Sunday, October 9, 2011

Admin post: On Nicknames.

Co-workers have started pining for nicknames, but they're all civilians, and civilians lack the built in "first name" of a military rank.  I'm questioning what I should do for them, particularly given that  approximately 95 percent of the people with whom I interact at this point aren't in the military.  First initial and then nickname?  That's what I went with below, but I'm reserving the right to change it at any moment.  If you feel strongly, weigh in in the comments section.  This seems better crowdsourced.

Kabul is a Different Universe.


There was a huge thunderstorm on Thursday night. At around midnight, lightning actually struck the main building of the Embassy, and the resulting flash and concurrent roll of thunder was loud enough that the Marine on duty thought we were taking incoming and hit the duck and cover alarm.

I was long since in bed by that point but the thunder had woken me up, and I dutifully followed the instructions posted on the back of the door:

"If in hooch, stay there!

Get under your bed!"

So I rolled on to the floor of the converted shipping container I call home and skittered under the bed. But the hooch I'm in is a temporary unit, meant to tide me over until enough people have cycled out of Kabul that I can get a permanent shipping container to call my own. And since I'm just there temporarily, I haven't bothered to clean the place since I arrived.

It's been three weeks since I moved in and my hooch is filthy, a fact underscored by the ocean of unidentifiable crunchy bits that stuck to my body when I rolled under the bed. And it's firmly autumn in Kabul, so the floor was freezing in addition to being unpleasantly hard.

The duck and cover alarm stopped and I crawled back into bed, but ten seconds later the Marine came over the loudspeaker (referred to, in the MilSpeak lingua franca of Embassy Kabul, as the Big Voice) and told us to continue ducking and covering. I rolled back under the bed, but wisely took my blanket, tacoing myself inside of it against both the cold and the crunchy things on the floor.  The all-clear sounded 15 minutes later.

The next morning, I ordered a yoga mat to keep under the bed: I want something soft to lay on should meteorological phenomena -- or incoming fire -- make us take cover again in the future.

I still haven't cleaned, though.


The Embassy was closed today for Columbus Day. Holidays were not a luxury we indulged in at the PRT, and I guiltily slept in until almost 7. I didn't make it to the gym until after 8, some four hours after my regular time.

There were a fistful of other people there when I arrived. One of them was staring down at the gym's gun-metal grey dumbbells, a prison-esque collection of chipped and rusty iron bars laid out in disorganized rows in front of the cracked wall mirror.  While I was futzing around with the bench press, the gentleman in question was strapping his head into a skull cap apparatus that had metal chains coming down the sides of it, terminating in a metal holster somewhere below his chin.  It toed the line between neo-electroshock therapy chic and, courtesy of the chains, something you might see at a heavy metal concert.

He hoisted one of the gun-metal colored dumbbells into the holster and began a series of head raises that seemed to be aimed strengthening his neck.

"There's something about this place that makes people act in ways that they would never act at home," one of my female colleagues had told me on Thursday. She was talking about the licentious atmosphere at the on-compound bar, where the primarily married but geographically single clientele are often overly forward in their drunken advances towards the very few females on compound.

The gym at 8 a.m. on a holiday is not the same as the compound's bar at midnight on a weekend, but as I watched a fellow gym goer sling around a dumbbell in a traction harness using only his neck, I couldn't help but think that she's maybe she's right.


On Friday, I went to play frisbee on the helicopter landing zone at the military base adjacent to the Embassy.  The HLZ is actually just a large empty field, and on Fridays (the Islamic weekend and our one day off), it hosts a bazaar and a series of sporting events throughout the day.

Few people turned out for frisbee, and I ended up just tossing the disc around with a friend from Pol-Mil (J. Fundraiser, who currently runs humanitarian demining programs but once ran Obama's campaign in the state of Idaho) and a couple of Afghan kids from the bazaar. They were both maybe 12 years old.

We were eventually joined by a trio of military guys -- a Polish soldier and two Americans, one of whom was an enormous and solidly-built full bird Colonel who easily weighed over two hundred pounds -- probably closer to 220 or 230.  With seven players, we started up a makeshift game of ultimate.

At one point, I threw the disc down the field to one of the Afghan kids, and he and the full bird both charged hard for it. They jumped and collided and ended up collapsing in a heap near the end zone, with all two hundred and thirty or so pounds of Colonel falling directly on top of the Afghan kid.

The Colonel dusted himself off and got up, but the Afghan kid continued to lay crumpled on the ground, crying and clutching the shoulder that had just been crushed by a guy who was twice as big as him.  I tried to check him out to see if his collarbone was broken from the fall, but he wouldn't let me touch him, and after waiting a bit to see if he'd shake it off, I asked the other kids if his father was around in the bazaar.

Someone ran to get him, and shortly thereafter the father appeared on the other side of the field and began making his way over to us. He was an amputee -- one leg cut off below the knee -- and was using the kind of crutches that have loops you can put your wrists through.  He eventually made it to the side of the boy (still clutching his shoulder and crying) and poked at him with his crutch.  He growled in gravelly Dari: "WHAT did you do?"

One of the other boys tried to respond for him -- "we were playing a game..." -- but the father cut him off. "Crying like a WOMAN! You are bringing shame on your family and tribe!" And then he slammed him in the head with his crutch.  He went in for a second hit, but Fundraiser grabbed the bottom of the crutch as we both tried to calm him down. Intervention seemed like the right approach, but it was hardly a long-term solution since it's not like you can take the crutch away from the amputee, even if he's using it to beat his kid.

By that point, the kid had managed to get to his feet and was limping across the field, still holding his shoulder and crying for all he was worth. His father hobbled after him at a surprisingly fast clip, continuing to shout at him.  Fundraiser and I watched them both run off, feeling for all the world like our attempt to do the right thing was absolutely the wrong thing.

"I meant to tell you," one of the other boys said to us. "His father is kind of crazy."

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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Plus ├ža change...

The Public Affairs shop is now staffed by two Lieutenants who look nothing alike but whom everyone, including their subordinates, confuses. Aside from the shared traits of Caucasianness and a thin, athletic build, they don't have much in common, but since they're (apparently) identical and inseparable, I've taken to thinking of them as the Public Affairs Wondertwins.

The Public Affairs Officer is Lieutenant Backcountry, a blond Air Force officer ("Air Power!") who subscribes to Bow Hunter magazine and pines for the woods of southern Illinois; his Information Ops (the military equivalent of a propaganda officer) counterpart is Lieutenant Slick, a rakish and brash Navy officer from Texas, with tattooed biceps ("INTEGRITY" and "LOYALTY"), bizarrely excellent posture and a penchant for undersized t-shirts. Backcountry is married; Slick has taken up the mantle of PRT Ladies' Man.

(We had a high-ranking USAID officer visit last week, and I prepped the PRT in advance that she controls a huge budget, and that if we wooed her appropriately, it could net additional funds for the Province. "Well," said XO. "If there's any wooing to be done, we'll need to get Lieutenant Slick on board").

The final member of the Office is Senior Airman BONZAI!!!, who fills the role of Combat Camera and who is desperate -- desperate -- to be catapulted into active combat so she can take pictures. In advance of recent combat operations in an unstable district northeast of the city -- an event that basically made me want to hide under my bed -- she begged to be loaned to the maneuver unit so she could tag along to war. She's a champion.

Anyhow, Slick gets called BackCountry and BackCountry gets called Slick, and it infuriates the both of them. I don't find it hard to keep them apart -- their names are written on their clothing -- but everyone else screws it up all the time. Noting the fury it inspires, I (engaged in a conversation with Backcountry during which I declared him dead to me), conscientiously called him Slick, just to watch the fireworks. Slick, having none of it, reached down to gravel at his feet, picked up the crumpled carcass of a long-discarded water bottle and hurled it at me, likely expecting me to catch it or duck. But I, out of either a misguided sense of bravado or an utter lack of reflexes, held my position unblinkingly and was subsequently clubbed just above the right eye. BONZAI!!! documented the blood gushing out of my face ("Do I look rugged?" I asked) while Slick sheepishly searched for band-aids and a baby wipe to clean me up a bit.

Which is to say: the new team is awesome.

Apparently Friendly Fire disqualifies you for the Purple Heart.

I had been dreading the departure of Killjoy and Company, but nine months on the ground in Afghanistan had long since driven out any sense of optimism they'd had upon arrival, and the base -- somewhat unbeknownst to me -- was redolent with their long-accrued lethargy. They continued to drive away on programs but everyone was tired, worn out from the grind of it all. The new team, by contrast, hit the ground brimming with an unbridled enthusiasm, and it's good to have them here.

USAID was horrified when I told her that the new team seemed to have reenergized things; "you're a traitor," she hissed.

(USAID later sent me a flurry of text messages expressing discontent that she remained nicknameless and demanding that I refer to her as "Princess," which is what I call her -- preceded by a long and sarcastic "awwwwww" -- when I feel she's being whiny. The first time she brought it up, I immediately responded, "Awwwwww, Princess, are you upset that you don't have a nickname?" I don't know why it never occurred to me previously to use it).

The new team is awesome, but the adjustment period has nonetheless been somewhat protracted; the corporate culture of the new team puts a heavy emphasis on internal paperwork, and things that used to be effortless have now become onerous. Operations, previously led by the laid-back and unflappable Captain Tomcat, has been taken over by Major ByTheBook, a straight-laced and severe Army officer who runs Ops with an iron fist, brooks no foolishness in official settings, and studs his speech with a constant stream of unexpected hooahs.

("He hooah'ed me in the bathroom," Lieutenant BackCountry said. "Wait, that sounds horrible -- that's not what I meant").

Team Civilian gave the new PRT a "capabilities brief" to try to get them up to speed what we do and what value we can add to the PRT, and Major ByTheBook has asked if we needed the military to set up the room in any way beforehand. "Actually, yeah," I said. "If we could get some streamers or like a balloon arch or something, that would be great. Oh, and maybe some Christmas lights -- and actually, if there's any way everything could get hooked up to The Clapper, that would be…" ByTheBook stared at me icily, unblinking. "I, uh, I'm kidding," I said. "No, uh, thanks though, we don't, uh, need anything for the room."

"Wow," said Dr. Death, the new PRT's physician, catching my eye from across the table, "That went poorly!"

(Dr. Death replaced Commander Quixote as the PRT's Doc. He named himself, having ordered camouflage "Dr. Death" name tapes to supplement the bland, navy-issued name tapes that use his actual name).

The mission schedule, previously referred to by the plain English term "calendar," has now become an "operations matrix," and the upkeep and maintenance thereof is the cause of considerable consternation. Getting a mission off base, which previously required swinging by Ops and asking if it was possible, now requires filling out a Movement Request Form and waiting for official approval, a process that takes between twenty four and forty eight hours. "I haven't done this much paperwork since the last time I had to fill out an insurance claim," I whispered during the first Operations Sync meeting to Senior Chief Yarnspin, the new team's gregarious, story-telling Senior Enlisted Advisor; "I feel like I'm at the DMV."

Changes to scheduled missions are not taken lightly. Princess ducked into my office in advance of going to ops, whom she had to inform of a change in destinations for a complex mission that had already seen several changes. "Do you think I need to wear my helmet?" she asked.

But the initial culture shock notwithstanding, I have overall found the new team pleasant and easy to work with. Killjoy has been replaced with Commander Bangbang, who adores guns and speaks in loving and reverent tones of the crew-served weapons mounted on top of our vehicles. "The Mark-19?" he said of the belt-fed grenade launcher on top of our truck one day. "It makes it rain metal. It's awesome." I make fun of him for having the eating habits of a fourth grader: he hoards candy, abhors vegetables and thoroughly enjoys a good chicken nugget.

I am genuinely sad to be leaving.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It's like Budget Circular #1, only for Stories.

An Open Letter to Killjoy and Company's Team:

All right, there are a thousand things that I never blogged about while you guys were here. I'd like to say I'll go back and back-blog them, but that's unlikely. What's more likely that they'll get folded into a book if a book about Farah ever does in fact get written. That said, if I failed to blog about it AND it's not written down in one of my notepads (that is, if it's not work related), it's like it didn't happen. There is literally a zero percent chance of my remembering anything beyond this blog.

So then, my question to you is: what from this tour did I miss on this blog?

Obvious examples include:

-- The FOB Farah Marathon and Petty Officer Moonshine's triumphant finish.
-- The FOB Farah petting zoo, including that cow (and that weird cow guy), the arrival of turkeys (and those bizarre photos of Lt. Drac wrestling with one while holding a pistol), and ultimately the arrival and departure of Blanco Farah.
-- The Lieutenant _____/Sgt. Schoolmarm academic showdown (that I was fully complicit in as well), over academics in America as told through cotton gins and polio vaccines.
-- Captain Adventure's impromptu head surgery, which I've got well photo-documented but never wrote about.

What else is there? This is your only chance to jog my memory -- now, while the iron is hot. The comments section is at your disposal, or you can hit me up on facebook or email -- mhthornburg//gmail. Come on now: carpe diem.

And in the mean time, even though I remain (for now!) not in the Navy, allow me to say one last time -- fair winds and following seas.

And so it ends.

The pizza oven was completed as Killjoy and Company were winding down their tour at FOB Farah. The Chief's Mess, which hosted the pizza oven as well as a barbeque grill (lovingly crafted by Chief Hammersmith from a discarded fifty-gallon drum), became the focal point of a series of going-away events -- evening barbeques and pizza nights -- in advance of departure.

I told Killjoy that the Civilians would be happy to cook for one of the barbeques ("Team Civilian is all over this"), and then got called away to Herat and ended up leaving the whole thing in the hands of our USAID and Agriculture team, with nothing to guide them but a crumpled up meat-request receipt from the chow hall.

USAID still hasn't forgiven me for this.

In the end, the vast majority of the prep work and cooking was done by Petty Officer Cinnabon, the enthusiast culinary specialist who replaced Petty Officer Frying Pan from way back when. (Cinnabon had a tendency to sweeten everything he cooked -- his pizzas, made lovingly on MRE days before the pizza oven was completed, were more like a pepperoni-strewn dessert than lunch. "The key to a good chicken marinade," he told me once, "is brown sugar; it counters the acid in the grapefruit juice so the meat doesn't get bitter." He paused in thought for a second and then added, "Actually, I put brown sugar in just about everything." This much I know is true: his cinnamon rolls were legendary).

I basically refused to acknowledge that the team was leaving -- or abandoning me, as I put it -- and continued to pretend that they'd be with me until the end of my tour, sometime around early August. But then the new team started showing up, and it was hard to ignore the fact that every evening it seemed like there was another "one last" event for the PRT -- one last poker game with the officers, one last game with the enlisted, one last dinner at the Italian chow hall, one last trip to the Governor's. The end was drawing near.

And then, almost without warning, I was driving people to the airport for their final flight out of Farah. The team was divided into three groups -- three chocks, they say -- and the first one left early, more or less as soon as the new team arrived.

The military flight system makes saying goodbye an awkward and repetitive process. "I might be leaving tomorrow" is a near-constant refrain amongst people close to departure, caused by the seemingly random cancellation and reallocation of flights. But chock one made it out eventually, and my hopes that chocks two and three would be delayed were dashed when they stepped up their departure times, pushing up from a July fifth or sixth departure to leaving closer to July first or second.

I took pictures at the airport as each chock was departing, documenting the elation at heading home and the boredom of sitting and waiting for the first of a thousand flights to get back to the States. Mostly I used the departure hall as a chance to photodocument the entire team, one by one, lest I missed any of them over the course of the tour. I shook a lot of hands, and wished everyone well on their way back to the States. It was sad, but the awkward uncertainty of whether they'd actually be leaving made it less emotional than it might've been otherwise.

And so it was that I said goodbye to Commander Killjoy, whom I've been almost attached at the hip with since his arrival in Farah. As I told him the night before his scheduled departure, when I cornered him in his office to shake his hand and give him a pair of State Department cufflinks -- I couldn't have asked for more in either a partner or a friend for this deployment. He and I shook hands one last time on the airstrip, before the air force announced the arrival of their flight and pushed me and USAID out of the terminal.

The abiding memory of his departure, though, will be from the Awards Ceremony held a few days before his departure.

I had made it clear early in this deployment that I was willing to read and edit anything the military wrote -- intel reports or analysis pieces, emails to headquarters, employee evaluations, awards and commendations, whatever. "God made the military for many reasons," I said more than once, "but the proper use of semi-colons wasn't one of them." I read things piecemeal throughout the tour but the brunt of the work came in February, when they dropped off a stack of nominations for bronze stars, Navy Achievement Medals and other awards -- one for every member of the command, it seemed -- on my desk. "If you do all of these," Petty Officer Hindsight told me, "I'll put you in for Warrior of the Month."

(Petty Officer Hindsight was the PRT's constantly cheerful Admin officer with a habit of Monday-morning quarterbacking everything I did. He reveled in the idea of being nicknamed Hindsight: "what you SHOULDA done…" said in his light Oklahoma drawl, was his standard opening line).

I find editing to be soothing in a zen sort of way, and having a hundred or so commendations to work through was actually kind of fun; I cranked through them in half a day, passed them back to Hindsight and then went on R&R. I forgot about the Warrior of the Month thing entirely.

And so, five months later, I was caught off guard when they called my name at the PRT-wide awards ceremony, held just before the final departure of Killjoy and Company. Petty Officer Moonshine, whose baritone speaking voice had left him type-cast as the awards ceremony EmCee, called me up with a command of "State Department, front and center, doubletime!" The award, read in its entirety, was apparently a labor of love that took three people -- Petty Officer Hindsight, Petty Officer Moonshine, and Commander Killjoy himself -- days if not weeks to write. It is easily the greatest award that I have ever received.






Professional achievement as Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah's resident Master of the English Language and all things superfluous from February 1 through February 28, 2011. If wars could be won with ink, foes slain with the precise application of commas, comrades shielded by the eradication of dangling participles, and the disenchanted masses enthused by the transformation of dysfunctional phrases into self-sustaining sentences, then [Dakota] would be granted a place in the pantheon of American military heroes. However, since this is not the case, he is instead recognized as PRT Farah's Warrior of the Month for February 2011. His expeditious and near perfect editing of 94 command awards ensured their smooth and timely progression through the military approval channels. If not for [Dakota]'s selfless dedication to the team, three times the number of man-hours would have been expended while producing inferior results. [Dakota]'s accomplishments reflect great credit upon him, and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Yeah, yeah

Keen observers and/or Facebook friends of mine will note that Killjoy and Company have left the FOB. The new team is on the ground and some of them (you know who you are) have already started clamoring for nicknames. But I'm not done blogging about the old team yet, so hold your collective horses: we'll be there soon enough.

When in FaRome...

So, they built a pizza oven.

The project was the brainchild of Captain Adventure, who was determined to recreate the real-deal Sicilian pizza oven built lovingly by the Italian Special Forces guys on their chink of the compound. Adventure was the visionary behind the oven, but architect of the project was Chief Hammersmith, the PRT's Seabee and all-purpose handyman, who provided the vast majority of design input.

My primary role was moral support, which I provided by heckling the team as construction was underway. I consistently described the project as "Wiley Coyote-esque," a description I'll stand by: the oven in the initial phases was a heap of jersey cement and lopsided Afghan bricks, balanced on a sheet of plywood that was likewise balanced on four wobbly two-by-twos. The lip of the plywood bowed under the weight of the oven and had to be reinforced by an equally bowed stick, and the whole thing looked likely to collapse at any moment.

I'm not sure this photo captures the chaos.

Other stakeholders in the project included mostly Engineer Lovesalot (who seemed to be in charge of wedging in sturdy chunks of wood to brace less sturdy chunks of wood), Warrant Exasperated (constantly stirring concrete), Lieutenant Dracula (shovel operations), Captain Tomcat from over in Operations (Hammersmith's Assistant), Lieutenant ______ from Intel (role unclear), and Senior Chief Intimidating, the Senior Enlisted Leader whom I resisted nicknaming in part because I could find nothing fitting and in part because I feared he'd take offense and use me to practice his sniper skills.

("You can run," he said at one point, "but you'll only die tired.")

Hammersmith up top; Lt. Drac stirring concrete.
Note the haphazard plywood and random wires: Wiley Coyote-esque.

I did little for the actual construction of the oven -- I am the opposite of handy and generally cannot be trusted with tools -- though there is a single picture of me hoisting a bag of concrete. "I love that picture," Captain Adventure said. "It's the only time you've ever been photographed actually doing some work."

I left for my last R&R with the oven still in pieces and Killjoy questioning if the Pizza Collective had conspired not so much to build something as to just leave a huge mess for the incoming team. ("That is honestly the ugliest construction project I have ever seen," he said).

But I returned to a completely finished oven, complete with smooth walls (made, it seems, by bracing oiled boards against still-wet concrete) and brick and concrete pillars to brace the bottom. I declared it the single greatest construction project I had ever seen. "Honestly guys," I gushed somewhat embarrassingly, "it's kind of beautiful."

Chief Hammersmith; completed pizza oven.

They had worked out an assembly line process, assigning one person to roll the dough, another to top it, a third to toss it in the oven, manage the baking process and remove it when done, and a fourth to remove the pizza from the metal trays they bake on. (Senior Chief Intimidating, who primarily spearheaded the process of boiling canned tomatoes down to paste to use for sauce, also declared himself "quality control," slicing the pizzas and helping himself to a piece to ensure it was suitable for serving).

The oven is wood-fired and the PRT has a preference for cracker-thin crusts, rolled out with an old-school rolling pin on a glass cutting board that was obtained from god knows where. The ingredients were gifted by the Italians, who have an overabundance of cheese and cured meats and were willing to set up a little trade in exchange for the cheap, military-issue energy drinks (brand name: "Rip it!") that, under certain circumstances, can be smuggled out of the back of the chow hall by the case.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lonely Planet: Farah

Lieutenant Granola was in my office this afternoon and happened to mention that he thinks (for whatever reason) that he might eventually be posted to the Central African Republic. I mentioned that I know nothing about the C.A.R. -- not even its capital city -- and think of it only as the sort of place that Foreign Service Officers get sent to when they're being punished for something.

We did a little googling -- the capital is Bangui -- which then led to us looking at the WikiTravel page for Bangui, which doesn't actually look that horrible. From Bangui, we leapt over to the WikiTravel page for Afghanistan to see what sort of advice they might have. The guide is actually surprisingly extensive, but there are tons of blanks waiting to be filled in, and Farah (mentioned only as a province in Southern Afghanistan, which is not where it falls in the USG's geographic taxonomy) has no page whatsoever. Granola and I agreed that this is unacceptable, and are both hell-bent on filling in the information to try to attract a few tourists to sunny Farah.

In the mean time, this photo from the Southern Afghanistan page (and the caption, faithfully reproduced here) was easily our favorite part of the whole guide:

Typical Rural Scene in Southern Afghanistan