If you engage someone in a conversation about the political and social issues surrounding our possibilities for success in Afghanistan, you’d probably be able to hold a conversation for several hours. During the conversation, I’m sure several topics will come up. For example, you might talk about how the Taliban came to be (including how the US supported the Taliban when looking to thwart the Russians.) You might also talk about the poverty in Afghanistan (and how the poppy trade seems to fuel the insurgency while suffocating the legitimate national economy,) or you might discuss the inequality between the sexes, that stifles free thought among a culture that takes a more strict interpretation of it’s religion than others.
There are lots of different things you could talk about when talking about how the military defines success in Afghanistan.
However, if you are having this conversation with a military officer, they’ll be able to quickly tell you the measure of success: if they’re troops come home alive. Although we’re going there to try to influence the locals to form a solid government of their own, the military is teaching it’s people that the “soft” side of the war (building schools, infrastructure, etc) are the mission, but only if we keep our people alive.
As I go through training here, this fact is underscored during every class. I thought I would get a lot of training on how to win the “hearts and minds.” Although they do teach some classes that are aimed at helping us see the “big picture” in Afghanistan (i.e., how we can someday achieve stability in the region,) clearly the emphasis is on teaching us stuff that is meant to help keep us alive. I sense a pattern in how the classes focus on survival more than “winning the hearts and minds.” Why? Because there’s a reason for it! (Check out today’s news … things are heating up in the ‘stan.)
I can hear it in the voice of the instructors. Many of the sergeants here at Camp Atterbury were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. So, when they tell us stories about what happened to them when it was THEIR turn in the ‘stan, we listen. I really do want to do my best to support my reconstruction team while I’m there, and I’ll do anything my command deems necessary to help the people of Afghanistan. But, rather than me saying that “success” means seeing a noticeable change in our province, I’m content to define success the same way that the military does … I will be happy to serve with honor and come back alive.
As I went through convoy training today, my thoughts were on what to do to ensure I would make it home alive if anything bad happened. Sadly, there never really is a solid checklist of instructions that one can follow during wartime, because every situation is different. The military teaches tactics, but those tactics are only as good as the situation allows it to be. Knowing that my mission is two-fold (to perform my job and to return safely,) I will have to work harder to ensure I focus fair amounts of energy to both. I don’t want to focus so much on defending myself that I neglect my duties (the reason they sent me to the ‘stan.) Meanwhile, I don’t want to get so wrapped up in my work that I forget that I could be attacked.
It’s a fine balance that I’ll have to work on.