Friday, August 5, 2011

Lessons learned from the Afghan front

By Lt. Col. David Simons,
Director of Public Affairs, 165th Airlift Wing, Georgia Air National Guard
Published by the Savannah Morning News
August 5, 2011

On Dec. 31, 2010, I landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to start a six-month tour as the Director of Public Affairs for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

It was a valuable learning experience that taught me much and one that I hope not to repeat too soon.

There were good days, but the bad days were much more plentiful. The hours were long, the living conditions frightful and every drive was fraught with danger.

And sadly, I had it better than most who serve in Afghanistan. But that said, the mission is critical for victory.

The following are some of the lessons I learned:

The mission of NTM-A is to train the Afghan army, police and air force and prepare them to secure and stabilize their attempt as a democracy. For America and the NATO allies to leave victorious, a successful transition is a must. Success can only be claimed if the next generation of Afghans can lead, and lead on their own.

Fortunately, they are moving at a fairly quick pace as the first seven locales have already moved to the role of Afghan-led security. However, the downside is that they may not move quick enough to achieve the gains necessary for country-wide security before the money runs out. For now, Afghanistan doesn’t have the financial resources to sustain their new army, police and air force.

Gen. David Petraeus, International Security Assistance Force Commander, may be one of the brightest people I have met and listened to. Most mornings I sat in a video teleconference of his daily briefing and the breadth of his commentary and questions makes one realize one isn’t the smartest person in the room.

There is a reason that he is a four-star general and was commander of all the forces in Operation Enduring Freedom during my tour. He has since become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. I was also highly impressed with Georgia native, Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of NTM-A. There are reasons that these men are leading our country’s finest and our allies’ finest. They are just plain brighter and more experienced than the rest of us.

The United States really does have the best soldiers, equipment, pay, motivation and commitment to duty. As a former Special Forces soldier I have worked alongside and trained foreign troops. But in a high-level international command, the parity becomes less prevalent but is still very much there, and the difference between Afghan forces and ISAF forces is night and day.

We Americans can be very proud of the men and women we send to fight for us. They truly are the unsung heroes of our lives.

Family and friends make the time bearable but painful. With their packages, cards, phone calls and prayers, they make our time in a war zone much more bearable. But as most of us know, leaving loved-ones, friends and family is always painful. But I am the first to realize, you can’t have a good homecoming until you leave.

The axiom, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” is very true. Every drive is potentially your last drive as the weapon of choice for the insurgents is the improvised explosive device.

Those big road-size bombs can render your vehicle destroyed and the passengers dead. And while you take all the precautions possible short of just not doing the mission, the possibility of injury and death surround you at every moment. It makes most soldiers that much more spiritual in their beliefs, prayers much more common and chaplains that much more popular.

It’s hard to trust a friend when they keep shooting you. One of the major problems we faced at NTM-A was the very few Afghan army and police trainees that had a bad day or a bad life and chose to shoot the trainers.

Over the past five years, there have been more than 50 coalition forces killed via impersonation or combat stressors. The loss of one trainer’s life in these situations, where trust has to be the catalyst for the training, can dissolve the cohesiveness and unity of effort.

When nine Americans were massacred at Kabul International Airport by an Afghan Reserve Air Force officer, it was easily the worst day of my life. With every major media outlet wanting the gruesome details, it was extremely painful to know how the innocent American trainers died.

What was worse was the aftermath of the murders. Their compatriots grieved and tried to piece the shattered trust with those they had to train back together.

Overall, I learned much about myself, my God, my friends and my family. I was proud to serve and I was rewarded for my efforts. In the end, the most important thing is I returned home with honor. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Lt. Col. David Simons lives in Savannah and served as the Director of Public Affairs for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. He is a member of the 165th Airlift Wing, Georgia Air National Guard.

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