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.


  1. Great post, I learn something everytime I come here.
    Will you have the time/means/inclination to keep posting when you go on your new assignment?
    We sure hope so, but we know that your mission is probably more important!

  2. Dear M,

    When I first started reading, I became frightened. Only for a second though. Then I realized that for the next 18 hours I will be on my knees more than ever. I am grateful for that.

    Also, by the time I got to the end of your post, I was in stitches! I know I've told you before that you write magnificantly, but you really must save all of your writings for a compilation. I know I would buy one. :)

    You take care. God bless you, and I am praying for your group and you.


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