16 June 2011

The next trip will call for a passport

Continuing from my previous post, here are my last few observations from the south, with slightly more chronological coherence...

My gateway to the south was Kandahar Air Field (KAF).  For a major movement hub, it presents a startlingly high number of absurd obstacles to its transient population.  Of particular interest to me was the Hellerian conundrum of badges.  KAF has a specially issued badge, without which one cannot wander willy-nilly around the base.  Instead, you must be escorted at all times.  This includes getting to the badging cell across the street.  Furthermore, the DSN (landline phone) is likewise beyond the un-badged quarantine.  So, if one arrives at, say, 3am, and the individual you expect to pick you up isn’t answering their cell (as it’s 3am), you suffer the exquisite torture of being able to see your only means of calling support and the badging office, without being able to access either. 

My night of sleeping in the terminal was somewhat redeemed by the good weather (I ended up nesting at the outbound terminal, which is outdoors) and excellent people watching it afforded.  At one point, a pick-up rumbled by, towing about four six-foot long missiles on a trailer, crossing the path of a minivan with a ‘baby on board’ bumper sticker.  Now, if only the sticker had been on the missiles…

I did finally manage to make it to Leatherneck, the American corner of the flagship base complex in Helmand.  I apologize for not having any photos, but Leatherneck is a Marine base, and they’re extremely camera shy.  Really.  If they catch you with unregistered electronic equipment, it’s declared a security risk and whisked off to what down-range depot only heaven knows.  I had to stash everything in the Site Manager’s office for the duration of my visit. 

It was fun to notice how, even as this unwieldy complex was fairly homogenous (everything is a tent.  And I do mean everything), each arm had some distinctive features.  The British-run Bastion, for example, was the place to go for coffee, even if the carrot cake had overtones of cardboard.  Meanwhile, the Afghan section had round-abouts, which are especially hilarious when navigated by top-heavy tactical vehicles.  My favourite sub-base, though, might have been Camp Tombstone, home to a Danish OMLT.  There, the MRAPs are parked in the OK Corral and the linguists stay at the Bella Union.  I felt the joke was lost on them.

There are a few other points of interest for the next time you find yourself with some time to kill in Helmand, first among them the poppy located immediately outside the front gate.  It is irrigated by base sewage water.  I suppose it adds to the aroma.  If, however, the finished product is more your thing, you might try hanging with the local national truck drivers, who apparently like to get all doped up in the holding pen outside the ECP just before they come on the FOB.  Leatherneck also boasts a top-flight auto shop; I saw what was possibly the best after-manufacture mod ever – a dump truck with a turret.  West Coast Customs has nothing on these guys. 

In the interest of winning hearts and minds, the Marines have also set up a Pashtu-language radio station.  While airing the latest music out of Iran and India (I didn’t ask about what kind of licensing rights they enjoyed), its programming includes PSAs about child trafficking, VOA reports, and readings from the Quran.  The station also has two call-in lines – one to request music, and the other to report insurgent activity.  Apparently, it had been used to stymie three planned attacks in the week before my arrival (insert moment of pride here for our linguists who comprise the station staff). 
I was slightly stealthier at Dwyer and stole a few photos

My ultimate site visit was to Camp Dwyer, a deceptively large Marine base to the southwest.  The temperature frequently climbed to heights of 120 degrees, the heat wrapping around you and drowning you like water.  Like Leatherneck, everything in is a tent, up to and including the mosque.  I was hoping for a mini canvas minaret, but no soap.  

Even so, Dwyer is not without its distractions.  The British UAV pilots are extremely skillful with RC planes.  They and the American UAV fliers have miniature dog fights, which the Union Jack invariably wins.  This might have something to do with the fact the UK’s UAVs are little more than RC planes themselves.  They sound like Estes rockets when they launch and have a biplane buzz when they fly overhead.  My favourite memory of Dwyer, however, came at the gym.  It was hot and humid, the air so thick with testosterone it was a bit difficult to engage in pranayama.  Someone’s iPod provided the sound track, a driving mix of Disturbed, Lil Wayne, Linkin Park, and Taylor Swift.  Wait, what?  200 Marines turned in unison to stare at the speakers, the same look of bemused incredulity on their faces.  Then they turned back to their weights, muttering under their breath “it’s a love story - Baby just say yes…”

I eventually made my way back up to Kabul on an Australian flight out of Kandahar.  Aussies seem to prefer the defensive technique of terrain flying, a somewhat more topsy-turvey method than other nationalities that go for altitude.  The Special Forces sergeant to my right (the trip was oddly sandwiched by SF.  I approved of the symmetry) regaled me with story of his first such flight.  It had, by his account, been much worse, and two of his team members ended up vomiting into their Kevlars.  I shudder to think about the next time they had a mission.  I might have chalked it up to a combat loss and tried to avail myself of a new one.

12 June 2011

To Guadalcanal by way of Little Hethrow

I kicked off my final road trip auspiciously – by offending the sensibilities of a Special Forces Colonel.  With horror etched on his face, he grabbed my New Yorker out of my hands as I was sitting in the KAIA terminal and demanded to know what I was doing reading this rubbish.  Once upon a time, it was a good magazine; now it was a fringe liberal rag and would turn my brain to mush.  Given that the article I was reading was about Christian Louboutin, I didn’t have much standing to argue the second charge (bit of a tangent here, but Monsieur Louboutin associates the word comfy with a sad, lonely, puffy woman holding a big bottle of alcohol and wearing clogs.  And here I just thought it was after-work sweats).  Several of his soldiers, meanwhile, were huddled together, thoroughly engrossed in an iPod shrilly asserting that cap-and-trade policies cost more than the annual defense budget and were in fact the linchpin of a global plot to weaken the United States.  Brain mush comes in myriad guises, sir.
Helmand - it's a beach with no water

This turned out to be more or less the theme of my outing, as a series of delays, frustrating interactions with linguists, exhaustion, and intense heat definitely fried some of my synapses.  My enduring impression of southern Afghanistan is of a dust globe – think all of the swirling motion of a snow globe, but decidedly grainier.  Rattled as I was, my notes and observations were a bit more obtuse than usual (or they might always be this random.  Sometimes it’s hard to judge from this side of the looking glass).  But here goes – some random musings from my jaunt through Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

I ended up passing quite a bit of time on NATO bases during a trip that was ostensibly to Marine-dominated outposts.  In fact, I spent two days at three different terminals before I ever even hit Helmand, bouncing from Kabul to Bagram to Kandahar and finally to Leatherneck.  One leg even saw me strapped into a plane, IBA and Kevlar on, gear palletized, before I was yanked off to make way for some VIPs and delayed into the wee hours of the morning.  MilAir, I love you so.  What with all the opportunity I had to make comparisons, I did notice how seriously NATO bases take female security.  The tent locks at KAIA are so fierce that I actually got locked inside the tent.  Even so, I do rather enjoy hanging around NATO installations.  When I finally escaped the transient tent, I stumbled out into a gaggle of Swedish commandos, all sun bathing.  Never have I found bearded men so delicious. 

Overall, Coalition forces seem to approach their deployments with an airiness that Americans, when housed alongside them, likewise adopt.  They also co-opt some of the more obviously European mannerisms, like excessive smoking and Puma-wearing.  Likewise, Afghans, when housed with units they like, will start acting like Americans.  They curse with startling fluency, make dirty jokes, say roger and pop smoke…  Some even go so far as to start collecting tattoos.  The lucky ones had a benevolent tattoo artist in their unit – there are lots of artists, though few willing to work on linguists – while others went local.  The quality difference is…noticeable.  However, I have yet to see an Afghan act like an Italian.  I wonder about the directionality of the equation.

NATO bases, perhaps because of the language barriers, also have some of the best signs I’ve ever seen.  I need to preface this by admitting that I love signs.  I think it’s amazing how we communicate so much information though terse sentence fragments and iconography.  For example, KAIA sported some posters reminding me that, in the advent of a rocket attack, I should don my body armour and lay flat on my belly.  As confusing as the Taliban may find planking (God knows it baffles me), I don’t think it’s sufficient to make them stop.  The British helio terminal at the multi-national base complex in Helmand is a self-styled ‘Little Heathrow’. 
Fair warning at KAIA

Coalition bases are not alone in their quirks, of course.  I’d never noticed it before (I’m not one for energy drinks, but turns out there’s nothing ingesting 40000% of your daily value of vitamin B to heighten your powers of observation at 2 am), but the man/woman stick figures on the restroom signs at the BAF terminal are exactly the same.  They’re both wearing pants, rifle held casually to one side; mirror images in different colour schemes.  Meanwhile, when you land at Dwyer, a rather tremendous welcome sign announces that “The Marines have landed…the situation is now well in hand”.  As if to reinforce that notion, the street names are Al Anbar, Guadalcanal, Chosin and a number of other Marine conquests of yore. 
Force multipliers at KAF (apparently these barriers are leased.  Good financial sense, that)

When I did finally arrive in Helmand, a series of heat-induced power outages revealed to me that I find dark bathrooms terrifying (this trip was surprisingly introspective).  If I ever end up writing a horror film, it will involve either Taliban vampires (for campy horror) or bathrooms with burned out lights (…probably also campy horror, but my fear will be genuine).  I imagine that it wouldn’t have both, though.  Allah knows what happens in the female ablution centers; the Talibs don’t want to.  Darkened bathrooms, however, are better than none.  I spent nearly a week at Camp Dwyer and never managed to find a female latrine.  Showers, yes.  ‘Female Only’ marked porta-potties, sure.  Fourteen male latrines within walking distance of my tent, no problem.  But actual female latrines were MIA.  Rumor has it there had been one, but they relocated the day I arrived.  To where, no one knew.  When I got to KAF and was again able to wash my hands in running water, it seemed a small miracle.  I really shouldn’t complain, though.  One of our female linguists described to me how, assigned to a Marine FET, she had spent 7 months at a COP with no running water at all.  It was a bit discomforting how very similar MREs and bag-based field latrines look.  Incidentally, she was turning in her resignation.   

While the Marines might rough it, Army ladies travel in style.  In nearly every transient tent I passed through, my bunk-mates enjoyed pillows and fitted sheets to go compliment their sleeping bags.  Their uniforms and towels were neatly hung up, curling irons set out for use in the morning.  I do not take any such amenities with me when I travel and consequently feel like a heathen and the world’s most inefficient packer.  Their rucks had to have been blessed by Mary Poppins.

31 May 2011

Where's Glinda when you need her

Happy (belated) Memorial Day.  Not to rain on the parade, but SSG Joseph Hamski and TSgt Kristoffer Solesbee were killed last Thursday by an IED in Kandahar.  Please take a moment today to remember them and the other bright lights dimmed in this war and too many others.

Soldiers here face any number of regular dangers, the majority of which do not actually stem from the insurgents.  Case in point is the urchins that mill around the base walls, attempting to deal to the guards on tower duty.  According to my informant, their range of product is, if possibly a bit tame, it certainly notable for the diversity on offer (and he should know he assures me, as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, which is apparently quite rife with substance abuse).  Alcohol, heroin, opium, hashish, flexoral, no-doz?  Children as young as ten confidently proclaim their procurement abilities. 

Drugs and conflict are, of course, natural allies.  The former begins as an ideal revenue service for latter.  As various industrious individuals come to realize that profit margins become substantively higher when there is no ideology to support, they morph to using the violence to subsidize the drugs.  Eventually, the entire end game of the endeavor alters and drugs develop into a self-sustaining enterprise.  Classic examples are found in Colombia, with the FARC and AUC, whose most famous drug-engendered offspring is arguably the Águilas Negras.  Mexico, of course, has its Zetas, which I distinguish from the myriad other cartels because of their background as Mexican Special forces and cartel protection racket.

The Taliban, like the mujahedeen before them, never really reached the point of swapping drugs for dogma.  Instead they remained war entrepreneurs, utilizing drugs to further their martial aims or consolidate their power-base.  Increasingly, however, this is some concern that select areas in Afghanistan are trending towards a criminalized cartel model.  German scholar Citha Maass makes such a case, tracing the development of a drug economy (contrasted to a war economy), in no small part due to the highly profitable combination of elastic production methods and inelastic demand.  UNDOC agrees.  They cite the collusion of insurgent groups, including the Taliban, Haqqani network, and HiG, with dedicated drug traffickers and criminal gangs organized along tribal lines, in addition to running their own protection rackets or imposing cultivation taxes.  None of these loose affiliations reaches cartel proportions; there is no ability to setting internationally or even within Afghanistan, and few heroin-related turf wars, as yet. 

The majority of poppy cultivation and refinement occurs in seven provinces, with lion’s share in Helmand.  That is where I find myself today, in the middle of a fairly intense dust storm.  This is also the hottest I’ve been since leaving Qatar last summer.  Leatherneck (the massive Marine base I’m staying at) strikes me as the interplanetary love child of Venus and the Moon – hot and barren.  It turns out that the drought crippling much of the country, while responsible for the interminable dust here, does have an upside.  According to UNDOC, it’s contributing to a decrease in drug production.  Poppies are a hearty plant, but not quite this hearty.  In other dubiously good news?  Apparently, the world food crisis made wheat more profitable crop than poppies.  When combined with the over-production of opium in the last few years (the market has become so saturated that 2010 was apparently the year in a row that supply outweighed demand), the profitability of poppies dropped below that of wheat.  The free market seems to work better than the DEA.  Sorry, world hunger.  UNDOC also credits good governance, but where’s the fun in that?

I was tickled to learn that, in addition to being the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates including heroin and morphine (no surprise there), Afghanistan is starting to gain a monopoly in hashish.  Since when is heroin the gateway drug to hash?  According to my co-workers, they also commonly smok dried apple skin and powered scorpion, mixing these ingredients in with tobacco in hookah pipes.  I wonder why those options aren’t on offer to the tower guards.

If you need a break from reading about Afghanistan, two other places with rather fascinating drug trafficking issues are Mozambique (the NYT had a better story, but somehow my link broke) and Guatemala.  The former is, like many states, trying to cope with a national hero being named an international drug kingpin by the US, while the latter is apparently well on its way to becoming more dangerous than Mexico. 

If, however, you’d prefer to stay with Afghanistan but don’t really care about drugs, Afghan Conflict Monitor has a great story regarding DDR.  Considering the billions we’ve dropped on this country to stop drug production, you’d think voluntary DDR for Taliban might be a better solution to stop the adding to the list of names to remember today.

28 May 2011

The ties that bind

Arriving at the office the other morning, I was surprised to find one of my local national co-workers had beat me in.  This was unusual, to say the least; it was solidly two hours before he normally comes in, even without the on-going troubles at the ECP.  When asked about the early arrival, he sighed and blamed his father, who apparently needed to borrow his car for the day and had dropped him off early.  Fair enough, I nodded, and didn’t give the matter much more thought until the topic came up again in conversation (apparently; ‘twas in Dari) when everyone else arrived at the normal time.  They were as taken aback as I had been, given that Nadeem lives just outside of Bagram and has the longest commute.  When he explained, it set off a bevy of commiserative grousing. 

Now, I’m no stranger to disagreements with parents – my mother and I had wars when I told her I was taking a job in Afghanistan, for example – but their shared persecution complexes seemed a bit much.  So I teased them about turning their parents into millstones.  No, kushtimada, they chided me, you don’t understand.  Parents are, for all intents and purposes, directly below God on order of devotion and much more demanding in their whims.  Family ties have long been the basis of this tribal society, but my urbanized friends chafe at the traditional model.  In the hinterlands (Kabulis, I’ve found, are remarkably classist), supporting your parents makes sense; the family jointly tend the livestock or farm or keep a small shop.  But in the bright lights of the big city, standards of filial obligation rise shockingly.

The guys warmed to their subject, bandying examples back and forth.  Abdul, for instance, purchased a brand new car for his father, even as he continues to take the bus.  In Nadeem’s case, the car is ‘his’ only in that he maintains it.  Most often he serves as his father’s chauffer.  The long-suffering Nadeem was even made to drop out of the military academy because he was the only literate, readily employable family member (the rest of his siblings are girls – quell horreur! – and therefore cannot take a job, regardless of ability).  Farid, a recent addition to the office, had put off the transfer from the oft-shelled Salerno to Kabul as long as he reasonably could, because now that he is here, his parents are fixated on finding him a suitable wife.  Another linguist only ever turned to employment with the Coalition because he was forced to leave the faculty of law to get married at the tender age of 19.  It is no secret, of course, that many Afghan children are obliged to be married at even younger ages for the financial benefit of their families.  Appallingly, inexcusably younger ages. 

Parental entitlement does one cease when one gets hitched.  If anything, it actually seems to worsen.  The newly-wed Ajmal lamented that he is still expected to kiss his parents before his bride, lest they throw the couple out of the house.  It was pointed out to me that majority of linguists, though married, name their fathers as the insurance beneficiary, not their wives.  Where a father is not available, Afghanistan being a country of widows and orphans, linguists generally select the next viable male relative, such as a brother or cousin.  It is presumed that these responsible men will care for any womenfolk left behind.  My attention was caught by one linguist who listed his mother as his beneficiary.  In was distinctive in that he knew her given name only as Mother.  I was somewhat delighted by the child-like nature of it, though I suspect that the insurance vendor would be less-so.

The consequences for insufficient deference are severe.  One might not only lose a home, as Ajmal worried, but his entire external support system.  Extended family is where ones turn for help in hard times, and suitably vexed parents will not hesitate to defame errant offspring to the entire tribe.  Honor thy father and mother, or they will see you ostracized.

The tremendous pressure to provide for one’s family (which can be taken to mean the entire extended tribe) explains, to a great extent, why corruption here is so endemic.  It’s reciprocal system that, when locally applied, can create and strengthens community bonds.  Essentially, if I give you a ‘gift’ to help expedite the processing of my son’s Tazkira, you’ll give my cousin a break on the bride price so his son can marry your daughter.  However, as both my colleagues and this intriguing article by Lawrence Rosen suggest, the social cohesion created by such expectations of ‘gifts’ breaks down when expanded to an urban setting.  They become de-personalized and exponentially more exorbitant.  No longer reciprocal, the gift system morphed into straight bribes.  Moreover, I rather imagine that the billions of external money suddenly dumped on the economy didn’t help.  It was only a matter of time before mutually supportive nepotism devolved into sheer kleptocracy with corruption rampant according to anyone’s definition.

19 May 2011

Beginning of the End

I recently stated my formal intent to not renew my contract with Corporate, which feels oddly like a break-up.  In the past week, I’ve been pressed to reconsider on five separate occasions.  Various and sundry individuals have asked how certain I am, if I might like to try another position within theater, if maybe I would like to take some time at the program office in the States, perhaps if they made me a mixed tape?  Even with the inducements, I can’t wait to get back.  Eventually, of course, I plan to find a job not war-profiteering, but in the short-term, I plan nothing more engrossing than sitting in the sun (hopefully evening out my appalling farmer’s tan) and eating real cheese.  The most immediate implication of my decision is that my attention span is roughly equivalent to that of a gnat, or specialist after five Monsters.  This must be the big kid version of senioritis.

Even so, I am attempting to spend my last few months taking stock of my time in Afghanistan, appreciating what has been a totally unique phase in my life.  I wouldn’t exactly go so far as to call it nostalgia.  More an awareness of something the like of which I might never again experience.  My somewhat vexing introspective kick co-incided with the advent of my last few road-trips, what I’m blithely thinking of as my farewell tour.
Outside Sharana
 The first of my last stops began with a trans-state passage from Sharana to Herat.  Generally the site visits were unremarkable, though a cracked runway did strand me at KAIA for several days (not that I was terribly fussed; ISAF DFACs are so much better).  I did enjoy my first ever opportunity to ride in MRAP.  While mildly exciting in its own way, the experience was rather forcibly heightened by the addition of my IBA, the bulky demotions of which make one quite literally sit on the edge of your seat.  I was amused to note the jaunty little red and yellow sign just inside the gate at Herat, reminding us that seat belts are required past the wire.  In the realm of unexpected safety phenomenon, it also transpired that my Aussie flight crew was the most persnickety of any I’ve been with, proving to out Stiffly Stifferson ever the Germans (Kevlar and IBA required at all times, and vomit bags pre-emptively distributed).  I so didn’t call that.

I probably should have heeded all of the precautions as an omen to steel myself, as I spent much of these last trips (and I expect this to be doubly true on the final one), been yelled by military POCs, mostly regarding issues of payment.  Remember the slow implosion of Kabul Bank?  POCs do not seem understand how this impacts the prompt payment of their linguists, and have been demanding that Corporate simply start cash payouts.  No corruption potential there, no sir.  ‘Tis the joy of being quality assurance – site managers like to pretend I have some institutional power and throw me at the problem children.  I have no power, of course, but I don’t mind taking the abuse for a few days.  They need a break.

Of course, in no small part due to my new-found apathy, I’ve been answering their ire with a fair bit of my own.  I know that we all have spring fever, but what, I have to wonder, is with the spate of scandal?  I rather desperately wanted to inform a chief warrant officer that, contrary to what he might have been told, his linguist is not getting paid 200k plus to be his personal concubine.  Shocking, I know.  This gentleman actually deposited his linguist at a FOB when he went on leave, instructing two E5s from his battalion that she was to be treated as ‘a princess’ in the interim.  Sweet glorious goodness.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone reassigned so quickly (it was especially delicious when she told us that she couldn’t be transferred, as she had left gear in the chief’s locked room.  What, he didn’t give you a key?).

In the meantime, though, I’ve managed to find my own Quijotic fixation.  This particular windmill, as so many of them have been in the past year, is centered on base mentality and local national linguists.  Phoenix, I’m sad to say, is not alone in their absurd re-inventions of security procedures.  Incoming commands the country over are making increasingly untenable demands of their Afghan work force.  Once upon a time, back in those innocent days of 2010, LNs were only ever really required to have TB tests.  Now it’s polio shots, blood draws, Hepatitis tests, stool samples…incidentally, I’m not making any of this up.  At one site, the screening cell is so zealous that, after requesting linguists for themselves, they gave the linguists back – it was too tricky to follow their own procedures to get them badged.  

Another delightful tidbit?  Units are refusing to pay for these bi-annual tests, and are instead pressuring their linguists to pay out of pocket.  At some sites, linguists are paying upwards of 400 USD to be able to keep working.  That’s half their monthly salary.  Mind you, these are the same POCs that deride me for not ensuring the linguists are paid on time.  Even better?  Most camps have approved local medical vendors (who in at least one case charged 20 USD for a polio shot that is free ‘in the economy’, or off-base environment), maintaining that the work of just any Khalid MD is not acceptable.  Of course, when the badging cell applies that standard so stringently that they won’t accept the test conducted by an SF surgeon, one begins to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Paktika.  I am ignorant of the details, but do know that the arrangement between one base command and their on-base Afghan MD was being examined for any ‘improprieties’.  I wonder if he had a vaccination for kickbacks in his bag of tricks.
At Camp Stone
 That said, there are other sites that might want to consider upping their badging standards a wee bit.  I also had the dubious honor of ‘escorting’ a local linguist whose unit suspected him of pace-counting in patrols and making really rather lovely scale sketches of the base.  As the POC wrung his hands about how to prevent this from happening again (sleepers, to my mind, are inevitable.  I’m just pleased that they were lucid enough to notice), a CI team eventually swept in and very gently led the linguist away.  I’d never imagined a ‘black-bagging’ to be quite so cordial.   

But soon, these concerns will be behind me.  Tragically still real, but I’ll be searching for other windmills.  It’s not as though the world lacks ample reason to face-palm.  After all, even as I’m breaking up with my current company, I’m bracing myself to go on blind dates with a host of new ones.