My first trip out of Farah city was to Bala Boluk (literally "Upper Block") district, due northeast of our FOB. We were headed out to a series of villages near the town of Shewan to check on some USG-funded water projects -- a stream diversion project to keep the Farah river (the "Farah Rud," in Pashto) from eroding a town wall near Shewan itself; a dam-like "superpass" that will facilitate irrigation near the town of Tahksirak, and another canal-related project in the village of Shia Jinggal.
These villages are tiny, and there's no hope of knowing where they are. You won't find them on common maps of Afghanistan, and I include the names here only because I find them mellifluous and pleasant-sounding. Because of the Farsi influence, almost all place names have the stress on the last syllable; Shia Jing-GAL, Tahk-sirAK. Farah is no exception -- it rhymes with "hurrah," not with Sarah.
I was tagging along with our Department of Ag rep, a soft-spoken, good-natured Texan with an easy smile and a light southern accent. He's pleasantly self-effacing, but with a comprehensive knowledge of all things agricultural, he's arguably the most important civilian in bucolic Farah: he knows when and how to organize seed distributions, what sorts of fertilizers to hand out, how to drill wells and run irrigation lines. The link between poppy sales and Taliban funding makes poppy eradication and replacement high on the list of USG priorities; the PRT does a lot of Ag outreach.
The road to Shewan is paved for the majority of the trip, making it a relatively pleasant and quick jaunt through dusty fields of nothing -- about an hour and a half to cover about forty miles. The city itself used to be firmly owned by the Taliban, but the Marines booted them out and the PRT was quick to move in with quality-of-life projects; the waterworks that we were headed to are part of that.
We were supposed to meet the contractor in Shewan's city center and follow him to the stream diversion project, but he no-showed us. We tried to call him, and then to get through to him with the help of our Afghan assistant. No dice. The Lieutenant who's generally in charge of doling out money like candy notices that trucks -- tiny little Mazda pick ups -- were passing by laden with rocks, and he flagged one down. Through a Pashto translator, he determined that they were going to our water project. They agree to let us follow them; some officers from the Afghan National Police (the ANP) came along as well.
Here was the problem: we were not in cars. We were not in armored cars or up-armored Humvees, which themselves are pretty massive vehicles. We weren't even in MRAPs, Mine-Resistant Anti-Penetration vehicles, heavy trucks with a V-shaped bottom that explosions deflect up and away from.
We were in Cougars.
Cougars are massive vehicles that appear to be made from converted tractor-trailors, draped in inches of steel and so fully blast-resistant that insurgent rarely bother to waste their explosives on us, preferring softer targets. (If you look closely in the picture below, you'll note that SecFor has attached a Guamanian flag somewhere on each of the Cougars -- either on one of the antennas, or under the covering on the gunner's turret). They're enormous.
We were off the road for about four minutes when we got stuck.
I wasn't sure what was going on; generally speaking, the passengers are forbidden from getting out until the door is opened by SecFor. There aren't a ton of windows in the back of a cougar, and the five-point harness seatbelt keeps you pretty firmly tied down. And it's pretty unlikely that I, the least handy person on earth, would be of much help.
They eventually tied the bumper to the front of another cougar and bump-pulled it out of the gulch it was stuck in. We pulled into the riverbed of the Farah Rud -- it dries up in the dead heat of summer -- and drove to the project.
It was 110 degrees at 11 in the morning, but the project hands were happy to see us, and they pointed out what they'd done. The project is a community effort involving something called gabions -- strong, four-foot wire baskets woven by women in the cities and then filled with rocks by the men; they're stacked to create walls to divert the stream. Having women weave the raw materials for the project and the men provide the labor makes both genders stakeholders in the project -- something rare in Afghanistan. It also ups the number of people involved, providing both livelihood and a means of occupying otherwise idle paws.
A policeman, friends with one of the workers, pointed to a distant building across the flat, rock-strewn brush. "The Taliban were there two days ago," he said. "They shot at us, but we wounded two of them." I asked if they planned to stop work because of the threat and he shook his head. "They're always threatening," he said. "They told even told the shepherd to stop taking his goats around. They're not reasonable."
We walked down the bank of the river for a bit, past a massive marijuana field that probably covered the area of half a football field. Aside from the tiny plants that grow wild on the compound of US Embassy Islamabad -- DEA assured us it was low quality -- I'd never seen it cultivated before. "This is nothing," said the plucky captain in charge of ensuring that there's enough firepower on each of our missions. "It'll be shoulder high in a few months." He's in the army and by extension not a pot smoker, but he exudes West Coast and I don't doubt him.
Despite supporting agriculture projects in the hopes of finding viable alternatives to growing narcotics, the PRT is not in the business of drug enforcement. Dealing with a half a football field's worth of pot -- which, our translators assured us, is likely only for personal use -- is well out of our jurisdiction. We walk away.
The next project is in Shia Jinggal and as we're pulling up, the gunner leans down from his seat and calls out, "just so you know, sir -- this isn't exactly a friendly neighborhood."
Shia Jinggal is an ancient sun-baked mud-brick village with a single narrow street running the length of it. It was beautiful, albeit spare; I cursed myself for forgetting my camera. The surrounding area was lain with opium fields, harvested a few months prior; there were poppy stalks drying for next year's seed at the entrance to the village.
It was eerily empty, completely silent except for the sounds of our footfalls. "Anybody home?" called out one of the SecFor guys. Nothing. They pulled in tight around us. "This," I was told, "is definitely not the village to take your helmet off in."
We walked through the village without seeing anyone, ending up at a stream running behind it. There was an emaciated cow on the bank of the river, and piles of clothes left by women who had been doing the washing but run to hide at the approach of soldiers. The call to prayer sounded behind us.
We kept walking. The stream curved around the wall of the village, and there was a massive dog, an angry Afghan mastiff, chained to a tree and barking furiously; he threw himself at us but caught on his chain, yanking backwards each time and making himself angrier than before. "If they didn't know we were here before, they do now," SecFor said. We kept walking.
The project, headworks for a new canal, hadn't started. The Ag guy pointed out where it would be, but it was obvious that the no work had taken place. Eagle-eyes SecFor spotted a man in the fields, staring as us. They kept a close eye on him, I looked for him, but never saw him. We walked back.
In the stream near the village, three old men with long white beards were performing their required ablutions before prayer: feet to above the ankles, hands to the elbows. We tried to ask them questions, but they waved us off, focusing on washing. We walked back through the village, still empty and silent, creepy beyond any speaking of it.
A pack of kids was waiting at the entrance. There were probably twenty of them, none older than 13 or 14. They stared at us, silent and hostile. "Give us something," one called out. "Candy."
The lead for SecFor, an enormous Guamanian with close-cropped hair and a thin mustache, whirled around and moved in close to the pack of kids. "Do you remember the last time we were here?" he asked. "Last time, when we gave you pencils and candy? Do you remember what you did? Ask them if they remember," he told the translator.
And then pounding his chest, a wall of towering, furious muscle, he said hissed out "I remember. You broke the pencils, and you threw them at us. And rocks, too. It doesn't matter if you remember, because I do. I don't forget."
And then to the translator: "You tell them to think about what they did last time. And tell them that we'll be back, and maybe next time we'll think about giving them something, when we're damn good and ready." And he stalked back to the vehicle. I have never been so happy to leave a place.
In the vehicles, we debated moving on to a third locale. The day had already gone long because of difficulties in locating our destinations, but the Ag guy said he knew where the final village was -- a third of a mile walk from a washed out road where we'd stopped before. They asked me if I was game. "As long as it's less hostile than Shia Jinggal, then absolutely," I said.
The vehicles dropped us in an empty spot near the highway where a small dirt road quickly became impassable, cut with a ditch from a dried out stream. We started hiking, leaping the ditch and then continuing on past hip-high corn fields fed by low irrigation ditches. The walk took maybe ten minutes.
The canal works were in beautiful, a tree-lined grotto adjacent to a walled village. The concrete for the first stage of the canal had been poured, and a few kids with bare feet and sun-bleached hair were working on it halfheartedly. The military assumed the brunt of the work had stopped, as is traditional, because the mid-day heat is too brutal to work in.
A passing goat shepherd waved to us, and a few old men came out to greet us. "Welcome to Tahksirak," they said. A pack of kids came out to talk to us, to shake hands and hang out; it was infinitely more relaxed than Shia Jinggal -- pleasant, even, in the shade of the trees next to the running water. I took off my helmet; some of the kids grabbed for it, and I rapped it with my knuckles, pantomiming that it can stop bullets.
The elders pointed out what work had been done, and thanked us; they were grateful for the canal. We asked if they'd had any problems with the Taliban, and the oldest looking of the group, with a long, white beard and thick round glasses, kicked his sandaled foot into the air. "I'll stomp them myself if they try to come here," he told us. The engineers took photos for their reports, and I waved my goodbyes to the kids. The elders shook our hands and told us to come back any time, and they clearly meant it. We were maybe five miles from Shia Jinggal.