Monday, June 21, 2010

I used to be a Narrator for Bad Mimes.

My first full month in theatre has now come and gone, only eight more (or so) to go! Our first week here was spent following around the team that we replaced (OMLT II), getting orientated to the area, meeting the people that they had worked with, and most importantly getting introduced to the Afghans that we would be working with.
Week two felt as though it was very unproductive, as we spent that week at the Headquarters of RC North Air Base Marmal. Marmal is the Mazar-e-sharif airport, which has basically been taken over by the Germans and other NATO/ISAF partner nations and turned into an Air Base. We spent Monday through Friday sitting through International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) classes. Our classes were basically rehashing of classes that we had already sat through while in training at Ft Polk, and Camp Hohenfels. Such hard hitting topics as the fundamentals of counter insurgency, Afghan history and culture, ways to avoid being a victim of an IED attack, and how to do an Area Structures Capabilities Organizations Peoples and Events assessment of an area. Two of the five days were spent out on a modified range reinforcing looking for and identifying IEDs. The other three days were death by power point days, with everyone struggling to stay awake during the presentations. As during the previous more than two months of training we have sat through several different briefings all stating that the Afghan people have a different culture than ours and we must do everything we can to show respect to them and their culture. More importantly though as part of our mission here we must attempt to put an Afghan face on everything that we do. It is better that when it comes to a mission that our Afghan counterparts attempt and do something kind-of right, as apposed to us doing it perfectly.
The past two weeks, since returning from our week of ISAF training, is when I've gotten into the meat of the reason whey I have been here. Which to Observe Mentor and Train the soldiers of the S1 section for the 4th Kandak (Afghan word for Battalion), of 1st Brigade 209th Corp. Almost every morning, along with my interpreter Shafiq, I walk about a mile into Camp Shaheen to observe and assist where I can the soldiers in the personnel section. I work with Toran (CPT) Sharif the Kandak S1 officer, he has been working as the S1 officer for several years and seems to have a fairly good handle on the system. Almost every morning that I come to visit his office has several soldiers coming in trying to get leave or have some other issue taken care of. He and is staff are also having to work the issue of AWOL soldiers, and soldiers on Extended Leave. From my observations thus far it is not uncommon to have 10% of the Kandak on some form of absent without leave.
Because the Afghan government is so desperate to increase the size of the Army, they are looking for Quantity over Quality, there is no real punishment for being AWOL. If a soldier does come back from being AWOL after a short time, he will just lose his pay for the time that he was gone. After a few months of being AWOL they will eventually kick that person off of their books, however if a soldier does come back to the same unit they left, and can prove in some fashion that they were in the Army with some paperwork or something, they will be let back into the Army with no hard feelings. It is tough to build a strong Army, if they do not have any meaningful consequences for soldiers actions.
While I have enjoyed working with Toran Sharif, thus far I've found I have gotten the most enjoyment working with his NCOs and soldier. The youngest soldier in the office is named Qandlhal, and is their runner/chai boy. Since they don't have Internet his responsibility is to run paperwork from one end of the post to the other as needed, and when he isn't running he makes tea for office. Recently I have spent time working with Mohammed Hussein, who for the near short term is the senior NCO, until a new senior sergeant arrives. Recently I have helped him correct some formula mistakes on a personal management excel program that they use in their office. Mohammed Hussein will work to put soldiers back in the unit, if they are re-enlisting after being out for a while, or if they are AWOLs returning and trying to get back in.
Thus far I have found working with my Afghan counterparts very rewarding and enjoyable. I just hope that I am able to keep that motivation up over the next several months. Currently I know that I am still in the learning phase, and am absorbing a lot more information from them than they are from me. The key that the previous unit that we replaced kept stressing was to have patience. I am sure that there will be some frustrations and setbacks yet to come, but it is all part of the learning and growing process.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Looking For Dust in All the Wrong Places

As I write this long overdue entry to my blog, I am about to finish my third week in theatre at Camp Mike Spann. I wanted to update my blog several days ago, unfortunately this past week all of our work computers have been down and use able due to a network outage. Due to security protocols on all Army computers thumb drive memory sticks are no longer allowed, and all the products we create must be stored in shared drive memory bank. That system works great, so long as the network is up and working. When the network is down, might as well head back home because there is little work that can be done. Which is exactly what I did a couple times after spending the morning working with my Afghan Battalion. It is amazing how much, we as an Army relies on computers and the Internet.
Afghanistan has taken a little bit of getting used, but hasn't been that bad. This past winter I spent in southern Arizona (Yuma AZ),and the area that we are in reminds me a good deal of that area. We pretty much in a desert here, fortunately almost all around our base we have very beautiful tall mountains surrounding us. On average the temperature has been getting into the high 90s (Fahrenheit) here,fortunately there has been little to no humidity.
My one major complaint thus far about Afghanistan is the timezone that they have here is totally screwed up. There is no daylight savings time, which I can understand and accept. I'm assuming to correct for that fact the time zone is a half our off, we are 4.5 hours ahead of Greenwhich Mean (Zulu) time. What is screwed up is if anything we should be about 5.5 hours ahead of Zulu. In the morning the Sun is out and shinning at 0400 am, and by 1930 it is pretty much dark. I fear that come the middle of winter it will be dark by 1530 in the afternoon.
I'm slowly getting settled into my new room. The first week that we were here, our team had to stay in a couple large tents. The unit we were replacing had not moved out of their old rooms, or future rooms.The day they left we basically got one night in our new rooms before we had to pack up a bag to leave for another base to do some more training.After our week of training at Marmal, which is the name of the German ISAF/NATO base at the Mazar-e-Sharif airport on the other side of town,we were all excited to get back to our rooms and start to make them our own. Our rooms in the 'B' Huts in which we live are probably 6' X 9'.They are a little cozy, but fortunately I do not have to share my living space with another soldier, like some active duty folks on this base do.It has been nice to finally have a bed without somebody below me on the bottom bunk, or 3 feet away in our open bay. Additionally we all have basically been living out of a duffle bag for close to the past 3months, so it has been a treat to unpack. For all the stuff that the Army has given us, I still have one and half bags sitting under my bed.Odds are that I will never open of the bags again until I begin packing up to go home next year.
The base here is not too bad, although quite austere compared to the last two bases I was stationed at during my deployments. There is no base supply store here to purchase personal items, fortunately I have had most everything I needed plus the guy who had my room before me left me a lot of things. One of frustrating thing about not having a store here, is not being able to purchase magazine or books to read or other little novelty items. I was counting on being able to purchase a folding chair when I got here, unfortunately I still have yet to be be able to make that work out. On the bright side though there is a descent dining facility here for us, and the showers for the most part provide warm water. There are signs all over the place that say the water is not safe to drink and we should use the provided bottled water to brush our teeth with.
Right next to our base there is a little, what we call, 'Haji Mart' bazaar. They sell bootleg DVDs for a couple bucks, Afghan rugs and clothes, and various cheep electronics. The Afghans at the bazaar really hustle to try and separate us for our dollars. I sense that for the right price and a few days of time they would be able to get what ever my heart should desire. A lot of guys in my unit have purchased scarves to help keep the dust out when we are traveling in our convoys, and a few have purchased some movies or rugs. Thus far I have yet to purchase anything for myself, although I keep debating on some gift ideas for some friends and family back home.
Overall I'm getting pretty well settled. At times it seems like the days go by fast, but the weeks go by slow. There have been times,from the time in which I get up in the morning I hardly stop moving till the evening when I go to bed. I'm sure that there will be some boring and frustrating days ahead, thus far though I'm enjoying my job, and enjoying the Minnesotans and Croatians that I am deployed with.

Monday, June 07, 2010

I've seen a lot of T&A here, Toes and Ankles.

Much to my surprise, in many respects, not much has changed here in Afghanistan since the war began. On the few occasions in which I have been outside the wire of my base I would estimate that close to 80% of the adult women that I have seen are still wearing the full body burqa that so much was made about when the war began.
What is odd about Afghan women wearing the burqa, is that the burqa is not a part of the Muslim religion or culture. Muslims women will often cover their hair, and possibly their face with scarf or something. From my limited understanding of the Holy Koran, it does not require to cover themselves from head to toes.
When the Taliban were in control they institutes very draconian controls over all the population, including forcing the women to cover themselves head to toe. While the Taliban are trying to make a comeback throughout Afghanistan, they are mostly to a level of highly armed street corner thugs or old style mafia. Yet the full body burqa remains throughout Afghanistan.
A couple theories I've heard seem to make as much as sense as anything I've heard. One thought is that women, more likely their husbands or father's make them wear the burqa as a way to hedge their bets should the Taliban actually win this war and return in full force to their ways of old. They don't want to be seen as having been again the Taliban, and still believe in their backward ways. Another, perhaps as equally as troubling thought, is the burqa is now a new norm for the women and people of Afghanistan. Pride and respect for the women of the family is paramount to typical Afghan family. I just a tough time wrapping my mind around the desire to walk around outside with a essentially a curtain or tablecloth draped over their head, especially now that the temperature routinely reaches over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
I have bee considering purchasing a burqa as a gift for me niece to use as she would like. I'm curious if she were to wear for Halloween, or bring it in during a show and tell session if the people of her neighborhood would be all up in arms at a young girl walking around in such a cloth. If people do get upset, for what reasons would they become upset over. Should her parents (and I as her Uncle for giving her the gift) have know that a burqa is offensive to women? Yet are the same people who upset at the plight and suffering of the people and women of the middle east?
I don't have the answer for any of these questions yet all I know is that every time I am outside the wire and witness these women wearing a burqa, some of whom I would have to imagine are very beautiful, I am left wondering WHY?