Monday, January 5, 2009

Rob Yllescas RIP

I was going through some news articles that were posted on a news service provided by the defense department known as the Early Bird. It's a simple site that posts full articles from newspapers, wire services, and even television reports that deal with defense related topics. One was about a Company Commander in Kamdesh, Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province. He's replaced a Captain that was struck by an IED and evacuated from the Afghanistan back to Walter Reed. After several long hard weeks of fighting at Walter Reed, he passed away. The name jumped off the page: Rob Yllescas. I knew him, not well, but knew him nonetheless. We worked around each other in Iraq.  His wife, Dena, has a blog ( in which she's keeping friends and family up to date with her struggle, Rob's recovery efforts, and now her coping. I remember him, for my part, as a high quality officer.That is to say he was energetic, focused, eminently capable, helpful, affable, and respectful. From what I saw, he treated all fairly and earned everyone of the dear friends who have been sending his wife sympathy messages and were sending him recovery wishes. He, and all those like him are forever missed; no peoples have an inexhaustible supply of his sort.


Dena, God bless you and your family. Rob, Godspeed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Pushtunistan

Christmas is just about through. The party went off without a hitch. All of our Afghan counterparts came over our compound for some carols, Santa hats, a present lottery, and big plates of Christmas food. I also shared the baklava [thanks]; it was a big hit. The TOC (main office) is now just a big room with people exchanging little secrets and stories of what they did the last time they were deployed. Everyone seems to have the same remembrance of the rocket attack or the PSYOP truck with loud speakers blasting Jingle Bell Rock all around the base. I've the few Sinatra Christmas tunes I remembered to load onto the iPOD on repeat through some headphones.

Turkey and fix-uns were delivered to all of the outer-FOBs that are beyond the reach of roads, and we all received some special Christmas wishes from 2ND graders from all over the United States. My previous favorite was received a few years ago in Iraq: "Thank you for dying for your country." After reading these though, I may crown a new king. I'll try and include the pictures of these cards in the next few days when I get back to better computers. Nothing makes me more sympathetic for teachers than reading these cards as they give me the clearest idea of what they are working with. Or after a few months of working with the ANA, maybe its empathy I feel.

To all my family and friends, I miss you all greatly and look forward to a real Christmas, New Years, Flag Day, Talk like a Pirate Day, and every other Holiday we'll miss this year. I love you all. Thanks for the packages, the food, the lights, and the Hannah Montana poster. I miss you baby, talk to you soon.

Letters from 2ND graders:

Dear Soldiers,
Keep your blood while you still have it. Fight with all your might. Kill people, steal weapons. You know, I used to be a soldier myself. I have mechanical hands now though. I was also a prisoner for 5 years.
Sergeant Matt

Dear Soldiers,
I am very happy of your hard work. You serve our country so good. You are so brave to go out and fight, I can tell that you are doing your best because our country is running pretty smoothly on war. You are making a great country if you try your best, even if you get sick. I will pray for you to succeed.

Supported by,

Hello! Merry Christmas! I hope you have a happy holiday! May your days be filled with peace-i-fullness and happy happy-wappy happiness! I pray that your days be filled with light and joy. We all will be praying for your safety too! Hmm…keep a smile on your face! Here's a happy smiling bunny! {picture of bunny} and a smiling lion {picture of a lion}. America missed you and surely there is someone here missing you a lot. We are all thankful for your job and your faithfulness and duty to your job. God Bless you!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Afghan fever dream

It's the middle of the afternoon and the streets are a few degrees under bustling. You know you're supposed to be looking for a red sedan, but can't remember why. The MRAP is cavernous like the inside of a submarine, and there is a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Somehow, the gunner managed to hook up his iPOD to the intercom system. Now, as you scour the streets looking for a red VBIED, all you hear is Lesley Gore singing "Sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows."


Without warning, you smoothly transitioned back in the FT Riley area outside a piece of shit bar known as "The Rockhouse" in Ogden. The other vehicles in your element are gone and it's just your MRAP and your soundtrack. Like any good dream, nothing needs to make sense, so it seems to make perfectly reasonable that you're driving around Afghanistan in Ogden, KS.


You spot the red car, its right next to you. 3 girls wearing go-go outfits materialize out of the air with short black hair start dancing your way. Now you're back in Afghanistan with a peppering of Pashtun men staring at you in a very uncommitted way. The type of look that reminds you how little you have in common. One of the crew members invites the go-go dancers into the submarine/MRAP. Everyone is dancing and giggling inside while the red car is parked close enough off the driver's side that you can read the VIN.


Then you wake up to a snowy morning. You pet the FOB dog and go about your business, all the while wondering if you should warn the rest of your team about a red car. I thought it was Christmas, not Halloween.


Oh by the way, I saw a fully loaded passenger bus with a pickup truck and a station wagon strapped to the roof. The bus was on a jack while the driver changed a tire. That was no dream.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From the jaws of victory

Afghanistan is not going well. Despite the conventional wisdom that is mouthed by all, it is not an unwinnable theater. The Soviets did not fail because this country is a meat grinder that is so inhospitable to foreigners that none could be successful. They failed because they prosecuted it poorly. We are on the same path, and can either choose victory, or the slow humiliating defeat that will come with declaring the nation a losing proposition for modernity. What follows are a few enumerated frustrations that my comrades and I voice daily over coffee, cigars, and cup after cup of steaming chai tea.

The Taliban are not terrorists or bandits. They are a movement that is rooted deep in the consciousness and reality of the Afghan people. They are a part of the country whose raison de etre extends further back than the birth certificates (if they had them) of most of the Afghan soldiers. To defeat a movement, you must create a counter-movement. To create a counter-movement, you must change the reality of the Afghan people. This requires nation building. Nothing short. Nation building requires organization. If we don’t have the stomach for that, then we should resign ourselves to abandon these people to their fate and bomb this country every 10 years to keep Al Qaeda at bay. But that didn’t work well in the past.

The NATO command in Afghanistan is known as the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF has been written about ad nauseum for its inability to create a unified, executable campaign plan for the theater due to its lack of command and control of its subordinate units as a result of “national caveats” that prevent contributing nations from executing the tasks that are necessary. Many of the ISAF contributors are restricted by their home governments from conducting the riskier missions for fear of casualties. This is understandable. The contributing nations are not committed to the fight enough to accept casualties that would be politically untenable for their civilian leadership. No people should be asked to suffer casualties that they do not believe are worthwhile and do not serve their interest. Since this is the case, these nations should not be given command of entire regions of the country that require serious action and dedication. As it stands, contributors that do not wish to do all that is necessary should not be entrusted with responsibility to do so.

It is my opinion that ISAF and NATO should be allowed to retreat with honor from Afghanistan. This is not the war they signed up to fight. When many of these nations sent their sons and daughters to this country they did so under the banner of reconstruction and humanitarian aid. The rub comes when reconstruction must be accompanied by military offenses, defenses, and great risk. This coalition of the unwilling should be replaced with a slimmer, better organized coalition of the willing in a style similar to that in Iraq. Multi-National Forces- Iraq was not NATO and consisted only of forces that reported directly to the theater commander (a US four star general). The chain of command was single and unified and allowed the commander to plan and execute a long term vision that included political, military, economic, and social goals.
A Multi National Forces- Afghanistan organization would also command the effort to develop the Afghan Army and Police forces. Currently, this effort is US led, and exists outside the ISAF chain of command. It is built on a vestigial organization known as TF Phoenix, and its higher command Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan (CSTCA) that was designed to build an army before there was a war on. CSTCA reports to central command and ISAF reports to NATO headquarters in Brussels. As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the organization was not redesigned to face the threats inherent of building security forces under fire.

These two separate chains of command, the Advisor mission and the Security mission, do not meet until they get to the Washington DC. This is unacceptable. Counterinsurgency, like politics, is a wholly local affair. We can not pursue goals and endstates that are not organized and unified. Each province in Afghanistan has its ISAF task force that has no direct or indirect relationship with the advisors that operate in the same battlespace. No one is required to talk to each other.

The separate organizations that do reconstruction, security, and security force development have only informal relationships based on mutual need and friendship rather than clearly and universally defined systems.

We need many more Advisors for the Afghan Army and Police. The Advisor mission has been filled to 50% of its personnel requirement for the past 2 years. We are preparing to send additional fighting units to Afghanistan, but to what end? If their focus is on hunting the Taliban and searching the villages for fighters they will meet locals with the same sentiment that I heard on a recent search of a village from a local Mullah, “I would rather shoot myself than have an American enter my house.” These units must have, as their primary mission, the focused development and reinforcement of the local security forces.

The Afghan people continue to pay the price for our misappropriation of effort. All goals are tunnel visioned; all efforts are too broad to be effective in individual districts or provinces; and all parties report to different masters. There is still only one real road in this country, Highway 1. The populace are sprinkled thin like pepper on rice across the countryside living much the way they did 500 years ago. The water resources drain from the mountains into a myriad of pre-historic canals known as karezes that water individual fields and crops. This allows people to continue to exist in isolation from each other and the government. They need roads and reservoirs. These two things can change the Afghan’s reality and will drain the Taliban’s pool of uneducated, angst ridden teens, and idealogues they recruit from to prey on the isolated and unprotected. Roads can bring commerce, connection, and modernity. Reservoirs and aqueducts can encourage a more organized life style that creates cities rather than villages. First we must have roads, roads, roads. And roads.

Unify the chain of command now. Create provincial security czars that have command over all international security forces, local security force developers (advisors), reconstruction task forces, and special operation forces in every province. Allow these commanders to develop reasoned long term plans for the province in accordance with the Afghan government’s vision. Allow these czars to pursue development and combat the isolationism that cripples this nation.
This country may be resource poor, but the few resources it has are squandered on either building fortresses around provincial capitals and district centers rather than on the isolated and disconnected villages that may not know that the Russians have left- or were even here. As it stands, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and our allies continue to fumble along as we hunt the Taliban rather than draining the pool from which the Taliban drink. We are constantly reminded that we must kill more Taliban to demonstrate that theirs is a losing proposition. There is a limitless supply of fighters for the Taliban as long as the people’s reality does not change. Should we fail to change their reality we are sprinting toward failure. We will continue to mount large scale operations into “enemy safe havens” only to find that the enemy has fled and all that is left are impoverished locals that don’t reap any benefit from our presence. A cursory read of Soviet operations in Afghanistan bare a striking similarity to our plans. Compare our current operational focus in this counterinsurgency to the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgencies that Dr. Kalev Sepp, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Special Operations, wrote of and determine for yourself whether we are on the right path. We wish to hunt the bear in his cave, destroy his weapons caches, and capture their leadership. We must instead focus on the people, build them roads and demonstrate the benefits of modernity. Or we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Wheels up

Pack your bags. Decide they are good enough. Stare at them for five minutes. Dump them all over the floor and start over. Make a mental checklist. When this fails you, make a written one.Keys, wallet (don’t need the Sam’s Club or Blockbuster cards anymore), stabil in the fuel tank (like your car is going to start right up in 12 months anyway), check your watch, check it again. Go drop off your car. You’re officially locked down.

Get accountability. The army loves accountability. You will continue getting accountability every three seconds for the rest of the year. This is the civilian equivalent for keeping an adventurous child within eye sight at WalMart.

Once you have your accountability, you need to get ready for the movement. Better check your carry on to make sure it will fit. The army was kind enough to build a bread box that is supposed to approximate the size of the carry on compartment. If your bag fits in the bread box, you can go to Afghanistan. If it doesn’t, you need to rip your carefully packed crap apart and start over. Unfortunately, this carry on gauge doesn’t appear to be life size so you feel like an ass when you’re easily sliding your bag into the planes carry on compartment. Guess you had plenty of room for those Danielle Steel novels after all.

Before you get on the plane, you have to MANIFEST. Manifesting is a process of getting accountability. The two go hand in hand. Manifesting is the Superbowl of accountability. We had some saints from what I believe was the VFW’s lady trooper society with us. The baked a couple of pecan pies, enough cookies for a small army (which is what they had), and gallons and gallons of coffee. As we were munching down on these goodies waiting for our transportation, we were called to order. Apparently, there was one last inspiring speech we were to hear before leaving.This final inspiring speech was actually to be the first inspiring speech, but this was no time to be technical. I knew it was going to be good. You see, we (The Combat Advisors) are the military’s main effort. We are simultaneously the exit strategy and the victory strategy. How could this speech miss? Just when our anticipation was piqued, a junior major came to the microphone to address the 200 some TTs on their way. Really? A major? Imagine a trombone squeezing out a WAA-WAAAA. Not that we needed the pep talk, but he was outranked by 1/3 or the audience. Oh that’s right, it was a 4-day weekend. Veterans day.

20 hour plane rides are a good time. You get to find ouy who has overactive sweat glands and who hates other people, and who thinks What Happens in Vegas starring Ashton Kutcher is a really really funny movie. Shocking. Other than the deep lingering disappointment that was everyone’s when a 30 something steward with a lisp took the place of the imagined comforting wife/mother figure stewardess we were hoping for, the flight was wonderful. They tell me that the seven movies that were played were all dubbed and lame. Apparently the lines aren’t as effective when the hero is called a “Son of a biscuit” by the villain. Of course, I slept the whole way, so I can’t really comment.

Next stop: somewhere...


When you graduate the Fort Riley Training Mission and are granted the non-existent but still impressive title of “Combat Advisor,” you are rewarded with a final bit of leave home prior to heading out. For us, this was short, too short, but this is always the case.

The pre-deployment leave is a desperate, uncomfortable type of leave. With the impending separation looming large the entire period is spent in a hushed anxiety with stifled emotion. The elephant in the room puts everyone on edge. You try and assuage the fears, and this is most easily accomplished by trying to change the subject. Confrontation is avoided as much as possible with all those around you. In this setting, one assumes that no frustration is worth a fight so more often than not, everyone agrees with everyone. Using that as a template, perhaps we should deploy both houses of Congress to Afghanistan in the hopes that they all shake hands smile, hug, kiss, and agree on everything before departing.

Such a conciliatory attitude makes the pre-deployment conversations difficult at times. When people tell me what we should be doing, my instinct is to politely ask them to “shut the f*#! up, and sit there for two hours while I explain what I know of Afghanistan.” What an obscure country with an even more obscure mission. This is why veterans don’t discuss their experiences with their families. It’s not that he will have a Born on the Fourth of July style meltdown, pee his pants, and start screaming at the heavens. Instead, the problem is just that no one knows enough to even buy-in to your conversation. The ante is too great. No one knows what FOB, ETT, PMT, PRT, DoS, M1151, RG33, DFAC, MWR, HMFIC or any of the three million acronyms and jargon we use mean. Beyond the language, the reference just isn’t there. To have a topical free and easy conversation about this, I need to have someone who actually KNOWS Afghanistan. It’s a world away, and maybe I’m not the best at communicating it. If you’re reading this blog though, keep heart, and as the tour rolls on, I hope to at least partially educate (used loosely).

There are too many responsibilities on your final leave. Too many people to see, too many hands to shake, and too memories to create. You want to spend quality time with every individual that you care about, but the calendar simply won’t cooperate. The time is spread a little to thinly. Really, you miss out on the depth with that one individual of whom you’re thinking about the most. You realize though that even if you had more time, the looming deployment would keep the conversations much the same. More difficult than the amount of people, is the tone of each encounter. The urgency of each meeting is palpable and you try to turn each moment into a golden one. More often than not, they turn out to be very bronze and sometimes aluminum.

Eventually, the visit comes to a head right around the last day, and nearly all the pretense of normalcy is dropped. Very few people I know or have ever met have a screenwriter who lives in their head that relays to their mouth killer lines to deliver at the perfect moment. Instead, people say exactly what is necessary with as little window dressing as possible. Here’s an example of a final goodbye:

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too. Don’t worry, I’ll email or call as soon as I can.”

“Be safe.”

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Every family's got one

International drug smuggler that is- every family has one of those. The New York Times is reporting on the long rumored connection between Karzai's baby brother and heroin.The least we could do is make a go at the silver lining and back the good guy international drug smugglers, Wali Karzai, against the bad guys.

This is neither the first, nor the last, of the comically tragic tales of Afghan corruption. TT's personal favorite involves former Farah province governor, Ezatullah Wasefi, who has spent time in a Nevada state penitentiary for, what else: drugs.