Monday, August 9, 2010

Dust and Soil: Bakwa

Yesterday I went to my second province outside of Farah City Center: Bakwa.

"Ah, you're going to Bakwa, eh?" said the Doc. "It's, um, pretty bleak." "Bakwa?" said the coarse-mouthed First Lieutenant in charge of giving out money. "That place sucks balls."

I was again tagging along with our Ag guy, who was going to hold a shura (an Afghan community gathering, like a town hall) to discuss deep irrigation wells. I wanted to talk elections -- just to check the pulse in a rural area and see if anyone had any interest whatsoever.

Bakwa is very much a disputed district. The Marines have put in a lot of effort, but it's still a toss up on security, and some of parts of the district still have distinct Taliban leanings. There's little water but excellent soil, two conditions that make opium an attractive cash crop, and the district is one of the major poppy producers in the region.

This is what they're fighting over:

Taken from the window of a Cougar on the three-hour, forty-kilometer drive to Bakwa.

It was admittedly not all so bleak as that, and there were the odd splashes of green and a few strategically placed mud huts here and there. For the most part, though, it was wide open nothingness.

Also from the window; touched up to remove a bit of the glare, which definitely upped the color.

It was 120 degrees when arrived at Bakwa's district center, a sun-baked, trash-filled empty lot; I exited the Cougar next to a pile of burnt cans and chicken feathers, next to some cast-off concertina wire. We were in the "city center," though in reality there is no city, and not much of a district center, either. People come in from time to time to have meetings, but almost no one lives there, and even the village opposite is abandoned. The Marines, at the request of the populace, kicked out the Taliban and fixed up the central bazaar, but there are few merchants and even fewer shoppers. "We cleaned it up for you -- there's a butcher, a baker, some shops," they said during the shura. "If you don't shop there, the merchants are going to give up and go away."

The parking lot.

The actual district center, where shuras and meetings are held, was reasonably nice, filled with chairs and carpets; twenty five Afghan elders were waiting inside to talk about deep irrigation wells.

The entrance to the district center. The red words on the right read "in the name of God;" the white on the left is the beginning of the words "Welcome to the peaceful city of Bakwa."

Doc had warned me that every time he goes to Bakwa he ends up getting mortared; the Marines are fully tuned in to the sound of rocket attacks, and I was set to be the first one to hit the deck the second they shouted "incoming." But they never did: the population of Bakwa, no matter their political bent, wants deep irrigation wells more than anything. Ag (in lieu of his name, I'm going with his position) explained that at this time, the PRT can only fund twenty wells, and that the district leader, in negotiations with individual villages, would be in charge of determining where they would go. Farmers would be required to swear that they will not use the wells for opium production. Ag acknowledged that twenty wells isn't enough for everyone, but it's a start.

I briefly talked elections (a topic on which I will say nothing until after they take place on September 18). Our Marine liaison officer reminded the elders that continued funding for projects -- like the solar street lights previously installed, the upcoming deep irrigation wells, and a potential future program for fertilizer distribution -- were contingent on the continued support of the people for the Government of Afghanistan, and not the Taliban.

And then we had lunch. Bakwa is known for its wheat and Afghans, to the fullest extent of their ability, are definitely foodies with surprisingly refined palettes; stone-ground Bakwa flour is considered to make better bread (Indian-style naan, cooked quickly in a hot clay oven) than what's found in Farah city. The bread accompanied chicken and potatoes in an tomato-lentil sauce, and was indeed better than what we have in the city. ("Our bread tastes like feet," said the First Lieutenant, "except when it tastes like potting soil.")

Quoth the Gunny of the Marines: "this is a hundred dollar meal. You believe that? I gave them a hundred bucks. For this. WHERE'S THE RICE?" It appeared that the organizer of the shura had absconded with the remainder of the money, and I seconded the gunny's feeling: Afghan rice is ridiculously good.

I wandered outside to take a few more photographs (SecFor followed close behind; "you're not allowed to wander off alone, sir"). We weren't attacked or shelled, we got some work done, and I got a couple photographs of a pretty desolate place.

I secretly love this picture.

And that was that.


Dakota said...

Minor victory: I finally figured out how to shrink the font for photo captions. The elimination of the FONT tag from HTML was frankly killing me.

Matt said...

the picture you "secretly love" is fantastic.

Dakota said...

Thanks. Much appreciated, particularly given that the photos on the Guatemala Holla trump anything I've got to offer.

Dakota said...

In related news, the captioning still needs work. It shouldn't be this hard. No one likes you, internet.

Mark Sieffert said...

CeCe and I are following along... I assume there's a rainy season. Looking forward to those photos. Can you tell us a little more about the economics of poppy cultivation for the people you encounter? I mean I have a hard time believing that anything USG can try to get them to grow will be half as rewarding financially.

Shannon said...

Mark, very interesting commentary - keep writing! What restrictions have been placed on you from State as far as writing this blog? Also, judging by the Afghan people in Farah that you've met so far, what's your sense of their view of the US "mission"? Are they taking the US presence in stride and making what they can of it? Better than that? Worse?


Dakota said...

State hasn't said anything about this blog and likely won't unless I overstep my bounds. Things that would be overstepping my bounds: pretty much answering any of your questions. Much of it is also too early to say; check back with me in month or two and maybe we can skype about it.

As for the economics of poppy -- that may be addressed in another blog entry later. Maybe.

j said...

Fortunately, I am too shallow and too ignorant to ask questions relating to politics or economics. Here's my question:

Do you lug around your SLR on your trips and is your SecFor cool with that?

Dakota said...

I didn't on my first trip (to Shewan, in Bala Boluk district) and am still kicking myself for it. I brought it to Bakwa and will be bringing it pretty much everywhere else with me except to routine in-town meetings.

The SecFor guys are pretty awesome all around (they'll get a separate post of their own eventually), and generally don't mind anything I do at all as long as I don't wander off alone. They're happy-go-lucky Guamanians with a no-worries island mindset, and I'm glad they're on my team.

Shannon said...

Well, fine then. Will restrict future questions to the status of your beard. :-)

Dakota said...

Fortunately, the status of my beard happens to be one of my favorite topics, and I look forward to discussing at length.