A Marine's Journal (Respect and Suspicion)

1stLt David Morgenstern, an air support control officer with Marine Air Support Squadron 3, outside of Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, in summer 2010. Morgenstern, deployed out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., is deployed again to Afghanistan in support of NATO International Security Assistance Force operations.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (March 14, 2012) - The explosion was loud, powerful and sudden. Instantly everyone in the Joint Operations Center (JOC) hit the floor–standard procedure for a potential rocket or mortar attack, but a new experience for me.

When there were no additional explosions, we donned our body armor and resumed our work. My first task was to "drop a pri," that is, put in a priority immediate air request so that in the event of a follow-on attack we would have air support on station. Processing and coordinating "pri's" and other air support requests for ground units is what I do all day. Putting one in for my own location was slightly surreal.

Throughout the incident everyone in the JOC remained calm, professional and efficient. Within moments we learned that the cause of the blast was a large suicide car bomb targeting Afghan police in the town of Lashkar Gah. Thankfully, there were no friendly force casualties, though news reports have since indicated some civilian injuries. Soon after, the all clear was sounded and by the end of my shift, I'd all but forgotten it had happened.

Still, I'll admit to being slightly on edge lately, due as much to the news as to the car bomb. We obviously pay very close attention every time Afghan security forces attack their coalition partners, though we also see frequent examples of successful cooperation, which you may not hear as much about back home.

For instance, I recently had lunch with another lieutenant who is part of a Police Mentoring Team based here in Lashkar Gah. He told me that when he first arrived some eight months ago, his Marines went out nearly every day to various parts of the district to help train and advise their Afghan counterparts. On the day I met him he was complaining of boredom because the Afghan police unit had moved to its own base and was now operating far more independently. Anecdotal, sure, but still positive.

Here's another anecdote. Before the car bombing, but after the protests over the Quran-burning incident had begun to spread, we got word in the JOC that a crowd was forming in Lashkar Gah. We could hear someone speaking in Pashto over the loudspeakers that are usually used for the call to worship.

As the translation began filtering into the JOC, we learned the crowd wasn't protesting the Quran-burning but rather calling upon the Afghan police to do more to combat Taliban kidnappings. After a shura–a sort of council or meeting–was held the protestors disbanded peacefully.

Now I'm not trying to make more out of this than it is. Perhaps it's simplistic to say that things aren't simple here, but you don't have to be on the ground long to realize how true it is.

On my last deployment, I trained a squad of Marines tasked with securing our sector of Camp Leatherneck in the event of an attack. We conducted all kinds of rehearsals including live searches of Afghan civilians, vehicles and living facilities.

Before every search, I would remind my Marines that there are two types of Afghans on base. There are a few who are here to harm us or to collect information to aid others in attacking us. We must always be vigilant and suspicious, I told them, and I can tell you that our vigilance was justified, and paid off.

But then there are the vast majority of Afghans with whom we interact–interpreters, trainees, and contractors–who are risking their lives and the lives of their families in order to work with us. They are patriots who deserve eye contact, a smile and a firm handshake.

That's how I continue to see the situation today. The more brutal and murderous the Taliban are, the more I respect the Afghans who continue to defy them. It's a difficult balance to strike–between respect and suspicion–but each has its place and I think that progress depends heavily on both Afghans and coalition forces continuing to strive for it.

The big picture is that we're still on the tail end of the annual winter lull, and things are relatively quiet. But, summers are always hot in Afghanistan, in more ways than one. Unfortunately, more coalition casualties are likely, including possibly some at the hands of Afghans wearing their country's uniform. Still, as long as the Afghans continue to stand up to the Taliban in increasing numbers and places, those of us in our own nation's uniform will keep doing our part to give them the best chance for success.

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