Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.
It made all the papers back home; the story of an American who was shot by an ANP enraged over the Soldier drinking and smoking in plain sight during Ramadan. Many opined that our Soldiers need to be more culturally aware. I replied to email chains from friends, and sometimes angrily contended that when I was actively mentoring, the ANP would serve us chai and sweets during Ramadan, ever the gracious hosts.
After the failed mission to Kunar, I was instantly put to work with a group of PMT’s from Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. A good lot, they have been working with the ANP for over four months now. One of the teams I was working with had been present that day. The Soldier who was shot in the leg by the ANP that day is doing well and is in good spirits, they informed me. They were irritated that the story had been turned into something that it was not.
Those who were there that day told me that the meme came from an ANP General who arrived well after the incident occurred. It was his attempt at explaining the behavior of the ANP who had opened fire. The now-wounded ANP had announced that he had done it, “for my prophet.” He was clearly unstable.
He had opened fire in what is referred to here as “spray and pray.” He fired not from a close distance, as most assumed, but from a range of 75 to 100 meters. The PMT who was hit was not hit by a bullet fired by an offended man from scant feet away, but by a man who had lost his mind and opened fire from some distance away, spraying the vehicles and wounding the Soldier more by chance than any carefully considered action.
The crazed ANP was shot by several people, including the wounded Soldier. The Soldier then calmly assisted the Combat LifeSaver in applying a tourniquet to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. Other American Combat LifeSavers treated the wounded ANP, who also survived the incident.
I have never seen any real psychiatric treatment in Afghanistan, yet mental illness clearly exists. There is no real mental screening for any position, much less the ANP. Had any reporter actually spoken to the men who were on the ground that day, the myth of the smoking, water-drinking offender would have been debunked. The Soldier who was wounded didn’t even smoke. Instead, some made-up fairy tale was sold the American people, leaving the Soldiers who were actually involved scratching their heads and feeling powerless to change that perception. They are not communicators. They don’t blog. They pretty much communicate with only their families and friends. To them, it was just another case of the press screwing Soldiers.
They consider that normal behavior for our media.
And now you know the rest of the story.
In memory of the late Paul Harvey, who would have loved to tell this story.
What a week it’s been. In order to become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Academy of Bellicose Numismatists you have to study hard, know the curriculum and class materials, and you have to complete the 5 day course as a student. It’s a rite of passage. Well, it’s a little more than that, but I’m simplifying it.
So that was fun.
After a day to change gears and get prepped, a couple of other instructors and I trundled off early each morning to teach a more focused, shorter course at a branch school for Afghan officers. This was an advanced course. These officers had already completed their basic course. They also had combat experience and knew a fair amount about enemy behavior. We have been teaching the Afghans classic AirLand Battle doctrine for nearly 7 years now. Here we come all of a sudden with a new plan for them; COIN. One of them did ask the obvious question; “Why did you wait until now to come up with this?”
I didn’t want to tell them that the book was published two and a half years ago and we just got around to reading it. Uh… that would be some of us. We still get field grade officers in the course here who have not read the book. A significant portion of company grade officers have not read it.
Most of them are taking to it like a duck takes to water. There are a couple of die-hards, but most of them see the truth in what we have told them. The strange thing is that in the Afghan National Army you have a mixture of Mujaheddin and leftovers from the Najibullah regime; the Communists who the Soviets invaded to “assist.” Many of these officers were insurgents. But that was a different insurgency. Question that all you will, but I can tell you, and so can they, that it was another matter altogether.
Part of the training is, “Be the insurgent,” a take on the Caddyshack golfing philosophy of, “Be the ball.” One ANA officer briefed a plan that had an ANA Colonel wondering if he needed to run a background check on the officer. It was that good. When you can think like an insurgent, you can get inside his loop and get in between him and the cookie that he strives to possess… the acquiescence, if not active participation, of the populace.
If you don’t like the term, “cookie,” then insert your word of choice for something that someone wants to possess and strives for by hook or by crook. I think of the kid and the cookie jar, or in some cases the schoolkid who gets a cookie of he/she behaves. But, suit yourself by all means.
Most of the ANA officers nod their heads knowingly at the way that information is now interrelated. It makes sense to them. They understand the challenges of appealing to the people intrinsically… they are the people. They know who in the village they looked up to as children. It was usually not the Provincial Governor. No, it was an elder, a mullah, a big brother, a father, an uncle. These are the men who shape the minds and opinions in Afghanistan. The Afghans understand that some men are fighting for money, some for other grievances, and some to take over their own corner of the world.
They know that they will likely have to kill the would-be warlords. They can live without killing the part-time insurgent, the aggrieved, the threatened or the misled. They can live without killing “The Accidental Guerrilla” of Kilcullen’s writings.
There are many problems to be solved. There are more ethnic tensions in Afghanistan than when Cleavon Little wore a hood in Blazing Saddles. These guys need a Cleavon Kabuli to break the tension a little. The problem is that the direct material correlation would be a burqa, and a comic actor in a burqa just isn’t going to cut it here. No way. The ethnic tension isn’t impossible to break; but it’s like racism in the States… it’s going to take a generation of intolerance to it before it really begins to melt. Many feel that it can never be broken, but I don’t believe that. The world is getting smaller, and Afghans will eventually be forced to bond with the folks in the other valley to deal with the pressures of the outside world.
There are other problems, like illiteracy. This is more of a problem than on the surface, because while ignorance is the devil’s playground, it has to be realized that there is an element of religious manipulation involved that is not possible among the literate. Religiosity is built into daily lives to a much greater extent here than is generally realized. It is part of greetings. It is part of institutions. Every briefing starts with, “In the name of Almighty Allah…” Islam is woven so tightly into the normal events of daily life that the religious authority has as much, if not more, sway than the local political apparatus. So, with an illiterate, religious mass it’s possible for an unscrupulous mullah (naaaaaaah, there aren’t any of those…) to mislead people into directions that aren’t in line with the real meaning of spiritual Islam. It’s as if some evangelist in the United States were to tell an illiterate audience that the Bible says it’s okay to abuse a group of people because God doesn’t like them. Not that such a thing would ever happen, of course. We’re much too advanced for anyone to, say, picket funerals of fallen Soldiers because of some misbegotten religious zealotry.
Lawyers are supposed to be able to read, aren’t they?
Anyway, I’m trying to draw a parallel here. The funny thing is that when I draw such parallels, I see that the Afghans really aren’t much different from us. In fact, when I look at them, I see what our great-grandparents were going through in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Just add some technologies like wireless and there you have it. This country is a mix of Biblical times and the Wild West with a hint of Mad Max.
This is what happens when you go downrange as an individual; you are forced to meet new people. You can’t predict what these brand spanking new relationships will look like a year from now. It forces one to live in the moment and to really try to do your best.
And hope that it’s good enough.
It’s a new test, a new challenge. It’s also a bit unnerving. It’s strange how you can spend years and years proving over and over that you can meet new people, be put into a team with them, and thrive. There are those, like SFC (soon to be 1SG) O, Jacques Pulvier, LTC Stone Cold and some others from my last tour that I will keep up with for the rest of my natural life. There are others that I don’t care if I ever see again. That’s the way of it. It’s not the ones that I don’t care to see again that matter. It’s the ones that I have bonded with so strongly that we will keep in touch over the course of years. Some with regularity, some with irregularity… that doesn’t matter, either. It matters that you do reconnect.
The chances are good that I will have some of that here, too. It doesn’t always happen. Usually that is a bonding that is driven by stress and shared danger. There is no telling if there will be that level of bonding gel applied to these newly developing relationships. Who knows?
That’s the point; nobody does. It is just time to let go, live in the present, and let these things go which way they may. Arriving alone on a new team has a familiar feel to it. One difference is that the team existed before I got here. I am the FNG. They are a good bunch, though, and I feel absolutely welcome.
Many things here are familiar, if a little more worn. The ghosts of the last deployment hover over old landmarks and haunt new developments. There are changes in Kabul, and in the camps my friends and I knew then. The new mosque that was under construction is finished and beautiful. The lot in front of the building with the big body builder sign on it is empty of the trash pile that choked it. Phoenix is a crowded ghetto. There is new construction here and there in the city. A gleaming new office building is nearly complete. It would fit right into any city in America… at least by looks if not by amenities. There has been some visible progress here.
Out in the provinces may be a completely different story. Kabul is to Afghanistan as New York City is to America; a whole different reality, detached and different and self-absorbed. Unrepresentative of the reality of the rest of the country, like New York it is convinced that it somehow represents the country symbolically. Kabul does not reflect the reality of Khost or Helmand any more than New York City reflects the reality of Cincinnati or Iowa. It’s good to see some progress in this age-old city, but it does not reflect the state of the nation. Some of the news from the provinces is deeply disconcerting. The increase in manning levels and the mandated change in behaviors will take time to manifest themselves.
Tactical patience is required.
There is one thing that I may share with rest of the world. For those of you who know him, Rambo is still at the front gate of Phoenix. To him, I am just another American Soldier passing through that portal; but to me, he is an icon and a symbol of how dedicated an Afghan can be. Seeing him there forced a smile from me. So, if any of you wondered, Rambo is present and accounted for.
The average American doesn’t know about Rambo. If anyone has a Rambo story or two, please share it either in comments or email it to me. The guy is truly incredible.
I noticed tonight that Kabul twinkles at night. I don’t know what it is, but the lights of Kabul twinkle much like stars embedded in a fabric that climbs up the mountains like a Christmas tree blanket over a tree stand. They are not all the same dull yellowish color or blue-tinted white of American city lights. There seem to be many colors, from bright white to bright red, muted greens and yellowish glares. It almost seems festive, and I ponder the many lives being lived next to the twinkling points; the children growing up in this dusty city heaving itself slowly out of the quagmire of war’s rubble, barely daring to hope for a future with a bit of liberty.
It’s too much to consider.
I notice an almost ominous glow behind one of the mountains. Back home such a glow would signal some sort of large event. Here, as I forgot, it heralds the coming of the moon. What I see is the bright light of earth’s largest satellite glowing like an approaching car’s headlights. The far side of the mountain is already bathed in its light, but here on the other side, I stand in shadow, slowly realizing that it is the moon and not some great social event or impending disaster.
A bright, unblinking light appears atop the mountain. It is the tip of the crescent which momentarily becomes apparent; a triangle, its sharpened tip growing taller at a surprising rate. Within seconds, it begins to resemble a shark’s tooth breaking free of the mountainous jaw, jutting skyward. This effect grows and is not lost until the moon is nearly free of the grasp of the mountain. Finally, the nearly half-moon rests for a few seconds atop the mountain, seemingly paused there as if resting from the effort.
The illusion is broken; the moon separates itself from the mountain and resumes its climb. The moonshadow begins to retreat towards the moon, slowly racing across the valley towards the base of the opposing mountain as the moon literally shines like a muted sun on the glittering city of Kabul. The moon is risen.
I think it took less than two minutes. Some things just leave me shaking my head slowly and muttering about beauty to myself, alone in the dark.
We are more or less on the southwestern edge of Kabul, so we had to go through Kabul to get started to J-bad. Not long after leaving Kabul, the mountain pass starts, following the Kabul River. A few miles later, the really dramatic stuff starts, with the road on the side of the mountain with no guard rails, retaining walls, or anything between you and a 500 – 1000 foot drop down the mountainside. At this point the river is far below. There are a series of switchbacks carved into the mountain, and you descend down until the road is next to the river again.
When you leave Kabul, there is a large marshy area before the river flows into the mountains. As the river heads down the mountain pass, the water is muddy brown. The raw sewage of Kabul flows into the Kabul River. Kabul’s infrastructure was destroyed by the war, so there isn’t much else they can do. There are a couple of dams and hydroelectric power stations, and then a fair-sized lake. Then the water takes on an aqua green color for the rest of the way down the course, which looks beautiful as it splashes down a seemingly never ending series of rapids to a broad, flat valley full of rice paddies and grazing livestock. The drive through this area is absolutely pastoral. The fields are well-tended, and there are people in twos and threes every few hundred yards or so working in the fields, walking, sometimes groups of children playing or helping.
After a while, there is another dam and a pretty good sized lake with several villages along the shores. It is beautiful, almost Mediterranean-looking.
I think I may have mentioned before that I kind of test the mood of the people in a certain place by waving to them. Support for the central government in Kabul is spotty. Some places very much support the government, the ANA, and Hamid Karzai. Others… not so much. The reasons are various, but suffice it say that some do and some don’t. Some, on the extreme ends of the poles, are vehemently for or against. I get a quick and dirty read on this by waving to people and making a humble friendly gesture. Some will wave enthusiastically, some will wave half-heartedly, some will give the ‘thumbs up’ (which may or may not be good,) some will not respond at all, and some will make a negative gesture. Some will only stare with unbridled hatred in their eyes. I call it the ‘death stare.’ You can tell that they are literally wishing you dead. It is pure evil.
I guage the general support of the people in that area (and our chances of getting attacked by locals, of course,) by the relative balance between the above. We also look for the presence or absence of children. If there are no kids around, it is a bad sign, and we all hunker a little lower in the turrets.
One of these quaint little lakeside towns was one of the most hostile places I’ve been while in-country. It was a pretty little lakeside town, too.
Our first destination was a little town called Mehtar Lam. It was a little out of the way off of the main road, and it was a deceivingly pleasant drive. The road was paved the whole way, and the farms and villages and Khalats (walled family compounds whose walls are made of a mud/straw mixture 2-4 feet thick and as much as 25 feet tall)
are well-kept and beautiful. Lots of rice was being grown there, and water didn’t seem to be an issue. Clean drinking water was probably a problem, but not water for the paddies. There were many beautiful, green scenes along the way. Lots of children were playing and people were working in the fields.
In nearly every village you could smell the strong odor of marijuana being smoked, seemingly by the bushel. It reeked. You don’t smell dope in Kabul, but in the southeast, you smell it in nearly every village.
We looked at the fob and headed back to the main road into J-bad.
It is about a mile drop in elevation between Kabul and Jalalabad. The air is thicker, warmer, and much more humid. It’s not like an American city, where there is a clue that you are getting there. Seemingly out of nowhere, J-bad just happens. The people in Jalalabad are mostly Pashtuns, the largest tribe in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership and origins are Pashtun. Still, there are those who wave enthusiastically, and there are those who give the death stare. I just wave, and observe the reaction. I make a point to wave right at the ones who seem to be staring. I acknowledge their hatred with a polite nod of my head and go about my business, noting their position and whether or not they seem to be armed or trying to make a cell phone call. A couple of times I have put my hand on my pistol… the machine gun is the last thing you want to use on a busy street, and the pistol is quicker than the rifle. They can’t see what I’ve done, but there have been a couple who I thought might be more than idly hostile.
For all I know, they are Taliban. The thing about insurgents is that they don’t wear uniforms and they mix with the people. It has been written that the people are the water that the insurgent fish swims in. Part of our job is to separate him from the water. I’m sure that I’ve looked right into Taliban eyes by now. I just can’t be sure which ones. I won’t take action against someone I’m not sure is an enemy. But to ignore them is to court disaster.
J-bad was not nearly as dirty nor anywhere close to as damaged as Kabul. It seems like a resort next to the post-apocalyptic world of the capitol city. There were trees, and greenery, and undamaged buildings and new businesses and undamaged pavement.
There was a new gas station/mini mart along the lines of any American gas station. It was brand new and hadn’t even opened yet. It was called “Atock” and instead of concrete or blacktop, the area was paved with bricks. The sign that declared it to be open 24 hours was in English. It was so out of place, it made me laugh.
Even here, in this Pashtun stronghold, there were people who were obviously still happy to see us. We went to the Jalalabad Airfield (JAF) and ate dinner, then went the roughly half mile up the road to the Army compound which also contains Bin Ladin’s last known address and spent the night there.
I wonder if anyone checked with the Post Office to see if he had filed an address forwarding card. No, that would be too easy.
We all woke up fairly early the next morning, got the vehicles ready, and then headed to breakfast at JAF. The made-to-order omelet was pretty good, but the sausage was terrible. Then we mounted up again and headed out of town to a place called Khogyani. It was roughly 20 – 30 km outside of J-bad, and as we rolled out of town into more of the farmland dotted with khalats and interspersed with small villages, it was a pretty nice drive.
The paved road was in fairly decent shape and the traffic wasn’t bad at all.
Suddenly, the paved road ended, and although we didn’t know it, the saying, “ten miles of bad road” was about to take on new meaning. The road was rocky, dusty, full of ruts and washboards, and in places it was blocked. As we drove we would occasionally come across vehicles coming the other direction, and they were very often the ubiquitous Toyota Corollas of Afghanistan. It was amazing how people will drive those cars just about anywhere. I’m sure that road is nothing but a quagmire when it rains.
We rolled past a number of Khalats surrounded by fields and livestock and finally entered a scenic little village and up the main street. The greeting was a bit lukewarm, but we knew we were close to where we were going and didn’t mind that much. We rolled out of the village and could see the fob up on a hill, but we were on the wrong road! We stopped by a large Khalat that looked more like a small village in it’s own right and figured out our plan to get on the right track. A couple of us noticed what happened next… all the women who were out in the fields began to walk back into the Khalat while a teenage boy stood next to the gate watching us intently. Khogyani had been rocketed only four days before, and this area has a small but active group of Taliban. Twenty years ago, the Soviet response to that type of activity was sometimes to raze the nearest village to demonstrate their power and to try to destroy the shelter of the Mujahideen. Perhaps they expected the same treatment from us. In any case, the women calmly walked back into the village and a few minutes later we turned around and headed back through the bazaar to the intersection where we had missed the turn.
Minutes later, we were entering the fob. After sweating inside the vehicles in our body armor, getting out into the bright sunlight and shucking our shells was heaven. In the distance beyond the rolling hills around Khogyani were snowcapped mountains. We found ourselves next to a small castle surrounded by Hesco barriers (modular barriers made of interlocking wire baskets with a feltlike bag liner that hold anything from dirt to concrete and are excellent barrier walls.) As we walked into the “castle” I realized that it was a khalat. It felt like we were in a small western fort. We joked about how the only thing we were missing here was to be surrounded by a ring of whooping Comanches riding circles around us and firing arrows over the walls.
It turns out that the khalat had been owned by a Taliban Lieutenant who fled to Pakistan when the Americans helped the Northern Alliance take over Afghanistan and kicked the Talibs out. The provincial governor had handed it over to the Army to use as a base. What a trip, I thought, to be using the enemy’s former home as a base. Now there are Americans and ANA stationed there to be the government’s presence in the area.
The four rockets that had landed at the camp a few days earlier had done no real harm. One had landed next to the Afghan’s volleyball court and rearranged the sand. The Afghans are avid volleyball players, believe it or not. We saw a game going on outside a small village on our way back out of Mehtar Lam the previous day.
We stayed for about two hours and then saddled up again for the six hour drive from Khogyani back up to Kabul. We drove back along the same road, seeing everything from the opposite angle. Finally we rolled back into J-bad, rolled through and headed out of town towards the mountains to the northwest.
We retraced our route up the broad river valley, and stopped at the Afghan equivalent to a truck stop to let the vehicles cool down and swap out drivers/gunners. I had been driving up to this point, and I wanted to experience the pass from the turret. We stopped well out away from anything, did our close proximity checks for any dangers and dismounted the vehicles. We must look like spacemen to the locals, helmeted, armored, with earphones and microphones and weapons hanging all over us as we dismount our vehicles. I waved to a family of Afghans sitting in front of their house next to the “store” and they waved back, watching with intent curiosity.
We all grabbed bottles of water to drink (it’s amazing how good warm water can taste!) and some grabbed snacks or a smoke while we assumed a posture of relaxed vigilance. Heads on swivels, we stretched our legs and enjoyed the breeze outside of our humvees. I glanced over at a nearby village and saw a group of children coming up a trail towards us. I counted: seven. I got into the “trunk” of our humvee and opened a twelve pack of water and pulled out the package.
As the children arrived, they knew that the water was for them. I passed out the water, making sure that each got at least one bottle of water. The children here will continue to beg, and it’s heartrending, but once you have given them something, it’s easier. We can’t give something to everyone, but I do what I can. I took pictures of them as we mounted back up and headed towards the mountains.
We went back through up the valley in reverse order as it narrowed, past the dam and the beautiful, quaint, hostile village of Sarobi, back up into the narrowing passes and into the beautiful, primitive mountainous wonder. This time I had a full appreciation of the incredible, massive beauty of the mountains and all of the detail. There was so much to see… and I was still watching for people up on the mountainsides who wanted to blow us up.
As we went along the river, the spray from the rapids could be felt from time to time. I kept my mouth closed. It was beautiful, but completely unsafe. It still felt good. We climbed into the sun, twisting and turning.
After a dramatic climb up a mountainside full of switchbacks we finally drove up a stretch of slightly more open space and through a final pass into the dusty plain that Kabul lies on. We had returned and it was time to make our way back through the chaos to Camp Phoenix, where we stopped for dinner, and on back to Camp Dubs. It was after dark when we returned, tired, incredibly dirty, and happy to have done it all without injury. We were “home.”
And so they called a meeting. I wanted to strangle someone.
It rained today for the first time since we’ve been at Camp Dubs. This was preceded by a fierce dust storm that lasted only long enough to clog the eyes and noses of those who were not quick enough to get to cover. The rain was sorely needed. Afghanistan is in the grip of a drought of several year’s duration.
The rain was accompanied by a brilliant lightning show. The lightning shot across the sky and around the mountain top, adding to the imposing presence of the mountain.
Three of us had just come down from a 500 foot foothill of the mountain, which we had climbed for physical training. We were grateful that our timing had been so precise that we had arrived back within the Hesco walls of our tiny fort scant minutes before the pelting dust slammed into the camp.
After the rain I noticed that half of the graveled floor of our enclave looked dry… not a neat division, but spots here and there. That was really strange. Then I gazed up at the angry gray sky that framed the Queen’s Palace, and there it was… a rainbow.
It was quite a sight; the war-ravaged Queen’s Palace, perched on its hill like a forlorn dowager overlooking her shell-torn city, overcast by the angry rain clouds, with a partial rainbow set above it like a tilted crown. A small promise of hope above the war-pocked Queen of Kabul.
I thought to run for my camera, but knowing the nature of rainbows, and seeing how this one was fading, I opted to enjoy the vision laid before me, to live in the moment. It was good for me.
Speaking of the promise of hope, I had mentioned in a previous posting that Afghanistan has a horrendous infant mortality rate and a stupefying maternal mortality rate in childbirth. Well, another rainbow… the infant mortality rate has dropped by 18%. It is down as of 2006 to 135 per 1000 live births from 165 in 2001. It seems that the Taliban were not so good for babies, either.
The rate of maternal mortality is still second only to Sierra Leone.
It was a partial rainbow. But it was still a rainbow.
So, here we sit in Camp Darulaman, in Kabul, waiting for our Afghan counterparts to finish with another project (you’d laugh if I told you what it is) so that we can start getting to know them. We are settled in our “B-huts,” plywood covered wood frame buildings with metal roofs that house about six men apiece. The buildings are lined up “dress right dress” in a graveled yard only about 300 meters by 100 meters, surrounded by high walls made of modular barrier materials. There are towers at each corner, and a motor pool at one end where all the vehicles are parked. Roughly in the center there is a mess hall, which is really very good, and couple of rows of huts from there are the shower/sanitary trailers, which are kept very clean. We also have a fitness center, with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weights. There are plywood “kiosks” of bottled water every time you turn around.
We’ve been here about 5 days now. It’s really much nicer than Camp Phoenix, although there is no PX. There is a bazaar every Sunday, which we haven’t been here for yet. This Sunday will be our first.
Kabul is a sprawling city. There are more than a couple of million people in Kabul, and from higher up the hill you can see the vastness of it. There are a couple of two to three thousand foot mountains right in the middle of the city that flows around them and draws up their sides as if by some sort of human capillary action. Our “terp,” or interpreter explained to us that the higher up the mountainside, the poorer the inhabitant of the abode. He found it amusing that in the US in a city this size, the higher up the mountain, the richer the inhabitant is likely to be.
Our mountainside dwellers wouldn’t have to walk up the mountain to get to their home, and would be more than happy to pay for the spectacular view, the inherent security of being exhausting to reach, and to look down upon their fellows like Snoopy doing his vulture routine. These folks pay for their lack of financial fortune with excellent aerobic fitness and a one mile, two hour walk home uphill all the way. The houses cling to the mountainside almost desperately, looking for all the world like they really shouldn’t stay up there, but they do. Very few look as if they were built recently.
If people anywhere in the world would have sprouted wings out of necessity, it would have been Afghans. “These people are harder than Chinese arithmetic,” as one Colonel put it.
Afghanistan has an enormous infant mortality rate, and a huge child mortality rate as well. The main causes are simple diseases and a horrible accident rate. Afghanistan is simply not very well child-proofed. Children are hit by cars in this country all the time. In addition to the fact that there really are no traffic laws or licensing requirements here, people literally will step off of the curb without looking. Either way, about one in ten children die in infancy, and many more will never see their fifth birthday.
One reason is the water. If we, as Americans, drank the water here we would die. We would die painful, cramping, horrible dignity-stripped deaths. We drink bottled water. The Afghans in many places do not have that luxury. Children contract diseases that are largely unheard of in the US, like cholera, and many of them die from it. Those that don’t develop the most wicked immune systems that you could possibly imagine. American sewage is cleaner than the Kabul River. No wonder these people are harder than woodpecker lips. It’s like the natural selection from hell.
In the US, we say that no parent should ever bury one of their children. These people do it all the time. Not only that, but their death rate from women dying in childbirth is enormous, approaching medieval standards. Death is simply a lot easier to come by here. Throw in 30 plus years of warfare, and you’ve got a pretty deadly place to live. Yet there are people all over the place here. Afghanistan has five million more people than Iraq.
From higher up the hillside, you can see an enormous expanse of city sprawling before you. The Afghans use the Islamic calendar, and it is 1386, I think. Looking at the city, having been on the streets, it truly is 1386. With cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles. There are multi-storied buildings, but most are severely damaged and are being used anyway. When American movies depict a post-apocalyptic world, they depict something like this. Millions of people living with barely any infrastructure… it is simply amazing.
These people are hard. They are born hard, and they live hard. They have to be hard to live. The soft ones die. Fast. We watch Survivor on TV. These people live it every day. Hey, here’s an idea… Survivor: Afghanistan. Put those guys right in the middle of Kabul. I might find a better place out in the countryside when we move out to the east around Jalalabad in a few weeks. Yup… send those money-grubbing nimrods over here… we’ve got something for them. I’d like to see Richard fishing naked in the Pesch River. Then again, maybe not. It would be like a bus wreck, though… you wouldn’t want to look, but you’d have to. Yuck. Taliban aside, this is one of the most challenging places on Earth to live.
Here in Camp Dubs we’ve got clean water, showers, toilets, great chow, and relative safety. Jalalabad is a different story, but that’s weeks away now.
OH MY GOD! What an experience… arrival, reception, in-briefs, in-processing, short stays in plywood buildings, loading duffel bags onto trucks, unloading truckloads of duffels, a new country, surrounded by strangers, meeting people you know, meeting people you don’t know, NATO partner soldiers… I’ve spoken with a Mongolian. Romanians are pretty cool people. The French don’t say much, but they look a lot. Getting off the plane to, “Welcome to The Suck!” Brain spinning with so much information that you have to choose what to pay attention to.
We arrived in Kabul in the middle of the night, so the drive from KIA (Kabul International Airport) to the main camp wasn’t much to speak of. There was almost no movement at all on the streets. It looked poor, but it was dark and you really couldn’t see much. Then there were a day and a half there at the main camp before going to another FOB. We took a trip through Kabul in daylight. I can’t describe it. More stuff than you can imagine, and it was all going on at once. The poverty is unbelievable, the buildings damaged years ago that are still occupied in whatever condition they were left after the dust of the explosion cleared, the mud everywhere, the filthy Kabul river, the meat hanging in shop windows for who knows how long, the overwhelming poverty.
The boy who appeared to be about my son’s age who was standing next to the corrugated tin shack (lean-to) that he lives in. It was the size of four port o’ lets and seems to be held together by the same stuff that holds a house of cards together. He just stood there and stared.
Then there was the traffic… utterly unbelievable. The main road was a divided highway in places, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. There were people everwhere, walking, riding bicycles, cars everywhere, buses packed to the gills, trucks, donkey carts, chaos chaos chaos. Then there was the chaos; there are no traffic laws in Afghanistan. You don’t need a license to drive, just a car and willingness to brave that insanity. It shows.
The novelty… houses clinging improbably to the mountainside all the way to the top. It makes you wonder how they get up there. The houses and the people. How do they live?
We sat on the bus in our body armor, helmeted-up, weapons loaded, and looked at them. They looked at us curiously. Some were annoyed, as the bus driver blew his dual horns nearly constantly… and they were very loud… so that we could bull our way through the insane traffic, escorted by weapons carriers. We didn’t want to get held up long enough to make a target of opportunity for anyone. Most people seemed to simply look… some waved. One, cut off, spit.
I was shocked by the entire trip, and so were the other team members. Our eyes were opened to Kabul. We’re told the poverty is much worse where we will be going soon.
In the 1920’s the King of Afghanistan had two palaces built; one for him, and one for his queen. They are called, oddly enough, The King’s Palace and The Queen’s Palace. The Queen’s Palace is also called Darulaman Palace, which means “Place of Peace.” It has not had an entirely peaceful history. When the communists took over, they killed some family members there and booted the rest out and made it some type of headquarters. It has been the scene of fights involving the Soviets, the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and NATO forces. It has seen better days. There is a plan to refurbish it. Here’s to better days for these national treasures.