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...

Friday, December 31, 2010

Salaam alaikum, 2011

My favorite from 2010: The Lineup

It's the first minutes of 2011 in Kabul...and I find that when you consider time, it's weird enough that we make such a big deal out of one moment of a year, and even more so when the entire culture of our hosts doesn't recognize anything significant at all taking place except a new day about to begin (it doesn't change over to solar year 1390 until March).  Here at Camp Eggers, there was some sort of party being held...but honestly, a New Year's Eve party bereft of alcohol makes about as much sense to me as Christmas without gifts, Thanksgiving without turkey, Halloween without a costume, or Labor Day without rest.  And since I did all of those and more, I'm good on short-changing holidays for now, thank you!

Downtown Kabul, late December 2010
Why study hard when you can learn tricks?
And who do you think the English "Stop" is for?
"What is wrong with you people? It's still 1389!"

I don't know about most...judging by what I saw of the camp, the majority were sticking to their usual early bedtimes.  I simply went up to the roof of my work building around midnight, lit up a Swisher Sweet (classy, I know -- failed to plan ahead for a cuban or anything), popped open a nonalcoholic Beck's, and stood around freezing for a while with some sailors and airmen who work in the Public Affairs Office for the command.  Unlike all of those scenes on CNN of every capital city bursting into a party at the stroke of midnight, Kabul was completely and utterly silent.  Honestly, it was refreshing to have a year change over without one of those silly countdowns, which always amuse the hell out of me in a grotesque sort of way.  Have you ever stood on the fringes of a party and simply watched as a roomful of people frantically count down to midnight?  It's fascinating!  But knowing that I could have been doing one of those silly countdowns as it's led by Phish, in Madison Square Garden, with my younger brother...well, that was harder to stomach.  Still, this one will be memorable in its own way.  That is, if the homecoming tour doesn't demolish my memory entirely.

Taliban? Haqqani? Nope, just government thugs. Whew.

Traffic jams in Kabul are fierce...

...and omnipresent.

So what's going on around here as the western calendar turns, you ask?  In Kabul, it's politics, politics, and...did I say politics?  Everything is political in nature here: the alliances, the business relationships, foreign policy, monetary policy, social policy, and on it goes.  Within the bubble, it can be very difficult to gauge how things look to the commanders, foot soldiers, aid workers and others in the field...and as a few seasoned reporters have pointed out, it remains night and day: you get one story in the capital, you see another in the provinces.  Now and then, a piece of journalism stands out, and I thought this one to be an astute and honest look at the challenges taken on by the overall commander (and by extension, all 150,000+ NATO/US/Coalition troops and civilians here)...

Washington Post: Questions for Gen. Petraeus

Why haul around that heavy load?

Just hit the Prestige Super Market for your needs!

Chillin' at the traffic circle umbrella.

You know, I rant plenty about the frustrations of duty in Kabul...while careful always (I hope) to caveat that with the admission that we do enjoy safety and security here, compared to troops in daily danger in some places around the country.  But working under the big flagpole has its upside, which is particularly illustrated when you get to unexpectedly cross paths with some guests of the command you're happy to see around.  (What's that, a teaser?  Damn straight it is...)  Consider especially how marginalized Marines are in the joint forces commands of this city, and everywhere in Afghanistan but for Helmand (aka "Marine-istan"), with very Army-heavy ranking officers, staffs and troops...then you might understand the lift from this surprise.

General Amos, the newly minted Marine Corps Commandant, came to town the other day after spending a whirlwind Christmas visiting every command and outpost in the Southwest of Afghanistan where he could find Marines...which is a lot.  Read a bit about it here from a reporter who traveled with him:

"Say General, can you spare a jacket?"
"Suck it up, Marine."  "Aye aye, Sir!"

A sobering example of the challenges faced around the country can be found in eastern Khost province, where I spent the majority of my last tour.  I'm not sure I agree that it was a model province then, but it did seem to be relatively secure despite a long border with Pakistan, a Pashtun majority, and weak government institutions.  It then seemed to be sliding, and it's unclear still if that slide has been arrested.  This report is worth a read, as a capsule of the many unstable areas we hope to turn around...

And now for some 2010 leftovers.  There are a number of galleries I haven't even sorted through enough to post yet, but a select shot from here or there couldn't hurt.  Here are some of the moments from the past year I don't think I've shared (if I'm wrong, it could have something to do with staying up until 3 am every night)...

No man is an island, unless he wants to be.

The great mosque, downtown Kabul

Helicopter housing an internet cafe, Shamshad TV

Palaces of old...
(Darul Aman, the King's Palace, in ruins)

Palaces new.
(Kabul Shahan, one of many glitzy wedding halls)

Still packin' heat, but in civvies...
(the only time in the past 8 months!)

Pam's photograph: She gets a sly smile from Minister of the Interior 
(and former Chief of Staff of the Army) Bismullah Khan Mohammady

A lazy cat amused us for hours at the Gandamack...

...while I amused myself with an ancient British arsenal.
Those Brits and their colonialism...will they ever learn? ;)

Happy New Year, loyal readers!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmaas Tabrik!

Even the lawyers got into the spirit

Yeah, so the title may seem outdated...but any good historian (and these days it takes a historian) can tell you that the Twelve Days of Christmas only started on December 25th.  Besides, the phrase is cool in Dari, especially when pronouncing it "Kris-MAAS"...that's how I greeted people the past few days.  And I had a few more pics to post anyway, before rambling on with my latest late-night thoughts...

A secret Santa surprised me with a leg lamp stocking...
"Not a fingah!"

One last smirk as Sgt Slaughter before the shave.

Carved roast beast

Served by a row of Navy Senior Chiefs, who I told:
LCDR "Slappy the Squid" Huvane will never believe this!

Let them eat cake, eh?

So, the mother of all western holidays is a couple of days in the rearview mirror...even in the States, most people have furiously moved on from 12/25 with puzzling speed; much less here, where it feels like it never came in the first place.  Still, I was hoping to provide a rare back-to-back pair of posts, and would have done so if events requiring my attention didn't rapidly take over, and crush what little time I had left at the end of each day (i.e. 0200 hours).  The snafu which I wrote about at the end of an exhausting 24th picked right back up again the next day -- I believe you call it Santa Day, or Discount Shopping Eve? -- and has continued to dog me and a host of others as we try to actually attend to other business.  Although it's pretty amusing to learn of who else is involved in the back-and-forth now between a rogue general removed from his post and the Defense Ministry.  As his friend and mine is the spokesperson for the ministry, it creates an odd situation, to say the least...especially when the process I'm advising ends up edited by President Karzai himself for release (unbeknownst to me at the time).  Craziness.

"I will write this release for you, AfghaniDan."
"Kojak? Is that you?"

The calendar marches on, matter how much I feel still needs to be done.  I'm staring at a compressed time of just days, and feeling very mixed emotions over it.  I am beyond eager to see my family, to lift the kids who were babies when I saw them last, to re-acquaint myself with old friends, to laugh about the shenanigans I missed, to tell the stories I haven't yet, to properly toast -- again and again -- my friend who has left this world, and the brave badasses who took the fight to the enemy in unforgiving mountains and deserts here.

We were all sportin' the 'stache at some point...

...and then there was one, mi primo O'Neill-Hernandez.
The "Highlander" of NTM-A PAO moustaches.

But I am truly sad to be leaving, at the same time.  I've made friends here who I'll sorely miss, learned something new every day, enjoyed seeing the world once again through a completely different lens, and grown comfortable with pushing back those who would thwart the development in progress of our Afghan colleagues just so that they can impress their bosses and score a higher evaluation rating.  Someone's got to stand in the doorway with a bat, or a hockey stick, when the "good idea fairy" comes calling.

Canuck mini-tree, with the hockey pencils I loved as a kid.

Canadian General Beare, Afghan General Karimi and U.S. General Patton (yeah, really) serve the troops chow in "the Goat."

"What's that? You want meat that's NOT camel??"

Oddly lighter in the upper's a Festivus miracle!

Christmaas Tabrik, Camp Eggers...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Kristmas Eve, Kabul

Official holiday design of Nato Training Mission Afghanistan.

There are odd moments that become fully realized as odd in the mind later, and then there are those that strike you when they first appear.  Christmastime in Afghanistan brings out quite a few of the latter, I've found...

Odd moment from earlier in the week:
Meetings interrupted by an ornery peacock.

Those who know me know that I am not the type that gets particularly excited for this season anyway, mainly because of how overwrought and stressful it can become.  So spending one in a 'break' from the frenzy isn't that bad...or wouldn't be if I had two seconds here or there to enjoy it!  And of course, it would be nice to have the option of dropping in on my family's gatherings, and those of close friends -- wherever the celebrations happen to be.  On the other hand, not getting shot at is a Christmas blessing, too...

Press conferences in a lavish hall in Kabul: Always odd.

The "Holiday Afghani'stache": Odd, or oddly alluring?

So tonight, Christmas Eve, was just another night here for me until I had a chance to seek some meaning in it.  I had returned to my cramped office from the lengthy Advisors' Council meeting, which eats up a chunk of the one Afghan off-day each week, to answer a flood of e-mails while keeping an eye on Tolo TV news (in Dari -- and no, I still can't understand much, but like to speculate about the rants they must be on), was anxious to get to the gym at some point, and of course breathing in the smoky dust air that is Kabul's extra layer of atmosphere all winter.

The chow hall likes to shove Christmas hype in my face.

Nothing's in them...I checked.

I found that the occasional reminders of another world had multiplied in the past couple of days, like the holiday music played from someone's computer...if I'm not in the mood to say "Turn that s--t off and quit reminding us of home!" (hey, there's no crusty gunny around here, and somebody's got to play the role).  There has even been the occasional greeting from an Afghan colleague -- I had to give a big hug to Col. Ibrahim when he said a perfect "Merry Christmas" to me the other day.  The TV is full of odd moments, of course, like the mandatory season's greetings from every commanding officer and sergeant major of every military organization in Europe and Asia on AFN.  I mean, dude -- when you and your wife are striving for perfect-family perfection, maybe the two boys looking a little old for argyle sweaters and Santa hats have psychotic grins on their faces for good reason!  That one scares me. 

Christmas spirit, Camp Eggers style

Who knew water bottles could make a kick-ass tree?

There are the random strands of light here and there around camp, and there was even a midnight mass tonight in the clamshell (a type of large reinforced tent)...which I thought would be a cool connection to my ancestors in exotic places like the Bronx.  Alas, there was no feast fortified by copious amounts of booze to follow it.  Can't I get an Irish cultural waiver on something like this?

Midnight mass, Kabul

A brass section played carols the other day around camp...
Though they ignored my request for James Brown's "Hot Pants"

Today (you know, the 25th), it is back to the advisor grind.  Which I hope means nothing like Thursday did.  Since almost all of the government and my ministry would be off, I was hoping to work just a few issues with some colleagues who'd be in, make up a little lost ground on stalled initiatives, and if all went well, mayyybe even send a few more scarves to my sisters and nieces, or start to pack some of my own stuff to send.  Instead it was the longest day (and part of a night) I'd yet spent at the Defense Ministry, working a press release with the head cheese himself, and a stressed-out general I advise, and one of our own generals, and some beat-up advisors, and a staff of Afghans who haven't bathed in some time.  Only to come back to  base at night and stare at all the work I was HOPING to do that day.  C'est la vie.  Still, there was a moment there, discussing wording with the Minister -- a larger than life figure -- when I thought to myself, "Yep...this is odd."

Defense Minister Wardak

Mostly though, I've thought this week about the hundreds of families who received a casket instead of their loved ones, this year alone.  And those who've gone back to a changed life, one of struggle to recover from debilitating injuries.  I was struck today by a CNN report showing wounded warriors in recovery in the States, all with prosthetics and other various injuries, who wanted only to express their support for their buddies still in the fight.  That's such utterly tremendous loyalty, overcoming the very human tendency to look inward and dwell on the pain, so that comrades can take heart.  To spend a Christmas even in the same country as heroes like that is an honor.

Merry Christmas to all of you, from your ever-dedicated rambler-in-servitude, the AfghaniDan...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Herat City

 This is not Photoshop,'s Afghanistan.

While out West, I got to pass through the regional capital, one of Afghanistan's most significant and historic cities.  Herat is also an example of what can be done right today, in a number of ways.  Its answers may not be easily duplicated elsewhere, but still it is relatively a model of stability, growth and even tolerance.  It was as if we'd left Afghanistan completely and traveled beyond the border...

For contrast's sake, the rough landscape a few miles to the south...

Nicely paved roads, curbs, tree-lined dividers...and we weren't even in the city yet. I knew then that this would be unique.

Welcome to Herat! We're in the business now.

Military checkpoints don't slow down ANA vehicles much.

The Hari Rud, which flows from the Hindu Kush to the Caspian Sea.
My fellow passengers weren't nearly as giddy about that as I was...

"What the hell? Where am I?"

It didn't take long to see firsthand what I'd read and heard about...that Herat is its own thick slice of the country, doing quite well by doing things its own way.  Does that mean it's all above board?  Good God, no...we're talking about Afghanistan here.  And just as interference from Pakistan plagues the East and South, the same can be said of Iranian interference in the West.  But it's no more shady and entangled in various deals and alliances than anywhere else, from what I can tell...and it's prospering, safe and secure.

Even standalone buildings on the outskirts are done in style.

The villa of some connected guy or other, no doubt.

Speaking of, this could easily be a New Jersey diner. 

Tuk-tuks galore. They swarm the streets of this fair city.

Pink glass: extremely popular commodity here.

Persian influence is evident in the architecture, and even the fashion.  Rather than burqas here, women tend to wear patterned long robes that extend from a head covering, though with the face uncovered.  Scandalous, I on earth do the men contain their crazed lustful instincts?!  Insanity.  The pace here is busy; more western than you see in most of the country.  Yet there was an almost jarring sense of order about the place.

A city park! With tall trees...lots of them!

Ornate traffic circle centerpieces are the norm...

Though sometimes the classic umbrella will do.

Tuk-tuk drivers: they are even on G-mail now.

Anyone else see a "Main St., USA" vibe here?
OK, not exactly...but I think you know what I mean.

Poppy palaces do abound here as well...
(the girl wears a typical regional robe garment)

And another new pink building stands tall.

My apologies...but it's beyond late, and there is much more to show of this startling city on Afghanistan's western frontier.  I've decided to break it up into not seeing anything new in Kabul these days anyway.  And the last thing you want is a gallery of moustache shots!  Thanks for bearing with the slideshow...I'd have made a great substitute teacher.
Khodaafes, JagraniDan