"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.