The sheer number of task forces in this country is equal parts overwhelming and ridiculous. A buddy of mine at a PRT in the East got fed up with it and declared himself and his fellow civilians to be Task Force Mongoose, allowing him to say things like, "uh, why wasn't Task Force Mongoose invited to this meeting?" We at PRT Farah have yet to declare ourselves to be a Task Force, but now that I think about it, that probably needs to happen.
Last week, PRT Farah hosted Combined Joint Task Force 435 -- CJIATF 435, if you will -- which is is tasked with overseeing detentions in Afghanistan (they took over for Task Force 82, according to their wikipedia page, and do you see how this Task Force thing is out of control?), and is headed by Admiral Harward, a three-star out of Kabul.
Here's the thing: two or three weeks ago or so, I was up in Herat hobnobbing with the good people from an entirely different and unrelated Task Force named Task Force Shafafiyat, who also sometimes go by the English translation of their name, "Task Force Transparency." (Irrelevant sidenote: I myself would romanize the word transparency as "shifafiyat," with an i and not a in the first syllable, but I was gently corrected by Kabul on the spelling and now have to choose between the Embassy-preferred but clearly incorrect spelling, or buck the trend and go with what I know to be correct and by extension have others think that I'm wrong; I have devoted more time to this dilemma than you would think humanly possible).
TF Shafafiyat, as you might guess, focuses on government transparency, and is headed by General H.R. McMaster, a charismatic and outspoken one-star with a shaved head and a forceful personality. He was intensely engaging and he was memorable, and that's not something I say lightly given the number of painfully forgettable PowerPoint presentations I've had to sit through during this war. (The now-famous spaghetti-as-war-diagram chart shown to McChrystal was not a random outlier; "this war will be won through better and more complex powerpoint slides," I've heard said sarcastically).
I have an obscenely bad memory for names and faces, but McMaster's strong presentation coupled with his appearance (wiry, muscular frame and shaved head) stuck in my mind. I was consequently quite surprised when Admiral Harward, the three star from CJIATF 435, stepped off of his C-130 at Farah Airfield and turned out to be identical to McMaster.
Seriously, look me in the eye and tell me they aren't identical.
So TF 435 showed up and was whisked up to our conference room for a discussion on rule of law. I had prepped myself by studying the report I had supposedly written (I considered sending myself a kudos on its comprehensiveness), and the meeting went fine. In reality, though, it was just a warm up for the big field trip of the day, which involved taking the Admiral to the Farah prison, both to see the facility itself and to take a gander at the $985,000 extension that the PRT is funding to ease overcrowding.
Farah prison was the site of one of the largest jailbreaks in Afghan history, which happened just before I arrived in July of last year. Some 20 Taliban members bribed the guards to smuggle in explosives, blew the doors off their cells and escaped into the rugged districts of Northern Farah; other Taliban members had staged simultaneous attacks on police checkpoints to draw the police away and provide cover for the escapees. Visiting the Prison had been on my to-do list for some time, though other things always seemed to crop up when the PRT's rule of law guy (First Sergeant McGruff, a 30-year veteran of the Michigan police department with a gruff, no-nonsense bearing) was headed that way, and I was excited that the Admiral had finally given me an excuse to get there.
We hadn't told the warden or anyone else that we were coming until the morning of the visit, so when we showed up an hour after phoning them, we were quite surprised to learn that they had arranged a ceremonial brick laying for us on the site of the extension, with a few cinder blocks written in ribbon and ready to be layed down. (I went back to the prison a few days after the visit on other business, and saw that rather than cutting off the ribbon, the Afghan contracting company had just cemented them into place as they stood, ribbons and bows still festively intact).
The Admiral had arrived in advance of the Godfather and I, and we hustled to catch up; he was already inside the prison when we approached the gate. "You can't go inside," the guard told us. "There's some Admiral in there."
"Right," I responded, pointing to the haf-dozen military people with me. "He's ours. We're with him. We need to get inside."
"You can go inside later. There's some admiral in there now," he responded. My translator took over and explained the situation in hurried Pashto, and the guard glowered at us suspiciously but ultimately acquiesced. "No weapons inside," he told us. The Godfather had a pistol on him and stayed behind; I and the other visiting military headed in.
Heading in required crawling through a 3-foot high door made of rusty iron and secured with enormous bolt locks. The door and the crawl space after it were low enough that you had to go on hands and knees, and the final entrance to the prison was another metal door with a similar fastening schema. The walls on the other side, in the center of the prison courtyard, were 20 feet high and made of smooth concrete; when the door slammed shut behind you, that was it: if they didn't want to let you leave, there was no way of getting out.
I felt like I was in the Shawshank Redemption. It was kind of terrifying.
("If a riot breaks out, hit the deck before they start shooting and stay still till you think it's over," McGruff had told me. "It's a god damn kill box in there, and the Afghan guards on the wall aren't going to differentiate between you and them.")
I had assumed that there would be no riots while we there, that the Admiral would take a brief tour of the facilities and then we would bolt. But he had come with his Afghan counterpart, the national-level Minister of Justice, and when I came in, the Minister was addressing the crowd of detainees in fast Persian; from what I could pick out, it sounded like he was berating the detainees ("you are here because you deserve to be here"), and the crowd was not responding well, shouting at the Minister in Pashto and generally looking rowdy.
I've said before that my fight-or-flight response is keyed squarely to flight, and the whole thing left me with a rising sense of panic and an ongoing, head-turning and slightly desperate search for an exit; my instinct was to inch towards the door, but that seemed futile given the 20-foot walls ringed with armed guards. There was, in short, no avenue of escape. The whole scene -- dusty tents in the courtyard flanked by rows of drying prison laundry, and nothing but to look at but motivational slogans and a small patch of empty blue sky -- seemed to designed to eradicate hope.
"Can you even begin to wrap your mind around how much misery there is in this place?" one of the Admiral's aides asked me. "I really can't," I told him.
The Minister finished speaking, took a few questions ("I am an innocent man, and everyone knows it; why am I here?" and then more heartwrendingly, "I was told that I would be released when I turned 70. I'm 72 now; when will I be released?"), and then we high-tailed it out.
The Governor told us later that he thought it foolhardy that we entered into the center of the prison with so many obscenely dangerous criminals wandering around. Commander Killjoy later mandated that no U.S. personnel are allowed to enter the inner courtyard in the future ("It really is a kill box in there"), making our visit possibly the last by USG representatives. All things considered, I can't say I'm sad I don't have to go back.