Monday, September 20, 2010

To protect and serve

On a recent trip to Kandahar province, we had the opportunity to attend an Afghan National Police graduation. During the nine months I’ve been here, I’ve attended numerous graduations – Afghan Army, NCOs, academy graduates, basic trainees – but what made this one so interesting was the fact that 1) it was being held during Ramadan and 2) it was in Kandahar.

On this hot afternoon in Southern Afghanistan, 164 ANP graduates were crowded into a room, eager to receive their diplomas. These 164 men had joined the police, knowing that they would be staying in Kandahar province, to protect their homes and families. The police are a local force, they live and work in their home communities, while the army and Afghan National Civil Order Police deploy to where they are needed. Often it is hard to recruit people who fear being sent to Kandahar or Helmand provinces; some even go AWOL when assigned a duty there. But these men signed up knowing that would be where they would stay.

It may be a small thing, to have a class of 164 graduating, but it’s a start. After all, it only takes one person to ignite a change. I hope they serve as an example for others in their villages; that they take courage and strength from these leaders, and stand up against those who would only hurt them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An afternoon with Afghan heroes

Today, I had a visible reminder that while the wounded U.S. and coalition forces are the more visible casualties of the fight in Afghanistan, there are others who are fighting for and dying for this country – the Afghans themselves. On our way to visit wounded Afghan soldiers at the National Military Hospital in Kabul, our convoy was halted by a funeral procession. I looked out the window and saw a huge crowd of people – mostly in military uniform, so I knew it was a funeral for a fallen Afghan National Army soldier.

Although little publicized, especially to the American public, the Afghans are joining their armed forces - the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniform Police - in droves. In a little less than a year, the army has grown almost 40,000 soldiers and the police by more than 20,000. Motivated by the need for a peaceful and stable country, these men and women are risking their lives to protect their country, fight corruption, drug lords and the Taliban who are doing their best to pull this country down.

Wounded soldiers are stabilized at the nearest regional hospital, located in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Gardez, and then sent to the national hospital, if necessary. On our trip to NMH, we visited with about 15 soldiers who had been injured in various IED attacks and firefights with Taliban. In addition to Lt. Gen. Caldwell, commander NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan and Command Sgt. Maj. Beam, with us were Afghan Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, ANA Chief of Staff and Command Sgt. Maj. of the Afghan National Army Roshan Safi, who I later learned has been a frequent visitor to the hospital.

We were there to present Army achievement medals to the soldiers, recognize them for their bravery, and thank them for their sacrifice. Many had lost legs, some were severely burned or disfigured, and in one disturbing case, the patient was emaciated, after spending two months in a trauma-induced coma. It was heartrending to see the victims of this insurgency up close and personal, and I had tears in my eyes to see them laying on their hospital beds. Even though they weren’t my fellow American servicemembers, they were soldiers fighting the same enemy and I couldn’t help but feel a connection to them.
The Americans, and our Coalition partners - British, Canadians, Italians, French, and Spanish – have all recently lost servicemembers, but they are not the only countries with people willing to fight and lose. The country we are here to help is filled with those who are also willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice. They too are fighting for independence, for peace, for freedom.

Let us never forget.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

One step closer ...

Last month, I covered a ceremony officially opening a new infantry school in Kabul for the Afghan National Army. The move is a big step for the ANA as they work toward professionalizing their force. NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan and the Afghan government have spent much of the last 10 months building a force large enough to protect the country, with much of the focus on recruiting and end-strength goals. Now that the ANA has met their goal of 134,000 soldiers, two months early I might mention, they are turning their attention to building the necessary specialized skills – medical, infantry, communications, artillery, etc. – that make up a military.

Previously, infantry tactics, including reconnaissance and heavy weapons systems courses were taught under the Advanced Combat Training Brigade at the Kabul Military Training Center; now the ACT brigade is in the process of separating all advanced branch training, including artillery, maintenance, logistics, signal and engineer, into separate schools to enhance training.

The new school will allow the ANA to develop entry-level soldiers, NCOs and officers by providing more space for training, time and attention on infantry-specific skills. It will do much to boost the ability of the Afghan infantry soldiers and, perhaps even more importantly, will be run and taught by the Afghan army with support from the British. Slowly but surely U.S. and NATO forces are handing more and more responsibility over to the Afghans.

The first class of 211 students to go through the new school began training July 31, 2010. If courses run at full capacity, the new school will be able to accommodate up to 2,000 students at one time, or 14,000 infantrymen per year. This is a historic time for the Afghan National Security Forces. It seems every day there are more and more signs of progress and milestones reached and even though I didn’t have any direct impact on their success, I can’t help but feel proud of all that they’ve achieved.

Flying high

An estimated eight million people have been left homeless and 1,600 were killed after waves of devastating floods swept across Pakistan in July and August. The same rains that caused the massive flooding also affected western Afghanistan, albeit on a much smaller scale. The international community has pledged millions in humanitarian relief aid to Pakistan, including its neighbour, Afghanistan. For 27 days, a crew of 22 Afghan Air Force, with four MI-17 helicopters, conducted more than 400 rescue and humanitarian missions in Pakistan. The crew helped move more than 2,000 aid works and stranded residents and delivered 188 tons of food, medical equipment and shelter supplies.

A few days ago, we were there at the Kabul International Airport to welcome the crew home from their mission. Their return from Pakistan was remarkable in not only that this poor, war torn country was able to lend a hand to others in need – epitomizing the true nature of the Afghan people – but that they were actually able to do so. The humanitarian relief effort demonstrates how far the Afghan Air Force has come in the past year, and comes shortly after they led rescue missions in their own Laghman province in late July, where crews saved more than 2,100 people from flood waters, many times under the threat of Taliban guns.

Since the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan command stood up in November 2009, the AAF has grown to almost 5,000 airmen and 50 aircraft. But I think the more impressive factor is that the humanitarian effort was completely Afghan coordinated and executed. Working under President Karzai’s directive, the Afghan Air Force coordinated with the Pakistani government to offer support – no U.S. or NATO help was used, or even needed.

I can't speak for everyone at the airport, but I know for me, watching their hero's welcome was exciting; to see the Afghan Air Force strong and capable enough to stand on their own and knowing that this was a huge step toward an independent and enduring Afghan nation. And maybe a little bit because this was about the Afghan Air Force, a young organization just getting its start. Someday, maybe an Afghan airman will be studying this historical event for a promotion test, knowing that this was the just the beginning of what his (or her!) Air Force was able to offer the world.