Sunday, April 29, 2012

And now for a little R&R ...

I've been home on R&R for a couple of weeks now.  It's been a busy time, so busy that I haven't had time to post.  Or if I have had time, I haven't been the least bit interested.  But it's Sunday morning now.  We're off to a slow, lazy day today, so this is an opportunity to catch up.

I flew out of Maiwand on one of the Embassy's helicopters and landed back at KAF for a few days.  When you're in Afghanistan, you have to build in several days of travel to account for the vagaries of weather, helicopter availability, and general chaos.  So I had a couple of days of down time at KAF before heading out to Dubai.  It was a bit odd being back at my former home and workplace and having it NOT be my home and workplace anymore.  Still, it was nice to have a bit of time to decompress before starting the long slog back to the US.

I took a contract flight directly from KAF to Dubai.  In typical governmental fashion, we had to show up several hours early and be herded through various stages of security screening, like cattle to the slaughterhouse.  The flight itself was uneventful and, thankfully, not full, so I had a bit of room to stretch. Once in Dubai, I had many hours to kill.  Some of my compatriots just hang out at the airport, some get a hotel room, but I went exploring.  I wound up at the Mall of the Emirates, a huge, modern, and ritzy shopping mall.  When you see a Lamborghini and Ferrari parked in a roped-off valet area next to the main entrance, you know you're not in Afghanistan anymore.  Inside the mall, there was a store for every high-end brand name that you ever heard of, and many more you haven't.  They even had an indoor ski slope!  Unbelievable.

Then it was back to the airport and onto the long, 14-hour flight to Atlanta.  Fortunately, I had an aisle seat and was able to frequently get up and stretch.  I can't sleep for squat on airplanes and this flight was no exception.  In Atlanta, I cleared customs, found my gate, and pretty soon was on the last leg to Asheville.  And at 9:15, about 27 hours after leaving Kandahar, I was hugging my wife and dogs at the Asheville airport.  Home.

As always, it is wonderful to be in my own home, in my own bed, walking my dogs, being with my wife, and seeing my friends.  Janis had me take care of some maintenance chores around the house.  I spent a couple of days on yard work.  We visited with friends and neighbors and caught up on each other's lives.  We went out to eat at some really good restaurants.  In all, we just enjoyed being together.

This past week has been hectic.  Janis's son Rick, and our 5-year-old grandson Jackson, came out to spend a week with us.  I hadn't seen Jax in 3 1/2 years, which is eons in a 5-year-old's life.  He was a bit shy with us at first, but that didn't last long.  We connected pretty well.  And we had a very busy week: an Asheville Tourists ball game, going to the park, seeing a movie, throwing a frisbee, and lots of other activities.  It was a bit of a whirlwind.  But they boarded the plane yesterday afternoon and headed home.  Now it's just Janis, myself, and the dogs again.  We've got some more home chores to do, mostly clean-up from the 5-year-old tornado and normal chores (like mowing the yard).

In a few days, it'll be my turn to board the airplane.  It's almost time to head back to Afghanistan and work.  I can't really say I'm ready, not at this point, but it's something I gotta do.  And I'll be ready once the time comes.

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!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Sketch Time

Abdul Manan
Ink on paper, 12"x9"

©2012 Skip Rohde

Settling Into the New Job

Getting settled in a new location and new job is always an adventure.  I got here almost a week ago and have been running pretty hard ever since.  Some of it has been establishing a relationship with my new teammate, Eric.  Some of it has been meeting all the military guys that I'll be working with over the next six months.  Some of it has been getting acquainted with all the various operational and administrative issues surrounding our little organization.  Some of it has been meeting with a lot of Afghans over at the District Center.  And some of it has been housekeeping: setting up my little home and office the way I want them.

My new teammate is a really good guy.  Like me, he's a retired military officer.  He looks and sounds a bit like Donald Sutherland, as he was in the movie "Mash" ... which is actually quite appropriate for our situation here.  I'm going to have fun working with him.

The military unit here has been great to work with, right off the bat.  They have a solid understanding of their role, kinda understand what our role is, and are a pretty squared-away unit, especially for being here only a short time.  So far they've been extremely supportive.  One change from the previous unit is that these guys are more interested in getting us out to where we need to go.  And they're all pretty upbeat and happy to talk with us about the mission, sports, life back home, what we're doing, whatever.  America, you're sending some fine young men and women over here.

Our little team has a a good bit of history built up by the previous members over the last two years: lots of hard work, files, and records of things that I need to have at least a passing acquaintance with.  Since I'm the new guy, I know that the Afghans going to hit me up for things that they've asked for before, only to be told "no".  You know how it is: you get a substitute teacher in school, and you try to convince him that you always go to lunch an hour early.  So I need to know about the major things that have been tried or requested before, and what the result was, and why.  In other words: lots of research.

Haji Kasan
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

The fun part is working with the Afghans.  I've been to several shuras and other meetings already.  "Controlled chaos" might be a good description of how their meetings generally run.  Well, maybe not so much "controlled".  But you could also call them noisy and energetic.  I have to pay close attention to what's being said in these meetings, and by whom, in order to pick up the subtleties that are so easy to miss.  But sometimes, as I look at these fabulous faces, my pen just starts moving on its own accord and something like this sketch pops out.

And, finally, getting settled into my new digs takes time.  I'm very fortunate: I have my own Containerized Housing Unit, or CHU.  This is a small one, 20' long, 8' wide, and it's both my office and bedroom.  But it's all mine.  Unlike just about everybody else on this base, I don't share living and office space with anybody. My teammate has a similar CHU just a few feet away.  But my CHU is a wet one.  What that means is that I have running water, so I have my own little bathroom.  Sounds great, but it came at a price: the bathroom area looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the British were chased out of Afghanistan in 1880.  Which is quite a trick since this CHU is only about two or three years old.  Yes, the bathroom area was a real shithole, complete with a floater.  It took me four hours with scouring powder, soap, and disinfectant before I felt like I could spit my toothpaste in the sink without having to wear a HAZMAT suit.  It took two more days before I felt that I could use the whole bathroom without updating my tetanus shot.  As it is, there's no hot water, and the shower is all the way on the other side of the base, but I have my own clean sink now, and a toilet that is at least somewhat useable, so I'm a happy camper.

So I'm in my new job and perfectly happy with it.  This is what I came to Afghanistan to do!