Tewksbury Speaks at South Auburn Grange
By D.C. Koviack
Army Colonel Dennis Tewksbury spoke to about 50 of his friends and former neighbors Monday night when he was the special speaker at the monthly meeting of the South Auburn Grange.
Tewksbury’s presentation, “A Year in Afghanistan,” recounted the experiences he had when serving as part of the Advisory Team to the Afghani military. “It’s an honor and a privilege to come back home and talk to family and friends,” Tewksbury began. A graduate of Elk Lake, Tewksbury holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Mansfield University as well as Masters Degrees from Central Michigan University and the US Army War College.
He added that the Grange Building itself held memories for him of “good times and great people.” Accompanied by a power point presentation of photographs outlining key points in his talk, Tewksbury began with an overview of the history of Afghanistan and its topography and culture. Located in Southwest Asia, the country is surrounded by Pakistan to the east, Iran to the West, former Soviet Union states to the north and China on the far northeastern border.
As such, Afghanistan is multi- ethnic, explained Tewksbury, and its geography is just as varied from the high desert of Kabul at 6000 feet to the rugged peaks of the Hindu Kush running through the middle of the country. Tewksbury succinctly explained the country’s history of invasions, which, he said, may account in part for the Afghan people’s philosophical makeup. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and various others took over Afghanistan including the Soviets from 1979-89. Then, civil war broke out with a power struggle among the Warlords. After 9/11 the United States went into the country to remove the Taliban, oust Al Qaeda and help liberate the Afghan people. With Operation Enduring Freedom, Tewksbury explained, the US is endeavoring to assist the Afghan people with building their own army and securing their country and civilization against further incursions and against the re-establishment of the Taliban.
“That seems to be their biggest fear,” he said: ‘what will happen to us once the US leaves? Will the Taliban return?’ they ask.” He added that Operation Enduring Freedom, of which he was a part, seeks to put mechanisms in place so that the Afghan people will not fall prey to the Taliban once they are no longer protected by the aegis of the US. “The Afghani people are warm, hospitable and take wonderful care of you,” Tewksbury asserted, adding that Afghans like to hug a lot. “I’m not a hugger,” he admitted, and said that custom had taken him some time to get used to.
The food takes a bit of getting used to as well, he said, showing pictures of a typical Afghani meal shared by members of the advisory team. Tewksbury said that the food was delicious, especially the breads and fresh produce. He explained that pride and honor are very important to the Afghans, whose culture and social structure is tribal and close knit. “It takes them a while to trust you, but they will in time,” he explained, adding that the period of adjustment allowed him to develop what he called the ‘Afghan Lens:’ looking at the world through their eyes. “You have to be able to understand how they interpret what you are telling them, how they are processing it,” he said. “Once you do, their reactions to various suggestions become easier to understand.”
He pointed out that there are many poor people, but cautioned his audience, who sat rapt with attention, that “the degree of poverty is unimaginable.” Tewksbury indicated that what is considered ‘poverty’ here would seem like abundance to the poor of Afghanistan. “Children freeze to death at night every winter,” Tewksbury, showing photos of mud huts with nothing but tarpaulins for roofs. However, he said that the US and Coalition Forces’ Advisory Team is a force for good. In addition to their official duties, soldiers also help with supplies for local schools and coat drives for children.
“Education is very highly valued, which is great to see,” he said. Explaining what daily life in Afghanistan was like for him in lively vignettes of market trips and holiday customs, Tewksbury gave his audience a good idea of what his diurnal experiences had been in a country so many time zones away. He showed photos of his quarters and explained that now soldiers routinely have telephones, running water, electricity, television and the internet, a very different scenario to his first trips to the area during Desert Storm. Soldiers’ barracks are basically sea/land vans like those found on a 18-wheel truck. These are stacked together to make a compound, which, Tewksbury said, could withstand small arms fire. His mattress was on a sheet of plywood on a frame, and his dresser was a series of boxes.
Tewksbury advised General Shir Mohamad Kharini, the head of the Afghan Army. A four star General, Kharini is a graduate of Sandhurst and the Afghan Military College; he is a career soldier who was jailed by the Soviets. Everywhere Kharini goes, Tewksbury said, the troops insist on hearing him speak, he is held in such high esteem. Tewksbury said that although it was daunting to be in an advisory capacity to someone so experienced and a good deal older than he is, he found he could advise Kharini on techniques and tactics for fighting as well as ways to build up the new Afghan Army.
“After thirty years of war,” Tewksbury said, referring to the civil war and subsequent unrest, “there is nothing left.” He said he would confer with Kharini on ways to train soldiers and groom special forces soldiers as well. Tewksbury spoke very highly of his Canadian, Australian, British and New Zealand co-workers on the Advisory team, and said he had made fast friends among many of them. Additionally, he encountered some in Afghanistan with whom he had served at earlier times in his military career.
“The US can’t go into anything in the future without our coalition partners,” Tewksbury insisted. Tewksbury closed by saying that he is often asked two questions: is the US being in Afghanistan worth it, and are we winning the fight. Tewksbury answered both questions with a “yes,” and then explained. He said that by helping train and plan for a strong military, and by helping educational initiatives in Afghanistan, the US and Coalition team is helping the Afghan people be truly independent.
“They will be able to govern themselves,” he said. “They can read the Koran for themselves and see that it nowhere endorses suicide bombings. The Afghan people won’t listen to hateful rhetoric, they will be able to make up their own minds.” And, he reminded his audience, a truly independent Afghan will mean more safety for the United States. As to the question about winning the fight against Al-Qaeda, Tewskbury said that recent accomplishments have meant that the terrorists are reduced to propaganda and suicide attacks because they are disorganized and not unified.
“I’ve seen it change over the years, I’ve seen the improvement, so yes, I think we are winning,” he asserted. As a coda to his presentation, Tewksbury spoke briefly about Veterans’ Day. “I’m glad we set aside a day to appreciate Veterans,” he said, adding that Veterans live by a special code of conduct. “It requires faith, commitment and a willingness to sacrifice self because they believe in this country and believe it's worth defending,” he said.