Friday, December 30, 2011

And Now for a Bit of R&R

I'm at home now on an R&R break.  It's been a great time to do pretty much nothing.  Just being at home with my wife, dogs, and friends is enough.  Maybe I'm getting to be an old fart (okay, I already am an old fart), but I don't need to go traipsing off around the world, looking for exciting places to go and things to do.  No, thanks; Kandahar is exciting enough for me.  I just want some normality now.

Getting home was not easy.  I was supposed to leave on Wednesday, Dec 21, on a flight from Kandahar to Dubai, then on to the US.  But a dust storm rolled in on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning it lay thick over all of southern Afghanistan.  Visibility was down to 400-600 meters, well below the 800 meters minimum for the airline to land to pick us up.  They kept pushing the arrival time back, hoping that it would clear just enough to get the plane on the ground.  It was cold, too: sub-zero (Fahrenheit), with ice on the ground.  We milled around all morning, first outside in the freezing cold, then inside an unheated terminal, hoping against hope that the skies would clear a bit, but they didn't.  Finally, at around 4:30, they cancelled the flight.

Now we had a couple hundred people with broken flight connections.  Right at the beginning of the Christmas rush.  And all the flights out of Kandahar for several days were overbooked already.  Not a good scenario.  I got on the phone with our travel agents in Kabul.  These guys worked miracles and quickly got me rescheduled on a flight out of Dubai 24 hours later.  The flight from Kandahar was a different issue: the airline was trying to get a second airplane in to get everybody to Dubai, but that was still in the works.

Thursday morning, we woke to a slightly thinner, but still present, dust storm.  Then we discovered that the airline could not get a second airplane in, due to some issues with the airport and (presumably) Afghan government.  This was a BIG uh-oh.  One of my co-workers suggested that I try getting to Kabul on an embassy-run airplane and then flying to Dubai on an airline.  I made some calls and discovered that (a) an Embassy flight was leaving in about a half hour and (b) the miracle-workers in Kabul could indeed get me on a flight from there to Dubai.  I grabbed my backpack, found the duty driver, and made it to the flight line with minutes to spare.  On the flight to Kabul, I could see just how thick and extensive the dust cloud was: it lay like a thick fog over the ground, making any features such as runways completely invisible, and it extended for miles.

Once in Kabul, I was able to get over to the commercial terminal, again with minutes to spare, and got checked in.  Then it was on to Dubai, a 2 1/2 hour flight.  I couldn't believe it: I was finally on my way!  After landing and going through the passport control, I had a couple of hours to kill.  Dubai is a very modern city, bustling and active, with a huge expatriate presence.  Based on some recommendations, I went to the Irish Village and had my first really good meal in nearly three months, along with a fabulous draft beer.  Heaven!

Back to the airport later and onto Lufthansa for a flight to Frankfurt.  I had been happy with this, thinking that it would be good to break up the flight into two legs vice one long 14-hour marathon.  As it turned out, not so.  Lufthansa was fine, a bit better than United but nothing like, say, Air France.  The problem was Frankfurt.  I've been through this airport in years past, but this time, it was ridiculous.  Security is over-the-top: you have to go through security to get away from your gate, and go through it again to get to your next gate.  "Slow" is the operative word here.  Worse, Frankfurt is a maze without useful guidance.  If the flight you're looking for is Lufthansa, then there are signs everywhere telling you where to go.  If you're looking for another airline (and almost every international airline in the world is in Frankfurt), then you're out of luck.  No signs.  I finally stumbled over an information desk with a grumpy soul who pointed me in the right direction.  Despite a two-hour layover, I got to my gate about 15 minutes before boarding time.  My advice is to stay the hell away from Frankfurt.

After that, though, it was smooth sailing.  I was on United to Chicago, which was a piece of cake after Frankfurt.  Then the final short flight to Asheville.  Janis and the dogs were waiting for me in the terminal.  I was home, 42 hours after leaving Kandahar.  And I'd picked up a cold along the way.

So now I'm sitting here in my favorite chair.  My cold is pretty much gone (not quite).  Janis and the dogs are more or less used to me being here by now.  I've visited with some friends, taken care of some business, and had a wonderfully quiet Christmas.  Life is good.

I head back to Afghanistan next week.  There are things cooking that I need to work on.  But for now, I'm just enjoying being at home.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trying to Go on R&R

I got up this morning, grabbed my backpack, and headed for the air terminal here at Kandahar Air Field, intending to go home on R&R.  It didn't quite work out that way.  The reason?  Dust.

Yesterday, we had a big dust cloud move in early in the day.  It looked like fog - a gritty whitish-gray mass that settled over the base and gradually got more dense as the day went on.  This morning, it was still there.  Our group of traveller wanna-be's trooped over to the KAF airfield at 8 am to get checked in for the flight.  It was cold - there was ice on the ground outside the terminal, and for some reason that only makes sense to the military, we were not allowed to go inside for over two hours.  (For all of you who gripe about United Airlines' crappy treatment of prisoners - er, customers, at least they let you stand around inside a warm terminal while they muck up your flight).  Eventually, we got inside and discovered that there wasn't really any heat inside, either, so it didn't make a lot of difference where we were kept.

But as we stood around shivering, I watched the dust cloud get thicker and thicker.  Our plane was delayed, then delayed again, in the hopes that the air would start to clear.  No luck.  Somebody explained that planes have to have a minimum of 800 meters visibility to land.  Our visibility ranged between 400-600 meters.  In other words, about a quarter of a mile, give or take.

Finally, at about 4:30, they gave up and cancelled the flight.  A group of four of us hightailed it over to our office compound and got on the phone to our travel office.  Those guys worked miracles revising our tickets.  I'm pretty happy with mine: they have me flying on Lufthansa tomorrow, which is much better than United, and it breaks my long overseas flight up into two sections.  Now if they can just get me an aisle seat ...

Those tickets still depend on tomorrow's weather.  I hear that it's supposed to be a bit clearer.  The air service (a charter group) is arranging to fly two planes in tomorrow to fly out both today's and tomorrow's passengers.  A good thing, since both flights were over-booked anyway.

So.  With a little luck, at this time tomorrow I should be in Dubai, waiting to board a flight that will take me home.  I'm ready!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Three Days in Maiwand

Two Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

Three Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

The Listener
Graphite on paper, 9"x10"

Senior Leader
Graphite on paper, 9"x9"

I spent three days earlier this week in the district of Maiwand.  Maiwand is to the west of Kandahar City, on the border with Helmand Province.  It's an agricultural area with virtually no other types of industries.  Maiwand, along with neighboring district of Zhari on one side and the province of Helmand on the other, is the original homeland of the Taliban.  They still control the territory.  Afghan government influence is minimal but growing.  Slowly.  

During this visit, I was in several meetings with the district governor, chief of police, and other officials.  I also sat in on the District Development Assembly meeting.  This is a shura (a meeting of the elders) to discuss what they want to do to develop their district.  About 30 Maiwand elders were in attendance from various parts of the district.  I was a back-bencher, there to observe proceedings.  What better way for an artist to observe than by sketching?  So I took along my drawing pad and pencil, sat against the wall, and sketched away.  The four drawings above are the result.

As I've said before, Afghans have the most amazing features and are wonderful subjects for an artist.  They're very different from Western norms, very expressive, with different ways of dressing.  I could spend all day, every day, drawing and painting these guys.  Great fun.  My experience as a courtroom artist really helped here, as nobody sat still.  

The meeting itself?  Chaos.  There was much in the way of passionate speech about this and that, people pushing agendas, arguments and counter-arguments, debate, voting, more passion, signing of papers, scheduling of follow-on meetings, and so on.  Sometimes I'd look at the American officer sitting next to me and we'd just shake our heads and laugh.  You can't make this stuff up.  It was great entertainment.  As effective government, well, I don't know.  The district governor is still establishing himself (he's only been on the job for a month and is not from the district), so what he does with this group, and others, remains to be seen.

When not in meetings with the Afghans, I spent time with my primary contact, Carlos.  He's been there almost a year and is extremely well-versed in local governance and politics.  I was listening to the discussion in the shura while sketching, for example, and generally followed what was going on, but Carlos caught a lot of subtleties that I missed entirely.  Sometimes the fact that a certain individual says something, or doesn't say something, is vitally important.  As the man said, all politics is local, especially here.

I was also learning a bit about life on a Contingency Operating Base, or COB.  COBs are small bases with only a couple hundred people total.  This one is right on the edge of the town of Hutal - you can stand on the walls, throw a rock, and hit someone in the bazaar.  (Note: this is not recommended!)  Life on a COB is very spartan: tents, portajohns, gravel, limited supplies of just about everything, crappy communications links, a fairly well-equipped gym, and more MRAPs than you ever thought existed.  But it also fosters an esprit de corps since everybody's in the same boat.  You share what you have and help your buddy out.  Tomorrow, you're going to need your buddy's help.

All in all, a very productive visit for me and, hopefully, for Carlos and the rest of the Maiwand team.  I'm looking forward to working with them throughout the rest of my time in Afghanistan.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another Trip to Spin Boldak

I made another trip to Spin Boldak earlier this week.  Spin Boldak is the district in Kandahar Province (like a county in a state) that's on the border with Pakistan.  It has one of the two major border crossings that ISAF uses as a supply route.  Or it did until two weeks ago, when Pakistan closed the border to ISAF traffic after the shooting incident.  But this trip had nothing to do with the border crossing.  Instead, my boss wanted to talk with the key locals about the future.

His message was pretty clear: we're drawing down.  We're not leaving Afghanistan, but within three years, there will be a very small presence in Kandahar Province.  We're not doing lots of projects anymore, and we're not going to be a "shadow government".  Instead, they needed to work with the government structure to do the things that governments are supposed to do: build and maintain roads, provide schooling, provide a health care system, lay the groundwork for private-sector economic growth, and so on.  They need to get their government working now, while ISAF is here to back them up.  They can't wait until we're gone.

How did it go over?  Hard to say.  They certainly listened.  I saw heads nodding at important points.  Now to see what they do.

I was a back-bencher during most of this.  When you're with the Big Dog, he's the one who does the talking, particularly when we're talking about the big strategic picture.  I'll get my chance to talk with some of them later, when we're talking about specific "how to" points.

So, of course, I did some sketching when I could.  I swear, I could spend days drawing these guys.  Part of it is the fact that they look and dress so different from Americans, and there's that fascination with whatever's different.  That's why we all take photos on vacation, isn't it?  It's someplace different.

But in addition to being different, the Afghans I've dealt with have great character in their faces.  They've lived through experiences that you and I don't even like to read about.  They have a dignity and gravity about them.  But there's often an openness, a friendliness, sometimes even an eagerness, that's almost childlike.  (Not always - in one of our meetings, I sat next to a guy who wanted nothing to do with me.  But he listened intently to what was said and made some very sharp, focused, and interesting remarks back to the Boss.)

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

These were done during a meeting with district officials.  These guys were quite lively.  Some of their discussion was "I want ... " and "I need ... ", aimed at ISAF, which is how they've been getting much of their resources over the past ten years.  But as the boss made clear, ISAF's not going to provide much more, and they need to get their resources from their own government.  I could see from their faces that they were getting the message.

Later we talked with the tribal shura.  A "shura" is a meeting of the elders to discuss whatever happens to be the topic of the day.  Spin Boldak has created a very representative shura assembly that reflects its tribal diversity.  This is the meeting where I sat next to the guy who didn't want anything to do with me.  Watching the crowd, if you ignored the turbans, beards, and Afghan dress, it was like a community meeting anywhere in the States, except maybe more respectful.  They listened, thought about it, made their own points, and in general were actively engaged.  I hope I can get back down there for another shura meeting soon, only this time without the boss, so that I can better see their dynamics in action.

So what's the future here?  It remains to be seen.  Spin Boldak is a very complex place, much more so than any other place in the region, except maybe Kandahar City.  There are lots of power players, lots of different dynamics, and we have only a shallow understanding of it.  Not for lack of trying, but Afghan society, especially in a place like this, has undercurrents and behind-closed-doors deals and unstated understandings that outsiders will not, ever, know about.  I recently described Spin Boldak as a paper-thin layer of official government laid on top of a spaghetti-plate of real activity.  We're doing what we can to help develop that official layer so that the spaghetti-plate doesn't destroy itself later on.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Musings

Maiwand District Chief of Police
Ballpoint pen on lined paper, 7"x5"

A few days ago, I went out to the district of Maiwand to meet with the new District Governor and District Chief of Police.  It was an interesting trip.  I wound up sitting right next to the Governor and taking notes, so I couldn't do any sketches.  When we met with the Chief of Police, though, I managed to grab a seat to the side and was free to sketch away.  Here's the one of the DCoP.

The big news over the past few days has been the incident in the eastern part of the country where ISAF forces killed a number of Pakistani border troops.  Most of the news reporting that I've seen has focused on Pakistan's indignant response.  They've roundly condemned the attack as unprovoked, an assault on Pakistani sovereignty, and an international travesty.  Additionally, they've thrown us out of a base that we were using to launch drones and they've pulled out of the Bonn talks on the future of Afghanistan that just started.  And, in what will eventually affect me personally, they've closed ISAF's overland supply routes from the seaport of Karachi into Afghanistan for an indefinite period.  In response, we've issued our condolences to Pakistan, especially to the families of those killed, and launched an investigation into the incident.  Afghanistan has also issued condolences and tried to get Pakistan to come to the table in Bonn.  Pakistan, though, is in a helluva snit and does not want to play.

There is, of course, more to this story.  Afghan TV and print media are reporting that the Pakistani forces who were attacked had been shooting at an Afghan border village for some time, forcing residents to stay indoors.  These reports have also stated that an Afghan patrol, with ISAF backup, had come under fire from the Pakistani side of the border, which was what prompted the call for the ISAF attack helicopter to return fire.  I haven't seen any of this in Western news reports, though, only in Afghan.

So before everybody gets too excited and starts condemning ISAF forces as being trigger-happy cowboys (Pakistan's position), let's just wait until the investigation is done.  I bet it's not quite what we've heard so far.

In other news, I've been fighting a friction' cold for the past 3 weeks.  I'm sick of it.  SICK, I tell you!  It's knocked me on my butt several times.  I don't have time for this.  NyQuil and Mucinex and other drugs help the symptoms, but I want it to be gone.  Now, please.