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.