Thursday, April 26, 2007

Our First Missions

We’ve been doing missions for five days now. Five days, five missions. All of them have been around the Kabul area. Some were just convoys to get things done, like picking up or scrounging equipment, getting administrative issues cared for, or making face-to-face coordination. One was an escort mission. We’re getting more comfortable with the procedures that we use to get things done and keep things orderly. Procedures are good. Predictability is bad.

Each of us that go out have gotten experience driving and gunning. Some have gotten experience as the vehicle commander. So far, the more experienced guys from other teams or the headquarters elements have been the convoy commanders, the “guides” as it were.

It is potentially dangerous. There have been plenty of IED’s in Kabul. Not many small arms attacks, but there have been roadside bombs, vehicle-borne bombs, and suicide vest bombers in Kabul. There was an IED about a mile up the road that hit another convoy just last week, a few days before we started doing missions. It’s a lot quieter here than in many parts of the country.

There are Taliban and ACM (Anti Coalition Militia) here, but the population of Kabul are, for the most part, happy that the Taliban is gone. They want to live in peace and just be free to do business and be left alone. They aren’t too sure about us, perhaps… but they don’t like the alternative at all. They will just look at us with dull curiosity, and if you give them a little wave and a nod, they will wave and nod back. The children will all wave and shout and even the smallest will give the “thumbs up.”

Our traditional sign of good, “thumbs up,” is a traditional equivalent of flipping someone off here. I’m not sure of the exact meaning, but it isn’t nice. But the Afghans know that to us it is a good thing. When the kids do it, it’s supposed to mean what we think of it as. I waved at an old man from the turret today and he smiled a big smile and gave me the thumbs up.

I’m not sure what he meant.

This is a strange country, a country of extremes. I have been amused and heartbroken in the same moment. Today I rode in an escort convoy as a passenger in an up-armored humvee. Later I was in the turret, but while I was a passenger I had nothing but time to look and take pictures. I saw people going about their lives in such difficult circumstances, and to them it is just life.

Anyone capable of reading this has very high-class problems compared to these folks. Can you imagine having to use the better part of your day just to get a few things from the store?

I have to admit to something. I have a soft spot for kids. The children here are just as poor as their parents, and that is dirt poor. Today I looked over in a field and saw three little boys not much older than my youngest son squatting in a field of dirt. Their toys were made of dirt. Their world is made of dirt. My heart melted.

I’ve said that Afghanistan is a place of extremes, and it is extremely dirty here. There is dirt everywhere. It seems like everything is dirty, and everyone is dirty. Seeing little kids that are just plain filthy dirty breaks my heart. Then you see kids going to school, carrying bookbags that were likely donated by somebody back home, and my heart leaps a little.

The adults here will often stop and watch as we roll by. We have priority, and there are TV and radio ads telling people that military convoys always have the right-of-way. We basically bull our way through the chaotic Kabul traffic. Afghanistan has no national driver’s license. Kabul has city licenses, but that’s about it. There are no traffic laws, only tendencies. They tend to drive on the right side of the road, they tend to drive in lanes, etc. The road is shared by everything from automobiles to “jingle trucks” (Large trucks blinged-out Afghan style,) to donkey carts, bicycles, and even hand carts. It is not unusual to see a flat-bed cart pushed by one or two men occupying the right lane of the road. The rest of the traffic responds as a flooded stream would respond to an obstruction; it rushes around it by whatever route seems to offer the least resistance.

Traffic patterns here are much like swollen streams. It flows like an angry current, swirling and eddying and rushing and pooling. Pedestrians add to the chaos, rushing out into traffic seemingly without looking. There are police everywhere, but they only seem to really control the traffic circles. At the traffic circles, it’s chaos on the brink of cataclysm.

Most Afghan drivers will yield the right of way to the convoys once they see them. There’s a problem. Another tendency… the closest to a law that they have; Afghan drivers rarely if ever use their mirrors. They don’t see us coming, and we have to honk our dinky little horns to get their attention. Humvee horns are not impressive in the least. They sound like old Volkswagen horns. “Beep Beep,” says the seven ton behemoth with the heavy machine gun turret.

Some of the adults stare expressionless. If you wave to them from the turret, about 9 in 10 of them will wave back. Many will smile, once the trance is broken. One man stared at me from the window of a truck. I watch everyone, everything. I looked back. He stared into my dark sunglass/goggles with the same expressionless look that is most common. Curious, yet reserved. I broke the silent moment with a casual wave. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “No.” I mentioned it over the intercom with amusement as I warily kept an eye on him.

“He does not like you,” Cowboy said. Hmmm. “You really think so, sir?”

You must understand that we don’t want to be bottled up in traffic. There are people here, in Kabul, who would like to turn our trucks into flaming wreckage, former humvees become portable ovens in which to cremate our remains. We, on the other hand, would very much like not to be cremated at this juncture. We prefer to keep moving, at least being a moving target. Some of the guys take traffic tie-ups as a personal challenge to their survival and become very aggressive. If a driver obviously sees us and does not move over when there is an opportunity to, a gunner may throw a water bottle at him to get his attention. This invariably works.

It is not, however, good PR. There are some mullahs preaching in the mosques that we are disrespecting the Afghan people with this behavior. I don’t know how much effect the preaching is having. I have never thrown a bottle at an Afghan driver. That is not to say that I won’t if I feel it necessary. I just haven’t found it necessary yet.

If we feel threatened we can shoot, obviously. No one wants to kill a civilian. The problem with insurgents is that they blend in with the population… we don’t know if the guy in the truck window might shoot us, or if the guys cutting into traffic are trying to detonate a bomb in their car. So we watch everyone with suspicion, and they look back with expressionless curiosity.

We must be quite an enigma to them. The easiest one to see is the gunner. When I’m up in the cupola, I wrap my face in a shemagh (traditional Afghan head wrap) to keep from breathing the dust and wear my WileyX SG1 sunglasses with the gaskets to keep the sand out of my eyes. You can’t see what I look like.

Just as well… they’d probably shoot me on sight if they could see my face, figuring they were doing me a favor!

Anyway, we must be like space aliens to them. But when the stare is broken by a wave, many will smile and wave back. Some nod. Others give us the “thumbs up.”

I always wonder, “Was that an American thumb, or an Afghan thumb?”

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bill and Bob,
    Some of my friends are getting ready to leave. They are going stir crazy, I think. lol. Anyway, they can relate to what you are doing. They've been reminiscing over the first days when they arrived and comparing them with the way they view life there now. It is remarkable different. Hang in there! :)

    Thank you so very much for protecting America, Afghanistan and me. I am very proud of and grateful to you. Have a nice day.


All comments will be moderated due to spamming of old posts.