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.


Rachel C said...

I thought the saying was "The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away." Is that a mis-translation?

What dos the 'sky is high' mean?

Glad you've finally arrived at your destination. Loving reading this blog.


Dakota said...

Tian gao, huangdi yuan; definitely the sky is high. It doesn't mean much more than that one has an awful lot of room to do as one pleases -- plenty of distance between the ground and the sky, and plenty of difference between you and the emperor.

j said...

Your job is definitely cool. Very cool.