November 29, 2007

The Taliban: Their Time has Come and Gone

Major Michael Tomberlin is not only a Soldier, he is also a journalist. Earlier this year he hung up his journalist hat and put on his Kevlar helmet for a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He blogs at Yellowhammering Afghanistan and his posts provide great insight into the everyday occurrences of our troopers deployed in support of the GWOT.

Recently The Thunder Run was able to catch-up with Major Tomberlin to bring you this interview in the continuing series of Boots On The Ground Interviews.

Major Tomberlin. thank you for taking the time to speak with us, can you start by providing us with a brief bio?

I'm from Alabama, originally from Covington County but now I live in McCalla, a suburb of Birmingham. I joined the Alabama Army National Guard when I was 17, starting out enlisted as a forward observer. I got my commission through ROTC at The University of Alabama and went to OBC at Fort Sill, Okla. I was in the same battalion -- 1st of the 117th FA -- for more than 20 years. The only time I've left the battalion was for this deployment to Afghanistan. In my civilian job, I'm a journalist with The Birmingham News, the state's largest newspaper. I am married to Alison and we have two daughters -- Flannery and Michaela.
And can you give us an overview of your mission in the Afghanistan Theater of Operations?

I am part of a Provincial Mentoring Team working with the Afghan National Police. We are taking the Embedded Training Team model that worked so well with U.S. and Coalition troops training and mentoring the Afghan National Army over the last five years and applying that to the police. Having a reliable police force trusted by the citizens of this country is going to be critical to defeating the Taliban-lead insurgency. Beyond that, the police is critical to a democracy and in giving a society the foundation it needs to grow and prosper. The ANP does not have the best of reputations among the population here, but hopefully with some help that will change. I believe it will and I'm convinced it will not take five or six years as it did with the army.
Why is your blog called Yellowhammering Afghanistan, what is the significance?

The yellowhammer is Alabama's state bird. When it came time to name the blog, I wanted something that connected me to my home state but also said something about what I'm doing here. I like the hammer as a symbol because it is a tool for rebuilding and a weapon for fighting, both of which apply to what we're doing here. To top it off, the Vulcan statue in Birmingham uses a hammer which the artist who created my logo incorporated in the design. I ended up at Camp Vulcan in Ghazni, ironically enough.

You asked the question in your first blog post “What the heck am I doing in Afghanistan?” and answered it with: “Trying to make a difference.” You are now at the half-way point of your tour; can you give us an update on your progress?

There are goals we set for ourselves as trainers and mentors and I think we have met most of those at this point. That's one measure. I've also seen the leadership among the ANP do many of the things necessary to ensure they have long-term success even if it causes them some short-term pain. I plan on taking a hard look at what we have or have not accomplished closer to the end of my tour. Right now, I'm so into the task at hand that I think I'm too close to see how much of a difference we might have made. I like to think "Yellowhammering Afghanistan" has made a difference simply by raising awareness of what is taking place here to the people back home. I know the humanitarian assistance visits we have made have certainly made a difference in the lives of the Afghans who got the help. Still, I feel like there is much more we can get done in the time we have left.

Do you have an event that sticks with you as a watershed moment of your time in Afghanistan so far?

Members of our team have been involved in four IED strikes and we disrupted a fifth attempt to hit a convoy I was on. We came here primarily as mentors and trainers and we have found ourselves in the middle of the fighting, particularly when our enemy uses a coward's weapon like the IED. We've also participated in combat operations with the ANP, the ANA and the 82nd Airborne and had some nice successes. But when this deployment ends, I have a feeling I'm going to look at the huge outpouring of support we witness here almost daily. People send items to me and the other soldiers, but they also send food, clothing, toys, candy and all sorts of great things for the people of Afghanistan. One of the greatest things I think we have accomplished thus far has been building the image of the police among multitudes of people each time we let them take the lead in distributing the HA. You see a visible change in the way people look at their police and the way the police look at the people. It fits so perfectly with what we are here to do and at the same time in involves the people back home in our mission.

Afghanistan has been pretty much the forgotten theatre, do you feel that the successes your troops are accomplishing are getting out or are there a lot of great stories being ignored that need to be told?

Being a member of the media, I understand the primary story here is the successes and failures of the counterinsurgency as the young government tries to grow. For some time, there was no real story here because militarily the Taliban were defeated and ousted, elections were held and democracy was formed. Now that the insurgency is trying to exert itself against this young government, that is the main story. The detailed things we are doing with the ANP -- apart from the HA -- would not make for good copy. Fighting and attacks and death will always trump the hard, "boring" work stuff. If we do our jobs right, there will be less to say about the insurgency and more about the things Afghanistan is doing to better iteself. There are stories here, powerful ones, that have the ability to touch people on many levels. Those are stories that have a shelf-life far greater than the latest death tolls. You can find some of them in the media if you look hard enough. You should be finding more of them more easily.

I’ve been seeing reports coming out of Afghanistan indicating that the insurgency / Taliban are regrouping and increasing their attacks on US and NATO forces have you encountered this in your area of operations, and if so do you have any opinions as to why the sudden upturn in activity is taking place?

Ghazni is a very active area when it comes to the insurgency. It has always been a militarily significant province. This is the province where the Korean hostages were taken and held earlier this year. So, yes, Ghazni is sort of a hotbed for insurgent activity. You have a young government and a struggling economy, so if the Taliban-lead insurgency was ever going to try to reclaim power, this would be it. They can't wait any longer as the government begins to get stronger and expands its influence - which is happening. They also take advantage of the poor and disillusioned both here and from neighboring countries to join the fight for profit. I would be curious to know how many of those involved in the insurgency consider themselves hard-core Islamic extremists or even would call themselves "Taliban." I'm under the impression greed is the main motivation for most. Imagine yourself as a leader of the Taliban. You were easily thrown from power and since then the overwhelming majority of the people have made it clear they never liked you in the first place. You have watched the Afghan National Army go from an undisciplined band of ragamuffins to an effective fighting force in half a decade. Now, the same is being done to transform the police at an even faster rate. If you were going to take one last stab at regaining power, now is pretty much you're only shot. And guess what? Even in what may be your most successful year, you're still losing.

In Iraq there has been a phenomenon of local citizens forming what are called Concerned Citizen’s group to provide for their own security. These groups are turning on alQaeda in Iraq and the other insurgent groups operating in their cities and villages. Have you encountered any such occurrence in Afghanistan?

Not on the scale I've heard of in Iraq. But you have to remember, Afghanistan is very splintered with its tribalism. You have large groups of the population that refuse to work closely together or fully trust each other all because of a difference in tribal name. It's amazing because, as I said, the overwhelming majority of the people here dislike the Taliban and want to see the new democracy take hold here. Yet, they won't show the unity that I believe could really tip the balance and make real change come at a rapid rate. But I'm optimistic they will get past that tribalism, at least on the real important issues.

This week the big news out of Afghanistan for the rest of the world is the torture and murder of five policemen in southern Afghanistan. These men had been held for 2 months now, why do you think the Taliban chose now to torture and murder them?

I can't speak to the specifics of that event because that's outside my AO. Generally speaking, you have a group of cowards who were only able to hold power by emotional and physical torture and murder that included public executions for adultery. They have to resort to these tactics, because they can't win on ideas -- the people have already made it know they reject those. I have to wonder what about them makes them think they could ever regain power in this country again. Their time has come and gone and I can't imagine a circumstance that would ever allow their time to come again.

What about opium production in Afghanistan, is there a possible end to it or is it there to stay?

Ghazni is not a major player in the opium trade, so I'm no really well versed on the subject. Drug production and drug use is a big problem throughout this country.

What is its relationship to the Taliban?

It's been proven that the Taliban relies heavily on the opium trade to finance the insurgency. Unfortunately, many farmers who may not be part of the Taliban or insurgency also rely on it to put food on their tables. There are people above my pay grade making the tough decisions how best to deal with it.

How do you see Afghanistan coming out of this?

I am naturally optimistic, but even if I wasn't there are enough good things you can easily find to be positive about here. You can point to economic measures, to political progress or to any number of societal improvements. It's also easy to point to the things that have to improve -- like corruption in all levels of government, the need for quality education and the way this society treats women. When you look at the rich history of this country and you recognize the historic times we are seeing today --even in light of that amazing past -- it's easy to believe Afghanistan's best days are ahead of it. The people here are hungry for progress.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Just that those of us here on the ground could not do what we do without the tons of support we receive, whether it's care packages, letters or cards from the U.S. or blogs like Thunder Run that help us get the word out about what we're doing here. It all matters and it matters in ways that those who support us probably can't even imagine. Sure, we're the face of it all, but the heart of what we do is made of so many unsung heroes our there. I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and thank you for your service to our country.

Crossposted at: H&I Fires for 11/30/2007 at Argghhh!

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