"Afghanistan is a beautiful country that has been ravaged by too many years of war, and the people are in desperate need of education, health care and a little help to escape the clutches of radical Islamists and get back on their feet again," says U.S. Army Major Deborah Ellis, who has recently finished her tour in Afghanistan, where she served as intelligence planner and battalion operations officer.
Based out of Ft. Drum, N.Y., she deployed with the 10th Mountain Division in January 2006. As a military intelligence officer, Ellis helped handle contentious border issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also provided insight on the role of women in the military in a country where women's rights have traditionally been repressed. Ellis spoke with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan recently about Afghanistan.
Tell us about your assignment: I'm the battalion operations officer for Task Force Gauntlet. I do the planning, allocate the resources for all the training and operations in my unit. Our primary mission is security for the Bagram security zone. Patrols go through that area; they get to know the terrain, people, villages, what's going on. We also do ECP (entry control point operations). So every vehicle and person that comes in and out of the base is screened. Guys check on everything to make sure they're not trying to get in an IED or something else or even just get on post to spy on what we're doing.
We work with Afghanistan National Police in our area, provide them some more skills, teach them, do some operations together. It helps increase their legitimacy; people see them as part of government there to help them. Hopefully over time they'll be able to do things better.
We also do the HA (humanitarian assistance). We go out to the villages, take food, clothes, soccer balls, things they need, sometimes they'll ask us for it. Other times, we evaluate on our own and recognize a certain village needs things. We do VMOs (village medical operations), take medical supplies into villages and try to help people.
Your first job there was intelligence planner. What did that involve? I was in the long range planning shop. One of the neatest things I got to do involved the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. That area has a lot of problems. Afghanistan says terrorists are coming from Pakistan, and Pakistan says they're coming from Afghanistan. You have tribes on both sides with people moving back and forth. We used to travel to Pakistan, bring them together with the Afghans. We would try to come up with solutions, get people talking about their problems, working together. On the military side we were having some success, probably a little more than on the political side.
Was there animosity between Pakistan and Afghanistan? Animosity wouldn't be what I think came out of those meetings. When we first got started people might have had some hostile feelings or preconceived ideas. When you work with someone and see them again and again, you talk, get to know each other, share information and come up with a solution that will work. It's not perfect. I think progress was made. I think people actually liked each other. Good things happen. And both sides want to see things improve.
One of the problems with Afghanistan is this is a huge country and terrain isn't really all that friendly. Down in the south you have a lot of desert. When you move into the central-eastern portion, which is where we're at, and the north, the mountains are unbelievable. The Hindu Kush mountain range just dwarfs the Rocky Mountains. It's really pretty.
What's their reaction to you as a woman in the military? Sometimes I see men and they look kind of hard; they'll stare. Others are curious and will come up and talk to you. It just sort of depends. I never had anybody say you need to cover up. They want to know if you're married and have kids. I'm single, so some of them will be like, "Oh, you need to get married."
Everywhere you go, the females seem to attract a bit more attention. In my mind, for the young girls and women to see females out there doing things, I think that's a positive example for them. We've made a lot of progress in those areas.
In the year that 10th Mountain's been here, we've expanded the reach of our forces; put FOBs [forward operating bases] out in some of the more remote areas, so we have a presence. That makes it difficult for the enemy, the Taliban, to do what they want to do. The flip side is, wherever you go, if an area is quiet and suddenly we're there you can expect some action because suddenly you're a target.
What are the challenges? Once we've gotten into an area, we've made some inroads and established a presence. The challenge is maintaining that. The Afghans have a very long history and no nation has ever conquered Afghanistan. So they know their history, people are going to come in, they'll be here for a few years and then they'll leave. (The) Soviets (were here) 10 years and we've only been here for five years. So they say, 'They have a couple more years than they're out.' So that's going to be the challenge, maintaining a presence and holding what we got and not giving up before the job is finished.
What's the best aspect of serving there? There's so much more that needs to be done. We destroyed weapons caches in my unit. There're so many weapons and munitions that have been destroyed, but we haven't gotten a third or a tenth of it. We've built things, handed out stuff, helped people, (we) have a medic that goes out on every convoy. … There are so many other people that need help and much that needs to be done.
Will the Afghans be ready to take over? Not all that long ago, Afghanistan wasn't a First World country, but they were self-sufficient. They had a tourism trade, exports - they were surviving. It was beautiful. Now this place is devastated: ruins, landmines everywhere, old rusted out Soviet tanks lying about. Irrigation systems they had built, their orchards, the Russians destroyed them. If we can help them get their economy on the ground and their exports. They have great dried fruits, pistachios, mulberries, nuts, fruits, gems, timber… natural resources. Part of problem is they don't have any infrastructure and institutions.
Are they getting that in place? Yes, we're making some progress; they're starting to get bank accounts but it will be a long time. Some of these remote villages, there are no roads. Some guy will show up at Bagram to report something, a cache or Taliban in a village and he'll tell you all about it. And this guy walked over four hours, over the mountain, got to the road, caught a cab to report this. And he's wearing sandals with his toes hanging out and its 40 degrees. I've never seen people move up and down mountains like this. They are unbelievable.
Anything else you wish to share? One thing that really upsets me, people don't understand that soldiers die here, though the numbers are not nearly as great [as in Iraq]. But they're young kids. They're out doing what they're doing and their lives are forever changed. It's just upsetting when you see a 22-year-old (or) 19-year-old gone, dead; when you hear their stories.
Don't forget about Afghanistan. The focus is on Iraq, but Afghanistan is here and needs our help. It can be successful as long as we don't pull out too early. It's going to take some time. I think Afghanistan has a much better chance than Iraq. And they are starting from much further behind.
The Tribune arranges these interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. MyLinh Shattan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.