Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kabul, Outbound

My checkout at KAF went pretty well.  I had been told to spend 3-5 days there.  Turned out that my official duties consisted of turning in a badge and telling the IT guys to turn off two email accounts.  The rest of the time, I was packing up a couple of boxes to send home, deciding which shirts to throw away now and which to keep for a few more days, and meeting with old friends in the office or for lunch or dinner or just to shoot the breeze.  Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of really cool people out here who are working their asses off, trying to make a difference.  

Last night, for example, I met with Ahmed and Patrick, two guys that went through training with me a year ago.  One has extended for a year, the other for six months.  One is a doctor with an amazing breadth of experience in bottom-of-the-ladder countries like Libya.  The other is an inveterate prankster who is nevertheless a consummate professional.  Our discussion started with "whatcha been doin'? and wound up going over the recent activities in Libya, segued into an incredibly well-informed and in-depth discussion of Egypt (well-informed on their part, complete ignorance on mine), compared both countries to what we're seeing in Afghanistan, wandered over the significant differences in cultures between a variety of seemingly-related countries, and wound up with "is there any ice cream left?"  It was great to have the opportunity to work with people like that: smart, witty, dedicated, and with experience that comes from being out in the international community.

This morning was The Day, though.  Up early, breakfast, finish packing my bags, and head out to meet up with the transportation to the flight line.  There was a big crowd heading to the State Department flight line and then on to various places.  I got to see a bunch of other friends out there and say goodbye to them.  My flight was called early and we were off.  Our route took us up over the Hindu Kush, which is the name for the steep mountainous region over central Afghanistan.  A spectacular area, almost uninhabited except for pockets here and there.

Before long, we were coming in over Kabul and heading for the airport.  Kabul is a huge city, mostly jam-packed into a too-small area.  Which basically describes most cities such as New York or New Delhi, but here many of the buildings are made of mud brick.

We were met by a vehicle from the Embassy and driven into town.  I am forever grateful that I was not stationed here in Kabul and did not have to drive on these streets.  Drivers here make Italians look prim and proper.  Roundabouts are the worst: you just dive in and cut off anybody who might get in your way.  In the short drive from the airport, we came across two fender-benders, both parked in the middle of the road and (in a sign of the typical Kabul road chaos) not slowing traffic down one bit.

I quickly settled into my room at the Embassy and discovered that one of my two roommates was also one of my fellow students during training a year ago.  I walked out into the lounge and saw four more.  Over at dinner, I ran into somebody I knew in Iraq.  It's like old-home week, meeting with my peeps.

The checkout process probably won't be too arduous, but it looks like I'll have to deal with typical bureaucratic stupidity at times.  For example, one guy today didn't want to sign my sheet because my record showed that a set of travel orders was still open.  Well, since they're for the trip I'm still on, I'm not too surprised about that.  The lightbulb finally went on in his head (it was a 25-watt bulb) and he signed off.  One item down. 

So the journey continues.  Tomorrow will be a big push.  I've got plenty of time, but I want to do as much as possible as early as possible so I can take care of any issues (like today's) before they become Problems.

And I'm looking forward to seeing some more old friends.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Out of Maiwand

As the title to this post says, I am out of Maiwand.  Now I'm at Kandahar Air Field, or KAF, for a few days.  I'm overdue for a post here because things have been a bit busy.

In my last post, I wrote about putting together a sort of pass-down book on the district.  I finished up what could be done with the book on Wednesday and sent it out to all those who might need it.  The final version was a whopping 67 pages long.  It's written so that my teammates, both military and civilian, can continue to add to it, change it, re-arrange it, and do whatever needs to be done to keep it updated.  I felt good about the project - it was the kind of thing I wish had been available when I first got there.  Finally, I felt like I'd done something to contribute to the effort.

Another thing that I said in the post was that the Afghan security forces were very capable and could do a good job if the government gives them the resources they need.  The day before I left Maiwand, something occurred that illustrates this.  A convoy was moving from one of our bases in the district to another.  All the drivers and the private security team were Afghans.  Just outside the first base, they were ambushed by the Taliban, who shot up the trucks and set a number of them on fire.  The drivers and security forces ran off.  Some Afghan police responded to the call and swooped in.  One of them ran up to an MRAP that had a burning front tire.  While under fire, he jumped in, started it up, and drove it all the way to our base (several miles) to keep it out of Taliban hands.  That, my friends, took guts.  I walked up to the vehicle the next morning and saw the shredded tire, smashed window, and ping marks from all the bullets.  Who says the Afghans aren't brave?

But regardless of Afghan progress, my time in Maiwand was up.  On Thursday morning, I packed up the last bit of my gear and trundled it over to the helo landing zone.  The State Department's trusty old ex-Marine CH-46 helo settled in amid a huge cloud of dust.  My teammate Eric, who'd been at KAF for a couple of days, hopped off.  We shook hands and did the high-5 duty turnover under all the propwash, and then I climbed onboard and belted in.  We lifted off and circled east over the District Center.  I looked out the tailgate and watched Maiwand gradually disappear in the distance.  Another chapter closed.

Here at KAF, I quickly settled into the temporary quarters.  In the spirt of coming full circle, I'm right back in the very same temporary rack as when I first arrived here last October.  I've been in meetings, written reports, and helped out briefers over the past couple of days, trying to make sure that the Powers That Be have an accurate understanding of Maiwand's unique situation.  Next step is getting my own stuff squared away: packing up my gorilla box, throwing some stuff out, and turning off a couple of email accounts.  I've got some friends here that I need to see, so some dinners at the DFAC or coffee at the Green Bean will be in order.

A few days more and Kandahar will be in my rear-view mirror.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Afghan Surge

As I'm wrapping up my time here in Maiwand, I've been putting together what is essentially a pass-down book.  It contains a lot of stuff that people who work in the district, or whose work affects the district, need to know.  Things like a list of all the public schools, information on who's in the shuras, writeups on the key power players, data on community councils, project reports, all kinds of things.  Some of it's narrative, some tables, some lists, and a few pictures.  Not exactly the Great American Novel, but if you're interested in Maiwand, it's a good thing to have around for reference.

One of the areas that I've really learned a lot about while doing this project is the recent history of the district.  By "recent", I mean since the establishment of the communist regime back in the 1970's, through the Soviet invasion, to the civil war years, then the Taliban rule, and finally the "modern" period since 2001.  The elders of this district have lived through all of this.  Some of them were on opposite sides at various times.  Some of them were literally shooting at each other on occasion and will joke about it now.  "That was you in that field?  I was in the back of the pickup shooting at you!" "Really?  Well, you still can't aim your AK worth a hoot!"

After the 2001 invasion, this place got very little attention.  There were no US/NATO forces stationed out here for years.  The government was really corrupt and the Taliban was able to re-group.  Mullah Omar's original madrassa is about 20 miles down the road, so this area is the Taliban's home turf, and they took advantage of it.  By 2007 they had pretty much free rein here.  NATO forces (under Canadian leadership) came out on disruption operations, but they didn't have enough manpower to stay for any length of time, beyond manning checkpoints on the highway.

That began to change in 2008 when the 2-2 Infantry arrived.  They started building two bases, one at Sakari Karez (now closing) and the other here.  It looks like force levels stayed about the same through 2009 before sufficient forces arrived, through the surge, to begin to make a difference.  In early 2010, just 2 1/2 years ago, there was still no functioning government.  The District Governor and the shura members who were still active (and alive) all lived in Kandahar City.  The district office buildings were unusable.  ISAF controlled the district center, main highway, and not much else.  But the increase in ISAF (primarily US) presence allowed us to start changing things.  The governor and shura members started coming back.  Buildings were fixed up and occupied.  A model farm was built.  Kids went back to school.  The Afghan police and army units became more professional and effective.

I gripe about the slow pace of progress here, but when I look back on how this place was just a couple of years ago, it's a world of difference.  Our governor not only comes to work every day, but he brought his family to live here.  Our shuras are often lively and contentious affairs.  People come to the district center from all over the district.  The bazaar is lively and people can travel on the road with a reasonable expectation of getting where they want.  There are about 400 boys in the main school here on any given day and we're about to open up the first classes for girls in many years.

That is not to say that all is peaches and cream.  IED's are a daily occurrence around the district.  There is a lot of corruption in government.  This district grows more poppy than any other district in Kandahar Province because they can't really grow anything else.  As a result, the narcotics trafficking rings are very strong and tied in with the Taliban.  People like me can't go out in town.

But if you want to know if the surge made a difference, I can say yes, it did.  I see the difference every day.

Whether it will last is a different question.  Our forces are drawing down.  The Afghan security forces are pretty good and will fight like hell if the Afghan government gives them the support and supplies they need.  That's not a given.  The corruption level will have to drop to Afghan-normal levels in order to be at least acceptable to the natives.  And I don't think the outlying areas will come under government control for many years.

What my predecessors in the military, civilian, and Afghan worlds have built here in just a few years is quite amazing.  It still has a long way to go, and it's very fragile.  But the Afghan people have some hope for an alternative to the violent and repressive Taliban regime.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dust Storms

We just had an unbelievable weather pattern today.  It started out clear, with a few high clouds.  Around noon it clouded up.  Then at about 1 pm, a wall of dust rolled in.  "Rolled" is a good word for it: it advanced pretty fast, absolutely silent, no wind, just a wall of dust coming across the desert towards us.  It even had a dust devil in front that passed directly over me.  I can't show most of those pictures because they show some key features of our base, but here's one that looks out over the town of Hutal.

When the dust hit, the wind kicked up and then the rain exploded.  It didn't last long, but it was intense. Then it was gone, the skies cleared up completely, and it turned into a beautiful afternoon.  The rain made the place smell like a fishing pier, though ... don't know how that happened.

And then at 6 pm, here came a second wall of dust.  This was another fast-moving, silent, ominous storm that was sweeping across the desert.  Because of the late-afternoon light, it was bright orange.  This storm didn't bring any rain, just choking dust, and most of us covered our faces with scarves, handkerchiefs, or whatever was available.

The dust is still here and the wind is blowing.  I'm staying put, right here in my room.

Friday, September 07, 2012

A Couple of Sketches

Haji Abdul Rahim
Graphite on paper, 12"x9" 

Haji Soda Khan
Graphite on paper, 12"x9"

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Getting Short

Yes, I'm starting to get short.  In two weeks, I'll begin to work my way back from the Wild West of Kandahar, through KAF and Kabul, to home.  My year here is going to come to a close before long.

In the meantime, there's still plenty to do.  One of the things that has kept me busy lately is our move.  Somebody On High decided that the location of our CHUs on this little base was too dangerous and we had to move.  Never mind that there has never been any kind of a threat to them, and they are well out of the way, and the only "threat" would come if the base was attacked with heavy artillery or mortars and they scored a very lucky hit.  And none of the insurgents in this area have mortars.  Didn't matter: the order came down, so we had to move.  Immediately.  So we worked with the military unit that controls this base and drew up a plan.  This plan lasted about 24 hours before something was discovered that made it impossible.  Plan B lasted a full week, until the day before we were scheduled to move.  So we went with Plan C, which we made up as we went along, and we are now in our new home.  Lugging our junk from old to new homes was the easy part.  The hard part was moving our communications equipment and computers.  Dismantling the old network took two hours; building a new network (running cables, aligning the satellite dish, hooking everything up, and testing) took another seven.  But it worked and we were up and running again about nine hours after starting.  Our IT guys are fabulous.

I've seen some changes in Maiwand since arriving in April.  A few of the strategically-located villages have come into the Afghan government sphere of influence.  We've done some things that I think could have an impact over the longer term.  Unfortunately, in the past few months there has been a big increase in "green on blue" incidents across Afghanistan and particularly in the south.  "Green on blue" refers to attacks by Afghan security forces on US forces.  The Taliban is always quick to claim credit for them, but that's not really true.  A minority of these incidents are done by Taliban infiltrators, or by security forces who later align themselves with the Taliban.  More are done by Afghans who have a personal issue at stake: a perceived insult or whatever.  Some are copycat incidents, like we often see in the US.

Whatever the case, we are taking these green-on-blue incidents very seriously.  Our security awareness is way up over where it was when I arrived at this little base.  The good thing is that our Afghan partners are also very aware, and very concerned, over it as well.  They should be: in reality, the senior Afghan leaders here are more at risk than Americans are.  So, without giving away any details, I'll just say that I feel much better about our security posture now than I did even two months ago.

Meanwhile, business in the Afghan world is just now getting back to normal following Ramadan and the Eid celebration immediately after.  Yes, it ended over a week ago, but just like the post-Christmas period in the US, it takes a while to get going.  Everybody is slowly getting back up to speed again, starting to address issues that have been in limbo for a few weeks, but not really anxious to do much.

One of our female officers is the leader of a Female Engagement Team, or FET.  Recently, they were with a patrol in a village, when a happy bearded elder stopped them.  He told them that his son, standing next to him, had just gotten married, and they should go see the women inside.  The patrol quickly established a security perimeter and the FET went into the home.  Inside, they found about 50 women dressed to the nines, all made up, and loaded with jewelry.  They were surprised to see our female soldiers but made them welcome.  Our FET team talked with a few of them, including the mother of the bride, said their congratulations, and left them to their party.  The bride, who remained covered, huddled in a fetal position in the corner, never moved and never spoke.  She and her new husband would go to his family's house in a day or two, where she would become, essentially, his property.  The groom, by the way, was 15 years old.  The bride?  Ten.