This is only a few months late – but – NEWSFLASH – I left Afghanistan.NEWSFLASH #2, it didn’t spontaneously combust, nor did its problems spontaneously get resolved. Since the vast majority of my colleagues (military and diplomatic) will be doing the same thing, and the same result is pretty likely, I am left with the unsettling question of “why” looming awkwardly in the background, but I don’t plan to subject my dear readers to THAT tired old song.
What I AM going to do is say a big thank you for all my friends and colleagues who joined me on the journey, helped keep me safe, shared and provided entertainment, food, recreation and so forth. Above all, I want to thank my Afghan friends and colleagues who touched and changed my life with their generous and indomitable spirit.
Probably the greatest joy of living and working in foreign cultures is that it gives an opportunity to extend the magical part of adolescence (not acne or finding a prom date), where you subconsciously are picking and choosing how you approach life and what you believe about everything from how you plan to raise your children, to what you like to do in your free time, to what you believe about God.It does this (if you allow yourself to be immersed in the culture) by putting your own beliefs in the minority position.
For example, the unspoken but firm expectation that a middle-class family will have two vehicles and spend an obscene amount of time shuttling children from one activity to another is assaulted head-on in many places where such profligate use of the automobile is either an unimaginable luxury, or an expensive and impractical alternative to using public transport. However, while I love the practical wisdom of habits like keeping your fork in your left hand instead of switching back and forth, it is the more fundamental parts of how people live their lives that really leave a mark.
Flags at Bagram
In our first posting in Latin America we learned that it is never too late (or too early) for another dance, or another drink. In Europe, we learned that eating is about more than caloric intake, and that walking to the store is a great way to shop (particularly if they sell pastries).In Africa we learned that every day people who live in what I once thought of as grinding poverty and ill-health, meet the sunrise with joy in their heart and a smile on their lips and find a fulfillment I seldom see in the "states".
Afghanistan has a similarly unbreakable spirit, and showed me that decades of struggle and death has not extinguished the humor, hope and warmth of the Afghan people, and that if graciousness, hospitality and generosity can thrive there, we have no excuse for not holding onto that spirit under circumstances that are considerably less challenging.
Friendly Reminder at the Kabul Airport
I had planned to regale my readers with the details of the administrative nightmares of escaping the Embassy Kabul vortex, or my joy at running into an Afghan food vendor in New England whose family is from Parwan province, or the thrill of waking up, putting on running shoes, and going as far as my legs will carry me in any direction I want with only my dogs as my (optional) escort.
Instead, I’ll say thanks for reading, thanks to all my hosts, and please keep Afghanistan and its people in your thoughts and prayers, I do, and always will.
I beleived that I have whined exhaustively on various prior occasions about how complicated it is to get a single person (me) from point A to point B because of the need for a fleet of armored vehicles, soldiers to drive and man them, requirements to seek and obtain approval, work out timelines, etc. etc. etc. Suffice to say then that when the bosses in Kabul call up and want to move over a dozen people to multiple locations for a battery of meetings (including the press, which then raises "opsec" issues), life can get a bit complicated.
Logistics aside, I was glad to have a sizable operation and challenge to keep me busy up to the end and to make my last mission "outside the wire" a memorable one. After a year, I can now look at a "CONOP" (concept of operation) and not only actually understand it, but point out the flaws it might have. For example I caught one submission that planned a helo landing in a space that could probably accomodate the machine, but would result in a huge rotorwash (the high winds generated by the air the helicopter blades are pushing down to generate lift) which could have easily damaged nearby facilities, and at a minimum would redistribute a good bit of the nearby volleyball pit as it got hit with hurricane force winds.
Anyhow, we had developed a very solid CONOP, and the commander took the further precaution of adding extra assets just to have additional help available, just in case. A wise man.
My only beef with the plan was that it required me to meet up at 0500 even though we didn't actually leave the base until closer to the much more civilized hour of 0700. I knew there were reasons for this, but even if my greensuiter pals were just trying to ruin my beauty sleep, complaining about an "SP" is on the list of cardinal sins for civilians in a war zone, so I stifled my groan and tried to give my snappiest "Roger That!". For the record - I think that SP means Start Patrol though I'm not entirely sure. It means the time when you and your stuff best be at the appointed place or you instantly become "that guy". Like many military expressions, I'm pretty confident I'm not the only guy who couldn't give the exact translation but uses it anyhow, including as a verb, as in we are "SPing" in 5, meaning "rolling out".
My Wheels at the SP point
the most expensive and uncomfortable ride around, but they got the job done
I wasn't going to be "that guy" on my last mission, so I was there early (thank you for feeling my pain) - and kept my solid (if not flawless) track record intact. My escort service showed up with their customary punctuality and good spirits and we headed off, enjoying the novelty of using an "NTV" for my final trip. That would be a Non-Tactical Vehicle - in other words, not the ones you see here, but something you'd see a soccer mom/dad driving around. Now most of those SUVs aren't "up armored" but it's the same car, just some extra baggage. We needed them because of how many passengers we had, and I wasn't complaining as it meant both that it would be a comfortable ride, and that for a change I'd get to actually see much more of the country out of the regular sized windows than I typically do from the slit windows in the MRAPs.
The nice thing about our ungodly SP time was that we had time to case the scene at the Air Force DFAC on the far side of the base - and found out what we'd been missing all these months. The differences weren't huge, but the cuisine was definitely a step up, the seating was more generous, the ceiling higher, the decor newer. I was indoctrinated in Army prejudices against their flying brethren even as I ate food from their table (literally). On the other hand, they were very friendly and seemed happy to share their freshly imported pork products and encouraged us to try the "waffle bar".
Soon enough it was time to roll out (I mean SP), and we were sandwiched in between two MRAPs cruising down the highway having a laugh about which vehicle in the convoy you'd shoot at "if I were a Talib". It wasn't the rolling bank vault...
Anyhow, I was enjoying the scenery when I noticed we were starting to lose the MRAP in front of us, and the driver picked up the radio to report that we had a "little problem" - namely that for no apparent reason the engine cut off and wouldn't restart. Without missing a beat the team regrouped, moved people into other vehicles and started to "work the problem". We had stopped in a busy area, and soon the locals were out to check us out and offer assistance - proffering jumper cables and mechanical advice.
Meanwhile we were working on options if the car didn't start, since we were the first and lesser of two groups involved in the mission, and part of our job was to help secure the LZ for the helicopter bringing in the rest of the visitors. More trucks were dispatched as backup, but in the meantime the stalled NTV had been brought back to life by the other NTV we had. We all hopped back into our original vehicles and were about to pull out when the report came in that the second NTV had also flatlined... Now it was their turn to pop the hood and find new seats.
Luckily, the cavalry pulled up a few minutes later and then we had enough vehicles to press ahead while the first team "recovered" the newly non-functioning NTV. We took off, and to the obvious delight of the drivers got the order to abandon the usally sedate pace and "push". We were pushing along very nicely which was good, since we got word that despite us having informed our colleagues of our delay, they had already taken off twenty minutes ahead of schedule...
Our push came to an end soon after as our NTV again decided it didn't like the SP time, or the heat, or the extra armor it was being asked to carry around, or something. Anyhow, I don't think we had drifted to a full stop before the team was out and scrambling around to find the next fix. I never found out (or asked as I'm not positive that all pertinent rules and regulations were strictly observed) just who ended up where, but within five minutes I was in an MRAP and booking along again with a grin from ear to ear listening to the "chatter" as the team sped onward and offered their unflattering views on the NTVs.
View of a Farm Behind PRT
The mission itself went fine - though the press conference was far less entertaining than the ride to it, and I found myself having to politely but firmly hasten my (far more senior) visitors along in order to avoid a more serious problem if they missed their helicopter flight (yes it happens). They didn't and I enjoyed the short, windy and scenic ride to the PRT, where they enjoyed the customary Korean hospitality and sushi. After a few final crises - involving VIP guests showing up an hour later than promised - the mission was complete and declared a success, and my visitors were "wheels up" and fading into the distance, leaving me to pack my bags and close up shop.
As the aforementioned surly-attitude-at-the-end-of-tour began to take solid hold of me I have had the good fortune to cross paths with my most special colleagues - who are also my hosts in their country. In taking my leave of them I found my patience and hope restored. As we sat and talked, I saw before me living proof that there is hope for Afghanistan in the form of these men and women. Further, a great sense of peace washed over me as I realized that if nothing else, my colleagues, now friends, had touched my life and I theirs.
See if you can pick out the outsider...
We spoke of the future, but even if their personal stories about extremists in their mosque or university, or how they disguise their affiliation with Americans suggested troubled times ahead, the WAY that they were shared gave hope. There was no shred of self-pity or egotism, and their courage and good humor in the face of adversity nothing short of remarkable. Staring clear-eyed into the future of their troubled country they nonetheless took pains to show their gratitude for my having tried to help their country, and their sincere wish that I might return as a visitor with my family. Having see this farewell sentiment shared many times before, I was nonetheless struck by the fact that my closest Afghan friends shared it both as a sign of affection and an affirmation of their own commitment and effort to improve their homeland so that it becomes suitable for western guests without armored vehicles and body armor.
Typical Meeting at Governors Compound
(Pictures on wall are of Pres. Karzai and Massoud)
My professional contacts showed the same grace and generosity of spirit as I took my leave, and I had the great pleasure of attending a joint US-Afghan "Iftar" - or Ramadan dinner - with a majority of my best contacts and friends. Set outdoors on long tables, the meal was spectacular, even for those of us who had not gone without food or water since sunrise (I often skipped lunch, but hydrate to avoid the splitting headache that can come from trying to be culturally sensitive...).
For starters there was the always delicious and usually super-fresh "naan" (which can mean either bread or food in general - I mean bread). Then an assortment of lightly spiced creamy soups, kabobs, chicken, and a kind of afghan french fry that I was dismayed to discover only the cusp of my departure. Finally a friend shared a slice of what he jokingly called "afghan pizza" - a soft bread stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. No offense to the italians, but I'd take it over pizza any day.
The conversation around me was familiar, swirling from family to politics to security to corruption and back. As I listened and watched them laughingly catalog the woes and challenges of their country I knew both that the last decade of struggles is a beginning not an end to efforts to create a future for the next generation of Afghans, and that if this group of people could shoulder the burdens they carry and maintain the warmth of spirit and good humor that was on display, they might just succeed brilliantly.
My observant readers are still wondering about the odd title to this posting, unless they happen to be fans of Juan Luis Guerra who has a song carrying the same title. The song is about the Dominican Republic, and its people who have suffered under dictatorship, poverty and countless other challenges without losing the spring in their step and the twinkle in their eye as they press forward with their lives. The lyric (freely translated) dryly observes that it is "hard to go over Niagara Falls on a bicycle" - but over they go all the same, with a smile on their face and a dream of a better country for their children. Suerte! (Luck)
Despite my best intentions to remain detached from the latest and last iteration of colleagues who I will soon leave behind, I have fallen into the trap of getting to know and like them. Even more surprising and rewarding has been the outbreak of friendship.
Anybody who changes jobs or moves with any frequency can attest that "senioritis" doesn't happen only when you get ready to leave home and strike out on your own after high school. The dismissive, sometimes cavalier attitude at school, disregard for your parents and the breakup with your prom date who would hold you back in your new life are easily detected in the "end-of-tour" worker. Productivity tends to slip, together with concern about being productive, minor frictions with colleagues tend to become inflamed, and efforts to build up new relationships tend to be half-hearted, and many contacts and projects are simply jettisoned as the conclusion is drawn that insufficient time remains to make real progress.
I'm guilty of all of the above and more, but have been stymied in my senioritis by interesting work that keeps me at my desk, and by enjoyable colleagues I have been forced to enjoy rather than ignore.
Among the newest military crew I found the usual mixture of fun-loving, hard-charging, very professional, very patriotic and very likeable guys. The current crew is not obsessed with sugary cereal in the same way as a previous unit, but comes with their own signature quirks, including a tendency to end meetings/conversations by saying "Airborne" which might be translated into civilian talk as "long live the airborne rangers".
On a very early morning (0300) during a very pleasant "camping trip" I was given some perspective on why "Airborne" Rangers tend to be a tad aggressive (though they also tend to season into extraordinary officers). One of my new friends pointed out the obvious fact that when you parachute into enemy territory, your choices are pretty straightforward win or die. Surrender isn't part of their vocabulary, and dying seems to be shunned less because of the traditional reasons (i.e. wanting to keep living) than because it gets in the way of winning...
So as I was saying, how can you not love having these guys by your side and watching your back?
Today I had that familiar phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head, but I didn't mind. The song was the Annie Lennox (Eurythmics) and Aretha Franklin classic - "Sisters are Doing It For Themselves".
However, as I sat through a lengthy but inspirational speech which was NOT being translated (due to the tiny number of non-Afghans) - I tweaked the lyrics a bit to fit the mood of the day.
The occasion was the graduation of forty-some Afghan Local Police (ALP), who sat in the PRT gymnasium in their unadorned brown uniforms, while a gaggle of local elders looked on. They were a curious assortment of men ranging from beardless youngsters to longbeards who had clearly seen and felt the ravages of the conflicts that have swept Afghanistan for decades. U.S. and Korean facilitators sat in the back row while senior police officials hit both the familiar themes of duty, honor and public service that are at the core of nationhood, as well as other topics like religion that would never occur to an American commencement speaker. The new recruits were both praised for their work and that of their Afghan trainers and warned of severe punishment for infractions that have tarnished the reputation of other units (being out of uniform, being away from one's post, etc.).
In short, having attended countless ceremonies of this kind, it was apparent that this was the first that was completely (OK let's say 95%) Afghan - down to the ritual of affixing the only uniform patch with a firm smack on the arm and holding up the certificate and pledging their life for Afghanistan.
Undaunted by the loss of two of their new colleagues just days before the recruits headed back to villages threatened by insurgents and Doin'It For Themselves.
As my time in Afghanistan rapidly approaches an end it is perhaps (hopefully) normal to feel a bit of nostalgia for some of the "good old days" and the good old guys who I had more time to get to know than most of the people around me now.
Yesterday I visited a base (the OCCP) I spent a lot of time on before the U.S. withdrew, and saw some Afghan soldiers who were part of our volleyball tradition, and who had accompanied us on various missions. They seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and it was nice to know the feeling was mutual.
The meeting I had, also reminded me of departed colleagues who had a biting, yet incredibly refreshing sense of humor that I will belatedly share. Referring to an unnamed individual one of them wrote, "it seems Mr. X has been replaced with an android with a new ethics chip" another replied "hmm, I've heard of these bots, but never seen one; I'd like seats to show, but must be seated in the bombproof section".
Sadly I remember the exchange because the new chip seems to be malfunctioning at the moment, but that's another story for another place.
I may have mentioned the difficulty of movement here, which is a constant grind. However I still had to grin at an old email about past travel which concluded with
In an effort to better serve our customers, please note that our fees have increased by $20 per passenger (and there will no longer be a complimentary snack).
Another popular subject of discussion/derision are the many, many reports and presentations that filter out to the field and are of, well, variable utility. One particularly noteworthy waste of time earned this response:
I'm telling all of my friends that if they only have time to read one powerpoint presentation this summer, this is it. A rollercoaster of a ride and destined to become an overnight classic. Two thumbs up.
Other memorable comments ran the gamut from soliciting contributions to a personal retirement fund to laying claim to a ridiculously flamboyant vase of plastic flowers that had somehow migrated into the camp command center to all manner of less savory, but still good natured ideas/accusations.
One of the great things about life abroad is the diversity of people you meet, and the chance to overcome linguistic, economic and social barriers to make friendships on the basis of shared interests.
The field of sports is often the best place for this, and the opening of a new gymnasium on the compound was met with great enthusiasm by its residents. Koreans are passionate about badmitton, and I have had the pleasure of being soundly beaten by several of my Korean colleagues over the lunch hour. Unfortunately, badmitton has not proven a good way to break down the very pronounced tribal affiliations on the base to allow Korean civilians to play with the military, American soldiers to play with Koreans or most of all for the Afghan and TCNs -"third country" nationals (from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan etc.) to mingle.
Volleyball on the other hand, is a far better mixer - although Korean participation has been erratic, limited, and (unfortunately) been known to perpetuate rather than reduce the barriers due to the sometimes arrogant demeanor of more senior players who insist on playing by the rules that prevail in Korea (which don't allow kicking for example), rather than what is generally agreed by the other dozen or so people who had agreed on a different set of rules thankyouverymuch. More problematic is the built-in conflict with the Korean military who has neglected to put up "blackout" covers on the windows to the gym, and therefore insists on ending the game by 7:30 far earlier than the players would like (since many have jobs in the cafeteria that keep them busy until almost 7). The soldiers are merely followin orders of course, but the night often ends with a game ending halfway through, and players speculating about whether any evil-doers really need the light from a few windows to locate a base that is almost a square mile in size with corners marked by towers, is located on a hill overlooking the valley, and is clearly visible by moonlight...
Nonetheless, it is both a great stress relief and a nice social time where Afghans, americans, TCNs and the odd Korean play hard, but have fun. The forwards (closest to the net) tend to be tall, heavy and aggressive, spiking with full force at every opportunity, and blocking the other side fearlessly. By american rules about hitting the net fouls are committed several times per point as players go head-to-head at the net. A "fouley" is only called if somebody gets hurt or almost pulls down the net. Any good spike (or spectacular but unintentional foul) is followed by a round of hand-slapping that goes across the net to the other team as well as within your own.
This is part of the fun, and some of the jokesters who play frequently declare "fouley bood" with no justification. "Fouley" is just "foul" with a Korean accent (the E sound) on the end - and "bood" means "was". Translation - that was a foul... Likewise, people either admit to, or accuse the other team of "touchey" - meaning, that a player touched a ball before it went out-of-bounds (and therefore the point goes to the other team). Whether a ball landed in-bounds or out-of-bounds is of course another common controversy which leads to admissions, or voiciferous accusations that a ball "Out Bood!".