Last week I deployed to the District Support Team in Arghandab district. The team lead was going on leave and needed somebody to cover for him, so I raised my hand. Any chance to get away from staff work and go to the pointy end of the stick is a chance to be jumped at.
So last Monday, I flew from KAF to Arghandab on a rattletrap CH-46 helicopter. The flight was uneventful (good) and within ten minutes of landing, I had my stuff stashed away in my CHU and was in the office, ready to get started. Mike started bringing me up to speed on the main issues facing the DST. I was familiar with some, but certainly not all - in my experience, no headquarters is ever fully aware of what the guys in the field are facing. So we spent Monday and Tuesday talking about DST stuff, going to meetings with the military guys, talking with random Afghans, writing reports, visiting with the District Governor, going to more meetings with the military guys, and writing more reports. Damn, I thought I left the meetings and reports back at KAF! Wrong again, moosebreath.
Mike flew out on Wednesday morning, heading off to the States to visit his daughter, and Philip and I were left to run the place on our own. So what do we do? Meet with the military guys, write reports, meet with random Afghans. But we also had another mission: move the DST. The team’s office has been in the District Center for a few years now. While this has been great for being able to meet with the Governor, district officials, and of course the random Afghans, it had an unwanted second-order effect: Afghans came to rely too much on the US forces and DST to get things done.
You may have heard that one of Karzai’s gripes is that the US and ISAF are a “shadow government” that is outside Afghan control. It’s true. We’re here, we’re organized, and for several years, we were the way things got done. The local Afghan government, if it existed at all, was seen as slow, unable to get things done, and (at worst) corrupt and incompetent. So rather than work through their own government, Afghans learned to turn to the Americans first. You need a road repaired? Might take the Afghan government a year or two to get around to it, if at all - go to the Americans. You want a school built? The Afghan government has no money for schools - go to the Americans. You get the drift.
Recently, though, we’ve begun pulling back. The Afghan government has to become functional and answer the needs of its own people. So when Afghans come and ask us for this project or those supplies, we direct them to the responsible Afghan officials. To help enforce that, we’re pulling our few remaining offices out of the District Center and relocating to the adjacent US-controlled compound. We’ll still be working with the local Afghan officials on a daily basis, but we’ll be trying to get the people and the officials to use their own chain of command and not rely on us.
So on Wednesday evening, after Mike left, Philip and I, along with a group of soldiers, started loading up the office’s furniture, computers, files, and other stuff (lots and lots of “stuff”) and lugging it over to our new digs. We’re in a tent now, with a wooden floor that has a permanent slope to it. Some equipment can’t move yet, not until a special team comes in to take it apart, move it, and set it up in the new space. So we still need to go to the old office occasionally, for a few more days. I tell you, Mike owes me: that was some back-breaking manual labor we did! Once we got all the stuff over there, it took a couple of days to get things organized and into operating condition, but we’re there, more or less.
So things were looking pretty good. Until yesterday morning, when we heard about the incident in Panjwai. A soldier had walked out of his base and shot an unknown number of Afghans. Some were killed, some wounded. Panjwai is adjacent to Arghandab and this particular base is maybe 20 miles from here. Coming on the heels of the Koran burning, this was not good. While we were aware of it yesterday, and the Afghan leaders were aware of it, the regular people at the Center were not. But we decided to tighten up on security, so Philip and I are staying away from the Center as much as possible during the day and only using the old office at night.
The Afghan leaders that we’ve talked to have all been pretty understanding. They’re very upset with the soldier, of course, but they’re not upset with Americans in general. They recognize that this is a rogue act by one guy with some serious issues. They want to see an immediate investigation, they want to see justice, and they want things to calm down. All of which we want, too.
The district officials, police, and army have an additional responsibility that we do not. They have to calm their people down and maintain order. During the Koran troubles, they did an excellent job overall. There wasn’t much trouble down here in the south, and what little there was, was fairly easily contained. Since this event occurred right here in Kandahar Province, just a short distance away, things might be different.
The Afghan media, though, is following the American tradition: sensationalize, exaggerate, and show blood and gore. The reports are pretty graphic and pretty horrible. The Taliban isn’t going to have to do much to make them worse than they already are. What’s true and what’s not remains to be seen in the investigation, but the press isn’t waiting for an investigation.
So things are a bit tense here. We’ve tightened security on our end and are waiting to see what the fallout is. Life on the pointy end of the stick just got more interesting.