Saturday, September 10, 2011


'A friend of mine gave me a puzzle and I want you to help me out.' I said to him, 'Is this the time for puzzles, Mohamed?' He said, 'Yes, I know, but no one else but you could help me.' He said, 'Two sticks, a dash and cake with a stick down. What is it?' I said, 'Did you wake me up just to tell me this?'

That was the telephone call from Mohamed Atta to Ramzi bin al-Shibh giving the date in code, after Ramadan, on a Tuesday so Congress would be in session, for carrying out what was then called the “planes operation”, conceived in 1995 by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

It is now 10 years since 9-11 - the cake with stick down and two dashes. I’m in Afghanistan. 115 miles from the camps where they trained. For the next three weeks, I'll be in Kandahar - the city where bin Laden authorized the operation - in 1998.

Almost none of Al Qaeda's original planners or leaders are still alive or free. Not Atta, not bin Laden, not Al-Shibh and not KLM. The franchise still exists and strives to be potent - and after the Arab Spring - relevant. It now appears long on intention and short on ability to carry out. But it still requires our vigilance and our use of force.

Similarly, the Taliban and criminal groups that we are fighting here today are very, very different than the Taliban we defeated in 2001. Most of today's fighters were 6, 8, 10 years old on 9-11. The date has no meaning to them. Their animus is rooted in a different narrative.

Of over 700,000 Afghan military age males (18 to 28) who could be participating in the insurgency, our best estimate is 12-15,000. Nearly 80% of the population rejects the Taliban and their aims. Even fewer welcome the "Sunni Arab" foreigners - Al Qaeda. But this is still a place of turmoil and instability. As they say, "you have the watches, but we have the time."

On this anniversary, I'm thinking about over 2 million Americans who have served in uniform and their families: 6236 of whom have given it all. The historic misuse of a world religion to justify vicious political aims. An estimated 1 million civilian deaths, 2977 of which were ten years ago today. An examination and re-affirmation of many of our nation's core values... and then, combat-decorated veterans who also have to take off their boots in the airport. The opportunity cost of three trillion dollars committed. And a generation-defining event that seems not to stop challenging us to fulfill the promise of America.

I'm also thinking today about a friend and classmate Mary Lou Hague, UNC ’96. She was working on the 89th floor of the South Tower. Radiant, generous, accomplished, fun-loving. With entirely too much life left to live.

Finally, I'm thinking about what you're supposed to tell your children. The shadow 9-11 casts over their lives. That we live in a great country and enjoy many blessings. But that it is a dangerous world. That their innocence isn't universal. That twenty or thirty years from now, they will have inherited some part of the legacy of how we responded. And at least for their sake, we have to keep honoring, learning, striving and building.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Deploying to Afghanistan

I wanted to take a minute to post a short note letting you know that I’m heading to Afghanistan to serve with Fort Bragg’s 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). While I’m not going to be posting blog updates like the deployment to Iraq (different security issues), I did want to share a little about what I’m doing before I go.

From its inception – ten years ago next month – US military involvement in Afghanistan has been based on or incorporated classic unconventional warfare, the expertise of Army Special Forces. As articulated by two Presidents, our end-state is an Afghanistan that denies safe haven to transnational terrorists and that enables its people to determine their own destiny. Our tactics have involved partnerships with internal groups (originally the Northern Alliance, now many more) to carry out our national goals.

While the numbers of US and allied troops have grown significantly over the last three years, at its core, our mission still requires localized, indigenous, “grassroots” partnerships and still falls squarely within the doctrinal expertise of the relatively small number of Special Forces. Stability can only take root “one tribe at a time” and one village at a time; Afghanistan has no history of meaningful, effective central government.

The primary command that carries out the unconventional warfare mission is the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan (“CJSOTF-A”). Under CJSOTF-A are the Army Green Beret detachments (called “ODAs”) and Navy SEAL platoons that operate with a mix of other forces and other governmental organizations on the “one village at a time” mission. In their words: CJSOTF-A conducts Foreign Internal Defense by training, working and living among Afghan security forces to build capacity to defeat insurgents in Afghanistan and enhance the security and continued development of the Government. Special Operations Forces (“SOF”) are also involved in empowering elders and their constituents at the local village level to help embolden them to provide security for their areas, as well as to increase development and infrastructure.

What will I be doing in this mix? I’ll serve as the Deputy Command Judge Advocate – one of the two lawyers – for CJSOTF-A and likely be involved in the full spectrum of things that Army Judge Advocates do in combat zones (operations, detention, rule of law, investigations, money as a weapons system, etc.). And, it looks like I may have some involvement with a Task Force directly conducting “Village Stability Operations” in a part of the country. Since last summer, I have spent a lot of time back and forth from Fort Bragg supporting this – and related – missions. I have a high degree of confidence in – and respect for – the people I’ll be working with.

It will be most especially difficult to be away from Elizabeth, Caroline and Will over the next couple of months – and we’re very grateful for the many well-wishes. I already miss them terribly from steamy Fort Benning. But we were pregnant with Caroline on that horrifying September day ten years ago. If I can play some small role in helping make a world safer for her and for Will – and their generation – the time will be worth it. Given the stakes for our country, I am compelled to try.

And I’ll be home again soon.

A Little Bit About Afghanistan

I’ve been fascinated to delve into the briefing materials from various sources about Afghanistan and thought I’d share.

Afghanistan is 150th on a list of 154 countries for being least developed on a host of key metrics. The GDP is close to $115 per person, per year (that is not a typo). Foreign aid is the single biggest economic engine. The country has no more than 20 miles of railroad track and 5000 miles of improved road (NC alone has nearly 80,000 miles in state-maintained roads, not including county, local and interstate). Afghanistan has an approximate population of 30 million people – double the population it had in 1980. Forty (40) percent are under the age of sixteen (16). One in five children dies before the age of five (5). The median life expectancy is forty-three (43) years old. (I’ll turn 38 en route).

Afghanistan is made up of many, many ethnic groups and tribes including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and many smaller groups. An artificial line divides Afghanistan from Pakistan (the Durant line drawn in the 1890s). While Afghanistan is run by Pashtuns (approximately 40 percent of the population), twice as many Pashtuns live across the “border” in Pakistan (approximately 12 million in Afghanistan and 27 million in Pakistan). While it is said that the people of Afghanistan identify themselves as citizens of that state, the stronger ties apparently begin at the village, tribe and ethnic group (including across the borders) and extend to the super-national identification with Islam. Yet, even within the tribes, family members are known to take up arms against fellow family members from time to time.

As noted in a very detailed analysis of Afghan Pashtun fighters and their tactics in battles with coalition forces: “they almost never surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds and almost certain death.” However, if a Pashtun village takes you in as its guest – even an American Soldier – they will extend the same ferocity in your defense, including against other Pashtuns. This seemingly contradictory set of values is known as the Pashtunwali.

In a country that is as under-developed, impoverished, fragmented, decentralized, artificially drawn and culturally remote as Afghanistan, our pathway to strategic success must require alignment of these deeply embedded Pashtunwali values with our own.