Monday, December 29, 2008


If I ever put my law degree to use, I will have gained valuable experience in questioning people here as conversations with the Afghans can be challenging. I used to assume the difficulties I was having getting my point across or my questions answered were due to my interpreter’s lack of command of the English language. After all, an interpreter that speaks English at a high level is not likely to be working out here with us in these living conditions (no running water, spotty electricity); he’d likely be working out of a large base or for an NGO. But I’m realizing the interpreter is not the problem because when the Afghans question me and I give them the sort of non-responsive answers they often give me, they call me on it every time, indicating they’re getting a good translation. When I'm evasive (I often am because I just don’t have answers, or I don’t want to help with a particular issue but don’t want to say so.) the Afghans will come back with a Pashtun proverb like, “I’m banging one drum and you’re banging another.” But on my end asking even the most simple, direct question like, “So what time after lunch do you want to leave on the patrol”, brought back the following response, “There are two things very important to the Afghan soldier, the dick and the stomach.” And then we all laughed and he walked out of the room. End of discussion – and I’m left with the certainty that we’ll leave when they’re ready. So they are quite the masters of the non sequitur.

But it’s not just me they mess with. We had the head honcho local tribal leader here the other day to tell us about yet more weddings (Evidently, this is the wedding season, women being “very important in the winter time to keep warm at night”) and other valley news. These types of old men typically will complain to me about an illness, ache, or pain of some kind. Usually, we give them multivitamins or some such placebo, but yesterday I just told him laughingly, “Sir, your bones hurt because you’re old and even America doesn’t have a pill to fix that.” After the translation an ANA soldier chimed in with a few words which were translated to me as: "When a Pashtun man reaches 60 years, shoot him.” Everyone laughed.

One of my favorites is when our leader will complain about the corruption of the leader of our higher headquarters. For instance, so-and-so is claiming more soldiers on the books than he has so he can keep their extra food money allocation or so-and-so is keeping too many soldiers and not sending us enough, so his men don’t have to stand post or patrol as often. I’ll reply with, “Ok, I’ll look into it, and by the way, I’m going to count the number of soldiers we have here.” His response will be a scandalous expression and words to the effect of, “What!? Count my soldiers? You don’t trust me to give you accurate numbers?” And I think to myself: so we can’t trust the other guy but we can trust you right? It’s a game, and as such I try to find the amusement in it.

Friday, December 26, 2008


And so another Christmas away from home. I guess I've been doing this blog over a year now as I remember spending all day last Christmas writing blog entries since I was in a backward Argentine town and nothing was open other than the Petrobras gas station. I'm pretty sure I'll be home next year, but I guess you never know. Anyway, nothing much of note the past couple of days. My puppy following me on the mile-long patrol down to this base this morning; the local people had interesting expressions on their faces seeing a lone American walking around with Afghan soldiers and a puppy shadowing him.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Afghanistan is a poor country - much poorer than any place I’ve seen before. These people make the Cambodians look rich and the Iraqis, well, evolved. Most of the kids I see have a sort of empty look in their eyes. You can smile, wave, or say hello in their native language, but you don’t get much of any response/reaction. We’ve heard the kids have been told all sorts of lies about us and our intentions, but the lack of reaction to external stimulus is a little disconcerting.

This being such a poor country, the people don’t have much, especially out where we are in an isolated, difficult to reach corner of the country. So we give the locals all sorts of stuff, usually clothing and blankets these days. It’s a kind of payment for the right to search their house oftentimes. We don’t need permission to do it, but we try to give a little in the end. Given how poor the locals are, one always whether he’s doing the right thing by giving to them. This place is so far behind and so seemingly so unable to progress that a blanket doesn’t seem like much in the long run. Somehow teaching them to be industrious and value things like education would seem to be the solution, but how to change a culture? Is it their religion holding their culture, and thus, their lives back? Could be, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, and my abilities to intelligently expound. At any rate, I don’t believe people get much out of handouts. It may change their lives a bit for that small period of time while the object lasts, but it doesn’t change them. But I guess I’m missing the point. The point is to buy their allegiance somehow. And if we can somehow get their allegiance and thus win this war, then dragging them into the 21st century is a doable objective.

Our Afghan soldiers sometimes have a hard time understanding why we don’t give the handouts to them, the Afghan Army, who works with us and supports us, rather than the local people who don’t support us and oftentimes hate us. I can understand that point of view, but I still don’t go out of my way to give our soldiers much, since it’s the responsibility of their chain of command to supply their own soldiers, and as long as we’re doing it for them, they’ll never do it. In the end, my soldiers will get some things out of me that they should get from their own supply system, but I’ll make them wait to try to make a point.

A man came to visit our little base today to tell us about a wedding taking place in a couple days. Large groups of people invite our suspicion, so the locals try to advise when such a gathering is going to occur. As an aside, I asked my interpreter what the deal is with all the weddings and he mentioned that winter is the wedding season here since "women are very important in the winter for keeping warm". Anyway, the local man asked me to provide him with a bit of diesel so they could run their generator for the wedding festivities; a small decision to be made on my part, whether or not to give the man some fuel. On the one hand, though we’re at the end of our supply chain and fuel has to be flown up here in a helicopter, we’re in little danger of actually running out, so it’s not much skin off my back to give it. On the other hand, this man lives in a town that we know has some bad guys in it so odds are he doesn’t support our presence here, and furthermore I don’t need everyone in the valley coming to me for fuel.

In the end though, our goal is to get the local populace on our side. In these types of situations I often ask myself what the Russians would have done when they were here in the 1980’s, and I then do the opposite…not that I can ever really know what they would have done, but I suppose I can surmise based on things I’ve read. So even if the man is an incorrigible Taliban-supporter, I have to take the view that he can be brought over to our side, and a wedding gift of some diesel fuel seems an appropriate opportunity to contribute to the populace. I may change my tune about giving these people anything at all after a few more months here, but for now…he asked for 10 liters…I gave him 15. We’ll see.

One has been a bad spectator of life if one has not also seen the hand that in a considerate fashion - kills. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, December 12, 2008


The Afghans can be a little trigger-happy. If rounds are flying anywhere in the valley they’ll start shooting at the place everyone else is shooting, regardless of whether they can see anyone or not. To celebrate a religious holiday the other day they shot off most of our inventory of tracers, creating our own little light show, and of course the other local Afghan units, hearing and seeing what our guys were up to, chimed in creating that cacophony of Russian-made machine guns I’m getting to know so well. Anyway, I awoke in the middle of the night last night to find the ground shaking a bit. This was not the first time I’ve felt the ground shake in a combat zone, but usually the shaking is accompanied by an explosion. I didn’t hear anything, so I was a bit confused for a few seconds. As I groggily contemplated the significance of this event, the local unit on the radio concluded it was an earthquake. Forgetting the marine standing post had his own radio, I went out to relay the news to him and he replied dryly, “Yeah, earthquake, I know; I had to convince the Afghans not to shoot back.”

Monday, December 8, 2008


Something as simple as filling sandbags can be done skillfully and easily or it can be more difficult, as I learned today. I spent the morning slinging an ax to chop up some earth to put in the bags later. I tended to hit the dirt hillside pretty hard, swinging the ax from the end of the grip with long, powerful strokes…I learned somewhere along the line that the trick to using an ax is to let the ax do the work, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into it, but I was certainly putting in enough effort to get a bit of a sweat up and get my muscles to tighten up a bit. I saw the ANA watching me with amused expressions…finally one of them came over to me and offered to help. He proceeded to use much shorter, faster strokes to chop up the dirt, and in half the time had twice as much dirt loosened up as I did.

Once we got a fair amount of loose dirt gathered we started to put it in the bags. Apparently, I did not learn anything from my experience with the ax because I started with the shovel and was striking it into the ground in order to get the dirt. Our interpreter (a former 1st Sergeant with the ANA and probably one of our best gunmen) saw me doing that and was like, “No, no, you’re putting too much effort into it and you’ll have blisters in 10 minutes…watch me, I was a farmer during the Taliban time.” So he took the shovel and then easily and smoothly dipped into the earth, pulled up a shovel-full of dirt and then slid it into the bag - no problem. Easy does it. Since the ANA don’t work on Fridays, none would help with holding the sandbags or moving them around afterwards, but they were willing to take turns on the shovel, and they were all very good at effortlessly scooping out a shovel-full of dirt and then getting it into the sandbag. The other marines and I here just didn’t get it - we’d either pick the wrong area from which to get the good, soft dirt, or we’d have a hard time getting it into the bag, or we’d just be too slow with the shovel. I also learned to fold over a couple inches of the top of the sandbag to make it easier to get the dirt in. In the end, we got sandbags into the places I wanted and have a bunch left over to use later. I wasn’t about to stop filling bags until we had a ton of them filled…once you get these guys working and contributing you’ve got to roll with it as far as it goes…