Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Civil Aviation and Desegregation

Kam Air has begun offering domestic flights out of Farah airstrip. They're a small, primarily domestic Afghan carrier (I would translate their name as either "a little bit of air" or "less air"), and they're trying to tap into the heretofore unserved Farah market -- the closest civilian airport is in Herat, three hours away by road along a route widely feared to be controlled by bandits.

The airstrip is firmly on base and isn't set up for civil aviation, and the "terminal" is more or less just a concrete lean-to, capped with a defunct anti-aircraft gun. But having domestic Afghan flights out of Farah would be a huge step forward for the private sector, and might also cut down on a minor form of corruption in the Afghan National Army, which is rumored to take bribes for open seats on its flights. (They say that the corruption extends to kicking low-ranking soldiers off flights in order to make room for bribe-paying passengers, though I have no evidence that's the case; regardless, it's certainly a creative business model).

A Kam Air flight had landed unexpectedly at Farah last week, and a small gaggle of passengers clutching outrageously expensive tickets had attempted to talk their way on to the airstrip. But Kam Air hadn't coordinated with anyone on base and the maneuver unit was understandably unwilling to let them on, despite the best efforts of the harried-looking airline manager. Commander Killjoy and I had been on the airstrip to meet another plane, and were there to witness their rickety-looking Russian aircraft streak off the runway and hurtle west at a ridiculously low altitude over the base.

(We were in an armored car a safe distance from the aircraft, but we both ducked a little bit when the plane veered off the normal take-off path, seemingly inches above us. "THAT is why the Embassy forbids its personnel from taking Kam Air," I said. "Bah," Killjoy responded. "They clearly require at least a foot of clearance off of all buildings they fly over. I think the Embassy is overly cautious").

In order to prevent a repeat performance for the next flight, we met with Kam Air and the Provincial Director of Transportation this week to talk through the logistics of airstrip entry and passenger screening. It was clear that the Afghans had done their homework on thinking through the details, and the walkthrough (which I and Captain Adventure tagged along for) was relatively straightforward.

The Director of Transportation declared that there would be an initial security screening at the first gate, conducted by the police, followed by a second screening by the ticket checkers. At the gate that actually leads to the airstrip itself, the airline manager told us that he would personally conduct a third and final security screening. "Any weapons they are carrying," he said, "any AK-47s or pistols or anything, will be taken away from them here, before they enter the base. And they will get a receipt for it, and they will not get it back until they land at their next destination," he added.

"Only in Afghanistan would they be worrying about how to marry up passengers with their correct AK-47," I said to Captain Adventure. "Kind of makes you wonder what those first two security checks are looking for, doesn't it?" he replied.

We walked through the intended waiting room, which was dusty but should be of adequate size for waiting passengers, and discussed cleaning it (the base's responsibility) and the provision of electricity for air conditioning (Kam Air's responsibility). The Director peered through a window at an unused back store room and informed us that he needed the key to it. "This will be the waiting room for women," he said. "The men can wait in the big room."

"I am vehemently opposed to a separate waiting room for women," I said, talking mostly to the Maneuver Unit Major who was running the meeting. "This isn't Saudi Arabia. There's no need for that." I turned to the Director of Transportation and said in Farsi -- "there's no separate waiting area for women in Kabul International Airport. There's no women's waiting room in Herat, either. There's no reason to have one here in Farah."

He shook his head and gave me a disgusted look, rolling his eyes as if he pitied my ignorance. "Farah is different from Herat," he replied. "And it's really different from Kabul."

At the time, I wasn't particularly able to articulate why the request for a separate waiting room for women inspired such an intensely negative response in me. I think it was in part because my USAID colleague had just come back the day before from site visits to a project that offers "men's work" jobs to women who are willing to take them -- primarily sanding and painting houses and offices. If you'd asked me if I thought such a project were at all feasible in conservative Farah province, I would have laughed in response -- but the women she talked to were thrilled with the program, happy to be earning a living, and (perhaps most important of all), accepted by both the men doing construction work on the other floors and by their male relatives. If women in Farah can be trusted to paint and do industrial sanding, they can surely be trusted to occupy the same space as men while waiting for a flight.

("Oh god," said Killjoy when I relayed all of this to him later. "Did you have a cupcake moment?"

"It's not so much that he got hostile," said Captain Adventure. "It was more that he got -- uh, kind of uppity."

"That's a cupcake moment," Killjoy replied. "When it stops being a dialogue and starts being a lecture").

I held firm with the Director of Transportation. "There's no reason why this room can't be used for both men and women," I said.

"The women might be sick or maybe have some problems," he responded.

"Men get sick too," I replied. "Do you want a waiting room for sick people? Maybe you just shouldn't allow sick people to fly." I turned again to the Major from the maneuver unit. "This is your show," I said in English, "but I remain vehemently opposed to a separate waiting area for women."

We have a few programs aimed at women and fund an outstanding women-focused NGO in Farah city, but the simple fact is that while we work with women all we can, their status in Farah will never change until the men change, a proposition that isn't on the horizon any time soon. Aside from the four female politicians in the province and the head of the women's NGO we fund, I have not met a single Afghan female in the past year; it is as if they do not exist.

But this waiting room debate for once put me in a position to negotiate on behalf of women -- to turn to a man in a position of power and say that public spaces are not exclusively for one gender, and that women can in fact be allowed to co-exist and do not have to be tucked away behind a curtain in a small and poorly-lit back room. The point was not so much the waiting room itself as it was to challenge the fundamental thought process behind it -- to fight, in some small way, the misguided notion that women must be hidden from sight for their own good.

I do not expect that this gesture will change the province in any meaningful or lasting way. But simultaneously, I am not under the impression that I have any meaningful or lasting influence in Farah province; I do, however, have some small degree of influence on Forward Operating Base Farah, and that is why I was so unwilling to back down: for the only time since my arrival, I was in a position to do something on behalf of women.

The Major turned to the Director of Transportation. "We're going to work on this civil aviation thing slowly, step by step," he said. "For now, this is the only waiting room I have for you."


Monday, June 20, 2011

In Memoriam

There was another casualty on base last week. One of the maneuver unit's trucks hit an IED and the force of the blast flipped the vehicle; the gunner was killed during the rollover. They were two weeks away from going home.

I didn't know the individual in question, a twenty-year old PFC from Connecticut, but the news of his death, in relatively stable Bala Baluk district, still shook me and the rest of the base pretty hard. I went back to my office and was reading the news, and something in a clip on Mexican drug wars for some reason set me off -- I think it was the sound of the machine gun fire in the background of it. I found myself with my head in my hands, sobbing, and my first thought was -- I need to get out of this place. But that just made me feel guilty, because being away from Afghanistan won't fix anything; it will just make all the myriad problems of this place easier to ignore. My next thought was -- we need to get out of here. All of us.

The remains of soldiers killed in action are seen off in a procession called a Ramp Ceremony, attended by almost everyone on base. Soldiers form in ranks on either side of the road, come to attention and salute the flag-draped casket as it is driven by, accompanied by a soldier from the same unit. The remains are blessed by the chaplain, and the casket is loaded into a helicopter for repatriation. Once attention is called, the ceremony is silent and hauntingly beautiful. I have mercifully attended only three Ramp Ceremonies in my time in Farah, and I stood in the dark and cried through this one, for a soldier I never met who was two weeks from going home.

The entire event left me seized with hopelessness for the future of this country and questioning why we are still here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's just not working.

(Lieutenant ________, from over in intel, has been hounding me about posting on the blog. I had been sitting on this post out of fear that it's too dejected or whiny, but upon re-reading it the problem isn't so much that as that it's REALLY far in the weeds on Afghan governance policies. Consider yourself warned).

I met a group of European medical students when I was at Victoria Falls, back in March. They had just spent a semester interning at rural Zambian hospitals as part of their medical education, and were doing some sightseeing before heading home. I had asked them what life was like in rural Zambia ("medically speaking, it's a little grim "), and they in turn asked me it was like living in Southwest Afghanistan.

"I really like it, actually," I told them. "Though to be honest, sometimes it's hard to maintain any semblance of hope for the future."

The med students looked at each other. "We've been working in rural African hospitals," one said. "We know all about the eradication of hope."


I arrived back in Farah last week. The PRT is now over eight months into a nine-month deployment, and the light at the end of the tunnel is clearly visible; my team is counting the days until they can leave. Their mindset is infectious: PRT Farah is done. Commander Killjoy is too disciplined to allow himself to slip from being mission-focused and is still driving hard on the programs we have going, but everyone else has begun the process of cleaning and packing and mentally checking out. Killjoy and company will be gone shortly hereafter, and I cannot help but be jealous at their departure.

I came back from my previous R&Rs refreshed and ready to get back to work, but this time has been different: I feel like I'm treading water, and my patience is worn thin. It is time for me to leave.


We swung by the Provincial Council last week. The Council is the only democratically-elected institution in the province, and every single other person in the provincial administration -- the Governor, the Provincial Ministers of Education and Health and Finance and Economy and everything else, all the way down to the District Sub-Governors -- are chosen by Kabul.

The equivalent of this system would be if the Governor of, say, Texas, were chosen by the President of the United States instead of by the people of Texas. The President or someone else in Washington would also get to choose all of the State's Gubernatorial cabinet-type positions covering everything functional within the State -- tax collection, school administration, road construction and maintenance, policing and law enforcement, judicial implementation including the penal system, the whole shebang. Washington's influence in this hypothetical extends all the way to the county level, with county administrators chosen by Washington, albeit with some consultation from the Governor.

In this hypothetical, if the good people of Texas do not like their Governor or one of their administrators, they have no means of getting rid of him. "Can you imagine if we tried that in the States?" I asked my language training classmates. "There would be riots," one responded.

And yet, this is the arrangement written into the Constitution of Afghanistan.

The people don't get to elect anyone in their Province, with the exception of the Provincial Council -- nine people directly elected to act as the "people's representatives" to the Government of Farah. Beyond that vague job description -- "be the people's representatives" -- they have little authority and are vested with neither budget nor actual legal authority of any kind. The position itself carries some degree of respect, though in the past the Council has complained vociferously of their lack of power and has threatened to quit over it. We meet with them weekly.

"We need fuel for the generator," the President told us during this visit. "You can tell how hot it is in here -- we don't have enough gas to run the generator to get the air conditioners going enough to cool the place down."

"Who provides your operating budget from Kabul?" I asked. "Is it the Independent Directorate of Local Governance? Or do you have some sort of special set aside from the President's Office? How does your money work?"

The Embassy has sent a directive to the field that our primary focus should be on budgeting -- on getting the Afghans to plan for and manage their own money. But the Afghan budgetary system is opaque at best, and the vast majority of Farah's bureaucrats have no idea how to request money from Kabul. The problem is that the province is not budgetary unit; there is no "provincial budget." If the province needs money for something, it's up to the director of the relevant Provincial Department to request money from Kabul for it. It would be great if it worked, but it doesn't: it's a ridiculous way to run a country.

The system works ok for cut and dried things -- if you need a school, for example, you'd go through the Education Department -- but it seems to happen frequently that certain Provincial operating costs (including but not limited to the purchasing of fuel for the Provincial Council's generators) get lost in the shuffle, with no one really knowing who should be paying for it. And since the U.S. Government hands out money hand over fist (16 million spent in Farah by this PRT; about 28 million by the PRT before it), bureaucrats on the whole would rather work through us than figure out how to get money from their own system.

"We don't get a budget," the Provincial Council president told me. "Kabul doesn't give us anything. You need to give us fuel so we can work."

"You have to have an operating budget of some sort," I said. I looked at Killjoy. "Right? Surely they have to." And again turning to the Provincial Council Chief, I asked -- "Who on the Council is in charge of requesting the money from Kabul? Who does your paperwork?"

To further complicate the budget issue, in order to request money, you have to respond to a large-scale budgetary data call put out by Kabul that must be completed three years in advance of the budget being crafted, a system that works (albeit with some hiccups) in developed nations but is inconceivable in Farah. Moreover, data is welcome from the Province, but is neither mandatory nor solicited; it's up to Kabul to figure out what is needed, and Provincial input is optional and not really asked for.

("Who on EARTH designed this system?" I asked the Embassy budgeting and finance specialist, a plucky woman from the Department of Treasury who had once written Arkansas's State budget. "It's not QUITE as bad as it seems," she said optimistically. "Well, kind of, at least").

"We don't get a budget," the Provincial Council president reiterated. "And it's hot in here."

Killjoy took a different approach. "Are you getting hooked up to the city power any time soon?" he asked. "If you're getting hooked up to city power, we can maybe see about getting you fuel until that happens."

"City power only works at night," the president replied. "Listen, we don't need much -- about 300 liters a month. That's nothing! We can't work in an office that's this hot."

Getting the Afghan Government to function as it should, with money flowing from the appropriate places to fulfill existing budget gaps, is one of the primary goals of the PRT. The act of connecting the budget people in Kabul, who should ostensibly have money for the Provincial Council, with the Council themselves is an act in Making Bureaucracy Function. But getting money from Kabul is a long and annoying process, and the PRT is seen as a gigantic, camouflage-swathed ATM. It feels like we've had this discussion in almost every meeting I have ever attended.

I started to launch into my sustainability shpiel, about how we can't just give away fuel if there's no plan in place for the Afghan government to take over and all of that. "It's not sustainable," I said. But I found that I no longer had the will to fight and couldn't bring myself to continue. We've been through this, a thousand times with a thousand different people. It just seemed so hopeless.

I focused on the plate of melon they had placed in front of me and let Killjoy talk.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Formatting, or "Things That Haunt Me"

I believe very strongly -- like, strongly enough to end relationships over it -- that sentences should end period space space. Period single space crushes me. I will hear no arguments about how we're no longer in a mono-space font universe and that period single space is the future: that's how animals end their sentences. Seriously, I've never seen a golden retriever hit the space bar twice after a period. Animals.

But I'm now back to blogging via blackberry (I bought one in Chiang Mai, which has the busiest English/Thai keyboard ever), emailing the posts to myself and blogger. Doing so totally destroys the formatting to begin with AND requires that I put the extra space in after each period manually, which is possibly the most annoying thing on earth.

So the burning question is: given the convenience of it, can I change to period single space without being too much of a hypocrite? That is, will the universe judge me harshly?

I have come to no final conclusion on this ethical dilemma question.

AFN and the Stars of Farah

We had an AFN reporter wandering around FOB Farah for the week before my R&R. Reporters haunt the nightmares of most State officers, but AFN -- the Armed Forces Network -- seemed kind of harmless, and since the reporter they sent couldn't have been older than 12, I felt ok talking to him.

AFN mostly rebroadcasts U.S. television on behalf of the troops worldwide (we get it in the chow hall), focusing, it seems, on the staples of sports and mixed martial arts fighting. They produce their own public service announcement-style commercials which everyone else except me seems to hate but that I find oddly captivating, on topics ranging from the practical ("it takes a lot of paperwork to bring a dog overseas with you") to the historic ("and that's why to this day we still blouse our pants in our boots") to the somewhat grim ("suicide prevention tips" and "remember: rape is a crime").

The Embassy has given field officers blanket permission to talk to media in our province, so long as we don't stray from our work and generally stay on message. We don't actually have any media in Farah -- there is no functioning press, and with single-digit literacy rates, it's unlikely that any newspapers will be starting up soon -- but the blanket permission covers international reporters as well, so I was good for an interview. I badgered the AFN kid to do a story on me but he politely declined, focusing instead on the military members of the PRT who are partnered up with various members of the Farah Government. The PRT had originally referred to those individuals as Government "mentors," a term I loathed for its intrinsic arrogance; we now use "liaison officers."

I was assuming that the end result of these interviews would somehow end up on AFN television, which may happen at some indeterminate time in the future. For now, though, AFN has published the interviews as a series of YouTube clips highlighting the work of individual officers at the PRT. I was thrilled by them -- it seemed like our little province, so often forgotten, was finally in the spotlight for once. The first video to hit to internet was of Commander Quixote, the PRT's affable if slightly ADHD doctor, talking about his work with the Farah Provincial Director of Public Health.

(Commander Quixote -- or Doc Quixote -- is infectiously enthusiastic about everything in life, and spends his spare time stargazing or practicing on his purple and slightly sparkly electric cello. He addresses everyone -- even the enlisted -- as sir, and likes to throw an oorah in at the beginning and end of every conversation. He's a vegetarian and has been systematically starving himself in Farah, where the dearth of non-meats in the chow hall has forced him to subsist almost entirely on raisins and nuts. He loves good patient care and loathes the Taliban with every fiber of his being. You get the feeling he'd be tilting at windmills, if only there were windmills around at which to tilt).

Commander Quixote's video opens with some spectacular stock footage -- an explosion, the flames from which burn down into the words "Enduring Freedom," followed by a photo montage of someone shooting a machine gun and then some random Afghan bleeding from the face. I loved it as a video opening, but we all had a good laugh over it: nothing could less resemble Farah.

Video Link: http://youtu.be/GjXnJhzz0aE

I told Quixote that I thought his video was excellent, both very sincere and very on message, which is quite a compliment for me given the frequency that "whoa, whoa, whoa! I think you're off message!" passes my lips. "It was awful," Quixote replied. "I looked like a bobblehead doll. Seriously, have you ever seen anyone move their head so much?" he asked. Other things of note in the video, aside from Doc's head: the footage of the meeting takes place in the conference room just outside of my office. The huge map on the wall, barely visible in this video, is amongst my favorite things at the PRT.

Engineer Lovesalot's video was published at the same time as Quixote's.

(Engineer Lovesalot told me that he likes my blog but wishes I hadn't saddled him with "the gayest nickname possible." "What would you prefer?" I asked him. "How about... Lieutenant BIG MONEY?!" he replied. "That's way gayer," our Senior Enlisted told him. "Lovesalot it is," I said).

Video Link: http://youtu.be/y9MlTcEycUg

I love this video for a variety of reasons -- it makes Lovesalot look exceptionally rugged, for one -- but more important is that some of the footage was taken in the PRT parking lot, next to our ridiculous vehicles with a good view of the sharp and unexpected mountains that punctuate the desert just across the airstrip. It's a nice little snapshot of how things actually look like here.

Chief Blackboard, an elementary school principal from Oklahoma turned communications officer who doubles as the education ministry liaison, also got a brief video of her inspecting tents in the PRT's parking lot. (Blackboard has gone a long way to fixing the Education Department, so much so that the Provincial Education Director said he wished she'd never leave. That sort of actual know-how and ability makes me wish I had anything resembling an actual skill -- that is, an actual skill beyond knowing how to use semicolons and being really good at unjamming the xerox machine, of course).

Video Link: http://youtu.be/s0ZhgRvhvfg

I was there helping to lug tents around but I appear nowhere in this video, which honestly makes me think the AFN guy was intentionally avoiding me.

Next up was Captain Harmony, who is normally quite poised but comes off as a little stuttery in this video. It features the rinky-dink shipping container on base that serves as the "women's handicrafts store," which had been her initiative and which provides one of the only livelihoods available to women in the province. Note that the salesperson in the store women's handicrafts store is male: the base is widely assumed to be a roiling den of sin, and very few women are willing to come lest they be stigmatized as prostitutes. As is common practice here, the few women who do come always do so with a male relative escort.

Video Link: http://youtu.be/ybtdfoFpKWU

Harmony actually got a second video as well, though it's somewhat less inspired. It features footage of a women's shura in far-flung Shib-e Koh district, tucked in the desert in the middle of nowhere near the Iranian border. Sadly, it doesn't show much -- and it includes no images if the wasteland that is Shib-e Koh.

Video Link: http://youtu.be/Zc2P6ywKCc4

The final video -- and perhaps the most exciting of all -- was of Petty Officer Moonshine, who partners with the Director of Economy. The construction of the Economy Department's new office building had been massively labor intensive for the PRT, in no small part because the Director of Economy himself is extremely demanding. ("It appears that beggars can be choosers," one of our engineers said).

Video Link: http://youtu.be/OocnRUEucd0

This video is packed with exciting things. For one, for all my cajoling, AFN actually put in a tiny sliver of my head, visible from seconds 0:07 to 0:10. You also you see Moonshine sitting on a couch next to our lead USAID rep (who amazingly still has no nickname and was never appropriately delineated from the last lead USAID rep). I'm actually right next to her but the view is blocked by an interpreter, who was whispering to Commander Killjoy, sitting in the row in front of us. Killjoy himself appears in the video towards the end, standing next to the Governor during the ribbon cutting portion of things.

It is the goal of most Commanders to cut no ribbon over the course of their time in Afghanistan: we consistently seek to put the Afghan Government in front and keep ourselves in the background. That Killjoy got suckerpunched into cutting the ribbon -- and that AFN was there to record it for posterity -- should give me enough to make fun of him for to last the rest of this tour.