Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

An Afghan Tale

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard:

An Afghan Tale
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.
Ann Marlowe
July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41

The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.

Like a classic Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, The Valley has a very limited geographic area and cast of characters. We follow Lieutenant Black—no first name—who’s been sent to a small American combat outpost to conduct a routine investigation: A villager’s house was damaged when an American soldier fired a warning shot in an unruly Afghan crowd, and the village chief complained to a passing civil affairs captain. Lieutenant Black is due to spend a week filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, he has his own demons: Something has gone very wrong in what should have been a promising Army career, and this is a chance for him to prove himself.

The ramshackle Combat Outpost (COP) Vega—supposed to be the furthest-east, most isolated, and most dangerous American outpost in a Nuristan valley that ends at the Pakistan border—is home to 47 soldiers and one translator, or “terp,” named Danny, the major Afghan character. The men are fighting with not only the Taliban but the villagers, who are also fighting the Taliban. Five days before Black’s arrival, a soldier from Vega fell behind 10 meters on a nighttime patrol and got snatched by locals. His end was gruesome.

In Army-speak, COP Vega is a “self-licking ice cream cone”: an isolated fort so poorly situated that it mainly exists to defend itself rather than to extend American control over terrain or people. Small wonder that the men are half-crazy with stress and treat Black as an enemy. It’s not even so odd that one soldier may be a killer. It is odd, though, that a soldier no one has heard of is listed on the personnel roster, and that another soldier Black meets in the flesh isn’t on the roster.

The U.S. Army doesn’t lose track of soldiers. Or does it?

The Valley draws as much on the conventions of gothic fiction as crime fiction: COP Vega is a castle clinging to a fog-wrapped mountain, surrounded by hostile, poorly understood forces. Black’s trip to COP Vega on a classically pitch-black, rainy night is full of ominous foreshadowing. There’s a joking road sign pointing to “Xanadu,” a cryptic warning to “beware he who would be king.”

The Valley gives the best description of the American military base environment (and the post-9/11 Army) that I’ve ever read, both accurate in the details and evocative in atmosphere. John Renehan nails the big Forward Operating Bases (which are anything but forward) and the tiny, patched-together COPs up in the hills or on dusty plains where the rubber meets the road. He also captures the tensions between noncommissioned officers and junior lieutenants, and between junior enlisted and NCOs. This is all, by extension, a portrait of America today. Consider this:

The room was standard-issue meathead. Heavy-metal posters and jugs of workout powder. An Xbox video game system sat on a shelf beneath a small and beat-up monitor.

Or this description of Lieutenant Pistone, the commander of COP Vega:

He became your squared-away super-soldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader. He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people.

It comes as a shock to read in Renehan’s acknowledgments that the pain-stakingly observed Afghan setting is a work of imagination. Renehan served as an artillery officer in Iraq and has never been to Afghanistan. As this suggests, Renehan is not only a brilliant writer, but a very clever one. Still, there are some first-novel fault lines here: The Valley is written in a close third-person, almost entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant Black. (The couple-dozen pages that take the points of view of other characters are far less successful.) But there’s a major surprise at the end, and the closeness of the narration makes it seem as though the author is pulling a fast one on us.

More seriously, I wish the novelist had opened up his main character more toward the end. He has elegantly avoided all the redemption clichés we might have expected, but the ending feels a bit choked, and The Valley ends on an uncertain note.

Renehan has spoken in an interview of writing a sequel, and I can’t wait; I hope there’s a movie, too. “You are [a] man who needs the truth,” the Afghan terp Danny says to Lieutenant Black. And we need these truths about our wars and our soldiers, too.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, was embedded with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in Afghanistan.

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos (orig. pub. in WSJ 4/23/2012)

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

April 23, 2012

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos

Sometimes men do dumb things. This is one of them, little more.

By Ann Marlowe

Last week’s U.S. military “scandal”: Some young enlisted men from a platoon in the 82nd Airborne, most barely old enough to vote, posed for photos in 2010 with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers.
In some of the photos, Afghan National Police officers posed alongside U.S. troops. This group has taken the heaviest losses from suicide attacks. No American in the photos committed any atrocity or required subsequent military discipline. In fact, according to Col. Dave Oclander, who commanded the battalion that included the platoon in question, this unit was one of his best, and many of the men in the photos had performed acts of humanitarian service while deployed.
Military investigators have found that the men might have violated General Order No. 1, intended to “identify and regulate conduct which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline of forces.” Section 2f prohibits photography of “human casualties.”
No one had published the photos anywhere until last week, when the good people at the Los Angeles Times decided that the world would be best served by doing so. The Pentagon had requested that the newspaper refrain since some of the men in the photos are currently deployed in Afghanistan.
By now, every bien-pensant commentator has weighed in with self-righteous indignation at this manufactured story. It symbolizes a breakdown in command, the effects of overly long and frequent overseas deployments. And somehow, although it took place two years earlier and under different senior leadership, it is of a piece with last month’s alleged shooting spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
In polite circles today—meaning circles in which few people under 60 have served in uniform—the American military is seen through distorted lenses. One lens exaggerates the good characteristics of those who serve, making even the most indifferent truck mechanic or supply-chain manager a “hero.” This does little for the real heroes, who have received less recognition in our Afghan and Iraq engagements than in any previous war. The other lens, measuring ordinary men and women against this impossible standard, labels every ordinary lapse of judgment as a grave indicator of the failure of a chain of command, a moral blemish, and a comfort to our enemies.
These young men should never have taken those photos. But that is the extent of their “crime.”
Was the picture-posing culturally insensitive? Probably less so in Afghanistan than it would have been here. Afghans themselves have often denied Islamic burial to suicide bombers. When I was embedded with U.S. troops in Khost province several years ago, the Afghan governor allowed one bomber’s body parts to be left in tree branches as a deterrent to others. The Afghan National Police—who lost 1,555 men between mid-2010 and mid-2011, according to figures reported by the Washington Post, most to improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks—hate suicide bombers as no one else does.
Afghan civilians mainly feel the same way. Like the police, they don’t drive around in armored vehicles that can withstand bomb blasts. In 2011, according to United Nations figures, the Taliban killed about 2,600 civilians, 431 in suicide bombings. Just about the only Afghan to get on his high horse about the publication of the photos was the feckless president, Hamid Karzai.
Part of the issue here is also the accelerating feminization of American culture, which has caused the increasing demonization of relatively normal male behavior. Men at war demonize their enemy and enact their triumph over him symbolically. That is part of the psychology that makes them able to kill.
No, it isn’t pretty, but it’s not that different from the way football teams psych themselves up for games or the way that (with less physicality) a big company’s sales force revs up for a new product introduction. Male aggressivity serves a purpose in a healthy society—as many of us realized for the first time when the U.S. had to fight back after 9/11.
And sometimes, men do dumb things. This is one of them, and not much more.

Afghan Noir: review of Michael Hastings’ “The Operators” in The Daily

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Opinion: Afghan noir

Atmospherics stand in for solid reporting on America’s effort to stop the insurgency

By Ann Marlowe Sunday, January 8, 2012

“The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan”
by Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press, $14.99

Selfishly, I wish “The Operators” were a better book. Though we come from different places in the political spectrum, Michael Hastings shares many of my views on Afghanistan and has the notoriety to bring them to a wide audience.

Was the surge a mistake, increasing levels of violence? Yes. Has the American effort to train the Afghan army and police been an unbelievably expensive boondoggle? Check. Did the American military’s toleration of thugs like Ahmed Wali Karzai and Border Police Gen. Raziq help fuel the insurgency? Yes. Was former commanding Gen. David Petraeus more concerned with managing perceptions than reality? Check. Was his predecessor Stanley McChrystal an amoral mediocrity in way over his head? We agree there too.

Furthermore, Hastings has the guts to let the chips fall where they may — as he did in the June 2010 Rolling Stone profile of then-commanding general McChrystal that quickly led to his firing.

But “The Operators” is a mess. Someone came up with the bad idea of having Hastings interlard an expanded version of the McChrystal material with a potted history of the Obama administration’s deliberations on the Afghan war. This was made worse by putting the McChrystal sections in the past tense and the history in the present tense — a stale device often advocated by bad editors to bring “immediacy” to dull narratives. The end result is likely to confuse anyone whose bread and butter isn’t Afghan policy — and even they won’t learn anything here.

It would be reasonable to buy “The Operators” for more of the juicy details that made Hastings’s Rolling Stone piece so compelling. Though there’s a lot more verbiage in this 379-page book — Hastings says he taped 20-plus hours of interviews with McChrystal and his team — the nuggets are lacking. Hastings gives us details we don’t need — how the computers were set up in a command post in a hotel, a meeting with a terribly boring hotel hooker-spy, even that he was third off the plane landing in Kabul — in place of those that might have enlivened his characters. As in the Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal himself remains a shadowy figure, as the legendary special-forces operator doubtless intended.

The book’s silly subtitle — “The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” — isn’t Hastings’s fault. But anyone who is really interested in the Obama White House debate on the war will have read Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s War,” and Hastings’ two dozen or so interviews don’t offer any new insights. Hastings strings together others’ reporting — and seems to take it all as gospel, even after correctly condemning the mainstream media’s uncritical acceptance of the military’s views — for want of having logged much time in Afghanistan himself. He might have interviewed the very knowledgeable experts at the Afghanistan Analysts Network and International Crisis Group instead.

Ironically, Hastings is guilty of the same disdain for the facts as the war boosters he justly skewers. Where they wave away statistical measures that suggest more U.S. troops cause more violence, Hastings would rather write off the whole Afghan war as a bad trip than try to explain why some tactics work and some don’t, why some parts of Afghanistan are doing well and others are horrific.

Hastings’ tone edges unhelpfully toward the hysterical when he discusses Afghanistan — he repeatedly mentions his security detail, which will only make experienced visitors smirk, and he speaks of his last trip in the fall of 2009 as one of “extreme violence.” Witnessing the aftermath of a suicide attack on an American base and being present in Kabul when a suicide attack occurs on the Ministry of Culture isn’t actually so extraordinary for a month in a war zone. “Extreme violence” is more rhetoric than accurate observation.

Hastings doesn’t specify the American base where the suicide bombing took place, but he should. It was in a district in Khost Province; I recognized the name of an officer he mentions, because I was embedded in the same district around the same time. Nor does he explain the specific reasons this suicide bombing took place — mainly because the commanders of the 101st Airborne and of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team made bad decisions and undid much of the good work of their predecessors. They mismanaged tribal politics, and despite some very brave Afghan leaders who died for their pains, Khost has never really recovered.

Hastings also makes confidence-diminishing mistakes. The January 2008 Taliban assault on the Serena Hotel he discusses killed six people, not two, as he claims, and he seems not to know that one was an American, Thor Hesla. This assault, also, didn’t just happen because Afghanistan is a randomly dangerous place. It may have occurred because the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was stupid enough to publish the fact that their foreign minister was staying there. WikiLeaks even suggests that the International Security Assistance Force knew months in advance that plans for an attack were in the works.

Hastings spent a short embed at what he — and no one else — calls “the Kandahar Airfield.” But he somehow messes up his description of the most famous landmark at KAF (as everyone else refers to the base). The Boardwalk isn’t a “pavilion” but a huge, four-sided wooden deck surrounded on its perimeter by stores and restaurants. McChrystal ticked off a lot of soldiers by threatening to close the fast food outlets on the boardwalk — something worth exploring because it suggests an indifference to the needs and pleasures of the lower enlisted ranks. For the reporter who ended the general’s career, Hastings hasn’t dug very deep on McChrystal. I heard that he was just as callous in Iraq, where he wanted to remove TVs from the dining facilities at U.S. bases — never mind that for those without computers or Internet access, TV was the only way for them to get the news. And since we may not have seen the last of McChrystal in the public world — he waltzed right into a Yale teaching job and corporate board memberships — it would be fair to look harder.

This could have been a much better book. Hastings can write, he’s smart and he’s not afraid to stick his neck out. But there is no substitute for spending time on the ground and getting the facts. Hastings advances various good explanations for the press’s failure to “write honestly about people in power,” but he forgets one: They’re lazy. If you’re going to call the military on their facts, you have to know the material better than they do. Most journalists would rather hang out with each other than immerse themselves in whatever country they’re supposed to be covering. Hastings seems to know better than this. But he would rather cloak the war in hipster noir than detail what went wrong. Like American commanders in Afghanistan, he is punching below his weight.