Thursday, May 19, 2011

God speed ... Pete Hegseth deploying to Afghanistan

Preparing for War

Thanks again for signing up to receive my deployment emails in the coming year
, this is the first such update. Your continued confidence and support are deeply appreciated. As you may know, a few months ago my deployment plans and timeline shifted by a couple of months—hence the delay in correspondence. However, my unit (55 soldiers from Minnesota) is now almost complete with our pre-deployment training, and will soon be in Afghanistan.

When we arrive in Afghanistan (by month's end), my job—as I currently understand it—will be to teach, train, and mentor Afghan National Army units and incoming NATO forces on counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and tactics, as part of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. It looks like I will be a regional COIN instructor in Regional Command-South, which is headquartered in Kandahar.

From what I understand, about 25% of our time will be spent in Kabul teaching at the COIN Academy.  Both Afghan and NATO units cycle through the academy to get the latest instruction on COIN in Afghanistan, usually before they start a rotation in a new area. This “schoolhouse” experience is designed to get all units on the same page regarding COIN guidance in Afghanistan, as well as provide units a macro-perspective on the fight.

The remaining 75% of the time, our training team (about 5-6 soldiers, slated to be led by an Australian Major) will travel throughout southern Afghanistan, visiting units in the field, training them in COIN warfare, and identifying/disseminating “best practices.”  From what we’re told, in the past few years most of this training was NATO-focused; however, the big push in the coming year is to teach, train, and advise Afghan Army units. To use the oft-overused phrase, “our job is to work ourselves out of a job.”

This training role is much different then what I did in Iraq, but I’m intrigued by it for two reasons. First, as regional instructors we will be given an opportunity to influence and evaluate the fight—at the ground level—across much of the country; garnering both a local, and broad, viewpoint on the progress of the war. Second, in many ways training the Afghan Army is the main effort in Afghanistan today. While “land owning units” (which is what I did in Iraq) execute the most dangerous and difficult tasks of confronting the enemy daily and partnering directly with Afghan units, America’s ability to ex-fill (leave!) Afghanistan successfully will depend on whether or not we ultimately train competent Afghan counterparts.

Of course our mission could change completely—it is the Army, after all—but this is the current plan for our unit. Once we arrive, we’ll be spending most of June in Kabul, receiving additional training on COIN, getting familiar with our duties and responsibilities, and meeting our Afghan and NATO counterparts.

As for the recent past, one month ago our unit arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey for standard Army pre-deployment evaluation and training. Pretty standard stuff—medical screenings, Army briefings, advisor/cultural/counterinsurgency training, weapons qualification (photo), IED/patrolling simulations, etc. Collectively, the training covers the basics, although most of what we’ll really need to learn we’ll get once we get to Kabul.

Personally, however, the past month has provided a unique opportunity. How often does someone get 35 dedicated days
to prepare for war? While it remains difficult to be apart from my wife Samantha and son Gunner, I’ve been able to use the past 5 weeks to personally prepare—physically and mentally—to be a counter-insurgent. In addition to studying classic COIN texts, we also built a pre-deployment reading list that touches on the theory, strategy, tactics, and Afghan-specific elements of COIN warfare.

Most especially, I’ve enjoyed reading Bing West’s latest book—The Wrong War—which draws on his recent, firsthand experiences in southern Afghanistan and the Pakistan-border region. His “on the ground” view provides a candid, and oftentimes damning, assessment of the COIN fight in Afghanistan, and I plan to bounce his descriptions against personal experience. Additionally, Ahmed Rashid’s book Taliban provides an insightful, quasi-insider’s account of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Taliban. Certainly a helpful read for folks headed down south. And, as always, for my money David Kilcullen's 28 Articles remains the best ground-level guide to COIN available.

That said, our time at Fort Dix hasn’t been perfect—with two issues in particular standing out. First, I was troubled by the whitewashed treatment of Islam in our “cultural awareness training.” While mostly fair and carefully presented, our instructors nonetheless emphasized the viewpoint that violent jihad has no theological underpinnings in the Koran (or the Hadith, which is a collection of sayings and actions of Muhammad). Instead, they said Islam-inspired violence is merely a product of “a lack of knowledge of Koranic terms.” The justification for this position consisted of one PowerPoint slide with two Koranic verses, one mentioning peace and the other “defensive jihad”—with an explicit comparison to Christianity and Judaism.

The instruction neither mentioned the violent passages in the Koran and Hadith, nor the theological struggle (or lack thereof) in the Muslim world about the correct interpretation of Muhammad’s teachings, sayings, and actions. I realize it’s not the Army’s job, nor is it helpful, to label Islam a "religion of violence" or a "religion of peace"; but at the very least, soldiers going to fight a religiously-motivated enemy deserve a clear-eyes portrayal of the violence perpetrated against them. Ironically, this “training” came less than 12 hours after we learned of SEAL Team Six’s successful mission. Osama Bin Laden was a radical and an extremist, but he drew—incorrectly, deceptively, or otherwise—from a body of Islamic thought prevalent in Pakistan, Afgha
nistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere; and soldiers deserve straight-forward training that reflects the tensions inside Islam. All this saidinsert cultural disclaimer hereof course our soldiers will treat our Afghan partners with religious and cultural respect, regardless of personal feelings.

The second troubling element of my time at Fort Dix has been the glaring reminders of our risk-averse, safety-obsessed Army. For an organization paid to "close with and destroy the enemy," reflective “safety” belts and “risk assessment" matrices rule the day. I saw the same thing while I was in Iraq, as risk mitigation and force protection almost always took precedence over commander’s tactical discretion and mission accomplishment. While I understand the need for safe training, I fear our bureaucratic, risk-averse Army culture will prevent usand land-owning unitsfrom doing many of the difficult and dangerous things necessary to actually succeed in Afghanistan.

I’m not (yet) talking about Rules of Engagement (ROE), which is an entirely different—and equally important—subject. ROE is a critical component of any COIN strategy, and I look forward to reviewing the rules in practice in Afghanistan. I'm talking here about “safety” and the Army’s command obsession with it, to the determent of mission accomplishment. When trainers and leaders are more worried about whether or not soldiers are wearing knee and elbow pads then whether or not they know how to patrol properly and/or effectively, we’re in serious trouble. I’m going to keep a close eye on this in Afghanistan.

Thankfully, however, somebody else—the “Reflective Belt Bandit”, as we call him—is equally frustrated. Over the past week, someone at Fort Dix has been placing reflective belts on all the WW2-era infantry statues on Post, in a poignant critique of Army safety. Can you imagine General Eisenhower demanding safety belts on Normandy beach?  I did my best to produce a photo-shopped version of the bandit's work, and appreciate his subtle statement.

That’s enough for now, as the intent of this email list is not to report the minutia of pre-deployment training, but instead to share accounts from the ground in Afghanistan. More to come.  And again, I thank everyone for the support and prayers—Samantha, Gunner, and I sincerely appreciate everything.

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God bless,


P.S. I've had many people point out that the flag atop this email is backwards. This is intentional. The flag shown above is on the uniform of all U.S. Soldiers. Worn on the right shoulder, the stars are in the front--simulating a flag streaming (charging!) forward in battle.

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