A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

My Photo
Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Enroute to 205th "Atal" (Hero) Corps...just past the swing sets.

So I finally made it to the south of Afghanistan, albeit briefly.  In my head all along was the idea that I just couldn't NOT see Qandahar (preferring the Q spelling over the K, as it sounds more like how Afghans say it), and I even tried every lever I could to serve down here for the last couple of months of my last deployment.  This time I traveled for an advisory mission, and wish I could have stayed longer for the 3 days I squeezed in.  Above is my first view of the area beyond the gigantic airfield: an expensive-looking foot bridge I deemed the area's own "bridge to nowhere" and the Soviet era apartments beyond, which are used for senior officer (+ families) housing...despite still being visibly bomb-damaged from the war.

"More Tanka Bites, colonel?" "Tashakur, Jagran Dan!"

Another night spent in an airport was this time a rewarding one, as I spoke with my travel companions Dagarwaal (Colonel) Sobhan and Jagran (Major) Akhtar about the extensive problems inhibiting Afghanistan's progress, and how we should best work together to counter them.  Our fourth member, my friend Esmat, was absolutely essential to translating such a discussion.  Sobhan, who I'm convinced is somehow a relative on my Dad's Irish side of the family, was with me to attend the regional Afghan National Army corps' communications conference and hold meetings with their public affairs officer.  Akhtar just needed an escort back to his unit in order to fly on Coalition air, and had been stranded in Kabul for weeks.

I immensely enjoyed getting their perspectives, even if it did mean battling sheer exhaustion and pesky flies for 4 hours in a dimly lit coffee shop with no coffee (but occasional tea) while we waited for delayed manifesting of the next flight south.  Somehow I think I'll always remember our shared dinner of my collective snack foods: trail mix, granola bars, Clif bars, beef jerky and cranberry-flavored buffalo jerky (the Tanka Bites above).  God bless you care package senders!  We didn't have to simply observe Ramazan early, as the colonel suggested, in lieu of food.

I've written extensively about the topic before, but it really is amazing that we don't have a better system than "Insh'Allah Air", the term for winging it via space-available military air travel in Afghanistan.  You can confirm whatever you possibly can confirm ahead of time, but unless you're a general officer, it won't mean squat when you learn at the airport that 133 passengers have been confirmed for a 65-seat flight, with another 32 on standby.  Somehow we got outbound at sometime past 3am, and only because at the last minute the terminal employees loaned us body armor for the passenger without any...tell me you've ever had to pass up a flight for that reason!

Ah, FOB I missed you so! (Really.)

It is hot as Hell down there, as you'd expect, though really I caught a bit of break in the 120's.  The Gulf-like mugginess does permeate the air, and throws up a sort of morose haze around everything all day.  But the conditions of life in a small camp, far more spartan than cosmopolitan Kabul in comparison, are actually pleasant in their simplicity, and more than worth the getaway from 'the flagpole'.  Even better was the enhanced ability at the operational level between advisors and Afghan colleagues to actually train...something occasionally lost in the Kabul shuffle of parallel or overlapping chains of command, and mixed up lines of administration and cooperation all over the place.

At the center of FOB Lindsey with my gracious host, Lt. Higgins.

Back at Atal Corps, the ANA soldiers gather for the day's training...

An uneasy reminder of the dangerous local roads...

"What I am saying, young Afghan brother, is that New York is great but the Yankees are pure evil!"

The above are scenes of an ANA PAO in action.  That's Afghan National Army Public Affairs Office, if you're not following the acronyms.  The interpreter asked me why every American has something to say about the Yankees (he doesn't know what they are) because of his hat, as he just likes it because it says NY.  So now I wonder how much of the hated empire's worldwide merchandising is just due to that...

Meeting with the 205th Corps PAO and deputy (somehow I'm still terrifying Afghans next to me in photos, or more likely the camera is), along with my 'uncle' Sobhan and the intrepid Lt. Higgins.

Back at the (Aussie-led) Coalition Advisory Team, this one just slayed me.  Too true, too true...

More to follow...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Photos. Cops. And a Conference.

...and there was much rejoicing.

Have we cracked the code on getting photos loaded after a month without??  Apparently we have, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to an IT wizard who must have been sent from above.  However, the connection for now is even slower than the last time I had the expect about one-tenth as many as my photo-happy nature would have posted if speed permitted.

The Ministry of the Interior

There is so much to pontificate about, but as we're once again past the 0200 hours mark, not much time -- if I am to keep from passing out face-first into my chai as I advise my colleagues in the ministries tomorrow, I better catch a couple hours of sleep.  Still, some thoughts and some glimpses...mostly of a mass graduation of Afghan law enforcement officers a few weeks back.

The Ministry of the Interior and its components (Afghan National Police, ANCOP-gendarmarie, border police, customs, even traffic police) deserve some accolades tonight, as they were instrumental to the successful security cordon that kept the city safe during the high-profile Kabul Conference.  In the high-risk, high-stakes (yet somehow low-payoff) environment that is Kabul in midsummer 2010, the largest gathering of international foreign ministers in over 30 years in Afghanistan went off without a significant attack.  That has to be taken as a victory for this government, for now anyway.  Insurgents did manage to pull off a desperate suicide bombing of some innocent civilians two days ago in a crowded residential area, and lob a couple of rockets to no effect last night.  But the plotters and haters who can't seem to express opposition in ways that don't involve bloodshed failed on this big target they had marked for a long time.

"Why yes, some naan would be delicious...tashakur!"

Past the rose bushes of the ministry and under the benevolence of Karzai, officers and officials of the ANP go about their morning business.

While there is much to be encouraged about in the agreements signed today, it would be too simplistic and unrealistic to claim that a one-day conference will significantly impact the course of the nation-building effort here (because contrary to what the official line may be, it's nation-building alright).  More likely, in my warped imagination, it went down sort of like this...

Kabul Conference Shenanigans, Vol. 1

"So, you know that huge sum of money we lent you?  How's the national rebuilding coming along?"
"Hmmm...well, it's great, things are really getting better bit by bit...but it's being done all wrong."
"Oh, tell me about it!  You mean all the corruption and graft that's siphoning it out of the country?"
"No!  Well, yes...but it's the thieves you guys pay who do all that.  So we need oversight."
"Wait, YOU need oversight?"
"Yes.  Your aid agencies are all jacked up, and the people need to see their gov't providing help." 
"True...but isn't it really that you just want new villas?"
"That's not cool.  Now shake hands and smile, the reporters are filing in."

Weeks ago, over at the graduation to which I referred, newly-minted law enforcement officers stood for an eternity under a blazing sun.  Speakers from the Ministry of the Interior, from ISAF, and from NATO Training Mission lauded their achievements and tried to steel them for the challenges ahead, exhorting the new officers to be honest, fair and courageous.

I like the dude on the right..."Screw it, I'm busting out the camcorder!"

The table with helmets and weapons fortunately did not mean that live battlefield surgery was about to take place. In Afghan graduations, a select few are chosen to surround it, place their hands upon it, and recite an oath to the country they have sworn to protect and the laws they intend to uphold.

They even invited women! doesn't happen overnight.

After the 12th or so speech, the swearing in, the awarding of recognition to some top performers (who would each hold up his certificate and shout something like "I would give my life for Afghanistan!") was time to pass in review.  Off they goose-stepped, past the stand of VIPs and into their new careers.

So why is the Kabul Conference -- and its subsequent steps toward TRANSITION -- a big deal?  Why is the graduation of 1,400 new police officers a big deal?  What's all the blood, sweat and expended energy that goes into training this vital force or providing security for a bunch of diplomats all for?

It's for the smiling, happy girls who get to attend school for the first time in their lives...

...the shopkeepers, restaurant owners and bike repair guys who want to run their businesses...

...the generations who've known only war and destruction, and want security for their children...

...the people who live in dire poverty and stand to benefit from new roads and new housing...

...and of course, the watermelons.  The tens of thousands of watermelons seemingly sold daily during a Kabul Summer.  These stands are everywhere, and that makes me smile.

For more on the Kabul Conference, the intended transition of security, and a startling visual image of graft, see the below story...
Afghan Plan on Transfer of Security Gets Support

Sunday, July 11, 2010

History crisscrossed.

While watching the World Cup final match in Pashto (on Negaah TV) and burning the past-midnight oil once again, I thought I'd take a moment to reaffirm that the 'war' marches on.  I use 'war' in a bit of self-mocking jest, as it normally seems anything but that in the relative safety (and even occasional shade) of Kabul.  To answer one typical question I recieve often, it is pretty hot here but it sure as hell isn't Kandahar...which is often described as Hell by those who've been.  Most days in this part of the country are incredibly bright, and the sun burns strong enough even at 6000 ft to hit upper 90's daily and often the low 100's.  They are sticking it out in at least the 110's down south though, God bless 'em.

Since I still can't post pictures, I wondered what to try and describe when I next sat down to write.  Do I write about the unforgettably unreal moments -- the speeding police or army convoys through the city center (with Kaleshnikovs bristling from each door seat of the vehicle); the impromptu invite to an Afghan wedding; the dinner with new friends (and glimpse into the the Kabul expat life) at a nearby guest house?  Do I write about the frustrations of working for too many chiefs -- the "good ideas" which manage to take too much effort and energy away from our mission of building Afghan capabilities, all to make someone or other look good? (Nah, I'll stay away from that one, thanks.)  Or do I write about the everyday and the not-so-everyday...the Dari lessons led by an enthusiastic and undaunted 'facilitator'; the Camp Eggers Fire Brigade (yep, I joined...I am my grandfather's grandson); the walk through a stretch of Kabul neighborhood back to the base the other day with one of my translators?  That was emblematic of the moments I wish for more of here, actually: shunning the body armor and unnecessary vehicle transportation for a stroll, buying naan along the way and greeting schoolkids, while the occasional up-armored SUV rumbled by with its tinted windows and puzzled expressions from the untinted ones. 

Here's the thing: We're not going to win by insulating ourselves even more.  The result we're going for is a successful transition, and that only begins to take root when far more personal connections, relationships and friendships are forged.  To peel it back further, those only come about through contact...through sharing the risk, through seeing the endemic problems up close, and through shouldering the burden (Shohna ba Shohna, get it?).  Policies which stress a maximum of force protection make sense for those stationed/operating in the badlands, and slogans like "Safety is our #1 priority" are just swell for bases in the States.  But for here, some adaptation would be would go a long way toward showing that safety and security for all, not punching the clock on our respective tours, is the goal.

A shout out to our Mongolian brothers today, as they celebrated their national holiday with a truly impressive demonstration in our camp.  A lengthy and complex drill routine was followed by a series of close combat demonstrations that blew us all away with their ferocity.  Running attacks met with acrobatic defensive moves, and grapples ended with bodies thudding to the rocky ground and punches and kicks landing with force.  Then, my fellow Seinfeld fans out there, came the 'Feats of Strength'!  Yes, poor and unsuspecting wooden blocks, brick and even some concrete met with their demise at the hands of our lethal guard force.  Here is a brief writeup and photo from one of the resident journalists on it...

Coalition Forces celebrate Mongolian National Day

The Mongols, incidentally, have been here before...or more accurately, their forebears have.  As have the Macedonians, who also provide guard forces here, and whose ancestors made it across the miles the hard way a few thousand years back.  The British, of course, have been booted from Afghanistan not once, not twice, but thrice before, and yet they have provided a major component of this Coalition for most of the past decade.  The Turks are here too, as are the every group that ever mixed it up in the Hindu Kush simply determined to keep coming back for more?  Or is there a sense to make up for it now?  These are the things I smile about and shake my head over as I contemplate this fascinating land.