31 December 2010

Six Down, Only Seven to Go

The heightened state after the attack bled into one for Christmas.  In now appears we’ll be on high alert throughout the start to the new year.  I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for no fireworks.  New Year’s Eve hasn’t elicited too many special preparations, though there is some kind of shindig happening this evening at the DFAC.  It remains to be seen whether I’ll attend. 

You’d think we could come up with a slightly more substantial, seeing as how it marks the birthday of about half of our staff.  Afghans do not record dates of birth; when you ask when they were born, they answer with their (approximate) age.  Even some of the national ID cards don’t list a date of birth, but read something like “was 19 on date of issue”, per the solar calendar.  I think it’s 1432 AH here.  When pressed to give an actual DOB for all of our pesky employment forms, nearly everyone defaults to 1 January.  This morning, everyone in the office ran around wishing each other a happy birthday and then dissolving in a fit of giggles. 
Those who know their actual birthday are very proud of that fact and become put out if someone lumps them in with the 1 January masses.  It suggests a level of familial education and class, sort of declaring that one’s parents were clever enough to record his birthday and don’t you forget it!  These are apparently the same kinds of families that prefer the noble but high-maintenance horse to the practical but low-class donkey.  One of my co-workers recalls the day his father beat him because he wanted to get a donkey to ride to school.  Never mind that donkeys are sturdier, can pull more weight, require less maintenance, and are cheaper – no son of his would be caught dead on one.

At any rate, I’m not sure that any New Year's celebration could rise to the odd heights attained by Christmas, which saw not only Santa, but also a pink bunny.  I don’t remember the Easter bunny ever having a place in the Christmas zeitgeist, but why not?  If you have a bunny costume in Afghanistan, I say make full use of it.

My colleagues and I ended up celebrating by (1) “taking time to speak to our loved ones”, per the request of the HR director (thanks for the permission); and (2) having an office party planned by Muslim and Buddhist staff members.  They brought in a lovely spread of local food, including whole, supremely scrawny chickens with heads still attached.  They rather looked more like a small, rotisserie dinosaurs than modern fowl.  We washed down this dubious feast with cava prepared by our Fijian staffers.  Cava, I was interested to learn on my third go-round, is a mild paralytic that is drunk out of ½ coconut shell from a communal font.  In our case, it was a red bucket.  The cava tasted rather like you would expect something out of a red bucket to taste – an aromatic blend of Necco wafers and dishwater, though the body was a little weak.  We then proceeded to gather ‘round and sing solemn songs about naked ladies on the beach.  They sounded so lovely in Fijian, and then the guys had to go and translate…

Speaking of cross-cultural celebrations, Christmas proved to be a great time of cultural exchange for my Afghan brethren and me.  While the insurgents apparently view our sacred, and for some, secular holiday as a paramount time to attack, others are more than happy to join in the fun.  My aunt sent me home-made toffee for Christmas and it was, as expected, amazingly delicious.  However, I only had a piece or two, as I set it out at the office and the Afghans attacked it like it was manna from heaven.  Yes, I realize I just used a story from Jewish religious history to illustrate how Muslims enjoyed a Christian holiday, but I liked the ecumenical nature of the metaphor.

I had a slightly more, shall we say, interesting discussion sparked by a debate about US foreign policy (funny how that engenders more controversy than candy.  Perhaps I should have mixed the two).  The topic of the close alliance between the States and Israel came up, and one of my colleagues speculated it was because the American government was controlled by Evangelicals and Jews.  When I suggested that grossly over-simplified the situation was in fact an alarmist conspiracy theory, he asked in all seriousness if I had ever read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I affirmed that I had, having studied it as an exemplar of propaganda disseminated to legitimize ethnic cleansing and noting that was discredited 90 years ago.  He was astounded.  And we make fun of the public school system in the US… 

So some things to, if not look forward to, then keep an eye on in the coming year: (1) burgeoning conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan; (2) the crisis in the Korean peninsula (the garden spot to which most of my military friends think they’ll be deploying next, though I’m less convinced); and, a bit closer to home, the preliminary effects of the troop draw-down, only a few years too soon.  Thus far, both the Air Force and Army have ceased flights in and out of Phoenix, and are even pulling out of Kabul International Airport.  What effect this will have on my work travel is just another adventure awaiting me in 2011.  Happy New Year!

23 December 2010

Christmas Mubarak

I don’t know what it is about them, but Christmas carols utterly sap my motivation to do work.  I just want to go drink some eggnog (rather soynog; after all, if I’m fantasizing, why not go for broke?) and trim a tree or ice a gingerbread house or engage in something else suitably festive.  I also get weirdly emotional.  While listening to, as my iPod puts it, (There’s no place like) Home for the Holidays or Do You Hear What I Hear, I tear up so much I can’t read my computer screen.  While it makes sense that the former gets me, I think the latter just makes me a sap.  

Objectively, I know that Christmas is nearly upon us and have been trying my damndest to get into the ‘Christmas spirit’.  I’ve done what is in my limited power to make my plywood place pretty, adorning the walls and bed frame with lights and fake poinsettias, and have had bits of candy cane firmly embedded in my molars for the past few weeks.  My boss laughed at me, but I find it’s the little details that make me happy and keep me sane.  Still, Christmas somehow feels farther away, as though it’s the beginning of December or maybe even November.  It’s an odd temporal disconnect, though it is pleasant to note how fast the time here is going. 

At any rate, this marks my first ever Christmas away from home.  Not just away from home, but totally absent family of friends.  I have passed birthdays, Easters, and even the occasional Thanksgiving in the company of good friends.  However, what close friends I did have here mostly left, having ripped out earlier this month.  I vaguely suppose this must be what it feels like to grow old – gradually having friends and family trickle out of your life whether through choice or necessity or fate.  Feeling a loneliness stretch before you. 

Yep, there’s that Christmas spirit I’ve been searching for – I’m full of it!  It appears that I’m getting ahead of myself; there is clearly no need to summon the Ghost of Christmas Future when I’m have enough difficulties with that of the Present.  And lest my self-pitting hyperbole make Christmas here seem unfairly bleak, I remain tickled, as always, by base life.  The holidays, like so much else, are approached with a hilarious level of pragmatism.  For example, just as my priest simply blesses a bottle of Dasani for Mass (not actually Dasani, but a Russian knock-off), he also uses a Bic lighter on the Advent candles.  The primary decoration in our multi-denominational chapel is fly strips.  Other areas of camp express flashes of determination to celebrate Christmas in some way.  The JAG office has a particularly nice tree out front of their B-Hut office and the laundry is positively bursting with festivity.  It looks a bit as though a Christmas tree exploded, with tinsel and lights strewn across every available surface.  I don’t know who direct their efforts, but the Afghans who work there really did an exemplary job. 

For my part, I have an inexplicable desire to see one of the MRAP decals (expectedly aggressive images like skulls, wolves, and angular Terminator-looking faces) accessorized with a Santa hat.  No soap as of yet.  I would undertake some late-night Yuletide vandalism and do it myself, if I wasn’t concerned about being shot.  Short of that, I want to wind some of the lights my parents sent me through the concertina wire surrounding the bazaar.  Very carefully, of course.  It’s not quite decking the halls, but I also don’t have any gay apparel.  One must make do.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to Silver Bells and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas until my spreadsheets get all blurry.  From my perch in paradise, I wish all of you and yours the happiest of holidays.

20 December 2010

Lest I Forget...

There was an attack in Kabul yesterday, a few minutes down the Jalalabad road.  The base is tightly locked down right now, prompting one soldier to remark that he just remember we’re in a war zone.  It’s surprisingly easy to forget.  Earlier this week, I was joking with some co-workers about the absurdity of a small-arms fire drill which had us napping in bunkers for two hours (there’s not much else to do inside a bunker).  Then, it was an inconvenience.  Yesterday, people have bled and died.  

Since the onset of the attack, the whole compound has been tense and quiet.  There is a distinct strain in the air, rather like the anticipatory dread you find in ER waiting rooms.  Even so, it’s not nearly as strong as it was yesterday.  The action continued for several hours, with conflicting reports pouring in every few minutes.  Per the intel guys who work just down the hall, it was a RPG attack on a US military convoy of up-armoured Land Cruisers.  One of the testers heard from his own sources that it was a suicide attack on the UN compound.  Meanwhile, Reuters (yes, the attack happened a few minutes from where I’m sitting, and I still found the details through Google) claimed it was a SIED and small-arms attack on a convoy of ANA traveling to Jalalabad in mini-buses.  With the distance of a day, it appears that Reuters had their facts the straightest – five ANA killed, nine wounded and both Taliban attackers committed suicide.  A co-ordinated attack in a northern province saw the deaths of another five ANA.

Knowing the outcome of the event does little to ease our disquiet, though it is a bit of relief from yesterday’s extreme confused tension.  We’re still left wondering if there is an attack coming our way, and if so, are we ready?  In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the gate was completely closed and many of our Afghan co-workers were left standing outside (because chilling outside of an American base is exactly where one wants to be when they’re being attacked.  Yeah – we’re here to protect the people).  When they did finally make it on base, one of the guys told me he wasn’t even aware there was an attack going on until he got to work, though he lives just minutes away from where it happened.  Apparently, some of his neighbors have a rather dramatic family feud.  Dramatic enough that they occasionally take to gun-fighting in the streets, and he just thought it was another episode.  It certainly makes my grandmother’s passive-aggressive comments over the holidays seem much more trivial…

I think that I could handle the tension a bit more gracefully if I had more work to do.  Unfortunately, we’re in a bit of a lull here, made worse by the lock-down.  There are no new linguists to test or process, no traveling to outlying FOBs for inspection, just…waiting.  My co-workers and I took the opportunity to catch up on some house-keeping issues, filling out tax forms, checking on investments, and (in my case) writing Christmas cards.  Wishing friends a peaceful New Year, though, proved to be a particularly jarring juxtaposition.  I know that yesterday’s violence was by no means unique in the history of Afghanistan and will probably be forgotten in days by many, but it’s very much felt right now.

I was peripherally interested to note that, while searching for ‘Kabul suicide attack’, the ads selected by Google were about bouts of depression and suicide prevention.  Not quite what I had in mind, Google, but thanks for caring.  Also – DADT was finally repealed!  Even (and especially) now, a cause for celebration!

15 December 2010

Yes, As a Matter of Fact, I Would Like Some Cheese with My Whine

I try to adhere to a very live and live philosophy, especially in the office.  In past positions, I’ve managed to cohabitate in offices rather amicably with the Queen of Over-share, the Never-ending Apartment Searcher, and Ms. I Don’t Always Take My Ritalin Before Coming to Work.  I was even (mostly) able to deal with I Can’t Be Bothered to Do My Own Work, so Why Don’t You Do It for Me.  Her extreme malaise, while frustrating in the abstract (how does this woman get paid?!), was acceptable as long as kept to herself in her inordinate free time and allowed me to do both of our jobs.

Of late, though, it seems my customary reserve is forsaking me.  Office ticks and personalities that shouldn’t bother me have begun to inspire intricate and whimsical homicidal fantasies, à la 9 to 5.  I suspect this is the result of working with the same persons 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The unremitting proximity mutates one from co-worker to captive audience, and I’ve started to loathe people while still realizing they don’t deserve it. 

Among the idiosyncratic personalities I should find endearing, the first I wanted to throttle was the Conspiracy Theorist.  Let me say it here for the record: the MMR vaccine does not cause Autism, and there is not some collusion between Big Pharma, the CDC, and the WHO to obscure that it does.  He reminds me of an ex who was a vehement climate change denier (the earth isn’t warming – it’s just solar flairs!  We broke up for different reasons, but that didn’t help) or an old coffee shop patron who maintain AIDS was created by the CIA and then unleashed on Africa by the Chinese in a kind of global Tuskegee experiment (words do not describe).  There is also the oddly pro-Obama Birther, who read Obama Nation and thought it had some valid points, but still plans to vote for him in the next election.  For some time, I was able to successfully resist being drawn into the discussion only to be broken by the assertion that ‘they didn’t use type-face like that in ’65; I mean, it looks nothing like mine.”  Where were you born?  Ah, New York.  And in 1959!  I can see where the two should be identical.  We pulled up Obama’s certificate on-line (this was before Corporate put up Hadrian’s Firewall when we could do such things.  Now even Wikipedia and the Official US Clock are verboten) and it was declared an ‘obvious fake’.  After well over an hour of increasingly heated debate, I declared the topic taboo until my interlocutor could should me a contemporary Hawaiian birth certificate that looked significantly different.

There’s also the Belligerent Braggart, who can’t help but daily crow about his wayward bar-fighting youth, the handful of aspiring Afghan Idol contestants, and the two who have decided the best way to get my attention is to slide behind me and shake my chair.  The closest I’ve come to loosing it, though, was at an Army captain who oversees several linguists.  I could probably choose better subjects for my wrath, but he began griping about the sensitivity of American women and the hyper-political correctness demanded by the Service.  When I asked for an example, he explained that it would be fine to tell one of his male soldiers to stop being an asshole, but if he tried to tell one of the women to stop being a bitch, he be disciplined for sexual harassment.  Oh, the horror – this ‘new Army’ has gone soft and is no doubt doomed to ruin, what with its stigmatization of overtly gender-specific belittlements.  My heart bleeds for him. 

Possibly the quirkiest tick I’ve noticed, and among the most obnoxious, is that co-workers seem to prefer to talk when no one else is around.  Several in the office will wait until it’s late in the evening, or for others to go to the bathroom or for a smoke, before sidling up to the file cabinets walling in my desk or dropping into the chair opposite, only to spew inanities about dominance games with their Bengal tiger or obnoxious B-Hut mate or why I should really consider seeing Twilight (not a joke.  My refusal to do so apparently renders me incapable of affection). 

I’m not certain whether my compatriots are lonely or simply need human interaction to thrive.  While the latter definitely doesn’t apply to me (always having tended toward the introvert side of the spectrum), my solution to the former is to become a hermit and dive into my work (being an introvert might have something to do with this).  This is most especially true late in the evening, when I’m either still in the office to finish up some pressing work and really just want to get to bed, or so I can chat with friends in the States at a better time for them.  Regardless of the rational, it is almost never the ideal time to chit chat.  Occasionally I think they’re just killing time to ensure that I don’t walk home alone, as at least once a week I’m asked where my battle buddy is. 

Oddly enough, the only time I actually felt a buddy was necessary was in the office itself.  Alone in the office with a co-worker, he tried to exact a hugging ‘toll’, blocking the only exit.  Happily, he’s since been transferred to a difference base.  I have a suspicion that the situation might well have escalated with some negative consequences if he’d hung about.  The incident did prompt me to augment my perennial battle buddy – Jesus – with another – namely, Mace.  The three of us are thick as thieves, and run in a tight pack. 

In the recent past, I wasn’t quite so on edge.  Unfortunately, December saw the vast majority of my non-work friends rip out.  While I’m happy for them, I find myself without any companions of my choosing.  I suppose that I’ll need to make some new ones at some point, but it’s never been one of my ready talents.  If I fail to do so, however, I might well flip out at a co-worker.  In general, work just seems to be getting harder to stomach.  In addition to the loss of access to 90% of the internet, a mandated uniform is imminent (polos with the Corporate logo.  I hate polos).  When’s my leave again? 

I would like to apologize for my over-use of capital letters in this post.  It appears frustration leads to ill-advised punctuation.

11 December 2010


Upon reflection, I realize I’ve written an awful lot of special interest pieces lately, so it seems time for something political.  Wikileaks is a likely topic; after all, everyone and their mother seem to be throwing in their two cents.  To my mind, the leaks are more affecting the perception, rather than the reality, of the war.  Actually, they are viewed with a bit of scorn hereabouts.  You mean to tell me that the ANA is corrupt and take more bribes than a Mexican border guard?  Say it ain’t so!  I think the corruption doesn’t so much bother the Coalition mentors (or even the average Afghan).  Rather, it’s the lack of discipline and laziness that’s really a bugger.  I’ve heard stories about how ANA and ANP units were unable to use the range on their reserved days because they left guns in their barracks or opted not to go on patrol because it’s too hot.  I hate to remind them, but we’re in Afghanistan – it’s hot in the summer.  Where’s the exposé on that, I wonder?

Sorry  - to bring myself back on topic, the leaks, at least those pertaining to Afghanistan, are both old news and undeserving in many instances of the secrecy they previously enjoyed.  I’m speaking very broadly here, but frankly, I think a lot of this information should have already been disclosed.  The Wikileaks dump shouldn’t evoke this level of scandal and salaciousness, but Administration’s reaction almost invites it.  The government plays too many things too close to the vest.  This sort of knowledge and transparency is what has traditionally furnished democracies with such a low tolerance for war.  Maybe our law-makers will remember these costs next time they authorize a declaration of war or re-up the various remaining provisions of the PATRIOT Act.  Functionally, Wikileaks only managed to embroider a truth that was already clearly spelled out: in Afghanistan, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  Fred Kaplan articulated our precarious situation in an elegant and deceptively charming bit of alliteration when he described the “anguished ambivalence” of this war: “failure would be disastrous but success might be impossible.”

Moving from one leak to the next, as someone who cares about development and is at least vaguely interested in the Foreign Service, I found the State cables both hilarious and refreshing honest.  Calling out Mugabe as a “crazy old man” and Berlusconi as “feckless, vain, and ineffective”?  Priceless – really, they just put to official and private-ish paper what everyone else is thinking.  Actually, these descriptions are a bit kinder than they reasonably could have been.  I myself would have gone for creepy, Bacchanalian aspiring tyrant for the latter and sadistic digbat actual tyrant for former.  Admittedly, the cables are generally condescending and, at least in the sniggering about Gaddafi’s nurse, juvenile (yes, I realize I’m being flip.  The material about Yemen is actually quite sobering).  Even as an avowed multilateral institutionalist, I’m not particularly shocked or put out that the US spies on the UN.  We spy on everybody, and considering how much of our money goes there, I don’t terribly begrudged covertly looking into things.  That said, I do find the attempt to solicit frequent flier numbers to be a bit beyond the pale.  At least we know State snoops are thorough.    

Thus far, the only substantive problem I have with Wikileaks was the revelation of the names of Coalition collaborators and informants in Afghanistan.  I work with some of these collaborators daily, meeting one linguist on my last road trip who gave such valuable information so consistently that he was now confined to base for his own safety after the Marines already faked his death.  Even among those not in war zone witness protection, their fortitude and dedication to their country is commendable.  They’re sincerely trying to build a better future for themselves and their families.  Where the hell do Julian Assange and company get off risking the lives of these courageous Afghans just to stick it to the man?  Do they have any idea about who they’re functionally hurting?  For a moment, perhaps they should climb off their high horse or glance out of the Ivory Tower.  In this sense, Wikileaks is almost as bad as that hatefully absurd Florida minister.

Indeed, if I don’t have a problem with the majority of the leaked content per se, I certainly take issue with the medium.  It is becoming increasingly hard for me to distinguish Assange from Wikileaks (partly because the association is forced.  He was the one, after all, that claimed the rape charges in Sweden were a ‘dirty trick’ manipulated by the Pentagon).  Also, I find that such an opaque organization presents itself as a champion of transparency irritatingly hypocritical.  In the long run, it will be interesting to see if Assange and Co. have bitten off more than they can chew with Russia (or the Bank of America, for that matter). 

Even with my reservations about Wikileaks and Assange in particular, I have to state without equivocation that trying him for treason and/or killing him (!) are obviously not the answer.  For one, he’s not an American.  For the other SWEET GLORIOUS GOODNESS, PEOPLE!  What about due process?  Or freedom of the press (even if Wikileaks arguable doesn’t count as press, is this not a slippery slope)?  Are we really willing to abridge some of our most fundamental liberties and devastate the founding principles of our nation because of one prick from Australia?  As mama grizly Palin herself might roar, not in my America.  That kind of hyperbolic rhetoric only serves to legitimate him as a martyr and is repulsive. 

 In other more Afghan-centric news, more traditional journalistic techniques suggest that some of Gen. Petraeus’ vaunted COIN methods may be countering productivity rather than insurgency.  I fully buy that upcoming insurgents are more deeply radicalized than their predecessors, though I think it’s something of a stretch to allege the former Taliban were anything less than extremist.  Also, Afghani neighborhood watches must be intense.  I cannot imagine the weekly meetings – do you think they have their own arsenals?  Or are they BYOK (bring your own Kalashnikov)?

And now for something completely different…  Per David Bosco at Foreign Policy, UN Peacekeepers are potentially responsible for the cholera outbreak in Haiti.  At least they aren’t raping people.  They keep that shit in the Congo.