Letters from Afghanistan 




Past Letters

Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan
Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan
Seven tips on living and working in Afghanistan
The finer points of goat herding: An update from a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan
Soldier’s base comes under attack in suicide mission
The terps: Unsung heroes
Soldier teaches basic football rules to Afghans
R&R a welcome break after suicide attack on base







Progress being made slowly, 
but surely, in Afghanistan
Soldier pleased with how things have 
moved along in 11 months

May 6, 2011

Editor’s note: Lt. Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.

By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise

GARDEZ, Afghanistan - It has been a crazy few months since my return from R&R. Our mission, to advise, train and mentor the Afghan National Army is rapidly approaching its end, but we still have a lot of work to get done.

I have been perplexed as of late about what to talk about. Things have been going well in the advising realm, and that is just not sexy journalism. There have been the usual suicide bombings, but nothing “out of the ordinary.” After talking to family and friends about what to write about, we all decided that some good news from the front lines may be a present change from what most of you see on a daily basis.

>>view slideshow of Thelen's latest pictures
from Afghanistan


Crawl, walk, run

The United States Army believes in progressive training. You start slow, teach fundamentals and then progress slowly until you master the skill. We use that same philosophy while training the Afghan soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers.

Teaching military doctrine is like building a pyramid; you need to start with a strong, healthy foundation and you can go from there. Ten months ago, we found the foundation was made of sand. A full 85 percent of the unit that we advise was illiterate, unable to even read or write their own language. Furthermore, most had never driven a vehicle or used a computer.

This was our initial challenge: to build literacy, driving skills and computer knowledge to at least American sixth-grade levels. As you can imagine, this was frustrating.

We had to hire local literacy teachers to teach Afghan soldiers how to read and write, had to teach them how to drive and how to use a computer. It was my task to teach the officers, who are more stubborn than most. Luckily, having taught my dad to use a computer a number of years ago (he will kill me for mentioning this), I had the aptitude and patience to teach the Afghans the same.

After 11 months here, the literacy rate is nearing 75 percent, we have a master driver Afghan-led course, and computers are used in everyday business.

Advising on issues like strategic management and leadership is even harder.

I have thousands of years of culture to fight against to make a modernized army.

First, Afghans avoid confrontation. If someone doesn’t show up on time, the officer does not discipline the subordinate; they take away their pay behind their back. I had to discuss, sometimes for hours, the need to enforce standards and be upfront and honest with supervision and subordinates alike.

I advise a full bird colonel (O-6), and in 11 months, I have seen a great change, from being so timid as to not even talk to leadership on the phone to recently visiting and discussing pressing issues with his entire chain of command in Kabul.

Second, Afghans live in the past and now. Running a military units requires a certain vision. A leader must plan for the future, anticipate problems and manage resources. Afghans wait to see what will happen and then react. I had to teach them to be proactive. This started with simple advising on coming up with a plan, following the plan and adapting to changes as reality hit. Eleven months ago, the ANA was looking at most a day ahead; now we discuss issues months in the future. Nothing is fast here, but, slowly, progress is being made.


By, through, with Afghan forces

My adviser team advises the forward support depot personnel. The FSD is responsible for all logistical support to Afghan National Army in Eastern Afghanistan. The FSD ensures the 22,000 ANA soldiers in the AO have everything they need to take over the fight, and it has been doing a progressively better job every day since we started.

My 12-person team advises 107 Afghans, in everything from convoy operations to warehousing, strategic logistics to advising the 20 soldiers strong security platoon.

When we started, the warehouses were nightmares. Food was literally crawling with rats and was next to clothes. Ammo was stored outside. Medical supplies were being pilfered, and fuel operations were lacking. The progress in 11 months has been breathtaking and truly inspirational.

For example, food is now stored up to U.S. standards in its own warehouse, ammo is safely stored in protected containers and is professionally guarded by a well-trained security platoon, the medical supplies are stored in a facility that one U.S. general called the best looking warehouse in Afghanistan, and fuel is 100 percent automated and run by the ANA.

Actually, nearly every aspect of the FSD is now run by the Afghans with only minimal coalition oversight.

One of the biggest improvements has been in the profession of arms. Eleven months ago, the security platoon could barely hold an AK-47. During the direct attack in September, the platoon reacted by blocking the entrances with debris and taking fighting positions. Now, they actively patrol (we only go with them once in a while), have a rotation schedule and have excellent weapon discipline.

Since June 2010, more than 15 million liters of fuel, 8 million kilograms of food (everything from rice and beans to chai), 22 million rounds of ammo (bullets, rockets, mortars), 80,000 uniforms, 8,000 NATO weapons (M-16s, M-4s, M-24 sniper rifles), 500 computers, 800 pallets of medical supplies and countless other supplies have been distributed across Eastern Afghanistan.

These assets have been used in countless Afghan operations.

Some of the training and advising has been fun, like advising the security platoon on kinetic operations (how to shoot, guard, protect). Some of the training has been very difficult, like projecting fuel needs for next quarter. Some of the advising has been just plain weird, like trying to figure out how much firewood the ANA would need (they still use firewood for most heating concerns) or dealing with an ANA officer that beats his soldiers with a stick (it worked really well, but sent a bad message).

Teaching leadership has been interesting, but the most rewarding has been training and mentoring the next generation of ANA soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The younger generation (those younger than 30) are well trained, have great common sense and show great potential. The future of ANA looks very bright, as these young officers gain rank and responsibility.

Perhaps the greatest gains have been in the central government care for the people.

When I started here, I saw a major void in services: the local population and mostly the children. My unit delivered more than 3,000 backpacks to local schools and gave supplies to children. Recently, the Afghan army has been very proactive with going out and doing this very important public service campaign. Afghans taking care of Afghans: if things could be so perfect!

Note: Next month will be my last article, as I should be redeploying soon thereafter. If any readers have any direct questions, I would love to answer them in my last article. Please send them directly to rgthelen@gmail.com.