Monday, July 30, 2012

Back Home Again

Traveling across eight and a half timezones really messes with your body.  Particularly when you do it in one swell foop, it's like throwing a monkey wrench into your inner body clock.  So at 2:30 a.m., I was lying in bed, wondering whether to lie there and pretend to sleep, or just go ahead and get up and find something productive to do.  I compromised: I lay there a half hour listening to my dog snore, then got up and made a cuppa joe to get my day started.

The trip back was pretty uneventful.  I flew from Kandahar to Dubai, then took a cab over to Terminal 1 and waited for the Delta desk to open.  People-watching in the Dubai airport is quite interesting, as folks from all over the world are passing through: Chinese stewardesses in long slinky dresses, Arabic men in their white thawbs and kheffiyas, Indian women wearing the traditional sari, Europeans in business suits, Americans in shorts and T-shirts, and all manner in between.  Eventually the desk opened, I got checked in, and headed off to the passport line.  Where I was stopped.  I'd only been in-country for two hours and apparently my entry into the country had not made it through the system yet. But it got straightened out after a bit of a wait, and off I went to wait on my plane to board.

At the gate, I wound up talking with a very interesting man.  He's a naturalized American from Afghanistan who is now working in the country.  There are a lot of people like that in both government service and with the contractors.  This man's father had just died the day before and he was on his way home.  He told me about his father's accomplishments, and then the topic drifted to our mission, how it was proceeding, and what the various possible outcomes were.  He had a lot of insight and, really, he just needed to talk.  I barely said a word, just listened.

But then it was time for me to get on the plane.  We loaded up and left on schedule for the long 14-hour flight.  It always amazes me that you can stuff that many people into a long metal tube, with all their junk, get it in the air, and land it halfway around the world 14 hours later.  It's mind-boggling, really.  I watched a movie and a couple of TV shows and actually managed to get a few short snatches of sleep here and there.

We landed in Atlanta early in the morning and went through the immigration lines.  Atlanta is far and away better than Dulles.  It's more modern and better arranged, but the biggest difference is the people. Even at 5:30 in the morning, they were cheerful, efficient, and friendly.  I don't think I've ever seen anybody at Dulles be cheerful or friendly.  Efficient, yes, but definitely not cheerful or friendly.  Never.

And one of the best things is hearing the immigration agent tell you "welcome home".

The final hop to Asheville was pleasant.  The sun was up and I could look out the window at my own country again.  We landed, I grabbed my backpack, and headed out the door, where Janis and the dogs were waiting.  It was a great homecoming!

What really hit me on the drive home was how green everything was.  Southern Afghanistan is brown. Western North Carolina is GREEN.  Green trees, green grass, green fields.  What a difference.  Another thing was how fortunate we are to live in this country.  Even a small house in North Carolina is a palace compared to the mud-walled, dirt-floored homes that shelter millions in Afghanistan.  We take 24-hour electricity, clean running water, paved roads, and general lack of warfare for granted.  Trust me, these are blessings.

So now I'm home for a couple of weeks.  I've got a honey-do list that's not too big.  We've got dinner dates with friends and tickets to a ball game.  I need to start making some contacts for after-Afghanistan employment.

Mostly, I just want to be with Janis and the dogs.  Home again.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Heading Out on R&R

I'm back at Kandahar Air Field (KAF), on my way out for my last R&R.  These last three months have both crept by and gone by in a flash.  If you've been on a long deployment, you probably know what I mean.  Frankly, I was getting a bit burned out towards the end.  I need to get my brain reset for the last sprint to the finish.

Finish?  Yep.  Once I come back, I'll have about six weeks or so before my time in Afghanistan is up.  I am not going to extend here.  If I thought my efforts were making a difference, it might be worth considering, but I sure don't see it.  And beating my head against a brick wall is not worth the price of separation from the family, no matter how good the pay is.  So I'll go home this fall and deploy no more.  Travel, yes; deploy, no.

This past week saw the start of Ramadan.  This Muslim holy month typically slows down nearly everything except insurgent activities.  The faithful don't eat, drink, or smoke from the first call to prayer (around 4:30 in the morning) until sundown (around 7:30 in the evening).  Since the daily temperature is around 105-110 in the afternoon, they really need to be careful to avoid severe dehydration.  So the working hours now are from around 6 or 7 am to around 10 am, maybe 11 for  those working indoors. 

As for the insurgents, their mullahs say that, since they're engaged in a holy war, they can eat and drink during the day to maintain their strength.  So our Afghan security forces are often following the same ruling.  No sense fighting a war when you're giving the enemy a big advantage. 

But Ramadan is a good time to go on leave.  I flew into KAF yesterday, got settled into my temporary rack, and took care of some business.  After being out in the boonies, I'm looking at KAF with some fresh eyes.  Here are the top 10 things to like about KAF:
1.  Indoor flush toilets.
2.  Salad bar at the DFAC.
3.  Ice cream at the Boardwalk.
4.  Seeing friends again after 3 months.
5.  Cooked-to-order ham and cheese omelette with REAL EGGS.
6.  Cappuccino at the Green Bean.
7.  Did I mention indoor flush toilets? 
8.  Umm ... that's about it ...

So I have a couple of meetings to do today to discuss some Maiwand-specific issues.  Then I need to do some paperwork.  After that, read my book, pack my bag, and get ready for the flight tomorrow.  Sunday morning I'll be HOME!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Projects and Progress

We've had a pretty intense week since my last post.  There were a lot of things that we were trying to get wrapped up, or started, or whatever, prior to the beginning of Ramadan.  This is the month-long Muslim religious observance, during which the faithful cannot eat, drink, or smoke from sunup to sundown.  As you can imagine, in a dry climate where the temperature is 105-110 every day, this is going to slow things down a bit.  Ramadan started yesterday.

So, did we get everything done that needed to get done?  Hell, no.  But we made progress.  My teammates are both with USAID and manage projects.  One is still busting his tail to get the local leaders to nominate projects that can be completed under a regional program by late fall.  These are basically projects that will benefit communities that we (ISAF and the Afghan government) are reaching out to.  They include things like roadwork, culverts, and water projects.  You may think, as I did, "we've been doing that for years, so what's the point?"  What's different now is the context.  In earlier years, ISAF dreamed up projects to hire a lot of people, have them do something that's somewhat productive, give them a bit of cash, and give them something else to do besides ambush our soldiers.  Those programs generally met their objectives: where we did projects, there were fewer ambushes.

Now, though, we're trying to connect the people in key areas with the district government, and the district government with the provincial one.  The Afghans have their own ways for these connections to work, but since ISAF has essentially been running the show out here for so long, the Afghan ways are more than a bit rusty.  So we're using our programs to loosen things up.  The villages decide what they need most (a well, a road, a school, whatever), and send their request up to the district development committee, which is a group of elders from around the district.  They consider the request, and if they approve it, send it on to the appropriate ministry in Kandahar.  That's the theory.  In practice, well, as I said, it's a bit rusty.  So we also have our various program managers (some military, some USAID) consider the requests, and carry out the ones that can be done within our guidelines.  This way, the villages see a benefit from working with the district government.

Does it work?  Well, yes, pretty much, but only when done as part of a larger effort that involves security, and only when graft and corruption are kept within Afghan-normal bounds.  The districts to the east, around Kandahar City, have used this approach over the past two years.  Most areas in them are pretty quiet now and the people are concerned with more routine things.  I'm seeing fierce arguments and divisions over charges that so-and-so is incompetent, that another guy doesn't come to work, or a third charges too much for services and is lining his own pocket.  All of which means that the Taliban is not in control of those districts anymore.

Here, though, we have a long way to go.  The Taliban still controls most of this district.  The Afghan government, with ISAF support, controls some.  But we're pushing out further.  Two months ago, I went to a shura in a strategically-located village.  They basically told us to go away, that when we showed up the Taliban did, too, and they just wanted to be left in peace.  ISAF and the Afghan security forces stayed anyway.  This past week, one of the village elders told me that security was good and that now they needed projects.  That's progress.  Slow, but progress.  And we're pushing beyond that village to the next ones already.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Political Maneuvering

The Afghan political scene has been very active since my last post.  I wrote then about Mohammad Ehsan's visit to the district and the tumultuous shura that greeted him.  Since then, the Afghans have been very busy.  A new shura chairman has been appointed from outside, the old chairman has been assigned a specific task on rooting out a problem, and there may be some more shakeups pending.  As mentioned last time, a large portion of shura members had quit coming to the meetings because they didn't like the way things were going.  Now they're back.

I've talked with members on both sides of the fence.  It's been really interesting.  One side (just to give them a name, let's call them "Republicans") says that the other side are crooks, that they've been robbing from the people, and they're only out to line their pockets.  They're really happy with the new chairman and think that now they can make progress.  The other side (we'll call them "Democrats") say that the Republicans are proven criminals, they're only interested in power, and they're out to line their own pockets.  They're really happy with the new chairman, too, and think that now they can make progress.

I'm really glad that I'm not the new chairman.

The good thing, as I mentioned, is that both sides are back at the table.  Our shuras had been down to maybe ten guys, basically the same ones each week.  But this week, over 30 showed up, and the tone of discussion was pretty civilized.

Maybe these guys can teach our politicians a few things ...

Meanwhile, we have a variety of programs ongoing.  One of them is giving a lot of seed and fertilizer to district farmers.  The intent is to give them legal crops as an alternative to growing poppy.  Personally, I don't think this will make a bit of difference, but I had no say in the decision-making, so now we're just trying to make it work as best we can.

So here's one of the trucks that brought the seeds and fertilizer to our agricultural center.  The NGO handling the distribution has sorted all these bags out and divided them into "packets", one for each farmer.  They've given out over a hundred so far and are steadily working through the rest.

Meanwhile, I've continued to do artwork whenever possible.  Sometimes it's in the shuras, where I can draw the people from life, hopefully without their knowing it.  For the pastel drawings, though, I have to work from photos.  Here are a couple of them:

Khogiani Elder
Pastel on paper, 13"x12" 

Afghan Girl
Pastel on paper, 13"x12"

Today is Friday, our "weekend", so I'm catching up on a few things.  This blog, for one; but also routine things like cleaning my hooch and going over my notes and lists of things to do from the past week.  It's nice to have a slow morning and not have to rush, though. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A Visitor to the Shura

A meeting between local Afghans and a high-level one is something to be experienced.  At least, the one yesterday was.  Two members of the Kandahar Provincial Council came to Maiwand for a visit.  The Provincial Council might be thought of as the equivalent of a State Senate, although its function is quite different.  One of the members, Mohammad Ehsan, is from Maiwand.  He is also the Chairman of the Council, and is related (distantly) to President Hamid Karzai.  In other words, he's a local boy made good.  And his visit was a Big Deal.

Just how big was a surprise.  I had thought that the two members would come out for a quiet talk with our District Governor and the leaders of our local councils.  Instead, when we arrived, it was standing room only.  Nearly every member of both our shuras had come.  Our District Governor opened the meeting with what sounded like a typically flowery and well-delivered welcoming speech.  I can't tell you what he said because I was trying to get my earpiece to work.  Finally, it fired up in time for me to hear Mohammad Ehsan's speech (short) and then he opened the floor for discussion.

Almost immediately, one man stood up and denounced half the members of the development shura.  "They're thieves!" he said, "and all who agree with me should stand up!"  A big group right behind him stood up.  I thought, ohboy, this is gonna be an interesting meeting.  So of course, one of the shura members had to stand up and defend himself and it quickly became a shouting match.  The Governor and Ehsan managed to get the meeting back under control, and Ehsan went on to give an impressive off-the-cuff talk stressing that all the members should work together to bring security and development to the district.  He is an extremely skillful speaker, and his words would have done justice to any high-level American politician.

But they only worked for so long.  Pretty soon, more accusations flew, fingers pointed, voices raised, and the Governor and Ehsan had to calm things down again.  And again.  It didn't help when the Governor was the butt of accusations, either.  At one point, the interpreter on the radio, who was giving a running translation of the discussion, gave up and said ".... aaaaaand another fight breaks out ..."  They could have gone on all day, but eventually we had to wrap things up so our guests could catch the helicopter back to Kandahar City.  And then everybody filed out like brothers.

Odd as it may sound, I was really happy about this meeting.  Our shuras have seen steadily declining attendance over the past several months.  This meeting showed that there are some deep divisions that are apparently the cause.  But it also showed that there is a lot of energy and passion, and that people are willing to mix it up in the right circumstances.  I spoke with the Governor later and he felt the same way.  Our challenge, now, is to get those disenchanted people back into the shuras, and even get them shouting at each other again.  That's how they'll figure out solutions.