Friday, January 27, 2012

Kabul Conference

Winter has definitely settled over Kandahar.  It's been cold, windy, sometimes rainy, and occasionally snowy.  The other day, soldiers were taking pictures of each other over at the Boardwalk, which had a light dusting of very slippery snow.  I may regret saying this in about six months, when the temperatures are well over 100, but I could do with some warmer weather.

I was getting a bit too shaggy last week, so I headed over to the Boardwalk to get a haircut.  I was hoping to get the sexy blonde Russian girl, but instead got the chubby Uzbek guy.  Oh, well, with my glasses off, I can't see, anyway, and the guy gave me a better haircut than the girl did, so I'm happy.  

There was a dance tune that came out about 1990, that had a woman hollering "everybody DANCE now" ... remember that one?  Yeah.  Well, this barbershop is staffed by Russians, so they were playing Russian music, and one of the tunes was a remake of "everybody dance now".  Only it sounded like it was cut by a platoon of Russian soldiers, who had all the rhythm and soul of a rhinoceros on vodka.  Heavily-accented Russian guys would chant "everybody dance now" with a beat like stamping around in the snow in heavy boots.  Then one of 'em would go into a drugged-out Russian rap.  Like a nightmare that wouldn't end.  I could hardly keep myself from laughing the whole time it was playing.

A couple of days ago, two of us went up to Kabul for a conference, along with several military staff guys.  We'd asked for a flight in the afternoon, so we could get some work done here, then fly up, settle in, and attend the conference the next day.  Nope.  Military Air is a logic unto themselves.  Instead of an afternoon flight, we had to show up at 4:30 am for a 6:30 am flight.  Ugh!  I like my beauty rest, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  Let me tell you, a flight line at 6 am on a cold winter morning, with a stiff wind blowing across the field, is no fun.  But our flight left more or less on time and the plane warmed up quickly.  We flew in a C-27, which is a new addition to our inventory and a nice little cargo plane.  Unlike the bigger C-130, there's plenty of room for passengers to stretch their legs.  

We arrived in Kabul in mid-morning and quickly got settled into our plush 5-star accommodations at the NATO base at the airport.  This turned out to be a tent with a dozen bunk beds built out of 2x4's and old wooden pallets, with the heater set on "fry" and the bathroom in a converted container about 50 yards away.  A couple of us then went exploring, which didn't take long, and we found ways to keep ourselves sorta busy and entertained for the rest of the day.  That evening, our whole group got together and went over to what turned out to be a really good Thai restaurant on the base.  Yes, I said "really good".  Definitely the surprise of the trip.

The conference went pretty well.  We made some good contacts, especially with the Marines from Helmand Province next door, and swapped a lot of ideas.  The Marines are doing some things that we could/should do, and we're doing some things that they should be doing, so we had some good discussions.  As usual in a conference, there were a couple of speakers that I just wanted to hit the "Delete" button on, but that's to be expected.

Coming home worked out pretty well.  Military Air told us to be at the terminal at 7 pm for an 8:30 flight and the plane showed up an hour early.  I was back in my own little room in Kandahar by 10 pm. 

So now it's back to the office so I can catch up on emails, write a trip report, and find out what has hit the fan.  I've been out of the office for two days, so I know something did!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Rather Blah Week

When one day is pretty much like the previous one, it makes it hard to find something interesting to write about.  My big thing lately has been health issues.  I've had four colds since the middle of November.  Four very different colds, so they're not the same bug.  It settles in, I feel like crap for a week or so, have a few days where things are normal, and then the Dreaded Post-Nasal Drip starts again.

I felt so bad the other day that I went over to the clinic, convinced that something more insidious was at work.  (I can be a bit of a hypochondriac sometimes, and when I'm not feeling well, I'm a real wuss).  The docs checked me out and gravely informed me that it was "viral".  Translation: it's just a cold, you twit.  But they loaded me up with meds not available in the PX and I feel better today.

I'm not the only one having troubles.  Everybody, it seems, has had at least one cold, and quite a few have had ongoing sniffles or congestion.  We think it's due to the air here at KAF.  It's really dirty, loaded with the talcum-powder-like "moon dust" so prevalent in Afghanistan, as well as gravel dust, diesel exhaust, smoke from the incinerators, particles from the poop ponds, and lots of other really nasty sources.  One guy that I was talking with yesterday felt fine during several weeks out of the country, but within two days of being back at KAF, he was fighting a sore throat.  Those who have been in Iraq think that the air is generally dirtier here.  I believe it.

Things at work have been ... well, unremarkable.  What's there to say?  I go through a hundred or so emails a day.  I talk with State Department guys and military guys about this or that operation.  I research an answer to a particularly vexing question.  Then I go answer a bunch of emails based on the research and discussions with the state or military guys.  I go to the DFAC.  Periodically I go to the gym.  Once a week I'll do my laundry.  Pretty exciting stuff, huh?  And you thought I was riding around in helicopters and MRAPs all the time, meeting Afghan government officials, and drinking chai with Taliban!  No, reality is much more mundane.

But at it's core, it's still a pretty rewarding experience.  I'm playing my small role in trying to make this place functional.  Sometimes, I'm just trying to prevent yet another screwup by somebody who either doesn't know better or (worse) doesn't care.  But it's all striving toward a goal that really needs to be met.  Will we?  Don't know.  But I'm doing what I can.  Despite all these damn colds.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Getting In The Groove Again

Riding in the C-27
Graphite on paper, 5"x7"

I'm back in Kandahar again.  My trip was pretty uneventful, just long (14 hours from Dulles to Dubai alone).  Fortunately, I had a stopover in Dubai and got a room in a pretty swanky hotel.  It had a "Belgian Cafe" on the terrace outside, with really good food and outstanding draft beer.  I really enjoyed myself - thank you, American taxpayers.  Up early the next morning and over to the airport, where an amazingly long line snaked away from the ticket desk.  We're all getting on the flight to Kandahar?  As it turned out, no.  They'd over-booked the flight and a number of people were bumped to at least the next day.  Well, if you gotta get bumped, Dubai's not a bad place to spend the time.  Fortunately, my name was on the manifest.  We made it to Kandahar more or less on time.  After processing through the passenger terminal, I walked the 100 yards to our office compound and back to my little room.  "Home" again.

Since then, it's been a game of catch-up.  Catch-up on over 1300 emails (note: the "Delete" button is your friend).  Catch-up on internal discussions that don't make it into emails.  Catch-up on the gossip.  After a week, I think I'm pretty much back to speed.  Not that much has fundamentally changed, but the crises of three weeks ago are not the crises of today.  Well, one is, and it's a big one, but I have a feeling that it's going to be resolved in the next couple of days.

Two days ago, I went on a quick trip to Uruzgan.  No, this isn't a place from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel (..."darkest Uruzgan, beyond which Mordor lies ...").  It's the province north of Kandahar.  We needed to have some discussions with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) up there, so we flew up in a C-27 in the morning and back in the afternoon.  I took along my sketchbook and did a couple of drawings during the short flights, one of which is posted above.

Yesterday, we had a reminder that this is still a challenging area.  The district governor of Panjwai, which is just to the west of Kandahar City, was killed by a suicide bomber.  The blast also killed the governor's two young sons and two police bodyguards, and wounded a number of others.  I had never met the man, but others in my office had worked closely with him.  He was pretty good at his job, which is why the Taliban targeted him.  You can read more about the incident here.  Another attack the previous day targeted BG Raziq, the Chief of Police of Kandahar Province and one of the most powerful men in southern Afghanistan.  Fortunately, the only one who was killed in that blast was the teenage suicide bomber.  We've made a lot of gains, but the insurgents can still reach out and touch someone when they really want to.

So it's back to work.  Gotta do what I can to piss off some insurgents.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Heading Back to the Dustbowl

My R&R is over.  I'm sitting here at the coffee shop at the Asheville airport, waiting to start the long trip back to Afghanistan.  It's been a great two weeks at home, even though I had a cold for most of it (thank you, Lufthansa).  It's been an expensive two weeks, too: a top and a pair of seat covers for the truck, four new tires for the Volvo, two new pairs of glasses for me, and a new painting by our artist friend Genie Maples, plus two visits to the dentist and another to the optometrist.  But there were plenty of good times, too.  Lots of time with Janis.  Dinners with friends.  Long walks with the dogs.  Kicked back on the couch, watching some good movies (Margin Call especially).  Videochats with the grandson.  Life's been good.

Now it's time to get back to work.  I'll arrive in Kandahar on Saturday sometime (weather permitting; see previous post for what can go wrong).  I'll need to hit the ground running as there are several hot items that'll be hitting their stride just after my return.  And I know there are plenty of other things that have cropped up in the past two weeks to throw our schedule into turmoil.  But that's life on the front lines.

So for now, I'll just sit here and enjoy some quiet time.  Next post will be from Kandahar!