Thought I would blog instead of boring everyone with e-mails that are probably cut-and-pasted from the previous message anyway. I'm in Kandahar, where it's about 170 degrees and the Taliban are somehow getting their shit together and attacking little outlying garrisons in a more organized manner than in years past. I'm at the main coalition base in the south, the Kandahar Airfield. There are no attacks here. There are thousands of troops, in all kinds of uniforms, and armored vehicles ratting down gravel roads, and helicopters and cargo planes and jets flying overhead. I'm embedded, which means I get to sleep in the barracks (am sharing a room with my stepdad) and eat at the chowhall, which isn't bad, and where there are some cute Dutch girls in cammo running around with paper plates of food and sweet, blond smiles.
I'm here to write a story about the National Guard taking part in the training of the Afghan National Army, a three-year-old force with a lot to learn. US forces have "embedded training teams," which are mentoring groups that live and fight beside the ANA. If you can imagine the Empire deciding to send reserve Storm Troopers to Tatooine to train the Jawas to fight the Tuskan Raiders, you'll have a good picture of the goings-on in Kandahar. Woo-ti-ni!
Yesterday I joined an ANA convoy that traveled several hours down a desert highway toward Pakistan that was pretty much paved for a while then turned into a potholed nightmare of Cambodian proporations. One thing that Cambodians have that the Afghans don't: shade.
Eventually, we turned off the highway onto a little sand track that led to a French/ANA garrison called Spin Baldak. The ANA convoy was carrying fuel to the Spin Baldak (a village name) ANA, and we were along for the ride. The French were laying low in an air-conditioned chow hall, and after some time, they begrudgingly let us join them. We ate medium-rare steak, spicy pan-tossed crawfish, Camembert cheese, flatbread and fresh fruit. At least the French know how to eat. The whole thing felt like I'd stepped into a foreign legion flick: cheese, French, the little brick-walled fort, dust devils whirling in the distance.
I had to wear my body armor and helmet most of the trip, so my shirt was soaked with sweat by the time we got back to our own garrison (these forts are called forward operating bases, of FOBs, by the military, but I like the word garrison). It's a fine balance here between drinking the proper amount of water so as not to boil your brain, but not drinking so much water that you have to spend every waking moment wanting to piss. So far, I've walked that line.
Today, I went with a US Army major and a terp to see a kandak commander. A terp is an interpreter. A kandak is an Afghan National Army unit about the size of a US battalion, and in this case has about 185 men. The commander's name, I believe, is Ambien, a name that sounds to me like it belongs to a sleeping pill, and he received us in his new room at his new barracks on Camp Shirzai, a renovated ANA post provided by the US. I only wanted to drop in on him long enough to set up a meeting for later in the week, but in Afghanistan, even that kind of exchange can bog you down.
It was after lunch, and we were all sleepy, and outside on the post, nothing moved. The sun baked the dust and asphalt, and all the ANA soldiers were hidden away in their clean new barracks under quiet, twirling fans. Colonel Ambien invited us to sit on the floor, on a blood red carpet he'd paid for himself, "because all the other commanders have such carpets." The commander was tall and lanky and kept a neatly trimmed beard of straight black hair. He wore fresh, green camo pants and a green T-shirt and was barefooted. His feet were very pale. The commander produced a small garage-door opener that signaled a musical chime somewhere in the hall. That chime summoned the commander's servant, who was asked to make us all tea.
We passed pleasantries to each other, and the commander asked me what sort of intelligence I was gathering. I tried to explain journalism and magazines as entertainment, but he looked dubious. Tea arrived with a plate of brown-sugar candies and sun-dried raisins. More pleasantries. More questions about my work. I asked the commander about his family and his home; both are in Kabul. I asked about his men, and about the grass growing outside his barracks, the only patch of green on the desert base.
The commander told me that he had soldiers watering the grass every morning and every evening. He explained to me the difficulties in keeping the grass green, in being a commander, in keeping track of soldiers, in recruiting; he told me that in Helmand province it will be hard to eradicate insurgents, because men there in the business of growing poppies have the money to pay ignorant country people to fight for them.
And then he asked when we were all going to fight Pakistan.
The major, and tall redhead from Kentucky, who, honest to God, smokes cigars before missions, chuckled and told me that the ANA always want to fight Pakistan. "Can't we all just get along," the major quipped, and the terp translated, and the commander said, "We won't even need Ford Rangers to fight Pakistan. We will all walk to the border to fight them."
I said Pakistan was an ally. "Yes," the commander said, raising an eyebrow like we were sharing an inside joke. "That is the policy now." I changed the subject: to Iran. That brought us to nukes, which brougth us back to Pakistan, and the attack. I changed the subject the the weather. After an hour and a half, I had made an appointment to interview the commander, on Tuesday. The day had reached its hottest hour, and Colonel Ambien showed us out, and the major, the terp and I walked to our truck past the commander's patch of grass, which was holding up well under the weight of the sun.
We’re in the middle of the “hundred-day winds.” Kandahar is choking in dust like a couple towns in Morrowwind. 112 degrees. Most of the US barracks and operations centers are air-conditioned. The barracks and offices of the ANA are not. This, I’m told, was an oversight by the contractors who built Camp Shirzai, where soldiers of the ANA’s 205th Corps live and work. There is not enough dust to cover all the trash thrown across the desert, more plastic bags out there than bushes.
The lowest ranking soldier makes about $70 per month, and he has no way of sending money home, unless he makes a special trip. Soldiers of the 205th Corps can assume they will be in some skirmishes, referred to here sometimes by the Americans as “tics,” (troop in combat) because the 205 is responsible for Kandahar and Helmand, where the poppies are. Soldiers are not told when they might be transferred, and no disability system exists, so they fear becoming cripples and beggars. A hundred days of dust is not long.
Just got back from a supply convoy that went to Forward Operating Base Gecko, a nice little compound on the northwest side of Kandahar city. I didn’t see much of the city. The idea in a convoy is to haul ass and avoid IED exposure. So that’s what we did. What I saw of the city looks a lot like Cambodia, except the people have different faces and instead of wearing karmas on their heads, they have turbans. Women walk around in wispy blue burkas. Some kids were waving at us, but one kid, sitting in a tire shop, covered with grease and dust, gave our convoy an anguished, angry, double thumbs down. (“We probably killed his daddy,” a sergeant told me later. “I’d be pissed too.”)
Gecko was once the residence of Mullah Mohammad Omar, head of the Taliban, and has a nice little swimming pool in one section and plenty of wire and guard towers around the walls. The swimming pool glows aqua-marine, and when you stand at the edge of it, you can see towering above Gecko of a ridge of red, rocky mountains. After a heavy lunch of steak, sausage, mac-n-cheese, green beans, potato salad and chocolate mousse pie, our convoy loaded up and headed out the north gate. Not wanting to travel the same way out as we had come in, we took a circuitous route around the city that crossed those mountains and put us out of the sprawl of Kandahar City and into the province proper.
On the north side of the red ridge, people live in flat-roofed mud compounds with high mud walls, and the only cool they get comes from a slow, murky river that runs past them. In a few places, trees grow and shade the bank. Bridges of sticks and mud, only good for foot and donkey traffic, spanned the river every half mile or so. The highway followed this river for a while, and I was able to look out at the men and children swimming and bathing along the bank. I rode in full body armor and helmet, inside the Humvee, windows up. I wore a pair of dark motorcycle goggles that were fogging up from the sweat coming off my face, and my whole body was pounding with heat. I had my camera in my hands, a vest on with a telephoto lens, flash, battery, lens cloth, notebook and map of Afghanistan in it. Like a French filmmaker, I’d wrapped a heavy cotton scarf around my neck. Under my T-shirt jangled an old dog tag that has my blood type on it (O POS) and announces my allergy to penicillin. On that tag chain hung a tiny flashlight and a plastic Jesus-Mary-Mother-of-God medallion that I found before I started this embed. (I'm not religious, just superstitious, and when I found the medallion, in the middle of reading Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” about a whisky priest, I decided to wear it). Next to the Christ thingy hung a 1 GB thumb drive on a separate string, and then, on yet another, hung my embed credentials. In my right cargo pocket was a heavy notebook and extra bandana, and in my left cargo pocket I was packing a Hemocon (Hemorrhage Control) blood coagulant pad, a large roll of bandage and a Velcro tourniquet that my stepdad gave me last night, in a moment of odd tenderness, "just in case." You can apparently tie this tourniquet yourself, one-handed, if need be. In that hot Humvee, weighted down with all that shit, all I really wanted to do was strip down to my undies and swim in the murky river with the old men from the mud huts. I watched the river for so long, I got a crick in my neck.
Before I could interview General Mohammad yesterday, he received a small delegation of US reps from the Defense Department. The general was showing them around his headquarters, and I was just hanging around with the delegation, tired and bored from all the diplospeak. I looked across the room and caught the eye of a tall, clean-shaved Afghan sergeant major. I don't know why I did this, but I made a "can you believe this shit" face, and the sergeant major raised an eye-brow as if to say, "I know; let's go kill some people." He was tall, with short hair, and in his face was a hint of Mongol ancestry. He crossed the room to stand next to me.
The Mongol sergeant major leaned over and put his lips about a fly's width from my ear and whispered, "You look like Taliban." This, presumably, because my beard is getting a little (maybe a lot) out of control. There was a moment of oddness, until he broke into a snicker.
"Ho ho," I said. "No, no. I'm not Taliban. Are you command sergeant major of this brigade?"
"No. For the whole Corps. But actually I would like to join with you."
This was puzzling. I cocked my head and looked at him, and he leaned back and nodded. A moment or two more passed, until I realized what he meant.
"Ah," I said. "Actually, I'm not Special Forces either. I'm a journalist."
"You're a journalist? I thought you were Special Forces." This, presumably, because the SF guys grow beards that are out of control too.
I related the story to my US Army barracks mates later last night. They all cracked up, and a major said, "That's pretty funny. You're walking around this post and everyone thinks you're Special Forces. You're walking around and everyone thinks you're the shit."
"Actually," I replied. "I am the shit."
At Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, my roommate was a sharp-thinking Marine, and he passed onto me a little "smart card" that all the Marines get before they deploy. It has a map on one side, and some info on culture and customs, and some phrases in Pashto. The card folds up so you can carry it in your pocket, and I've carried it with me in Kandahar.
Last night, when I finished interviewing General Mohammad, he invited me to a party, to celebrate the return of one of the US colonels that helps train the ANA. At the party, which was nothing more than a barbecue with soda pop, I was seated next to a giant man with meaty paws and a Hollywood jaw. He was in ANA uniform, and the rank on his lapel was of two crossed sabers and two stars--which I later learned made him a lieutenant colonel. He was the commander of an infantry kandak, and during introductions, the general said: "Just a few days ago, he killed" so-and-so "by himself. Shot him eight times."
So, I was sitting by this giant, trying to figure out how to eat fried chicken and lamb and beef skewers using only my right hand--(left hand is used here to wipe the ass... not a good hand to eat with; not that I wipe my ass with my bare hand, but my hosts wouldn't know that)--and trying to make some small talk... but getting nowhere: until I remembered the smart card.
In no time I learned that this guy was from Nuristan, the Land of Light, in the remote northeast, and that he comes from a small mountain village, like I do, that he has a wife and six children living in Kabul, and that Taliban "booms" killed his father. His jaw hardened and he stared at his black soldier's boot. "Taliban, donkeys. Kill. Donkeys. All." I couldn't tell if he was saying that the Taliban were like donkeys, and should be slaughtered like animals, or what. I'm guessing so. A man who would put eight bullets, himself, at his rank, into an enemy, in close combat, probably wasn't recounting for me the deaths of a few village donkeys.
Four in the morning. I stood in the weakening darkness next to the rumbling Humvee that was going to take me, in a convoy, on Highway One, which leads through downtown Kandahar City, also known as "IED alley," and then into Helmund province. Our route pushed through what was described to me as "Injun country" and a "hornets nest," following an operation that destroyed poppy crops along the Helmund River earlier this spring. Intelligence reports put enemies in that area, and radio traffic was predicting an ambush somewhere in the province.
That morning, the ANA were planning to resupply some of their guys at FOB Price, a well-fortified outpost west of Geresh, in the land of sand and stone and dust devils, and the US troops were going to be riding along with them, as usual, providing additional security with their armored Humvees and heavy weaponry--the .50-caliber thunderstick and the M-240, a machine gun that has replaced Rambo's M-60--as the ANA made due with Ford Rangers and AK-47s and a crew-served weapon called the Dahshaka.
By four in the morning, day was beginning to break and only a morning star still managed to shine on the horizon. It was just about time to roll out. The major driving my Humvee was heading toward his barracks to get some last-minute items for the road--sunflower seeds, probably, or a couple cans of Red Bull. "Last chance," he said to me, "for a weapon."
I'd been worried about this dilemma for several days, since volunteering to join the convoy. At first Channell didn't even want me to go. "You know," he said as we were driving to the mess hall for lunch one day. "If you go, you're probably going to get hit. You're probably going to have your first combat."
"I'm aware of that," I said, having been told by several intelligence officers how hairy the road between Kandahar and Geresh had become in recent weeks. There was a moment of rickety silence in the truck, as we bounced over the road leading from Camp Shirzai, where we work, to Kandahar Air Field, where chow is.
"All right," Channell finally said. "But you need to get a weapon. These sons-a-bitches out here don't care who you are. They don't care if you're a journalist; they'll just kill you."
Instinctively, I knew carrying a weapon into combat as a journalist was a bad idea. I couldn't really articulate why, right there in the truck, facing the dire predictions of my stepdad and with the ominous vibes I'd felt from every other soldier tasked for this convoy. I just knew it wasn't a good idea. I did not, however, say anything to Channell just then, except, "Mmm."
Practically speaking, there's no need for me to carry a weapon. I sit behind an armored door in the Humvee that's "battle locked," meaning the doors are latched from inside and can't be entered from the outside. The glass is bulletproof, and the armor can withstand small-arms fire, shrapnel blasts, and even an RPG (if it isn't armor piercing). That means that death is going to come either through an armor-piercing rocket, a grenade tossed down the gunner's hatch on the roof, or, most likely, through a vehicle-borne or roadside-buried bomb. I don't really see how carrying a 9-mm pistol is going to protect me from 25 pounds of TNT wired to 10 artillery shells and all of it packed into a Toyota Corolla with a man behind the wheel who's bent on a catastrophic explosion and a VIP meeting with his god.
That said, I think that a man like Channell envisions the worst possible scenario, which, as we all know, deep down, is the Custer Model. That's where you get yourself into something so clusterfucked that the bodies are piled three deep, and you have to stand on the corpses of your enemies just to fire a couple final shots at the mob of death-dealers charging you from the bottom of the hill. I guess, in that case, I wouldn't mind having a gun. But, in that case, there'd be plenty of loose weapons lying around.
That's just practically speaking. Esoterically, I'm a non-combatant, and non-combatants don't carry weapons, ever, no matter what. I think (help me out, ethicists) that's because if I were to carry a weapon, I would be endangering the lives of reporters who come after me, and that, in turn, endangers the search for and reporting of the Truth. Truth is our eventual goal out here, after all.
I thought I'd given the issue the slip, until I was standing at the Humvee, ready to roll, and the major asked me if I wanted a weapon. It's a whole different story, I can tell you, an hour before a mission that people have warned you off of, in the cool glow of dawn, in the presence of guys who are all strapped and loaded with rifles, pistols, knives, grenades, and, some of them, brass knuckles. It's tempting, in such a situation, to get caught up in things. But I'm not a soldier. I'm a reporter. I'm armed with an all-weather pen, a micro-cassette recorder and a digital camera with a busted meter (Fuck you, Nikon), and my mission is different. So I looked at the major, and said, flatly, "No."
After the major had run to his barracks, I looked up at our hatch gunner, a young Florida Guardsman going to college to be a social studies teacher, and I said, "Just so you know, I was in the Guard, so if it comes down to it, I can fire a weapon."
"OK," he said. "Good to know."
It's my last night in Kandahar, and Channell asked me to walk with him to the boardwalk, a new construction at the air field. On our way out, I told him his Combat Action Badge, a medal he'd earned from an ambush battle last October, looked good on his uniform.
"I didn't get one," I said.
"Be thankful," he said. Then: "All right. Imagine this. It's dark like this, and there's green tracers flying over your head everywhere. And RPGs blowing up in front of you, and behind you. And there's ANA crawling all over the ground and you're trying not to run over them..."
The boardwalk is square and surrounds a field of dirt, where even in the dark, soldiers were playing soccer, running and kicking up dust. Other soldiers walked the boardwalk, all slinging guns, some in battle dress uniform, different coalition forces sporting different camouflage--Canadians and Australians lightest, Dutch darkest, Romanians in camo T-shirts--and some in physical fitness uniform with glow-in-the-dark belts. Very neo-wildwest, or sci-fi frontier. Underfoot, the boards creaked and thumped as people walked over them. A cool breeze crossed the base, and someone scored a goal in the field, and bright halogen light bounced off all the dust in the air, illuminating the game. Not far away, several Chinook helicopters were revving up for a take-off, blades thudding.
Along the boardwalks are cargo connex boxes with businesses inside: Burger King, an ice cream stand, a tailor, leather shops, and other shitty little businesses trying to eek a living out of bored GIs. On little benches in the shadows of the shops sat co-ed pairs of soldiers, away from the prying eyes of bunkmates and squad leaders and commanders, just chatting, but chatting closely.
Channell led me to a cargo container with the sign "Embroidery Shop" outside. He'd said he wanted to get me a patch for my photographer's vest, a vest that was given to me by my aunt about 10 years ago, before I studied abroad in Malta, a vest I haven't worn since Malta, but brought here, just in case--and found invaluable.
We looked at two different patches for the vest: one was the outline of the shape of Afghanistan, with the date on it, and the other one--well, the other one was enough to make Channell's eyes light up: a screaming eagle in front of the flags of the US and Afghanistan. "That one's pretty cool," he said, and, actually, I kind of agreed, given the situation. I also felt like I was 11 years old, getting something cool, patriotic and martial from him. (He once brought back black silk jackets for me, my sister, and our stepbrother, from a training exercise in Korea that were emblazoned on the back with fighting dragons in brilliant red, green and gold thread. I wore that jacket out, along with the parachute pants I had back then.) So we went with the screaming eagle. We asked the Embroidery Shop guy to surround the whole picture with the inscription: "Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2006, 1/205 ETT EMBED." The whole thing, when finished, will be five inches across.
On the way back to the barracks, as we stumbled over the ubiquitous, ankle-turning gravel that is the ground at Kandahar Air Field, we talked about my career, and the other stories I want to do. I told him I'd like to go to Dubai.
"The National Guard's in Qatar," he said. "SecFor."
"Not much of a story there, I don't think," I said. A Security Force in Qatar wouldn't be very busy. Qatar is where all the soldiers go on pass, for four days of drinking, sunbathing and site-seeing, the China Beach of the War on Terror.
"Ya. But it's a great place. I'm going back in July. I gotta get back there and buy some more gold."
"I want to tell you something," Channell said. "The secret to women is gold. Just something small. You can do diamonds and all that crap, but something gold, something small, that doesn't break you..."
Personally, I'd like to win a woman over with a screaming eagle patch, but that's just me.
The Air Force operates on Zulu time. That's Greenwich Mean Time, near as I can figure, and they do it because when you are conducting operations all over the world, you need a set time zone, and that's Zulu. Everything else is plus-something Zulu or minus-something Zulu, or... you can be given the Time Local, which is actually +4.5 Zulu in Afghanistan. Simple enough. But it does get frustrating sometimes, because it's like having a watch that's set four and a half hours ahead, viz. the Air Force, viz. the people who are tired and war-weary and sitting behind a PAX (militarese for passenger) desk for 12-hour shifts.
So what happens is: you put your name down for a flight to Bagram Air Field, or BAF, or just Bagram. Then you are put into a list of priorities. Guys and gals going home on leave, for example, are Priority One. Media used to be Priority Three, but have been upgraded to Priority Two, recently, according to the Air Force PAX desk girl, who has dark brown eyes and a tired half-smile and wears a black T-shirt. So you put your name on the list, and it comes in at, say, the Number 7 slot on the next flight to BAF, or so says the PAX girl. Every passenger has to arrive at "Showtime," which is the time they assign seats to the flight, according to the list, on a cargo plane: either a C-130 (prop driven, noisy, maddening to fly on), or a C-17 (turbine engines, quiet, nice).
"What time is that flight?" you ask.
"Showtime is 0315," PAX girls says, and you think, "Ah, Christ, that early!," and then she adds, "Zulu." So then you do the math and figure out that you don't have to show up until--fourfivesixseven plus thirty--seven forty-five. Great. So the next day you get up, shower, eat a ham and cheese omelet from the chow hall, then say your good-byes to all the soldiers who've helped you out over the last week or so. You shake hands and pick up all your bags--which are many, because you're writing, recording audio, and shooting digital, and you have all the power supplies and extra batteries that go along with that, plus your sleeping bag--plus your body armor and helmet, and a novel to read, because flights don't usually take off until maybe four hours after Showtime.
You get dropped off with all your bags at the PAX building, which, by the way, is also known as the Taliban's Last Stand Building, because, back in 2001, Operation Anaconda squeezed all the Taliban in the country onto Kandahar Air Field, and the Taliban hold-outs made their Alamo stand from this building (except all the Taliban that squirted out of the squeeze and made their way to the Pakistan border to fight another day)--and this is the building where you put down all of your bags, sweating already at 0315 Zulu, or about 0745, or 7:45 am, Local.
You leave your bags in a big heap and go see PAX girl, the same girl you talked to the day before, and she sees you coming and asks, "Can I help you sir?" like she's never seen you before, despite your wild beard and the crazy look in your eye you've developed from the heat and fatigue and too much coffee from the chow hall--in other words, your memorable mug.
"You guys putting any passengers on this flight?"
"Nope. Sorry sir." And she explains that there are two detainees aboard, and "hot cargo" (ammunition? ordnance? an in-flight meal?) and that no passengers are being put on this one. And then you turn and look at your menacing bag pile, and realize that your ride just took off and you have no way of contacting him and you're going to have to lug all your shit back to the barracks.
"When's the next flight?"
PAX girl click-clacks away on her computer. "There's one later, at 0125"--OK, I can do that, you think--"Zulu." More math: 4:45 in the morning! And that's what you're thinking as you don all your backpacks and bags and body armor and helmet, all of it so heavy you can barely walk, slung across your body in a back-breaking configuration, and the barracks are probably at least a mile away, and by now, at what-ever-the-fuck Zulu it is in the morning, the sun is up, and strong.
And that's how you get stuck in Kandahar for a couple--nay, a few--days, repeating this procedure, getting up at F-U Zulu, going over to the Taliban's Last Stand Building, see PAX girl, learning there are no flights, then heading back to the barracks. But you're smarter now. After the first day, after that punishing walk across the base (where there wasn't one square inch of shade to rest under or one single bench to sit on along the way) you now have your ride wait for you until you know whether there's room for one little journalist on the next flight out.
"Tomorrow," PAX girl says. "0415 Zulu."
In the Army, there are officers and there are non-commissioned officers. The officers plan and the NCOs execute, basically, and the highest rank an NCO can reach is Command Sergeant Major. To reach that rank takes a lot of soldiering, leading and grim tenacity, and, let's face it, some assholiness.
So it was no surprise to me that the first little run of trouble I had on the embed was with a Command Sergeant Major, one from the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, a pretty tough lot to begin with--at the mess hall. I was at Bagram Air Field and had flown in from Kandahar that morning, after waking up early and waiting for many hours for a flight. I'd encountered some confusion with my point of contact, so had sat at the USO building next to the airport for more hours still. By the time I got to the Bagram DFAC (dining facility), all I'd eaten for about eight hours was two bags of potato chips washed down with four cups of coffee (touched up with CoffeeMate and Equal... so not exactly gourmet coffee either).
So finally I'd met my point of contact, found Tent Four, where I'd be spending a few nights, and put down all my heavy bags... only after cursing myself for bringing so much shit along, even though, deep down, I know that traveling without spare batteries and chargers and all that shit is a bad idea. I put down all my bags, and made my way to the dining facility, starving. Starving!
Chow halls, mess halls, DFACs, or dining halls in the military are all basically the same. You walk through one door, and there's a hand-washing station; then through another door, and a man behind a counter is ticking off non-military personnel on a list, and if you're a journalist, then you get ticked too. Merely a formality so far this trip. Beyond that desk is a stack of paper plates and plasticware, and then a counter full of steaming hot, nearly delicious food, and a grill with burgers and grilled cheese, and then, as you get farther into the DFAC, fruit and pie and chocolate milk and sodas and salads and many, many wonderful things: or, at least they're wonderful if all you've had to eat all day are USO potato chips and coffee.
I stood in line and washed my hands and then approached the counter with the ticker behind it. Everyone who isn't military has a badge of some kind, and I am no exception. My badge says "Media Embed" on it, and is basically self-explanatory. So the ticker guy asks for my badge, and sitting behind him is a giant Command Sergeant Major, 10th Mountain, Ranger, built like a bull, weighing 250 battle-pounds, a face as flat as a shovel, and these green, green eyes that have been trained for years to fuck with people.
"What kind of badge is that?" he barked.
"Lemme see it."
I handed him my badge, and he looked at it and asked, "Where's your escort?"
He handed the badge back to me and, sure enough, on the bottom, are the words, "Escort required."
A few words about the military in general, and command sergeant majors in particular: The military operates in an environment of order, mostly, excepting brief moments of total chaos such as fire fights, air strikes, total routs, or karaoke or salsa nights. On these occasions, some order is let go, but on all other occasions, order prevails. There are endless forms, regulations, formalities, unspoken rules, and SOPs (standard operating procedures) for most everything, including eating. Most of the time, though, if you stay within the parameters of these rules, you're fine. It's when you break outside of them that you're fucked. Because once you're outside, it's hard to get inside. Command Sergeant Majors exist to make sure the rules are followed, that order prevails, and that, above all, the military remains an institution of discipline and motivation.
And now, I was standing on the outside of a very important--for me, starving!--rule. And standing in front of a very rule-bound Command Sergeant Major, who, I would guess, has made a career of crushing rule-breakers into the dust. On top of that, I was "media," which is another word for "shitbag" to some folks in the military, people for whom the New York Times represents the largest factory of mass-produced lies ever constructed. So I'm a media shitbag with an improper badge trying to get into a chow hall in the middle of a war zone, which is a bad place to be, because a lot of soldiers congregate in a chow hall, which makes it a likely target for a bomb: all the more reason to have the right identification on you, especially if you look like a crazy-eyed crazy man, which, after all that coffee, I probably did.
I stood there, wrong.
"Look," the Command Sergeant Major said. "I'm too nice."
"You can eat today. I'm gonna let you. But you aren't coming in here again, you understand?"
I nodded, upset to be talked to like a new recruit who didn't put his boots on the right feet.
"You need to talk to your people and tell them you don't have the right ID to be coming in here. Understand? Now, go eat."
I stepped back in line, grabbed a paper tray and some plasticware, no longer hungry, just upset and embarrassed... and then there's a huge paw on my shoulder, again the Command Sergeant Major.
"What's your name again?"
"OK, Brian. This is Boddie. He's going to escort you during your meal here. Boddie; I want you to eat with him and when he's done, you make sure he leaves the building."
Jesus Christ, we get it. I'm wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I suffered a terribly embarrassing meal--some kind of chicken dish on rice, and apple pie--with this poor kid, Boddie, who was grabbed at random to babysit me through my meal and walk me out of the chow hall.
When I got back to Tent Four, I borrowed a cell phone, and called my public affairs sergeant at Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, explaining to him that I'd just had my ass chewed by a Command Sergeant Major and that he said I needed proper ID to eat at the chow hall.
"That's bullshit," the sergeant said. "That's a CFC-A badge. That's a coalition forces badge. There is no higher badge."
"I see," I said. "But it says, 'Escort required.'"
"That's if you're out on a friggin mission or something like that."
"And if he gives you any more trouble, have him call us."
Another thing about Command Sergeant Majors. They're never wrong. Even if they are, they aren't, if you know what I mean. A man like that, at that rank, just isn't wrong. It isn't going to happen. But there I was, put in a position where in order to eat, I was going to have to go up against this guy, and tell him, "You're wrong." Not in so many words, obviously, but still.
That was two days ago. I haven't run into him since, and I've been eating fine, but never at ease. Every time I go to the chow hall, I'm looking for him, wondering how I'm going to explain to him this badge that says "Escort required" doesn't mean I require an escort. Every time I walk to the chow hall, I rehearse what I might say to this giant, if I see him, and every time I finish eating, and rise with my tray to exit, I'm looking for him, looking for his great mass of sergeant-majorism, in a cammo uniform, among all the cammo uniforms, and the dining facility has become, for me, a mine field, something I tiptoe through, waiting, at any moment, for the Command Sergeant Major to, literally, rear his ugly head.
Fridays are bazaar days at Camp Phoenix, where I've found myself again, after traveling for about a week, from Kandahar to Bagram to here, only to have a few doors closed in my face on a story. That's OK; today's a slow day for everyone, I'm told, Friday being weekend day in Afghanistan. Relax, I'm told. Tomorrow, I'm told. There's a bazaar, I'm told. So I go, only because I have nothing better to do. In the past week I've read two novels, and one of them by friggin' Tom Wolfe, and my eyes are starting to hurt. Why not stroll the bazaar?
The bazaar is held at one end of the camp, fenced in, the sellers spreading their wares in the dust and gravel. It's a typical bazaar: carpets, wood carvings, dirty kids selling old currency, beautiful blue lapis stone set in shoddy brass and silver mounts, "antique" rifles, British sextants, all manner of war detritus from the country's past. And none of it for me... except... what's this? A strange clock, military looking, hefty, with Russian writing on it. Looks more like a helicopter altimeter than a time piece.
"It's from Meeg," the stall hawker confirms. He's about my age, with a stubbly chin and green eyes and a Russian accent in his English. "It has chronology feature."
I'm smitten. Sure, it's just a clock, essentially, but it's heavy with the weight of history and war and Soviet collapse. And a MiG? We've all known what those are since Maverick flipped one the bird in "Top Gun." And here, I guess, is a clock torn out of one that was left unguarded somewhere during Soviet occupation. Or that's going to be the story.
One thing about me, though: I never buy this kind of stuff. From four years in Cambodia, I have exactly no "pieces," or souvenirs, except a couple of old necklaces, a little wooden statue of an Apsara (a Cambodian angel), and a krama (Cambodian scarf)... and I think I lost that damn little statue. And before coming to Afghanistan, I promised myself I'd get myself something from the trip... a nice carpet maybe, if I could afford one. Which of course I can't. But a clock--perhaps.
"How much?" I ask quietly, as if by asking in a low voice, I'll get a low price.
"One hundred and eighty," the hawker says, also in a low voice, as if he's telling me a secret price. And so the haggling begins. I say fifty; he comes down immediately to $120. "Good price for you. Because you have beard. You look like Sufi."
"I am a Sufi," I joke. I'm falling for it. Falling for it! This guy is buttering me up and has me thinking I'm going to actually purchase something from a bazaar for more than five bucks.
I walk away. There's no way I"m spending that kind of money for anything. No... way... But as I pace the bazaar, I know I'm going to go back there. I mean, it may be a piece of junk from the bazaar, but it's a clock... I mean, those are useful... and think of the great conversations it will inspire at my next dinner party:
Strange beautiful woman dinner guest: "Hey, Brian, that's an interesting clock. Where'd it come from?"
Me, sauntering over: "Oh that? I brought that back from Afghanistan in 2006. It's from a MiG."
She: "Like those jets in 'Top Gun.'"
She: "What were you doing in Afghanistan?"
I bought it.
And it stopped ticking by the time I got back to my barracks.
Strange beautiful woman dinner guest: "Hey, Brian, that's an interesting paperweight..."
Feel like I'm being fattened up. For the slaughter. Doing nothing but rolling out of bed in my hut--or cell--which I share with four other new guys, and ambling over to chow. Then back to the bunk for a nap. Up to three naps a day. Waiting. Waiting to get OKed for an interview with Special Forces, or travel to an eastern province, Kunar, where the Afghan National Army established it's first outpost for the province. A wild, mountainous province. Some say Afghanistan will always have pockets of lawlessness. If so, Kunar will be one of these pockets. And I'm trying to get there. To no avail. So all I do is eat and sleep and wait.
Charlie's getting stronger.
Friday nights are steak nights. I've had more steak in this place in two weeks than I've had in two years on the outside. I love apple pie. I've had to cut it out of my daily diet. Butter too. And chocolate milk. War is sacrifice.
One of my cell mates is an IRR call-up, individual ready reserve, meaning he hasn't had any training or been in any branch of the military for 15 years. But he's been collecting a $8,000 a year since he opted for an early out at the request of the Department of Defense when it had "too many NCOs." That is no longer the case, apparently. Fifteen years out of it, and then a letter and here's some bags full of gear and hello Dolly here you are. He ties his laundry bag to the foot of his bunk just the way we were taught in basic. By the numbers. Like an inspection from a terrifying drill sergeant is coming at 0700. He's waiting for his assignment too. He slept 15 hours today. Or more. He snores.
I'm not sure how he feels about apple pie.
It takes a certain kind of genius to mine the MWR library at Camp Phoenix and come up with something good, but last night I outdid myself.
MWR: Morale Welfare Recreation. I write from the MWR computer room, make calls from the MWR phone room, and, if I had sneakers, I could work out at the MWR gym. Across a cement courtyard and "designated smoking area" from the gym is the MWR library, a wooden hut with leaning wooden shelves loaded with crappy spy, romance and western novels, and some really crappy biographies like "Pat Nixon: The Untold Story," written by the subject's daughter.
I was giving the MWR library a third picking over last night, having blasted my way through these gems: "The Power and the Glory" (Greene), "A Man in Full" (Wolfe), and some semi-precious stones, like "Absolute Friends" (LeCarre) and "The Zenith Angle" (Sterling), in the past two weeks. I'd been pretty proud of myself for finding those titles, and I had little hope of doing any better. Still, time is on my side, for now, so I began my labors anew.
In a pseudo-alphabetized jungle of paperback plenitude like the MWR library, you have to have a strategy. You can't read every single title. I tried. It's impossible. The eyes begin to wander. You're beaten before you even get to the Hs, or Fs, or whatever was put on the middle few shelves, halfway down. What you do is: you look for significant markings and coloration, like the orange and white banner signifying Penguin Classics. You skim over titles like "Vengeance Gun," "Warpath" and "Ride with the Devil." Likewise with Christopher Reeve's "Nothing Is Impossible" and W.E.B. Griffin's "In Danger's Path: The Corps, Book VIII." You skip over Stephen King and Michael Crichton, John Grisham and Tom Clancy. You look for names you know and trust.
There: another Graham Greene, like spotting an endangered species, "The Human Factor." I grabbed that. And a book of travel essays by a guy who sailed the waters of the Pacific Northwest. And then "Lady Chatterley's Lover," by D.H. Lawrence. The last time I read D.H. Lawrence, I was holed up in a dorm room in Catania, Sicily, pretending to be on exchange and wooing an art student named Francesca. So I grabbed him just for old time's sake.
Not bad for a third scraping of the bottom of the barrel.
But then, lo, there it was: the big score, the Mother Lode, crammed in sideways like the janitor's bottle of Mad Dog in a Georgetown wine cellar, its front cover torn off, its pages yellow and cracking with age: "The Best and the Brightest," by David Halberstam. Halberstam. The war reporter's war reporter who earned a name for himself and a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Vietnam war, and whose 800-page opus--an indictment of the power and hubris that lead to and worsened the Vietnam War--has always been a book I've been meaning to read.
To find it here, on a baked Army post 20 miles east of nowhere, crammed among novels like "Op Center: Kill All," or whatever, a book with these kinds of nuggets:
"Those years would show, in the American system, how when a question of the use of force arose in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous, and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side..."
Here, on Camp Phoenix, without asking, I had words of wisdom from a war-wearied nation, more than 25 years old. First, I had to do something about the missing cover. The first page had come loose as soon as I turned it. So I went to my miscellaneous bag of goods, which was shoved underneath the snoring IRR guys bunk, and pulled out the DuctSharpie, and giant marker with olive-drag duct tape wrapped around and around it. I fashioned a cover out of the thick tape, then reinforced the spine with same, and slapped it all together until I had an Army-green-tape-covered tome of wisdom from the liberal media circa 1969.
That was last night. This afternoon, I was reading how Dean Rusk became the Secretary of State under Kennedy when I decided to get to know another roommate better, this one a National Guard sergeant and civilian welder from Vancouver, Washington. He spoke with a lispy impediment and had recently learned he was dyslexic, owing, he said, to he and his twin brother being born two months prematurely and then going to school until the age of nine at a school for the deaf. He had tattoos of eagles on each arm, in different poses, with the name of each of his sons--Jonathan and Josh--above each eagle.
"My mother was told she wouldn't be leaving the hospital with us," he said of himself and his twin.
"Has that made you live your life differently?" I asked. "Knowing that you were never supposed to have left the hospital?"
"Nah," he said. "My mother didn't tell us 'til much later on. I mean, I've bungee jumped and sky dived and everything like that. I went to Airborne School when I was--let's see, I'm 44 now--so when I was 42, and everybody else in that school was kids coming out of basic, 18 or 19 years old. So."
He trailed off. Then: "I got the Airborne wings tattooed on my back."
"Huh," I said. "That's a lot of wings on your body."
"Ya," he said. "I guess it is."
He fell silent, and I turned back to my book: "Dean Rusk. He was everybody's number two. At the height of the selection process, Kennedy had turned to Bowles and said..."
I'm not sure if it was day eight or nine of doing nothing, but this place is starting to feel like a prison. Most of the soldiers have been here nearly a year and are waiting to get out, just doing their time. I feel like I've been here a year already. Stir crazy. So... finally... I broke down and went to the MWR Movie Room. They were showing "The Shawshank Redemption." A friggin prison movie.
One of my roommates left today. He was a major, from “some small town” in Iowa, had been Special Forces, served in Japan, and was now active duty, sent down from Germany. The Army had separated him from his new wife and three-month-old daughter, and when he got here, they didn’t know where to put him. He’d been waiting around in this misfit hooch at Camp Phoenix with the rest of us for more than two weeks, and in that time the Army finally figured they’d stick him up at Bagram, answering telephones. In this room of ours, he was always to bed last, after a late-night workout at the gym, and always the first one up—mostly, he said, because of the snoring of IRR guy. He was prone to mispronunciation. “I’m not that dexterious,” for example. The major was pushing 40, looking to retire, newly married to a woman he’d met online, paying $2,000 a month in alimony and child support to his first wife, and, basically just going to get by, he said, by focusing on his job and following this axiom: “Feel sad. Just don’t be sad.”
He was supposed to leave yesterday, but his convoy was canceled. Still, he hadn’t been out the door more than four minutes when I’d vacated my top bunk and moved into his bottom bunk. By the time he came back, sweating and huffing from hauling all his shit over to the convoy meeting place—only to find out the trip had been canceled—I was well ensconced: my laptop set up on a “desk” made of a piece of plywood laid over boxes of bottled water; all my bags and gear spread across the top bunk; my sleeping bag rolled out and fluffed up, shower accoutrements displayed on the top bunk rack.
That night, the major slept in my old top bunk, above our fourth roommate, the chief. The chief is a soft-spoken Georgiaman, a Naval reservist, a social studies teacher, married. He’s attached to the chaplain, as a kind of bodyguard and chore-runner, a poster-child for mild manners, hearty laughter and pluck and pep in the face of wartime deployment. Being in the Navy, he has a short enlistment of only six months. Subsequent Navy tours will be kicked up to yearlong knees-to-the-nutts, he told us last night, because with the Army folks doing such long deployments, the short rotations of the Air Force and Navy were becoming a “morale issue.”
In the morning, the major's early-morning convoy was canceled once again, this time, apparently, because some yahoo trooper had brandished his weapon at a bus full of Afghans on a patrol outside of Kabul. This was not smart, considering the riots earlier this month, and when I mentioned this, the tough major countered, “Well, if we didn’t sometimes do stupid things, we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the first place.”
He left on the next convoy, two hours later, to serve his year in Bagram.
Mother of Freedom. Idle for two weeks, scheduled for a flight to an eastern province tomorrow... and then the flight is canceled. So now I'm facing another delay, with only one story reported in three weeks (or is it four?), and soon I'll have to go out and meet up with people for the Climbing story. I've got some things tentatively lined up, but can't pull the trigger on those interviews until I know when I'm leaving the Army, and that won't happen until I get all my reporting done, and that won't happen until I get to Kunar province, and that just hasn't happened yet.
Apparently, reporting in a combat zone is difficult.
In other news, I saw "Ultraviolet" tonight. It was projected onto the wall of the camp's firehouse, outside, and everybody brings his or her own chair to watch it, spread out on the concrete, all heads turned toward the flickering screen, and dust flying in from a strong northerly wind. A weird way to see a movie--and basically a shitty movie at that.
After a long five weeks with US forces, the last of which were full, I’m safe in downtown Kabul, nestled into the cheapest guesthouse I could find that didn’t scare the bejesus out of me. It’s a $50-a-night place, which, my fixer assured me, is a decent price. My room is small, but the white walls are clean, and the only window looks into the courtyard: green grass to keep the heat down, a three-tiered fountain burbling away in the center, rose bushes around the perimeter, and on one end an aviary stocked with 50 chattering parakeets. Round tables painted red and emblazoned with Coca-Cola’s world-ubiquitous trademark are available, and on the south side of the yard is a small trolley with delicate teacups and saucers, a thermos of hot water, a sugar bowl and black and jasmine tea bags. Outside the courtyard walls is a city of roiling poverty, but in here, it’s, well, nice.
It’s an odd thing, to shake off the military mentality that an embed brings. You get wrapped up in fear and armor, hiding behind weapons and soldiers, distanced from the country around you. You get paranoid. You check ridgelines for shooters and potholes for explosives. People look like they hate you as you pass them in your roaring Humvee, when they probably either fear you or just have better things to do than offer shit-eating grins and moronic hand waves to passing foreign soldiers.
I'm out of it now, and onto other things. But here's how I got here:
After waiting around for two weeks at Camp Phoenix (when I last filed a Friendster dispatch), I finally linked up with a Marine captain who was not only motivated to help, he was capable of doing so. He’d been working a liaison position at Phoenix for his first few weeks, but thanks to a large changeover from one command to another, he was needed in Konar Province, in the rugged mountains in the northeast, right where I wanted to go.
I jumped in an unarmored Ford Ranger with him and we left Phoenix behind, traveling a short distance to Camp Blackhorse, where we linked up with a small team of Marines heading to Konar. These Marines had just spent 30 days in the Korangal Valley, the subject of a story I wanted to write, so not only did I get a ride where I needed to be, I was with the people I needed to interview. The ride from Blackhorse (this time in up-armored Humvees) to our first stop, Jalalabad, took us through the Kabul River canyon, where, in the 1800s, an entire population of British had been systematically killed when they were drummed out of Kabul by angry locals. The British officers, soldiers, doctors, and their wives and families were first robbed of all their warm clothes, then, as they foot-marched toward Jalalabad, cliff-top snipers took them out, bit by bit, until only one doctor remained. He managed to get himself a horse, escape the entrapment of the snipers, and avoid bandits in the foothills where the river canyon gives way, these days, to a lake called Sarobi—an aqua-marine reservoir where today Afghan children swim and float on inner-tubes and an ancient mud-brick village from the set of "Conan" sprawls along the far shore.
The Marine captain and I chatted through the Humvee’s intercom system, me in the passenger seat, he in the gun turret, about how fun it would be to kayak that canyon, which, according to our estimates, possessed Class III and IV rapids. I suggested a “kayak for peace” event, where we would shoot those rapids and ride all the way down the river to Jalalabad in a media stunt aimed at getting us some sponsors (and of course reminding everyone watching from home how important peace is). He was all for it. The captain, it turns out, had been training for the past nine months for a 500-mile endurance race in Utah, but had quit the team when he was deployed to Afghanistan.
It was a long ride, made eerie by the knowledge of those dying British, but really it wasn’t all that dangerous. The canyon gave way to foothills, and those gave way to plains, and nestled in those plains, green with date palms and rice fields, but choked in dust and exhaust, was Jalalabad.
J-bad holds the headquarters to US and Afghan operations in the east and northeast. It’s also the hottest bitch-bastard of a town I’ve ever had the mispleasure of visiting. We stayed there for the longest day of my life, standing under the punishing sun in the motor pool while the Marines's Humvees had their air-conditioning and electronic IED jammers worked on. We spent the night, and the next day headed north, into Konar province, which is lively with anti-coalition forces, US operations and potential IEDs. We rode for several hours, butts puckered, as the soldiers say, and our eyes jumping from the road and the hills, finally reaching a small outpost on the Konar River in Sarkoni district. The Marines shared this little encampment with a Special Forces team of National Guardsmen and some ANA soldiers belonging to a “commando kandak,” a battalion of battle-experienced, motivated Afghan troops. The base, named Camp Joyce after a fallen US soldier, sits about four miles from the Pakistani border, at the base of a rocky, arid range of mountains.
As soon as we arrived, one of the Special Forces guys came out to greet us. I introduced myself and asked about the possibility of an interview. I knew that higher command didn’t want this, but neglected to mention this to the guy. He said sure, and I thought I was going to get the coveted Special Forces story I’d come for. We agreed to meet later, and I was shown to my room, a little cell in a mud-stone compound that had a Playmate of the Month poster hanging on the wall. I was warned to shake out all my clothes and sleeping bag whenever possible, because the hills behind the compound were home to scorpions, vipers and a parasitic arachnid called a camel spider. Camel spiders, I heard later, attach themselves to, yes, camels, sink their four pincers into the flesh, and suck blood. They grow the size of mice.
After I’d settled in, I met up with the Special Forces guy, who by then had called his commander and been told never to speak to me again. So there went that story. Not to worry, though, as I had all I could do to interview the Marines about their experiences in the Korangal Valley, which was just to the west of us, over more mountains. I spent time shooting the shit with the Marines and watching the Konar River valley fall to dusk. They showed me two camel spiders they’d captured from their rooms and had hanging in plastic baggies on an outdoor workbench where they made coffee. I thought I’d have trouble sleeping for sure, thinking about those blood-sucking spiders living under some rocks nearby, possibly under my bed—but I was exhausted and fell asleep as soon as I slipped inside my sleeping bag... after turning it inside out and checking under the bed.
The next day, word came down that two men had been spotted in the steep hills behind us. Men without goats. This is bad. These are the men who carry RPGs and shoot at you in the night. So the Marines hurried to get dressed, and I followed. Five of us grabbed a couple bottles of water, our body armor, and our gear—the Marines with rifles and me with a Nikon. We joined a squad of ANA at the base of the hills, and we began to walk.
This was my first experience walking any kind of distance with body armor on. The armor is a heavy vest that alone can stop shrapnel, but you add to it two heavy ceramic plates capable of stopping a 7.62-mm round, which is exactly the round that comes out of an AK-47, at high velocity, when you get shot at by anyone in the third world. The vest and the plates together must weigh 20 pounds, and in this day and age, in the era of scientific outdoorsmanship, padded waist belts, and $500, ergonomically designed backpacks, none of us really knows what it feels like to carry that kind of weight square on his shoulders. Well, I learned. You know what I learned? It fucking sucks to carry that much weight square on the shoulders, especially when you add a couple bottles of water in a bag, a vest laden with camera accessories, and a 5-pound, 4.1-megapixel monster. The only thing that kept me from falling behind was that the Marines were carrying more weight, in the form of bullets and rifles. The ANA, they don’t mess with that body armor crap. They scamper up the hills like lizards, stopping every once in a while to turn back and look at your sweaty, sorry ass, panting as you clamber over rocks and stumble in the dust.
By the time we got anywhere close to an over-watch position, any potential rocketeers were long gone. We’d been walking for less than 30 minutes, and when we all stopped on a high ridge, I sucked down all my water and hung close to the English-speaking ANA commander in charge, dreading that he might suggest we keep pushing up the mountain.
He didn’t. He decided that whatever had been up here was gone, and that killing ourselves pushing higher up the mountain was futile. I tried not to beam at him my satisfaction with this news, and instead fired off a couple of pictures. There wasn’t much to shoot, really, but I thought if I lugged that shit up this hill, I was coming back with a couple photos. By then it was high, hard noon, and we were all sweating like beasts, and none of those pictures look really good, except that I’m smiling in one taken of me, smiling with relief, knowing that the walk back to the outpost was all downhill.
When we got back, I recorded some interviews with the Marines, and then we all settled in to watch a Jenny McCarthy movie called “Dirty Love,” which under most circumstances would suck, but after a long few days of road-tripping and hill-patrolling was welcome indeed. I left the Marines the next day, to push farther north, to Asadabad, the provincial capital, where there is a large base for a provincial reconstruction team of US soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, and lots of guys in civilian clothes—spooks or feds, I guess. The marines dropped off some resupplies to be helicoptered to their men in the Korangal Valley, and then we left that base, drove through A-bad, and into the loneliest post in the world: Camp Fiaz.
Camp Fiaz is an ANA outpost on the other side of Asadabad. The Marines took me there to meet two—count ‘em—two National Guard guys who were holding down the fort at Fiaz, waiting for replacements.
“Welcome to the shooting gallery,” the Marine driving our Humvee said as we drove past a couple sleepy Afghan soldiers and onto a baked rock parking lot surrounded by barriers and wire. Fiaz sat on the bank of the Konar River. On the other side of the river were steep hills and multiple ridges, just the kind of terrain that rocket shooters like, because they can take a pop-shot on the base, then disappear. Earlier that month, I later learned, Fiaz had been hit by a rocket, about 30 meters from where our Humvees parked. Our two Guardsmen came out to greet us, and after a few moments of pleasantries, the Marines took off, back to Camp Joyce, leaving me with the Guard guys: a major and a sergeant first class, both New Mexican, fast-talking Hispanics who’d had it up to here with their situation.
They’d been eating virtually nothing but steaks for dinner for several weeks, they groused, because they aren’t supposed to travel in a single Humvee. When they had no choice, they would make a dash across Asadabad to the 10th Mountain’s base, where they would check e-mail, re-supply their steaks, which they kept in a freezer, eat lunch at the chow hall, just for a change-up, then run back to Fiaz.
That night we had steaks for dinner. As a special treat, they supplemented this with a can of beans mixed with green chilies, and the sergeant poured the chili water over the steaks for a change of flavor. That night, in the hooch, the sergeant and I lie on our cots and talked about the importance of respecting local customs, the problems with operations up the river and in Nuristan, where, the sergeant said, he’d spent a long few days on an operation in a valley where marijuana grew wild. He’d used a “rock for a pillow.”
Sleeping on rocks among wild marijuana was worse than Fiaz, he said, where there was air-conditioning and lights, and so he couldn’t really complain. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “As long as you don’t get shot.”
The next day, another group of National Guard accompanying an ANA general making his rounds showed up. They were headquarters types, which meant they weren’t used to being out this far, and they were my ride back to Jalalabad. At one point, I had to remind a sergeant in the Humvee turret to put his body armor on, and later I had to remind a lieutenant to turn the electronic IED jammer on. And thus, with my confidence in my ride completely crushed, I said good-bye to the New Mexicans and got in the Humvee. What choice did I have? It was either that or stick around in hopes of a flight out of Asadabad, at a hectic time, apparently, when many flights were being canceled or re-routed.
We made a quick stop at Camp Joyce, where I saw my Marines again, and recounted to them the shit-headedness of the people I was riding with. They laughed and wished me luck, and several long hours later, I was in Jalalabad. I was stuck in that hell hole for several days, hanging around a wasp-infested B-hut with nothing to do but kick rocks and take walks, with a Navy public affairs guy I met, a guy who loved handing out candy to little kids, imploring, “Did you get a picture of that? Did you get a picture?” and saying things like, “That’s your money shot right there. No publication in the world would turn down a photo of an American soldier handing candy to a kid.” I silently begged to differ, and snapped off a bunch of photos. He was actually a nice guy, and his heart was in the right place, and the time passed, as time does.
The headquarters guys were finally ready to go one afternoon, and so we loaded up the Humvees and headed back to Kabul. On the way back, we found a canyon tunnel blocked with a giant truck. The Chinese construction company working on the road blocked the route this way, and it took a lot of doing to get the truck moved. The key was gone, but the truck could be shifted into neutral, so the Afghan and Army soldiers pushed it out of the way. I, meanwhile, had found the Chinese superintendents, and thinking that I could sweet-talk a key out of them, began conversing with them in Chinese. It felt good, letting Chinese roll out, and seeing their stunned expressions. Amazed as they were, though, they didn’t have a key—but no matter: the truck was pushed out of the way, and we were on the road again, the Lieutenant Colonel and driver in my Humvee sucking down sodas from a giant orange cooler and talking about getting the fuck out of this country.
And that was it. I had my story—several, in fact—and I was back and not blown up. It took me a couple of days to get out of the Army embed, and took some doing to haul all my bags off of Camp Phoenix, to wait for my ride.
Through all that, the scariest part was this wait. I’d crossed a threshold, but not far enough, no longer protected by armor and bullets, but standing on a dirty stretch of road just outside the gate. I felt spooked out there, thinking maybe this would be the day some suicide bomber decided to hit the gate. It was fifteen minutes, at most, face to the sun, baking out there, and then my ride came, a recent medical school graduate named Ata. We shook hands, he hailed a cab, and I grabbed all my bags and threw them in the car.
And then we were off, and the military was behind me, and in the back seat, bouncing along the road, listening to Indian pop music blare through the car as the driver honked his horn and motorcycles and trucks thundered around us, warm air blowing in the rolled-down window, I felt better.
So here I sit, at my guesthouse, parakeets and all. I’ve provisioned myself with apple juice, a bag of almonds, a loaf of bread, a jar of Nutella chocolate spread and a fresh mango. Tomorrow morning, I will visit Rahim Khan, the mujahidin who wants to be a mountaineer, and I will find out if a trip into the Hindu Kush is possible.
How hard could it be?
Rahim Khan lives in a shitty section of north Kabul, past a huge garbage dump that reeks and a hardscrabble graveyard where tombstones are nothing but flat rocks sticking straight out of the ground, and next to a little mosque that's currently under construction. My fixer, driver and I arrived at around 8 am, and even then the city was getting warm. Rahim Khan reminded me of my uncle, except Khan had a white beard, a cloth wrapped around his head, and was dressed in the typical Afghan pajama ensemble.
We sat down in his little house--nothing special, but not a dump either--in a room full of red carpet and pillows. Khan Jr. brought us all tea, and Rahim sent him to bring a map of the Panjshir Valley, which was a page photo-copied out of an English-language book on mountains. He ran his fingers over the topo lines, showed me the second-highest mountain in Afghanistan: Mir Samir, and said we could go to the base of it, if I wanted.
But we'd need to hire 10 armed guards from the provincial governor, whom I'd pay $250 per day, each, for four days, as well as all other expenses, including a car and driver, my fixer, and all food and lodging. That was pretty obviously out of the question. (Later, my fixer and I were laughing about it: "10 guards!" he said. "You aren't Bush!")
The other plan was for him to take me himself, not so far up the valley that we would need guards from would-be robbers or kidnappers, but far enough that he could describe for me his experiences as a mujahid fighting the Russians and show me some of the smaller nooks and crannies in the mountains where they used to hide when the Russians would invade the Panjshir.
We were getting somewhere until he asked, "How much do you think you will pay me?"
I tried to explain that I was a magazine writer on a small budget, but that if people read about him, it might bring him more business.
"I'm not interested in that," he said. "I'm worried about Right Now. Not the future."
I offered what I could, about $300, which I thought would be reasonable for a two-day car ride, some war stories, and some scenery.
He laughed at me. Laughed at me.
"I am a famous commander and mountaineer," he said. "If you were a famous commander and mountaineer, what would your price be?"
"Three hundred dollars," I said. (He's neither really famous nor a brilliant mountaineer.)
"I will do it for a thousand dollars," he said.
After my talk with Rahim Khan: spirits down, angst up. The rest of the day was spent running around town with my interpreter and driver trying to salvage the day. I had a name, but no number, for the director of something called the National Environmental Protection Agency, and through him I hoped to find other aspiring mountaineers that might be more reasonable, or at least interviewable. We called every number in a directory I'd acquired from an NGO too worried to speak to me on the record for the Monitor, but nice enough to give me a parting gift. When our calls proved futile, we drove to the Ministry of Communications, which communicated nothing to us, except that communication here is a crap shoot.
I sprung for lunch, the "special," which included two kinds of beef, rice pilaf, and a cheesy dough pocket of some kind and tea. Attah, the interpreter, a recent graduate of medical school, said he had a friend who had been a mujahid in the Panjshir Valley, but wasn't a mountain climber, and I figured, what the hell, let's at least talk to the guy. He was working as a gate guard at a Japanese NGO, and he said he'd take us into the Panjshir, but couldn't vouch for my safety.
"Who can be responsible for this?" Attah asked me. It was a good question. The only answer, of course: me and me alone... me with a track record of getting myself into jams... and I sensed this would be one time not to go for it. After all, I was way off subject for my story, would be paying out the nose for the whole trip, plus...well, bandits and shit. So I said no thanks.
"His brother was a mujahidin commander," Attah said. "Would you like to speak to him?"
"That would be great," I said.
"We can pick him up here tomorrow," Attah said, "but we have to pay him something, because he will be missing work."
"We can't be paying people just to come and talk to us," I said. "It's against the rules. Just like doctors have rules, journalists have rules."
So that was out too.
We returned to my guest house. I'd been with Attah for three days, but he was in fact a substitute interpreter. I'd actually been in contact since May with a man named Ali, also a recent medical school graduate, but Ali was out of town until Thursday evening, so Attah it was until then. Ali, we believed, had the phone number of the National Environmental Protection Agency man, Mustapha Zaher, who was the grandson of the founder of modern Afghanistan. "Modern."
I told Attah it would be best for me to wait another day for Ali to arrive, and as we sat in the lobby of the guest house, I felt some kind of tension.
"Can you give some money for me?" he finally asked.
"Of course," I said, realizing two things just then: that this was the last day working with him, one, and, more importantly, we'd never agreed on a fee. "How much?"
"Whatever you are paying Ali," he said.
"I've haven't talked to Ali yet, so I don't know. What's normal?"
"One hundred dollars per day," Attah said. "But friendship is more important than money, so it is up to you."
Classic. So now I'm an asshole.
"There's no way I can pay you three hundred dollars for what we've done," I said.
"Yes, well, it is up to you."
I told him $150... a pretty steep fee for a pick-up, a trip to a guest house, a trip to the bank, a couple of phone calls, and a failed interview. Steep, I guess, but maybe fair. A sinking feeling hit him, I could tell, and he nodded agreement, muttering something about, no problem, friendship, more important, money. His heart wasn't in it though.
So: I had no subject for my story, a pissed off interpreter, and the terrible knowledge that a trip into the Panjshir would be both dangerous and outside my budget. Not a great day, for sure. I ate some cold left-over kebab from dinner the night before (with a charming South African woman working for Agence France-Presse), and some cheese, then I went to the guest house lobby to book my flight to Dubai online.
I'd extended my trip, but hadn't bought the Kabul-Dubai ticket, not knowing when I would need to leave. It was obvious now that a July 4 flight would be fine. I figured if I could just get that thing booked, I'd have an exit date, would have something accomplished, and would feel better. I called up the Web page for Air Arabia, punched in the flight info, then my credit card info... and... nothing. "Error." I tried again. "Error." And again: "Error."
Error indeed. I was sitting in the middle of Kabul, bleeding money out my ears, and facing the possibility of being stuck here. That fact, combined with the Rahim Khan debacle, Attah's vows of friendship despite feeling shafted, a story that might never get of the ground... these things were too much. I bought a beer from the guest house restaurant, sat in the dark courtyard--parakeets sleeping, fountain turned off--drank, and went to bed.
Near my guest house are two famous streets: Flower and Chicken. Flower Street has a high number of flower shops along its narrow sidewalks. Chicken Street has a lot of antique and rug shops. (Rug Street sounds as good as Chicken Street to me, but I'm not an urban planner.) The business card in my pocket told me I needed to be on Chicken Street, looking for the Marcko Polo antique store, where I would find Jaweed, the man who sold me the Meeg clock.
I didn't find Jaweed, but I found his brother, and he led me to Jaweed, who was taking a nap on the floor of his other shop, the watch shop, tick-tocking all over, fan blowing, high noon, and he seemed happy to see me. He roused and shook my hand, and I gave him the clock, having explained to him at the bazaar on Camp Phoenix that it was broken, that it had worked for only an hour. He'd given me his card and said if I was in Kabul, to come and see him. So here I was.
He handed the clock to an older man in the corner, seated on the floor, watch and clock gears and springs and screws scattered around his feet, the right lens of his eyeglasses broken in four places. Jaweed found a chair for me, and I sat and waited for my clock to be fixed. In no time, the man had the clock apart and was tweaking it with a pair of tweezers.
Jaweed and I shot the shit for a while, talking about clocks and Russians and lapis lazuli, the blue semi-precious stone that comes from ancient mines in Afghanistan. I told him I need to purchase some lapis for a friend of mine, and he dug out a few uncut, unpolished blue rocks for me to inspect. What looked like tiny veins of gold in the rock were just that, Jaweed said, making them more valuable. I wasn't sure, but when he told me I could take a stone, for free, for my troubles, I was able to convince myself I'd been given a great gift. A rock. Still... I needed something to go my way, given all the mishaps of recent days.
In less than 30 minutes, I was on my way, a running clock and a blue rock in my possession... and when I got back to my guest house, I went online, found the Web site for Ariana Afghan airlines, and bought myself a ticket out of here--realizing only after I bought it that it wasn't an electronic ticket, that it would have to be sent to me at my guest house... a scary prospect. I fired off an e-mail to the "head office" of the airlines, requesting that I be able to pick up the ticket at their Kabul office.
By that time, Ali, my original interpreter, arrived, and we discussed my story options. If Rahim Khan was out of the question, I had another number for a man in Bamiyan, site of the famous, now-demolished, 10-story Buddhist statues, in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountains. If I could find an aspiring mountaineer, there, I was assured it was a good site for prospective tourism, Bamiyan being home to the Hazara people with Mongul features, who hated the Taliban and would allow no unrest there.
So the plan has become this: get ahold of the Bamiyan mountaineer, talk to a government minister in the morning about other options, pick up ticket at Ariana's Kabul office, then maybe head on a two-day trip to Bamiyan... thereby establishing character and setting, if not narrative... and maybe salvaging this story.
Trouble is: the Bamiyan mountaineer's phone is off, and has been off since at least last night, and all day today.
At least I have a functioning MiG clock. And a flight out.
Oh what a difference a good fixer makes. Where my first few days in Kabul were a terrifying goat rodeo, my last few have been, if anything, less angstful. Ali knows people, gets things done, and so, after picking up my ticket for a flight out next Wednesday, I found myself at the office of the National Environmental Protection Agency, waiting to meet a man supportive of the mujahidin mountaineers. His office was on the outskirts of the city, in the compound of the Ministry of Water and Something, within cannonball range of a bombed out palace of Zaher Shah, the last king of Afghanistan... and how appropriate, as the man I was meeting was Mustapha Zaher, the grandson of that king, head of the Agency, an independent body within the government dedicated, if anyone was, to Afghanistan's crippled environment.
The complex was your standard grouping of brought-to-our-knees office buildings where budding technocrats in ill-fitting suits and crazy ties work and don't work, and the office of Mustapha Zaher was on the third dingy floor. I underwent two searches by armed guards on my way in: my bag, with its recording equipment and back-up mini-cassette recorder inspected, my camera eye-balled, and me asked to turn it on and fire a few frames before being allowed near the office.
Ali and I were led to a small antechamber, a kind of waiting room, where on a cushy couch sat two men of Afghanistan's old days: one of them was 70 years old, and looked like a three-quarter scale, white-bearded Hemingway in a turban; the other, 50, was lanky, with a Tommy Lee Jones face behind a long white beard. They were both hunters from Bamiyan, they explained, after first chiding me for not knowing Farsi... and, yes, they answered, they'd seen snow leopards, and, yes, they could lead me to one, if I had binoculars. You lured them out of hiding by tying a goat to a tree as bait, and waiting. Would I like to see one? Next time, I told them. Next time.
While I waited, an Afghan Jerry Garcia entered the room, T-shirt tucked in over an ample belly, beard wild, a bespectacled expert on something, I could tell, and he asked me if I was Mr. Brian, here to interview Mr. Zaher. I said I was, and he said that was wonderful, he was the expert on climatology, wasn't that what I was here to write about?
Me, silently: the fuck?
Then me, out loud: "Oh. I'm here to write about climbing--mountain climbing--not climatology."
Luckily, the two hunters began jabbering away at Garcia, and I was spared having to ask ignorant questions about Afghanistan's climate, which, to me, is pretty self-explanatory: friggin hot and dry, degrees varying by altitude and latitude.
When I was finally allowed to see Mustapha Zaher, a tall, robust, shiny-headed bald prince, well dressed, clean looking, polished, I worked quickly to eradicate the notion that I was there to talk about climate, but rather climbing. Once we were all on the same page, he was off and running. It's the first interview I've ever had that didn't start with me asking questions. I tried a couple of times, but there was no space in Mustapha's powerful, effusive English oratory. Our first ten minutes were spent with him telling me everything I already knew, about the training program for aspiring mountain guides, about the mountains, about the Italian mountaineer who'd come up with the program.
The next few minutes I spent trying to wrestle some specific contact information out of him, about where I might find some of these aspiring guides, as I had names, but no numbers, to a few of them.
"Professor Pinelli," the Italian, "could tell you better than I," he said. Which sucked, because Pinelli had given me all he had and told me for more information I should seek a meeting with Mustapha Zaher. And so I was trapped in an echo-chamber of generalities void of specifics.
And then: "I believe Professor Pinelli is in town now," Mustapha said. This was interesting, because I'd sent an e-mail to the Italian saying I'd be delighted to interview him if we were in Afghanistan at the same time. Mustapha promised to try and find the guy, set up a dinner, and we could all sit down and talk some specifics. "I'll call you around six o'clock, so be ready," Mustapha said.
With that, I was handed a copy of Afghanistan's newly developed environmental law, in English, and hustled out of the room, in the kind of exchange that leaves you standing befuddled on the wrong side of the right door. I had a lot of boiler-plate ranting recorded, but no solid information, and a dubious promise of a possible dinner with a man who might or might not be in town.
Ali and I walked back to the car, laughing at the interview that had gotten away from me like a Gulf Coast hurricane or a land war in Asia, and then we drove away from the ministry, away from the bombed out palace, weaving through children and taxies crossing the road and with a lot of time to kill before our possible dinner date.
Without warning, Ali pulled over, whipped out his cell phone, and dialed some numbers. Then, as it rang, he sped back onto the road, into traffic, deftly driving and fixing at the same time. He was charming someone in Farsi, aka Dari, aka Persian, I could tell.
"Rahim Khan will see us tomorrow morning," Ali said, smiling, shoving the phone back in his pocket, "and he'll give us all the information we want."
We had a cheap Afghan lunch--kabobs and rice--and returned to the guest house, and Ali left me for a few hours, seeing if he might track down where this Pinelli was staying. He returned with a vague lead from a hotel attendant who said that she knew the man and that he had left town two days ago. But maybe it was someone else, she told Ali, and so we were left with some time to kill waiting for the then-prince's phone call.
I pulled out my notebook and began sketching, explaining the foundations of narrative journalism to Ali: the importance of character, setting and a narrative arc, trying to arm him for tomorrow's interview so that he might better extract details from Rahim Khan that would be valuable, instead of suffering the same debacle I'd undergone in Mustapha Zaher's office. The last thing we needed tomorrow, on this rare second chance, was a train derailment. As I described these things, Ali's face lit up, and he took notes, and said that no one had explained this to him before... and I had some hope for the impending interview.
Six o'clock came and went, and we tried to no avail to reach Mustapha Zaher. The elusive Italian had slipped our grasp, it seemed, like a snow leopard, a ghost cat, and we without any goats as bait.
It's a long story and I'm exhausted, but here's the gist of it:
I'm staying rent-free at a journalist's house in Kabul, basically broke... and today I nailed my Climbing story: by stumbling upon a daughter-father duo who both took the mountaineering course last year.
I'm leaving Kabul tomorrow for Dubai, then back in DC on July 6.
Phrases I taught my interpreter today:
"Down to the wire."
"Saved my ass." The End.
It has come to my attention that some people are still checking this blog, wondering what happened to me. Well, I made it. It wasn't easy getting here, and it hasn't been easy being back, but I'm now in Washington, DC, have filed all but one story that needs filing, and, as of today, am financially in the black (thanks to a small loan from my very patient father).
On the morning I left Kabul, three bombs exploded in the city, leaving me with little doubt of my own impressions over seven weeks of travel in Afghanistan: mostly that the country is slipping, that the US hasn't committed enough of itself to fix anything and that promises that things will get better in time and statements that this is "up to the government of Afghanistan" are basically donkey shit.
Bottom line: we could be doing more.
I wasn't worried about that, though, as I rushed to catch my flight. I was carrying two goat-horned battle helmets for my friend Porter, to be given to his nephews, and these caused a lot of consternation among different customs officials, who told me I need a letter from the museum to transport such objects... as though I'd dug them up from a remote site in Herat and was trying to smuggle them out of the country.
After several hours in line, I finally cleared customs and immigration, got my seat, and was waiting for the plane to take off. (If the flight was canceled, a bad habit, I was told, of Ariana Afghan Airlines, I'd be screwed: I didn't have enough money in the bank to buy a new ticket, and I'd used up all my favors with British Airways, whose flight I would miss in Dubai as well.)
I got on the plane, finally, relieved, but I also knew that Ariana didn't have the best safety record either. That, combined with the explosions in town earlier that morning, made for a tough first few minutes of take-off, as we rattled into the air, wings shaking, cabin tilting, and all the while every passenger on board praying to his or her own personal God: don't let this be the day, not this way, please.
Thus sacred witless, we were all relieved when we landed in Dubai, me especially. My friend Michelle would help me if anything went wrong from here, and indeed she did help, by putting me up in a wonderful hotel her company uses for clients. She and I talked for more than an hour over cappuccinos in the lobby, and then we said good-bye. I couldn't sleep, though, so I watched a werewolf movie and laid under the air-conditioner in a big kind-size bed, sipping water.
And that was it. I was done. I'd missed out on the Special Forces story, but I was coming home with everything else I wanted, and some things that I didn't want (mostly those goat-horned helmets, and a little bit of debt). All in all, though, I'd pulled it off. In less than 24 hours, I'd be back in DC, among friends, and all would be well.
And so, finally, when the horror movie was over and the cappuccino had run its course, I turned out the lights in my glitzy Dubai hotel room, pulled the cool sheets over me, and slept very, very well.
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