Thursday, December 31, 2009

Combined ANP/US Range and Golf

Weeks ago when we were talking and having chai with our ANP counterparts the topic of weapons came up. Our counterparts relayed to us that they had not been trained on their pistols and were not very comfortable with their use. Since they do carry these weapons and rely on them for their personal safety, we decided to arrange some time together on the range to practice. After a basic range safety lecture through my interpreter, we began.

I was expecting their pistols to be old WWII era soviet style weapons. I was quite suprised to find that they carry new Smith and Wesson 9mm pistols. Their pistols did not have a safety, but were light weight and handled well. One of the weapons misfired a few times, but I suspect that more oil was needed. They did fine and improved with only a little practice. We also let them shoot our pistols, which are much older in design comparitively. We ended the shooting with a familiarization fire of the M-4 which was orderly as well.

After the shooting Steve took out the golf clubs. All of the Afghans universally said it was much harder to hit a golf ball than watching TV might suggest. I was worried that some of the clubs would be literally broken in half due to the hatchet like swing of some of the new golf initiates. There were quite a few laughs and a good time was had by all. It was a good safe time. I suspect this was the last mentoring type activity I will perform in this country. There is a new member of the team here now, so very soon it will be time for me to move on.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Clinic Open

For those of you who have been following all along you may remember my post from 17 August. In that post I showed you an ANP clinic which was still under construction. Well, yesterday we visited the same clinic and it is now open and operational. Our Afghan counterparts were very creative in furnishing and outfitting the clinic until a package of goods arrives from Kabul to fully equip and stock it.

There are still a few minor issues to be resolved, but this clinic is a significant step up in facilities for them. It is new. It has running water. It has a continuous power source. It has heat and air conditioning. The staff who will be running the clinic were kind enough to pose outside of it. I am almost shocked that it only took four months to get this clinic completed and operational. While this may seem like slow progress by our standards, it is light speed for Afghanistan.

Time has a different quality here. In this land, Alexander the Great came into town 'sometime yesterday'. There is a common saying here; "You may have watches, but we have Time". Many Americans will interpret this as laziness, but it is more a cultural acceptance of the limits of time. I am just glad that I could actually see one more milestone achieved during my time here.

This was probably my last mission "Outside the Wire". My replacement is here and the team will have to press forward with our many other projects without me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rumi------ Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī جلال الدین محمد بلخى

Local boy becomes world class poet.

That would be the headlines if there were any when Rumi (1300's) was alive. He was born only a few miles away from where I sit right now and is still revered as one of the most eloquent poets of all time on the subject of Love in mystical ways. His family fled the Mongol hordes as they invaded this area and fled west. It was in the Sultanate of Rum in modern day Turkey that he came to pre-eminence as a spiritual philosopher and most notably as a poet. This gave him his "nickname" of Rumi, although Afghans still refer to him as Balkhi- coming from Balkh.

Translations of his Farsi/Dari poems still ring our ears today. He gives such a different perspective on issues. His poetry is unique.

Just a few excerpts translated:

Looking at my life
I see that only Love
Has been my soul’s companion
From deep inside
My soul cries out:
Do not wait, surrender
For the sake of Love.

You know what love is?
It is all kindness, generosity.
Disharmony prevails when
You confuse lust with love, while
The distance between the two
Is endless.

I read that Rumi was the last documented person to have people of five different faiths carry his funeral bier. He even has some poems about Jesus. The Mawlawī Sufi order or order of Whirling Dervishes was founded in 1273 by Rumi's followers after his death. His son Sultan Walad was installed as grand master of the order. The leadership of the order has been kept within Rumi's family in Konya uninterruptedly since that time.

I encourage you to investigate some of Rumi's works. You may be suprised what Afghanistan has contributed to the culture of the world.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chistmas Day

Christmas was a wonderful but busy day. We had three services within 24 hours, with lots of good singing. I had the opportunity to watch a flock of goats for several hours on guard duty. Finally we had a good ole time at the First Annual 5k Jingle Bell run around Camp Spann. If there was a category I am sure I would have won 'Best hat made out of office supplies'. The meals were very good and ample as well. I had some good calls back to my family to find out how my gifts went over. It was quite a Birthday Celebration. I hope you had a fun and meaningful Christmas too.
And a Special Thank you to those who sent boxes, presents, decorations, or greetings. They were all much appreciated. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shab e Yalda شب یلدا

In the western world we think of the 21st of December as the Winter solstice. The night of the 21st is the longest of the year for the northern hemisphere.

In Iranian and to some degree Afghan culture the night of the 21st of December is Shab-e Yalda شب یلدا .

It is an Iranian festival whose origins go all the way back to Babylonian and Zoroastrian religious rights. It has been adopted over time and is still celebrated as a winter feast, when families will sit up all night around a fire telling stories and eating melons, pomegranate, and nuts.

Because Shab-e Yalda is the longest and darkest night, it has come to symbolise many things in Persian poetry; separation from a loved one, loneliness and waiting. After Shab-e Yalda a transformation takes place - the waiting is over, light shines and goodness prevails.

Shab-e Yalda is also a very special day to someone very close to me. Someone I hope to see soon. And while it may not be fast enough, sometime after Shab-e Yalda the waiting will be over. Light and goodness will prevail.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Freedom Chapel International Christmas Service

Tonight we had our International Christmas service. There were readings and songs in English, Croatian, and Norwegian. Sweden and Macedonia were also represented in the choirs as well. The service showed that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of the language we speak. For the closing song "Silent Night", we sang the first verse in English, then in Croatian, then in Norwegian. It was a festive time and well attended. I look forward to more Christmas Celebrations this week.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Leishmaniasis Part II

Some of you may remember my post from approximately 1 month ago. Well, Chad has finished his one month of almost daily injections into the site of his cutaneous leishmaniasis. You may be able to identify the leg and running shoes. His wound looks much better, although it still has some thickening of the skin (induration in medical jargon). At this point he will be observed for relapse or a need for further injections. I have heard that one or two soldiers out of the dozen affected by this disease recently had to be evacuated to Walter Reed for treatment of their leishmaniasis with IV medication. But the worst appears to be over for Chad.

It is the Christmas Season, even in Afghanistan. A few of us hardy and cheerful folk met last night to sing Christmas Carols at the entrance to the Chow Hall for about an hour. It was good a good time and actually a lot of fun. After practicing a while outside we got brave enough to go in and sing a few songs in each dining area. I am sure there will be a repeat performance for those of you who missed it. While Afghanistan may not be our home, for those with the desire, it can still be a place of fellowship and fun during this Holy Season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


There are some issues or events that never even make it to a post. Others, like today's, I have to think about for a long time before posting since I endeavor to be positive about our role here. Today's issue still has the potential to be a rant instead of informative.

Basic Warfare 101 teaches us that armed conflict is just an extension of diplomacy. There is a published Army Field Manual that provides guidance on the use of money as a weapons system. Out of all the tools at our disposal to effect positive change in this country, money is the most effective.

There are several programs by which mentors can buy goods or services for their Afghan counterparts. One of these programs is the Field Ordering Officer or FOO program. Others include the Commanders Emergency Relief Program (CERP), PR&C projects, and many more lesser known acronyms. The only one we really heard about in mentor training was FOO. The obvious goal of mentoring is to coach the Afghans so they can successfully navigate their own logistics systems and ensure they are self sufficient. Sometimes, however, we cannot let them fail. Sometimes we need to spend money to ensure they can complete their mission of securing Afghanistan. Most people with experience would agree that logistical planning is not a strong suit for the Afghans. The FOO program exists to fill in the shortfalls in logistical planning so that the Afghans can continue their mission in a timely manner. It requires a two person US team to go through a short course, then be responsible and accountable for money signed over by the US Government. Above is a picture of my most recent draw of FOO money. It is a stack of bills that equals 1 million Afghani. The US equivalent is $20,000. It is a lot of money, and our team only spent a small fraction of it.

Unfortunately the accountants and contact clearance personnel in Kabul have essentially scuttled this program. What may have been a useful program to offset shortcomings in the Afghan military planning process is now useless. About two months into our time here a new team of accountants at Kabul took over and radically changed the rules of what could be bought and how it was justified. All purchases were questioned from that point onwards and items that were retrospectively considered unauthorized were billed to the team personally. The result is that teams are now fearful of spending any money to support the mission. We can either assume that the Afghans have totally figured out how to work their system in the past 4 months(very unlikely), or that the mission is suffering. What is more there are lots of hardworking American soldiers who are now being held financially responsible for purchases they thought were in good faith. I know of at least three teams in the northern area who are being held personally financially responsible for purchases which seem to fulfill the intent, if not the letter of the regulations.

One Army National Guard Lt is having to pay $900 dollars out of his own pocket to reimburse the government for 'unauthorized purchases'. He bought water for the Afghan National Army so that they could complete a field mission. Another Army National Guard soldier is being held responsible for $300. He used FOO money to contract some wiring for a refrigerated container for an ANA kitchen. We all know that soldiers fight better when they are fed spoiled food. Another team paid $180 for parts and wiring to fix washing machines that were broken at an Afghan army hospital (who knew that hospitals had to have clean linen?) Somehow it does not seem right that soldiers of conscience who were trying to directly impact and benefit the Afghan mission here should have to pay (literally) for their service.

On the other hand, for many years now I have always applied the 'Uncle Dale' Principle to spending the Government's money. My Uncle Dale, a proud taxpayer, was astounded one year to find that the Navy paid rent for us to live in a nice house in Italy while we were stationed there. Since that time I have always considered whether or not my Uncle Dale would approve spending that I might do on his behalf.

But lets also put this in larger perspective. How much has the US spent on me so far during this deployment? If you add up three months of training, cost of contract instructors, ammunition, fuel, my salary, food, housing, transportation, and additional deployment pays, it is a lot. I would guess that the US has spent about $500,000 just to get me trained and here. So why quibble about a paltry few hundred dollars spent directly on the mission? Besides, who can better decide what is necessary to accomplish the mission at hand: mentors who work with the Afghans daily, or accountants in Kabul? It almost appears that the HQ in Kabul seems intent on undermining this program and therefore our direct mentoring efforts. We are here to teach the Afghans how to think for themselves, plan ahead and succeed. How unfortunate it is that we seem to have learned from the Afghan(Russian old style centralized command) system, instead of them learning from us.

If the American people want to know why we are not making more progress with the Afghan National Security Forces, they need look no further than the FOO program and how it has been hamstrung.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shebergan Mission

Yesterday was an altogether wholesome and satisfying day. It always feels good to give or provide services to those with so little. At the end of a day it is a very good feeling when I can say that Afghanistan is better off because of what we did today.

We went to an Afghan prison about 2 hours west of here in the town of Shebergan. The American civilian mentors who work with the staff there invited us to give immunizations to the inmates and staff. This is one of the three prisons who benefited from the literally thousands of vitamins my parents sent a few months ago( thanks folks, they were well utilised). Although health care is free in Afghanistan according to their constitution, access is sometimes a problem. Our trip there was uneventful and actually comfortable(IE not in an MRAP). The staff were very gracious in welcoming us to their site. I learned some things after our last escapade doing this type of volunteer mission in downtown Mazar. In short order the equipment was unloaded and we met the medic there at the prison. We showed him the various immunizations we brought, how to load them in syringes, how to store them and so forth.

With the help of the prison mentor staff, we started immunizing the women incarcerated there. After a short orientation time of observation and teaching, our Afghan medic friend gave immunizations with us.We also immunized their children, since they stay with the mother during her time in prison. Based on previous experiences we decided this was the best population to start with so that they did not get "forgotten". The women were all pleasant and for the most part very cooperative. Their area was new and clean, although it did lack heat. The children were cute and captivating. Thankfully I remembered to bring some Shiryni (sweets or candy) to give them for after they braved their vaccines. We left the medic enough supplies of all types to immunize the rest of the population and staff. I think this was a good call, since rather than doing the whole thing ourselves, we taught, coached and provided the means for the staff to complete the task themselves.

The Commander of the prison led the way and was one of the first staff members to get vaccinated after the women and children were completed. He also provided some naan, kebaabs and chai with grand and legendary Afghan hospitality. On our way out we visited the clinic on the site. It was built by either USAID or one of the many NGO's. It was fairly new, clean and functional. I was truly impressed that the medic had health records on all his inmates. He had a good supply of medications and a well organized 4 bed observation area. I was very happy to see the clinic in such good hands.

Overall it was a very fulfilling mission. The staff were kind and respectful to the inmates. Some of the children present were from the staff. The kids just all played together. Some of our team had a hard time telling guard from prisoner at times. They got along together as a small village might. Even though it rained all day yesterday, after an experience like this my spirits could not be dampened.

This morning I reluctantly got up to exercise. As I was leaving the gym I noted the presence of atmospheric white fluffy stuff. Sometime early this morning the rain had turned to snow. I also noticed that the large hole near the corner of my hut has grown considerably and how has a small brother a few feet away. After some questioning of the resident KBR staff it appears our huts may have been built on top of a cesspool or septic leach field. There is also a new crack in the floor. Hmm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Konduz and back, 18 hours in an MRAP

We took a whirlwind trip to the Konduz and back in the last 48 hours. At least 18 of which were spent in full battle gear sitting in the back of an MRAP. Konduz is a hot spot of trouble here in the north since there is an isolated Pashto area in the otherwise Tajik and Uzbek areas of the north. It is a 250 km one way trip to Konduz. The day we drove to Konduz was a very beautiful day with plenty of visibility and sunshine. We were able to see snow on the higher mountains, and drove with snow on either side of the road while at the high point of our travels along the passes of Ring Road. Police checkpoints occured at regular intervals along Ring Road, as did stripped hulks of Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Once we arrived on the other side of the pass we followed river valleys to Konduz. Wherever agriculture was possible it was present. The wheat, rice and scant amounts of corn were all harvested already. Cotton was still out in many fields. I could see cauliflower and carrots being harvested in the fields. The vegetable markets at Pol e Khomri had diakon, squash and onions demonstrating that they were still in season. With the recent rains I saw lots of tilling of the fields. It was not uncommon to see a team of oxen working right next to a tractor. There was freshly growing grass present in many areas which gave an uncharacteristic green tinge to Afghanistan.

I especially liked seeing the trees. We don't have many trees in the Mazar e sharif area. I actually got to see the full spectrum of fall leaf colors along the route. Most of the trees were either maples or poplars. The poplars were grown in small tree farm plots as well. It has been a long time since I have seen a pile of leaves.

There were lots of animals to see as well. I must have seen thousands of goats and sheep. There were many different types and breeds. The shepherds were always present keeping a watchful eye. There were a few small cattle herds in the open areas going over the pass. In the river valleys many people kept chickens. I was suprised to see turkeys as well. The two turkeys pictured were actually on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Konduz. In the villages the butchers were busy as well judging by the chicken, goat and sheep carcasses hanging on display. There were some beautiful horses and many donkey carts working. The wildlife I saw was limited to dogs and some hawks watching over the open areas.

Mud was the main building material. Most houses were in walled compounds. The walls and house were made of mud bricks. As we travelled it was easy to see the progression from new house, to delapidated compound, to ruins. Much in the same way a sandcastle succumbs to the tide. Even the headstones in many of the cemetaries were made of mud. I did see several new schools, which were made of concrete. Sadly I only saw one school that looked in use.

Our mission was to redistribute some medical supplies in the area. We were able to meet with one of our mentees, coordinate with another mentor and bring back some supplies as well. The security team who transported us did have some difficulties with the ground conditions. This photo was the second time this MRAP got stuck in the same field.
The weather was not as cooperative on the way back. It was very foggy, limiting our visibility. It was also much colder. I had two long days of riding in the back of the MRAP while wearing all armor and gear and strapped in tight. My sitting area, back and knees are still sore. It was good to get out to do and see things, but I will be glad to spend a few days at Spann to recover.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Winter weather

We are really into winter weather here at Camp Spann. Long gone are the sweltering days of summer. Today is the first day in about a week where we could even see a hint of blue sky. The weather has really been more like Washington State in winter for the past week. It was a drizzly, misty rain steadily for several days. The temperatures ranged from 30 to 50 degrees and puddles formed all over camp. The mountains which looked so desolate and forbidding in summer look like a veritable winter wonderland now draped in snow.

The camp infrastructure, however has been under assault by mother nature. I saw more than one truck get stuck, even in the gravel. Most concerning was the sight of our B-hut's foundation this morning. Luckily nobody fell into the 1 ft sized hole last night in the dark. It burrows about 3 feet under the b-hut adjacent to ours. I hope there is no such a thing as eviction from a b-hut or condemning a b-hut due to structural instability. The only thing less comfortable in winter would be sleeping in a summer tent in the cold. The facilities folks have been alerted and the obligatory danger tape indicates that some repair preparations will soon follow.
The good news: It is time for Christmas music. I have been playing it steadily for the past week and look forward to continuing to play it for the rest of this month at least. The soundtrack to Charlie Brown's Christmas is my favorite. After all, winter is a sign of the approach of Christmas