Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Side By Side: Vienna and Farah

I flew to Vienna to meet my buddy at the Embassy there. She's actually at the US Mission to the United Nations, which is a separate embassy from US Embassy Vienna, and they've put her up in an obscenely nice apartment right in the heart of Vienna, overlooking the Rathaus and a scant two blocks from the city's main Christmas market.

It was a pleasant reintroduction to the civilized world.

This trip was the second time I've visited her at an embassy overseas. We met when I was learning Urdu and she was a few doors down on the South Asia hallway, studying Sinhala with an amiable, guacamole-loving Buddhist monk in advance of her departure to Sri Lanka. I visited her on one of my R&Rs from Pakistan, and while we were sitting at a beautiful, slate-tiled outdoor dessert cafe in Colombo, sipping cappuccinos and devouring chocolate cake and chatting about life at our respective posts, she remarked that the things that people complain about at our two embassies were remarkably different.

On this trip, we ended up sitting in a beautiful, wood-paneled Austrian cafe, drinking white wine and local beer and scoffing down obscene quantities of schnitzel and ribs and Austrian potato salad. As I laughingly told her about the new SecFor team, who wanted more practice with long-range mortars and consequently arranged a training that moved the firing pit to on base rather than its normal spot across the airstrip on the long range, and how the civilian crew had all basically hit the deck and taken cover at the first concussive volley of outgoing fire, she reminded me of that same statement: the things people complain about at our respective posts could not be more different.

"Oh, I wasn't complaining," I told her. "It was a one time deal, and I actually enjoy that we have a robust perimeter defense." I am terrified of coming across as whiny or unjustifiably complaining about life in Farah -- there's no room for whininess at a PRT, and we have it GREAT compared to so many other places -- and she said that she knew I wasn't complaining but that her previous comment still definitely applies: so very different.

I don't know what people complain about in Vienna. I do know, though, what people complain about at other PRTs -- things like taking incoming rockets daily and then having to hang out in freezing cold outdoor concrete bunkers while they wait for the all clear, or of having a half kilometer outdoor walk to the bathroom, which itself has a habit of flooding and leaving fetid water ankle-deep on the floor, or of sour relations with the military or host government, so they have to beg to get a rare ride off base or a meeting with the Governor, or perhaps worst of all, of being on a base where multiple people are killed every month, and the horrific psychological burden that dealing with that entails.

I also know what we complain about in Farah. Dear US Military -- for the thousandth time, corndogs are a not a breakfast food. Regular corndogs at breakfast are bad enough, but the "breakfast corndog," consisting of a piece of sausage jammed onto a stick, dunked in blueberry pancake batter and deep fried, is truly an abomination before god and man. Your prompt attention to this matter will be much appreciated. Heart, --Dakota.

People often ask how life in the PRT is, and always say that on pretty much all fronts, it could be worse. It's not Vienna, that's for sure -- but given that the worst thing I have to complain about is the ubiquity of corndogs, it could definitely be a lot worse.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Ag and Absence

Ag left the PRT in early October, an event which devastated us but which I failed to mention here. He was slated to leave in early 2011, but the Department of Agriculture offered him a swank position in his former home bureau of resource conservation, overseeing most of the American southwest from an office in Albequerque, and he deemed it too good to pass up.

Ag had an even-keeled, roll-with-the-punches temperament that was perfect for PRT life, quick to laugh and invariably capable of finding the hilarious in every aspect of life in the field no matter how unpleasant. His departure left a pretty big hole in the team. (At one point, after a four-hour shura in a remote district in the north, I asked Ag if he knew where the bathroom was. He waved me towards a well-used and nearly full pit latrine, and wished me luck paying "king of the mountain." When I came back, he grinned impishly and asked -- "so, did you top it off?")

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of Farah's economy is based on subsistence agriculture. The most prevalent licit crop is wheat, with some "vech" (or mung beans, a lentil-like commodity) and a smattering of other fruits and vegetables -- mostly cucumbers, tomatoes, and pomegranates. Farah pomegranates (which are white, and both sweeter and more mild than their red cousins) were apparently voted as the second best in Afghanistan, after Kandahar. I, who had no idea that pomegranates were a ranked circuit, was told in no uncertain terms that Farah's pomegranates are in fact Afghanistan's best, but that the presence of so many national-level powerbrokers in Kandahar meant that no one dared give first prize to another province. Corruption runs so deep in Afghanistan that it's assumed to extend even to the world of produce judging.

Farah also has plenty of illicit agriculture, and the province ranked third in opium production last year. Massive military operations in Helmand and Kandahar, the first and second largest opium producers respectively, are rumored to have pushed a significant chunk of the poppy farmers north into Farah, and that possibility, coupled with a spike in drug prices due to a wide-spread poppy blight last year, may very well land Farah in first place next year.

(During a PRT visit to remote Purchaman district before my arrival, the sub-governor proudly proclaimed his district to be poppy-free. Ag, eagle-eyed, pointed to a field visible from the district center and proclaimed, "that's poppy right there!" The sub-governor apparently looked sheepish, and then theatrically ordered his police to destroy the field, which they did by thrashing wildly at the stalks with the buttstocks of their AK-47s. Ag appreciated the spectacle of it, but noted that the actual opium had been harvested some three weeks prior.)

The point of all this is that Farah is first and foremost an agricultural province, which made Ag, with his Masters in range management and comprehensive knowledge of irrigation, easily the most popular American in all of Farah. He never let it go to his head: at shuras, he never introduced himself as an "agriculture expert" or by any such title, but just as "the PRT's farmer." His departure left us with a massive dearth of technical agriculture knowledge, from the basics (like when planting season is for various crops), to advanced agricultural calculations like pump to pipe-size rations for deep-well irrigation systems.

I sat in on Ag's last meetings before his departure in the hopes that I could glean enough information to finish his last outstanding piece of business, a PRT-funded fertilizer-for-wheat exchange program. I took furious notes on the differences in Diammonium Phosphate and Urea fertilizers and was willing to pretend that I knew enough to make it work, but Ag assured me that the gregarious head of the Farah Farmer's Union would cover the technical details and all I had to do was quarterback the budget process. The military was doing the funding, though, so my role was reduced to coordinating oversight of distribution to ensure equity and transparency, things that fall more naturally in my lane.

The other thing about Ag's unexpected departure is that it left us with only three civilians at PRT Farah -- myself and two USAID officers. The staffing gap, coupled with a series of events that required me to be in Farah (mostly the elections and post-elections kerfuffle, followed by the military's RIPTOA) meant that my own leave was pushed back repeatedly. We are allotted three R&Rs, which normally breaks down to one every two and a half to three months; I waited four and a half months to take my first.

All of which is to say that I'm currently on R&R. I won't say unequivocally that I won't be blogging about Afghanistan -- the rambling agriculture post above was supposed to be about Vienna -- but it's far more likely that I'll be waxing poetic about cobblestones than about mud-hut architecture (which does, I will concede, have a certain charm). I'm back to Farah sometime around the second week in December, just in time to join our new communications Chief (an elementary school principal who desperately needs a nickname) on the committee for the Holly Jollification of FOB Farah.

The point here (I can practically hear the Godfather: "oh, you had a point?") is that if you're only looking for posts about Afghanistan, consider yourself duly warned that things will likely be on a different track until I make it back to FOB Farah at some point in mid-December.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Change of Cast

The old PRT ripped with little fanfare. People began trickling out in waves, leaving 10 to 20 at a time until only about 40 of the original hundred were left, and those 40 held a brief ceremony on their second-to-last day to officially transfer authority to the new guys.

It was a short affair. The PRT had already held an awards ceremony for the entire team before people started leaving (everyone received a certificate for participating in Operation Enduring Freedom; some received a second award for extraordinary services rendered), so the transfer ceremony was quick and to the point.

The Guam guys had been pared down to a barebones force of maybe 20 people, which still left them as the largest remaining section of the PRT. Despite being down 30 guys, they seized the occasion to choose a random person -- an enormous body-building captain from Supply -- and sing happy birthday one last time. El Comandante gave a brief speech covering the same themes he talked about every time he addressed the PRT as a whole -- discipline, consistency, teamwork and professionalism.

The Navy is ritualistic to a fault, and tradition dictates that during TOAs (as Transfer of Authority ceremonies are called), a flag or standard is passed from team to team. The flag began with Senior Chief Literal, the old team's gruff, no-nonsense Senior Enlisted Advisor, who had spent the five minutes in advance of the ceremony practicing color guard-esque flag maneuvers while I stood three feet away and annoyingly photo-documented it.

(Senior Chief Literal spent the four months I knew him taking everything I said -- piercingly sarcastic or otherwise -- at its literal face value. "There's nothing healthy in the cafeteria," he groused. "Did you not see the fried pork chops?" I asked him. "Surely those are on your diet." He stared at me unblinkingly, shook his head and replied flatly, "no, fried pork chops are not on my diet." He was towering and bracingly physically fit, and I did everything I could to spread an insidious rumor that he kicks his legs while doing pull ups -- a process called kipping that's considered cheating and will disqualify your efforts during a military physical fitness test. "I've learned so much from Senior Chief," I told people within his earshot. "Like how to do pull ups correctly. I had no idea it's all in the legs." That statement, which is about as close to defamation of character as you can get with the military, would invariably cause my interlocutor to look disbelievingly at Literal and ask -- "you KIP!?" El Comandante warned that I was risking death and that if Literal clubbed me, it would be totally deserved. "How could I possibly be afraid of someone who kips while doing pull ups?" I asked).

Literal passed the flag to El Comandante, who took it and saluted. He then passed it off to the Godfather, who by that point had already spent two weeks shadowing El Comandante in preparation to take over as the new commander. He in turn passed the flag to his Senior Enlisted Advisor, whom I don't know well enough yet to assign a nickname. Salutes were passed back and forth, and authority was officially transferred. The Godfather spoke briefly, citing some African concept of team. I took notes, but he speaks quickly in a stream-of-conscious style that was hard to get down on paper.

I wasn't in Farah when the last remnants of the old team left. The had some difficulty arranging a C-130 to Kandahar which delayed them for a few days, and while they cooled their heels (giddy at departure, annoyed with the delay), I and the Godfather flew to Mazar-e-Sharif, in Balkh province in the north, to attend a joint RC-North and RC-West conference on sub-national governance.

The conference was hosted by the Afghan central government out of Kabul, and I found out later that other State PRT officers had been told that there was no need to attend. I failed to get that memo. I also failed to realize that it wasn't a working-level conference, and my woeful lack of suit and tie left me feeling bracingly underdressed throughout the conference, which was a forum for provincial leadership to connect to the central government and which I had no place attending. "For the first time in Afghanistan, I feel completely underdressed," I told the godfather. "Why?" he asked deadpan, motioning at my cargo pants and polo shirt. "Just because you're dressed like a hobo?"
I anticipate that we'll have an excellent working relationship.