Friday, October 1, 2010

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.