Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blatent Plagiarism

I don't intend to turn this into a photo blog. I've always been more of a writer than a photographer (I am aware that I have little skill with a camera), and my favorite blogs have always had more words than pictures.

That said, between the elections, Burn a Koran Day, and the PRT's own internal travel schedule, I've been swamped, and the last thing I've wanted to do when I get home is sit down and write. I keep telling myself I'll catch up, but it's unclear when that's going to happen.

I'm sprinting off again tomorrow to a conference that will be interesting from a work standpoint, but that will also be something of a mini-vacation inside Afghanistan. I was asked to give a presentation on political reporting, which has been a good chunk of my baileywick here in Farah. I made a powerpoint as a matter of course, but since powerpoint is the worst medium on earth, I kept the words to a minimum and included a photo on each slide. The majority of the photos were stolen from our PRT's photographer, Senior Airman Paparazzi. He's an incredible photographer, award winning within the military, and stealing from him is far better than wading through the thousands of bad photos I've taken here.

I keep telling myself that one of these days I'll catch up on writing. In the mean time, though, I thought I'd toss up a few of Airman Paparazzi's photos from our recent trip to the farflung mountains of Eastern Farah, as a placeholder until I actually get around to writing about it. None of these are necessarily representative of the district we were in -- but they're such perfect photos from a composition standpoint that I can't tear my eyes away from them.

In advance of the elections, these sorts of posters were everywhere. They each carry the candidates name and photo, a brief statement, and the candidate's number and symbol, a common practice in countries with high illiteracy rates.

This policeman was one of several guards posted during the district shura we were attending.

The huge cloud of dust is from a helicopter landing in a dirt field, not an explosion. I had exited a different helicopter in advance of this one landing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Way better than United. Even in Business Class. Seriously.

I've been traveling a ton lately. After riding several different aircraft, my previous suspicions have been confirmed:

Blackhawk is the only way to fly.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Terry Jones and the Unravelling of Sanity

The end of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr coincided with the anniversary of 9/11, which likewise coincided with International Burn a Koran Day. The timing couldn't have been worse.

Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is the month in which the Koran was descended to Mohammad via the angel Gabriel, beginning in roughly the year 610, in a cave on the outskirts of the city of Mecca. ("Descended" -- nas'l shud -- is the verb in Farsi used when describing the process by which the Koran was revealed to Mohammad). The name Koran, or Qur'an, means "the Recitation," and derives from the first word of the first chapter revealed to Mohammad, the opening of Sura 96:

Recite! In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, who created --
created man from a mere clot of blood.

Terry Jones, the fringe pastor with a congregation of about 30 people who drew the world's ire with his Burn a Koran Day plan, is proud to say that he's never read the Koran.

My personal thoughts on Burn a Koran Day are unimportant, though I fully agree with the Secretary's statements that the whole idea is disrespectful, intolerant and divisive, worthy of being condemned. The whole thing is coupled with more of a shaking sense of outrage, a disbelieving, head shaking, how-dare-you sort of wrath, for both the idiotic act of burning Korans and for the direct disregard for the lives of thousands of people around the globe. I am not surprised that appealing to reason ("what you're doing is offensive and wrong") -- didn't get much traction, but it honestly makes me clench up in anger that Petraeus's appeal to conscience ("you're putting our troops directly into danger") was equally ignored.

(Quoth Captain Firepower: "If I ever meet that guy, he's gonna get his jaw broken. I believe in free speech, but if you're gonna say some stupid shit, you've gotta be able to take a fist for what you believe in.")

Burn a Koran Day echoed through Afghanistan, and Farah was no exception. It took a few days for the news to reach us -- word travels slowly to the Afghan hinterlands -- but when it did arrive, it resulted in protests, mostly in the outlying districts. If Burn a Koran Day had actually taken place, it would've been much worse, Obama and Petraeus's denunciations thereof notwithstanding.

As it was, it was nerve-wrackingly tense -- not from a personal security standpoint (I have great faith in our FOB's perimeter defense), but just from the idea that SOMETHING might happen. Any of the would-be situations that might have occurred in conjunction with Burn a Koran Day would ultimately have been a lose-lose us. That something could have been riots outside our gates, or major protests in the city, or a heavy-handed police response or warning shots gone wrong, or even just a roiling mass of angry people that eventually shouted themselves out and went home peacefully; even in the best-case scenarios have no upsides for us -- none of it would have inched Afghanistan closer to self-sustaining stability, or improved the lives of anyone or upped the standing of the Afghan Government or America in the eyes of the Afghan people. That, more than anything, is what Terry Jones does not understand about his idiotic Burn a Koran Day publicity stunt: that in pointlessly infuriating Muslims around the globe, he has not only endangered our lives, but also made a nearly-impossible job that much more difficult.

Burn a Koran Day was cancelled, but there were still isolated protests around the province. We were overrun with requests for information on them, and I spent the day trying to figure out what was rumor and hearsay (2,000 people, spun into a frenzy by during prayers, three people killed) and what we actually knew for certain (200 to 300-person protested outside a NATO Combat Outpost; four wounded by warning shots fired by Afghan police, one of whom later succumbed to his wounds), and fielding questions from the Embassy and DC about what was happening.

The protests largely fizzled after a day, and September 11th itself, the National Day of Remembrance, was quiet. There was a memorial service on compound at 8:46, the time the first plane hit the north tower. It was held in front of a hand-made memorial with a sculpture of the towers made of plywood, painted grey and adorned with flags and a timeline of the events of 9/11; just in front of the towers was a rusted chunk of twisted metal, taken from the towers themselves. The memorial was made by two army Captains (one current, one former) who lost relatives to the World Trade Center on 9/11 -- a father who was a New York City firefighter, and a brother whose office was on the 101st floor. It all comes full circle: from New York to Afghanistan, where it all started.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

As far as call signs go, it could be worse.

I'm behind on blogging. I've been running ragged for the past few days, ankle deep in meetings and reports, and traveling a considerable amount both inside and outside the province. There's a lot to write about, but there's also a lot that can't be said on the blog; hopefully I'll catch up over Eid.

Eid -- that is, Eid-ul-Fitr, literally "the celebration of the breaking of fast" -- is the three-day holiday that's coming up roughly this weekend, to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims spend the month abstaining from food, drink and tobacco from sunrise to sunset, and it's always a difficult month, even if you're not fasting. Work days are generally cut in half for most Afghans, making it hard to get things done, and you can't help but feel bad for people sweltering during the long summer days without even water to drink. There's an oblique sense of guilt that accompanies having lunch or slugging back a surreptitious diet soda, even if it's only done in the privacy of the compound where few Afghan eyes can see.

We held an Iftar last night, the traditional celebratory meal eaten at the end of a day of fasting during Ramadan. It was a huge event -- a dinner for over 50 Afghans, held outside on rented carpets intended for weddings. We catered Afghan food (cinnamon-spiked basmati rice, whole roasted chickens, a side of meatballs and Afghan flatbread), and supplemented it with food from the chow hall that we know our Afghan counterparts enjoy but rarely get -- beef stew, fish in a lemon-butter sauce, chicken fingers, and a side of sweet corn.

About half the guests, just after breaking the fast. People were still arriving as the sun set, and most of the Americans were still outside greeting people.

It was a beautiful event, made more so by a lucky streak of perfect weather -- no driving dust or sandstorms, just a light breeze and relatively cool temperatures. It took the entire team to put it on -- security ringing the perimeter, and everyone else pitching in to do whatever needed done -- helping set the "tables" (carpets on the ground, covered in traditional Afghan eating cloths called dastarkhuan), or plate rice and meatballs, or lay out sodas. I was a little panicky about the entire event, and my constantly calling audibles left Sergeant Charlie (a Vietnamese-American who labeled the fridge in the Civil-Military Operations Center with a sign that reads "replace the water you take: Charlie is watching you") referring to me as "Bridezilla."

I will concede that I was picky on things like soda distribution -- I wanted them all in a cooler, not set out at individual places; who can know if our guests want an orange or a strawberry flavored Fanta, or a regular pepsi or a diet? I also had a lot to say about the placement of table cloths and the distribution of rice and fish and chicken fingers; the person tapped to be in charge of food, a Navy culinary specialist with a degree from Johnson and Wales (Petty Officer Frying Pan, if you will, although I'm reserving the right to change that nickname at a later point in time) was thrilled with my micromanagement, let me tell you.

Regardless, Bridezilla will stand by many of his requests: "can you move the MRAP so it blocks that broken down car up on blocks right in front of the entrance?" and "can that Air Force girl ditch her M-16 somewhere before the Afghans get here?" hardly seem unreasonable to me.

The Commander of the PRT (El Comandante, if you will), greeting an Afghan entering the FOB.