Thursday, December 2, 2010

Operation Check Dam

Dr. John Groninger walks through the valley of the Mashi Kalay village among members of the
3-19th Agribusiness Development Team and local villagers.

If a Veteran from the Korean or Vietnam era were to find himself suddenly thrust into a modern battlefield, you might imagine he would find some significant changes in the way war is waged in today’s everchanging world.  Among the multitude of differences he might find would be advanced communications platforms, weapon systems used to engage the enemy, and new transportation methods.  But, quite possibly the most difficult for him to grasp would be that of joint operations.
The sole fact that I am writing this blog as a US Air Force Air National Guardsman deployed with an Army National Guard unit makes this a “joint mission”.  While I can’t honestly say I remember a whole lot about the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, I do know my very being here is a direct result of the legislation.  Prior to this reorganization, each service within the Dept of Defense operated as it’s own entity.  As you might imagine this didn’t always make for the most efficient of military operations.  (Yes, I just used efficient and military in the same sentence, perhaps I’ve been reading a bit too much of the current deficit reduction committee’s recommendations.)
In a battlefield as complex as the one we find ourselves in currently, coordination among all branches of service and coalition forces is crucial.  When these different entities fail to communicate, we are forced to learn the hard way through the loss of innocent life in that of civilian casualties or friendly fire accidents.  The patch we wear on our left sleeves reads “ISAF”- a symbol of hope for the local Afghan people. According to the NATO website, there are currently 42 different countries contributing troops to this International Security Assistance Force.
Here on FOB Salerno there are probably only 5-6 different countries represented, miniscule in
Dr. John Groninger and I in our MRAP during
Operation Check Dam on 11-24-2010
comparison to a place like Bagram Airfield that could easily be mistaken for the United Nations Headquarters.  In addition to these coalition militaries, you’ll also find quite a broad cross-section of different US government agencies. If you were to count the number of USDA and State Dept folks here currently you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that DC’s population went down in the last census!
I took my first bite of the joint mission apple a little over a week ago.  You all know the concept of an Agribusiness Development Team by now, we’re old news.  However, we also share the stage here in the Khowst Province with another unique team with a specialized mission- the Khowst Provincial Reconstruction Team.  PRT’s typically focus more on brick and mortar construction projects as well as governance issues as they bring a staff heavy in engineering and  civil affairs backgrounds.  The 3-19th ADT Commander- a US Army Colonel, and the PRT Khowst Commander- US Navy Commander have pledged to join forces on many future missions in an effort to maximize their effectiveness and development footprint. 
Our first mission together (Operation Check Dam) would lead us to the village of Mashi Kalay in the southern tip of the Garbaz District, only 1km from the Pakistani border.  The 2-19th ADT, our predecessors, originally met with the village leadership in May of last year to address concerns of violent flooding in the area and a growing wadi (remember that word?  If not, it’s a dried out river bed- note several posts back) in the village.  Before we on the 3-19th ADT decided to plan a mission back to assess the watershed; we decided it’d be wise to invite our friends from PRT Khowst.  Afterall, they do have civil engineers on-board who are eager to help. 
The drive from FOB Salerno to Mashi Kalay is quite scenic as you often find yourself in the middle of giant mountain switchbacks as you make your final climb into the border village.  The nearly two hour drive (thank goodness for extra seat-cushions) also gave me a great opportunity to get to know another one of our passengers, Dr. John Groninger from Southern Illinois University.  Groninger is currently working as a part of a USAID-funded Afghanistan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer Project in which he travels throughout eastern Afghanistan in an effort to gather samples of native trees. Through the use of a specialized increment borer, Groninger extracts a cross-section of a living tree to take home for further research. Results of this research assist engineers and agricultural experts in planning future projects.  Hydrological data is not currently available for many parts of Afghanistan, but through research such as Dr. Groninger’s, future projects in this region should have a better understanding of hydrological impacts. 
The Mashi Kalay village elder and I before
we began our meeting
As we arrived into the border village, I couldn’t help but notice the border police check points scattered on the mountainside just several hundred feet away.  The barren terrain that makes up the border of Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is some of the rockiest I’ve ever seen.  It amazes me that any form of life can sustain in such a region, but interestingly enough people have been living here for thousands of years.  Within seconds of hearing our MRAP’s roll into the village, children immediately greeted us in an effort to scavenge anything from a US Soldier.  From pens (you have to hide them in your pockets as if they are visible they will be stolen) to watches and sunglasses; the children all seem to speak impeccable English when soliciting a hand-out.
A few minutes after our arrival we were informed that the village elder was enroute to greet our delegation and walk us over to survey the wadi where all of the heavy flooding had previously occurred.   As the man claiming to be the elder approached I couldn’t help but note how relatively young he was and how well dressed he was. As we surveyed the area, I stayed out of the way in an effort to allow the experts room to operate. Anyone who remembers my struggles with calculus can appreciate my yielding of the engineering work to the professionals.  The two engineers we were loaned from PRT Khowst; one a Navy Lt. Commander and another with the US Army Corp of Engineers, were a perfect complement to our internal hydrologist, Captain Randy Cuyler.

Following the assessment of the wadi, the village leader led us partially up one of the hills facing the border and offered us a seat (on the ground) around a beautiful room-sized rug.  He then removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on the rug and invited us to do the same.  (Following our interpreter and cultural advisor’s lead I didn’t take my shoes off, but did manage to pretzel my legs into something that resembled the elder’s positioning)  Once again, I couldn’t help but marvel at the similar concepts- half a world away -that the elder wanted to discuss.  The obvious problem at hand was the watershed issue, but other discussion topics such as education and unemployment dominated much of our meeting together just as they might have with a local official in Indiana.
Conducting a key leader engagement with
the village elders of the Mashi Kalay village
At the same time our meeting was going on, nearly thirty other members of our team were simultaneously completing other tasks within the village.  From our medics treating local children to our intelligence officer holding discussions with random villagers, a very complex operation was under way.  Unfortunately for Dr. Groninger the only trees he encountered in the village were gurgura trees.  His repeated attempts to utilize his increment borer came up short as the wood was some of the hardest he had ever encountered.  This tool is normally sufficient to borer into the hardest of oaks we have back in the United States, but apparently not tough enough for these rugged trees that have dotted this mountainous border region for centuries.
Our trip home would provide a little more of a chance to engage with some of the PRT engineers and also learn about Dr. Groninger’s work a bit more.  The highlight of our conversation came as Groninger and I were comparing Indiana and Illinois’ hardwoods industries. Of course I’m a bit partial to Indiana’s business climate, but it was very interesting to hear about the stark contrasts to the industry in Illinois as a direct result of certain state policies.  After dropping the PRT members off over at their base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, the participants of Operation Check Dam wrapped up what would now be known as the 3-19th ADT’s most complex operation to date.

Operation Check Dam included participants from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force as well the US Army Corp of Engineers and finally a civilian forestry expert.  While the concept of an agricultural operation may seem quite basic, the planning and logistics required for so many entities to take part is astounding.  Both the PRT and ADT have full-time operations staff that plan these missions days in advance and continue to work with the mission participants after mission completion to conduct debriefs and compile lessons learned.
What a way we’ve come since the days of a single service conducting missions on their own.  Just thirty short years ago the Dept of Defense suffered from negative publicity as a result of poorly executed joint operations missions in Iran, Lebanon, and Grenada.  The possibility of conducting a mission such as “Operation Check Dam” is only because of these lessons learned.  A sincere thank-you to all who have gone before us in joint operations mishaps, your sacrifice paved the way...

While there were dozens of children anxiously following our every move from the moment we exited the MRAPS,
this little guy would not leave my side.  The orangish crust in his hair is a customary henna hair dye.

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