Lt. Col. Paul Fanning returned home in late December after eight months in Kabul, Afghanistan, and said that efforts toward rebuilding the country are moving forward.
“You can’t build a country overnight,” said Fanning, of Malta, “but we are giving the Afghanistan government and people a better opportunity to take care of their country down the line.”
During his 31 years in the New York National Guard, Fanning had been a “citizen soldier” and had never served on federal active duty before he was deployed in May to Kabul. Once there, he served as public affairs officer for the New York National Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix Seven.
During his deployment, Fanning wrote a blog for The Daily Gazette. In 30 entries, he shared his impressions of daily life in Afghanistan and told stories about the soldiers. He said it’s difficult for people in the Capital Region to understand what’s going on in Afghanistan or how the U.S. military and National Guard are trying to rebuild the country, which is about the size of Texas.
“We have come to Afghanistan not for vengeance but to help bring about a new beginning because we believe this is the best way to help protect America and because we want to help people in need,” Fanning said.
“The goal is to train and equip the Afghans so they can equip the country, establish law, thwart criminals and the insurgents, “ he said.
New Yorkers’ duty
The New York National Guard is playing a historic role because many of its members are part of a military team that’s gone from post-9/11 ground zero to the Sunni Triangle and now into the mountains of Afghanistan, according to Fanning.
The Combined Joint Task Force, based at Camp Phoenix, includes the largest deployment ever of the New York National Guard from one command for one assignment, he said.
An estimated 1,700 personnel from the New York National Guard were deployed, though not all at the same time. The Task Force in Afghanistan includes 8,000 soldiers, including New York National Guard and active duty Army, Navy and Marines.
“We weren’t sent to chase the Taliban. … We were sent to run the task force that trains the Afghan National Army and Afghan national police,” he said.
Fanning, 53, a graduate of Shenendehowa High School, signed up for the New York National Guard when he was a student at Siena College 31 years ago. During his military career, he’s responded to at least 15 different state emergencies, including the 1998 North Country ice storm and the Mechanicville and Stillwater tornado.
When he arrived in Kabul, he was struck by what he saw, especially the dire poverty.
“When you drive down the street, you see donkey carts and people herding sheep. They are filthy dirty. In Kabul, they cook with open fire. The air quality is miserable. There is no real health care for the average person.They have hospitals, but they don’t have equipment or supplies.”
Nearly every day, a child showed up at the main gate at Camp Phoenix, where members of the 27th Infantry were stationed. Many of the children had infections or severe burns or other illnesses.
“We would treat them. Our clinic was there for the troops, but we could provide care to a child with a life-threatening problem,” he said.
In a videotape he took, a village elder told him that the “U.S. cares more for us than our own government.”
It was a telling remark, according to Fanning, who said it reflects the challenge the military faces: trying to teach the Afghan people how to rebuild their own country.
In his blog for The Daily Gazette, and working with other news organizations, Fanning spread the word that children needed clothing, footwear and school supplies. Through the Task Force, 1,250 tons of items were donated. He said it made a difference and helped them.
Much building needed
Army Gen. David Petraeus, who is commander of American forces in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, has said rebuilding is needed in Iraq but building is needed in Afghanistan. Fanning said there’s no infrastructure in Afghanistan, except what he called the ring road, which runs through parts of the country. Otherwise, few roads are paved; sanitation is non-existent.
“Trying to move around in the country is incredibly difficult. The challenges are enormous,” he said.
During his stay, members of the U.S. House of Representatives came to Camp Phoenix, including U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-Long Island, and their trip included a visit with President Hamid Karzai and U.S. and coalition leaders. But they also stopped at Camp Phoenix to meet with the members of the Guard. Fanning said such visits meant a lot to the soldiers.
Fanning, who returned home Dec. 27, said the question is whether the U.S. will have the heart to see its mission through in Afghanistan.
“We are not there to conquer Afghanistan. Al-Qaida attacked us. Afghans didn’t attack us,” he said.
He made the remarks on Wednesday, a day before an independent study by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that the U.S. and its partners shortchanged Afghanistan by “focusing on short-term goals pursued without a clear understanding of how the decentralized country works.” It said the Obama administration should refocus the U.S. war and rebuilding effort in Afghanistan as a project that will take at least a decade.
The U.S. Institute of Peace was established by Congress in 1984 to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts.
The U.S. is standing by the Afghan people and trying to help them build their own country, said Fanning.
“We are suffering the losses, too, but what is the alternative?” he asked.
Working for stability
While he was in Kabul, 43 U.S. servicemen and women from the 8,000-strong Task Force were killed; 15 were in the National Guard, including eight from the New York National Guard.
Of those killed in action, all but three were killed by improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers or land mines.
In his blog, Fanning told people what it was like in a combat zone. His first-person point of view allowed him to provide information on what the soldiers were doing and explain what can’t be communicated in a news release or article.
It’s going to be a long effort to rebuild Afghanistan but one the National Guard is compelled to complete, said Fanning.
“We need to fight the enemy this way,” he said.
This includes helping the Afghan government and the people of Afghanistan rebuild schools and infrastructure and working with Afghan leadership and insisting that they rid themselves of corruption.
Standing by them as concerned neighbors and friends will reverse the influence of al-Qaida and the Taliban, groups that have come to power through intimidation and aggression, said Fanning.
Eric Durr, director of public affairs for the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs, said Fanning worked for him before being deployed.
He said that as public affairs officer for the brigade, Fanning had to handle all media requests. He embedded reporters from newspapers and media outlets from all over the world, including the New York Times and Washington Post.
“He did a really good job in letting the public find out what our soldiers from the New York National Guard and American service members and allied service members are doing over there,” said Durr.
The work day averages 14 to 15 hours.
“It can be a demanding job. You don’t get a day off,” he said.
The New York National Guard has a responsibility to step in and help, said Fanning, and no other countries are stepping up to the same degree as the U.S.
“If we don’t help the Afghanistan people, we will see another 9/11,” he said. “The bad guys have said this. They want to bring the fight to America. We have to go after these guys. The enemy is determined to come after us. They won’t do it right away.”
The only segment of the military that can provide support to civil authorities is the National Guard, said Fanning.
“Wonderful men and women are ordinary on one level but are doing extraordinary things in Afghanistan. That’s the story,” he said.