Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Afghanistan and Afghans; Random Observations

I know that I've talked about Afghanistan and how beautiful it is. I've also talked about Afghans. Forgive me if I repeat myself on any of these observations. I'm just kind of going through things that I notice about both.

There are more rocks in Afghanistan than anywhere else on earth. In places, you would swear that they are actually farming them. This is the easiest place on Earth to roll an ankle.

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but there seems to be plenty of water in the area where I work. The local farmers manage it really well; they direct and divert the water to where they need it. Afghans are more likely to kill each other over water than any other single reason. We have seen a group of men rush up to a man who was hacking into a small ditch with running water in it and beat the tar out of him with shovels because he was apparently violating local water policy.

Wow... what if your neighbors came over and beat you with garden implements because your toilet was running all night or you had a sprinkler on?

In Afghanistan, hacking is not a computer crime. It is a water crime.

Where farmers manage the water, things grow. Where they do not, it is rocky and barren. It's a fluid situation.

The soil does not readily soak up water. It rarely rains, but when it does, it puddles quickly and the puddles last for days.

The fields are mostly fairly small, perhaps an acre or two, many are smaller. Many are bordered with three to four foot tall mud walls, and all of the vineyards are surrounded by five to six foot high mud walls. Every field is bordered with irrigation ditches that are most often dry except when in use.

Afghans let their livestock roam free a lot. It is not uncommon for a cow, or a small group of cows, to be walking unattended down the road.

Afghans use a lot of donkeys. Not mules; donkeys. The little ones. Our guys consider the gray donkeys to be lucky and the black ones unlucky.

That's a joke. When there is nothing else to do on a convoy, someone will call out lucky and unlucky donkey sightings. The gray donkey of good fortune is always greeted with enthusiasm.

This is only among our small group. I don't think most guys give them a second thought.

Donkeys carry everything from very heavy looking loads to Afghans. Today we saw a guy riding a donkey full-out. It was hilarious. He looked like Icabod Crane on a pony. Mostly, the donkeys never look like they are in a hurry, and they seem to trudge.

The only enthusiasm you ever get from a full-grown donkey is a sudden raucous braying display that occurs early in the morning like a rooster crowing and then again at irregular intervals during the day. We still do not understand what sets them off. The rest of the time, they look like they wish someone would shoot them.

Eeyore was an Afghan donkey. I never understood that until I saw Afghan donkeys. I wondered after seeing the Afghan donkeys if A. A. Milne was an Afghan veteran of the British Army. He wasn't. He did serve in the British Army, but that was in WW-I. He surely spoke with veterans of the last British campaign in Afghanistan, who surely spoke of the mopey donkeys of Afghanistan. Eeyore was born of these conversations, I'm sure.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. Eeyore is an Afghan. The makers of the cartoon simply left out his heavy accent. Imagine, if you will, Eeyore with a heavy Afghan accent. See? It makes the character all the more comic.

Even the tail makes sense. If you had ever seen an Afghan ladder, or the wiring jobs they do between houses, the nailed-on tail would make perfect sense. Again, my point; Eeyore is... you guessed it... an Afghan.

All manner of domestic animals can be encountered on the plains, hillsides, and roads of Afghanistan. It is not uncommon to brake wildly to avoid sheep, cattle, and even chickens. How they keep the animals straight is beyond me. Who knows who owns that chicken we just slammed on the brakes for?

Does anyone? Or is it a community chicken? It certainly can't be a wild chicken. What would a feral chicken look like?

Here you must share the right of way with herds of sheep and goats. While in the United States we have to run public service messages to remind motorists that bicyclists are also permitted to use the road system, it is not uncommon to come around a bend in the road to find the road clogged with a massive herd of sheep or goats... or both.

We slow to a crawl and honk our horns, trying to make our way through the mass of animals.

Many of the animals roam so unconcernedly that they simply do not seem to care if they are hit by a humvee or not. On the way to a mission at the very end of July, my crew and I had an encounter with a herd of sheep. A single young ram detached itself from the herd and wandered out in front of my humvee. It actually walked straight towards my humvee. We slowed to less than walking speed, barely edging forward.

The ram was apparently an extremist. He sacrificed himself, vainly attempting to disable my 6-ton vehicle with his body. It was a valiant effort, but his sacrifice went for naught. How can any animal be killed by a vehicle moving less than a mile an hour? Jihadist ram.

It is a fairly common practice to send the cows out in the morning with a donkey for a leader. Apparently cattle will follow a donkey. Perhaps the donkey has some method of maintaining bovine discipline. They must use these methods out of sight of humans. Perhaps they only practice their cattle mind-control techniques out of sight of Americans.

The wily Afghan cattle herding donkey. I wonder if Eeyore had that talent. The world may never know; there were no cows in any of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Bother.

Afghans are fairly brutal in the methods they use to guide their animals through this world. They often sling rocks at their animals to let them know that they are in the wrong place or to speed them along. They are also fond of sticks. As we pass a herd of whatever the animal du jour is, there is always at least one person swatting enthusiastically with a long stick, urging his animals out of our path.

Most Afghans do not like dogs. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because dogs do things like eat fecal matter and sniff each other's posteriors. Most of the dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. Dogs that actually live with a family are kept for protection or for work.

The exception seems to be the Cuchies (pronounced "Koo-cheez.") Cuchies are nomads. At certain times of year you can see families of Cuchies moving along the roads with their herds of goats and all of their worldly possessions strapped to the backs of camels.

Camels can carry a lot. It's amazing.

The Cuchies keep enormous dogs, and the dogs seem to be treated better than the average Afghan dog.

As for your average Afghan dog, I haven't seen many of them that didn't have some kind of physical problem, probably caused by human beings who think nothing of winging a rock at a dog for no apparent reason.

The Cuchi migration south this year was the first migration that I had witnessed up close and personal. That means that we drove past them as they headed south along the road with their entire family, herd of goats, super-sized dogs, and a few donkeys. The people walked, the camels hauled amazing loads, the donkeys moped along with their medium-sized-but-big-for-a-donkey loads. Something was missing.

There, among the massed tentage, twelve feet off the ground, would be a Cuchi baby peering out at the world.

Just as an aside, you just know a Cuchi baby has to be cute. They are. Cute little Cuchi babies peering at you from their perch atop loaded camels. It's too cute for words. The less well-to-do Cuchi babies are tucked amid the family riches atop a donkey. They are cute, too.

Afghan babies lead adventurous lives. Afghans are doting parents, but they do things that would make Britney Spears seem overly cautious. A few days ago I saw what appeared to be an eighteen month old sitting between the gas tank of a Chinese motorcycle and her daddy's lap, cruising down the road.

Try that in your neighborhood and you will likely end up in court and in the newspaper.

The next day I saw another dad on another Chinese motorcycle with his family. Mom, burqa-clad, was on the back with a sleeping baby dangling like a rag doll, sliding off her lap. This is normal.

Cuchies, the gypsies of Afghanistan, may sound really cute, but there is a reason why they are still nomadic. Nobody messes with them. I think they all act like they're lucky when the Cuchies decide to squat on their property for the summer. "Oh, you're so lucky! You got Cuchies this year!"

Some bizarre form of Afghan denial.

Perhaps they view it like some kind of ailment. "Poor Achmed."

"What's wrong?"

"They got the Cuchies this year."

"What a shame. They should have gotten the vaccination."

They have to deal with it somehow. Cuchies are apparently meaner than hell when aroused. Last year, the Taliban in our valley killed a Cuchi. The Cuchi retaliated by killing over twenty people.

Don't mess with the Cuchi.

I realize that these thoughts are disjointed and seemingly random. How do you describe a place and a people like this? There are so many little things that I notice and find interesting or odd.

It will take another writing or two to get out all of these observations. Perhaps I never will. I just wanted to document and share a few of these.

The last observation I will make is that Afghans are beautiful people. There are variations in their appearance, but many of them have striking facial features. I would have to say that a disproportionate number of them are very good looking.

A lot of people remember the beautiful Afghan girl with the amazing eyes from National Geographic Magazine. There are lots of girls here who are that striking. Of course, once they reach the age of twelve to fourteen they are covered in burqas for the rest of their lives, and so I rarely see the faces of adult females, but there have been occasions. Today was one of them.

We surprised a family as we rolled down the road in our humvees on a conop. The woman, who was following her husband, had her burqa thrown back. She heard us suddenly and turned her head. For a split second, before she could turn away, I saw what anyone would consider to be an amazingly beautiful face. Then she turned away, and it was over.

Many of the young girls who we see along the roads are amazingly pretty. It's just something you see a lot of in Afghanistan. I don't know why, you just do. Perhaps it's just the region that we're in.

I thought perhaps it was just me, but I showed my pictures to a few friends when I was home and a couple of them remarked how good-looking Afghans are.

Now, if we could just get them to behave as a nation instead of a loose confederation of tribes, we'd be in business.

I'll part with that. There are more observations to record, but I'm tired of typing right now. It's been another long day, and there is another one tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. We are going to the most dangerous place in our province to have Thanksgiving dinner at the firebase. I'm grateful for a lot of things this year, including the priveledge of being here to serve my country. I'm also thankful for the health and safety of my family. I'm grateful for the fine people I serve with. I'm grateful to be an American.

The Afghans don't have Thanksgiving. They call it Thursday.

That's Panj-shambey in Dari.


  1. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your men. Thank you for an amazing view of a world that the majority of us will never see. I wish that you were seeing it under different circumstances, you seem to have a deep understanding and appreciation for the region. I'll be saying a prayer for your safe keeping.


  2. Amazing. Maybe you will be able to take a few notes here and there about what you have notice and when you come, become an historian. Maybe the Afghanistanis would appreciate it, and we could understand better this part of the world.

    God bless your family and you, and Happy Thanksgiving. God is with you.

  3. Happy Thanksgiving. Please know that most of us back in the States also included you and all your brothers and sisters in our own thanksgiving - thanks that men and women like you exist to keep the rest of us safe.

    Kuchi nomads are mostly Pashtun, with some Baloch, and most relevant to your mission are accused of being pro-Taliban. This was largely because many Kuchi clans were in active conflict with the Hazaras in the Central Highlands - the Hazaras resented the Kuchis for intruding on their lands. Thus the Kuchis helped the Taliban conquer Hazarajat, and were accused by the Hazaras of being complicit in the massacres that the Taliban perpetrated against them.

    There aren't a lot of Kuchi left who are still doing the nomadic thing, so you may have witnessed a dying breed. Most Kuchis nowadays are in refugee camps in the Registan desert or Pakistan.

  4. Nothing has made me more optimistic about the future than reading your posts. I am sitting here, stateside, in a cushy office and I go home to my wife and son tonight. You are out there with your money where you mouth is. I understand why you felt you had to take this deployment.

    Keep up the description, keep up the hope. Sounds like you are doing one hell of a job. If the people of the Hindu Kush start thinking all Americans then we are sure to have strong allies there.

  5. "Eeyore was an Afghan donkey."

    Comments like that -- and the expanded observations that follow -- are why I keep reading.

    Great work.

    Stay safe.


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