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

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallows away...

Happy Halloween, everyone...or in Afghanistan, simply Happy Yakshanbe (Sunday).  Although in a city which mashes together traditional garb such as turbans with dudes in shiny purple suits on a daily basis -- and whose women are often veiled if not covered completely in ghostly burqas -- you could make the case that there are always some folks in costume.

Not only did their costumes kick ass, but the jams were fierce!

It's odd that I'm writing with the date in mind, because it wasn't relevant at all in my workday.  Once again I spent what would be an American holiday, or at least day of rest, on an advisor's assessment mission with the two colleagues who accompanied me to the Commando Brigade.  This time we visited the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps, headquartered just outside of Kabul.

 A rare instance in which I got away with a gate shot.

Now I join Afghans in looking mean for the group photo.

Each time a holiday rolls around lately, I play a mental game of recalling where I was for the past few...or how many different locations I've spent them in.  Independence Day (the one on July 4) was a good one for this game: Just in Marine service, I've spent two in Afghanistan, one in Israel, one in Peru, one in Hong Kong, one on exercises in Twentynine Palms (Calif.) and another on exercises in Camp Lejeune (NC).  Since I'm older than 12 and without kids of my own, I don't give a rat's behind about spending Halloween in a 'combat zone' -- aside from missing out on scandalously revealing costumes -- but Thanksgiving will surely be tougher.  I just extended my deployment by another month in order to properly transition to my successor, so November will come and go with me still in place.

Departing advisor Capt. Ridley is recognized by Paiman...

...and properly gives the Afghan shout out.
Trick or Treat!

In October, I spent a birthday deployed for the first time in over a decade -- the upside of flexibility as an individual augment in the Reserve, as well as just some fortunate timing.  That does not count Marine Forces Europe '09 (Stuttgart) -- which, despite the vastly superior locale, was actually much lonelier than this one (Danke schoen, you unfriendly Tubingers!).  So I've got to give huge props to my team, who managed to make this Month of AfghaniDan so memorable once they found out...and ironically, two of them sprechen sie Deutsch.  (Wish to correct my grammar?  Great!  Just drop a comment.)  We ended up with two gatherings in order to get full team participation...and a bonus dinner with Spokesperson Bashary in the mix, at Kabul's 5-star hotel.  I'm not trying to ham it up any more than usual below; there are just a ton of me photos because the cameras were out of my hands and they wouldn't let me escape any shots.

 The Wild Bunch.

Esmat & I dig "jar cake" (thank you, Jami!)

The surprise party I never expected gets started.

Dave and the K-Bar help me get it divvied up.

Banana-custard-chocolate-something goodness.

On the topic of special occasions, last week I voted by e-ballot for the first the U.S. elections, that is.  I stayed neutral in the Afghan one.  Of course there must be a number of first-timers, since it's only this year that a mere 16 states began allowing it for deployed military and others, including government employees.  The practice is still controversial -- I know various voters' and privacy groups have weighed in on the risks of fraud and ID theft -- but I've got to say that it was convenient and downright practical for us.  Even the postcard applications for ballots by mail take forever, and following the process the whole snail mail way turns off a lot of potential voters who aren't exactly thinking election in July!  The info wasn't readily available anywhere, but the folks at Boulder County helped hat's off to them for helping me be a good citizen (for once).

Yep, this is actually Kabul...Serena Hotel, Oct. 5th.

The Cult of Bashary: his hair, of course, was perfect.

World's scariest -- and best -- kebab chef.

Fareed joins me in scarfing down serving after serving.

The soul-crushing return to the gates of Eggers.

Please allow me to take the unusual step here of plugging something that's not self-serving, from Tim at Esquire Magazine.  See below, and get in touch with them if your family fits the bill...


For a major photographic portfolio in an upcoming issue, Esquire is looking for multigenerational families of combat veterans: sons or daughters who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, fathers (Vietnam), and grandfathers (World War II or Korea) who each served in combat and are willing to be photographed together representing three generations of American military history. Esquire has a long tradition of honoring American troops in wartime and we hope to add this unique portfolio of veteran families to that history.

If you and your living father and grandfather (or son and grandson) have served America at war and would like to participate in this project, please send a note with your contact information to the Esquire Veterans Project at

Thank you.

 Last but not least...
An Oktoberfest memento (you rock, Jess & Saskia!)

Friday, October 29, 2010


"Dear AfghaniDan: What season is it over there?"

It's the best season of all...Pomegranate Season!  Having only known the juice made from this fruit, I'm really digging the abundance of them in Afghanistan at this time of year.  The above photo was not mine...none of my attempts to catch a pom cart or pom stand have turned out well, but they are everywhere in the city.  Since I saw it as an obligation, I dug into one the other day and haven't looked back.

Esmat shows how to open up the sucker.

Eat with great care, I was warned...for this stuff STAINS.

Sweet messy goodness.  I'm hooked.

"Dear AfghaniDan: What's the weather like in Kabul?"

 I have an inability to quit photographing roses.

It's quite pleasant, in fact.  The nights have turned cool to occasionally cold, but the days still warm up.  It's a lot like Denver, honestly, only a bit more mild and in no precipitation, ever.  There were two occasions in the past few days when it sprinkled a couple of drops -- not even enough to cover a leaf -- yet still, it felt amazing.  I have felt actual raindrops three times in the past 5.5 months, which is weird.  About a week ago we had a hell of a dust storm, which toppled a lot and coated everyone & everything in dirt, yet never brought rain.  It reminded me of the thunderstorms in Khost, which were usually all thunder and wind.  Thanks for asking, stranger!

It's nice enough to practice video outdoors.
(A scene from the Basic Public Affairs Course.)

Mock interviews are always fun... 
Unless there are explosives in the camera.
(see: Massoud, Ahmad Shah)

In fact, it's the perfect weather for a drive around the neighborhood and its "poppy palaces"...ornate houses so named for the strong suspicion that only income augmented by drug profits could possibly afford to have them built.  Of course, some turn out to be funded by "development" money...that goes a long way here, too.

Poppy one.

Poppy two.

Poppy three.

Poppy school?  Sure, why not.

"Dear AfghaniDan: Why all the links lately, and what's with the increased focus on national and international level happenings?"

 When at a Soviet-style podium, play the part!

This answer isn't as simple.  I read a ridiculously high volume of Afghanistan-related stories each day, and try to post the most relevant to a point I'm making about my own experiences, or simply the best of the bunch.  The ones about life 'downrange', the life of the warrior engaged in regular combat, are simply in tribute to them.  The ones about Kabul or the fate of this war are shared because that's what I am engaged in (or at least on the periphery of) on a daily basis: decisions that shape the future of national institutions, and by extension, Afghanistan's future.  It's mentally challenging in its own way...though as you've picked up if you've read a few entries, I'm often resentful of being here in relative safety while thousands of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen face deadly danger in their missions.

A Defense Ministry press conference in the palatial GMIC.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of U.S. and NATO service members here are as safe as I am, and only a relatively small number are clearing mine-ridden farmland, patrolling desolate villages, or convoying across ambush roads.  But something a fine officer and simply decent human being said tonight at his farewell dinner gave me pause.  Speaking directly of that nagging feeling, he pointed out that by building institutions, we are giving Afghans something they haven't had in over 30 years: hope.  "And hope is a whole lot more important than another dead bad guy."

Gen. Azimi takes another round of questions from the press.

And dons the shades for a few more interviews outside.

For my own beat reporting on what was said at the press conference above, please check out the writeup by yours truly (not in the job description these days, but straight journalism is still fun to me).

My main man House and I by the Gov't of Afghanistan seal.

And because I simply can't quit this link addiction, here's another...from Time, but highlighting a letter to the Washington Post that has a fairly excellent point.  Let's just show the text of it.

"A few days ago we were hearing that peace talks with the Taliban were growing more serious, in part because we were decimating their leadership. Now we're hearing that the Taliban is doing more or less fine, thank you very much.
As one of your readers, what in the world am I supposed to make of an article in yesterday's newspaper claiming that the United States and its allies are kicking the holy crap out of the Taliban, and another article today that claims that, no, actually, U.S. and allied operations are not having much of an effect at all on the Taliban's ability to conduct operations?...
Can you see how this is confusing?... Here's a radical proposition: why don't you direct your reporters to pool their sources, work together, and write an article that highlights the conflicting assessments rather than write two articles taking each set of sources at face value?

Because I shouldn't forget to read the newspaper one day and miss the news that we're winning. Or losing."

Read more:

Inventory, old school. 

The photos earlier of video camera practice show a portion of a training day at the basic Public Affairs Course my team coordinates.  It's a surprising venture when you first hear of it: an Afghan media company (of which there are several very good ones) is contracted to provide five weeks of training in everything from photography to story structure to editing a broadcast segment.  Our colleagues at the ministries provide as many soldiers, NCOs and officers as they can from the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the border police, and so on.  I like it because it's one of the more tangible examples of something we're actually doing...since so much of the 'heavy lifting' is hard to see, hard to quantify, and hard to explain.

Instruction from a nationally known actor, it turns out.

Video instruction: it ain't sexy, but it pays off.

Chai breaks break up the class day.
(Yes, I wish it was beer in those cups.)

Social time under the barbed wire.

Cascading vines surround each building in this compound.

House and the great Colonel Murad.

AND, JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT... A couple of my favorite shots from the chow hall here at camp.

A large crowd of Afghan employees enjoying...'South Park'.
Some things you can't make up.

"StratCom" (IO), Army-style.
Choose your destiny, soldier.  And make the analogy.
Army strong is to a rack of ribbons as death is to a cemetery.
(I think someone needs to re-take his SATs...)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Turkish delight

Another cloudless sky, another graduation.

Even if you've paid attention some to the news from Afghanistan, you're probably mightily confused.  Well, join the club.  Still wrapped up in the saga of an impending presidential ban on security companies -- something that would almost certainly shut down a massive portion of the country's development programs and projects -- the capital now is awash in rumors of Russia sending trainers to augment NATO here (which goes over like a lead balloon, as you might imagine).

 Afghan color guard at Turkey's Camp Ghazi

When I arrive at the office of my colleagues in the Defense Ministry, I never know what to expect.  The other day we watched news coverage of President Karzai's meeting with the President of Tajikistan, and couldn't help but joke to each other about how many sacks of cash were involved (Karzai just copped to receiving payments from both Iran and the U.S. in bags of cash, for which he naturally had a good explanation).
 The next thing I know, I was off with the general on our way to a big ceremony at the Turkish camp.  A large class of Afghan non-commissioned officers (NCOs) was taking the oath of service, and we had to be there.  Well, Azimi had to be there.  I, as the fortunate advisor, was merely told by him that "no" wasn't an option.  Since it suits me just fine to get out of the Green Zone, I was eagerly on my way.

Table after table is filled with young NCOs ready to take the oath.

And the shouts go up and out for Afghanistan.
(more pics to follow...)

There is a very real correlation that exists between the endless training taking place in Kabul and a few other cities and the life-and-death struggle in the field.  If outstanding leaders are identified and empowered here, if units learn to work together as one organ, if basic skills are mastered...then more soldiers, Afghan and Coalition alike, live to fight another day.  Although I am far removed from combat here, it is usually a tremendous honor to attend a ceremony such as this one in Camp Ghazi.

Called from the ranks to perform the prayer...

 As AfghaniDan's paparazzi follows him everywhere.

You see, all it takes is a war in a place like Afghanistan for the Turks and Greeks to come together!  Hellas cool.

Posted here is a brief but vivid account of life these days for the warriors of 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.  It's worth a few seconds to read about what they go through on a daily basis fighting this war...while we bitch in Kabul if there's a long line to withdraw cash from the ATM at the coffee shop.

"It’s not fun," Gallant said of driving on Marjah’s roads. "It’s waiting to get blown up again for the most part."

Corporal details Marines' hard life in southern Afghanistan

Below is not the kind of quote you read often, including in most of the stories I've posted here.  And yes, it makes me swell with pride in my fellow Jarheads, the ones doing the heavy lifting...

“We have seen the changes here,” Ghulamzoi said. “This time last year, the Taliban was running this area. Since the Marines have come in, we can sleep safely in our homes again.”

Marines, Afghans Come Together for Way Forward in Marjah


Back in Kabul, the band played on...

...and on.

Bustin' through red smoke with the colors.

And always, the goose step manages to show up.

I can't help myself's addiction to links.  But if you have the inclination to read a gritty, heart-stopping account of patrols in Kandahar's vicious Arghandab Valley, please check this one out.  It is some excellent reporting by the UK's Daily Mail...

"Still buried somewhere very close to him  -  and us  -  was a pressure plate. If someone were to step on it Sgt. McGhee and those near him would have their 'day spoiled'  -  a laconic phrase used in the platoon to describe catastrophic injury."

"The basic IED is not only a potential war-winner, it is dirt cheap and easy to make."


Apple juice and Turkish finger food followed the affair.

Stalin may be long dead and hated here, but he sure is imitated in appearance sometimes.

Grabbing some real food back the Defense Ministry with my pal Colonel Asif (aka Pauly Walnuts)

While Col Paiman looks like he's got a whole feast to himself...
Asif decided that he should gain the weight.

So after that harrowing read, how about a bit of levity from krazy Kabul.  Actual quote follows from the host of what many service members here call "Who Wants to be an (Afghan) Millionaire" but is actually more like "Let's Make a Deal"...only if the prize girls were replaced by the guys from your IT department:

"You really wiped the smile off my face when you lost the one million," Mirzad told him. "Now you've won the lowest prize on this program. Best of luck in the future."

Afghan gameshow brings relief and a chance of cash

 Back at work, I coined a new term: Naan de Shark
(and the good eats carried on all day!)