Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another Week in Maiwand

Another week down in Maiwand and I'm still having a great time.  The hours are long, longer than they were at KAF, but the pace is slower.  That's not the contradiction it seems.  For example, our network is slow.  Click on a file and it could take two minutes to load.  At KAF, I had my classified and unclassified networks right next to each other on one desk.  Here, they're on opposite sides of the FOB.  So when I need to write a report on the classified system, it usually requires information from the unclassified system, so I have to print it out and hike across the FOB.  And we spend a lot of time waiting.  When we go over to the District Center, which is most days, we have to form up in a group and some have to be armed.  So we spend a lot of time sitting at the gazebo, waiting on everybody to show up so we can go to the Center, or sitting in the Center, waiting to go back to the FOB.

Here's my Easter outfit.  Easter Sunday was a regular workday for us.  We had to go over to the District Center to check on a project.  Going over there requires a full set of personal protective equipment (PPE).  It's about 40 pounds worth of stuff.  Fortunately, the walk isn't all that far.

Our slower/longer pace, though, is letting me dig deep into Maiwand's unique situation.  I'm learning as much as I can about the people, their tribes, their issues, their villages, what's happened in the past, what's going on now, and what's planned for the short and long term future.  Maiwand is very different from the other districts that I've studied or spent time in.  It's the Wild West, literally: on the western side of Kandahar Province, out in the boonies, about an hour by car from Kandahar City, and bounded on the north and south by unfriendly natives.  The area along Highway 1, where I am, is pretty secure.  It's the commercial trading center of the district, so everybody has to come here to buy and sell.  But if you go to the south a bit, you're into Taliban country.  Go to the north a bit, and you're into narco-trafficker country.  Neither is the kind of place where you can hop out of your MRAP and walk up to somebody and strike up a conversation.

This is Highway 1, in the bazaar area of the main settlement of Hutal.  Think of the road as the I-40 of Afghanistan, and the bazaar as their free-flowing farmer's market.  This is where the Afghans come to buy their clothes, food, cell phones, and sell their vegetables, eggs, and poppy.  This area is very close to our base, so our soldiers can, and do, make foot patrols through here and talk with the shop owners.  Go about ten clicks north or south, though, and it's different.

Since our goal is to reduce tensions between the groups, and build some sort of peaceful co-existence (if not to integrate them under a common governance umbrella), we have to reach out to those in the north and south.  We do this in a variety of ways.  Some ways work better than others, some backfire, some are successful but in ways we don't expect, and some have no effect whatsoever.  Basically, we have a variety of tools given to us from higher headquarters, and we put them into action as best we can and see what happens.  And sometimes, we have to wonder just what those geniuses up at higher headquarters were thinking when they dreamed up some of these schemes ...

One of our schemes to help stabilize the area is in providing seed and fertilizer for vegetables, wheat, and other crops.  Farmers here are at the subsistence level.  They grow food crops mostly for themselves to eat, not so much as cash crops.  The big cash crop here is poppy and we'd like to get them to grow something else.  So we're trying to make alternatives more available.  Part of the plan is to provide them with heavily-subsidized seed and fertilizer to help get them started.  It also includes training on how to make best use of the fertilizer, water, and seeds.  Believe me, they need that training, as their crop yields are very low, even when considering their environment.  So on this particular day, a lot of farmers came in to the District Center, got some training on how to grow veggies, and then were given a big load of fertilizer and seeds.  The picture shows a happy farmer sitting on top of his tuk-tuk, which is loaded down with seed and fertilizer bags, heading home to his fields.  Will he really stop growing poppy?  Hell, no, he makes too much money off it.  But this will at least give him some alternative crops to think about.

So that's some insight into what I've been doing on your tax dollars for the past week or two.  I'm really having a good time here - it is SO much better than doing staff work at the headquarters at KAF!

But now it's time for a break.  Did I say break?  I just got to Maiwand!  Yep, it's true: I'm heading out on R&R, which was planned long before the shift to Maiwand came up.  I'll be flying out and heading home for a couple of weeks.  I'll get to be with my wife, play with my dogs, mow the yard, drive my own (unarmored) truck, and see my grandson.  It's going to be a great couple of weeks.  Then it'll be time to come back and really hit it hard at the job.  Things are about to start happening and I want to be a part of it!

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