Afghanistan Diaries: The Broken Air Conditioner

Afghanistan Diaries: The Broken Air Conditioner

Sam Jacobson: Broken Air Conditioner

Camp Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
July 2010

The non-commissioned officer (NCO) exists so that someone other than the commander can take initiative on questions of unit leadership. Twenty-one-year-old corporals lead infantry squads of a dozen Marines, responsible for extraordinary amounts of firepower: small arms, machine guns, rockets, grenades, mortars, and if requested by radio, artillery and thousands of pounds of ordnance from close air support. And, more importantly in this war, these young corporals and sergeants are out in the villages with their squads, talking with the locals. This empowerment of the junior enlisted ranks enables the Marine Corps to influence a much broader area than the numbers would indicate.

Find a village way out in the boonies, which by any measure should be too far from a coalition base to have any American presence at all, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a Marine platoon living hand-to-mouth at a small, hastily built outpost, on a small patch of dirt circled with sandbags; its only contact with higher headquarters probably hourly radio checks and a few short daily situation reports. And find a family compound in that village, far from the bazaar and even farther from the relative order and safety of the small outpost, and a small string of Marines has no doubt just been through there, drinking chai with the elders and talking about local infrastructure projects. After many hours on patrol, they probably took machine gun fire on their way back to the outpost and had to fight their way out. A few hours later, they do it all again.

I am in constant awe of these college-age Marines, who in many ways are more responsible, and have greater responsibility, than any of their friends back home. It’s a high-stakes game, and their tactical decisions often have strategic consequences. The commander gives his intent and encourages his “strategic corporals” to decide how to execute. When the commander feels useless, it’s because the Marines are doing their jobs. My company commander in Iraq told me and his three other platoon commanders that he trained us ruthlessly so that when we got to Iraq, he could sit back and eat cookies. And he did. It should be every Marine’s goal to put his direct superior out of a job, to give him the breathing room to focus on the big picture. “Sir, I got it.”

If I’ve spent too much time describing the Marine NCO, it’s because I am certain that any small fighting force, anywhere in the world, must have a similar template for decentralization if it’s going to survive.

A year ago, there were six corps in the Afghan National Army, one each in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, Gardez, and Kandahar. Since then a seventh has been added to the ranks, the 215th, based at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province. As a mentor attached to the first of the 215th’s three brigades, I’ve seen the ANA’s biggest challenges amplified in this new unit. Most immediately striking, especially in contrast to the U.S. Marine Corps, is the lack of a functioning NCO. This is more than a personnel issue. It is indicative of a serious problem for a modern army.

Every day except Friday, at 8 a.m., the primary brigade staff, plus a Marine mentor or two, file into a plywood conference room behind the combat operations center we built, for a briefing meeting. The brigade commander, responsible for the thousands of soldiers under his leadership, was on leave in Kabul, as is often the case. In the brigade commanding officer’s absence, the brigade executive officer (XO) took his place at the head of the table. Like the equivalent Marine commander, a full-bird colonel in charge of the regimental, he should be looking forward to large-scale future operations, giving broad brushstroke guidance and conceptual direction to his battalion commanders. He has an army of staffers to deal with the day-to-day running of the brigade. The vast majority of issues won’t—and shouldn’t—reach his desk.

Back to the morning meeting: the Afghan staff section heads take turns briefing. The S-1, the administrative officer who bears an uncanny resemblance to Danny DeVito in Batman, is always first. He stands up and promptly begins to discuss a broken air conditioner for the sleeping tent at a small observation post (one of hundreds of similar observation posts in the area, but, tellingly, the only one that Brigade Headquarters soldiers are required to man) and then sits down. The air conditioner in question is out at Regi Topa, which, so far as anyone can guess, stands for Regimental Tactical Observation Post Alpha. British troops established the post years ago when they were in this area, as over-watch on a heavily IED’d route.

To understand just how alien and absurd the S-1’s brief seemed to me, let’s think about how the Case of the Broken Air Conditioner would have been resolved in a Marine unit. Here’s what would have happened: the Marines would have fixed it. Plain and simple. By hook or by crook, the privates and lance corporals at the outpost would have made it work, their NCO probably none the wiser. If they needed a new part, their corporal would have quietly mentioned this to the company police sergeant, who, in a matter of hours, would procure it. Sergeants make things appear. They’re craftsmen of the “crack deal” in the strange nefarious underworld of barter logistics. You don’t ask questions. If the police sergeant’s search turned up empty, the request for the air conditioner part would have been sent up a more formal chain of command, from the company gunnery sergeant—the police sergeant’s boss—to the battalion logistics chief. There are a number of ways the logistics chief could obtain the part, and quickly, but suffice it to say no one in the battalion outside of the logistics office would ever need to hear about it.

I cannot begin to fathom a scenario where the rest of the battalion staff would need to be briefed on the matter of the broken air conditioner. And for it to make its way up to not only the brigade staff but to the brigade executive officer himself—this would have to be an air conditioner of unparalleled strategic significance.

This is not to say that the small comforts of Afghan soldiers at a spartan outpost aren’t important. They are. But the point is there are hundreds of Afghan soldiers who could have interceded before it reached the level of the brigade XO—junior enlisted, senior enlisted, lieutenants, captains, majors, lieutenant colonels—to say nothing of an NCO corps. The brigade XO, at any rate, when he hears about the broken air conditioner, is just going to turn around and ask us, the Marine mentors, what we can do about it. We tell him that the Marine tent air conditioner at the outpost has been working without fail, and that the Afghan tent air conditioner broke after only a few days. We say that Marines do without air conditioning all the time, and that sometimes soldiers just have to be tough. We explain that this is not the highest priority, but we’ll see what we can do.

If we thought the matter was settled, we were wrong. The brigade S-3 (operations officer), S-4 (logistics officer), and S-6 (communications officer) proceeded to devote their morning briefs to aspects of that same broken air conditioner.

There is an old Marine Corps joke about the salty, no-nonsense gunnery sergeant, one of the senior enlisted NCO ranks that, in an infantry company, helps run the show: a private first class, a corporal, and a gunnery sergeant are police calling a weapons range, picking up expended brass casings, when the PFC rubs against the ammo can and the ghost of Chesty Puller pops out. He agrees to grant them each one wish. The PFC says, “Oh, that’s easy, I want to live on a tropical island with a thousand beautiful girlfriends.” And poof, he disappears, his wish granted. The corporal says, “Ha, I’ve done a pump or two so I know that sand and water are overrated. I want a nice house in the mountains with a woman who loves me, and my truck.” Poof, he disappears, his wish granted. Then the gunny, in his gruff voice, says, “I just want those two knuckleheads back here by 1300 for a working party.”

The Afghan brigade needs a few good gunnies.

The last section head to brief is always the S-6 (communications officer). He reads right off of a PowerPoint slide that he prepared once with the help of a Marine mentor. His main slide features a collage of clip art radios and a TI-86 graphing calculator, instantly recognizable to any American high-school student, though certainly not as communications equipment. His brief is generally limited to a recitation of the number of radio reports the brigade received from the three battalions the previous day, and how many they in turn passed up to the 215th Corps, a fairly meaningless statistic that couldn’t possibly be of interest to the brigade commander.

When the S-6 is done, the brigade’s senior enlisted soldier, the command sergeant major, talks briefly, often about the lack of respect the junior soldiers show him, and how no one showed up for the mandatory physical training that morning. Next, the brigade mullah—a rotund man with a robust, dyed, jet-black beard and hip, black spectacles—speaks, usually on how not everyone came to prayer the day before, and on the meal he didn’t like at the headquarters chow hall. And then the main event, questions for the brigade commander. A free-for-all. An officer stands up and an argument starts. Sammy does his best to translate the rapid-rate invectives. This gist of it: the two soldiers who normally sweep the headquarters office floor are on leave. Who should take their place? Next, the S-2 (intelligence officer), with whom I work most closely, stands up and says, “We have a big problem.” I braced for a report of an anticipated complex ambush, or growing local support for the Taliban, though by now you might suspect that it was going to be something of an altogether different nature. “The intelligence section printers have no color ink left.” The brigade XO nodded, sat pensively, and spoke: “Where is your Marine mentor, and why hasn’t he gotten more color ink for you?”

It’s times like this when I think it would be best to dissolve the brigade staff and send them all down to the battalions to fight as soldiers, to make themselves useful. Instead of, say, three battalions under a brigade and three brigades under a corps, we could have nine battalions under a corps, with a skeleton crew staff. The Marine regiment exists partially to support its subordinate units, to push down assets that aren’t organic to its battalions. But the Afghan brigade officers have neither the assets nor the inclination to provide this support. They are too narrowly focused on their own relatively comfortable existence at Camp Garmsir: the quality of the food at their chow hall, a broken air conditioner at their outpost, color ink for their printers, better cellphone service, more fuel for their generators.

When it’s time for a meal, everything stops. And when the going gets tough, the chai starts flowing. Part of my job is to push the brigade intelligence officer to ask difficult questions. An all too frequent response, usually with a wry grin, is, “Chai?” So we drink. A lot. By 10 a.m. he says it’s time to stop working, and through evening the camp is a ghost town. An extended siesta. Only the “battle captain” remains in the operations center, swatting flies and ensuring the fan is pointed in the optimal direction. Everyone else is asleep. I try to keep the intelligence soldiers awake. I sit with them in their tent, which serves also as their office, detention facility, confiscated drugs locker, and entertainment center, with a TV and cellphone antenna they bought out at the bazaar. It’s a nice setup. Their chai boy turns the air conditioner up on blast. They sprawl on their day beds, dipping naswar tobacco, smoking Pine Lights, watching Uzbek and Tajik music videos, and Urdu and Turkish soap operas. “So what’s the plan?” I ask. “Are we just gonna sit here till all the insurgents get cancer from our secondhand smoke? It could work. They’re not expecting it.”

Sergeant Major Rashidi, the intelligence chief, had a different idea. “We need satellite phones. Our cellphone service isn’t good enough to get reports from Marjeh.” “But you have a cellphone antenna here in your tent; you’re able to talk to your family all the time.” “Yes, but that antenna is not for work.” “Ok, so why don’t you receive your reports by radio, like you’re supposed to?” “We want to do it that way, but we can’t.” “Why? You have a radio here at Camp Garmsir, and there are hundreds of radios down in Marjeh.” “Yes, but not where the ANA intelligence officer is.” “Isn’t he at District Center? Aren’t there radios at the District Center?” “Yes, but they’re all broken.” “But they’re getting reports from the District Center right now in your operations center.” “If I don’t get a satellite phone I won’t give you any more reports.” “That’s OK,” I said. “I’ve got my own reports.” “If you don’t give me a satellite phone, and a camera, and cake and chocolate for breakfast in the morning, I will tell the journalists, when they come, to make news about Marines not giving the ANA what they need.” “Great. Should I invite the New York Times, or were you thinking more along the lines of the Kabul Daily News, Lashkar Gah Weekly, and the Marjeh Post?” They laugh; trying to get them to do some work has become an unfortunate sort of game.

All the lounging around and narrow focus on creature comforts is understandable. They live their war. Camp Garmsir is their army base, but it’s also their home, eleven months on, one month off. For Americans it’s six months of focused effort, maybe longer for the U.S. Army, then freedom from the war, at least until the next deployment. The Afghan soldiers need their chai breaks and comfortable mattresses, but they also need to realize—and this is something that we embedded Marine mentors often want to scream at the top of our lungs—that they exist to serve the soldiers out doing the fighting, not to serve themselves. Marines talk about the hazards of “going internal,” of focusing on your own stark biological needs at the expense of awareness of the situation unfolding around you. While the ANA brigade staff lounges, cocooned in their own internal struggles, the Afghan soldiers in the subordinate battalions, in Marjeh, Nawa, and Garmsir, are out on patrol every day with the Marines—with no air conditioning, satellite phones, color printers, cake, or chocolate—fighting, and often dying.

The goal is for the brigade to eventually be useful to the battalions under its command; to refocus the staff’s attention outward from the day-to-day of their own lives on Camp Garmsir. I thought developing Priority Intelligence Requirements could be a decent start. PIRs are questions a staff requires its subordinate units to think about and answer. It’s a way for the battalions to focus their analysis and reporting, and for the brigade to play an active role in developing actionable intelligence. Without Sammy there to translate, Sergeant Major Rashidi and I went back and forth in his broken English and my even more broken Dari (some shared Pashto helped, too). I asked him to come up with questions for the battalions. He scribbled enthusiastically and finally read them back to me. (1) When will we receive color ink for our printers? (2) Can we have cameras? (3) How do we get satellite phones? As if PIRs were a wish list. With Sammy there in the afternoon, we managed to overcome the language barrier, and we came up with a good set of questions for the brigade. It was a very small step—and one that will need constant reinforcement—toward involving the intelligence staff in the wide world of Helmand Province outside the flaps of their Camp Garmsir tents.

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