed as possible.

When I do get to leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base), it's just to go to another FOB. Still, that's such a welcome relief from the monotony of Camp Phoenix's gray hues that I welcome the chance. Leaving also means reporting on the early side of early (even a 0900 departure means lined up and ready at 0815), which I always enjoy because it's the only real downtime I might get for days -- I literally have to be there, but there's nothing else I could be doing than just standing or sitting around. (I have purposely avoided carrying a cell phone out here, although most of our Officers do).

I won't ever, ever, ever, ever (did I mention ever?) play the who-has-it-worse game when I realize there are soldiers out in places like Kunar and Helmand Provinces who get into near-daily firefights and have to fear booby traps and underground bombs at every turn. What I will say, however, is that endless 12, 14, 16, and 18-hour days while constantly in an "up" state of readiness takes its own sort of toll in its own sort of special way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Telecommuting to War?

I'll take the Captain Obvious Award for pointing this out, but the Obama Administration is under serious pressure to: (1) save money; and (2) bring down troop numbers in Afghanistan to show 'progress.'

One innovative way this is happening involves the movement of certain headquarters-y, administrative-ish units out of the theater. That simultaneously accomplishes the goals of reducing the BOG number (Boots on Ground) while saving on the tremendous costs associated with the logistical tail involved in supplying a landlocked country with 19th-century infrastructure.

If you can believe it, the "dumb math" shows the cost per soldier here is more than $1.1 million per year (I call that dumb math because it's a crude calculation of costs divided by soldiers, which involves a lot of fixed costs associated with equipment and infrastructure) depends who you ask but the marginal cost per soldier is closer to half a mil when you count base pay and bennies (with higher margins for Reservists and Guard, who wouldn't normally draw federal base pay from the Pentagon), incentive pays, food/fuel/water costs, other contracted administrative support, etc.

But anyway, if you put some of those headquarters folks in friendly Gulf countries, you still get the long deployment days out of 'em (they're pulled away from the distractions and creature comforts of home), but you save huge amounts of money by reducing that logistical tail. Because so much data can move so quickly and easily over e-mail, voice comms, and even video teleconferences, its effect on operational capabilities may be minimal or even nil.

Once you factor out the reduced force protection costs (somehow averaged out per soldier...let's just pretend there'd be a way to do this), the decreased logistical convoys, the ease of moving goods across water instead of land, etc. let's just be real fast and loose and say you'd chop the per-soldier per-year cost in half.

For a 200-person staff headquarters, you're now talking about $50 million. Multiply that once or twice over, and soon you're talking about real money!

It wouldn't work for our unit (we run the bases in Kabul, so a lot of it necessitates base-to-base movement and physical involvement in projects), but for certain other units it really makes sense. It could even work in the U.S., but the trick would be that you'd have to move people far enough away from their homes for the deployment rotation period to where they wouldn't constantly be distracted.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Tough Conversation

Senator John Kerry swung through here today and stopped to eat at our chow hall. It was a pretty neat experience.

I got to shake his hand, and then our Commander said, "Captain Page used to be a Navy Officer."

Senator Kerry then had to ask, "So why'd you leave?"

"I wanted to be closer to the action."

His comeback: "But c'mon, you could've stayed on to catch bin Laden."

I'll admit that was pretty quick. I knew he had to make his way through the room so I just said, "Uhh...I guess I should've gone to BUD/S, sir."

The whole visit was standard stuff. The 181 Infantry Commander handed him a plaque, and then our Commander gave him a decorative thingy, and he said a few words and left. The most interesting part for me was having dinner with James Traub (NYT, Foreign Policy).

But the most interesting part of what JFK said to us was about how he was about to head back to Pakistan. He was off on his way to some heated negotiations. Besides our need for Pakistan to work to "drain its own swamp" of extremist elements, we also rely on them for transshipment of nearly 70% of our materiel for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF).

But here's the thing -- since 2008, NATO has steadily brough that number down (it used to be 85%). It's more expensive this way, but we can bring cargo through the Med, and up into the Black Sea to be offloaded in Georgia and then ferried across the Caspian (before then going from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan because Turkmenistan still won't play with us). Alternatively, we can offload at Riga in the Baltic and then move it through Russia via rail. Yes, I said Russia. NATO goods through Russia.

It's great that we've developed this Northern Distribution Network to wean ourselves off total reliance on Karachi -- that strengthens us tremendously at the negotiating table, and helps people like Senator Kerry when they go to Islamabad to try to extract concessions.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading the Tea Leaves

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," Gates told reporters.

No one really knows what this means.

It definitely has a lot of people excited, though, and it's got the rumor mill flying.

I'm not reading too far into any of this -- the troop reductions have been talked about for over a year now, so I'm not expecting anything too sudden or precipitous. There's quite a bit of speculation going on in Kabul now, though.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rolling in the Rhino

So yesterday I got to head to the Embassy via the Rhino. The Rhino, by the way, is an uparmored bus that's operated by a FLE (Forward Logistics Element) and flanked by MRAP trucks (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected).

Taking the Rhino meant being subject to the whims of the FLE's schedule, so even though the meeting was only an hour, the entire journey lasted 12 hours from door to door. I wound up getting an impromptu bus tour of Kabul and saw everything from the crowded bazaars to the King's and Queen's Palaces near Camp Julien and Camp Dubs.

One of the things that stood out was that once it started getting dark, there were no women to be found...anywhere. During the day, it's common to see women walking around Kabul -- sometimes in groups, sometimes alone...and ranging in dress from anywhere from a full burqa to the chador with face exposed to just a hijab. Sometimes within the confines of the 'Green Zone' you might see an Afghan woman walking around without even a hijab. Either way, I thought it was remarkable that after dark, even while the bazaars and streetcorners bustled with cars, bicycles, pedicabs, and endless pedestrians, there was literally not a single female in sight.

One other funny anecdote from the day...a huge portion of our daytime trip actually just involved Specialist Brown and me waiting for the Rhino to come pick us up to take us back to Camp Phoenix. We weren't sure exactly when it would come back to get us, so we played it safe and waited in front of the Embassy for what turned out to be hours.

That might sound frustrating to a lot of people, but remember, everything is relative. More than one State Dept. person came out to ask if we were okay/what were we doing, and we explained. When asked why our spirits were so high, we basically told them that neither of us had really just sat and relaxed like this in months. Yes, we were doing nothing, but there really was nothing we could do...moving meant taking the risk of missing the bus.

I've caught myself feeling less wound-up today, and I honestly think it has something to do with the fact that I got to decompress a bit and *just sit there* yesterday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Trouble With 'They'

"The only way three people can keep a if two of them are dead." -- Benjamin Franklin

I've been in a few meetings lately where questions have arisen about whether 'they' knew about UBL's whereabouts.

The 'they,' of course, is some veiled reference to either the Pakistani federal government, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the Pakistani military, or some portion of the intersection in the Venn Diagram thereof.

If you read this blog regularly, you might already know that conspiracy theories and references to the all-powerful or all-evil but never-defined 'they' are two of my favorite things to pick apart. First, I'll repeat what I say every time I hear some nonsense about how Flight 77 wound up in field in the Midwest where the passengers' voices were recorded bidding farewells to their loved ones because it was really a missile that hit the Pentagon (because we all know that when airliners crash into hardened structures they ought to leave neat imprints of their fuselage AND their wings), never mind how the timeline on that would've worked: conspiracy theories are the playground of the pseudo-intellectual because they're all the fun without the work.

If you scratch your chin and break into an all-knowing Cheshire cat grin as you explain that 9/11 had to have been an inside job because 'look who benefited' you get to sound really smart without having to even break a sweat in the stacks at the library, but the really HARD part would be figuring out how these conspirators could have completely invented the storylines of the lives of 19 men, who all had families, friends, and identities stretching back decades prior. They must have been at this for generations! Hearing Rosie O'Donnell and Charlie Sheen talk about controlled demolitions and burning steel is quick and easy, but stopping to read William Langewiesche's account of how the towers fell actually takes time and fun in that!

I see some of the same with the UBL reactions. It seems a bit more sophisticated and worldly to offer your take on the Pakistani government, or the ISI's blind eye to terror, to support the idea that 'they' just had to know than it is to just say, "Uhh...maybe he just kinda lived in that house." (although props are duly noted to Kad Barma, who suggested as much in a comment about 'hiding in plain sight.')

Want to know the 'real' truth?

He really did just kinda live in that house. I'm not saying I have any special insider knowledge of that, but let's go back to the quote at the top of this entry.

UBL was the MOST-WANTED man in the history of the world.

I could repeat that for emphasis but I don't see the need...besides, I'm exhausted and need to sleep.

If you lived in Abbottabad, and you knew, or even suspected, that THAT MAN was your neighbor, you would tell someone. That person would tell someone. Gawkers might start to take a look at the house. All of that attention would be quickly noticed. And then guess what?

He might move! He certainly had the resources, right?

It's not much different for 'Pakistani intelligence.' They may have some training in how to keep a tight lip, but let's not forget that Pakistani Intel Officers are subject to the same whims of human nature that we are. Put aside whether they do or don't sympathize with UBL or other extremists. That's just way too big to keep to yourself. Humans have developed over many thousands of years with certain inherent traits, and one of them is to share important information with others. You can call it news, or current events, or gossip, or whatever, but it's one of the most central things that all societies, genders, races, ages, etc. hold in common.

If someone knows where the most-wanted man in the world lives, then more people know. And if more people know, then even more people know.

UBL may have been able to trust one or two people to run his errands...beyond that, he kept family nearby but (wisely) offered them no outlets to the larger world.

I take the risk of sounding naive and unworldly by stating so boldly that the Pakistani government had no widespread, or even narrowspread, knowledge of UBL's whereabouts, but that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rowing Well, Towards the Light

So I thought things might ease up a bit after the first couple weeks.

They haven't.

I already kind of explained how a lot of the days go by here in my last post, so I won't rehash.

What I will do, though, is explain an awesome Army policy: R and R leave.

Even though the actual deployment time here comes out to 10+ months (that's the full year minus the time at Fort Hood), every soldier gets 15 days 'free' (i.e. non-chargeable) leave during the deployment.

Here's the even better part: The clock doesn't start ticking until the soldier gets to his or her leave destination. So if it takes 4-5 days to actually get from Kabul to Logan (it sometimes takes that long because of the delays at the various military transit hubs), and another 4-5 days to get back, the R and R time away from the deployed duty station winds up being closer to a month.

For me, R and R is just a few weeks away (I checked the 'I don't care' box, so they gave me one of the first available dates...most people preferred to break the deployment up more evenly). The icing on the cake is the knowledge that when I get back from R and R, the Lt. Colonel coming out here to be the 'primary' will have already arrived, and I can fall back a bit from the spotlight as his deputy.

I know the endless days mean no time for the PT I wish I could do more of. It also means I've mostly given up on writing back to personal e-mails, reading other blogs, or even doing the comments-to-the-comments that I started doing here as long as I've been writing, and wish other bloggers did more of, too.

However, my nearness to R and R is what keeps me, to paraphrase Ben-Hur again, rowing well.

On a clear day (and there aren't too many of those here!) the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is almost in view.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Rare Break From All of That

So right now there is a scheduled power outage in the building where I work, so I am on what's basically a forced break.

I ain't complaining. This is the first time I've left my office before 8 p.m., and it feels awesome.

There are many good and bad aspects of what I do, which I'll get into with future entries, but one thing that sort of sucks is that there isn't any time built in anywhere for relaxing, unless that comes at the direct expense of time spent sleeping.

I wake up every day at 0445 to go PT. That usually involves a 40-50 minute 'run-walk' on the treadmill at the base gym. I then squeeze in a set or two of weights before hurrying back to my half-CONEX box of a home and then a shower and shave before breakfast. After breakfast, I'm at my desk anywhere from 0700 to 0800 (lately it's been closer to the latter) ready to work.

And then it starts. I jokingly refer to 'it' as "The Night of the Living Dead" because I picture all the hands reaching up from the ground grabbing at me. As a principal Officer on a staff section, there are lots of meetings to attend, pre-meetings to attend beforehand, meetings about meetings, and sometimes even post-meeting meetings. Then there are all the random 'pop-up' targets throughout the day that suck time away. There are drop-ins. There are phone calls. There are inquiries. Being on a staff means answering a lot of RFIs (Requests for Information). This process basically continues until somewhere roughly around 2100, at which point I realize I'm exhausted and head back to try to get some sleep before starting over the next day.

The couple of times that I've gotten off base so far have been great not only because they've broadened my horizons and knowledge of Kabul, but also because they've snapped me out of the 'Groundhog Day' effect of being here. If I were able to get away more, I would. The other thing I wish I could do more is really think about everything going on, rather than just react to the proverbial alligators closest to the canoe.

Thankfully, all that will change soon. It's a long story that I won't get into (no, really, that one I mean) but while we were at Fort Hood my boss got 'sacked' because of an alleged something-or-other. As a result, I'm now doing what I used to do as well as what he used to do. The Army is bringing in a Field Grade replacement (a Lieutenant Colonel, in fact) soon, so I'll be freed up from nearly all of the interminable meetings that populate our 'battle rhythm.'

I might even get to be a vampire.

What that would mean is that I'd work an overnight shift where all the daytime distractions would be gone. I could actually have time to think. Either that, or I'd be freed up to do more of the liaison work that I love with all of our other American and international parters here.

Daydreaming about that is what gets me through the endless days now.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May: Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month

May is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month, and you can get a free screening next Friday (Friday week, that is) by checking out this site. As I point out here in this short clip, the best thing going in the fight against cancer is early detection.

It took me a while to go the ER, which eventually led me to a dentist, which eventually led me to an oral surgeon, which eventually led me to Mass Eye and Ear. When I think about the whole experience, what I'm most grateful for is the fact that I had access to the dentists at Hanscom, and then to the oral surgeon in Winchester, who could reach out to the pathologists at Wright-Patt, and then get the referral to a world-class facility like MEEI. If I lived in conditions like those of the people I met two days ago in Kabul, I wouldn't be writing about the experience now.

The doctors and staff at MEEI took incredibly good care of me, and actually went to extraordinary medical lengths to save my career by removing enough lymph nodes to conclusively rule out metastasis and thereby spare me from radiation. They also went to bat for me when I explained how much I wanted to come on this deployment, and they found a way to make it work with the check-up schedule.

Like I said when I first blogged about all of this, I don't want to become "cancer guy." I'm not against yellow bracelets, kitschy pink products about "saving ta-tas," or even the gratuitous use of the word 'survivor' (aren't we all?), but that stuff just isn't me. I don't even think I've dropped the 'C-bomb' here on the site since October.

Still, I'm not going to miss a chance to open my time, heart, or pocketbook to the people who develop cutting-edge technology that saves lives... I mean, your forearm turning into your tongue...who can believe it? I almost feel like I've moved so far along in terms of speech and appearance that I sometimes 'forget' the whole thing happened. It did, though, and as Fate would have it, my daily commute for the next couple years will have me walking right past MEEI in the morning and evening. I don't have to dwell, or even stop my feet from shuffling across the Longfellow Bridge, but for at least a split-second when I look up at the monolith hovering over Charles St., the strongest emotion I'll feel will be gratitude.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Kabul Dispatch: The Beat Goes On

I was sitting in the chow hall this morning, rushing through my breakfast after barely having slept, and worried about how I would prepare for all the morning's meetings, when our Operations Officer came by my table to say that UBL had been killed. I keep telling myself I won't overreact to rumors that originate here in Kabul, so I turned to the Sergeant with me and said, "That might be the case...but I'm still finishing breakfast."

I tried to make good on that, too.

After a couple minutes, though, I realized my appetite was gone, and I darted for a TV. Sure enough, it was true, and I felt like things had *sort of* come full circle on the event that indirectly drew me into the military and defined the last 7 years of my life. Obviously, it was emotional.

During our 1100 update briefing to the boss, our Colonel turned to the Operations Officer and me, saying, "Greg, Mark...throw your battle-rattle on and be out in the square at 1300. We're doing a dismounted patrol."

At 1300, off we went. There were ultimately 16 of us who went out, and we patrolled up part of Jalalabad Highway and then into a nearby village. Here was my first reaction to the morning's news:

No one seemed to really care.

The cars on the main road still sped by (though I couldn't tell if some of the horn-honking was celebratory or just, well, horn-honking). People smiled and waved, which was cool, but there were no "bin Laden" references flying around. There were a few kids who basically joined the patrol for a couple miles, and trudged right along with us in their sandals and raggedy clothes. One kid even pointed to my "Yankee Division" patch and said, in perfect, unaccented American English, "Massachusetts, Boston," as he high-fived me. As was confirmed by the Infantry Captain who came along with us, and has spent the past 8 months at Camp Phoenix, that made this similar to just about every other dismounted patrol he had ever seen.

As for our command, the UBL capture lifted everyone's spirits for a while, but not enough to even slightly interrupt the staggering workload related to what we do (running the bases in Kabul involves a lot of contracts, construction, and logistics).

I think concerns about insurgent or terrorist blowback are a bit much. Here's why:

(1) Insurgent groups who ALREADY hate us aren't going to hate us more because we killed their leader/figurehead/icon. Just look at a capabilities/intentions matrix. Nothing really changed for any local insurgents who like to shoot rockets at US bases. The incentive structure of opium smugglers, kidnappers, or crooked politicians in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else is now no different. I don't see how this helps recruiting, either...if anything, I think it HURTS recruiting for these guys because of the message that says, "You can run, you can hide, but if America is determined enough to find you, she will."

(2) People who DIDN'T already hate us aren't going to start hating us because we killed our most infamous sworn enemy. In fact, they might say it made lots of sense to do what we did...a pinprick strike, as opposed to carpet bombing from a B-52, and a 'burial at sea' as opposed to corporeal desecration or the creation of a 'martyr's shrine.' Seems like the most humane, sensible option for that sort of thing.

Judging by the way a bunch of Afghans and Americans seemed to be reacting, or not reacting, in Kabul today, I'd say for a little while we'll be able to walk with our chins up a little higher and our chests out a little further. But mostly, we'll just move on with whatever we were doing.

I wouldn't expect much different anywhere else -- not even in Kandahar or Karachi.