Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Moving to Maiwand

It's time for a major change in jobs.  Tomorrow morning, I will leave the luxuries of Kandahar Air Field and move downrange to the District Support Team in Maiwand.  KAF has been a great assignment.  I got to work with a lot of smart people (as well as a few whose smarts seemed to have been left back in the States).  I went to some neat places: Arghandab, Dand, Spin Boldak, Uruzgan, Zhari, Kandahar City, and Daman.  I participated in the painfully thorough planning process for the spring operations that are about to kick off.  I was immersed in trying to figure out how an extremely dysfunctional government really functions, which often entails studying things that have nothing to do with government.  In short, I learned a hell of a lot.

So about a month ago, I decided to go for a new challenge and told my boss that I wanted to move further out to a DST.  These are small teams of 1-4 people who work closely with the district governors, officials, shuras, key leaders, and military forces.  They often live in spartan conditions on small bases.  Life out there is much more basic than here, but DST members deal directly with Afghans, personally, on a daily basis.  Frankly, at KAF, I've been doing staff work and working pretty exclusively with Americans.  I can do that at home.  Time to go do something different.

So I'm off to Maiwand.  This is a key district in southern Afghanistan.  It's in western Kandahar Province, on the border with Helmand Province.  The Ring Route, Highway 1, which runs in a circle around Afghanistan to connect all the key cities, bisects the district.  It's home to the Taliban.  Its major cash crop is poppy.  The official Afghan government only has a toe-hold there.

Starting tomorrow, I'll be half of a two-man team based on a small COP in the district center in the town of Hutal.  ("Town" as used here is being generous.)  In another week or two, we'll add another individual.  Our mission is to get a functioning structure in the district so that it can maintain itself after military forces and US assistance pull back.  Whether that's achievable remains to be seen, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

So I'm pretty excited about this opportunity.  This is what I came to Afghanistan to do.  Time to go do it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Back at KAF

Private Rios
Graphite on paper, 7"x5"

My time at Arghandab is up and I'm back at Kandahar Air Field (KAF) again.  Arghandab was a lot of fun.  It was great to be away from staff duty and to work directly with the local Afghans and the military forces out in the field.  Everything we did out there affected the mission.

I got to do some more drawing as well.  Above is a sketch of Private Rios, who always seemed to be on guard duty whenever I had to go through the gate over to the District Center.  A friendly, outgoing, and very talkative guy (to use one of my mother's favorite phrases, he could talk the ears off a brass monkey), Rios was curious as to what we were doing in general, and was thrilled to have me do this sketch.

In my last post, I included a drawing of the Arghandab District Governor.  He loved it, but thought I made him look too serious.  Actually, I really lightened up his expression - you should have seen the stern face I had to work with!  The next day, I went in to say goodbye.  The DG was sitting in his office with about a dozen of his cronies.  He told them all about the picture I'd drawn the previous day.  Next thing I knew, he was pulling some paper out, finding a pen, and wanting me to draw him again, only this time with a smile!  How could I refuse?  The pressure was on!  So I sat there and drew him again, with one of his cronies who looked like the original Abraham sitting next to me and giving a running commentary.  It was a blast.  I was lucky: pens are unforgiving, but I managed to capture his likeness and spirit pretty well.  The DG was thrilled.  Mission accomplished.

I did quite a few other sketches during my time in Arghandab.  You can see them on my studio's Facebook page,  I haven't put them on my website yet ... actually, I think my website is overdue for some updates, but not today.

The next morning, I packed up and a group of us trudged up the hill to the landing zone.  The Embassy helo came in about 20 minutes early (yay).  I climbed in, buckled up, and we were off.  My time in Arghandab was over.

The helo, by the way, was an old Russian-built MI-8.  Think 1950's Chevy van with rotor blades, flown by crazy Ukrainians.  There are certain ways in and out of the LZ that the military wants helos to take to minimize the impact that rotor blasts might have on both the base and adjacent religious shrine.  The Ukrainians don't pay much attention.  They skimmed right along the ridge, one or two hundred yards out, thoroughly enjoying themselves.  For those of us in the back, our windows were filled with mountains on one side and blue sky on the other.  And the mountains didn't look very far away.  Beats the hell out of any thrill ride at Six Flags!

Back at KAF, the first thing I did was take a nice long shower, shave, and throw a couple of loads of clothes into the laundry.  Life at a FOB is fun, but it's lacking in certain amenities.  Things like a fairly spacious and clean shower stall, for example.  Toilets that flush, instead of port-johns.  The ability to pull your clothes out of the dryer when they're done, rather than pick them up after they've spent several hours wadded up in your laundry bag and now look like you slept in them for a week.  Today, I treated myself to a cappuccino at Green Beans, which is the Starbucks for war zones.  Life's good ... at least as far as creature comforts are concerned.

I was talking with a friend at breakfast this morning and he was lamenting the fact that, here at KAF, we spend all day reading emails, writing reports, and preparing PowerPoint presentations, all to affect decisions on things we'll never see.  Very true.  Which is why I'm heading out to the field again very soon.  I'm transferring to one of our District Support Teams (DSTs) and will be there for the rest of my tour.  I'm really excited about it - I'll be able to dig down into the dynamics of one particular district, get to know the District Governor and key leaders, team up with the military unit, and in general get my hands dirty doing operational stuff.  And I'll be able to do more interesting drawings.  It's a district that I'm already fairly familiar with, so I won't be walking into it blind.  THIS is what I came to Afghanistan for!  So when am I leaving?  Not quite sure, but probably within the week.  You'll read about it right here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Diplomacy Through Art

A few days ago, I was in a meeting with the District Governor of Arghandab, Haji Shah Mohammad.  I did a quick sketch of him while he was talking with somebody else, and when we left, I gave it to him.  He thought it was pretty cool and wanted me to do another one, a bit more formal.  So this morning, I met with him in his office, along with a number of his cronies, and did this drawing.

Haji Shah Mohammad
Graphite on paper, 12"x9"

The District Governor of Arghandab and me

I sat on the visitor's couch across from him while he sat in his favorite chair.  The lighting was a bit odd:since the power was out in the building (a common situation) we relied on ambient light from the windows, which was soft and unusually colored due to today's thick dust.  I had an interpreter, Ahmad, with me, and he talked with the DG and the cronies while I drew.  I can't talk and draw at the same time, so I kept quiet and sketched away.  After about 20 minutes, I thought the drawing turned out pretty well, and the DG thought so, too, especially when I gave it to him.  So now he has two original Rohde drawings in his private art collection.  I had a great time doing it and hope that I can do more before the end of my tour.

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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tension in Arghandab

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.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

New Sketches

I'm in Arghandab, a district in Kandahar Province, for a couple of weeks.  One of the Department of State team members is on leave and I'm filling in for him.  This has already proven to be an interesting and challenging assignment.  Power outages, dealing with the Afghan work ethic, meeting lots of soldiers and trying to remember their names and jobs so I can coordinate with the right guy, and moving the office from the District Center (source of the power outages) to a nearby Army tent (which is on a different power system and uses different voltage) has been a challenge.

Despite that, I have my sketchbook and have been able to do some quick drawings here and there.  Yesterday, for example, I attended the district shura, which is a public meeting where the District Governor, Chief of Police, officials, and village elders get together to discuss, well, everything.  It's a bit of a stage show, a bit chaotic, unscripted, surprising, and a great source of drawing material.

Shura Members
Pencil on paper, 5"x7"

 Abdul Manan
Pencil on paper, 7"x5"

 Battle Damage Claimant
Pencil on paper, 7"x5"

Shura Member
Pencil on paper, 7"x5"

Saturday, March 03, 2012

On the Road Again

I finally managed to break free from KAF a few days ago.  Several of us flew up to FOB Pasab in Zhari District on Thursday to meet with a team of civilians there.  They were Department of State, USAID, and US Department of Agriculture experts who are directly involved with the local Afghan government. Two of us stayed for a couple of nights for some more in-depth and focused discussions.  It turned out to be a very productive visit.  I'd never been there before, and I'm the kind of guy who'll go almost anywhere once, so it was fun to see a new place.  

FOB Pasab is a pretty large military base.  Most of it is ISAF, but not all: there is a section that belongs to Afghan security forces, and a section that includes the District Center, which is the seat of government.  Like all our bases, it's made up of tents, CHUs, "Plywood Palaces", stacks of CONEX boxes (big shipping containers), diesel-powered generators, miles and miles of T-walls, and gravel.  

Most significantly, it has one of the best DFACs in all Kandahar Province.  After eating at the "Sux" DFAC for so long, it was great to find a really well-run place.  The food tasted great, there was a good variety, and they had all the extra geedunk (Navy terminology for snack food) that DFACs are supposed to have but ours never do.  For example, they had a wide variety of drinks, including Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Coke Zero, regular Coke, Orange Crush, Snapple, boxed juices (pineapple, orange, apple, cranberry, and mixtures), V8, Gatorade, non-alcoholic beer, and much much more.  The Sux might have regular Coke, orange crush, mystery drink (maybe it's Tang, but I wouldn't bet on it), and something they claim is apple juice.  FOB Pasab's DFAC even had (gasp) REAL ICE CREAM!  Yes!  Cookies 'n' Cream, Praline, Chocolate, and Vanilla ... the kind you scoop out of a big ol' tub, not the kind that squirts out of a machine like runny poop.  Last night was Friday, which means Surf 'n' Turf, and I had a big stack of crab legs for the first time since, well, Baghdad.  Followed by real pecan pie.  Oh my gosh, it was almost like being in the real world again.  Tomorrow I gotta hit the gym to start working it off.

But we weren't there just to hit the DFAC, we were there to work.  (No, really, we were.  There to work, I mean.)  We spent most of the day in some pretty deep discussions about the team, the mission, operations, and how to maximize our effectiveness.  I got to visit the district center and get a feel for the place.  Last night, the incoming Colonel (he'll be in charge of all the military operations in the area in a week) came to the tent and talked with us for two and a half hours.  Quite impressive.  Very sharp guy with a keen understanding of the social, political, and military environments.  He'll be a great one to work with.

Today we came back, riding home in an ancient CH-46 helo.  The Navy and Marines used to operate these things way back when I was a junior officer at sea, so it was cool to get to ride in one again.  Yes, that is Your Faithful Correspondent in the cool Ray-Bans at the top of this post.

So now it's back to the KAF Grind.  Back to the Sux ... in fact, I needed some Alka-Seltzer after dinner tonight, and not because I ate too much.  (A word of explanation: the "Sux" refers to the DFAC right around the corner.  It's official name is the Luxembourg DFAC ... aka the "Lux" ... aka, well, you know).  There's going to be an excruciating 2-hour meeting tomorrow morning.  Oh, boy, can't wait.  (I'm lying.)