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, September 18, 2010

Election during wartime

With the election over and the midnight oil still burning hours past, I thought it only fair to follow up the pessimistic diatribe of earlier with a bit of euphoria.  My team returned a few hours ago from an election night joint press conference, where some of Afghanistan's most powerful leaders discussed the eventful day and the period of time which led up to it.  Since the 'principles' of ours were the ones coordinating and preparing their bosses (the Ministers of Defense and Interior, respectively) for the big conference, we got to take pride in a job well done by the entire departments we advise.

Afghanistan's Tolo News on the day...
IEC calls the elections a success

The greatest feeling comes from the news that millions of Afghans voted today for their chosen representatives, with turnout higher than anticipated in most of the country.  The other good vibes flow from a few key things my boss pointed out: the knowledge that Afghans provided effective security against long odds, that their ministries conducted a highly effective information engagement on their own, that the police and army acknowledged the growth of their force and its increased professionalism as major factors in their success, and that we got to report the good news back to those who've worked hard for results on this end.

(Yep, I'm plugging myself again...had a hand in this one.)
Afghan forces secure election

Besides the conference itself which capped the night, a number of things stood out on this cool-weather, earthquake-aftershock-afflicted, blue-sky day.  The drive to the somewhat-secret press hall was a good reminder that there's no better way to travel than in the convoy of the Interior Minister, who by the way is in charge of all the police in the land.  Anyone who thinks that Afghans can't manage outstanding command and control needs to ride in one of these convoys...with no notice, the minister says "go" and the convoy takes off, with the entire route blocked off from traffic and guarded with extra arms because the word went out.  So you may find yourself (hey, Talking Heads again!) in a large automobile, zipping through main avenues and circles and through zig-zag barriers that would normally suffer you long delays.

Before that, though, was the thoughtful time spent gazing out from the rooftop of the ministry prior to sunset over Kabul, as we waited for the show to get on its way.  Here it is, election day, with so much fear about what would transpire...and what do we get but a kite show.  Everywhere we looked, four or eight or a dozen kites were up.  It was a magnificent scene, really...and a reassuring sight.

Here is the link to some photos from today, some by me and the good ones by Ms. Pam Smith...
Flickr: Election Day Afghanistan

Friday, September 17, 2010

Riots, rockets and an election

That's the name of the game here lately.  An important nationwide election looms today, in which all seats of Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (or lower house of parliament) are up for sale...oops, I mean grabs!  Framing the election season, which features more than 2500 candidates jockeying for just 249 seats, was the fallout from Quran burnings in the U.S., even though that pastor in Florida never went through with it.  Whether there were imitation burnings in the States (I don't even know), or old footage was aired as if it was new, or rumors simply gained traction that it happened anyway...there were a number of highly-charged demonstrations the past few days. 

Some turned into deadly riots, which isn't hard to see coming when you factor in the ingredients: A "grave insult to all of Islam" is reported across the media, and sometimes in such a way as to suggest that large numbers of Americans are taking part in the desecration; word of mouth spreads fast and furious that it is sanctioned by the U.S. Government, by NATO, by ISAF, and that we're probably burning copies behind our blast walls; insurgent groups and criminal gangs always looking for an opportunity stoke the flames however they can; and oh yes, an election said to be fraudulent already -- by those who want no democracy here and by quite a few ordinary Afghans -- rapidly approaches as all this unfolds.

Just one of the many incidents of the past few days...
Two killed in Afghan protest over Quran burning plan

The polls open in just 6 hours, as of this writing.  And for the third time in just the last few months, most of the country is on edge...hopeful for a collective step forward (usually defined as "no major attacks") while fearful that instability will rule the day.  Or just as likely, and more troublesome, perhaps most are resigned to the idea that their votes don't much matter, and that neither really does the national assembly.  That's the sentiment I hear most often expressed in conversation with Afghans.  The people are pretty disgruntled with rampant corruption in their government, for the most part -- though exactly how many want to do something about that remains highly in question, as there is still a great deal of often-puzzling loyalty to the heavyweights in charge. 

Some cool photographs here...
Perspectives on Afghanistan's parliamentary elections

Still, the election season has been incredibly interesting.  For months, the signs along roadsides have taken over, as more than 600 candidates are running for seats in Kabul alone.  Ranging from placards to billboards, and in some cases on giant banners overhanging main thoroughfares, there are hundreds of plastered faces staring out at you in a stern manner at any given time.  Facial recognition is important, as are the symbols associated with various candidates (Vote for the three lions! -seriously), since the population is somewhere around 20% literate.  Television commercials, and there have been tons, generally feature a version of the hand-out card on the screen with a voice-over urging you to vote for the good candidate in question.

Check out the photo on this's like some of mine which won't post...
Afghan election: Taliban not the only culprits of campaign violence

So who are these candidates?  They range from former(?) warlords to sons/daughters of past heroes, some clearly going for the traditional vote -- and looking like village elders in Kunar -- while some seek the more Western-minded youth on their side.  There are ethnic party hardliners, there are grandmothers, there are probably hundreds of candidates secretly backed by their local insurgents (who officially oppose elections)...and there are patriots who truly want to take out the trash and start with a fresh legislature.  Allegations abound already of fixing by incumbents, particularly those close to President Karzai, but there's still a giant sense of the unknown.  It should be an interesting day.  Here's one of the more interesting candidates...

Trust me, this is an exception to the usual appearance!  She's garnered quite a bit of attention, as you might guess...
Sisters, sprinters run for the elections

My feeling is that like the Kabul Conference in July, and the Peace Jirga before it, the election will be pulled off with only relatively minor least in the large cities.  Both of those were anticipated events with high international profiles, inviting a statement of some sort by insurgents looking to de-legitimize the government.  But the outlying districts will likely be another story.  The army and police have given the assurances they can, confident that a strong security presence will encourage voting...

Caption I'd like to attach the link's top photo: One American wonders what's going on, as one Afghan gives the press hell ("And another thing...!"), my man Azimi gives the evil eye (or the stinkeye?), and the dude on the end thinks, "Do I smell lamb? Yep, I smell lamb. Time for lunch, boys."

(This is a blatant plug of my own story.)
Election security will be adequate, say Afghan generals

* Just before I began writing this, a slight earthquake actually shook Kabul about two hours ago.  I was running at the time in the darkened city camp and barely felt it -- I thought more likely that a detonation had happened somewhere -- but hordes of people staggered sleepy-eyed out of their rooms.  The real notification for me came in the form of little birds, who pack the trees by the thousands and chatter away all evening and half the night.  They came pouring out of their trees, making such a crazy racket that I thought to myself, (no foolin') clearly something just happened.  It wasn't until I ran by someone who asked, "Did you feel the earthquake?", that I knew what happened.  As my director just posted on Facebook a few moments ago, let's hope it's not some kind of election day omen...

No damage reported after moderate earthquake jolts Afghanistan

* Follow-on note: I did actually hear the rocket, an hour or so after posting this.  Now that is a greater concern than a deep tremor of the earth.  But the fact that it gets reported as news, and that I am posting about it, just goes to demonstrate how safe Kabul is.  The last time I was deployed, I didn't even bother writing about rockets landing in bases in the it's big news if one strikes anywhere in the vast capital.  But that's the juxtaposition of safety in this city vs that which passes for it in the rest of the country, the byproduct of super-tight security on all approaches and beefed-up policing inside.  The upside is a relative oasis of calm apart from the dangers of other provinces.  The downside is a return to the "Kingdom of Kabul", where government and commerce hold sway here, but everything beyond gets further unstable all the time.

Afghan voting off to rocky start

(Note to Ms. Vogt: I'd hardly characterize one rocket, in a city that has been besieged by storms of rockets, as a "rocky start"...silly media, always super-concerned if it's their safe zone of Kabul...)

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I debated this one all day and all night...and now that it's well past the witching hour (and actually 9/12 here), I figured...what the hell.  September 11 in Afghanistan has come and gone, and as I expected, it was not particularly striking to be here on that date.  More significant than the attacks of nine years ago was the fact that it was the 2nd day of Eid al Fitr, so our Afghan colleagues were in the midst of their holiday time...making work as usual, fittingly, not an option. 

So what of it?  While I always will remember and commemorate the heroes and the victims of that day, and remain cognizant of the fact that I am here in Afghanistan right now -- for my second stay -- because of a terrorist attack almost a full decade's a world and multiple eras ago.  The people of this land were largely unaware of the United States at all in 2001, apart from those who knew of and appreciated the assistance provided the Mujahiddin in the 1980's as they waged an effective counterinsurgency against Russian invaders.  A horrific civil war which followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union left Afghans desperate for something, anything, which provided a semblance of law & order.  They got it, and more than most bargained for, with the Taliban.  The ultra-religious movement, mainly led and staffed by foreigners, profited from a connection with Al Qaeda and hosted the burgeoning international terrorist movement here...bringing Afghanistan squarely into the crosshairs (literally) of U.S. and allied Coalition might in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

You may forgive the ordinary Afghan for wondering how the hell a terrorist strike carried out by 19 Arabs on places they've never heard of could result in a few new chapters of topsy-turvy war for their "hearts and minds".  By multiple eras ago, I mean that a swift victory of late '01 led to the promises and commitments by the international community of '02 and '03, the troubling signs of the next few years as insurgencies (they were not and are not one collective movement) stubbornly stuck around and even made gains in some spots, the reversal of tenuous stability in entire regions and the effects of a still-porous border in the next few, the deadly campaigns for Eastern mountains and Southern deserts which continue, and the current state of which a nation is asked to be built, and by yesterday.

The biggest problem with that nation-building, out of all of them?  It could be the training of Afghan security forces, for many feel that such a feat may take years longer to properly do than currently discussed timelines permit.  It could be the construction and stabilization of institutions which will permit the nation to provide for its own needs without massive annual international assistance -- again, something that will take much longer than a couple of years if it is possible at all.  Looming larger than any of these, however, is the matter of who the Afghan people would rather see in charge...their current government or Taliban 2.0, my name for the loose grouping of insurgent forces who claim a lineage from the 90's crew, and may very well answer to the same Mullah Omar (I, for one, am not of the belief that Osama bin Laden is alive, or that he's relevant if he is).  For many, particularly in the rural areas which dominate most of the country, the same choice faces them now as in 1995...

Do you support an utterly corrupt and ineffective government, from the district level through the provincial to the national, with its bribes upon bribes...yet the legal and administrative systems simply never go anywhere?  Do you give it time to work, when the brave people who step up to try and improve it immediately become targets for doing so?  Or do you, out of even a touch of ideology or just amassed frustration, decide to cast your lot with the swift sytems of the shadow government of your area, because they seem to be strictly observant Muslims and they get results?  That is the crisis facing the Coalition and our Afghan partners.  And it's a long, long way from that blue-sky day nine years ago when four passenger jets were turned into missiles of world-altering destruction.

You see, it's getting so that I see little correlation these days between the wreckage which burned for months where a pair of impossibly tall buildings had just stood, right across the river from my eyes, and the state of affairs over here in 2010.  Countless young Americans and loyal allies -- many of whom were teens or even pre-teens when those attacks took place -- are waking up in a few hours to do what they do every day, and try to convince those aforementioned ordinary Afghans that their official officials are worth supporting.  I don't have the answers. More than likely, you don't have the answers. I fervently hope that a young generation of Afghans who've had enough of this cycle have the answers, and can break the pattern in time.

My boss shared his thoughts today too, and in my opinion it's certainly worth a read to see what the Commanding General of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan thinks about where we are and why it is important. 

Why We Are Here: Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV

"The Taliban will not give up their tyranny over the Afghan people without a fight. We see this every day when they murder innocent civilians and assassinate government officials, to include our brothers in the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, and recent poisonings of innocent school children across the country. Our best weapon against their oppression and the division they sow is our unity."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Eid al Fitr

At last, Eid is almost upon us!  (And not to be forgotten, a Rosh Hashanah shalom to my Jewish friends)  Never did I think I would anticipate a Muslim holiday this greatly...but the month of fasting is about to conclude, and it might just be in time to save me from wasting away.  Alright, it's really not all that bad -- I've basically had two meals each night, and most nights even managed a midnight workout in between the powering-up sessions.  But based on the somewhat concerned (occasionally horrified) reactions on the part of those who say I'm looking gaunt and bedraggled, it can only help to eat some regular meals again, and drink a bottle of water when the thirst arises.

Having said that, I'll reiterate my opinion that many of my fellow servicemembers could stand to skip a meal or three...or at least eat a little more smartly.  I know the services have different standards, and I'm well aware of different body types, but there are a few out here that would qualify as obese...and plenty who would at least be termed 'hefty', 'rotund' or 'triple-chinned'.  If these individuals can't control themselves, and the Army (or Navy, or Air Force) won't boot them or even withhold the next promotion to what should be a leadership rank -- and they've clearly demonstrated that they won't -- then how about changing the diet?  Or, you could just try what they will do, and eliminate long runs and sit-ups from PT and see how that goes... (for the record, I'm all for more yoga and total body fitness...just not at the expense of cardio endurance, upon which the big Army seems to have given up.)

Making Soldiers Fit to Fight, Without the Situps

It's well past time for the contract officers (often the heftiest around, unsurprisingly) to provide fewer of the all-fried, doused-in-heavy-sauce options; and more simple, healthier meals.  There are an abundance of choices already; there just need to be some smarter ones.  Here's a novel idea: re-write the Dept of Defense contracts so that local fruits, vegetables and grains could replace the ones shipped from the states.  I know I've ranted about this before, but the most delicious melons in the world are grown right here in Afghanistan, and you would never know that from the chow halls...only if you're fortunate enough to eat in town or with our Afghan brothers do you get to try the insanely tasty tarbooz from the north.  But we're so set in our ways that we don't make a simple change (probably because it would anger some contracting company and the politicians who profit from the deals in some way) that would actually grow the Afghan economy, something we say we're trying like hell to do.  OK...rant over.

عید شما تبریک باشد
Eid-e shumaa tabrik baasha!

Translation: Congratulations on your Eid!  The holiday is a very big deal, even though it is known as "little Eid" while the next one, in 45 days or so, is "big Eid".  Still, this ends the 28 days of fast from food and liquids, along with all the other best behavior requirements I wrote about in the Ramazan post (think of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", only with Allah instead: He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake!).  Actually, the use of Santa may be warranted, because Eid is often compared to Christmas for Muslims...or maybe Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving rolled into one.  For sure, every Afghan hopes to be home for this 3-day holiday, and some of the senior generals of the Army and Police are actually making the rounds to visit troops in the provinces who cannot do so.

Wondering what to do with your holiday?  My dear friend Farzana has some helpful advice about what goes on: "It is appropriate to give small gifts of food, candy, or other thoughtful things to your close friends/co-workers. Everyone does a massive deep-clean on their house, buys new clothes to wear, and visits one another for several days. Children are often given a little money."  So do it up, people.

عید شما مبرک
Eid-e shumaa mubarek!

Translation: May your Eid be blessed!  Which brings me to the weirdness of the rhythm we live as foreign advisors to the Afghans in a time like this.  Everyone back in the States returned from a long weekend, 4 days in many cases, while there was no Labor Day to speak of on this end (even the regular weekly pattern is off from yours, as the 'weekend' here is just Juma -- Friday -- then it's back to work).  But there is a 3-day holiday about to begin here for Eid (no, not for us infidels), which happens this year to immediately follow a nationally declared 2-day holiday today for Martyr's Day (officially "Ahmad Shah Massoud, the National Hero of Afghanistan, and other Afghan Martyrs Day" -- now that is a mouthful).  This has been commemorated on Sept 9 annually, at least in areas including Kabul where his supporters can most easily be found, since Massoud was assassinated two days before the 9/11/01 attacks. 

Anniversary of Ahmad Shah Masoud's Martyrdom Honoured in Kabul

Since the day is off for everyone, they held the national commemoration yesterday, in the Loya Jirga Tent in Kabul...a 5-hour-long ceremony in which speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of those who died fighting to free Afghanistan from the Soviets, and then the Taliban.  Conveniently skirted usually is the period of 1992-96, in which the Mujahiddin groups which had banded together to fight the Russians splintered apart and went to war with each other, obliterating Kabul, Kandahar and much of the country in a hail of rockets, mortars, artillery bombardments and other methods.  Still, some were far more at fault than others for the carnage of that period...Gulbuddin Hekmatyar usually comes up when Afghans are asked.  He was the leader most favored by Pakistan (and its CIA & Saudi suppliers), who remains safely there now as he continues to wage what he considers Jihad against the legitimate Afghan government and its Coalition allies.

Enough history, culture and weight talk for tonight?  I think so.  But I've got to do something to stay in touch while I can't post photos and it's 3am and the bags underneath my eyes grow heavier and heavier...

If you're not bummed out enough yet, check out this story on a dirty little not-so-secret of some corners of Afghan society: the habit of 'kept boys', or bachabaze.  Anyone who's read much of this land has likely come across the references, but the fact that it may be on the rise is very, very bad news for the poor kids of Afghanistan desperately trying to feed their families.  It's a twisted and predatory practice, obviously.  But I can't throw at you just sunshine and roses if you want to know more about this place...and there is an UGLY side to the fairly common practice of chai boys, and the abuse of them as status symbols.

The sexually abused dancing boys of Afghanistan

The bottom line?  We (the collective "we" of everyone who's a guest in Afghanistan to try and help the country stand on its own) can do everything we can...but there are aspects of culture that will puzzle, confound -- or in this case, disgust -- outsiders.  We discourage practices that are simply inhumane, but we usually won't be privvy to them.  The hope is that we are not empowering those who do.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

ANCOP homecoming

The unusual concert crowd awaits with bated breath...

Important note: I wrote this text and managed to post these 2 photos four nights ago.  Then the wireless failed, before I could even get the rest of the photos up, and looks like it's down for a long count once again.  So my fabulously firewalled network -- which will not permit me to post a single photo, no matter how small, to this blog -- does permit me to post to Flickr...therefore I will give that  a try, and post the link to the page below.  Hope it works, and I'll just pretend that this was able to go up as the companion piece it was intended to be.  I added as many wise guy captions as I could to the photos on Flickr, so please check 'em out!

Flickr photos: ANCOP Concert 6-12-2010

A few weeks after the sendoff ceremony, I got to attend a special "welcome home" ceremony and concert for an ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) kandak which just returned from a combat deployment.  There was such a palpable difference in collective attitude...relief instead of preparation, joy instead of apprehension.  As much as anything, there was the sense that these guys now had experience.

The first item of business was a solemn ceremony, led by the mullah's prayer at the outset, which featured speeches by commanders of the unit and the entire force.  Also speaking was Canadian Maj. Gen. Ward of NTM-A, who blew away another audience with his Dari...he delivered his entire remarks in their language.  This had a tremendous affect on the audience, as you might imagine, and he got a huge ovation before assisting in the presentation of awards and recognition to those who distinguished themselves in the deployment.

Music, laughter, the sniper on the rootftop...

The concert itself was a first-rate show from the first act to the last.  Kicking it off was Aryan Khan, a theatrical performer whose flag-waving entourage included costumes from various regions, emphasizing the solidarity of Afghanistan.  A side note: Something many Westerners don't realize is that ethnic divisions aside, most Afghans are fiercely proud of their history as a nation and have no desire to see it split in any way.  To that end, the unity display went over very well.

Next up was a wildly adored singer, Wajeha Rastgar, who sang a "love song" to the police for the selfless manner in which they offer their lives to protect the people.  She had an amazing voice, and the audience began to seem like a concert just about anywhere at that point (to be fair, the scent of hash wafting from somewhere contributed to that effect!). 

The comedians Ibrahim Abed and Mohammaed Nabi Roshan, who spliced their routine into the show between musical sets, were hits...I must admit, that was a helluva lot harder to follow than the music was for us foreigners, but my boys were busting their guts laughing. 

Theatrical costume was in force again when Ustad Gulzeman took the stage in elaborate Pashto regalia.  His music held deep appeal for a number of the cop-soldiers, some of whom began a sort of Afghan dance-off which then turned into more of a choreographed pack.  It was a riot!  At this point I also noticed that it was really a 'house band' keeping the music going all evening...the same guys were backing each one of the entertainers.  Hopefully my man Derek Trucks knows where to look to plug in any gaps the next time he needs a new sound to step in and jam for 6 or 8 hours.

Closing the show was the charismatic Zafir Jawid, who began his set seated on the stage with strictly traditional instruments, and before long had roused the rows of police-soldiers back into frenzied dancing...this time it was all of them.  That may have been the highlight scene above all: silhouettes of whirling fans against the colorful backdrop of the stage -- fans who could have been any ol' concertgoers, but were actually elite policemen celebrating their safe return home.

For a full recap, my fellow advisor for the Interior Ministry wrote an excellent summary attached here...

Afghan song and laughter after the mission