Friday, July 30, 2010

Wheels Down

When the flight from Kabul breaks through the clouds over Farah, it does so over a vast expanse of nothingness. The ground is an ocean of red mud studded with occasional mountains, and there's neither greenery nor people as far as the eye can see: no trees, no villages, no roads or houses or signs of life. There's no water, either -- nothing but flat, dusty, hard-baked red clay nothingness. As you approach the PRT (in a small 18-seat prop plane too small to stand fully upright in, flown by Australian contractors), things don't improve much. You pass a few dusty walled compounds, zip by more mountains, and just when you think you may be moving vaguely in the direction of civilization, the ride ends and you suddenly come in for a landing.

It's beautiful, though in a stark sort of way.

I was met on the tarmac by the entire civilian crew of the PRT, who helped me drag my bags out of the airplane and load them into the back of an armored Land Cruiser. We dropped off the bags in my temporary quarters -- a bedroom with room for three, though I was the only occupant -- and then I was taken to my new office.

Amongst my favorite Chinese expression -- and one that I find myself using here all the time -- is, "The sky is high, and the emperor is far." Nowhere has that phrase been more applicable than in my new office. "This box," I was told, "has all the servers in it, so don't spill anything on it. The computers break down all the time so you'll need to call IT in Kabul and have them walk you through how to fix it." (Fiddling with servers when you're at an embassy is, generally speaking, frowned upon). And then, far more comical: "Those boxes are all parts to your Land Cruiser. You'll definitely need to replace the battery and probably do some other repair work as well." I didn't realize I was getting a car -- much less an armored one -- but it just goes to show how far the Emperor really is: if I were in Kabul, there would be a hundred employees and a thousand different regulations standing between me and "light repairs" on an Embassy-owned vehicle.

They gave me a windshield tour of the massive compound, which seems to go on for miles. "One thing we don't lack for," I was told, "is open space." The base is sprawling and full of identical, unlabelled buildings; I anticipate being lost frequently. There's plenty of room to run and a long jogging trail next to the airstrip, which itself abuts a long range -- that is, a mortar range. The air in Farah in July usually hovers around the 120 degree mark (it was a balmy 105 on my arrival -- "when is this cold snap going to end?" asked the XO), so the range is generally in use before the day gets too hot; I was told to anticipate waking up to the sound of outgoing mortars.

We swung by a military staff meeting so I could be introduced and then hit chow -- lasagna night, not a ton of healthy food but definitely not bad lasagna, and all the ice cream you can eat at a price -- $0 -- that can't be beat.

I spent a few hours talking to the guy I'm replacing about everything I could think of -- who the movers and shakers in the province are, which areas are Taliban controlled vs. not, all the way down to the nitty gritty like how to do laundry on base. (You drop if off with in the laundry with a yellow ribbon tied on the bag to indicate "civilian clothes;" it gets washed and folded and returned, usually the same day). And then it was bed time.

The next morning started with a convoy brief, the meeting in advance of travel to make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music as to where we're going and how we're getting there. The meeting is run by SecFor, or Security Forces, who are there to protect the members of the PRT, both civilian and military. The SecFor team in Farah is an instantly-likeable group of happy-go-luck guys from Guam, enthusiastically upbeat and outgoing to a man. Half of them responded to roll call with an enthusiastic army Hooah, and when I was introduced as the new State guy, they were the most welcoming of the bunch. Convoy brief is largely for the SecFor themselves and for routine missions is mostly a review. At the last slide, left on the screen for half a second at most, the SecFor lead noted -- "really, if you don't know this stuff by now -- that's as wrong as two boys kissing and the Pope watching."

And then I was taken to meet the Governor.

So here's the deal: I am thirty years old. I have a batchelor's degree in worthless from a second tier university (possibly even a low-ranked first tier university, depending on who you're talking to and whether they graduated from the same school as me). I have about six years of work experience with the Department of State, and of those six years, three have been spent in language training (thank you, US taxpayers). Prior to State, I worked as a contractor to the United States Department of Education, where I was primarily in charge of unjamming the Xerox machine, though occasionally my boss would entrust me with a dollar fifty to go get him diet cokes. What I'm saying here is that I'm a mid-level functionary in a large government bureaucracy. And I'm here to help.

And all of a sudden I'm in the fourth largest province in Afghanistan, a province that covers an area about twice as large as Maryland. It's got just under a million people, which puts it on par with Montana, population wise. It produces some legit agricultural products -- a lot of wheat, some pomegranates, some grapes and corn and a few other things -- but it also produces a heck of a lot of poppy. Of eleven districts, one (Purchaman, which literally means "full of orchards") is accessible only by air; a second, Gulistan ("the land of flowers"), is three days drive away due to lack of infrastructure, despite how small the province is. Some areas are fully under the control of GIRoA; others are still wrestling with the Taliban, and laid over top of all this is a complex map of Pashtun tribalism. It's mind-blowingly complicated.

And the Governor wants to meet me, because I am replacing a person with whom he has built a slow and steady relationship over two years, whom he trusts and turns to frequently for advice and counsel, and I am somehow supposed to take over that role.

I think I'm up for it.

Obviously there's more to say on this topic -- this will be a year-long saga -- but it's bed time. After a week, I finally got internet installed in my room, so more regular posts should be forthcoming. In the mean time, to everyone who emailed to check if I was ok during the long silence -- not to worry.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Onward and Upward: to the PRT

Tomorrow's the big day: deployment to my PRT in Farah province, in the southwest of the country along the Iranian border. Sandwiched between Helmand province in the south -- famous for its opium production and home of the big Marine Corps offensive in Marjah -- and Herat, a relatively stable province in the north, Farah is truly the middle of nowhere.

I was surprisingly productive during the extra days I was stuck in Kabul. I spent a few days checking in -- making sure all the IT stuff worked, filling out paperwork to get my danger, hardship and language pay correctly lined up, collecting equipment for the field and getting reinforcement lectures on embassy policies, security, what have you. Admin type stuff: important but mind numbing.

And then I had consultations. "Consultations" are usually 5 days just before you leave for post during which you're supposed to be meeting with people who know about where you're going and may be useful in your future; in reality, those five days are rarely so productive as all that and generally involve a lot of leisurely latte drinking. But my consultations in Kabul were actually useful: meeting with people who either know about Farah or want to know about Farah, or who have too much money lying around and need someone to help them hand it out before the end of the rapidly approaching fiscal year.

I was introduced to a USAID guy who had just come back from Farah. He, a former Marine with a booming voice and an infectious oorah-enthusiasm for the province, gave me the full run down on everything he could think of: what kind of projects we've funded and in what areas, where the Marines are and where they're pushing, where the Taliban is more in control and the Government of Afghanistan (GIRoA, or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, pronounced "Jie-rowa") is less in control, and vice versa. He pointed out rivers and mountains, major transportation links, and gave me a rundown of how the various Pashtun tribes are distributed.

He made me extraordinarily excited to be heading to Farah.

"Get a good look at all these plants now, though," he said. "All this greenery -- there's NOTHING like that out there."

So tomorrow I head out to my dusty corner of nowhere, to the military base pictured below, surrounded by miles of flat nothing in the hot Afghan desert for the next year. ("It's beautiful. Kind of. In a way," I was told). I'll be with about 500 American soldiers and 500 Italians, sandwiched between peace in the north and full-scale war in the south. I'm nervous, but in a first-day-of-school sort of way: will the Governor and other local leaders like me? Will I get along with the soldiers? What if there's something important I've forgotten to do? Ultimately, it will be fine. In 24 hours, it will be home.

And just for good measure: a few photos of Farah, culled from the internet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pashtun no more?

The quest for a commanding, Pashtun-style beard may be coming to a rapid close: this morning I shaved the neck portion of my facial hair and I feel infinitely better. The rest may need to be trimmed down shortly.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Kabul Conference and Clinton

So, Clinton was here.

The Secretary walking in with Ambassador Eikenberry. Probably not my strongest photography ever.

Let's try a different shot.

This photo is perhaps even worse than the last one.

So, despite my not so good photography of the event (I'm sure my parents are thrilled that they dropped a bazillion dollars at Christmas to get me the camera that recorded that moment for posterity), it was still cool to see Clinton. I'd like to think she came just to see me, but the reality of it is that she came for the Kabul conference, the single largest donor conference to take place in Afghanistan in a good fistful of decades. The whole world was here, it seemed -- Clinton comes with an understandably large staff, and and there were Foreign Ministers from dozens of countries, each with their own entourage.

(Through a series of coincidences, a buddy of mine ended up sharing a car with the Egyptian Foreign Minister. "Did you talk to him?" we asked over dinner last night. "A little," she said, "but what was I going to say? Lecture him on bringing democracy to the Middle East?" She, tasked with note taking but inappropriately badged to get past the hordes of security, spent the majority of the conference in the parking lot).

The conference basically shut down Kabul, including the US Embassy. Most of our local staff were off and consequently most non-essential/non-conference support sections were closed. The commissary and coffee shop on compound were likewise shut and the Embassy felt like a ghost town: everyone was sucked into working.

The conference is the reason I'm still in Kabul. I was slated to fly out to the field more or less ASAP on a regularly scheduled Embassy flight, but all of our planes were grounded for the big event.

(The Embassy, through the offices of USAID -- the Agency for International Development -- owns and operates an airline for domestic flights in Afghanistan. Formerly known as PRT Air (Provincial Reconstruction Team Air), Embassy Air owns and runs over ten aircraft and operates in all provinces of Afghanistan on both a regular schedule and charter basis).

I had exactly nothing to do with the Kabul Conference. I kept waiting to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to go take notes, but it never happened. That's not hugely surprising -- as a field officer, I'm assigned to a section of the Embassy (IPA, or Inter-Provincial Affairs) that had nothing to do with the conference, and it's rare for one section to poach from another. And I was in the check-in process, which is somewhat sacred since if you don't do it, you can't function in your job -- you'll lack computer access, and info on who to contact for what, and your pay won't be right, and what have you. On top of all that, about half the world was flown in TDY (that is, on a temporary basis), so there were plenty of hands on deck besides mine.

But I did get to hear Clinton speak, in the main lobby of the chancery. She thanked the Ambassador for his hospitality ("Ambassador Eikenberry," she clarified jokingly. "I mean, you guys have a whole STABLE of Ambassadors here." She's not kidding -- there are five people of Ambassador rank at the Embassy, with six if you also count SRAP Richard Holbrooke, the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan).

She thanked the Americans working in Afghanistan and then gave a special thanks to the Afghans who work at the Embassy, recognizing that doing so often puts them at risk. She joked about conditions at the Embassy -- she seemed to know that housing is the number one morale issue at post -- and gave us a quick rundown of her participation in the Kabul Conference and the document that Karzai had presented to chart the way forward.

In short, her brief remarks (maybe five minutes total) made her seem both extraordinarily competent (she's clearly up on all things Afghanistan, as one would expect) as well as extremely dialed in to what's going on for all of us on the ground. Little things like acknowledging the housing situation and thanking our local staff for putting themselves in harms way made it clear that she wasn't giving a standard set of remarks. Bottom line: I remain completely enamored of my boss.

That's all I've got for now (more on the process of checking in at the Embassy in a day or two). But in clearing off those photos of Clinton from my memory card, I also came across a few photos of me from training, including this awesome shot in body armor, so I'll close with that.

Both rugged AND enthusiastic. Perfect for Oh yes.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rockin' the Kabul Look

There's definitely a US Embassy Kabul look. And that look, amongst the men at least, definitely involves facial hair. I've had a beard since 2006, where I grew it in Pakistan as a joke but kept it once I realized how much I liked it. Beards were definitely making a comeback in DC over my last year at home, but not like here: EVERYONE has at least a little bit of scruff, and I for one am feeling right at home. I don't plan to shave much, if at all, over the course of the next year, and when I mentioned my plan to grow what I lovingly refer to as a "hostage beard" to some guys at the Duck and Cover, someone immediately chimed in with advice:

"Dude, get some scissors," he said. "You've got to trim the mustache part. I had about three months worth of facial hair on me when I bit into an apple, and a good inch of 'stache got caught between my teeth and the apple, and I about ripped off part of my face. I was honestly near tears -- and when I pressed my upper lip to try to make some of the pain go away, my hand came away all bloody. You can go all ZZ Top on the chin part -- but get yourself some scissors for the mustache."

The Embassy Kabul look also features khaki cargo pants (which I invested in heavily) and polo shirts. There's a slim minority at the Embassy sweltering in suits in the 100 degree heat, but the majority seem to be rocking polos.

The Kabul look also seems to involve sidearms carried in thigh holsters.

I've never been around so many guns and I think it's gonna be a while till it starts to seem normal. Some of it isn't too out of the ordinary -- the contract guards carrying M4 rifles and the Afghan National Army guys holding AK-47s, and that's all fine and good and close to normal, especially within the context of Embassy and foreign and all that. But then you realize that the barricade in front of you, the one you've walked by a dozen times without thinking, is actually a machine gun nest. And it's actually manned, by a guy with his hand on the butt stock of the weapon: this isn't a game.

More people on compound carry guns than I've ever seen before. And it's strangely comforting. I'm not armed and don't plan to be at any time (I'll leave that to what my military Subject Matter Expert in Indiana referred to as "our trigger-pulling friends in camouflage"), and diplomats are, technically speaking, forbidden by the Geneva conventions from carrying weapons. I'm not sure how much regard the Taliban will have for my healthy working knowledge of international treaties and vast array of intimidating ballpoint pens, though, so I can't say I'm unhappy to have so many people at arms distance who have a pistol strapped to their thigh.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Equipment Distribution

Before you go to Afghanistan in general, but in particular before you go to a PRT (that is, a Provincial Reconstruction Team -- the reason I'm headed to Farah), everyone's got advice on what to bring.

Definitely bring a flashlight and a leatherman; you'll constantly need to do light industrial repairs. Be sure to bring a sleeping bag, and you'll need a backpack for overnight missions. Buy a hand-held GPS so you can give coordinates if you need to call in a medivac. Definitely bring a kindle; no, don't bother with a kindle -- you'll never have time to read. You'll need chemical lights. Don't forget granola bars and other high-energy non-perishable foods. Unless you're keen on bleeding to death, purchase and carry a tourniquet with you at all times.

And so on: everyone's got something that they couldn't have lived without when they were in the field in Iraq, or that their cousin told them they wished they'd left at home when he deployed to Afghanistan, or that their fiancee asked them to mail while they were supporting a PRT, or whatever.

Today was gear distribution today, and I was under the impression that we'd be getting body armor and a helmet (made entirely of kevlar and called, appropriately, a "kevlar"), and maybe a laptop to go with it, although maybe not since maybe the guy I'm replacing already has a laptop and maybe I'll just take his.

And so I was quite surprised when the packing list of gear they distributed took up more than one page, with half of the things I'd been told to buy and a lot of which I'd lugged from home handed over for free by the Embassy. For posterity's sake, I'm going to include the whole list here, in the hopes that it may help other people who are headed to PRTs in Afghanistan with their planning and save them from purchasing and hauling over a lot of unnecessary gear.

Embassy Provided Gear:
-- Body Armor (including plates) and Kevlar Helmet
-- A laptop (with the promise of a second laptop later), with mouse.
-- 8 port ethernet router
-- 500 gig external hard drive and an 8 gig memory stick
-- Digital Camera with 4 gig memory card
-- Iridium Satellite Phone
-- Ballistic Sunglasses, including both tinted and clear plastic lenses.
-- Hand-held Garmin E-Trex GPS device
-- Fireproof Nomex flight suit
-- Fireproof Nomex protective gloves
-- Sleeping bag
-- Backpack
-- Leatherman multi-tool, including a carrying case
-- First Aid Kit, in a camouflage bag that can be worn on a belt
-- Water purification tablets
-- A "rescue flash" signal mirror
-- A "heat sheet" space blanket
-- Chemical light sticks
-- A keychain-style "microlight" flashlight
-- A flashlight, in a carrying case
-- A miner-style headlight flashlight
-- Trauma shears/medical scissors
-- Ear plugs
-- A big, plastic, rolling "gorilla box" to carry it all in
-- Padlock for the gorilla box.

The only recommended item they did NOT/NOT include was a tourniquet.

And now I'm off to mail home an unnecessary sleeping bag and other crap I no longer need.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Arrival in Kabul

With the exception of immigration officers, no one working at Kabul International wears a uniform -- not even a name badge. This makes it hard to know if the person in jeans and a sporty striped shirt demanding information actually needs to know where you work or if he's just shady and wants to know. Likewise, the guys pushing carts and trying to help you with your bags -- they could be freelancers looking to make a couple Afghani, or they could be airport provided, or they could be someone else: unclear. There was a pack of foreigners -- 90 percent of the plane, it seemed -- trying to fill out the supposedly mandatory registration forms. Guys who might've been working (without uniforms in a chaotic environment, it's surprisingly hard to tell who's a worker and who's a hustler) asked where I worked, and when I whispered US Embassy, they waved me forward: no forms required.

My bag, an enormous military duffel that's far too large and will have to be scaled down, miraculously arrived. The guy from USAID's bags arrived as well and I was glad he was there: two Embassy people meant double the chance of a ride actually showing up. We grabbed rickety carts (the right wheel of mine was ellipse shaped and rolled like an egg going end-over-end) and pushed through, and a guy just beyond baggage claim was there holding an American flag sign. It turned out I had nothing to worry about: the Arrivals and Departures Unit at the embassy is massively organized, and unbeknownst to me I was one of something like 8 people arriving on that flight.

They led us to cars, past a large sign reading "NO WEAPONS" with a Kalashnikov with a crossed red circle over it. In the parking lot there were large police cars mounted with huge UN-style antennas that arc from the back the front bumper, where they're tied down when not in use, and the sides of the cars were stenciled in Dari with Poliis dar hidmat-e-mardum, "Police in Service of the People." Our drivers distributed body armor, triple checked that everyone was accounted for, and drove us into the city.

I was expecting Islamabad -- a sort of leafy green sleepiness with groups of men clustered around markets but the streets relatively empty and dotted with the odd donkey cart. Instead, it was Beijing: packed beyond any speaking of it. Cars were everywhere, veering down the wrong side of traffic, honking, pushing forward with little regard for traffic laws. Pedestrians were everywhere, seemingly with no regard for self preservation, leaping into traffic without looking and appearing to throw themselves in front of our cars. (A friend who works in Saudi told me that most Islamic head coverings eliminate peripheral vision for women, and I couldn't help but wonder if they could even see us coming). It was rush hour and the streets were packed with truly massive numbers of people milling around, almost what you'd expect to see outside of a stadium during a major sporting event in the States.

We passed checkpoints manned by guards carrying what appeared to be snub-nosed AK-47s. (The AK has a distinctively curved magazine that's significantly longer than those on the rifles that our guys carry, and that's what I'm going on; despite weapons familiarization, I know almost nothing about guns). It was hot and dusty on packed streets, and in an armored car wearing body armor I felt very conspicuous.

We arrived at the Embassy remarkably quickly and were met on arrival by representatives from Kabul/IPA/FSU -- that is, the bureau of Inter-Provincial Affairs/Field Support Unit. I was taken to my temporary housing (one of three beds in a surprisingly nice building; not the six-beds-in-a-hooch situation I was expecting). I took a deep breath, feeling like I'd made it: I was ok. I brushed my teeth in celebration.

They gave us cell phones ("consider this phone to be part of your uniform; carry it at all times") and had us fill out some paperwork -- standard Embassy forms acknowledging receipt of cell phone, requesting access to the computers, what have you. They gave us a quick tour of the compound, through the Embassy logo store (polos, t-shirts, keychains and other stuff emblazoned with the Embassy logo, as well as, somewhat inexplicably, a selection of locally grown vegetables). We swung through one of two cafeterias, where all food is free for the price of your initials. We passed the pool and volleyball court, and looked through the window at one of three gyms.

The USAID guy peeled off for a welcome dinner with other AID types, and I ate with the guy in charge of my in-processing -- surprisingly tasty chicken teriyaki, steamed vegetables, a pineapple juice box. I swung by the Marine guard to get my Embassy badge (different than a State badge, applicable only to Embassy Kabul) and then walked to the Embassy bar -- the Duck and Cover -- to meet a friend from training for a beer.

The executive summary is that Embassy Kabul looks good to very good. The main chancery is even architecturally sound (I'd include a picture but photography is strictly verboten), which isn't bad given that we're in a war zone. Compound life appeals to me: it's like college, where everyone's around all the time and there's always something going on if you know where you look. Only unlike college, there's a significantly larger amount of danger pay and I don't have to wait tables.

And all of that is good news, because I just accepted a handshake on a second year in Afghanistan, transferring from my post in the field to a position in the Public Affairs section in Kabul. I'm guessing that after a year in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a thousand soldiers and an incredible amount of dust, a swimming pool and a couple hundred like-minded civilians will do me good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Dubai Airport and things are already a charlie foxtrot. I had checked my bag in Dulles all the way through to Kabul ("You can do that?" "We can do that. Trust us."), but Safi Airlines indicated that in order to transfer the bag from United, they'd need the baggage claim number. I had been late for my flight -- it was pouring in DC and my cabbie stopped in traffic and informed me that he wasn't willing to go to Dulles, and I had to beg another cab for a ride, and arrived at the airport late. In the sprint from check in to gate via an intensely slow security line, I lost the baggage claim tag.

"You can't have checked the bag through to Kabul," Safi Airlines told me. "They don't do that." ("They said they DO do that!")

"We can't locate the bag without the claim ticket," they told me. "Go to the gate and see if you can find it in your bag. You can't talk to United here because they only run night flights, so they're closed until the evening. And you're late, so run."

I tried to run to the gate but got stopped at customs, waved to a separate office where an officer scanned my passport, type type typed something into his computer, stared at the screen, called over another officer, type type typed some more, keyed in my passport number again and again and again, stared at the screen, typed, stared, waited. I had done the same thing thousands of times to visa applicants in Islamabad and karma picked a hell of a time to come back and bite me in the tail. Ten minutes later, near frantic, I was stamped through and allowed to leave. I have no idea what the delay was.

I was flying on Safi International (the name is derived from the word "saaf" and roughly means "cleanliness") and our flight was delayed at least an hour. This was great news, since it gave me a window to locate the baggage claim number. I called United in the UAE; they routed me to the airport baggage desk. "Have you filed a report for your lost bag?" baggage asked. "I just need the tag number," I said; "The bag isn't lost. Yet." "Ok," they replied. "Do you have the tag number? We can't file a report without the tag number."

I tried again and was transferred to India. "Cargo services; what is the nature of the material you'd like to ship?" Try again. "Reservations. Do you have an existing itinerary?" Panting in panic. God only knows what these phone calls cost me, on my US cell phone, roaming on Dubai telecom.

Finally I got through to baggage in the US (via a call center in India), who gave me the number, which I gave to a sparkling gate agent named Sama who was lovely and helpful and with whom I fell instantly in love. "Check back at noon before boarding," she told me. "I'll know then if we've located the bag." I did; they had: everything was ok.

I struck up a conversation with another guy at the airport and found out he was a contractor working in aviation out of Kabul airport. I ran into another colleague -- a USAID guy whom I'd met in Indiana -- and we started talking. The aviator asked what we do and I muttered State and the AID guy said AID, and then all of the training I'd had about loose lips sinking ships kicked in and I got started to get panicky that maybe we should just stop talking because god only knows who's listening. This is the paranoid schizophrenia that State wants us to have, and it was by god driven into me. They kept talking and I couldn't handle it (DID YOU LEARN NOTHING?), and so I put on my iPod so I couldn't answer more questions.

Safi Airlines. I was crammed into seat 24 Bravo; back of the bus, middle seat, sandwiched between two enormous gentlemen.

This is the profile I observed of people traveling to Kabul: heavily American (based on the accent of overheard English) with an added dash of Arabs (guttural Arabic) and only a few Afghans (more Pashto than Dari overheard); amongst the Americans, an almost equal split between white and black; significantly more male than female; stocky to muscular with little in the way of a neck; heavily tattooed. One guy wore a shirt proclaiming When I die, I'm going to heaven. I've done my time in HELL: Konduz, Afghanistan. The "hell" was in flaming block letters; I felt less conspicuous in my jeans and polo shirt.

Tuckered out from my fight for my baggage, I fell asleep immediately. They woke me up for the in flight meal (beef with rice and vegetables, side of mango pudding, definitely not bad), and I fell back asleep until near landing. I woke up as we were starting our initial approach over desolate, red dust mountains and low-slung houses in valleys. Either it was hazy or there was a dust storm, but visibility was limited. We approached, came in for a landing, and then pulled up hard for a second go around, denied landing permission by the tower. We came back ten minutes later, landed hard, bounced twice, and then taxied to the gate.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Laying the Ground Work

T-minus 36 hours till I board the plane for Dubai, and I'm more or less hyperventilating at everything I still have to do: hit the pentagon to get the ID card that allows me to eat and shop on base; repack my bag so it's light enough to carry by myself; return my tags to the DMV and cancel my car insurance, as well as my cell phone plan and gym membership. And I need a haircut, and some dental work, and there are still goodbyes to be said.

The process of getting to Afghanistan is far more daunting than the idea of going to war. The paperwork is incredible, so much so that State has hired contractors to help streamline in-processing. There are checklists upon checklists. Things that seem like they go without saying must be specifically requested, and if all the boxes aren't checked, you'll be denied landing permission. Do you need transportation from the airport? Do you need housing upon arrival? Will you be collecting danger and hardship pay? Request them in writing or expect to be be denied.

My favorite piece of paperwork was the gym membership waiver, reminding those of us headed to a war zone that moderate physical exercise can result in injury and the Embassy is not responsible should things go pear shaped. This was on top of the form reminding employees that Afghanistan is a hardship tour and we should be prepared to wear a minimum of 30 pounds of armor and expect our housing to be sub par.

There were weeks of training. My 39 weeks of Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, ended three weeks ago and I'm already slipping, despite spending all my time chattering to myself in broken phrases.

And then there was Indiana, an intensive intro to Afghan village life and working with the US military -- the ins and outs of protective details and how to be protected. It was taught at a mock Forward Operation Base (FOB) in rural Indiana, three hours from nowhere: FOB Panther, named for the local high school's mascot.

The scope of the training was incredible. Groups of 8 civilians, each coupled with one military and two civilian "subject matter experts" (SMEs -- "smees") who had just returned from working in the field in Afghanistan. Each group of civilians was being protected by a small contingent of 6-12 National Guardsmen who'd been called up to spend two weeks learning personal protection tactics, as well as how to deal with the somewhat persnickety animal that is a Federal Civilian.

("We should call this OEF-1," one of the Guardsman said in reference to us and playing off the acronym for Operation Enduring Freedom. "That stands for 'Over Educated Fucks.'")

The bridge between each group of civilians and their protective soldiers was a Sergeant, tasked primarily with training the soldiers but also with making sure the civilians know their role in the game of personal protection -- how to act, how to react, and how to be a help rather than a hindrance.

Our Sergeant was a Scottish immigrant who combined Hollywood-style drill sergeant gusto with a highland brogue. He had for a healthy contempt for civilians, and generally referred to us as "you lot" -- as in, "what YOU LOT forget is that if you ask these people what time it is, they'll tell you how to build a fucking watch!". Having been tasked with molding us into war-ready team members in a scant six days, he was determined to make the best of it even if he couldn't make us do pushups. He was, in short, awesome.

He spent a week berating us into being better protectees, lecturing us about how idiotic civilians always refuse to keep their helmets and body armor on (our military SME later conceded that it would be impossible to conduct a meeting with a helmet on). He drilled into us that if at any time he or another member of the security force barked out the code phrase "Bayonet! Bayonet! Bayonet!" (always three times, to be clear), that we should run for the door.

("If YOU LOT were put in charge of selecting the egress word, you'd probably pick something STUPID. Like 'lunchtime.' If I called out "lunchtime! lunchtime! lunchtime!" would any of you be running?" And then gesturing to a more heavyset member of our group, he added, "Well, except him?")

We practiced "downed driver drills," taking control of armored humvees from the backseat using a throttle control lever on the dashboard. We learned how soldiers communicate by the sounds of their guns -- that certain guns shot for certain periods of time signal a safe curtain in which you can bolt for the safety of the armored vehicle. We were in mock ambushes and mortar and IED attacks, simulated with fake grenades and light arms filled with blanks. I learned, in no uncertain terms, that I am the first to take cover. I confirmed that my fight-or-flight impulse is keyed squarely to flight, and that few people are faster than me. Lacking a gym, I spent my evenings running the perimeter of the base in body armor.

The military had purchased a former mental hospital, and littered the lawns with rubble and the charred, rusted carcasses of bombed out automobiles. Some of the buildings they detonated and some they sledgehammered to make them look old. They covered the walls in graffiti in Dari and Pashto: "Death to America, death to the Soviet Union. The Mujaheddin are the champions of the nation." They hired Afghans as role players, to act as translators and partners, adversaries and devils' advocates. It was as close to Afghanistan as you could be, though lacking mountains and with significantly more corn.

We practiced sitting at a table across from a group of people making demands: the clinic needs money for medicine. The roads are poorly paved and need resurfacing; promise that you'll do so. Your government must pay to refurbish this building; you built it two years ago but already it's falling apart. The point is to focus on the long term, emphasizing sustainability. If we refurbish the building, will it be falling apart again two years from now? What are your maintenance plans and who have you hired to implement them? What resources do you already have that you're not utilizing? There was enormous pressure to cave and promise resources that weren't ours to promise -- State promising USAID money or committing the military to something not within our purview. Our SMEs confirmed that we can expect more or less every meeting in Afghanistan to have an element of high pressure salesmanship to it.

We offered condolences to the family of someone mistakenly killed by a US airstrike. We met with the Governor, the Provincial Development Council, and leaders from civil society and NGOs. We visited a remote combat outpost and considered requests for the expansion of civilian personnel in the outlying districts. We rode a blackhawk, which filled me with a child-like sense of glee. It was like summer camp, only with a lingering sense of dread that we could be attacked at any moment. I have never felt more prepared for an upcoming assignment than I did following the training in Indiana.

And then came a few days in West Virginia, at a State-contracted raceway in the middle of nowhere. First was offensive driving training. How to stop at high speed, reverse at high speed, use your car to ram another car out of the way. How to generally be street aware and keep one's eyes peeled for potential insurgents, car bombs, IEDs, ambushes.

Did I crash the Crown Vic assigned to my group? Maybe. Maybe I lost control of the car while backing up at 40 miles an hour, and maybe I turned the wheel the wrong way and got a little panicky and maybe I slammed on the brakes (in contravention of everything they taught us) and maybe we had a little dust up with a concrete wall. And MAYBE the car stopped working after that and had to be towed off. The world may never know. (My colleague, taking a cue from me that speed kills, practiced escape by reversing at an outrageously slow pace. "Ah yes," I said, "here we are escaping from the terrorists at a nice, leisurely pace." Although by that point, I wasn't really in a position to be making fun of anyone).

Then came explosives familiarization: classes on the physics of explosions, the creation of blast waves and primary, secondary and tertiary dangers of explosions (which are, respectively, the blast itself, the shrapnel caused by the blast, and any impact a person may have with a ground or other objects when lifted by the blast wave). It was accompanied by video after video of things blowing up -- of car bombs and truck bombs and people dying. And then came a demonstration: low explosives and high explosives, det cord (high explosives contained in wire), a blasting cap, TATP (the liquid explosive that prevents one from taking a water bottle though airport security), and finally a lump of C4 about the size of half of bratwurst, stuffed into the ashtray of broken down Cadillac. "This demonstration," I told my colleague standing next to me, "has eradicated my desire to go to Afghanistan." "I was just thinking the same thing," he told me.

And finally weapons training. Three hours of classroom time taught by a firearms loving ex-marine. (My burning question: "With the exception of pulling the trigger, is there any way to make that gun go off?" The answer: an emphatic no). Then two magazines with five bullets each for five different guns; fifty rounds total. I started with a baretta, the service pistol carried by our troops. I waited in line, got to the front, and told the instructor that I'd never touched much less fired a gun and was skittish. He walked me through it: safety on, safety off; magazine in and out; hands here, second hand wraps around, grip tightly, aim through the sights and fire. He was extraordinarily patient. I think I hit the target once or twice.

Moved to the Glock and then on to one of two rifles -- the M4, carried by our soldiers. I repeated my spiel: first time touching a rifle, third gun ever shot, kind of skittish. "Pffft. My fifteen year old daughter can shoot this gun," the instructor sneered. "Ok, that's not helpful," I replied.

Then combat medicine: how combat medicine is different than civilian/EMT medicine (there's more focus on bleeding and hypothermia), how to tourniquet and pressure bandage to stop bleeding, how to treat puncture wounds to the chest to prevent lung collapse. "I know some of you are squeemish about seeing people bleeding," our medic instructor told us before putting on a video. "But this next video only LOOKS gruesome. It's fake. If you look closely you can tell that it's actually just a rump roast that they put into a pair of pants and are pumping fake blood through."

And that was that. Afghan prep: one glorious year, complete.

I finished writing this in the air over the Persian Gulf, off the northern coast of Saudi Arabia. I'm about half an hour from Dubai and less than a day from Afghanistan. I'm more nervous about simple logistics -- will there be anyone at the airport to pick me up? What will my room look like in Farah? Do I have too much stuff? -- than I am about being in Afghanistan. I feel well prepared. I also feel like I have no idea what I've gotten myself into.