Sunday, March 2, 2014

Uncertainty in Afghanistan

It's been a while since I've blogged.  Thank you to those that noticed!  It's nice to know that people actually read my posts!  Things have been crazy here the last few weeks and have just now settled down a bit, so this is really the first chance I've had in a while.
As you probably know, things are very uncertain over here.  The US has been working on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) for months and was hoping to have it signed by President Karzai immediately following the Loya Jirga with all the tribal elders that endorsed it.  That was back before I even began this little adventure.  This document is important because it defines the terms under which the US can stay and operate in Afghanistan legally.  Unfortunately, Karzai has put off signing the BSA, and now we're in the midst of a diplomatic game of Chicken. 
The US gave a deadline of the end of the year.  That came and went.  Then, we said it needed to be signed in "weeks, not months".  It's been months.  Now we have egg on our face because we put up an ultimatim and Karzai called our bluff.  I honestly think Karzai is trying to position himself for survival in the event the insurgency comes back with a vengeance after the elections.  The problem is that it's now seriously undermining all of what we're trying to do -- and what Afghanistan really needs.  So now the US is hoping that Karzai's successor, who should be named in the spring/summer timeframe, after the election and run-off, will sign it.  The problem is that we need this BSA.  Afghanistan is just not ready for us to leave.  There is much advising work left to be done in building a capable and sustainable Afghan defense force. 
A bit of history:  The Afghan Air Force (really the entire Afghan National Security Force) is made up of two kinds of people:  Those that have been around forever and fought the Russians and then the Taliban, and those that have just joined this newly created force.  You see, when the Taliban was in power, there was no professional military -- zero!  My counterpart that I advise went off and got a demining job during the Taliban years.  So we have an entire military with no "middle management".  These are the people that are typically the experts, responsible for training all the new people and mentoring them into effective technicians and leaders.  So we have a force that has people, but no established structure, and no one trained to do the things we need them to do, like task and prioritize missions, fly airplanes and helicopters, fix them, get parts and supplies, protect the base, and on and on...Ironically, they've got plenty of bureaucracy!  How is it they figured that out that quickly?  Actually I've got thoughts on that, too...but I digress...
So you can imagine how the uncertainty of whether we're going to be here past the end of the year or not is playing havoc with all sorts of things, not the least of which are the insurgents that are intent on disrupting the elections and showing the Afghan citizens that the government is not capable of providing sufficient security to those citizens.
It's one of the biggest things on everyone's mind -- ours and the Afghans.  I talk about it frequently with my interpreter and my Afghan counterpart.  In fact, most of the senior members of the Afghan military (the ones that fought the Russians and Taliban) believe we need to stay.  They even tell us that most of Afghanistan wants us to stay.  I've never really been sure I believed that.  I had an experience the other day that perhaps gave me a glimpse, though.
One day, during the trenching portion of our electrical upgrade project, it was my day to provide the security overwatch. We do that any time we have Afghan civilians working on the base because we just don't have any way to truly vet their credentials. Over the course of their time here, I routinely greeted them and tried to make small talk with the limited amount of Dari I knew (which lasted about two sentences). I think they appreciated it, though, because they would smile and wave and greet me anytime they saw me. On this day, though, standing there, all geared up with my body armor and both weapons, the supervisor, who spoke very good English, asked me if I thought they were doing a good job. I told him I thought they were and I appreciated them doing this work for us and I was glad that it was helping them take care of their families. He told me that they were very happy to be working for the Americans and they were glad we were here. He went on to say that most Afghans were glad the Americans were here. Then one of the men pointed to his hardhat, where he had written, "USA -- Long live Obama!" Now I'm not an Obama fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to believe that for him, Obama was a symbol of what he saw as American dedication to rebuild Afghanistan from a multi-decade war-torn country into something much better. From my (admittedly limited) interaction, I don't think, at their core, the Afghans are that much different from us. I think they want the same things for their children and grandchildren that we want for ours -- a safe environment to raise their kids in, the opportunity to provide for their family, and a better life for their kids than they had for themselves. Alas, many of them can't even remember a time when those things were true. They yearn for a better time -- a time when they can walk around downtown without fear of being shot or blown up, when they can travel cross-country without fear of being detained or robbed, or when their wives and daughters can interact with other people without constant fear of being accused of bringing dishonor on their family. I have such a small role in shaping Afghanistan into what it could become, yet despite missing my family tremendously, I'm honored at the opportunity to do so. I just hope that when it's time for us to leave, we will have helped realize even a small part of their hope in a lasting way.

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