Friday, September 30, 2011

Out of Farah, into the Frying Pan

I had dinner with Commander Killjoy while I was in DC. We sat outside at Hank's Oyster Bar, and ate seafood and drank beer and rehashed the PRT experience. We both conceded that we were happy to be out of Farah, albeit for very different reasons. It was the first time I'd ever seen him in civilian clothing.

"People have been hounding me to write a farewell blog post about Farah," I told him. "I've got nothing, though. I've written like 2,000 words, but it's just not working."

"Maybe that's what your last post on Farah should say, then," he said. "That there's nothing to say."

"That doesn't seem right either," I said.


I left Farah on August third, two days after I had met my replacement planeside when she arrived on our dirt and gravel airstrip. She had been my upstairs neighbor in Beijing, and I've know her for years. I can't remember the last time I was so happy to see someone.

She had been a blogger while we were at US Embassy Beijing, but she declined to pick up the blogging mantle at PRT Farah. "People don't want just any blog out of Farah," she said. "They went your blog. I'm not going to try to fill that void.

It's too bad: there was a lot to blog about in my last month, and I don't doubt that the same would've been true for her. The new team was an amalgamation of odd ducks, and as a team they would've provided a lot of material for blogging.

One of them was obsessed with home improvement, and had requested a dozen sheets of plywood to redo the flooring in his room in a self-shellacked ersatz hardwood. He and his team had gotten into a prolonged spat with the head of the human terrain team, an angry and short-tempered former marine, over the disposition a disused and largely forgotten volleyball court in a dusty back corner of the PRT -- his junior enlisted guys had wanted to build a tree fort-esque clubhouse (they called it, alternately, a "hangout spot" and, more creatively given the dearth of hunting and fishing opportunities in our province, "the Farah Rod and Gun Club"), but the Human Terrain Team had claimed the volleyball court as their own and got irate at the incursion into their turf.

The drama remained ongoing at the time of my departure.

Another member of the new team at one point stood up from his desk and announced his hatred of his office's collective work space, a windowless back corner in a characterless concrete-block building. "I hate this desk, I hate this office, and I hate this computer," he said, dropping the magazine out of his pistol and fake-shooting at the laptop in front of him.

He had, of course, failed to remove the bullet from the chamber, and the resulting shot echoed through the office, terrifying Princess and obliterating the laptop in question.

By sheer dumb luck, no one was hurt in the laptop ND, or "negligent discharge." But it was reported back to me that after my departure, a second ND had occurred in which one of the junior enlisted SecFor guys blew his own toe off while recklessly loading his pistol in the back of an MRAP. "The most dangerous place in Farah," I was told, "is with our team."


The new team was blog-worthy, but their first month on the ground -- my last with the PRT -- was nonetheless a challenge; they went through a protracted teething period, trying to figure out both what they wanted to accomplish and exactly how to go about accomplishing it. The process was complicated by a shortage of personnel, as they had neither a full-time operations officer for planning and executing missions off base, nor a supply officer for military acquisitions. The routine occurrence of getting off base, even for a simple dinner at the governor's house, became arduous, and there was a lingering feeling that missions weren't going to work out, but asking too many questions would get you yelled at.

In the mean time, I found myself simultaneously in a disagreement with the PRT over our role in the province and in a massive fight with the maneuver unit over a matter of policy. The subject of these disputes was never blog-appropriate (at one point I found myself citing the Geneva Conventions -- the Geneva Conventions, good lord), but it was ugly and cast a long shadow over my last weeks at the PRT.

I was ready to leave Farah when I did.


I feel compelled here to mention Major Tenacious, an Army Special Forces officer who was mostly embedded in the Afghan countryside, starting Local Police programs and trying to prepare Afghans at the sub-provincial level to take control of their own security. He was dogged and hard working, knew more about Afghanistan at the rural level than anyone I’ve ever met, and genuinely wanted to make the Afghan sub-provincial government work. He was the most persistent person I have ever met and had a saint-like ability to overlook or work around laziness and incompetence in those around him; I tended to think of him as The Major Who Cared Too Much.

Tenacious stopped by my office after my first major fight with the maneuver unit, and gently asked me what had happened. I was pretty down on it all at that point. "Well, " he said, "despite all of this, it's been great working with you. You're one of the only State guys who actually gets it -- who gets the military, who gets everything we're trying to do here." I was close to leaving Farah; it meant a lot to me.

"It's a shitty note to end on," I told him, "but I guess it'll make a decent last chapter for the book."


I split my home leave between my parents' house in Charleston, South Carolina and my own home in Washington DC, hopping between hotels and a couch generously proffered by college friends.

I had intended to work on a book about Farah while I was in the States. I hauled home the 26 notepads that I, a compulsive note taker, had filled with an almost verbatim transcript of my time at the PRT, written in a slapdash personal shorthand that's incomprehensible to anyone but me. (At one point, a half-full notepad fell out of my pocket on a helicopter and was lost to history. "Anything sensitive in there we should know about?" Lieutenant ________ asked me. " "Have you not seen his writing?" Killjoy asked. "It could be nuclear launch codes -- still wouldn't matter.")

I had vowed to write at least 50,000 words on home leave – an average of about 10,000 words a week, which seemed reasonable. But I was tired upon returning home, and a full schedule of social obligations -- lunches most day, dinners to catch up with old friends every single night I was home, that sort of thing -- meant that all I really wanted to do was sleep, and go to the gym, and sit in the park in the sunshine and not be in Afghanistan. It was better to be home than I had ever expected it to be. I wrote not a single word.


I arrived back in Afghanistan on September 21st. I flew commercial, on the Safi Airlines flight from Dubai to Kabul that's invariably packed with muscular, tattooed contractor types who eye you suspiciously as you sit in the waiting area. I slept for most of the flight, waking up only for the surprisingly excellent in-flight meal that Safi always serves.

There was a burly contractor type a few rows behind me, travelling with what appeared to be his Afghan wife and their child, who was maybe seven years old. We arrived, and I was walking down the stairs towards the arrival terminal when I heard the seven year old's tiny voice behind me shriek out, "NOOOOOOOOOO! NOT THIS PLACE!!!" And then bursting into tears, "daddy, you lied to me, YOU LIED TO ME!!"

I couldn't help but laugh, both at the kid who'd been duped into coming back to Kabul (he was later seen attached to the side of his father's huge rolling suitcase, clinging to it like a starfish as if willing it back into the cargo hold of the airplane), as well as at the stone-faced contractor types, who seemed to be silently saying -- I agree with you, kid.


I wasn't ready to leave America, but it's good, in a way, to be back in Afghanistan. There's a lot to say about my new job and life on compound (I've already run for cover once -- unnecessarily, it turned out) and what not, but it will have to wait. For now, I'm lapping up Kabul life: it feels like I'm on a different planet than Farah. I find myself eavesdropping on people's complaints and smugly thinking that they have no idea how good they have it. "I'm going to die if the PX doesn't get Doritos in soon," one said. "What is it going to take to get some reasonably priced wine in the commissary?" another asked. "The chow hall has guacamole but no tortilla chips? Being at war SUCKS!" said a third.

I've vowed to make it a year without complaining. We'll see how that goes.