Thursday, August 06, 2009

Hanging with the Danes......

My brain is exploding.....

I spent the afternoon and evening absorbing aspects of our Afghan policy direct from various horses' mouths.

My friend Col. Dan just returned from Afghanistan. His assignment was to use his "cultural acuity" to assess the situation, and the viability of any hope of success in our mission there.

The powers that be gave him 60 days to do this.

As a very smart guy....a Hoover Institute Fellow.....he first did a deep self-analysis of the term "cultural acuity".

Upon arrival in Kabul, he immediately ran into a shitstorm of whatever the opposite of "cultural acuity" is.

Afghanistan is a monumental vortex of clashing bureaucracies: NATO, the UN, the US State Department, the US the Italians, the Brits, the Germans, the Danes, etc.

Oh, yeah. There are apparently pesky Afghans as well. And, of course.....Afghans come in all stripes and flavors....many of which compete and clash in the same person from day to day.

In fact....Col. Dan's first message was this: Afghans are geographically, religiously, genetically, socially, and economically all tossed in a blender.

And Col. Dan is supposed to make sense of 4,000 years of hatred, violence and religious frenzy....and give a report in 60 days? is not so hard, after all. I thought working 20 hour days, six days a week at age 60 qualified me for some kind of hall of fame.

Forget it.

I am a geography and politics geek....I read the NY Times, and the Economist, and the Guardian, and some Spanish newspapers....because I am a compulsive reader. I was fascinated by some of the things I learned today....which are probably completely boring to anyone else.

Here goes:

The DLI does not just train dumbass incoming E-9's to speak various languages in preparation for years of flying around in big jets listening to Pakistani radio. DLI is part of our intelligence and diplomatic operations and many of the students there are colonels and majors and captains. DLI trains one species of operative called an FAO....foreign area officer or operative, pronounced Fay-O. These linguistic, cultural and military liasons who wind up placed in strategic spots in the military and diplomatic bureaucracy.

The commander of the DLI is a woman.....a foreign service expert who spent 14 years living in all parts of Africa and was tapped by the Clinton's to go to West Point as an instructor. The was abracadbra'd as a Captain for her West Point posting....and is now a highly respected Colonel. She is the kind of modern military person who would rather understand, convince and coopt our various foreign friends and foes....rather than bomb them back to the Stone Age.

At least at first.

There are also something called "48's"....which are straight up military diplomats. These are divided into six groups based on the geography of their specialty. Charlie48's are Middle East guys. Delta48's are South American guys. Foxtrot48's are Chinese experts.

We have lots of super-smart Charlie-48's deployed in Afghanistan. And the odd Baker-48. And one Delta-48.

This all sounds good, until you think about the geography. Afghanistan is not actually IN the Middle East. Afghans are in Central Asia. The languages, culture, climate, geography, economics, politics and religions are not even close to what goes on in the actual Middle it is some kind of conceit on our part to stock Afghanistan with Charlie-48's just because there is Allah and sand involved.

And the Delta-48 guy they brought in from Colombia to advise about the drug trade? Not quite the same thing with the coca guys in jungle as with the poppy guys in the desert mountains of Central Asia.

Col. Dan's take on the situation in Afghanistan was held pretty close to the vest. It is "pre-decisional", meaning that the decisions based on his study have not yet been if he told us what he concluded he would have to kill us.

Still, he did share various observations.

Hardcore, solid government guys are tied to tribal weirdos who run heroin, but are great on security. Whack-job heroin guys have awesome armies and political control of large areas and are religiously stable. Fucked up, whack-job Muslim extremist heroin smugglers can be dealt with rationally. Other religious extremists hate the poppy thing, hate the Taliban thing, have control of large parts of the country.....but hate the corrupt fuckers we put in power in Kabul. Then, there are still actual communists.....who hate the poppy, hate Islam, hate the US.....but not so much that they are not willing to make a deal, for a while.

The government in Kabul is very weak, and virtually useless outside Kabul itself. We run the risk of losing our credibility by supporting such obvious losers...but we still have to support them somewhat because they are all we have.

The people of Afghanistan are exhausted by 30 plus years of war and destruction....and, in principle, welcome our aid and help. What they really want is some sense of security and stability....They would much rather live under the guarantee of horrible, draconian religious tyrants who are at least always horrible, always draconian, and always tyranical....rather than bounce around in the economic, political and military void our bumbling policies bring them, however well-intentioned and well-meaning.

If you think this is weird.....just drive down I-5 and listen to AM radio. All you get is Rush, Jesus, hell-fire, and screaming fear of Jews, niggers, socialists, Clintons and Kennedys. The Taliban should get into the Jesus franchise. Redneck Republicans would love to be able to beat their wives, wrap them in burlap from head to toe, and let the local preacher tell them how to act and how to vote. Like they aren't already.

Plus....who do you think is doing all the heroin the Taliban is producing? From where I sit, it is all the out of work plumbers, electricians and carpenters who voted for George Bush, along with their children and relatives. The Talib's are missing a great marketing opportunity. What they need is a Muslim Harvard grad to get into politics and help steer their marketing program.

Anyway, our guy did a good job. He is very smart and intuitive. The fact that the new commanding general in Afghanistan had the insight to send in an auditor of the systemic cultural acuity is a good thing.

Until you reflect a moment about the time-line.

We have been in Afghanistan for eight years, billions of dollars and a thousand dead soldiers, sailors and Marines.

Someone just thought of this? gets worse.

One of the questions asked of Col. Dan was from a Marine who was at DLI to learn Pashtu, one of the many tribal languages of Afghanistan. His question involved the politics and bureaucracy of the different language groups. Turns out that Pashto is not the national language of Afghanistan, so our policy is that speakers and students of Pashto cannot rise to the same level (Charlie-48, FAO) as speakers of Dari.

In the room of a hundred or so FAO's and future FAO's listening to Col. Dan were a bunch of folks in different digital camos....more blues and greens. I could not help but notice that some of the different camo folks were very female, and very hot. Then I noticed the little Danish flag on the sleeve of their uniforms.

Duh. Someone point me to an ugly Danish woman. There must be one or two....but the small local sampling of even their military trends against.

At the beer blast after the briefing I somehow found myself chatting with the supermodel Danish camo lieutenant. Imagine your surprise.

Lt. Alexandra turns out to be a Pashto speaker who has been training in Pashto for a year at DLI and was about to ship out back to Denmark.

As a non-military, moderately well-informed citizen and fan of Jeopardy I knew that Pashto speakers in Afghanistan come from Helmand province, in the south west on the Pakistan border. Helmand province is where all the poppies are grown.....or most of them. It is also where the Taliban has the most influence and control. The Brits and the Danes have been fighting a brutal war there. The Brits are under-supplied by their anti-military Labor government and have been losing scores of soldiers to roadside bombs because they lack helicopters. When their commander moves around Helmand, he has to borrow a US chopper. Embarrassing.

The agriculture and therefore much of the money in Helmand is controlled by a big central canal. For years, the NATO strategy was to liberate a town or village from the Taliban and move on. Of course, the Talibs would move right back in on Day Two. New policy is to fight, hold and keep territory. The Brits have been fighting for a year on one section of the canal, and advanced less than two kilometers. The Danes have one battalion (700-800 men) and have been involved in some of the heaviest fighting.

I was chatting with Lt. Alexandra about her next job....commanding all the Pashto speakers and translators in the Danish Army when Mr. Marine butted in. The guy that asked the question about Pashto speakers to Col Dan.

"So, you are studying Pashto, huh. I am about to start."

"Great. Good luck with your studies."

"When do you deploy to Afghanistan?"


"To where are you deploying?"

"Uh....Helmand Province."

"Really? Where is that?"

Jesus wept. One of our incoming Marine officer trainee's learning Pashto does not know that: 1) Pashto is spoken in Helmand; 2) our actual Marines are deployed to and fighting and dying in droves in Helmand; 3) the Danes have been there for years; 4) the different camo and the little red flag with the white cross on her shoulder means that Lt. Alexandra is a Dane.

I know this.....and I am the cook at a shitty restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the Santa Lucia Mountains.....and no one has handed be a rifle in many years.

DJ and I instantly kidnapped Lt. Alexandra and took her to Stoke's for champagne and Monterey's best pizza....and some gentle interrogation.

Alex joined the Danish Army out of high school because they had a much better language program than the Danish universities. After basic studies and ten month's training she became a Sargent....and applied to the Danish DLI.

These guys receive 3,000 applicants....and take 30 students in. Alex studied Arabic for two that she now had Danish, English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish....and enough Spanish and French to get by. Typical Danish high school grad.

After a tour in Iraq, Alex was assigned to DLI. Her year spent with Pashto, she was deploying to Afghanistan to run the Danish Army's Pashto interpreters: Danish speakers of Pashto, Afghan immigrants to Denmark who were ex-pat native speakers, plus the local volunteers in Helmand. The Danes have at least one Danish officer speaker of Pashto per platoon, plus the Dane/Afghans, plus the natives.

Alex gets promoted to Captain for the job....and well she should be.

Alex talks about the importance of not just learning the words, but the local culture: "Pashto has 100 words for mud.....and 100 words for sheep. If you memorize 99 words for each, and you are talking to a villager who is talking about a sheep stuck in the mud...and it is the one word you don't know....your mission is a failure."

Alex is defensive about the Danish role in the confict: "Everyone makes fun of the Danes....but we are holding our territory and making a difference. We are not a mighty military with big guns and tanks and aircraft. We have to work with other skills. After all the ultimate object of war is peace. It doesn't matter in the end how you achieve it....right?"

No offense.....but our Army cannot compete with the Danes. Many, many of the soldiers...and even many of the command officers have the vision....but the institutional inertia is immense. I wonder what Col Dan's recommendations will be.

Oh, yeah.

Alex will be 23 in November.


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