Friday, August 31, 2007

A Breather From The Valley

We got an unexpected break from The Valley today. We have been in one of the valleys that have been in the news lately, hunting the Taliban and their accoutrements with some small degree of success. We have been there for a month today, and we got a sudden break to go to Bagram for a day of rest and refit.

My humvee is in the shop as I type this, getting an oil change and some other important work done. I am going to get a haircut for the first time in over a month... the back of my neck looks like a heavily worn carpet. I ate cooked food that wasn't cooked by Afghans and eaten out of a communal plate with my fingers for the first time in weeks last night when we got here. I didn't even want breakfast this morning... but I did want hot, brewed coffee. Man, was that GOOD! Drinking lukewarm instant coffee out of a water bottle was getting OLD. Chai is good, and the Afghans can't give you enough of it, served in whatever cup someone just finished with and rinsed out with chai... but it's not coffee.

I've only got a little while... lot's of work to be done, the haircut to be had, etc... but I wanted to post real quick and give some idea of some of the experiences of the past month. I will go into more detail later (how much later, I don't know... whenever we are done, if ever.)

As I mentioned, I am a Police mentor. We have been out with the Afghan National Police as we searched the countryside and the houses for Taliban, weapons, and as it turned out, drugs. We have confiscated caches of weapons, explosives, and a few kilos of raw opium. We have also cut down a few hundred marijuana plants that would make a pothead cry like a baby. The "hashish" (that's what they call marijuana in all its forms) is grown literally everywhere in The Valley and all of its sub-valleys. It's like the local pastime there. I can smell it when I'm close to it now... it smells like springtime when the skunks are out seeking mates. Smell a skunk, look around... there it is; hashish. Sometimes, you just don't have time for it because you are busy looking for more dangerous things. Sometimes you've got the time to take some action. Sometimes it's just too much to deal with and you mark the grid coordinates and go about your business. Lots to see and do.

B-Mo O and the Maniac have their own teams elsewhere in The Valley, doing much the same thing. Some of us had altercations with the enemy, some of us haven't... we have all been looking for them with ardor. The ANP are where the ANA were five years ago; they need a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems to be solved, but for the most part they try pretty hard. They have actually done better than I have expected them to. Sometimes, though, my frustration level peaks. More on that another time.

O and I have had to laugh at having the same thought; we have both had experiences that made us think, "Wow, I feel like I'm in a National Geographic Magazine article!"

Counterinsurgency is a strange game. I've had chai, nan (flat bread,) and cheese with Taliban members; everyone acting like we actually are civil to each other. I've had chai with minor officials who were trying to talk me out of sending a guy who had senior Taliban leaders in his house within an hour of our raid to detention so he could be questioned. "Tea with the Taliban and chai with the bad guy." I've sneaked through the night with people who don't know how to sneak at night to wake a man up and arrest him before he can leave to hide in the mountains for the day, found deadly explosives and rockets buried three feet from his house, and had him tell me that another villager who wanted to get him in trouble had buried the stuff there. He left with us, wearing hand cuffs. He was an affable man, chatting up the ANP until I explained in detail to them that all that stuff laying out as if on display before them was meant to KILL them.

I've sat in Shuras as the village elders pled their case, insisting that they hadn't seen any Taliban in months, only to have a citizen on the outer reaches of the circle stand up and throw the "bullshit flag," recounting a recent event. That changed the song... it became, "What are we to do? They will kill us if we tell you anything about them." Lying is an art form in Afghanistan. At times it seems as if everyone is lying about at least some part of what they are telling you. Even the estimates of enemy strength are basically lies. There are always "200 Taliban" in whatever village or valley, lurking with their weapons, demanding food from the local populace and demanding immediate attention.

The more accurate number would be fifteen or so. They rarely congregate in large groups.

I have been alone in the middle of the night miles from any other American, a hundred and fifty Afghans and my "terp" (interpreter) as my only company. I've been told by hard-core paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne that I'm insane. O has had the same treatment. We tell them that it's our job, and it is.

I've been the only American to ever be in a certain place. It was absolutely beautiful; green, terraced fields climbing the mountainside to above 8,000 feet, water from mountain springs channeled to small canals that wind alongside the mud-walled houses around the valley's sides, Afghan engineering at its finest. The houses were as immaculate as houses made of dirt could be. We stood on a rock outcropping 200 feet (GPS is SO cool!) above the house that our ANP truck (I'm not sure that a humvee could make it up there... too wide) was parked next to and noticed that the mud roof had been swept. That valley was like a separate Afghanistan... everything was clean, the people were friendly, their clothing was immaculate, their children on the way to school in the morning, the fields well-ordered in their stair-step climb up the mountainside towards the 12,000 foot peak towering above. Shangri-La in the Hindu Kush. The two burned-out Russian armored vehicles a mile or so down the rocky road belied the perpetual tranquility of this valley hidden from time by huge fingers of ridgeline barely cracked open at the western end.

We stay awake at night, taking turns overwatching the security of our sleeping brethren with our night vision until day dawns and the Afghans begin moving about. On the mornings that we don't have an early mission we grab some extra sleep, awakening to find Afghan children watching us the way American children watch Saturday morning cartoons. We give them lollipops (thanks, Rosemary) and packets from our MRE's. They still sort through our MRE pouches full of the detritus of our meals, keeping whatever it is that they find interesting and strewing the rest about like a campground raccoon. Afghans are inveterate litterbugs. It is just as natural as breathing for them to drop whatever they are done with wherever they are.

The bazaars offer ample evidence of the Afghan litterbug at work; whatever wrappers or packaging on anything that is opened and consumed in the bazaar strewn wherever the item was unwrapped. No thought at all. Of course, they have no idea what a trash bag or barrel is. Cardboard, on the other hand, is never discarded unless it has been soaked with some type of fluid. Fuel for fires. The children will fight each other over our empty MRE cases.

I have two medics on my crew. Doc has office hours every morning and evening. He has performed minor surgery, stitched up wounds and lanced the most incredible ingrown hair I have ever seen or heard of. The hairball he pulled out of that guy would have made a cat blanch. Afghan medical oddities are truly something else. I could write more, but the details would make the hairball story seem like dinner conversation.

Afghan soldiers and American medics have a chemical affinity that is triggered by the sight of an open medical bag. The average Afghan soldier is drawn to a medic with an open medical bag like the backdraft from a fire seeking oxygen. They go together like peas and carrots... like peanutbutter and ladies... like waffles and cocaine (thank you, Forrest Gump and Talladega Nights.) Upon the opening of an American medical bag, Afghan soldiers begin a movement towards the aforementioned bag and its attendant medic that astronomers would liken to the behavior of stellar gases being drawn into a black hole. Suddenly, everything hurts. Mysterious ailments arise phoenix-like from the ashes of their health. While some merit serious attention, most are miraculously cured by Motrin and a few moments of attention from Doc. Doc is seriously considering the medical applications of Skittles for the stimulation of the placebo effect.

Doc has performed simple medical services that have implications beyond his treatment of a simple wound or headache. His least efforts have resulted in the opening of the eyes of dozens of Afghan villagers to the fact that American soldiers have a heart. It is the beginning of a new world for them. For those villagers, for the parents of the sick child who were given a pass to see the Special Forces medics, for the 70 year old man who fell from twelve feet up a tree and now is home and alive, we are no longer space aliens in a humvee. We are people who care.

I must keep my stories anecdotal for now; our operation is still in progress. But I have dozens of stories and hundreds of pictures from the past month and from the weeks preceding the operation. In time, I will be able to share these stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are unusual, and some of them are sad. Some of them are stories of quiet courage, like my new assistant, SGT Surferdude, who told me after a long mission in the middle of the night into an area that even the Special Forces had never gone that, "I have to admit it, I was scared." I would never have known from his actions that night. He did his job and did it well. That is courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to keep going in the presence of fear. This American soldier, asked to do something with only one other American and forty Afghans in the middle of the night, going into an area where there was no hope of help within hours and no communication to ask for help if it was needed, followed me and did his job without hesitation. I never knew that he was scared until he told me the next day after we returned. We finally made it back to our little patrol base after noon. The mission had started at 1 am. Nobody except me knows just how courageous that man is.

Acknowledgments, Thanks, and a Response:

I would like to thank everyone who has supported me to this point in my deployment and in this blog, which has become something different than what it started out to be. My family has been incredible. My brother and my sisters have been so wonderful that I can't describe it. My brother has been taking care of business for me and my sisters have been keeping my kids connected to the family. And they sent me stuff that my crew has loved... like Montgomery Inn Barbecue Sauce that livens up the MRE's nicely. I'm saving the Skyline till we're all back at Bagram for more than a day. I've got to find some hot dogs and shredded cheddar... I'm tired of trying to describe Cincinnati Chili... they've got to try it to understand.

One extremely dedicated reader has sent me letters nearly every day that I've been out in The Valley, including a card that plays, "All-Star" by Smash Mouth when you open it... something of a theme song for my crew now... thanks for all of your encouragement with my writing and raw enthusiasm. Thanks for the Skyline and other stuff, too. You're a sweetheart!

Thank you to Rosemary, who sent lollipops that make us popular with the kids and 24 (yes, 24) soccer balls. The crew went through the chocolate like locusts in a Bible story. The crayons caused a riot on the main road one day and on another calmed a two year old with a fever.

To the very worldly-wise browser who posted this comment: "Um, didn't we win this war?" I would like to say, "Um, the calendar for this year is 2007, not 2012." No successful counterinsurgency has ever been won in less than ten years. There is a lot of work to be done here; and for the Afghan government and the young Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to survive, the Afghan National Police must be capable of being the first line of interface with the people in the villages. The ANA and the ANP must be capable of operating on their own, and they must be reputable organizations that have gained the trust and respect of the people at the grassroots level. Life with the ANP on the streets must be better for the average citizen than life under the Taliban. Then and only then will the Taliban have a hard time finding safe haven among the populace. They will be treated as the criminals that they are, and citizens will not tolerate their operations in and around their homes. They will call the Police.

There is a lot of work to do, and some of my counterparts on another PMT gave their lives recently while doing it. The entire team. When you are out there all alone and things go bad, they have a tendency to go horribly bad. Trust me, MRJ, there is still a war here. I think that we are winning the war, but we haven't won it yet. By "we," I mean the Afghans and the Coalition (NATO.) This is not all about us, but really it is about Afghanistan... a beautiful country and a strong people held back by hundreds of years of warfare, strife, tribalism, ignorance, religious zealotry, and being the pawn of larger powers who have used it as a venue to mess with each other. That includes us (1980's... when it was convenient to mess with the Soviets.) We have to realize that in order for us to be secure, Afghanistan must mature so that it is not a safe haven for terrorists. This is not the only haven that must be denied terrorists, but it is the one that I am working on.

Thanks for the declaration of victory, but it's a bit premature.
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