Graduation — First Class of 2008

I wrote this up in Feb 2008.  Made it Private for the Military.  Now, I’m putting it out here.  Most of these folks are moved on.  So it’s safe.

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We graduated our first class of 2008. The Big Man–MG Ak– wasn’t around so BG Ali Khan was our Master of Ceremonies. The ceremony usually consists of the General giving a few “encouraging” remarks to the class. Then I stand up and announce the names.  I may make a few remarks first.  Sometimes, I don’t.   The students walk up as I call their names off and a ranking officer and I and a guest or two congratulate the student and hand them their course certificate. The students walk up. Salute the General. Sometimes, I get a little confused. Because I feel like they are saluting me as well. So one in a while, I’ll return an awkward salute. The student is then handed their certificate and whomever the presenter is shakes their hand and congratulates them.

Everyone involved seems to really enjoy these ceremonies. The Generals get to show up and wax poetic or harass the loggie students. The students get recognition. I get a buy in to my classes and my job security. haha Our guests and other attendees get some nice cakes and cookies and some of that good old Afghan (Indian) chai. And, of course, I enjoy talking to the Generals and other Officers. I thoroughly enjoy this job. In case, anyone hasn’t caught that.

After the certificates are presented and a few more remarks by the Regional Press Officer COL Arkuni (I think), BG Ali Khan invites me to sit beside him. He offers me a cookie from the desert tray. Once I take one, that is the signal for everyone else to eat as well. It’s all so formal that it makes me laugh at times. Then we sit and chat for a bit. I didn’t realize it at the time but everyone was watching and listening to us talk. I get fairly animated in conversation as you can see in the video. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to anything or anyone else. I tell the General that this class was our best. My favorite so far. The Officers were engaged. They actively participated. Even got heated a few times . I enjoyed the exchange even as the students attitudes towards one another sometimes confused me.
Once the General and I conclude our conversation. BG Ali Khan gives a nod and his assistant barks the room to attention and he exits.

That concludes the festivities.

This class was exceptional on many scores. At one point, LTC Khoda Daad was talking too much for one of two of our other students. Sayeed Mohammad stood up and told him that if he knows so much, he should teach the class. At first, I thought he was telling me that I was a poor teacher and that he’d rather hear LTC Daad. I finally realized that he was telling LTC Daad that I was the teacher and he should listen more and talk less. I laughed. It seems that in every class we have what I call the “question man.” This is a guy who will ask a question or two every hour. Sometimes more. When Afghans ask a question, it is extremely formal. They stand up and very respectfully state their question and it seems that it goes on and on. Usually, the question is loosely based on the class. Often, they will be asking something to the effect of how should they enact a certain policy if their commander will not enforce it or actively opposes it. This is a large and loaded question. In Afghanistan, policy quarrels can result in death. Often times, the issue is money. Active property management may keep a corrupt official from earning his extra-occupational funding for the month. An active logistician will keep money out of a corrupt officials pockets. In Afghanistan, these things are often settled in violence. It’s a hard line to follow. If the Logistics Officer is hard line, it could well result in violence against him. Is it worth the risk to life to call out your Commandhan over a policy matter. You may be staking your life, your families health or your career. I have to present the course and answer question with that in mind.

On breaks, we sat and talked politics, religion and culture. We even watched Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Katherine McPhee videos. We talked much of Pakistan and the eastern frontier. This is the area bordering Waziristan. The no man’s land of Pakistan’s western frontier. The home of the Taliban. They asked me why the US did not declare war on Pakistan. I often times wonder tha same thing. Politics plays heavily there. War on Pakistan and destabilize a country with nuclear capabilities. Dangers. The unknown. Who knows what becomes of the region in that instance. Could be better. Could become much, much worse.

After the ceremony, the students invite us to visit them in their respective districts. Abdul Qhayooum tells me that if I visit Bala Baluk that I should be his guest in his house. I have to tell him that this is impossible as the military and my company requires that I stay on a FOB or PRT. He understands. But that doesn’t stop other students from extending the same invitation.

Afghanis are a hospitable people. It’s part of their national characteristic. This country was famous for it’s hospitality prior to the Soviet Invasion. That is why it was a primary stop on the hippy trail of the 60s and 70s. Afghanistan is a fascinating country. It has much to offer. If the insurgents and bandits would step down and accept law and order, Afghanistan could have a thriving tourism industry. Trekking in the mountains. The history of this country extends from pre-Alexandrian Bactria to the time and conquests of Alexander to the Genghis Khan to the Moghul Empire of India. Buddhism once thrived in the North. Zoroastrians once traveled across these lands. The whirling dervishes of Sufist Islam and the poetry of Jami, Rumi and Ansari. Herat once was a major center of culture and literacy. These lands and this people trace their history back to antiquity and beyond. Such incredible adventures that could be played out in the dramatic landscapes of this country.

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The Taliban Song and a day in Class

Another old post that I’d made private due to the Military

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These are some clips from the Taliban video that I placed on here earlier. I thought it would be fun to piece it together with Toby Keith’s The Taliban Song.

I teach a logistics class here in Herat. For each class, we take a group picture. At graduation, we present the students with a certificate and this picture in a folder. The certificate gives them credentials as a “trained” logistician. This is an MoI ANP requirement. The picture is a memento of the class from our group of instructors.

While taking the pictures, my fellow instructor asked one of our students if he was nervous about having his picture taken with Americans. The taliban catches him with the pic, he’s liable to find himself in a bit of a pickle. The guy in question is from Bale Baluk which is down south in Farah Province. Farah is “Indian country.” It’s a hot area with a high level of bandit/taliban activity. Bale Baluk’s immediate reply; “f*ck the taliban.”

We all had a good laugh at this comment.

Earlier in the week, Bale Baluk told me that he was Muslim because his parents were Muslim. But that it wasn’t important. He and another student went on to tell me that Islam is the religion of the Arabs. They brought it here and left it. But it has caused many problems for the Afghan people. They stated that “Afghanistan would be better off without it.” A profound statement. An unexpected statement.

I am not real fond of Islam as a religion or as an institution of any kind. Because of this, a friend of mine recently asked me why I would come to a Muslim country in support of a program that would modernize Muslims. This endeavor could very well serve to elevate them into a more serious threat in the future.

I see his point. That said, there are days like today and guys like our Bale Baluk student who make it seem a worthy endeavor. 40 is probably the median age of our students. We’ve had a couple of guys who were in their mid to late 20s. A few guys who were pushing 60. Most are around 38 to 45. Senior guys who were around for the Russians, the taliban and the War of the Warlords in Kabul. Now, they are on board with America and our attempt to modernize their country.

I try to engage our students in each class period. Sometimes, they are willing to talk when pushed a bit. Some of them don’t really say a lot to us. They listen. They might ask a question or two. Mostly they sit and learn a bit to take back to their districts. About half of them will engage us in conversation.

Our current class is a little different. There are three guys in the class who have come back for reinforcement training. A second go round. They felt like they could learn more by coming back. These guys are extremely open. At the end of each class, thus far, they have taken to engaging ME in conversation. Asking my opinion on world affairs. Asking me what I think about Karzai and Bush. Asking why I think Bush has not attacked Pakistan.

Something that some of you might find surprising is that Afghanis have no love for Pakistan. They (rightfully) blame Pakistan for the rise of the taliban. These guys have no love for Iran. But they absolutely abhor and completely distrust Pakistan. They think that we (the US) should turn our guns on Pakistan as that is the origin of much of the trouble in this country. The taliban is trained in Waziristan. Peshawar is a hot bed for insurgents. Hekmatyar Guilbuldin is in hiding somewhere in the neighborhood of Peshawar.

Guilbuldin is one of the worst of the warlords from the time of Civil War in and around Kabul. He fought against Massoud for control of Kabul after the Russians retreated across the Amu Darya.

Massoud is another surprisingly complex conversation. Not all Afghanis consider Shah Ahmed Massoud a National Hero. He is not universally loved as some of the international press would have the world believe. Massoud launched many a rocket into the civilian population of Kabul. He, also, is said to have treated often with the Soviets during the 80s. This allowed the Northern Alliance to lick it’s wounds. But it came at the expense of the rest of the country.

Afghanistan is a complex country. There are no easy answers here.

Some of these guys are pretty intense. Some of them are extremely reserved and dignified. You have to be careful. They can’t lose face in this society.

These guys. This class. They are extremely laid back. One of the older guys asked me to play him some sexy videos because he hadn’t seen his wife in a month. He’s from Farah and has been waiting for our class in Herat for a couple of weeks. Travel here is difficult and time consuming. Earlier in the week, I had been playing my Ipod and they all wanted to listen to it. I promised them that I would bring my personal laptop to class the next day. I have 100 gigs of Itunes music and videos on my laptop. They all wanted to hear and see the music videos. And, of course, they wanted to see “sexy videos.”

I connected my laptop to our Sony video projector and a set of speakers that I had one of our Terps purchase downtown when I first arrived in Herat. They wanted sexy, so I played Jennifer Lopez. They loved her. I played a few others like Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood and Katherine McPhee. Katherine McPhee would be a Superstar in Afghanistan. They seem to love her. One of my terps told me that I “can not compare anyone to Katherine.” “She is the best.” I could only laugh.

The funniest part of the day came when Bale Baluk jumped up on the table and started to dance. I never thought I would see any of these guys do such a thing.

It was a good day. A day I am not likely to forget.

Enough of my ramblings…

Below is a video of one of our classes and a few pictures of our students and us cutting up.

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Above is Bale Baluk. He was our table dancer. Now tell me you could predict that one. lol

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One thing that is humbling for me is the respect that these guys show me as their mentor. I don’t feel “worthy” of such respect. When I chance upon one of my students on a visit to the Regional Headquarters, they address me as “Teacher” and place their hand over their hearts as they greet me. I get the full hand shake/hug and double cheek kiss as well. Most of these men are older than me by ten years or more. They’ve been through war and terrifying experiences. Some of them risk their lives just to attend these classes. I’m always humbled by their greeting and by their sacrifice. These men have a quiet dignity with which they carry themselves. I feel greatly honored when they feel comfortable enough with us to let down their guard and to allow us a glimpse of themselves on such an informal level. This does not occur so often in my experience. It’s an awesome feeling to sit on an equal step of humanity with these men.

Chaghcharan ~ Ghosts of The Ghorid Empire

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There are two entries in Wikipedia for Chaghcharan.

Chaghcharān (Persian: چغچران) is a town and district in central Afghanistan, as well as the capital of Ghor Province. It was formerly known as Ahangaran. The main inhabitants of Chaghcharan are Tajiks. It is located on the southern side of the Hari River, at an altitude of 2,280 meters above sea level. Approximately 15,000 people live in the town, making it the largest in the province. Chaghcharan is linked by a 380-kilometre-long highway with Herat to the west and about the same distance with Kabul to the east. Due to severe weather, the road is often closed during winter and even in summer it can take three full days to drive from Chagcharan to Kabul.

There is an airstrip, located north and west of the Hari River, one mile east/northeast of Chaghcharan. It is approximately 1800 metres in length, unpaved and capable of supporting small to medium sized aircraft.

In 2004, an independent FM radio station راديو صداي صلح or ‘Voice of Peace Radio’ opened in the town, the first independent media in this part of Afghanistan.

In June 2005, ISAF established a Lithuanian led Provincial Reconstruction Team in which Croatian, Danish, US, UkranianIcelandic troops also serve.

and

Chaghcharan District is one of the most populated districts in Ghor Province (115,000 in 2005). It is a mountainous district. The winter is severe and the roads are inaccessible because of the snow. The district center Chaghcharan is also the capital of the province. It is situated at 34°31′21″N 65°15′06″E / 34.5225°N 65.2517°E / 34.5225; 65.2517 at 2268 m elevation. The drought seriously affected the agriculture — the main source of income. There are a hospital and secondary schools in the district center, but because of the bad roads and severe weather they are hardly accessible to the rural population. Most of the population is Aimaq Hazara.


The first states that the people are mostly Tajik.  The second correctly states that the people of Chagcharan are mostly Aimaq.  The Aimaq are a Shi’a people closely related to the Hazara of Afghanistans Hazarajat.

I have been trying to get to Chaghcharan for the past 18 months to train the ANP Province Logistics Cadre.  Always before some problem arose.  Some unseen event would halt our progress and keep us away.  Either personnel on the ground were busy or out of the net or the winter snows would forestall progress in our travel.  We’d get bumped from the flight.  The flight would be cancelled due to weather or the aircraft would break down on the flight line or be re-routed.  Something would happen to keep us from getting there.  All plans came to naught.

Finally, Shoaib and I made it up there. I didn’t trust it until we actually landed.  Kept waiting for a sudden snow storm or the aircraft to run out of fuel and need to re-direct to Bagram or Kabul or worse, yet, Qandahar.  Who knows.  It’s happened before.

Heading out on leave, I was flown from Herat to Kabul.  Somehow, we were re-routed to Qandahar for a fuel stop.  We landed.  I looked out the window and told my fellow passengers that we were in Qandahar.  They thought I was crazy.  I recognized the place though because I’d been there a couple of times with another company.  I just started laughing as the flight crew stepped back to apologize for the landing and explained that neither Kabul or Herat had fuel readily available so we had to land in Qandahar to fuel up.  That pit stop turned a 1 hour 45 minute flight into a 5 hour ordeal.  Making matters worse was that we had been on the flight line for 10 hours prior to that flight because 3 other flights had been canceled that day.  We were happy as hell, though, when we landed in Kabul.  Not a complaint one.  We were just happy to finally make it and be in position to make it out for our respective R&Rs.

Back to Chaghcharan…

We board a Canadian ISAF flight to Chaghcharan from Herat.  Shoaib and I are both afraid to get our hopes up.  We both want to get  up into the mountains and finally do some work in Chor Province.  Shoaib had lived and worked there previously.  He was a Terp for the Lithuanian contingent.  He’d spent two years up there.  I am fascinated by the history of the region and would really like to experience as much of Afghanistan as possible before I finally give up this region and head home or wherever I end up after the Stan.

The Canandians are funny.  A little female NCO comes and briefs us and clears the military passengers weapons.  She gives us the safety brief and tells us that it’s a short flight so we should keep our IBA and Helmets on for the whole of the flight.  Then.  She leads us to the aircraft.  We climb aboard.

We roll down the tarmac and go wheels up.  Almost safe.

I don’t think they turned the heat on during the flight.  No matter.  I was prepared and bundled up in my fleece, Palestinian scarf and combat gloves.  I was warm.  I strap myself in.  Put my helmet on and prepare to catch a nap.

Shoaib sits on the web seating and tries to work the seat belt.  I watch him as he stares at it befuddled and then show him how to work the clasp.  All the while chuckling.  I had assumed that he’d been on a C130 before.

Apparently, he hadn’t.

45 minutes later, we land.

I’m excited as hell.

FINALLY!

We made it.

18 months in the making.  We’re in Chaghcharan.  I’ve read about the place and never thought I’d ever actually make it there.

We climb down the stairs to exit the aircraft and walk onto the dirt runway.

There are three little buildings.  One of which is an outhouse.  The other two are locked up and look to have been out of commission for quite a few years.

We’re greeted by the PRT welcome wagon.  A mix of US and Coalition soldiers from Lithuania, Denmark and Croatia.  They load our bags into some Toyota pick  up trucks and we jump in for the short ride to the FOB.

FOB Whiskey.  PRT Whiskey.  Depending on who is talking to you.  It’s a smallish FOB in the middle of the Hari Rud river basin.  It looks like they diverted the river with a canal the runs around the base and into town.  Even so, when the river swells in the wiinter rain months, the FOB floods and the plywood walking planks, I’m told, float as you walk on them.

We should be returning at that time.  So we may get to experience the floating planks.

We meet our military sponsors.  They show us to our Five Star Hotel.  A not well insulated tent with very inadequate heating that is as dusty as the roads out in town.  No matter.  I’m happy to be there.

It’s a decent FOB.  Pretty good chow.  Same day laundry service.  Decent gym.  Surrounded by Hescos, Concertina wire and 12 ft tall fencing.  As safe as any place in Afghanistan.  Chaghcharan is a pretty sleepy town.  Not too much activity of any sort.  If the Taliban are there, they’re sleeping and waiting to go somewhere else to cause trouble.  FOB Whiskey hasn’t had problems of any sort for almost a year.

We settle in.  Grab a bunk and are given a tour of the FOB.  Not much to see and won’t go into it here.  The highlight is the MWR house with pool tables–Russian and regular.  It also houses a small internet cafe with intermittent internet access.  Every Thursday, the Coalition forces have a beer night.  3 beer limit.  The US forces can not imbibe.  General Order #1 prohibits the consumption of alcohol in Afghanistan.  That lovely throwback to our puritan roots that makes absolutely no sense to me.

I sit down with my military sponsor and we put together a plan.  He briefs me on the Ghor Province Commander and Logistics Cadre.  Giving me a rundown of shortcomings and items that he’d like me to include in my instruciton.  Fuel and Accountability.  We talk about the usual problems that he has noted during his tour in Chaghcharan.  We plan out the next two weeks.

By that time, it’s getting late.  I head off to bed.

I can’t talk too much about our routes and training.  So I’ll leave that part out of here for now.

The rest of the week is left to coordinating travel.

As we travel around to various sites, we drive through the town of Chaghcharan to and from the Province HQ.  We visit the Generals house.  Hit up a few check points to see if they are supplied correctly or manned at all.  All seems well.

I always carry my camera on these trips.  Along the way, I snap random photos.

We drove up to a check point and supply point in the hills surrounding Chaghcharan.  On the way to one of them, we stop at an old Russian Fort.  It looks old.  Like Great Game old.  Late 1800s or so.  I grab my camera and take pictures of the surrounding area.  It’s beautiful country.  Greenery.  Desert.  Mountains.  Roads heading off towards places like Sagar and Pasaband.  A road that one can follow straight to Kabul.  The same road that took the author of  The Places In Between from Herat to Kabul.  Beautiful.  It’s like being on top of the world up there.  You can see for miles in every direction.

After we finish with our mission of training the ANP Logistics Cadre, it’s time for us to head back.  We manifest for a Sunday flight.  That flight gets canceled.  I get a little worried.  Next flight out is Tuesday.  So that Sunday, we head back to the PHQ to mentor the Province Logistics Commander.

Tuesday.  We make the flight.  Early flight.  We rise at OH DARK Thirty.  Pack our bags and equipment on a Toyota truck and head out to the airfield.  We are getting a ride on the mail flight.  It’s a Blackwater flight.  Old Russian Bird.  We wait out on the airstrip for about 45 minutes and she lands.  We climb aboard.

What a difference in conditions.  It’s a heated civilian bird.  Seats like a 747.  But big and cushy.  HEAT!  EXCELLENT HEAT!  Best of all….WINDOWS!

I can take photos along the way on the flight back to Herat.  I must have taken a couple of hundred photos.  Some are below.  I’m pretty syked about this.  I know somewhere in our flight path is Jam and it’s 1000 year old Minaret.  I would love to visit this site.  Get down there and touch it, smell it.  Get a feel for it.  It was built by the rulers of the Ghorid Empire sometime during their reign in the area.  1088 or so.  It’s one of those places that was forgotten and re-discovered.  It’s a 60m tall Minaret with the Mary Sura from the Qu’ran written around the whole of the body of the Minaret.  It’s in surprisingly good shape for a monument from antiquity.

We had a smooth flight and an even smoother landing.  Once we land, Shoaib and I jump off the aircraft.  Offload our bags and drag them to the pick up point.  I send Shoaib home and wait for my ride.  First order of business when I land is to call my boss and let him know that I’m “home.”

Then I call Habibi.  It’s been a little over a week since I’ve talked to  my diminutive sweetheart and I can’t wait to talk to her.  I call her up and…get her answering service.  She’s at work and has her phone turned off.  I laugh.  I guess I’ll have to wait to talk to Unny.

I sit down, pull out my book and wait for my ride back to homebase.  Two hours later, I’m in my hooch relaxing.

Later that night, I finally get through to Unny and my heart smiles to finally hear her voice.  54 more days and I’ll be with her in Bangkok.  We’ll have our party at Bedsupper Club on Soi 11.  Then we head out for our 9 day tour of Vietnam.  Backpacker style.

Very excited about this trip.

Below are the pictures that I took along the way in Chaghcharan.   Lots of pics.  I took approximately fifteen hundred photos up there.  I’ve included a little over a hundred of the best for this blog.

I hope you enjoy them.

Peace