Monday, May 28, 2012

Out and About

The title of this post pretty much describes what I've been doing over the past few days.  We've been busy little government bureaucrats, but at least we're out of the office.

A few days ago, a group of us went on a walk through the bazaar right here in Hutal.  We needed to get a good look at some areas where we might do some projects to improve the place.  The goal is to make it more of an economic engine for this really, really poor district.  So our group of Army Civil Affairs people and DST members, along with a contingent of seriously-armed soldiers, met up with the District Governor in the morning.  We wandered up and down the three main thoroughfares, looking at the roads (dirt), parking areas (dirt), ramps off the highway (dirt), and areas where we might put sidewalks and other pedestrian control features (gravel and dirt).  We also checked out the grounds of the government-run clinic to check on its wells, power, security, and general condition.  Our stroll took about an hour and we returned back to the COP before it got too hot.

Regarding the general condition of the bazaar, I'd say that it makes Tijuana look like Beverly Hills.  The shops are tiny, most of them around 8-10 feet wide, maybe 10-15 feet deep, made out of mud bricks with dirt floors.  Some of them have electricity provided by either a small solar panel on the roof or else a small portable generator.  No a/c, of course, no fans, usually no lights, and no water.  I didn't want to ask where their restrooms were - the last time I saw a restroom (at the school), I almost wished I hadn't.  The shops sold the usual stuff: cell phones, drinks, food, clothes, sewing materials, seed and fertilizer, bicycles, and cars and motorcycles.  There were service shops as well: tractor repair, welding, a dentist, and so on.  I know that there were shops specializing in the cultivation and sale of poppy, but I wasn't able to pick them out.

As for the people, I've seen friendlier faces at an Appalachian family feud.  Nobody smiled at us, except for a few kids.  Nobody was angry, either.  Rather, they just stared, with this cold hard stare that said "Go. Away."  There was no indication that they would actually do anything to us, not with all the Afghan police and Army soldiers around, but they certainly did not want us hanging around their bazaar.

So after an hour of this, we had all the information that we needed, and walked back to our base.  We're starting the process to get these projects planned and built.  Will it affect their opinion of us?  No, and I don't care, frankly.  The goal is to improve their facilities a little bit so they can all become a little more prosperous and less interested in blowing things up.

I went on another trip sometime later.  This one was to an important village where we needed to talk about security issues.  It was some distance away, so we went in a couple of groups of MRAPs and Strykers.  This was my first time out in the boonies, and let me tell you, these guys have some serious boonies.  Imagine driving across the Mojave Desert, only it's dirt, with fewer tumbleweeds, and with farm fields carved out of it for no obvious reason, and you've got a good idea.  I rode in an MRAP.  These things look like monster-sized Hot Wheels, but as big as they are, they have less room for a passenger than a Mazda Miata does.  Every other cubic inch is taken up by radios, ammo boxes, electronic equipment, cables, and who-knows-what.

We got to the village and settled in for some serious haggling.  We had brought along several Afghan district officials, and they were the ones who did most of the talking with the elders.  It went on for quite some time, with a lot of give and take, and some raised voices, before things began approaching some sort of decision.

Most people (ourselves included, unfortunately) think of Afghan villagers as illiterate and ignorant Taliban sympathizers.  None of that was true here.  These people were intelligent, articulate, polite, forceful, educated, well-organized, and uninterested in any government-Taliban war.  They reminded me of a group of pacifist Quakers who were familiar with the outside world and didn't want anything to do with it.  And they were far different from the people we saw in the bazaar.

Once we reached a decision point, hospitality demanded that food be served.  So out came the tablecloth, the bread, the bowls of yogurt drink, and the plates of ... well, stuff.  I had plenty of the bread (it's really good), but passed on the yogurt drink as well as whatever the cooked stuff was.  In my old age, if I can't identify it, I don't want to eat it.

Then it was time to go.  We shook hands with everybody, headed back to our vehicles, loaded up, and headed out across the Mojave again.  Our day's work was done.  Well, no, it wasn't: I had to spend several hours on the computer writing up reports on everything that happened.

But I tell you what: it beats the hell out of working on the staff!

Friday, May 25, 2012

"No Bad Wine" Day

Today, May 25th, is my own personal Memorial Day.  Only I call it "No Bad Wine Day".  There's a good reason for both statements.

Three years ago, two of my friends and co-workers at the embassy in Baghdad were killed.  Terry Barnich and Maged Hussein were part of a group visiting the massive Fallujah waste-water treatment plant.  Their armored vehicle was destroyed by an IED and they, and Navy CDR Duane Wolfe, lost their lives in an instant.

I wrote a blog post about the incident that described Terry and Maged, as well as my thoughts on losing them.  No need to reiterate that here.  Memorial Day is a day to remember those who've made the ultimate sacrifice, and to me, May 25th will always be my own personal Memorial Day.

The "No Bad Wine" bit still needs an explanation, doesn't it?  Well, blame it on Terry.  Sometime previously, Terry had had a close call from a rocket attack.  It made him stop and think about a number of important issues in life.  One of the conclusions he came to was: "Life is short.  I will never drink bad wine again."

So in honor of Terry and Maged, May 25th is "No Bad Wine" day.  I normally tip a glass of fine wine (for Terry) and a glass of clean water (for Maged) in their memory.  The wine is impossible for me this year, but the water isn't.

So pour your own in memory of two men who made one hell of a difference.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Getting Warmer

It's getting hot in southern Afghanistan now.  A front blew through here last night, dropping a bit of rain around midnight and leaving high winds blowing around a lot of dust in the morning.  I was really happy that I'm not at KAF anymore, since all the vehicles rolling around kicking up dust would have made the place miserable.  It wasn't too bad out here in the boonies.

We've had a busy week with the natives.  There have been lots of meetings to talk about new projects, progress on old projects, security issues, governance issues, and loads of other topics.  One meeting yesterday turned into a heated argument between an Afghan military officer and a local governance leader.  One believed that villages needed to prove that they're safe and secure before getting any development projects, while the other believed that the projects (and the income they provide) should be used to convince the villages to improve their security.  A chicken-and-egg question, but pretty fundamental to what we're doing.  My role?  None.  This was an Afghan debate.  I do not decide for them, they need to decide for themselves, and the way to do that is through debate.  Which they were doing.  Good for them.

One of the challenges that we're working through is that most of the military here are new.  There has been a large turnover of units and people.  Most are new in-country and some had no idea that they were coming to this area.  So they're facing a steep learning curve.  I feel like I'm on a steep learning curve, too, even though I've been watching it from KAF for months.  Instead of knowing just the big picture, I'm down in the weeds, talking to individuals, trying to learn their names, going to different places for meetings, and learning it all from the grassroots level.

It's so much more fun than sitting at KAF!

I haven't done much drawing over the past couple of weeks, though.  When I've been in meetings, I've been an active participant.  I can't just say, "Excuse me, would you shut up for a few minutes and let me draw you?  Oh, and hold that pose."  Not exactly good politics.  But I always have my pad and pencil ready to go.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Just a few pictures ...

I keep meaning to write a post about things that are going on here, but usually I can't find the time, or if I do, I'm too tired to say anything coherent.  So here are some photos from the past week.

All these guys are waiting to get their taskiras (national ID cards) at the District Center.  A couple of weeks ago, there were only a very few doing this.  Now, though, the poppy harvest is over, and all these guys have been paid for their harvest work and have the time to sit around and wait.

Just another day at the office.  We were headed for a meeting with some local officials.

Yes, as a matter of fact, this is exactly what you think it is, growing well at a government facility.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Back in Maiwand

I'm back at my home-away-from-home in Maiwand District in southern Afghanistan.  As noted in my last post, I was stuck at KAF for a few extra days due to changes in the helicopter flight schedules.  On Monday, one of my Maiwand teammates came in to KAF as well, and we were able to meet with some people at the staff and get some things squared away.  On Tuesday, we boarded a helo and came back out to our little home base.  We lugged our stuff around the corner to our hooches and there we were.  Home again.

Things have changed since I left and there are a lot of new faces around here.  It was almost as if I was checking in to the place for the first time.  There's a new company of combat troops, a new bunch of soldiers with the special training team, a new village stability guy, and a new guy (Doug) on our team.  I'd met Doug before, but this is the first time we've worked together.  He got here just a couple of days after I left on R&R.  So.  New faces, new dynamics.  That's the way it goes in a place like this.

As soon as I pulled my vest and gear off, and before I could even think about unpacking, we had to suit up again and head over to the District Center for some meetings.  We talked with a team of Army agricultural advisors and then met with the District Governor about an aid program that's coming into the district.  Then back over to my hooch/office where I wrote up lengthy reports about what we just did.

Wednesday was very interesting.  Every Wednesday there is a shura at the district center.  A shura is a meeting of local elders to talk over whatever it is that's on their minds.  Our governor was in a bit of a snit and didn't want a lot of Americans in there.  So it wound up that just two Americans attended (one of whom was your intrepid reporter), along with our interpreter, to keep tabs on events.  But as soon as the shura kicked off, the Governor changed the whole purpose, kicked a bunch of locals out, and a small group of about 11 went into the most unbelievably chaotic meeting you've ever seen.  You want an agenda?  Fuggedaboudit!  They were all over the place, yelling at each other, changing the subject, repeating accusations, it was amazing.  The general topic was the potential aid program, but a lot of interpersonal and inter-tribal issues overshadowed everything else.  After a couple of hours it ended without any visible progress.  Quite an entertaining spectacle, and I'm wondering what will happen this coming Wednesday.  Forget "Dancing with the Stars", a "Slugfest with the Afghans" beats it any day!

Yesterday a group of us visited the local school.  There are 14 schools in our district, of which only one is open.  The rest are in areas that are not secure enough for teachers to conduct classes.  So the school here in the small town of Hutal is the only one open.  The admin officer told us that there were 1,497 students enrolled.  They may be enrolled, but they certainly don't all attend, as reliable estimates by our Army Civil Affairs team put attendance at under 400 on a really good day.  The school has no electricity.  It gets its water from two wells when the pumps are working, and no water when they're not.  Many of the windows are broken out.  In summer, this is a good thing as it allows air to circulate; in winter, well, air circulates then, too, but you'd rather it didn't.  They have 18 wood stoves for heat, but we learned that they only use two of those stoves, one for the headmaster and one for the admin officer.  The kids?  Well, they get that cold air blowing in through the broken windows.

This cute little guy was hanging around the school, even though there are no classes on Fridays.  He seemed to take a liking to me and wanted his picture taken.  Then he tried to steal my camera.

This young girl was there, too, which was a bit of a surprise to me since girls don't go to school here.  She had the most amazing eyes.  Remember that famous National Geographic picture from years ago of the green-eyed Afghan woman?  This girl has the very same eyes.  She didn't try to steal my camera.

This is the bathroom for the school.  It's in a walled-off compound to the rear, and you get to it by ducking through a hole in the mud wall on the right of the picture.  The bathroom's roof fell in some time ago and won't be fixed anytime soon.  There are five stalls to serve the entire school.  And there's no plumbing, either.  Waste goes out through a hole in the floor onto the ground behind the building, where they leave it.  OSHA would not approve.

So there you have a typical southern Afghanistan school.  Before you get too shocked about how awful it is, consider that the parents are pretty happy to have a school that their kids can go to.  And conditions at home aren't any better.  The US and the Canada have done a lot to help this school get up and running, and we're still going to do some more.  I just hope the Afghans can sustain it after we pull back to Kandahar City.

Since this little trip, I've been working on reports.  We have a major one that's due in a couple of days and I got to spend a very exciting couple of hours editing the first draft of the 17-page document.  Can't you tell how thrilled I am?  I bet you can.

So I'm back in the swing of things here in Maiwand.  There's a lot of stuff to do and a lot of reports to write.  And I'm just the guy to write 'em!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Back at KAF

Vacation is over and I'm back in Afghanistan.  Right now I'm sitting at the State Department compound at Kandahar Air Field (KAF).  My scheduled flight to Maiwand didn't work out, so I'm waiting for another chance tomorrow.  Flight plans in Afghanistan are, as they say, subject to change without notice.

As is most everything else.  On the day I was to start my return trip, I got an email from Delta saying that the flight from Asheville to Atlanta was delayed.  That's the first time any airline has ever told me that in advance.  As there was a weather front moving in, I got nervous about making my connection on time, so I called them up and a very helpful lady quickly rescheduled me onto an earlier flight.  Kudos to Delta for this excellent customer service.  The revised plan, though, had me scrambling to shower, shave, pack, and go.  We got to the airport an hour prior to flight time.  I said goodbye to Janis and the two dogs.  It was difficult, but since we've done this before and this next stint won't be quite as long, it wasn't as bad as it has been.

One of the great things about a small airport like Asheville's is that everything is close by and the people are not harried to death.  From the time I walked in the door until the time I sat down at the gate was ten minutes.  That included checking in at the ticket counter, getting my boarding passes, and going through the screening process.  Not only that, but the Delta and TSA agents were friendly and chatty.  A wonderful change from the crabby cattle-herders at Dulles.

The trip to Dubai was not bad.  My early flight to Atlanta resulted in a 6-hour layover, but at least I knew I'd be there.  The Atlanta airport is a nice one, with lots of art throughout the concourses, quiet gates where I could watch a movie on my computer, and decent restaurants.  Then it was time for the 14 1/2 hour flight to Dubai.  I can't really sleep on airplanes and this time was no exception, but at least I was able to get up and move when needed.

Once in Dubai, I quickly cleared passport control and customs and got to my hotel for the night.  Tired and jet-lagged as I was, I still didn't get more than an hour's worth of sleep.  It's maddening to lie there, knowing you're worn out, and unable to drift off.  Up at 4 a.m. and out the door shortly afterward, over to the airport, and onto the flight to Kandahar.  We landed at KAF about noon.  I had a 5-minute walk to the State Department compound.  Before I could even drop my pack, I had friends and co-workers bending my ears about stuff going on at my home base in Maiwand.  Welcome home!

I thought I'd have two days to talk with people here and get back up to speed before catching a helo back to Maiwand.  As it turned out, I've got a few more days.  Flight plans come and flight plans go, and mine got up and went.  Without me, I might add.  So here I sit, waiting on the next chance.  I've got all my discussions with the folks here done, so now I'm trying to stay out of the way, which is easy enough to do.  But I'm ready to get back to my own little part of Afghanistan and get to work.