Monday, May 28, 2007

Our New Home

I'm not sure how to write about this, but I'll do my best.

We are in the middle of nowhere. Actually, we are at the intersection of the Valley of Nowhere and the Valley of the Green Giant. I just haven't been able to see the Stokely water tower in the distance, but I know it's there. It took us a couple of hours over mostly bad roads to get here, and that ride was even more beautiful than the ride to Mehtar Lam. The farms and fields and trees are similar, but the valley is more spectacular than the rolling hills around Mehtar Lam. Lots of rice being grown, no apparent lack of water, lots of greenery until the mountain slopes begin to rise from the valley floor.

Here I've seen home-grown engineering like nothing I've ever seen before. Afghans are pretty much masters at managing water on the farm level. If they could do that on the national level they'd be in business, but that's another story. On the individual level, they do some fairly amazing things with primitive tools. Like parallel streams, one about 5 feet higher than the other. I've seen them carry a farm stream over a trench with a simple aquaduct made of branches and mud. I've seen them do some things bringing water into their paddies that people would pay to have in their back yards. They do all of this with the simplest of tools.

The children still break my heart. Today we did a convoy movement... only three vehicles... and when the children in each little village realized that American vehicles were coming through they came running out... mostly too late. It must have felt like missing the ice cream truck felt when I was a kid.

Here's a heartbreaker... a kid who for the second time (uh... that would be both times I've seen him in my life) signalled that he wanted a pencil and paper. He wasn't asking for candy, or for water even; he wanted paper and a pencil. I'm going to get him a pad and something to write with at the PX and toss it to him when we go by again tomorrow. An Afghan kid who wants to write... that's the future of Afghanistan.

We've got a huge challenge on our hands; the Afghan adults. The ANA have advanced a lot. Corruption is down, logistic efficiency is up, and the overall professionalism level has really gone up over the past several years. We are not working with the ANA now. Now we are working with the ANP (Afghan National Police.) They are not a Police force like an American would think of it... at least not yet. First, they must defeat an insurgency in their neighborhoods.

They are at this point more like the local armed militia. We are to work with them on Infantry skills as well as community policing concepts. They need to be able to defeat the Taliban when they encounter them, all while engaging the community. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

It's not.

The leadership are reluctant, possibly frightened. The soldier/policemen are ill-led. There is no direction, and no code of ethics. They have no professionalism. All of this will have to be built from the ground up.

They see no reason to change. They are getting paid for doing nothing... why should that change? One man with extensive experience in Afghanistan recently said, "Afghans are among the hardest working people on Earth... until you put a uniform on them." As we engage these leaders, we find a ton of excuses. We don't accept the excuses, but we must work through them. They try to tire us out with frustration. We will not give up. I've heard these excuses before... at homework time and bedtime. They really are that simple.

Afghans surprise me with their child-like qualities. It helps in this role to be a parent. I've seen this stuff before... from little kids. Nobody has ever made them accountable... at least not their public servants. The accepted norm is that they shake down the populace as a benefit of their office.

Afghanistan will not change to the extent that this country really needs until at least the next generation. The kid who points to his palm as we roll through, symbolizing his desire to write; he is the future of Afghanistan, but only if we don't quit on his dad. It's funny that we need to secure our own safety by teaching another civilization how to grow up.

We will teach these guys that they can defeat the Taliban when they meet them. The ANA did the same thing, and now they generally tear up the Taliban whenever there is a confrontation.

Once there is local security, all kinds of positive things will happen for the citizens... schools, water projects... all the stuff that people have time to work on when they aren't concerned about being shot at or blown up.
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Monday, May 21, 2007


We are moving today. Waiting for a Lieutenant Colonel and his convoy to come here and get right this minute. Last minute check on the email... the people who write me warm my heart and keep me connected and sane. I love my friends.

A couple of days at Bagram and then we are off to the hinterlands. It's supposed to be beautiful and dangerous there. I'm not sure of the internet situation there. Another wall of the unknown... these walls are always paper; you just crash right through them and then what's on the other side is what it is. It was always that way... but I just couldn't see it behind the paper wall. This is that way, too.

Another paper wall. At sixty miles an hour.

Most times they don't hurt... much. See you on the other side!
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Friday, May 18, 2007

Farewell To Dubs... But When?

Someday soon it will be farewell to Camp Dubs. I cannot explain our new mission, other than to say that it is a mentoring mission along the lines of the ANA mission, that we are moving to the east, and the area we are going to is not known for it's friendly treatment of Afghan National or Coalition forces. That would be putting it mildly.

It isn't precisely clear when we will be leaving here. We know that first we will go to a larger base and then to a very small camp out near the area we will be operating in. There will be lots of challenges, and the living situation is described at this point as a tent.

Well... okay, then. Whatever.

We feel that we have the best mission out of the whole team. More difficult, in a more dangerous area, with the potential to get some work started that will probably take years to complete. We are starting a project from ground zero, and it is a blank slate.

There is not much information available about the people that we will be working with on the Afghan side of the house. We will be the ones to gather that information, like who is who and who is tied to who by what kind of link or activity. Some of them will not be happy to see us, of that we can be sure. The appearance of an American Army mentoring team is like serving notice that the corruption is going to come to light.

We cannot do anything to stop the corruption other than to document it as we find it, and report it. We can set an example. We can disapprove. We cannot stop it. But the beginning of change is to shed light on it. Some of it may change during our tenure, but a little progress will allow acceleration later.

There are other Afghan institutions that have seen great change in the past five and a half years. Those changes are bearing fruit. The ANA used to be a top-heavy, thoroughly corrupt, inefficient organization that hoarded supplies needed by soldiers in the field and had no accountability for any of its weapons or equipment.

There are still practices in the ANA that would make Americans cry out for an investigation and the incarceration of those responsible. The Afghans have been doing business a certain way for literally thousands of years... and we call it corrupt. Bribes, nepotism, gangsterism... these are all ways of life for the average Afghan. If you find yourself in charge of supplies, you don't just issue them, you charge the user. Or you hoard them.

People who have had nothing in the past often become packrats when they actually have something.

There is an enormous amount of money being spent here. Much of it does, in fact go to waste. On the other hand, progress is being made, and patterns of accountability are being established. Little by little, entities are changing. Afghans are by no means stupid. They see angles... all of the angles. There are honest Afghans and there are corrupt Afghans. There is a lot of cronyism. There are literally "mafias" within organizations that gain control of a certain commodity and use it to make profits for themselves. Supplies disappear. Pay is misallocated. Ghosts are "paid." Money lines pockets.

This is the way that business has been done in Afghanistan for thousands of years. It is a pattern of behavior that holds the country back as much as the inter-tribal distrust, hatred and warfare that has crippled this country to the present day. It is not something that is going to change overnight.

Afghanistan is like a diamond in the rough. These resilient people are not stupid, they are not lazy (I've seen Afghans do things by hand that an American simply would not do without equipment... and they keep at it until it is done,) and they are not hopeless. They need to be shown a new way of doing things. A lot of them simply don't know any better, or they cannot change the system by themselves.

We are still in the picking through the aggregate stage, trying to unearth the diamond. Parts of the diamond show through the rock and dirt clinging to the jewel, small glints of light making their way to the beholder's eye. Other parts of this stone are still securely embedded in the worthless stuff that stubbornly clings to the yet to be revealed gem. The hardened detritus of ages that seems so securely bonded in place will not give way all at once; it takes tenacious persistence to unearth this diamond.

Once that is done, there is time to cut and polish the stone to shine in the crown of Asia.

Afghanistan has so much potential. These are tough, hardy people. They are smart, if misguided. They are trapped by years of tradition that bind them to corruption, violence, age-old grudges, and death.

What we are doing here is lost unless the other pieces of the solution eventually come into play. Afghanistan has for too long been the backwater hillbilly heart of Asia. Landlocked, mountainous, isolated both by choice and by disregard, time has stood not quite still. This country is like a funhouse mirror of history and development. Part stone age, part industrial age, part primordeal mountain/desert with a touch of post-apocalyptic Mad Max society thrown in.

Afghanistan needs to be exposed to the rest of the world. Afghans suck up culture like a sponge, adapting it to their needs quickly and efficiently. Their isolation needs to be lifted. There is only one way to do this, really... commerce.

Afghanistan is full of mineral wealth. Metal ores, minerals, gems, natural gas... all of the products of a young mountain chain are here. The only gem of note that Afghanistan does not have in apparent abundance are diamonds.

Maybe I should have described this place as an emerald in the rough.

The country is full of smart, if uneducated people. The literacy rate is miserable here, but that should change considerably within a generation... unless we let the Taliban take this place back. The people are smart, and they are tough. They are also unemployed. There is a large labor pool here with no fear of hard work.

Once peace breaks out here, companies should be incented to come here and help Afghanistan exploit her natural wealth. This will both remove the breeding ground of the Taliban... ignorance, hopelessness, fatalism, and isolation... and it will raise the standard of living of the Afghan people. It will also make a lot of money for the companies who do.

There is a catch, however. Afghanistan is landlocked, and in a country roughly the size of Texas there are about 15 miles of railroad. Ooops. No good. There is trade route problem... but in a world strapped for natural resources, there may be some value in building a railroad to this ore-rich country full of smart, determined, tough-as-nails people.

There is word that the Chinese would like to build an overland trade route on the bed of the old Silk Road. Hmmmm.

I don't think I've ever seen such inventiveness as I have here. I've also never seen such harebrained antics in my life. Climbing up the beautiful gorges on the road back from Jalalabad, we passed a jingle truck, a semi, struggling up the grade. It move so slowly that as we approached it from behind I wondered if it was being drawn by camels. It wouldn't have surprised me as much as what I saw as we passed this truck. I looked down from my turret in amazement as I saw a man standing on the front bumper of the straining truck. Hood agape, he was pouring water into the radiator as the truck edged up the mountain road. It was insane.

Twice on the same trip I watched in a mixture of amusement and horror as a Toyota van filled to the gills with people passed and noted an extra passenger sitting cross-legged on the roof of the van as it sped towards J-bad. I've seen seven people on a motorcycle... an entire family. It looks like a circus act, and it happens all the time. Two on a bicycle isn't anything new here, but four looks pretty impressive. Afghans will ride anything with wheels, and they will have what appears to be a four year old clinging precariously to some part of it as they do so. Afghans will do things with wheeled vehicles and children that would have newpapers in an uproar back in the States. It is commonplace here. Goats are a whole other story... goats can be secured to any suitable surface of any vehicle... apparently by bungee cords or whatever is handy.

Afghans will modify anything to suit their purposes. The ubiquitous CONEX shipping containers that fill the decks of container ships are the real-life Legos of the Afghan urban designer. If there is a place where all the lost left socks of the world end up, this is the place where all the lost left shipping containers wind up. Afghans can make anything out of a CONEX... usually a home, sometimes a shop, I won't be a bit surprised when I see one rolling down the road with four tires of different sizes and an engine. And a guy on the front pouring coolant in.
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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Darulaman: The Dowager Queen of Kabul

Ever since we arrived at Camp Dubs, we have all been fascinated by the Queen's Palace, Darulaman. Perched on a steep hill overlooking the camp, she stands a shattered symbol of the dream of Afghanistan. Several times since we've been here, someone was going to make coordination with the ANA for us to go up and tour the old Queen of Kabul, but somehow it just never seemed to get coordinated.

Yesterday morning, after working in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center,) my time-filler job until the new mission starts sometime this week, my fellow driftees and I had made plans to ascend the big hill for PT. In the meantime, one of our number made the outrageous claim that coordination was being made that very morning for us to tour the palace. Not having faith in any such nonsense, the Green Mountain Maniac and I decided not to forego our planned ascent and proceeded anyway.

We walked up the hill, which we do at a rapid pace, then back down... it's about 3 miles or so all told, and a 500 foot plus elevation change upwards. Then we got coordination to go up to the Queen's Palace, which was a welcomed shock. The hill the old Queen sits on doesn't look so high, but it is probably about 150 feet or so, and really steep. We had to put on all of our "battle rattle," which is our body armor, helmet, holster, and all of our weapons and ammunition. Like I've said, about 70-75 lbs worth of stuff, and then we climbed that hill.

After climbing the big hill, my legs were already tired. The much shorter, steeper hill was just what I needed! I'm not sore, but my thighs were just about to reach muscle failure going up that thing!

Upon our arrival at the top, we had to let the ANA who guard the place know that we were there so that we wouldn't be inadvertently shot while touring the old landmark. We found five jovial ANA waiting for us with the traditional greeting... chai. Chai is the ubiquitous green tea of Afghanistan. We were presented with glass cups (whose last time being thoroughly washed with detergent and clean water was probably when the palace was still occupied by a monarch) full of steaming pale green chai. It is an insult to decline the chai. We were made guests and we could not refuse the hospitality of our hosts. As we sipped the sweet chai, we did the best we could to communicate with our ANA hosts. I'll spare the struggles, but the gist of it is this: chai good, Afghanistan good, Pakistan bad, Osama in Pakistan, Osama in Islamabad, a hand-gestured demonstration that we should bomb Islamabad, and American snuff makes their heads spin. We were pleased with our ability to communicate without an interpreter.

We presented our hosts with gifts of Coke, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, and Sprite, and took our leave over the chai-swilling protests of our hosts to tour the ruined palace. Just then a Navy Commander rolled up with a terp in his Ford Ranger.

"Hey, I was going to give you a ride up the hill, but you guys had already taken off!" he announced. My thighs mumbled dirty words to me as we laughed.

The palace was really interesting. It was completed in 1931 and a German engineer was in charge of it. It is absolutely massive, and I can't tell you how many rooms it had. Very little of the interior hadn't been stripped. It was apparent that everything had been looted over the years. The walls were bare... and by that I mean that the marble, tile, or whatever had been removed... and even the electrical wires had been pulled out. Most of the stair railings had been removed, too. People will take any kind of scrap metal to sell. The marble floors had been torn up, with only remnants remaining, and in one bathroom all of the tile had been removed along with the bathtub, which had to be incredibly heavy, judging by the ones that remained.
In the center of the building there was a small courtyard, the palace surrounding it with glassless windows. It was ghostly, because of all the life that had once been there.

Some of the rooms were enormous, columned rooms that were large enough for the ANA guards to kick around a soccer ball, having a good time. The walls were bare concrete, the low-aggregate concrete having been used in construction like plaster. The only decorative features were the nicely poured concrete columns, much too massive to remove. Here and there some of the marble coverings survived.

She is a lifeless hulk now, stripped of even its wiring. Concertina wire fills some of the stairways, and sandbagged bunkers occupy what had been beautiful open balconies. There is dramatic evidence of huge blows to the building.

The sturdy construction of the building was violently exposed in one room by the impact of some type of high explosive projectile. Five layers of brickwork were penetrated, a hole about four and a half feet wide open to the air. Inside the room was a pile of shattered brick. The force of the explosion had been so great that brick material was blown onto the opposite wall like mud spatters, firmly adhering to the concrete wall.

With a little imagination it is not too hard to imagine the former majesty of this great edifice. It still bears a ghostly dignity, even as a matriarch of battle; a testament to the fact that no matter how hard this country is battered, it still stands, bullet holes and all. She may seem lifeless and bleak, but as long as she stands on the hill overlooking Kabul, there is hope she will be restored. Kabul teems with life, struggling to rebuild, but this dowager queen stands patiently on her hill, and life will not fill her halls once again until Kabul is restored first.

She is a fitting symbol of Kabul, and of Afghanistan.
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Friday, May 11, 2007

Reverse Cycle

There are really no pictures to show of the past week or so, because there is nothing all that interesting to take pictures of at this point. The situation is constantly changing for myself and a couple of other soldiers from my team. We found out a couple of weeks ago that there was a requirement from our higher headquarters to detach a number of people from each team for a different mission. I'm not going to go into the precise details about it at this time, but suffice it to say that it is hard to see my team go downrange with our ANA counterparts while we are cast into another role that is very hard to picture.

As human beings, we like routine. We like predictability. It's more comfortable than the unknown. We like to be able to picture what our life is going to look like tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Part of this whole journey has always been the unknown, but it is as uncomfortable as you would imagine it being in your own life. Before our arrival in Afghanistan, we had all seen pictures and video of what it looks like, but nothing on a small screen can compare with the reality of being on the ground, seeing the enormity of it all. Nothing can prepare you completely for the spectacle of Kabul, the distant beauty of the snow-covered mountains looming in the background as the dust rises over Kabul like steam from a boiling pot. Nothing can prepare you for the chaos of driving in the bizarre traffic, for the ever-present poverty, for the heartbreak of seeing the children with such terrible conditions and such questionable futures.

As dramatic as the pictures may be, nothing is the same as driving through the chasms of the mountain passes down to Jalalabad with the Kabul River's cataracts shouldering up next to the road as if competing for the space. None of this could be experienced as we sought information, trying to picture the life we were throwing ourselves into. We had a clue, and more importantly, we had a clear idea... as clear as we could, anyway... of what our mission was. We had an idea of how we would apply our previous experiences and existing knowledge to make an impact, to achieve a mission. We had a mission description that, while by no means complete, was enough for us to form a mental scheme for how to approach it.

The new mission is so much sketchier, so much more ephemeral. It is an unknown in so many ways. It is new ground, and the most we can gather about it is a very scant description of where to find it on the map. As for the people we will be working with on the Afghan side, we know nothing at all except what organization they belong to, and the particular division of even that organization was only made clearer yesterday. The mission is still being defined by those whose job it is to define such things, and so we wait for the thinkers and planners to allocate the resources that we are and define what they can.

There is no doctrine that covers this assignment. There is scant experiential knowledge of this type of mentoring. Some have been doing it for a few months, and I've had a chance to speak with them about it. They are winging it. There is no doubt that they are doing good things, but nothing they have ever done has been specifically targeted to this type of mission. Yet, everything they have ever done is being plumbed for the skills required to accomplish it.

So, I and my two fellow NCO's who have been extricated from the team that we have trained with for months face the unknown together. We know that this mission will be one of two things; it will either be fraught with a total lack of excitement or an overabundance of it. We may do nothing more than assist with the administrative functions being performed in an attempt to increase efficiency and accountability. If we are attacked with any degree of ferocity, we may find ourselves beyond any Coalition help that could arrive in time to make a difference. We will be off by ourselves in a position of great vulnerability, yet we may be performing desk work and never be bothered by anything more consequential than Afghan insects and the corruption known to be systemic in the organization we are going to assist and mentor.

In the meantime, they had to find something for us to do. One of our number, The Green Mountain Maniac, has a mechanical bent. He is assisting in the motor pool with the maintenance and repair of the vehicles. The other has been detailed to assist the S-1, or Personnel Officer, with whatever it is that Personnel Officers do, and I have been relegated to the TOC, or Tactical Operations Center, on the night shift, monitoring radios and situations and being a "TOCroach." I am on the "Reverse Cycle," awake all night, unable to adequately sleep during the day, and being largely invisible.

Life on our FOB has thinned out considerably in the past few days as teams of mentors "RIP out" to the east with their ANA units. "RIP" is short for "Relief In Place." It means that these ANA units, with their Army, Marine, or French mentors, will relieve the units currently operating within the Area of Operations (AO) and those units will head back into their respective garrisons for rest, training, and a break from life on the smaller FOB's which are in some cases more like combat outposts and patrol bases.

With fewer people, the FOB is not quite a ghost town, but it is a lot less crowded. Still, the ubiquitous workers from KBR are still here, fixing things, fixing chow, bustling about at a steady pace. The KBR people are here on contracts; civilians who come for whatever reasons... usually money and the tax advantages... and they are responsible for keeping the facilities working and the chow flowing. They do a great job. Our chow is top notch, and the facilities are clean and functional. A lot of the KBR people are American, but some come from Russia, the Ukraine, and I talked to one yesterday from Kosovo. I can't speak for everyone, but I don't see a lot of wasted contract money being spent right here.

For right now, I await a nebulous mission while I contribute in the TOC at night, dreading another change like the jet lag I experienced just about a month ago. I am a yawning denizen of the night, listening to the events that unfold in the dark all over our little portion of Afghanistan. The French are hard to understand on the radio, sounding like the transmissions between the divers and Calypso in the old Jacques Cousteau shows. There have been events, but usually they are short-lived harassment fires that carry the same earmarks as juvenile pranks, with the notable difference that if they do accidentally hit something, someone could die.

We are moving in less than a week. At this point, we are not sure which FOB we will move to. We have no idea if the internet will be accessible from there. I hope so. The internet helps me stay connected, helps me stay sane, in touch with my friends and children. One thing I never expected was to "meet" new people, Americans, while in Afghanistan, but that has happened, too. I've "met" people simply because they have commented on this blog! Never expected that. The support is wonderful. Will this new mission sever the "silver cord" that has kept me plugged into life in the States, too? I have no idea.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Reconnaisance to Jalalabad

We are more or less on the southwestern edge of Kabul, so we had to go through Kabul to get started to J-bad. Not long after leaving Kabul, the mountain pass starts, following the Kabul River. A few miles later, the really dramatic stuff starts, with the road on the side of the mountain with no guard rails, retaining walls, or anything between you and a 500 - 1000 foot drop down the mountainside. At this point the river is far below. There are a series of switchbacks carved into the mountain, and you descend down until the road is next to the river again.

When you leave Kabul, there is a large marshy area before the river flows into the mountains. As the river heads down the mountain pass, the water is muddy brown. The raw sewage of Kabul flows into the Kabul River. Kabul's infrastructure was destroyed by the war, so there isn't much else they can do. There are a couple of dams and hydroelectric power stations, and then a fair-sized lake. Then the water takes on an aqua green color for the rest of the way down the course, which looks beautiful as it splashes down a seemingly never ending series of rapids to a broad, flat valley full of rice paddies and grazing livestock. The drive through this area is absolutely pastoral. The fields are well-tended, and there are people in twos and threes every few hundred yards or so working in the fields, walking, sometimes groups of children playing or helping.

After a while, there is another dam and a pretty good sized lake with several villages along the shores. It is beautiful, almost Mediterranean-looking.

I think I may have mentioned before that I kind of test the mood of the people in a certain place by waving to them. Support for the central government in Kabul is spotty. Some places very much support the government, the ANA, and Hamid Karzai. Others... not so much. The reasons are various, but suffice it say that some do and some don't. Some, on the extreme ends of the poles, are vehemently for or against. I get a quick and dirty read on this by waving to people and making a humble friendly gesture. Some will wave enthusiastically, some will wave half-heartedly, some will give the 'thumbs up' (which may or may not be good,) some will not respond at all, and some will make a negative gesture. Some will only stare with unbridled hatred in their eyes. I call it the 'death stare.' You can tell that they are literally wishing you dead. It is pure evil.

I guage the general support of the people in that area (and our chances of getting attacked by locals, of course,) by the relative balance between the above. We also look for the presence or absence of children. If there are no kids around, it is a bad sign, and we all hunker a little lower in the turrets.

One of these quaint little lakeside towns was one of the most hostile places I've been while in-country. It was a pretty little lakeside town, too.

Our first destination was a little town called Mehtar Lam. It was a little out of the way off of the main road, and it was a deceivingly pleasant drive. The road was paved the whole way, and the farms and villages and Khalats (walled family compounds whose walls are made of a mud/straw mixture 2-4 feet thick and as much as 25 feet tall)
are well-kept and beautiful. Lots of rice was being grown there, and water didn't seem to be an issue. Clean drinking water was probably a problem, but not water for the paddies. There were many beautiful, green scenes along the way. Lots of children were playing and people were working in the fields.

In nearly every village you could smell the strong odor of marijuana being smoked, seemingly by the bushel. It reeked. You don't smell dope in Kabul, but in the southeast, you smell it in nearly every village.

We looked at the fob and headed back to the main road into J-bad.

It is about a mile drop in elevation between Kabul and Jalalabad. The air is thicker, warmer, and much more humid. It's not like an American city, where there is a clue that you are getting there. Seemingly out of nowhere, J-bad just happens. The people in Jalalabad are mostly Pashtuns, the largest tribe in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership and origins are Pashtun. Still, there are those who wave enthusiastically, and there are those who give the death stare. I just wave, and observe the reaction. I make a point to wave right at the ones who seem to be staring. I acknowledge their hatred with a polite nod of my head and go about my business, noting their position and whether or not they seem to be armed or trying to make a cell phone call. A couple of times I have put my hand on my pistol... the machine gun is the last thing you want to use on a busy street, and the pistol is quicker than the rifle. They can't see what I've done, but there have been a couple who I thought might be more than idly hostile.

For all I know, they are Taliban. The thing about insurgents is that they don't wear uniforms and they mix with the people. It has been written that the people are the water that the insurgent fish swims in. Part of our job is to separate him from the water. I'm sure that I've looked right into Taliban eyes by now. I just can't be sure which ones. I won't take action against someone I'm not sure is an enemy. But to ignore them is to court disaster.

J-bad was not nearly as dirty nor anywhere close to as damaged as Kabul. It seems like a resort next to the post-apocalyptic world of the capitol city. There were trees, and greenery, and undamaged buildings and new businesses and undamaged pavement.

There was a new gas station/mini mart along the lines of any American gas station. It was brand new and hadn't even opened yet. It was called "Atock" and instead of concrete or blacktop, the area was paved with bricks. The sign that declared it to be open 24 hours was in English. It was so out of place, it made me laugh.

Even here, in this Pashtun stronghold, there were people who were obviously still happy to see us. We went to the Jalalabad Airfield (JAF) and ate dinner, then went the roughly half mile up the road to the Army compound which also contains Bin Ladin's last known address and spent the night there.

I wonder if anyone checked with the Post Office to see if he had filed an address forwarding card. No, that would be too easy.

We all woke up fairly early the next morning, got the vehicles ready, and then headed to breakfast at JAF. The made-to-order omelet was pretty good, but the sausage was terrible. Then we mounted up again and headed out of town to a place called Khogyani. It was roughly 20 - 30 km outside of J-bad, and as we rolled out of town into more of the farmland dotted with khalats and interspersed with small villages, it was a pretty nice drive.
The paved road was in fairly decent shape and the traffic wasn't bad at all.

Suddenly, the paved road ended, and although we didn't know it, the saying, "ten miles of bad road" was about to take on new meaning. The road was rocky, dusty, full of ruts and washboards, and in places it was blocked. As we drove we would occasionally come across vehicles coming the other direction, and they were very often the ubiquitous Toyota Corollas of Afghanistan. It was amazing how people will drive those cars just about anywhere. I'm sure that road is nothing but a quagmire when it rains.

We rolled past a number of Khalats surrounded by fields and livestock and finally entered a scenic little village and up the main street. The greeting was a bit lukewarm, but we knew we were close to where we were going and didn't mind that much. We rolled out of the village and could see the fob up on a hill, but we were on the wrong road! We stopped by a large Khalat that looked more like a small village in it's own right and figured out our plan to get on the right track. A couple of us noticed what happened next... all the women who were out in the fields began to walk back into the Khalat while a teenage boy stood next to the gate watching us intently. Khogyani had been rocketed only four days before, and this area has a small but active group of Taliban. Twenty years ago, the Soviet response to that type of activity was sometimes to raze the nearest village to demonstrate their power and to try to destroy the shelter of the Mujahideen. Perhaps they expected the same treatment from us. In any case, the women calmly walked back into the village and a few minutes later we turned around and headed back through the bazaar to the intersection where we had missed the turn.

Minutes later, we were entering the fob. After sweating inside the vehicles in our body armor, getting out into the bright sunlight and shucking our shells was heaven. In the distance beyond the rolling hills around Khogyani were snowcapped mountains. We found ourselves next to a small castle surrounded by Hesco barriers (modular barriers made of interlocking wire baskets with a feltlike bag liner that hold anything from dirt to concrete and are excellent barrier walls.) As we walked into the "castle" I realized that it was a khalat. It felt like we were in a small western fort. We joked about how the only thing we were missing here was to be surrounded by a ring of whooping Comanches riding circles around us and firing arrows over the walls.

It turns out that the khalat had been owned by a Taliban Lieutenant who fled to Pakistan when the Americans helped the Northern Alliance take over Afghanistan and kicked the Talibs out. The provincial governor had handed it over to the Army to use as a base. What a trip, I thought, to be using the enemy's former home as a base. Now there are Americans and ANA stationed there to be the government's presence in the area.

The four rockets that had landed at the camp a few days earlier had done no real harm. One had landed next to the Afghan's volleyball court and rearranged the sand. The Afghans are avid volleyball players, believe it or not. We saw a game going on outside a small village on our way back out of Mehtar Lam the previous day.

We stayed for about two hours and then saddled up again for the six hour drive from Khogyani back up to Kabul. We drove back along the same road, seeing everything from the opposite angle. Finally we rolled back into J-bad, rolled through and headed out of town towards the mountains to the northwest.

We retraced our route up the broad river valley, and stopped at the Afghan equivalent to a truck stop to let the vehicles cool down and swap out drivers/gunners. I had been driving up to this point, and I wanted to experience the pass from the turret. We stopped well out away from anything, did our close proximity checks for any dangers and dismounted the vehicles. We must look like spacemen to the locals, helmeted, armored, with earphones and microphones and weapons hanging all over us as we dismount our vehicles. I waved to a family of Afghans sitting in front of their house next to the "store" and they waved back, watching with intent curiosity.

We all grabbed bottles of water to drink (it's amazing how good warm water can taste!) and some grabbed snacks or a smoke while we assumed a posture of relaxed vigilance. Heads on swivels, we stretched our legs and enjoyed the breeze outside of our humvees. I glanced over at a nearby village and saw a group of children coming up a trail towards us. I counted: seven. I got into the "trunk" of our humvee and opened a twelve pack of water and pulled out the package.

As the children arrived, they knew that the water was for them. I passed out the water, making sure that each got at least one bottle of water. The children here will continue to beg, and it's heartrending, but once you have given them something, it's easier. We can't give something to everyone, but I do what I can. I took pictures of them as we mounted back up and headed towards the mountains.

We went back through up the valley in reverse order as it narrowed, past the dam and the beautiful, quaint, hostile village of Sarobi, back up into the narrowing passes and into the beautiful, primitive mountainous wonder. This time I had a full appreciation of the incredible, massive beauty of the mountains and all of the detail. There was so much to see... and I was still watching for people up on the mountainsides who wanted to blow us up.

The view from the turret was absolutely stunning. It's like being in the ultimate convertible, but with elevation and the ability to turn 360 degrees.

As we went along the river, the spray from the rapids could be felt from time to time. I kept my mouth closed. It was beautiful, but completely unsafe. It still felt good. We climbed into the sun, twisting and turning.

After a dramatic climb up a mountainside full of switchbacks we finally drove up a stretch of slightly more open space and through a final pass into the dusty plain that Kabul lies on. We had returned and it was time to make our way back through the chaos to Camp Phoenix, where we stopped for dinner, and on back to Camp Dubs. It was after dark when we returned, tired, incredibly dirty, and happy to have done it all without injury. We were "home."

And so they called a meeting. I wanted to strangle someone.
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