Winter at West Point

I just wanted to share the stark yet mesmerizing winter beauty of West Point. Although it has been many years for me, my oldest son is now living the experience. While this scene will soon be replaced with hints of spring, it really captures the essence of West Point – at times harsh but forever a source of strength for the Corps of Cadets, for the Army, and for the Nation.

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Refresh and Restart

Happy New Year! How time flies when one is busy with life. I returned from Afghanistan just over a year ago and I have not been keeping up. So, I have tried to refresh my site with a new, cleaner theme, and renew my commitment to start writing again. I am trying to encourage my boys to write as well so I have to put up or shut up. That said, I will try to post periodic updates in a continuing effort to share my experiences and thoughts with family and friends.

I was fortunate to be able to finish my assignment at the Army College working with one of the distance education seminars, helping them complete the course and graduate last summer. Although I spent just over a year of my time deployed, the five wonderful years (for family) at Carlisle Barracks was the longest assignment I have had in my 27 years of service. We really loved it there as it was a small, family oriented community, rich in history and progressive in its focus on educating our future senior leaders. I found the work to be intellectually engaging and rewarding at the same time. While I admit that I probably learned more from the faculty I worked with and students I taught, I am content that I was able to make some lasting contributions to the institution. An institution that I believe is increasingly important as we “down-size” the force (more to follow on this topic) and look to an uncertain national security future.

Anyway – a busy last summer sending our oldest off to West Point for Summer 2011 “Beast Barracks” and moving the family to a new assignment in southeastern (tidewater) Virginia. I now work in the new US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Headquarters in Fort Eustis, Virginia. We found a beautiful home and neighborhood in Yorktown close to my work and in the heart of “America’s Historic Triangle.” So, we welcome family and friends who can visit – enjoy!

Some scenes from the last several months.

The boys at Christmas in Virginia, December 2011.

Robby with brothers and friends at the Army-Navy game in Washington, DC, December 2011.

The "usual suspects" - brothers Ryan, Robert, John David, and Richard in Colorado, October 2011. Who do you think looks the oldest?

Grandpa, Robert and niece Haley at the farm in Colorado, October 2011.

West Point Class of 2015 March-Back from Lake Frederick and the official end to Beast Barracks, August 2011.

4th of July, 2011 at Lake Owassa. Laura at the helm with Charlie, Tanner, Stephen, Maddy and Susan with the big hat.

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Home Again

I apologize for not posting for some time now. I can’t honestly say I’ve been too busy – just spending time do other things since I returned home in mid October 2010.

Things at ISAF HQ were spinning fast up until the time I departed, and no doubt continue to spin for my predecessor and the new ISAF team that started their tours the latter half of 2010.

Since returning home I have taken some time off to be with family, thoroughly enjoyed the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and have settled back into a routine teaching our future senior leaders at the US Army War College. While it was a privilege to serve in Afghanistan, it is certainly great to be home!

Enjoying one last alcohol-free beer during Octoberfest in Kabul before returning home.

Almost home – McDonald’s at Ali-Al Salem, Kuwait.

Back at West Point with the boys for my 25th Reunion.

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Afghan Elections – 18 September 2010

Today Afghanistan held Parliamentary elections. Despite widespread insurgent threats to shut down the process, over 5,000 polling stations were open and Afghans exercised their right to vote. Violence occurred in a few different locations but had little significant impact on the conduct of the elections.

Actually, things started getting interesting just before midnight last night when Kabul experienced trimmers from a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. My living accommodations are in a cement building that also serves as a bunker but the trimmer was large enough to shake the entire structure; about 30 seconds of watching my room and the wardrobe within shake like it contained a Bogart (any Harry Potters fans out there?). Then, at approximately 0300 am this morning, an explosion occurred just outside of the HQ ISAF compound in Kabul. It is believed to be a rocket attack, but again, no real effect from the attempt to discredit the state of security in Kabul which is very good.

“Afghans across much of the country voted Saturday in the face of Taliban threats and scattered acts of violence that marred – but did not seriously disrupt – the parliamentary election.” (Voice of America News, ‘Afghan Polls Close, Scattered Violence Kills 14,’ 18 Sep 2010)

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Old-fashioned American Burgers at Camp Eggers

Every Sunday afternoon a special event occurs at Camp Eggers, home base of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A). Soldiers from the Kabul area descend on the camp to partake in a lunch that features homemade, real USDA ground beef, char-grilled hamburgers. It may be hard to understand the hype surrounding such an event but let me tell you, it is an experience every US soldier assigned in the Kabul area needs to try. The burgers themselves are a masterful work of art. Perhaps a half pound each, they are grilled to perfection over a huge open grille outside where patrons can enjoy their meal under the shade of picnic table umbrellas and trees while basking in the glorious wafts of smoke from the grille. It really makes you feel like you’re back home enjoying a backyard bar-b-que. Of course, the cold beer is missing but hey, we are in a war zone.

Brave and very confident Afghan Security Guards who are not afraid to have their pictures taken.

The five US of 14 assigned to the ISAF HQ Afghan Assessment Group enroute to an All-American Lunch at Camp Eggers.

Check out the size of the burger - enjoy!

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Kabul Stampede

COMISAF provides a good analogy for the mission in Afghanistan. I know my Dad will appreciate this. . .

STAMPEDE by Frederic Remington

Frederick Remington’s seminal painting, “Stampede” is symbolic of the challenges we face in Kabul. I use this painting to describe what we do. I use this image to tell you what I am comfortable with. The painting depicts an outrider galloping at full tilt over rough terrain at the height of a violent storm while steering a willful mount and guiding a sometimes frightened and unthinking herd to its destination. It represents getting the job done despite the challenges. Some of these cattle will get out ahead of us – that’s fine we will catch up. Some cattle fall back and we will have to circle back and get them – that’s fine – we will bring them on. We must be comfortable with this environment of uncertainty, challenge, risk, danger, and competing agendas. We need to accept it. But we need to do more than simply hang onto the saddle. We must master our mount and we must flourish in the apparent chaos and competing ends.

I am comfortable with this. It is a privilege to be part of the “Kabul Stampede” – kick on!

General David Petraeus
Commander, International Security Assistance Force

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A Hero Retires

Friday, 23 July 2010 marked the retirement of General Stanley McChrystal. I have no doubt that he will be fondly remembered as an American hero who stepped up to make things happen when his country called. General McChrystal is an Intelligent, tough, focused and visionary leader who made significant contributions that helped us win the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, and definitely turned the tide in Afghanistan before his untimely resignation last June 2010.

Read General McChrystal’s retirement comments.

Over the past decade, no single American has inflicted more fear and more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies than Stan McChrystal. . . Commanding special operation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Stan was a pioneer in creating a revolution in warfare that fused intelligence and operations. . . and crushed al-Qaida.

Honorable Robert M. Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense

His frank and candid appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan in August 2009 and subsequent justification for more resources and the development and initiation of a reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign is now starting to reap dividends. Investment in increased security, governance and development is starting to net results – especially in areas where combined and joint Afghan and Coalition Forces are being committed in large numbers. While governance is taking root more slowly than security, we are beginning to see the establishment of a government presence in areas just six months ago were under Taliban control. Expanding security in key population areas, especially in the southern heartland of the insurgency (Central Helmand and Kandahar Provinces), is hard and slow but partnered Afghan security forces and Coalition Forces are making progress. Although there is much work to be done and many hard days, months, and even years ahead, conditions in July 2010 are dramatically different from last summer at this time and I believe they will be significantly improved by July 2011.

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Fête Nationale

This morning we had a brief ceremony to recognize and celebrate “Fête Nationale” or French National Day. It is the official national day of France. While it is also known as Bastille Day (anniversary of storming the Bastille in 1789), it actually celebrates the anniversary of the Fête de la Fédération that occurred on 14 July 1790 (one year after the storming of the Bastille).

The huge feast and official event celebrated the establishment of the short-lived constitutional monarchy in France and what many people at the time considered the conclusion of the French Revolution. The popular speaker at the event was none other than General Marquis de la Fayette. It was also attended by a delegation from the United States (can you name the Americans present?)

Why a “short-lived” constitutional monarchy? Ever hear of a little guy named Napoleon? By 1799 Napoleon seized control of the government and proceeded to take France and much of Europe on a wild ride until he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. But enough history. . .

This morning’s ceremony featured the raising of the French flag over the ISAF Headquarters, a smart formation of French soldiers who sang a strong and soldierly rendition of the “La Marseillaise”, and a speech by a good friend and the ISAF Chief of Plans, Brigadier General Christophe de Saint Chamas, of the French Army.

Raising the French flag over the ISAF HQ, 14 July 2010, in recognition of French 'National Day'

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COMISAF Letter to the Troops

Today ISAF held a dignified Assumption of Command Ceremony to formally recognize General David H. Petraeus as the new commander. Most interesting was the opening with prayers from a Muslim cleric who sang and then from a pastor who delivered a traditional Christian innvocation. It was a bright and hot day that went as planned – no attacks or attemts to steal the moment as one might suspect the insurgents would try (despite continuing threats). But the Afghan lead and executed security in Kabul is actually very good.

It was also instructive to listen to the General’s speech to see a master communicator and messenger at work. General Petraeus has been very focused and engaged concerning strategic communication. While he has affirmed that the ISAF strategy and plan will remain the same, I believe he will take certain areas, like public affairs, to a new and improved level.

See General Petraeus’ Letter to the Troops.

“As President Obama and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen have noted, my assumption of command represents a change in personnel, not a change in policy or strategy,” Petraeus said. “To be sure, I will, as any new commander should, together with ISAF, Afghan, and diplomatic partners, examine our civil-military effort to determine where refinements might be needed.”

“I feel privileged to be joining this critical effort at such a pivotal time,” Petraeus said. “We are engaged in a tough fight. After years of war, we have arrived at a critical moment. We must demonstrate to the Afghan people, and to the world, that Al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world. And with the surge in ISAF forces and the growth of our Afghan partners, we have a new opportunity to do just that. ” – General David Petraeus, 4 July 2010

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Returning to a Different ISAF

Much has changed since I left the ISAF HQ for a conference in the Netherlands and some Rest and Recuperation or R&R leave (as the Army calls it) in early June. I returned to Kabul, Afghanistan from leave today and the staff is preparing to receive the newly nominated ISAF Commander, General David Petraeus. His Congressional confirmation is scheduled to be held this next week and we expect him to arrive in Afghanistan by the end of the week.

Without trying to second guess why President Obama accepted General McChrystal’s resignation – beyond that which was very succinctly stated by the President himself, I would like to share with you some of my views. . . About General McChrystal and the team of highly qualified professionals I have had the privilege to work with the last eight months in Afghanistan and about the article that sparked the controversy leading to this past week’s events.

We need to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere. We will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan security from within, and launch attacks against innocent men, women, and children in our country and around the world.

So make no mistake: We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.

That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall; that is the policy that we are carrying out, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama, 23 June 2010

While no one man alone can run a war, much of the positive change experienced this past year in Afghanistan can be directly attributed to General McChrystal. He took command at a pivotal time and was able to build upon the strong foundation General McKiernan started putting in place during his tenure in 2008 to 2009. General McChrystal’s drive and energy invigorated the command. He brought a new perspective and appreciation for the complexity of counterinsurgency to theater that concurrently drove and reinforced the notion that it was time for the US and the world to make Afghanistan a priority. In short order, the commander conducted his initial assessment, helped to revise the strategy and secure necessary resources, update the plan, and begin executing a more comprehensive population centric COIN campaign designed to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat in the region and bolster the Afghan Government’s ability to deal with the Taliban insurgency and provide a stable and secure country. Although many resources and troop surge levels will continue to increase through the summer, we are starting to see indications that the strategy is working and the Afghans are starting to benefit. The progress may be slow in some areas (e.g. increased governance capacity and ability to deliver basic services), but there are other areas like security where we have arrested, and in some cases, reversed the trends. ISAF momentum is clearly starting to build.

Everyone should read the Rolling Stone article titled, “The Runaway General,” that led to General McChrystal’s resignation. Please read it and think about the strategic implications – that one reporter with a clear agenda is able to bring about such a dramatic change that will certainly have a short term impact on the mission in Afghanistan and perhaps even a long term impact on US national security. The Taliban will use this opportunity to claim they are closer to victory and pronounce that this civilian and military division shows that they are winning and this change of command is an indication that political support for the war in Afghanistan is unraveling. They will take advantage of the fact that most people will not necessarily read and see the article for what it is, but instead, will blindly take for fact what is inaccurately reported by other news media who too easily endorse what has been written and reported as fact. While every reporter is entitled to an opinion, the Rolling Stone reporter took it too far by spinning a tale rather than doing an honest personal profile (if that’s what he said to get access in the first place).

As indicated above, I believe the Rolling Stone reporter had a clear agenda. He wrote an edgy and by design, a shocking story to subvert our efforts in Afghanistan and assassinate the character of honorable military professionals who are doing their best to serve their country and the soldiers they lead. The article mischaracterizes what is taking place in Afghanistan and it misrepresents the character of the individuals it purports to provide insight about – starting with General McChrystal. None of this, however, should be surprising? Does anyone really think that such a reporter has the depth of knowledge and understanding – of the military and national security affairs, to make him a credible and authoritative source? Yet I was dismayed and utterly disappointed at the level of credibility most of the rest of the media ascribed to this self-proclaimed expert during the feeding frenzy that ensued after the story broke. It was sickening to watch. Very few had the courage to question the motivation or the credentials of the reporter. In my opinion, the story was fraught with inaccuracies and certainly void of proper context in a number of areas. It was also surprisingly void of statements directly attributable to General McChrystal.

I have worked very closely with General McChrystal and he is a consummate professional and a great commander. Frankly, he does not have time to disparage the administration – and he never has to my knowledge. And why would he? He fully supports the President’s strategy. Further, it is demonstrated through daily actions on the ground where both military and civilian professionals are working together to implement the strategy. Although I was not present in Paris during the Europe trip cited in the article, I have worked closely with the so-called “aids” who were reported to make disparaging comments. Again, the professionals I know are not like that and are entirely misrepresented. I would be surprised if such comments were really made and have no doubt that if true, were put into a false context that was cleverly contrived by a reporter with an agenda.

There is no question that it was a mistake to give the Rolling Stone reporter such unfettered access. This will become an important case study in all our professional institutions and it will undermine the progress and goodness that has resulted from embedded reporting. But it demonstrates that the military cannot let it’s guard down and must thoroughly examine such offers to help tell an important story.

Every military professional will tell you it is absolutely necessary and appropriate for the President and Commander-in-Chief and our civilian leaders to be confident that their senior military leaders will not publicly disparage their authority – either directly or indirectly. Only because of his deep understanding and commitment to that principle, and because he was in command, and therefore responsible for all actions, is no doubt why Gen McChrystal offered his resignation. He willingly accepted the responsibility for alleged poor judgment exercised by some of his subordinates. I don’t, however, agree with “experts commentators” who argued the President had no choice but to accept his resignation. I’m sure more details will follow but it is a sad day when we let a Rolling Stone article drive such major Presidential decisions. It is also tragic that it takes this type of incident and attention to reinvigorate the dialog about Afghanistan.

The ISAF Command and troops in Afghanistan are under extreme pressure to produce the impossible on a unrealistic timeline. Having said that, I believe we can win this if we can sustain the real progress we have started to achieve this year. Is progress slower than we would like? Of course it is; slow, hard and necessary. Think of the long term implications for the enduring safety and security of the US. Think of the frustration of many Afghans who are also impatient after the last nine years. This change in command is a set-back that I’m sure we can recover from. It will undoubtedly interrupt momentum that has started to build this year. Our current focus in the ISAF headquarters is to do everything we can to keep the momentum building and to set the conditions for a successful endstate – despite the self-inflicted hurdles and challenges we face.

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