Saturday, December 1, 2007

Afghanistan and Afghans; Random Observations II

Afghanistan is starkly beautiful. The landscape stands in sharp relief against the sky. There is very little gentleness in the land, and the rock itself makes dramatic statements in so many instances that the drama and violence of earthly birth become a theme.

The very seams of the earth are exposed here. In huge rock formations jutting hundreds and thousands of feet skyward, the layers of rock and the sharp prow of the mass that has cut itself free of the earth like a tooth cutting through gum are so clear, so evident. It almost looks too simple. Yet, it is chaos; a mosaic of gigantic proportions. There is just so much geologic violence, the slow-motion reshaping of the earth captured in time-lapse; our whole era is in just one frame of the sequence.

The dust here is not the silica dust of a sandy desert, but finely ground rock. It has the smell of rock. The scent after a dampening rain is that of freshly moistened stone.

Before I came here, I thought of a largely barren land, but much of what I've seen has been cultivated. I realize that this has a lot to do with the area in which I've been working. I've written about the management of water by the farmers, which enables the cultivation in the first place. More of the land is cultivated than I had ever thought. There are many more trees than I had thought there would be.

The earth is not the rich brown earth of Ohio, but a pale tan that appears to be poor, yet the Afghans typically grow and harvest more than once a year. The earth here is made of the rock, and is apparently full of minerals.

I estimate that 80% of the agricultural activity in this country is not mechanized. Many fields are still plowed using oxen. As the winter approached, all of the dried weeds and stems in the fields were gathered in and the fields were plowed. Fields of rye and winter wheat were planted.

I'm not sure if the gathered brush is used to feed the animals or is used to burn for heat.

I saw teams of men in the fields making rows with a simple tool that looked like a short-bladed snow shovel with a loop of rope attached to the ends of the blade. One would shove it into the ground and the other would pull on the loop of rope, pulling the earth into an elevated row.

A mile down the road, another man accomplished a similar feat with an Allis Chalmers tractor.

I've driven through villages, and I've walked through villages. We get a lot of different reactions. The children generally greet us enthusiastically when we drive through a village. They know that sometimes, but not always, they may get a treat.

What impresses me is when they point to the palm of one hand and tap it with their index finger. They are asking for writing supplies. I love that.

Not all of them do that.

Some of the boys will pick up a rock as the convoy approaches. If nothing is dispensed, the stone will be cast at the gunner on the last vehicle. I've discovered that if I point right at the youth with the stone, he will become embarrassed and unable to engage his target.

"You're busted, scooter."

When we walk into a village, it's a different story. The children will generally gather around. Americans are apparently fascinating. Of course, if someone brought a trained monkey into the village, they would have the same reaction. They stare a lot.

When we walk into a village, the women make themselves scarce. We rarely see them, and when we do, they are peering shyly around corners. They are every bit as curious as anyone else, but they abide by the rules of their society as best they can.

When we drive through a village, we invariably surprise women going about their daily lives. We often see them flipping their burqas back over their heads. If they don't wear a burqa, they often pull their scarf over their face. I've seen women hide their faces behind the blade of a shovel as they walked.

Some women stop and turn their backs and stand perfectly still, as if they are pretending that they aren't really there. Sometimes they will assume the Afghan squat and become a blue triangular rock. They have been told that our ballistic-protective eyewear (thank you, WileyX) enables us to see through their clothing.

This is actually quite common. Even some of the ANP are convinced that we can see through clothing. We deny it, but they still believe. Now that's an effective IO campaign. Somebody has got to hire that Taliban guy who comes up with and propagates these stories. We need to have him teach our PsyOps guys.

After that, we could get him a job with RJ Reynolds.

In some places, the kids have gathered around in fascination, but if I walked near them, they ran. This is unusual behavior. I asked Sam the Combat Terp why they were running. After a quick conversation, he informed me that the children had been told that Americans like to eat children.

Cool. Some of these people actually believe that I'm a cannibalistic x-ray vision terminator.

Incredible cosmic power... itty bitty living space.*

Most of the children know that we often have goodies. Some of them have become like the bears of Yellowstone. They are aggressive, and demand baksheesh. Baksheesh is a gift. I will most often not give anyone who demands baksheesh anything.

Items that have been demanded of me include; candy, my pens, my sunglasses, my knife, my Gerber tool, my watch, my pistol, a radio, soccer balls, and my boots. Not all of these demands were made by children. Grown Afghan men have demanded all of these at one time or another.
On more than one occasion, I've had to defend my property. Once it was an Afghan laborer with a brazen attitude and temporary custody of my Wileys. The other occasions involved ANP and ANA.

One ANA officer asked what I used my Gerber tool for. "Everything," I told him. He asked to see it and carefully examined it. To my amazement, he put it into his shirt pocket and thanked me. I was aghast. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"Baksheesh," he stated flatly, patting the pocket that now contained my property.

"Baksheesh neys!" I asserted. He acted as if I were backing out on a promise.

We went back an forth for several minutes. I finally got the idea through to him that I was willing and able to hurt him to get my property back. He relented and surrendered my Gerber. I no longer allow anyone to touch my Gerber. The same with my WileyX PT-1's. Nobody gets to check them out, either.

Afghans believe that Americans are all incredibly wealthy. We are. By their standards, we are all incredibly wealthy. The ANP and ANA think nothing of asking how much money we make. They do not seem to feel that, "It's none of your business," is a valid response.

Sam started telling them that I make $400.00 a month. They weren't as demanding about baksheesh after that. Of course, that may be because I won't let them touch my Gerber or my Wileys anymore.

Afghans do respond to logic, but they will often concoct a story that suits their purpose in a given situation and challenge you strongly to get their way. This aspect of their culture presents a challenge to my patience, but being patient pays off.

For example: One day I had encouraged the group of ANP that I was working with to do local security and presence patrols. I coached them to send out three small patrols, each to go out about a mile or so and loop back in like a daisy petal. One of these patrols wound up moving three and a half miles down the valley to the bazaar.

While there, one of the ANP, who had been smoking hashish, got into a minor altercation with a local smartass. Due to a verbal affront, the stoned ANP smashed the young local man in the face with the muzzle end of his AK, leaving a very deep gash in his face from the front sight guard on his weapon. My two medics, SGT Surferdude and SPC T-Dog, put eight stitches in his face.

They did such a fine job that the man is left with a much less noticeable scar than the injury should have caused. T-Dog is going to be an anesthesiologist one day, but that day he was a pretty fair plastic surgeon. They did great work.

Colonel Jhala stood up for his men to a fault. I would later work with him on this issue. His obstinate support for his soldier caused a major rift in the local politics and damaged ANP relations with the local villagers to a great degree.

When I began to investigate what had occurred, the first story I got from both groups was closest to the actual truth. As they realized that I didn't find the actions of the stoner to be acceptable, they told me progressively worse stories until they finally informed me that the man had tried to grab the ANP soldier's weapon, and so he had struck him in self-defense. Yes, yes, they all agreed, that was what truly happened.

This was supposed to be more plausible because about a year ago, an ANP was shot to death in this same valley with his own weapon.

It took about an hour the following day to disabuse them of this falsehood that had become the accepted truth. Afghans are a perfect example of, "That's my story, and I'm sticking with it." I had to dispel each aspect of the tale with logic until the lie was obvious and at that point they dropped their defenses and agreed that the soldier was wrong and should probably be disciplined.

I've seen the same behavior in Shuras. They float explanations until all are agreed that one story sounds pretty good, and that becomes the accepted truth. This is a problem that will need some work, because this is how they tend to do business.

It begins to make sense why their calendar says 1386. This is a behavior that helps keep them in the dark ages.

I've got a tremendous amount of optimism for this country. I would love to see how far they have gone in fifty years. It's hard to picture, but there are other examples. Years ago, there was a communist insurgency in a tiny, underdeveloped, primitive country emerging from the chaos of WWII. The colonial power who had been in power there was attempting to set up an independent country as it divested itself of an empire that was no longer feasible to maintain.

The terrain was tough, the enemy committed. But the former colonial power's army became an agile, learning organization that began to think without heed for the boundaries of the container (they thought outside the box,) and this army developed and adopted radical new strategies that worked. It took over ten years, but the counterinsurgency fight was won. The communists were defeated, and a society healed and came into the 20th century.

The laptop I'm writing this on was assembled in Malaysia.

* Robin Williams as the Genie in Disney's Alladin


  1. You are certainly the most optimistic milblogger I have come across. Great writing. Thanks for everything.

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 12/03/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  3. This was interesting writing and perspective. I'll look for more. Thanks, and good luck!


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