Saturday, May 28, 2011

Recruiting talent

It's something of an open secret that I've been considering writing a book about my time in Afghanistan. I'm not sure there's a market for another State Department PRT memoire out there (it kind of kills me that We Meant Well got there first), but I was so captivated by my time in southwest Afghanistan and so genuinely enjoy writing that it seems like it's worth a shot.

(Commander Killjoy was giving me a hard time about taking leave again, and I told him that I needed to plunk myself down on a beach in Thailand with an umbrella-laden fruity drink and try to get some work done on a draft of the book. "Don't you think you'd have more to write about if you actually spent a little time here?" he replied).

I'm not sure I'll even be able to get the book cleared by State -- I've seen a ton of interesting things here that didn't make the blog, both because I try not to talk much about work and because they felt sensitive in nature -- and State, particularly in this post-Wikileaks era, is hyper-sensitive about such things. But again, it seems like it's worth a shot.

That said, trying to crank out 120,000 words into a vacuum is daunting, particularly when I'm so pessimistic about actually being published. Simultaneously, posting potential book chapters on this blog seems foolish, on the order of why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free? (I feel like that metaphor is maybe not entirely appropriate here, which wouldn't bother me in the slightest if I hadn't disclosed that I'm considering writing a book a scant three paragraphs ago).

The point here is that I'm considering starting a new, clandestine blog on which to post potential book chapters. I'm not 100 percent committed to the idea yet (and I frankly fear that talking about writing a book when it's still in idea form is a bit like disclosing a pregnancy too early -- doing so is courting disaster). That said, if things do indeed get off the ground, I would probably want a small cadre of people -- five to ten ish -- to join Team Reading and to tell me candidly when things weren't as interesting as I remember them having been, or when I'm too in the weeds on Afghan politics, or when the paragraphs just aren't flowing and things frankly just aren't working.

A few people are doomed to be recruited for this activity -- I'm looking at you, EmailFromTheEmbassy -- and there are a few others I'm hoping I can recruit (C_Girl over at Hilarity in Shoes, and my Bohemian Artist friends, for example).

But if this actually comes to fruition -- and it certainly is possible that it won't -- then I'd welcome a few more pairs of eyes to look things over. I will likely not reach out to anyone, since I feel that being on Team Reading will be more annoying than not annoying -- but if you're interested in being on the review committee, drop me an email (link on the top right of the blog). Some things will be recycled from this blog (albeit touched up
and edited and maybe reshuffled); other things will be new, and possibly eye-wateringly dry. Regardless, I expect brutal honesty.

All of this is very tentative -- no promises all around -- but for some reason it seems important to me to lay the groundwork now before I go any further.

Friday, May 27, 2011

More Questions Than Answers.

I'm on R&R. Yes, again.

I felt pretty bad leaving again so soon after my last R&R, a feeling that the military seconded and that Commander Killjoy went out of his way to reinforce ("no one is forcing you to go on leave"). But guilty or otherwise, I think passing up 20 days of paid vacation out of some misguided sense of solidarnoszt with my military colleagues would be foolish. And I needed dental work, a fact I clung to defensively as I bought my plane tickets to Bangkok.

But the guilt has lingered, and Ive been working to make up for it. Mostly I'm getting things ready for my departure, organizing the things I need to pass on to my replacement and figuring out how to best do so. Looking back, it seems to me now that State did a terrible job of preparing us for this deployment, and I'm hoping to pass on enough information that the next crop of officers coming in -- probably not my replacement, but the group that follows her -- can hit the ground with a better sense of which way is up than I had when I landed in Farah.

As the ostensible "governance advisor" to the Province, there were things I should have known before my arrival but was never told and had never thought to look up -- I didn't know what questions to be asking, much less where to find the answers. They taught us Farsi, slapped "Governance Advsior" on our business cards, assured us we were experts and then shipped us off to rural Afghanistan without knowing a damn thing about the place. I spent my first few months waiting for someone in the military to call me out on it -- to shriek out that the Emperor has no clothes and to stop inviting me on missions outside the wire. I think we can do better.

There's an Afghan Area Studies course that goes along with language class -- I referred to it lovingly as "Rise and Fall of the Taliban Parts One Through Seventeen" -- but it was taught by an academic, not by a Foreign Service Officer, and was at best tangentially useful. It focused almost exclusively on the modern political history of Afghanistan, a topic that was often interesting but rarely useful. The course lasted a year and was followed by a completely worthless "Introduction to Provincial Reconstruction Teams," taught by a guy who had spent a year in Herat (a city that resembles nowhere else in Afghanistan), and who mostly just focused on his questionably legal business partnership with a Turkmen-owned dairy factory. ("You'll need to be an advocate for companies like these -- and you might end up a partner in the firm, like I did").

Meetings at the Embassy in advance of being shipped ot to the field were more useful, but Kabul is a busy place and the people we met with were understandably strapped for time. We spent a scant 45 minutes with the Embassy's expert on Provincial and District-level political structures, and it was the most useful 45 minutes of my entire training -- but 45 minutes is only enough time for a galloping overview, hardly enough to get one's feet wet. And I was in receive mode -- I again had no idea what questions I should be asking.

And so that's what I've been working on during this trip: I've been sitting at rickety Thai sidewalk cafe tables, sipping Tom Yum soup and fresh squeezed tangerine juice, and coming up with a comprehensive list of questions that people at the Embassy or back in Washington should be able to answer but that field officers on arrival can't -- unless the other field officers were somehow better prepped than me, which I will concede is a possibility.

What is the form and structure of the Provicnial Governor's Office? What is the assigned role of the Deputy Governor, the Provincial Executive Manager and the Administrative Manager? Who controls hiring for those positions, and how much latitude if any does the Governor have in firing them if necessary? Does the Governor's Office receive a budget beyond the U.S.-funded Performance Based Governor's Fund? If so, how much is said budget, what is the process for requesting it and how much latitude does the Governor have in executing it? What are the budgetary reporting requirements? Who compiles said reports, and with what frequency?

It gets pretty thick into the weeds of Afghan rural governance pretty quickly -- but this is the sort of information that field officers should have at their fingertips. To steal a phrase from the military -- we come in without knowing what right looks like.

What is the form and structure of the Provincial Director of Economy's office? What taxes is he legally allowed to collect, and are the revenues from said taxes returned to the Province, or sent directly to the Central Government? What are the obvious avenues for corruption, and what transparency measures if any are in place to prevent said corruption?

I'm not filling in the answers, though at this point I could answer almost all of the two pages worth of questions I've come up with so far. It took a full year of being knee-deep in the politics of Farah province, but at this point I would indeed consider myself an expert on Afghan sub-national governance. Most of my answers to these questions would start with "it is my understanding that...", but that's a facet of having garnered the information from Afghans themselves, and since the Afghan system of Government is obscenely complex (and designed, it seems, to keep power concentrated in the hands of a few), even they are frequently unsure of the answers.

But it's a start. When I finally finish, I'll pass the list of questions on to State's training center and give a copy to the Embassy so they can better prepare field officers who are coming through Kabul en route to their PRTs. I'll walk my replacement through them and make sure she knows at least as much as I do before I leave. I'm not under the impression that my year-long presence in Farah has in any way made a difference ("You need to be prepared to accept 'my province did not get worse' as a measure of success," we were told during one particularly pessimistic training class), but I can at least try to set up future officers for success.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Trying out a new means of posting -- via email. Cross your fingers.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for ...

I was at a shura a few months ago in Pusht-e Rod district, a relatively volatile area north of Farah City. The district traditionally grows a significant quantity of Farah's poppy crop, and I had plunked myself down during the lunch hour to ask the District Agricultural Manager for his predictions for the upcoming growing season. He and the others elders around him were honest and forthcoming as we ate lunch (goat in tomato sauce over rice, torn apart and eaten without utensils), and our conversation eventually moved from poppy to the Taliban.

I asked them about the Taliban's reach within the district -- how many of them were around, how they went about recruiting, why people in the district joined the Taliban. He paused before answering.

Have you ever been hungry? he asked me. "No," I replied. "No, not really."

I've been hungry, he told me. You'll do anything when you're hungry. There's nothing else like it. When you're hungry, nothing else matters.

He stopped talking and tossed his empty plate and leftover goat bones away from himself. It's not easy to understand if you've never been hungry, he said.


Yesterday I was talking to Captain Harmony, our multi-lingual and musically talented Air Force Captain from Public Affairs. "So here's a question," I said. "Do you remember the last time you weren't hungry?"

"God, it seems like forever," she said. "It's like -- it's like that shura you went to with that guy. Do you remember that? Have you ever been hungry? Yeah, I've been hungry: I've been hungry on FOB Farah."


The Taliban declared the opening of fighting season on May 1st. They usually take the winter off, heading back to Pakistan to rest up and recover and then using the early spring to help with the poppy harvest, a laborious process that involves scoring the bulbs of the poppy plants, leaving them to ooze sap and then scraping the resulting resin off by hand. Fighting season starts once most of the harvest is in and things are calmer for otherwise-busy Taliban members.

They marked the opening of fighting season with a press release from their shadow government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and announced their intention again this year to expel the foreign infidels while minimizing civilian casualties. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but the threat alert country-wide was raised and my boss in Herat implored us to stay on base for our own safety. FOB Farah was put into FP-Con C -- "Force Protection Condition Charlie" -- which means beefed up security despite the fact that there's almost no chance of our base being attacked.

(I had previously asked El Comandante during a Base Defense Drill if he thought there were any chance of us getting attacked. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "That would be the best thing that could possibly happen to us. Do you have any idea how much ammunition we have here? All the bad guys would be concentrated in one place and we could eliminate them all at once. It would make our job so much easier.")

In addition to increased security patrols, FP-Con Charlie stipulates that local nationals requiring escorts are not allowed on base. Escorted workers includes all construction workers, all fence-diggers (a military base requires almost nonstop fence building, it seems), and, most poignantly, all the local employees in the chow hall. To deal with the personnel shortfall, they put up large signs announcing that lunch and midnight chow were eliminated immediately and indefinitely.

The FOB Farah chow hall had not exactly been on a roll prior to their announcement of limited service, and a spate of food poisoning had obliterated some 25 percent of the PRT over a span of several miserable weeks. They had closed for a day to bug-bomb the entire place, but conditions remained largely unchanged and the number of sick-call patients held steady. Lieutenant SemperFit, tired of putting IVs in dehydrated diarrhea patients, had undertaken a comprehensive series of inspections of the chow hall but returned only with the advice that PRT members arrive at the opening stroke of 5 to get chow before it can get cold and start to spoil. Rumors circulated that eating the lettuce was tantamount to downing poison.

But for all the awfulness of the chow hall, having food was better than not having food. There are boxes of MREs sprinkled around the compound and while I enjoy them for their novelty, a good chunk of the military people won't touch them unless they're absolutely in a place where no other food is available -- they've been on too many deployments to too many wretched places where there was nothing but MREs for weeks upon weeks. And regardless, MREs are terrible for you -- they're meant for people actively engaged in combat, not for desk jockeys, and the caloric content is through the roof. They're a high caloric supplement to the junk food -- girl scout cookies, microwave popcorn, M&Ms and skittles -- that's all over the base.

FP Con Charlie also means that trucks have to be thoroughly inspected, box by box, before they're allowed on to the compound. The zillions of trucks laden with food headed for the DFAC have been sitting in the sun for days waiting to undergo inspection, leaving the chow hall almost entirely out of comestibles. Dinners have been an ad-hoc mishmash of whatever happened to have come in that day, and generally consists of deep-fried frozen foods doled out by harried-looking Dynecorps employees, a piece of meat on a good day, and a salad bar filled with raisins, croutons and olives. After a day of cobbled-together meals involving ramen noodles, beef jerky and dinner mints, coming into a cafeteria with no food in it seems almost torturous.


This morning I walked into the Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC -- "see mock") next to my office and gleefully announced that I had found an unexpected can of soup in my bedroom. It was in the box of snacks left by my predecessor that I normally never touch, but have been pawing through since food on base has become scarce. "It eats like a MEAL," I read from the label. I wasn't faking the emotion: I can't really communicate how excited I was about this soup.

Lieutenant Granola thanked me for forwarding him an editorial on Bin Ladin from a Pakistani newspaper, and talk turned to U.S. assistance to Pakistan. Most of the military guys were in favor of immediately cutting off our 3 billion dollars in annual assistance, and I immediately went into USG spokesman mode, defending our Pakistan policies. "The last thing the world needs," I said, "is a nuclear failed state."

"So what if Pakistan fails?" First Sergeant McGruff asked. "So India kicks their ass around for a little bit? Is that so bad?"

"Pakistan could obliterate any number of Indian cities in a matter of seconds," I responded. "A hundred million, two hundred million dead instantaneously. It would be a catastrophe on a scale never before seen on this earth."

"Dakota," he said deadpan. "There are too many mouths to feed on this earth as it is. Jesus Christ," he said, as he threw his hands in the air. "There are starving people right here, on this FOB. Just look how excited you are over a god damn can of soup."

So that's where we stand: a week without lunch and with paltry dinners, and suddenly my colleagues are wishing for nuclear holocaust to bring down global demand for food. I want to go find that district Agricultural Manager and tell him that I do, after all, understand.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Eyes of the Enemy

Farah's reaction to Osama Bin Ladin's death was muted. Our engineers were headed out on a routine project inspection that morning and I asked the SecFor guys to poll passers-by on Bin Ladin's death, assuming that the Embassy would want man-on-the-street reactions. SecFor reported that the streets were largely empty -- they blamed the 120-degree temperatures -- but said that not one of the seven people they asked was aware of Bin Ladin's death. "It seemed like they didn't know who Osama Bin Ladin was," they told me.

I passed that information to the Embassy. It did not make the final report.

I am not under the impression that Bin Ladin's death will change much here in western Afghanistan. We do have an active insurgency in Farah, though whether they're truly Taliban (with Quetta Shura connections) or funded or supported by Al-Qaeda or the Osama wing of global terror is an almost academic debate, and one for which I have limited tolerance. They have attempted to blow up convoys and have succeeded in killing a handful of soldiers in Farah, and the exact taxonomy of insurgent fighter they fall under seems unimportant when placed in that light. The military generally refers to them succinctly as "bad guys," and I have taken to doing the same.

Generally speaking, though, the insurgency is something that I see little of. Fighting happens in outlying districts, and the PRT won't usually move in until the combat is done; there can be no reconstruction until the fighting is over, and the PRT is not a kinetic or maneuver unit, the military's euphemisms for combat troops. I have traveled on occasion to outlying districts and sat through shuras in the shadow of buildings riddled with bullet holes, but I have never been anywhere near active, ongoing combat. My year here, mercifully, has been nothing like the movie Restrepo.

The insurgency happens elsewhere. And so I was quite surprised when I, in mid-March, came unexpectedly face to face with a pack of Taliban.

They were reintegrating. There's a much ballyhooed Coalition program -- the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, though its names and subprograms seem to switch acronyms on an almost weekly basis -- that seeks to bring to bring insurgents and low-level Taliban back into Afghan society. The program on the Coalition side is managed by a charismatic British 2-Star named General Jones, who has visited Farah several times to discuss the program with the Farah Government. ("I'm implementing a nation-wide program," he told us in his charming north-of-London accent, "and I've only got two men and two dogs to do it.")

Jones runs the program on the Coalition side, but for the most part it's Afghan led and we take a largely hands-off approach, supporting from the background as needed. The idea is that non-ideological Taliban -- those who got swept up in the fighting for one reason or another but do not seek the eradication of all non-muslims or the restoration of a pan-global Islamic caliphate -- can be given a means to honorably exit the fight and a small subsistence stipend to get them back on their feet. It's not intended to be a jobs program, nor is the very small stipend intended to be a reward for coming back; it's meant to be a means of grievance resolution and community building. It's one of our exit strategies.

And so, when a pack of Taliban from central Farah Province decided to reintegrate, the Governor called us to let us know, and I and Commander Killjoy tagged along with a few other officer who were headed to assist with registering them in the program.

It is indescribably strange to stand talk to people who just days prior were holding arms against the United States. We were standing in the pleasant garden space just across from the Governor's office, outside a conference room used for large meetings, and exchanging the normal pleasantries that go along with meeting any Afghan, chatting like we were old friends instead two groups of people who, as of days ago, had been on opposite sides of the war. They were young -- early twenties or so, with scruffy beards and the black turbans favored by the Taliban. None of them had ever been to school for a day in their life, a fact which I, well-trained in reading faces from my visa tour in Islamabad once upon a time, could see in their faces without having to ask: it was etched into their eyes.

(After almost a year in Afghanistan, I can tell if someone is literate just by the brightness in his eyes, and I can pick out who the important people are in a crowd just by how they carry themselves; the requisite visa tour that all entry level officers have to go through can seem like a soul-sapping waste of time, but I will concede that it taught me to read people -- and to trust my instincts -- better than any training ever could have).

The reintegrees spoke only Pashto and no Dari, and seemed wary of talking to me through through an interpreter. But like a lot of Afghans, they could get by in Urdu, the primary language of Pakistan, and they opened up once we switched to a language they could talk to me directly in. They were rural poor, and claimed to have joined the insurgency for the wages it pays -- Ten Dollar Taliban, as they're known. One said he joined because it seemed like fun -- he was bored, and taking pot shots at passing soldiers seemed like something to do to break up the otherwise staid life of a rural farmer. The others nodded in agreement: it was a way to kill time.

I had expected that talking to members of the Taliban would be fascinating beyond any speaking of it: they were the physical incarnation of America's enemy -- actual, living examples of "bad guys" who likely had taken up the cause of Death to America and all of that. It is not inconceivable that even a scant week prior, they'd possibly have tried to kill me if our paths had crossed and it had been convenient.

And yet, they were remarkably uninteresting. They were all sheepish about their past with the Taliban, and seemed almost embarrassed that they hadn't engaged in any major combat activities. Mostly they just wanted the bags of wheat they'd get as a subsistence allowance from the reintegration process. We talked about farming and tending the fields, but ended up having not much to say to one another.

I left the larger group of reintegrees to go inside with Commander Killjoy, who was set to begin talking to the self-identified leader of the group, the one who had ostensibly convinced them to come in and reintegrate. He, in a clean set of Afghan clothes and with a larger and more commanding turban than the others, claimed to have spent significant time in the Pakistani city Quetta, home of the Quetta Shura which ostensibly guides all Taliban activities.

And again the Consular experience kicked in: I was convinced that this man was lying to me. I wasn't sure what it was that he was lying about, if he was just stretching the truth or embellishing things, or if parts of his story were true and just small falsehoods had been studded in, but I was positive that he was lying.

Without realizing I had done so, I switched into visa officer mode and began interviewing him as if he were a suspected fraudulent applicant in the immigrant visa line at U.S. Embassy Islamabad. I started grilling him, trying to trip him up within his own story so I could figure out what was true and what wasn't. I knew what I was doing, but I thought that I was doing a good job of keeping it lighthearted and friendly. "Lighthearted? Are you f__king kidding me?" the Commander told me later. "I'm not sure you realize how intense you can be, sometimes. That was really, uh, really something to watch."

(Commander Killjoy and I have since worked out a code word -- "cupcake" -- to use if either of us think the other is being too hostile with our interlocutors. I originally made it up to use on the off chance he went off the deep end, but the only time it's been trotted out has been to calm me down in the face of unreasonable and repetitive demands, something that makes me irrationally annoyed. The first time he used it ("did you get one of those cupcakes at lunch?"), I responded that I didn't see any cupcakes at lunch, and he sighed despondently about there being no point in having a code word if I refused to remember what it means).

And so I grilled him, through an interpreter since I don't speak Pashto and didn't want to give him the upper hand by speaking Urdu.

How often did you go to Quetta?

At least once a year.

How did you get there?

By road, and then over the mountains.

Through which cities? On which road?

Highway one, the ring road. And then through Spin Boldak and through Balochistan.

You drove? Or someone else drove? Or you took a bus? How did you get there?

I told you, we took highway one. Everyone takes highway one -- even regular citizens. It's not out of the ordinary. Starting to get defensive.

And when you got there, where did you sleep? What did the room look like? Did you have a bed, or a cot or did you sleep on the ground? How many other people slept in the room with you, and were you inside or outside? When you met representatives of the Quetta Shura, what did the room look like? Did it have a table or did you sit on the floor? What did you eat? Did you have to pay for the food or was it provided? How many meals a day?

And so on. I remained steadfastly convinced that he was lying to me, but the Commander told me gently that it ultimately doesn't matter if parts of his story were made up or embellished or whatever. He had been accepted by our Afghan counterparts and was reintegrating, and that was the end of the story; where or about what he was lying was no longer relevant. The Taliban leader looked visibly relieved when I stood and left the room.

After Osama Bin Ladin was killed, I noted on Facebook that I have lived in Pakistan and even driven through Abbottabad, but was not involved with the Operation that got him. I have spent exactly one day on the range and have never shot anyone, much less a major figure from the world of Islamic extremism or a terrorist leader -- such is not my role in this war. But I can say confidently that at least one member of the Taliban -- or ex-member, now -- will always remember me as the guy from the PRT who, for a period of twenty minutes or so, stared him down and made him bracingly uncomfortable. It's no take down of Bin Ladin, but there's still an odd sense of satisfaction to it.