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.

04 May 2011

You may have heard

The last few days have been pretty good; mostly filled with working on reports, getting set for my next field trip, learning a spiffy new salsa dip.  Overall, there’s not much to report.  Oh, there was this one thing next door…that’s right - Usama bin Laden is dead.  Just in case you, too, happen to have been living on a highly secure compound with no phone or internet for the past five years, he was killed during a targeted assassination conducted by the Navy Seals and CIA in a garrison town in Pakistan and then buried at sea.  Many more salacious details to be forthcoming, I have no doubt.  Or, if you prefer your realities slightly alternate, ‘twas a joint US/Pakistani venture with several high-yield bombs. Your call, I suppose.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the legalities of targeted assassination, the justifiability of raucously celebrating someone’s violent death, or whether or not this vindicates abhorrent ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques (for my money, general illegal, it was certainly cathartic, and NO).  Overwhelmingly, though, I think the reaction was one of quiet and somewhat bitter triumph; for me, at least, and sense of accomplishment or closure is strongly tempered by the memory of the pain of 9/11 and ten subsequent years of war.

I heard the news while the DFAC, at about 0630, and well before my coffee had yet had a chance to kick in.  It all seemed a bit surreal, but the constant barrage of news in the subsequent hours helped it to take on a tangible texture.  I began to grab hold of it, process the breadth of my emotions, and determine what it meant for me.  The general consensus was that it didn’t mean a whole lot.  After all, it’s not like they’re going to start air-lifting us home.  Life continues on as ever.

It was, however, a stunning emotional victory for many; the sort of morale-booster that has been much needed here (and based on the impromptu block party at the White House…everywhere).  The infantry was particularly triumphant; America, fuck yeah was a common refrain heard throughout the day and at seemingly random intervals.  It’s been playing as an affirmation of the mission, the danger and suffering and lost friends, as well as a vindication of the general bad-assness of the armed services.  I have been generally amused that the Army is for once happy to claim the Seals – usually they bitch about the other branches, and particularly about Special Forces, strutting around in their beards and civies.  These days, however, they are all brothers in arms. 

But if the infantry was keyed up, it was nothing compared to the Afghans.  They were positively giddy.  For my colleagues, little love is lost for the Taliban and their most infamous backer.  While lacking the national boogey-man statue assigned to him in the States, bin Laden was still very much a figure of odium, a major contributing force in the shredding of the Afghan state.  They did take the news as proof, though, that Pakistan is the root of all evil (here I should note that most of them were refugees in Pakistan during the Taliban years).  Their criticism of the ISI and conclusions drawn from bin Laden’s proximity to a military academy were much more damning than anything offered by the most hawkish Americans with whom I spoke.  This sentiment is elegantly seconded in a striking post by Salman Rushdie (you should read it – it’s Salman Rushdie!).  

Possibly my favourite reaction, though, came from the young man who wandered from office to office, congratulating every American he found on our tenacity (ten years?  Wow!).  He tempered his enthusiasm with the fervent hope that it wasn’t a double.  I think they’re pretty confident about this one, I assured him.  Yes, he answered, but they might have faked the DNA, or even made another.  Here I cut back in.  Wait - you think they cloned Usama bin Laden?  Sadly, yes, he confirmed.  I am afraid he will reappear in several months, popping from around a corner and saying (here he broadened his own accent) “hello!  I am over here!”

I think that the local nationals would have been even more overtly jubilant, if they hadn’t passed most of the morning in a state of acute anxiety.  The incoming base command, in their zeal to address perceived laxities or make their mark or what have you, has totally revamped the ECP in possibly the most idiotic and wantonly dangerous way imaginable.   They have stripped all the local nationals working on base of their badges, and require them to undergo full biometric screening EVERY DAY to ensure their identity and confirm their innocence of criminal ties.  Reportedly, this insanity is related to the recent tragedies at KAIA and Jalalabad.  It offers no solution, though, to the problem of properly badged individuals who either prove to be sleepers or go postal.  Instead, it leaves upwards of 200 local nationals milling about in front of a Coalition military establishment for hours on end, waiting to come in to work.  They might as well hang up a flashing neon “Soft Target” sign on the gate.  In the four days (FOUR DAYS!) since this policy has been in place, two known Taliban affiliates have been caught canvassing the base and a grenade tossed at the crowd.  My co-workers come in, delayed by hours, and quite literally vibrating with stress.  Even the ANA dropped by, suggesting to the command that this new policy is not the best idea, especially given the current climate (a fabulous trifecta of the start of the insurgent spring offensive, the Kandahar jailbreak, and, right, that bin Laden thing).  When the ANA is telling you that your policy is inept, you have serious problems.