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.