Thursday, October 21, 2010

Going, going... Guam.

The Guam guys who are here are the second rotation of Guam National Guard to come through Farah, and will be the last. They'll be replaced by Arizona National Guard, who will likely be equally adept at personal protection but much less happy-go-lucky, and who will almost definitely be less likely to barbeque, which the Guamanians do weekly. They've come to the rescue on many a Friday night, when the only choices were starvation or wretched surf-and-turf at the chow hall, with limp fried shrimp and withered lobsters served alongside shoe leather steaks.

Guamanian barbeques (always with lilting steel drum music in the background) were the social highlight of the week, and the Guamanians were excellent cooks. They have an odd penchant for singing the happy birthday song, and every week they'd gather everyone together before eating, run through the ubiquitous Catholic before-meal prayer, and then point to someone in the crowd and shriek out -- "hey, is it your birthday? It's your BIRTHDAY!" and then launch into the song for no reason at all.

(Guamanian food is generally excellent, and they make a corned beef that they smoke and then cook on the grill that's truly outstanding. I will concede that the one time I got miserably sick in Farah was off Guamanian barbequed fish, dredged in a garlic mayonnaise sauce and grilled in a foil packet, served alongside a lemon juice-cured raw fish ceviche that I knew was folly to eat. Both were delicious but desert ceviche was a bridge too far, and I was incapacitated for days. I have no regrets).

A Guamanian barbeque in full swing. The guy in camo clutching a diet soda is there heretofore un-photo-documented Captain Firepower.

I assumed I'd turn this into a photo post, but it turns out that I have very few photos of the Guam guys -- I usually take photos on missions, and they're always on missions but always in the background, pulling security. The photo below was taken just after one of those missions, as they were unloading a .50 cal from an MRAP. "Take a picture," they told me. "It'll make your mother feel better about you being here."
Two Guamanians with a gigantic gun. Feel better, mom?

The guys could start circulating out of Farah as early as Saturday. I'm hoping I can catch up on photographing and blogging about people before the grand exodus begins -- there are hundreds of people who haven't been mentioned here who deserve to be written down, lest I forget them at some point in the future.

On a hillside in stunningly beautiful Purchaman district, Eastern Farah; the truck laden with Afghan Police and Guam guys hadn't been able to handle the grade, and this photo was taken from the window as we drove past them. The Staff Sergeant in the front, one of the SecFor leaders, has an uncanny knack for catching my eye during painfully long meetings and giving me a wink as if to say -- man, I'm glad it's you and not me who's stuck taking notes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out with the old, in with the...

It's RIPTOA season here at PRT Farah. A RIPTOA -- that's Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority -- happens whenever one military unit transfers out and a new one swoops in to take their place, and they've been happening around me with alarming frequency.

The Italians at PRT Farah were the first to go, with the 9th Alpini replaced by some numbered division of Lagunari, the Italian equivalent of the Marines. The Alpini, who wear awesome but kind of ridiculous feathered fedoras with their formal uniforms -- part alpine woodsman, part keebler elf -- were nice enough guys, but aside from hobnobbing with their commander (a tall and handsome Colonel with a gracious, gentlemanly manner) when we both ended up at the Governor's compound, I rarely interacted with them. The entire compound was invited to their TOA ceremony, though, and would've seemed rude not to see them off, so I went to see what sorts of pomp and circumstance they may have on offer.

I was pretty excited for it. Tragically, though, I've been toying with the idea of running an on-compound marathon and Fridays (our only day off) have by necessity become my distance day, so I ended up going more or less directly from running 20 miles in the desert heat to the TOA ceremony with only a brief shower in between. Consequently, I spent most of the ceremony sitting in the back of the tent trying not to pass out and wondering when it would end. It definitely featured a lot of exciting military parade-type things, like presenting arms and standing at attention, as well as repeated occurrences of a lot of soldiers simultaneously thundering out one word -- it sounded like "Sa! Ba! Do!", which I would translate as "Sat! ur! day!" -- but beyond that it's hard to say exactly what happened. There were a lot of speeches, but the sound system was rigged through tinny speakers that sounded not dissimilar to the drive through at any given fast food joint, and I was too busy taking deep breaths and trying not to throw up to decipher when they were speaking English vice Dari or Italian.

(I later asked an Italian what they hell they were barking out when they all shouted in unison, but he told me in rough-shod English that he hadn't shouted anything -- that only the Lagunari and not the Alpini had been shouting. I tried again -- "right, but what were the Lagunari shouting?" -- but he just thumped his chest and shook his head and said "I -- no Lagunari," and I decided it was best to just let it drop).

Given my physical duress and complete inability to pay attention, I found the Italian TOA to be unsatisfying. I was consequently excited to invite myself along when the PRT commander decided to drive up for the TOA up at RC-West headquarters in Herat, to witness the Italian General whom I'd met a few months prior RIP out and be replaced by another General whose name I never caught. (The military chain of command in my region is something I should know inside and out, and the gaping holes in my knowledge frankly make me question my own bona fides).

We left at five for the drive up to Herat. It's not easy to sleep in the back of an MRAP -- strapped into a five-point harness and wearing a heavy Kevlar helmet -- but I can sleep under any circumstances and napped through the trip, waking up only briefly to stare in rapture at the camels that I still get giddy at spotting. We had car trouble and made it into Camp Arena with only minutes to spare before the TOA, which actually turned out to be ideal because it meant less sitting around and waiting for the thing to start. We were positioned in the back with other Americans, behind the speakers, and I was determined to find out what the Italians were shouting.

But the RC-West TOA was a more staid affair than the one in Farah, with a good handful of speeches but no shouting at all. The sound system was clear, though, and I took notes on what was said, partly because I wanted a record and partly to force myself pay attention. The speakers included the departing Italian General, multiple Afghans, an American 3-star who had flown in for the event, and finally the Italian Minister of Defense, a towering, enormous man in blue pinstripes. They all covered roughly the same ground -- the commitment of the soldiers, the progress that was made, a recognition of those who died, and a nod to the task that still lies ahead. Aside from two dizzyingly fast and powerful-looking fighter jets called Tornadoes screeching by to punctuate the ceremony, it was business-like with little pomp.

(The ceremony was followed by a reception with significant quantities of food and few plates, and I and the PRT's Senior Enlisted Advisor spent the time passing a plate back and forth between us and raiding the smoked meat and Italian cheeses, and I crammed dozens of stuffed olives and fried artichoke hearts into my mouth: such things do not exist in Farah).

The back-to-back Italian TOAs are a harbinger of what's to come: the current PRT, under the command of El Comandante, will RIP out and be replaced by another PRT in just two scant weeks. Everyone here is leaving -- Captain Firepower, Lieutenant Moneybags, and all the rest of the cast of characters will be headed home or to their onward assignment. I'm dreading their departure -- as far as teams go, they're all outstandingly easy to work with, and El Comandante and I in particular have an easy, unspoken synergy that we fell into immediately upon my arrival.

Mercifully, the advance party of the new team has arrived, and they're equal parts laid back and easy to get along with, the kind of guys you'd like to go get a beer with if that were an option here. I'll be with them more or less to the end of my time in Farah, with them ripping out at about the same time that my replacement is slated to arrive.

It's hard not to be sad at grand departure, though -- everyone is busy packing, and some people have countdown calendars with only single-digits left on them. The post office has been jammed with people mailing home boxes of stuff, and I've been on the receiving end of seemingly dozens of half-used bottles of shampoo and moisturizer and the like. Two days ago I snagged a 500-pack of Q-tips that I was desperate for, and today I ended up with a bottle of Creatine powder just for having been in the right place at the right time.

Getting free stuff is always nice, but it only kind of blunts my desire to shriek out take me with you! when people start talking departure logistics in meetings. I know this feeling will pass once the new team is on the ground, but for now, I can't help but find myself pacing the conference room, wondering if there's any extra room on the C-130.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Culture Clash

A not insignificant chunk of the training we go through before arrival focuses on the differences in culture between State and the Military. You can divide us into two opposing columns: we're passive-aggressive; they're hyper-confrontational. We tend to be egalitarian; they focus on rank and discipline. They keep a tidy desk; we live in squalor. Physical fitness matters to them; if we had push-up tests, we'd lose the vast majority of our service. Few foreign service officers smoke; the military loves its cigarettes but REALLY loves its smokeless tobacco.

Having been good friends with the Marines at my last two posts, none of this was new to me. I was a little surprised at how many people here use tobacco products -- everyone smokes cigarettes, all the officers smoke cigars and it seems like every enlisted man has a hunk of chaw in his mouth at any given time -- but beyond that nothing surprised me.

"Foul language," we were told, "is another area where the military isn't like the civilian world. You can expect that the language will be a little salty." This also wasn't news to me -- but I must say that I'm surprised at the the degree to which it's rubbing off on me. I wasn't particularly saintly in my speech habits before this deployment, but I also can't remember ever having dropped the F bomb in a staff meeting. Here, that's closer to de rigeur.

All of this is to say that I anticipate that the language in this blog will continue to go downhill. I don't anticipate studding my writing with obscenities, but as I continue to quote the people around me, the likelihood of using foul language goes up. It is, I suppose, one of the lesser-mentioned dangers of living and working with the military.

Chariots of Fire

Herat is a self-drive city, and I spent the five days of last week's conference being driven around by an amiable but high strung development advisor who's directly embedded with a military maneuver unit. He's got a Peace Corps gone rogue type demeanor, and he had the habit of referring to the military only as GI Joes: "I'm sharing a bathroom with 80 GI Joes," he said. "How many GI Joes you got sharing your bathroom?"

RoguePeaceCorps's style of driving toed the line between aggressive and manic, and he punctuated wild turns of the wheel ("you see how off this alignment is?") with long strings of full-throated but unconventional invective, directed mostly at pedestrians and stray dogs that tried to cross the street. "Shitdog! These kids have a death wish! Son of a … bastard!"

Self-drive is liberating, but there are upsides to riding in steel-plated convoys driven by well-armed Guamanians. Chief amongst them are that we don't get lost (we roll with a fancy GPS system and have a direct link back to an operations center) and we don't deal with checkpoints, since it would take a lot of bravery and some pretty heavy artillery to even attempt to stop a Cougar.

Because we don't deal with checkpoints, I have no idea how they work. It was clear in Herat that there's a system, but it was opaque to me -- sometimes we would dart around the traffic that was waiting at the checkpoints, and at other times we'd stop and wait. Checkpoints are universally acknowledged to be the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, and I found it nerve wracking. RoguePeaceCorps, with his predilection for aggressive driving (at times it seemed like he was using both pedals simultaneously, so erratic was his starting and stopping), didn't help things.

On the first day of the conference, we got stopped at an Italian military checkpoint just as the sun was setting, in between the conference site and the base where we were staying. There was a line of heavy trucks to our right, and we pulled into the oncoming traffic lane to pass them when we hit the seemingly impromptu checkpoint. We were waved to a halt by an Italian soldier in front of an armored humvee, its gun turret pointed in our direction. The Italians, RoguePeaceCorps told us, are known for being quick on the trigger, and he was nervous. "They shoot, man, they just shoot -- but we're sure as fuck not staying here till it gets dark," he said. A tiny Afghan car behind us, carrying far more passengers than the vehicle was intended for, tried to swing out onto a dirt track to beat a wide path around the Italians. They too were flagged to a halt. They put their car in reverse and inched back towards the road, but again got a signal to stop.

RoguePeaceCorps was muttering "this is not good, not good" to himself. He called one of the Operations Centers in Herat, but they weren't tracking any checkpoints. He called the Security Officer for Consulate Herat and was told the same thing. It was unclear if the Italians could see the diplomatic license plate strapped to the back of the sun visor on the passenger side, and equally unclear if such things matter to them at all. RoguePeaceCorps kept inching forward, and the Italians shined a high-powered flashlight in our direction to signal that he should stop. He pounded on the wheel. "What do you want me to DO?" he shouted.

"Those are dazzlers, right?" my USAID colleague from Farah asked me half-jokingly, half-nervously. "You know what comes next, right?" He was referring to the brief we have to sit through in Farah before every mission we go on; some slides never change, and the Rules of Engagement slide is one of them:

You have the inherent right of self defense. You must have positive identification before firing. Do not fire on historical sites or lines of communication. Escalation of force: Step One -- warning. Hand and arm signals. Step two: enhanced warning. Dazzlers.

The Italians were at step two, using dazzlers, and that put us only one step away from step three:

Step Three: Lethal Force. Shoot to disable, shoot to kill.

There's a feeling of helplessness in all of this that's hard to communicate. You're staring at a gun turret being manned by a military force that's considered quick on the trigger, and they appear to have escalated their warnings up to just shy of using lethal force; the driver isn't sure what to do, the sun is setting and everyone's on edge, and meanwhile you're stuck in the back seat while someone else has their foot on the gas pedal. You can't poke your head out the window and ask what you're supposed to do, because the windows don't go down on armored cars and even if they did, putting your head out of the armor and into the line of fire feels like it would be suicidal. You're pretty sure that you'd have ground the car to a halt by this point, but it's still inching forward and you don't have your foot on the gas pedal.

They hit us with the dazzlers again, and RoguePeaceCorps hit the brakes definitively. My heart was pounding. The Italians seemed to be waving us off the road onto the dirt path the local car had tried to take earlier. "I think they want you to go around," someone said. "Through fucking IED land over there? No fucking WAY, man!" RoguePeaceCorps responded. The local car that had tried to veer off earlier cut through the brush. We stared at the Italians, and they continued waving their hands and signaling with the dazzlers that we should be moving. Not moving seemed as bad as moving. My heart was still pounding.

We waited a few minutes more, and cars from the other side of the checkpoint that has also been directed around started arriving at our side. "If they made it without blowing up, we should be ok," RoguePeaceCorps said. We pulled off and eased our way through the scrub. We passed by the checkpoint and saw that the humvee blocking traffic had indeed had a 240-Bravo with its muzzle pointed directly at where our car had been stopped. It was guarding an Italian truck that had broken down and was stopped with the hood popped open. We made it back onto paved road and sped back to base, arriving before sunset.

Journalists have accused US forces of seeing the war through the periscope of armored vehicles, fully unaware of ground truths because we are unwilling to put ourselves on the streets without a significant protective layer. People in Herat say that being in a self-drive city is liberating, with the freedom to go wherever they want or need at any time without the advance notice required to scramble a convoy. I can see where both of them are coming from, but at the end of the day I have no complaints about having a military escort and an inch of steel between me and the outside world.