Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Beginning of a Journey: Becoming an Air Advisor, Part II

This week was much less physically demanding and exhausting as last week. We spent much more time in the classroom, yet even though it was PowerPoint, in many ways, it was much more interesting. Outside the classroom, we had another session on self-protection, so I'm gradually refining my abilities to beat you up and kill you! By the time we get done, it might even look pretty! We also worked on small-team movements should we find ourselves off in the middle of nowhere. That part was by far the most physically demanding but extremely interesting as I had had very little exposure to it up to this point in my career. I found it (and most of the fieldwork) very challenging because it requires you to think and react quickly on your feet, something I'm woefully inadequate at. I was instead blessed with much more robust deliberate thinking skills, meaning I like to stop and think through each of my options, weighing which might be the best. Fortunately, this course intends to bridge the gap to a degree through exposure and practice so that, if we ever need these skills, we'll have a "new instinct" that should take over.

Our last bit of fieldwork we did this week was a vehicle rollover simulator -- stressful yet fun all at the same time. Imagine getting stuck in an uncomfortable position on one of those Six Flags rides and being on your own to get out -- no maintenance team is coming to free you and bring you a jumbo-sized Coke as a consolation for the inconvenience. Oh, by the way, we were of course wearing all of our body armor, which added weight and restricted movement. The first time, I easily got out of my seatbelt but quickly found myself laying prone on the ceiling of the vehicle. It quickly became apparent that I was laying closest to the only available exit, but I could no longer reach it because my legs were stuck back by the door and my head and arms were in the middle of the vehicle with no one else able to reach it either. Now imagine trying to rearrange yourself so that you can open the door and get out.

The second time, I was suspended from the top side of a vehicle that had rolled onto the side opposite me. This time, I couldn't unbuckle my seat right away for fear of falling on the folks on the bottom side (i.e., underneath me). At least while suspended there, I had a chance to look around and figure out the best way to get out. Unfortunately, there was nothing to grab onto above me, I couldn't reach the bottom of the vehicle to brace myself, and (as the driver) I was afraid my legs were going to get tangled in the steering wheel on the plunge down. This was going to be interesting. As my teammates were able to clear out of the vehicle, I had the next to last person brace me when I unbuckled the seatbelt, lowering me down (somewhat) gracefully to where I could crawl out. Our group totally rocked. We had good communication between us both times on finding the way out and helping others out, thus getting out of the vehicle both times as quickly and efficiently as possible, earning good praise and little critique from the instructor.

During our academic sessions this week, we finally started to get into the heart of the matter. We had a session on the history of Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency therein. I was amazed at how much instability there has been there since the '70s -- even before the Russians invaded! In much of our modern world history, the seeds of conflict go back to post-World War II, when national boundaries were redrawn (somewhat arbitrarily) by the victors with no regard for ethnic settlement patterns. The same is true to an extent in Afghanistan, and we are reaping the "benefits" now as we try to cobble together a blended government of Tajiks and Pashtuns. The insurgency and state-building is incredibly more complex than that simplistic statement, though. I found myself thirsting for more because I think it could be vitally important to our success as advisors in understanding what the Afghans want and what will work for them, but I'm afraid we're not going to get it. We'll see...

The second block that really caught my attention was Islam Familiarization. This block appropriately included a history of it with some comparison/contrast with Christianity. I did a fair amount of research on Islam as part of my last Master's thesis on Somalia, but I got some holes filled in here that I was missing. First and foremost, to dispel a prominent myth, something I already knew: Jihad is NOT, repeat, is NOT one of the five pillars of Islam. Jihad, as it was intended, does have a two-fold meaning, though: First, it refers to the inner struggle a Muslim has as he strives to align his spiritual life with that which Allah intended. Second, it does refer to an external struggle, but only insofar as it applies to proselytizing and converting the whole world to Islam, yet NOT through violence. The same should be said of Christians as Jesus commanded us to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." We as Christians would never consider that directive to be a militant edict, although, some that claim Christianity would near purport that. The same has happened amongst politicized Islam: Salafism/Wahhabism (Islamic sects) has been developed and further twisted into something the religion never intended, and now it is being used as a recruiting and political platform for those that truly wish to do us harm.

A couple of things I didn't know that I found interesting: First, the split between Sunni and Shi'a goes back to a dispute over the succession of the first caliphs. For those that don't know, the Islamic caliph is similar to the Pope. The Sunnis believe that there were three rightly-appointed caliphs following Muhammed, while Shi'as discount the first two after Muhammed. What I didn't learn is whether, like the Pope, these caliphs are still designated and whether they're more regionalized like Cardinals. I suspect there is great dispute over who these caliphs are.

Second, many of Muhammed's revelations/teachings that are recorded explicitly in the Qur'an are now largely ignored. In addition to the Qur'an, Islam also includes the Hadith, which are the teachings/interpretations provided by the Imams and clerics down through the years. These are then added on top of what is in the Qur'an and, like Israel during the time of the Pharisees, tradition now trumps Scripture. For instance, while the Qur'an specifically teaches that women may be educated and work outside the home and hold status, we know that has been suppressed by the Hadith in some Islamic sects (like Talibanic Afghanistan). Additionally, Muhammed apparently made a statement that in his house, when worshiping, there will be a screen between the men and the women such that they would not be together. This has been interpreted over the years that women must wear veils. Again, I found myself wanting more because I think it could be very helpful in understanding Afghan perspective and building rapport with our counterparts.

One of the reasons I joined the military was to see the world and experience other cultures. I find this an amazing opportunity to get to interact on an intimate level with those of a completely foreign culture. My prayer is that we will be able to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people -- to get them closer to security, rule of law, peace, and prosperity.

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