Friday, March 16, 2012

Keeping Busy

Southern Afghanistan is warming up.  This morning we’re well into the 70’s (fahrenheit) with clear skies and only a little dust.  Nice day.  The weather is changing rapidly: a week ago, I needed a jacket; today I’m in a polo shirt.  Good stuff!
I mentioned in my last post that we were moving our office out of the District Center and into a tent on the US-controlled side of the wall.  We did most of it over a week ago.  The only thing remaining was the move of one of our computer networks, which included a communications system.  This is a complex move that required some special technicians.  They arrived a few days ago and we started to roll.  Immediately the military guys here threw us a curveball.  Our satellite dish was on top of the District Center, but they wanted it moved into our compound.  Where?  They didn’t say and didn’t care, as long as it was off the Center and in our compound.  Which is packed about as tightly as a compound can be, meaning there’s no room at the inn.  But  with the help of a sharp Sergeant First Class, we found a place on top of a guard tower, found a crane, and found some willing soldiers to carry a rack of heavy electronic equipment down two flights of stairs and across the compound into the tent.  Never a complaint from any of them, even when a sandbag broke and dumped a bunch of dirt onto the head of one poor guy.  “It’s all good, sir!”  Great bunch of young men.  Then the techs worked their magic and our system was up and running about seven hours after we began. 

Downtown Kandahar City


Yesterday was another very interesting day.  I was tagged to go to a large briefing at Mandagak Palace in Kandahar City.  This is the provincial governor’s center, which includes a conference area (where we were), offices, residential and guest houses, and more.  We left in the morning in a train of MRAP’s, winding along the Arghandab valley and then up and over a pass.  The outer edges of Kandahar City came up pretty quickly as we came down the mountain.  Traffic wasn’t too bad, mostly pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and donkey carts, almost none of which observed any sort of rules of the road.  When we finally got to the palace gate, we discovered that the police had roped off every entrance.  Parking MRAPs in an Afghan bazaar is not an option, and neither is backing up, so eventually the ropes came down and in we went.
This was my first road trip into the city, so my pucker factor was a bit on the high side, but for the soldiers manning the vehicle, it was just another routine day in the office.  Their chatter, though, was not the sort of thing you’d normally hear from a bunch of guys in the US.  The driver, for instance, casually told of being under investigation because the barrel of his machine gun bent.  The reason: he’d put several thousand rounds through it in a very short period of time, to the point where it overheated and warped.  He was laughing at the major who had to do the investigation, ignoring the bit about why he had to fire several thousand rounds so quickly in the first place.  
The gathering at the palace was an opportunity for our Afghan partners to brief provincial district officials on their plans for the next several months.  Americans such as my group were there to provide moral support.  And, given the Afghan inclinations, we were there to ensure there was an audience, and to ensure that the briefers showed up as well.  I think it’s safe to say that giving a detailed briefing about upcoming operations is not a normal Afghan way of doing business.
I had attended one other such event in Spin Boldak several months ago.  Back then, I said that the real value in such an exercise is getting the Afghans to think about their operations, plan them out, and be able to tell others about what they’re going to do.  It’s still very true.  And they are learning.  Our district Chief of Police wouldn’t have said five words to any group over three people a year ago; yesterday, he got up in front of a large group of very senior Afghan and American people and spoke confidently and at length.  I understand that all the briefers did better this time than last.  That’s a good sign.  As I’ve said, the leaders here may often be un(der) educated, but they’re smart, and can and do learn.  Whether they continue to do this after we pull back is another question.
So after it was over, we climbed back into our MRAPs and headed back.  It was, fortunately, another uneventful trip.  
Today (Friday) is their weekend, which also meant a fairly quiet day for us.  A good time to catch up on paperwork, fix a few equipment issues that have popped up, and do some research that’s been on the back burner.  One of my projects has been to find out whether the district shura members come from all over the district, or whether they come from just a few select areas.  The question, as you might imagine, has some relevance as to how we work with the local officials.  I thought it would be a quick project, maybe an hour.  Nope - I’ve been working on it for a week now and am still not done!  As I’ve discovered, villages can have more than one name - or, rather, multiple names that mean the same thing.  Because there’s no one way to translate Afghan words into the Western alphabet, each one of those names can be spelled about six different ways.  So the villages of Pai Shuyen and Shoheen Sofla are, in fact, the same one.  It’s the same thing with people’s names.  There are, for instance, five gents named Haji Mohammad in the district shura ... or maybe only four, as we’re not quite certain that one of them might be filling two roles.  So after a week of work, I think that the district shura assignments are spread evenly around the district.  But I wouldn’t swear to it.
So I’m still having a good time out here in the district.  Working here is living at a very basic level, but it’s at this level where change can be (and needs to be) done.

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