KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Walking across the dusty moonscape of Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Mark Boone is shaking hands with friends and introducing myself to Soldiers and Airmen he hasn’t yet met.
If Afghanistan is about relationships, Boone wholeheartedly feels that making and building strong relationships is not just his job as team leader of Commander International Security Assistance Force Advisory and Assistance Team-South, but also part of his DNA.
Boone, a Marine Reservist from Medford, Ore., has come to Walton, one of the bases in Regional Command-South in the process of shrinking or closing, for foot patrols around Kandahar with Dr. Carter Malkasian, senior political advisor to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commanding general of ISAF, and to meet with members of Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team 7.
CAAT-South is one of five such teams in Afghanistan, one in each regional command, with a headquarters in Kabul. Even though the make up of each CAAT differs slightly from one region to another, they all share the same mission to provide “directed observations and reporting to COMISAF” and “advise and assist across the theater to maximize ISAF campaign effects,” according to the CAAT website.
CAATs, in essence, deal in the currency of information, providing political, cultural and social advice, assistance and information to advisors and commanders at every level.
“We certainly have a train, advise, assist mission, but what we do is we conduct unmanaged embeds into operating units,” said Boone. “We embed into an operational unit where we participate in the daily battle rhythm, and whether it’s foot patrols, vehicle patrols, or key leader engagements, we are in the business of capturing best practices.” As his team collects success stories among advisors at all levels, they disseminate those via one of their reporting formats to the other RCs, Boone said.
Another part of the CAAT mission that Boone said is particularly important is hosting and facilitating subject-matter experts like Malkasian, whose job is to get out among the populace to talk to people and measure general attitudes and feelings—atmospherics in CAAT terms—about any number of issues or concerns. In this case, the visit centered on the recent presidential run-off elections.
“Carter’s visit was important, post-election, for him to be able to see, from the governor’s level down to the local villager driving a taxi cab, what is the opinion of the people regarding the election outcome,” said Boone. “The CAAT provides that unmanaged information flow…to the decision makers. In the case of Carter Malkasian, that decision maker’s a four-star general.”
For Boone, embedding with and facilitating Malkasian’s visits with local Afghan government officials, police leaders, and civilians has been a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Carter’s got a tremendous reputation with Marines because he spent two years with us in Al Anbar (Iraq) at the lance-corporal level,” he said. “Carter consistently puts himself in harms way to get his facts right.” Boone said Malkasian’s Afghanistan expertise comes, at least in part, from spending two years in Helmand with various Marine infantry battalions, all the while studying Pashto, the local language, for hours every day.
“You’re talking about a true subject-matter expert on Afghanistan,” he said.
In addition to working with Malkasian and walking streets and dirt paths to engage with locals in south Kandahar city, Boone also took time to meet with members of SFAAT 7, led by Col. Nick Crosby, a team that, according to Boone, operates with the understanding that “everything we do here in Afghanistan is all about relationships.”
“Relationships have to be built before anything else can get done,” Boone said. “(Crosby’s team) has quickly established relationships with the Afghans…They are looking at advising through an Afghan lens, as best one can as an American.”
One of the biggest challenges with being an SFAAT advisor is based in operational reality, Crosby said. U.S. teams rotate through deployments, creating the need every year or so to start at ground zero in terms of rebuilding trust between U.S. advisors and their Afghan partners. The job of advising is all about building trust, he said, and “trust happens by coming through on expectations.”
Boone highlighted the accomplishments of U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Burke and Afghan National Police 1st Lt. Abdullah (named changed for security reasons) as an example of successful advising through mutual trust.
Burke and the other two airmen on Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team 1, 466th Operational Location Bravo EOD Flight, have been working with Abdullah, in charge of EOD and improvised-explosive-device defeat in Kandahar, advising him on matters of leading and managing his EOD teams.
“That relationship between Tech Sgt. Burke and Lt. Abdullah is really a special relationship built on a kinship between EOD brothers and built on a very sincere desire to really assist the Afghans,” said Boone. “We have seen Abdullah mature as a leader and as a manager.”
Back in the “Shura Room” at the CAAT-South offices on Kandahar Airfield there’s a wall adorned with a U.S. and an Afghanistan flag. Between the flags is the CAAT logo and two words printed in a nondescript computer typeface: “Ceteris Via,” Latin for “the other way.”
“That’s our team motto,” Boone said. “To be successful in Afghanistan, you can’t look at things through that American lens. You’ve got to look at it ‘the other way.’” He said his team constantly tries to look at things in different ways to come up with solutions or see problems in new ways.
One reason CAAT-South is able to see things “the other way” can be credited to the expertise and continuity the civilian members bring to the team, Boone said.
“The uniforms come and go,” he said. “I’m going to go and somebody else is going to come in, and an important part of the CAAT process and presence is that uniformed leadership.” He and Maj. Brian Steeno, team executive officer, provide that uniformed head. But the team’s true continuity and success, Boone said, comes from subject matter experts like Bill Keber, senior counterinsurgency advisor; Rick Lacoma, COIN advisor; Greg Solewin, COIN advisor; John Jensen, government development advisor; and Randy Blum, law enforcement advisor, most of whom have lived in southern Afghanistan for many years and provide a depth of knowledge and experience impossible to gain in a year-long tour.
Within months of his own tour being over, Boone will likely be engaged in the business of building relationships and seeing things “the other way” until the day comes that he’s forced to get on a plane bound for the U.S. Until then, it’s business as usual for Boone and CAAT-South.
“If I had to pick a favorite (aspect of the CAAT job), hands down, it is my ability to guide and assist young Americans in the way they’re doing business with the Afghans. To be able to simply share a thought with a sergeant or a lieutenant…being able to do that grassroots mentoring is by far the high water mark of my job.”