21 October 2014

Engineering and SeaBeeing in Kabul

It looked just like "the point of the mountain," a colloquialism in Utah for the Jordan Narrows, Draper, and the boundary between Salt Lake and Utah Counties.

The similarities-- geographic-- are uncanny. But the architecture is other-worldly, to me. The suburbs of Kabul are like an ancient mockery of South San Francisco-- tightly-packed row houses in dingy pastels cubed together in neatly lined streets that defy the mountain terrain.

The flight from Bagram Airfield to the place called NKC (New Kabul Compound) was about 15 minutes. I may have written before, and I will certainly write it again-- a Black Hawk flight will always be cool. Only two of us left the bird at NKC, and CPT Packer was there to greet me.

I was invited (read, "ordered") here to cover an important milestone in the westernization of the Afghan military. A special engineer unit of the Afghan National Army constructed a Mabey Johnson bridge. Now I'm not sure how momentous that is in the grand scheme of the War on Radical Islam, but it's a big enough deal to send me up to cover it. 

And I think it's kind of a big deal because it's a concrete step toward Afghan self-sufficiency. The larger mission of getting these guys to operate independently is really the culmination of thousands of these steps. And too often Soldiers forget that the step doesn't just happen because we are telling the other guys that we are leaving and they'll have to do it on their own. 

If I tried that approach in a high school math class ("Better learn this stuff or you'll be screwed next year in Trig!") without actually teaching, evaluating, and reteaching, I'd be fired.

Imagine how difficult it would be to stand up a modern Army along American lines. Or, just read the news about Afghanistan and you'll get a pretty good idea. Of course, culture and language are easy scapegoats, but the sheer monstrosity of the task is the biggest challenge. 

We're asking them to build an organization of a half a million personnel, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of totally foreign equipment, develop systems from scratch, and oh, fight a war while they're doing it. 

Robert Gates notes glibly in his memoir (I've got an only slightly lame "review" of it here) about similar phenomena in Iraq and Afghanistan. He complained about American politicians' impatience with the governments in our two war zones, and pointed out that it has taken the U.S. a couple hundred years to get some of these systems working. And Congress is still as dysfunctional as ever!

War can be a crucible to make things happen quickly, too. But if left to their own devices, these guys would fight it the old fashioned way-- the way we asked them to fight the soviets. Isn't that interesting? 

Anyway, it's fascinating to catch a glimpse of what "Train, Advise, and Assist" really means in one particular unit. Today it means that an engineer company can complete a fairly complicated, if routine, task on its own once ISAF leaves.

Maybe the reason this was so successful is because the Navy did it. It was a Navy Mobile Construction Battalion that got the ANA engineers up and running. Fun fact: The name, "Seabees" comes from CB (construction battalion). 

I was thoroughly impressed with them. And that's not to take anything away from the engineer Soldiers who advise the ANA brigade, but it has always seemed to me that Sailors are more systematic and particular about things because working at sea has a way of forcing efficiency and reliability. (Karl Weick began his illustrious career in studying reliable organizations on an aircraft carrier). 

Also, I was invited to eat with the honchos. I'm certain it was by accident, but I quite enjoyed the rice nonetheless. 

Tomorrow I fly back to BAF. It's fun being expeditionary for a few days. It was fun hanging out with the guys who wear "Don't Tread on Me" on their shoulders, and it was fun to see Kabul. 

No comments:

Post a Comment