Movin' About The Battlefield

Last weekend I had to travel from Kabul to Bagram and around the AO.  Normally, I'm stuck on C-130s or C-17s where I'm not able to move around and look out windows.  This trip, I rode a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.  I haven't ridden one of these since I was in the Army in Grafenowehr, and we crashed into a stand of trees while attempting to lift an old amphibious Duck vehicle into the artillery impact area.  Needless to say, I wasn't too excited about this trip.  If nothing else, I really didn't want to leave "home" in Kabul to sleep on a cot in a B-Hut with fifteen of my closest friends (half of whom snored).

I boarded the CH-47 at Camp Phoenix and we flew around in the typical milk run the Army flies every day.  Our crew chief, pictured below, manned the .50 cal during the flight, but we generally don't get fired upon during these trips because the routes are changed every so often.


Afghanistan's terrain changes significantly by region.  Kabul is up in the northwest area of the country where we are surrounded by mountains, still mostly snow-capped from Winter's snowfall.  Down in Kandahar, it's a dusty and hot plain with lots of poppy fields.  And lots of action.  It's best for me to stay up north where troubles are mostly relegated to the occasional bomb or IED.




An Example of IT Infrastructure in Afghanistan

This tree, apparently dead for some time, stands outside of our pick-up point at Camp Eggers.  I've been looking at it for months now, admiring it for maintaining a purpose while deceased.  There is a shortage of timber here, so this tree still serves a viable purpose.  It now serves as a support pole for fiber and copper running along one of the streets.


My OSP team didn't run this...some other contractor, or the military, made these runs.  It doesn't look anywhere near as bad as the photos of this ilk that have made their way onto the Internet of intersection power poles in some city in India or Hong Kong.  This is repairable, and if the situation stabilizes around here, I suspect we'll be directed to establish a standards-based run for these circuits.


The Man Who Would Be King

I just finished the book, The Man Who Would Be King; The First American in Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre.  I first saw the book for sale over at the ISAF compound, which is the NATO camp where all the political strap-hangers spend their time here in Kabul.  Most everything for sale requires Euros.  So, I always have 40 or 60 Euro on me whenever I traipse over there.  Anyway, they wanted something like 30 Euros for the book.  No way.  I ordered it on Amazon, bought it used, and spent a total of about $12 for it.

In order to gain a real appreciation for the book, one should have seen the classic movie titled the same as the book (without the subtitle).  It stars Sean Connery and Michael Cain (when they were young men) and they portray characters from the  short story by Rudyard Kipling about two British Army deserters in India who pass through the Khyber Pass and on to Kafiristan  to claim riches and thrones.  They both are rogues and Freemasons.  I liked their characters immediately.  As I find out now, Kafiristan is a real place.  It is a region of Afghanistan where wild tribesmen reside, far from the reaches of the Kabul government.  Kafir means "infidel," and this is the region where Islam couldn't successfully convert the populace.

Kipling based his short story on a real character, a Josiah Harlan, an American free spirit who spent 10 years in Afghanistan in the early 1800s.  Like the characters depicted in the movie, Harlan was a Freemason (like Kipling) and spent earlier years in India and served as a surgeon in the East India Company's Army.  Harlan changed alliances with the various nabobs and maharajahs during his time over here.  But in the years he spent here, he acted as a doctor, political appointee, governor of various regions in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, military leader and adviser,  and explored the remote regions beyond the well traveled Silk Road where the British thought there was no passageway.

The book is very well researched and written.  Besides providing an interesting tale of an early American adventurer, it portrays a period of Afghan history that is fascinating and that still has import during these days of Taliban insurgencies and American occupation.

Breakfast with the SECDEF

Yeah, I know, I haven't been posting recently.  There's a lot of reasons why.  First, my company imposed a sudden change of leadership a few weeks ago.  I now find myself in charge here in the Kabul area, holding down three jobs, and working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  My energy for any extra curricular activities is running low.  Second, the US Embassy shut down its free Wi-Fi that I've been stealing these last five months and now I have to scramble to locate any kind of free Internet access.  The only one I've found so far has crappy data throughput.  And third, I've been too cheap to pony up money to pay for crappy Internet service, but now it looks like I'll be forced to.  One of my guys who is leaving has turned over $7k worth of satellite downlink gear for the Internet service he ran out of his safe house.  I, along with a couple of other techs, will be standing this system back up in the near future.  But, we'll have to pay the provider for the bandwidth.  I suspect I'll be forking out a couple of hundred bucks a month just to ensure that I have sufficient bandwidth to stock trade and do the geek things that I like to do when I return back to the house.

So, this morning I headed to camp and entered the DFAC for a quick breakfast.  I saw that the area I normally sit in was more crowded than usual, but I found a seat, plopped down, and began chowing down.  A couple of folks next to me finished their breakfast and left.  I looked around and noticed a gentleman sitting a few chairs from me on my left.  He looked familiar.  Then I put it all together.  Secretary Gates was here visiting the chain-of-command and assessing the strategies that Gen McChrystal has implemented here. 

For someone who is in a terribly stressful job, Gates looks pretty good, especially for as old as he is.  I figure if he can survive all the stress and strain of his job, I certainly can get through another seven more months of my three jobs.  Not that I'm counting the days, or anything...


In order to travel to my Safe House from Camp Eggers, I have to walk through the camp’s multiple checkpoints manned by security forces from various countries.  There’s a hierarchy of trust involved with the security forces.  Think of it as concentric rings with the most trusted forces in the inner ring protecting key assets.  Those forces in the inner circle include US and NATO MPs and FPs (Force Protection -- essentially augmentation to the Military Police).  The next ring out includes forces from the Coalition here supporting the International Security Augmentation Force (ISAF).  These troops include the Mongolians I wrote about previously.  The next ring out is manned by Filipinos and Gurkhas.  These guys provide entry point security.  They frisk all the local nationals entering and leaving the camp and check everyone’s entry badges.  The outer ring is manned by trusted Afghan security personnel contracted out by the Ministry of the Interior.

Our vehicle pick-up/drop-off point is located at the North Gate of Eggers where there is a checkpoint manned by Afghan security forces.  At the end of the day, there are always a few Americans hanging around this checkpoint waiting for their drivers to pull up and drive them home.  Most of the Afghan guards have no English speaking ability and generally there is no interaction with them.  There are a couple of exceptions, however. 

One guard that I’ve become friendly with originally approached me with a language book asking me to help him understand some words and phrases.  I helped him then and still do on occasion.  We converse in basic conversational English and he always seems to improve in his comprehension and use of words.  A couple of these guards aspire to become translators, a much better paying job, and I don’t mind helping these guys along in their quest.  Guards make no more than $200 a month.  Translators probably make $350 or more.  It’s a quantum jump in pay and a much better lifestyle.

Any Afghan carrying a book, unless he picked it up off of the street and is carrying it for fire starter,  automatically is placed in the 95th percentile of the “educated elite” in this country.  Any Afghan capable of speaking English, broken as it may be, is in the 96th percentile.  Any Afghan who can open a book written in English and read a paragraph or two is in the 99th percentile.  Illiteracy is a plague in Afghanistan.  It’s the one factor that could cause our efforts here to fail.

Yesterday I received a book in the mail.  I was carrying it with me to take it home.  [I guess that puts me in the 5th percentile in America]  Because it was starting to snow, I put my book on a ledge under the roof of the guard shack.  One of the Afghan guards picked up the book, opened it, and read the first paragraph of the introduction.  Not bad!  He thumbed through the photographs in the center of the book, stopped, and pointed to it and told me it was a picture of a minefield.  I had to see what he was looking at.  He was right.  My Boy Jack?  is about the story about the hunt for the body of Lt. John Kipling, Rudyard’s son, who died at age eighteen at the Battle of Loos in 1915.  The guard noticed the field where the trenches were and immediately recognized it as a minefield.  Afghanistan has millions of mines in its fields from previous wars.  Most of these guards were involved in the battle against the Russians during their occupation and/or were involved in the anti-Taliban fight in 2001.  They all know minefields.  There’s a number of Afghans on post missing limbs who most likely learned some hard lessons.

After discussing minefields with this guard, he turns to me and tells me that he listens to the Americans speaking to each other while they are waiting outside the checkpoint.  He then asks me, “What is thiiis word, boohlsheet?”  “What does it mean?”  “All Americans use this word.”  I had to laugh.  I was actually surprised that he didn’t ask me what the “F” word meant.  He’s right.  All Americans use this word, and others like it.  Between the military folks and the contractors here, there is no shortage of colorful language.  The vast majority of the contractors here are retired military or have military experience and we all talk just like we did when we were in uniform. 

So, I tried to explain.  I tried “nonsense,” but I saw the confusion on this guard’s face.  I tried “bad,” but that really didn’t define it.  I tried “not good,” and decided to stick with that definition.  Since it was snowing, I used this as an example.  “This snow is bullshit” I exclaimed.  The guard emulated my pronouncement to a tee (including the arm swinging).  I remembered the Dari word for snow -- barrf (my transliteration; roll the Rs like in Spanish).  “This barrf is bullshit,” I continued to exclaim, arm swinging included.  The guard picked up on that immediately.  “Thiiis barrf iis boohlsheet!” I heard him yell to some stunned Americans walking his way, as I climbed into my SUV for the short trip back to the Safe House. 

I felt somewhat satisfied knowing that I’ve helped spread some American enlightenment to another benighted corner of the world.   One of my many contributions to our Global War on Terrorism.

Care Packages And Those Who Send Them

There are two kinds of Care Packages that deployed personnel receive:  those sent by friends and family and those sent by caring groups, organizations, and individuals to “any deployed soldier.”  I’ve been the recipient of both.

Mail Call has always been important to deployed soldiers.  It used to be the sole lifeline back to home.  Now, everyone has a cell phone, a laptop with an Internet connection, and access to Skype and other video chat tools that shrink the distance between war zones and “The World” back home.  Still, receiving Care Packages from friends and family is always welcomed.  Back in the day when we didn’t have cell phones and Internet connections, soldiers receiving letters in the field would quickly abandon their loud bravado and retreat into their inner worlds when reading letters from home.  What was moments before a loud “circus-like atmosphere” where soldiers grabbed for their mail while ribbing others who didn’t receive any, quickly became a quiet and introspective period while these young men reconnected to a childhood home and a world that was too far away.

I have received two packages since I’ve been here.  The first one was sent by my former Admin Assistant from one of my Antarctic seasons.  Melissa sent me all kinds of goodies to include a loose tea infuser and homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Her box also contained pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys drawn by her two young daughters.  Thank you again, Melissa, for your kind gift.  The other box was sent to me by my sister-in-law, Tina.  Tina always spends time finding just the right item for the right occasion.  Her box arrived just before Christmas and contained more goodies and items that I’ve savored.  My wife, Suzanne, called Tina just before the box was mailed and told her that I was missing my peanut M&Ms that cannot be obtained over here.  So, two bags of those were thrown into the box before mailing.  I’m still working off the weight gained by consuming all of this great stuff.  Tina also took the time to include a two-page letter.  Thank you, Tina.

A lot of thought goes into these Care Packages.  One of the NCOs I work with at New Kabul Compound got married just before he deployed.  His young bride sent him a box just before Thanksgiving containing everything he needed to have a Thanksgiving dinner without going to the DFAC.  The box contained canned turkey and canned cranberry sauce.  It also contained prepared sweet potatoes and dinner rolls, complete with a desert.

The Care Packages that arrive for “any deployed soldier” are processed at the Theater mail facility in Kuwait and distributed throughout the Area of Operations.  Every camp and FOB (Forward Operating Base) receive these boxes and they generally are available in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) or USO tents.  Many of these boxes arrived in time for the holidays.  These boxes contain all kinds of useful items.  Toothbrushes, toothpaste, decks of cards, candy, hot sauce, wet wipes, lotions, shampoos, feminine hygiene products, and Christmas decorations arrive in these boxes.  They’re opened and placed where soldiers can dig through them and find items they need or desire.

All of the boxes I found myself digging through came with Christmas cards enclosed.  My eyes kept darting to the cards while my hands frantically searched for the real goodies that might have escaped the eighteen-year old soldiers who already had dug through the boxes.  No luck there.  I felt guilty about the cards, still in sealed envelopes, that hadn’t been read.  I grabbed a handful of cards from a couple of boxes and sat down to read them.

Some cards were just signed and enclosed.  Some had city and state on them.  The boxes I saw were sent by small towns in North Carolina and other small towns in mid-western states.  I thought back to my “Hero’s Welcome” in Maine when I was deploying.  I immediately envisioned small church groups, high school students, and other caring individuals taking the time to purchase, pack, and mail off these items to us over here.  I felt badly that these cards were generally being ignored by the young troops who looked past them in search of gifts and goodies.  But then I remembered the strings of Christmas cards that adorned the hallways in the offices near  where the Chaplains sit and I knew that they too were taking the time to put these cards to better use.

Of all the cards I grabbed and read, two stood out.  These cards were written by parents of of a dead soldier and a dead marine.  One mother grieved for her lost soldier son (killed in action in Iraq) but encouraged us, through her tears, to continue the mission.  The other card contained a long note from a father who lost his Marine Lieutenant son just eight months before in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan.  Eight months ago.  Twenty-two years old.  I glanced up to look at the young people in the USO tent with me, calling home, talking with their loved ones, huddled over the phone or a laptop like the soldiers I knew in the field years ago.  Same posture, just a different communications medium.  All of them had combat patches from a variety of Army combat units.  Any of them could have been there, near the field where this young marine died eight months ago.  Their life goes on while this father continues to grieve for one that won’t return from patrol.

And yet he took the time to pour his heart out, tell us his story, and wish us God Speed and a Merry Christmas.  Too bad I was the only one to read it.  Life is for the living, as the saying goes.  And so we continue to live and fight, vainly trying to distance ourselves from the fate of those who don’t survive. 
Despite the sadness connected with a couple of the Christmas cards, I was encouraged and heartened by the knowledge that there were good Americans who cared about the military personnel deployed in harm’s way and were kind enough to take time to send them gifts from home.  I, for one, am deeply grateful.

The Long, Painful Trip Back To Kabul

The hardest things about traveling military air are the layovers and the incessant waiting.  The best thing is that it is free.  Normally free outweighs the inconvenience of the “hurry up and waits.”  As I get older, though, my preference is to pay for the convenience of direct flights, especially on commercial airlines.

Since I was headed south to Kuwait to attend meetings for work and I didn’t have any assurances that I’d be able to get an R&R in conjunction with my business trip, I opted not to spend $800 for a roundtrip commercial ticket from Kabul International Airport to Kuwait City.

My Kuwait business trip was worthwhile and I finagled an R&R to the UAE.  I got really used to staying in nice apartments and hotels for the week I was down from Afghanistan.  Then, it was over way too soon and I had to make my way back to the ‘stan.

Returning to Kabul was a grind.  First, I had to process through Ali again, turn-in my passport to receive the exit visa from Kuwait (resulting in another night in the tent), and once that was done I was allowed to manifest for flights north to Afghanistan.  There are no direct flights to Kabul.  One must either fly to Kandahar or to Bagram.  Kandahar is a mess and no one without any business there would want to fly there.  There were lines of folks in the pax terminal trying to manifest to Kandahar.  I wasn’t one of them.

There were a couple of flights scheduled for Bagram.  The way it works is this:  based upon one’s priority (as a sillyvilian I have next to none) and when one signed up for the waiting list (done after obtaining the exit visa), a rank order of potential passengers to specific locations is created.  There are “show times” scheduled three hours before each flight where one has to attend to determine if he is going to get on the flight.  Flights are scheduled round the clock so Show Times occur at all hours of the day.  In addition, there are accountability roll calls at 1000 hours every morning that you have to attend or you fall off the rank order list.

I attended the accountability roll call the next day at 1000 hours and saw that there were a couple of more flights scheduled for Bagram.  Good news.  That meant that I was definitely going to get out within the next 24 hours.  So, I attended the first Show Time at 1500 hours only to find out that I wasn’t going to make that flight.  Next Show Time was at 2000 hours.  I didn’t make that one either.  The next Show Time was scheduled for 0130 hours.  Nope didn’t make that flight but there was another flight scheduled an hour later so I hung around the pax terminal to see if I got on it.  I did.

So, it now is 0245 hours, and I am scheduled to fly, and now I have to return to my tent, pack up my belongings in the dark, drag my duffle bags back to the luggage area to get palletized, and then return to the pax terminal to wait for the buses to haul us out to the airfield.  I took the opportunity to shave and wash my hair in the sink (at the latrine trailer) before I reported in.

The buses arrive on time at 0445, we arrive at the airfield at 0500, wait around for the pallets to get loaded, board the C -17 at 0530, and sit on the runway until 0615 when wheels come up.  An easy 4.5 hour flight to Bagram and we arrive around noon.  We file off the C-17 in two lines, marching off the tail ramp wearing our helmets, body armor, bug-out packs, and weapons.  15 years after I retired from the Army and here I am again, indistinguishable from a distance from the rest of the soldiers, airmen, and marines filing off the plane.  Form up, left face, forward march...

And then the whole goddamned process begins all over again.  We swipe our CAC (Common Access Card) cards, report to the Contractor Office where they make sure we’re going where we’re supposed to go, then go to the flight desk to sign up for flights to Kabul.  There is only one scheduled on the board and all kinds of troops are hanging around trying to get on it.  I figured that we were doomed.  I haven’t slept for over 24 hours and haven’t bathed in over 48.  Now I’m condemned to a bare, cement-walled compound where others like me are waiting for flights that may come, or not.

We’re only 55 miles from Kabul.  A few years ago we could have driven back without a problem.  Today, the road is a linear ambush site littered with IEDs and ragheads wanting to become martyrs.  So close, and yet so far.

One good thing about Bagram is that my company runs the data communications sites there.  I called my boss who arranged transport and I had to opportunity to conduct some business there and meet with some folks that I had spoken with only over the telephone.

We ate dinner at the DFAC (Dining Facility) and then headed back to the pax terminal to see if there were any additional flights.  There were.  Two more flights to Kabul were scheduled.  All three flights were C-130s.  The last flight of the night had no cargo to haul so it was able to transport all the remaining Kabul-bound passengers on the waiting list.  We loaded our luggage again onto the pallets, waited two hours in the pax terminal, put on our IBA and helmets, formed-up, right face, forward march…and filed-out to the C-130 at 2330 hours.  A quick 15-minute flight to Kabul and I was standing three miles from my safe house.

Three miles and six hours later I arrived.  Our drivers aren’t allowed on the roads after 2300 hours.  I was forced to spend six more hours sitting up in a tent with patio tables waiting for twilight.  My head nearly jerked off of my neck three or four times during the night.  I walked around getting fresh, cool air.  I tried to do Sudoku.  I tried creating this post but only wrote the first few lines before I lost interest. Tried to sleep but was awakened by two Dutch Military Policemen asking me why I was lying on the PX picnic tables at 0400 in the morning.

Next time I’m spending $800 for the privilege of not having to relive any of these moments again.  Reliving my Army career here has been difficult enough.

A Day in Abu Dhabi

I meant to go to the bus station this morning and drive up to Abu Dhabi to see what that town has to offer and to link-up with Richard, an old friend from my Antarctic and Kazakh days.  He has been working in AD for 2.5 years and still is with Raytheon.  I took a cab from my hotel and meant to go to the station, but the cab driver convinced me that he could drive me to Abu Dhabi for less than the bus ticket.  He was right.  And, he stuck around AD for the day and drove me back this evening.

What a difference a year makes.  A year or two ago, cabs were all engaged in Dubai and these other world nationals made about three times what they earn today.  Now, any of them is glad to get any business and they are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to earn a living.  I paid my driver, Muhammad Nasir, a bonus because he was willing to sacrifice that which I was willing to pay for -- personal convenience.

I found that I liked Abu Dhabi very much.  While parts of it are too modern with lots of skyscrapers, the city itself was much more laid back, had green parks, a great marina, and even had an IKEA.

A view of the marina and some of the skyline.

The Marina Mall with an IKEA anchor store.

Richard had just arrived a couple of hours ago from Kuwait, a stopover from a month back in the States.  Fortunately, he wasn't jet-lagged and was able to pick me up and drive me around.  He had to go to the Supermarket for some items.  I went with him.  An interesting experience.  The only market serving pork to non-Muslims is in his neighborhood.

Here is the sign posted above a secluded area of the market where they had all kinds of pork products.  And the only place to buy marshmallows was in this same area.  What's up with that?

Richard buying ham from Hindus.  I guess if we were in India, we'd have to buy beef from Muslims.  It's all so confusing...

We next tried to enter the Emirates Palace Hotel.  This is a magnificent facility that the UAE claims is seven stars.  It probably is, but there is only a five-star rating.  It simply means that the UAE is very proud of this hotel, and they ought to be.  We drove up the driveway headed to the hotel when we were stopped by security.  They wouldn't let us in because we didn't have reservations at the hotel and the hotel was preparing for a large alternative energy conference.  So, Richard works his magic and bullshits with the guards.  They tell him no reservations, no entry.  Richard then tells them that he has reservations.  When asked what his reservation number is, he blurts out "7."  It didn't work and we were turned away.

Next stop was the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, this huge and gorgeous mosque that makes all other mosques pale into insignificance.  It makes the Taj Mahal look a second-hand effort.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque

Walking around this mosque is like walking through a living piece of art.  It's knock-you-dead gorgeous.  We were able to walk around and take a look in between prayers.  Some photos follow:

This carpet is supposed to be the largest single-piece carpet in the world.

Richard wouldn't take no for an answer, so when we completed the tour of the mosque, he called the Sales Manager for the Emirates Palace Hotel, a man he knew from many Raytheon business meetings that Richard had booked at this hotel.  This guy made the arrangements and we breezed through the guard post at the hotel.  We spend the rest of the afternoon sipping coffee and whiskey while listening so a trio playing some kind of Arab music.  It was a fine end to my stay in Abu Dhabi.

Richard drove me back to the Marina Mall where Muhammad Nasir was waiting for me to drive me back to Dubai.  I really don't want to return to Afghanistan or the Army tent city at Ali Al Salem. 

Dubious Dubai

When one is living in a war zone and deprived of the ability to travel around freely, burdened with the requirements to wear heavy body armor, staying alert for signs of trouble, scanning for IEDs, and missing the comfort of home, one dreams of warm vacation spots where women mingle without burqas and alcohol flows freely.  Dubai is one of those spots where civilian contractors go to let their hair down, relax, refit, and drink.  Nearly everyone on my contract who has been in Theater for longer than a year has been to Dubai.  It's easily accessible by commercial air from nearly any location in the Middle East.

After I received permission from my management to go on R&R while I was in Kuwait, I returned to my work apartment, got online, booked a cheap flight on Jazeera Airways, booked a hotel room on, and five hours later found myself at the Novotel World Trade Center Hotel in Dubai.  In five hours time I went from sitting on my couch in a dry (alcohol-free) desert country to drinking with Dutch businessmen who were former Dutch Special Forces.  And I drank a lot.  Ahhh...beeer!

I arrived late at night, but Dubai's clubs really don't get going until 2200 hrs.  I arrived fashionably late.  I talked with the Dutchmen and drank until 0100 when I got a little wobbly and went to bed.

Today I headed down to the central mall where everything seems to be.  The Burj Dubai (now renamed the Burj Khalifa to honor the Abu Dhabi Emir who bailed Dubai out recently) looms over this portion of the city.  The mall and surrounding buildings have got to be the most modern and cleanest facilities I've seen in years.

Looking down into the center of the mall.  There was a Guinness World Record attempt going on.  This guy was bouncing a tennis ball off the tops of his feet.  When we last passed him, he had been doing it for over four hours -- with no breaks.

For all the money that Kuwait has, it's a shit hole.  Afghanistan is a shit hole with no money.  Dubai is a modern marvel with no money -- at least for the moment.  While I was sitting at an outside table sipping coffee, I watched as crowds flowed past me.  Dubai is a central crossroads of humanity in this part of the world. 

The lower half of the Burj Khalifa, at the moment the tallest building in the world.  They wanted over $30 from me to go up to the observation deck.  I balked at the cost.  I'm no Emir.

There's two realities here in Dubai, and to a lesser extent, in Kuwait.  The native Arabs here don't work -- or if they do, they do it behind closed doors.  The entire infrastructure and all services here are provided and supported by other foreign nationals.  Dubai is run by Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis.  Well, throw in a few Filipinos too.  These folks provide everything from taxi drivers, hotel clerks, shop keepers, street sweepers, security details, restaurant workers, to construction workers.  Except at the mall, there were no Arabs to be seen.  The Dutchmen last night told me that they give Dubai five years.  This entire charade will end then.  It's a hollow shell.  A country without a soul.  Dubai is a featureless desert adorned by empty modernity.  Its days are numbered.

A view of the other Dubai.  Indo-Pak shops and restaurants supporting the real population of Dubai.

I went down to the old center of Dubai, away from the modern hub(bub).  I wish I had gotten a room down here.  This area of Dubai I call Delhi.  I saw the same shops and back alleys in New Delhi years ago.  The area was saturated with Indian food shops and restaurants.  I would have eaten down here but I've been eating Indian food since I've been in Kuwait and I need a break.  There were other areas that reminded me of downtown Los Angeles.  I felt at home down in this section of the city and wandered into an Indian barber shop in one of these alleys where I received a great haircut and scalp massage, complete with hot chai.

Okay, I've been here.  It's time to go.  Tomorrow I'm off to Abu Dhabi for the day.  But tonight, more drinking.

Back to Kuwait

Normally I try to avoid meetings.  When I found out that a series of meetings were being scheduled with management, I was less than enthusiastic.  When I found out that the meetings were to be held in Kuwait and that they would get me out of Afghanistan for a week, I signed up quickly.

One of the toughest parts of traveling military air in theater is the waiting.  Civilians get bumped for uniformed personnel or hazardous cargo.  It sometimes takes days to get out of Bagram or days to get to Bagram.  From Kabul, we drive to the Kabul International Airport -- the military side -- and attempt to sign-up for flights to Bagram Air Base.  I arrived at the airport around 0900 and my flight wasn't going to depart until 1430 hrs.  That was a bit of a problem because there was a 1500 hrs showtime in Bagram for the flight to Kuwait.  If I missed that flight, I'd have to spend a night in an 80-man tent in Bagram, waiting to get to Kuwait.

A stroke of luck.  Flying on a Casa 212 puddle jumper.

The workmate I was traveling with is one of those guys who knows everyone and everyone knows him.  Waleed found a woman who he knew who worked at the pax terminal.  She knew that this small, 12-pax plane leaving around 1130 for Bagram.  She manifested both Waleed and I on it and we were in Bagram fifteen minutes later.  More importantly, we were in Bagram in plenty of time to manifest for the Kuwait flight at 1500 hrs.  We made that flight but waited for three additional hours before the plane arrived in Bagram for us to board.

The other tough part of military travel to Kuwait is having to pass through Ali Al Salem again -- the Life Support Area (LSA) adjacent to the air base where one waits to get out or waits for Kuwaiti visas.  Since I was going to stay in Kuwait to attend meetings, I had to get another Kuwaiti visa.  It's never a problem, although our flight didn't get in to Ali Al Salem Air Base until 2330 hrs and didn't get over to the LSA until after midnight.  That meant that my passport wouldn't be transported to the commercial airport until morning and that I wouldn't see my passport and visa until around 1800 hrs.  So, I settled in another 20-man tent and lost another day.

Our quarters here in Kuwait City are fairly upscale.  In any event, they're better than crowded tent living.  Here are some pictures from our penthouse windows.  We are on the 13th floor.  That sounds bad, but here like in Europe, there's Ground Level, then 1st floor....  So, we are actually on the 14th floor.  Waleed was quick to point out that there are cracks throughout the walls from the settling (into the sand).  I have no doubts that this building will crumble to the "Ground Level" if an earthquake happens here.  I just don't want to be in the penthouse when that happens.  Anyway, some pictures:

As I mentioned in a previous post, there's all kinds of construction occurring in Kuwait City, especially along the beach.  All of this view was sand and desert during the original Gulf War.


Right behind the facade of construction lies desert, more desert, and then just sand as far as one can see.

The sewer.  In the three months that I've been In Afghanistan, Kuwait has failed to repair the sewage treatment system and continues to pump tons of raw sewage into the Gulf every day.

My company's support folks who live here in Kuwait tell me the goings on within Kuwait when I pass through.  Saudi Arabia is suing Kuwait over the sewage issue since the raw sewage has made its way down to Saudi.  Besides polluting the beaches and killing sea life along the coast, it's affecting tourism.

Tourism.  Who in their right mind would spend their own money to come to Kuwait or Saudi, stay in a poorly constructed hotel near a polluted beach and not have any alcohol?  The answer is -- no one.  That explains why the Kuwaiti Tourism Director just resigned.  I read this today in the Kuwaiti Times.  Some lady was appointed to the post of Tourism Director and she didn't last.  Numbers are down and she wasn't able to attract any takers.  No wonder; Dubai is bankrupt and Kuwait can't fix its own infrastructure.  Here's a business tip, Kuwaitis:  Everything goes better with beer.  Yes, even in your shit-hole country.

The Land of Conexes

Back when I was in the Army, there were these rusted-out hulks of metal containers called Conexes that littered the motor pools.  We stored all kinds of crap in there.  I remember being told that they weren't being made anymore and that we were lucky to have them.

Conexes are a shorter version of Milvans or Seavans.  All of them used to be in high demand since the Army is famous for squirreling away all kinds of stuff, sometimes useful, most of the time not.  Because the Army supply system was sometimes unreliable, every unit Supply Sergeant had a rat's nest of double secret supplies that could be called upon, if necessary.  These supplies also made great trading material for other supplies and materials that a unit needed.

Even in Antarctica, Conexes and Milvans were in high demand, again to store and squirrel away all kinds of stuff where there was no other room for it.  On  the Ice, we stashed away cabling, tires, connectors, antennas, old radios, car parts, basically whatever folks thought they would need in an emergency -- but usually never did.  As a result, all the stuff in these rusted, metal containers usually were covered with dirt, grime, dust, and other filth -- inches deep.

Not until I came to Kabul did I realize that these horrid things had other uses and capabilities.  Here in Afghanistan, people live and work in them!  They provide the raw building blocks for most of the new structures standing up here to meet the coming surge.  When I see how many of these containers have come into country, it makes me wonder why I didn't see this earlier and bought stock in the company.  It's probably not too late to get in on the next wave of profits.

This new barracks is constructed of seven rows of Milvans, two stories high.  There's three guys sleeping in a space of 130 square feet.  Make your buddy smile!!

Here our guards camp out in them.  We plumb them for electricity so there is light and heat.  The Conex next to the guard shack is used for garbage.  The difference between sleeping quarters and garbage receptacles is electricity.

Another Year For Broken Resolutions

I had the best of intentions of doing PT (Army physical training) while I was spending a year of my life here in Kabul.  I bought Army PT uniforms and hauled all that stuff over here.  There’s well equipped gyms at most of the camps and compounds that have both weights and cardio equipment.  All the military folks constantly are running and working out.  I mostly watch and stare, wishing I had the motivation.

My biggest excuse for not running is the uneven roadways, streets, alleys, walkways, and byways that service the camps.  Even Area 10, the location where many of the safe houses are located, has very poor streets full of ruts, holes, trenches, and gravel with various sized rocks.  Not a day goes by where I don’t turn an ankle while walking from one location to another.  I’m saved from injury because of my combat boots.  Those boots have kept me from spraining or breaking an ankle at least once a week (my ankle ligaments and tendons are too stretched from previous injuries).

I have another excuse.  Kabul has some of the worst air pollution in the world.  Because Kabul sits amongst hills and mountains, the smoke from the wood burning and vehicle exhaust hovers stagnantly over the city and obscures what would be wonderful views of the snowy mountains.  Running into pollution is not an option for me.  I never could understand those folks who run on busy streets while sucking up bus and truck exhaust while they gasp for air from the exertion.  Why would anyone pollute their lungs like this and think that this exercise will provide for a healthy life?  Just doesn’t make sense to me. 

There’s times here when the winds blow out the smog and smoke and make for pretty good running conditions.  About the only place I’ve found to run without breaking an ankle is NKC (New Kabul Compound).  This is another US compound in Kabul, newly created, and still undergoing expansion.  NKC has a very nice perimeter road inside the walls.  Because of the construction, there’s too much mud and water on the road to make for safe running -- at least for me.  Others run and that helps to instill in me more remorse for my slacking off. 

NKC is overlooked by one of the hills in Kabul.  Like all the hills here, one-story mud huts populate the landscape.  There’s no utilities servicing these neighborhoods.  No power, no water, no sewage.  The poor and very poor live in these hovels and they’re the ones most prone to radicalization.  To keep NKC safe from snipers, the military has OPs (Observation Posts) out in these neighborhoods.  Military patrols interact with the locals and prevent incidents from happening.  I’ve been told that the Army provides food and medicine to these villagers to help keep them safely on our side -- for now.

The hill can be seen in the background.  Above the blue container on the left is a glimpse of the green mesh curtain that is put up to help prevent snipers from hitting their targets.  These curtains also add a bit of privacy to theUS operations here. 

Reminders exist that, even with the precautions taken for ensure safety, danger is just around the corner.  These signs below are posted at once section of the perimeter road in NKC for the runners and joggers.  It’s yet another reason that I think I’ll put off my PT program until I come home!

A little motivation to pick up the pace!

Back to a crawl...

The Mongol Hoard, Part II

Yesterday I discovered where the Mongolians are camped out in a sub-complex near Eggars.  Today I invited myself over for a look-see.  After some embarrassing moments where I was trying to explain to the Mongolian guards why this Yankee wanted to enter their premises, they finally understood my intentions.  Who said speaking loudly and adding a vowel to each word didn't work?

The yurt in the middle of the Mongolian Compound.

Entering the yurt.  A portrait of Genghis Khan is the centerpiece.

Another view inside the yurt.

A "candid"shot.

I have a hard time imagining Genghis Khan in this little saddle.  I also doubt it would fit Denver, my mule.  I know it wouldn't fit my ass.

I was told was this instrument was but there were too many consonants for me to comprehend.  It didn't sound very good anyway.

R&R -- playing that hateful, Chinese game.

Anyway, I had a nice visit with the Mongolians.  I'd really like to visit them again when they're serving up some native cuisine.  I have no idea what that would be, but I'm game anyways.

The Mongol Hoard

One of the pleasures of being in Kabul at the various military compounds is being around so many of the allied and coalition forces that are here supporting the war effort and the country building in Afghanistan.  NATO is here in force and a number of other European countries trying to get into NATO.  We've got Macedonia here, Albania, and other countries providing representatives to this effort.  Trying to recognize each country from its camo uniforms is difficult; so many look alike that it's hard to differentiate.

The smaller contingents aren't providing combat soldiers, however.  They're mostly gathered at the headquarters elements and compounds here in the Kabul region.  They're contributing to the war effort, but they're also contributing to the overcrowded conditions here.

One of the countries providing troops is Mongolia.  When they first arrived, small squads of Mongolian Army soldiers marched around in formation with all of their "battle rattle," helmets, weapons, body armor, and new uniforms.  American and British soldiers only armor up if they're going outside the wire, so to speak.  It didn't take long for the Mongolians to get a feel for how Americans fight their wars.  The helmets have come off in favor of soft caps, I have to elbow my way into the chow halls now where Mongolians have discovered good American mess hall food, and now I have to elbow my way into the MWR building where the common use computers are located.

The Mongolians now have discovered Facebook, Yahoo Mail, Skype, and other social networking sites.  Because none of them have their own laptops, unlike every American soldier, airman, sailor, and marine who is here, they use the common use computers here at MWR.  They may not fire their weapons alongside Americans while serving time here in Afghanistan, but these Mongolians certainly will go home better oriented to the American lifestyle and culture than when they first came.  Long live Facebook...

A Shackleton in Kabul

I was having lunch today at the New Kabul Compound DFAC (Dining Facility) and talking with some work mates.  I looked up and noticed an American NCO walking towards me.  His name tag had Shackleton on it.  It's not a common name but one that carries a lot of weight around the Antarctic business.  I thought there might be a connection to Sir Ernest Shackleton.  I stopped him and asked him if he was related to Sir Ernest.  I didn't even finish my question when he replied that he was.  The young NCO is the great, great nephew of Shackleton.  He seemed pleased that someone in the region had a clue as to who Ernest Shackleton was.  Everyone at the table had no clue as I'm sure few in the Army do.

So, a remotely related piece of Antarctic history lives and breathes in Kabul today.  Small world...

A Death in Kabul

Things have been pretty busy here in Kabul.  They didn't get any better when one of our senior techs, who took a leadership role at the New Kabul Compound (NKC), died two weeks ago.  Gerard was young, experienced, a technical whiz at the communications infrastructure that we support here, and an Air Force veteran.  His sudden death shocked us and reminded us that we all are at risk over here.  We still are trying to fill the void that he left.

Gerard, I didn't know you well or for that long.  But you were a good guy and you will be missed.  Travel well, my friend.

Abandon Ship!!! Better Digs, Part III

Last night I heard some weird sounds coming from my room.  They sounded like someone chiseling around my window.  I blew it off, slept well, and this morning took a nice hot shower and went to work.

I received a call first thing this morning from Ray, our guy who manages our billeting and ensures we live in decent conditions.  He told me that my hot water heater had fallen off the wall in my bathroom and that it had flooded into my bedroom.  Since he was on the job, I turned my attentions back to work.  Then it dawned on me -- my laptop was in my bugout bag which was sitting on the floor.  I got up to go find a driver to get me back to the house, when Ray stopped by my office to tell me that I ought to go home and sort things out.

Sure enough, there was two inches of water in my room.  Ray had picked everything that counted up off of the floor.  I immediately checked my laptop, and while the outer protective case was damp, I suspect my laptop is fine.  I won't know for sure until I turn it on tonight.

What saved my laptop was Ray's quick action, and that my two Afghan rugs and my dirty clothes in the laundry bag had soaked-up enough of the water. 

Remember my comment about poor engineering in my previous post?  The hot water heater was mounted by cheap, thin screws loosely drilled into the marble.  When the heater came down, it ripped out the cheap plumbing, ripped out the electrical socket in the wall, ripped off the shelf beneath the mirror, and broke some glassware. 

The bedroom floor is slanted, I discover now, so that the water accumulated the furthest away from my front door.  So, as I spent two hours squeegeeing the water out the front door, half of it flowed back into the bedroom.  I remembered an old WWII movie in the process (it might have been "The D.I.").  Anyway, in the movie, a Marine who killed a mosquito by slapping it loudly while on a patrol was forced to dig a grave (full-size human grave, 6' down) along with his battle buddy, while another recruit was filling the grave in at the same time. 

So, I dragged my rugs out onto a balcony handrail for them to dry.  I'm homeless again, it seems, and this evening I'll look for another bunk to crash on while KBR attempts to repair the damage to my room.

Better Digs, Part II

It's getting darker earlier now that we're approaching Winter Solstice so I haven't taken more photos of the new place, The Tillman House, where I now reside.  I work between 10 and 12 hours a day, so I arrive at work in the dark and leave to go home in the dark.  On my recent "day off", where I only work 8 hours, I was able to get back to the abode and take some photos with my iPhone.

Portal shot of the Tillman House.  One of the guards is walking towards me.  The vertical electrical box to the right converts the generator power to 220 volts for the house electrical service.

Every house in Kabul has stone or concrete walls that separate it from the street and the neighbors.  Every large home becomes a compound with a walled courtyard in the front with no backyard at all.  Added to these walls now are additional blast walls and concertina that reminds us that we're living in a war zone.  Rockets and mortars still fall within the compound and this additional protection is meant to keep you alive during these brief but intense reminders of war.

A shot taken from my room out to the courtyard.

The rose garden in our courtyard.

So, you're thinking that I'm living in the lap of luxury, right?  Well, considering the tent I was in for the first two weeks, yeah, maybe I am.  Despite the nice looking exterior to these newer buildings and houses, there really is no engineering underlying the construction.  Our guy who manages the housing for my company told me that he supervised the construction of the Tillman House from day one.  He said that the workers used practically no mortar when they set the bricks, used no rebar, and slapped concrete up quickly to finish the product.  This area is prone to damaging earthquakes, and I was told to run out of the house should there be one -- this house probably would collapse.

When we first moved in, all the guys using the showers and toilets caused the sewer system to back up and flood throughout the first floor and basement of the house.  KBR (the current support contractor) had to come out two days in a row to roto-root the drainage system to clear out all of the water bottles and plastic wrappings the construction workers had rammed down the drain. 

In the photo above, you'll notice the yellow tank behind the rose garden.  This is a chlorine injection system that squirts chlorine into the well water to kill some of the impurities.  It doesn't kill all the bad stuff, so we still have to brush our teeth with bottled water.  Anyway, this is our second tank.  The first one died last week, in the process dumping the tank's entire chlorine contents into the well water.  The next morning when we all rose to take showers and get ready for work, all that came out of the faucets and shower heads was milky white chlorine solution that reeked of its bleach smell.  The chlorine ate away all the fake chrome plating from the sink and shower drains.

I made the right decision not to take a shower that day and poured a bottle of water over my head to sponge bathe.  Others, not so wise, chose to risk a shower, and in the process one guy nearly was overcome by fumes and had to be dragged outside to recover.  Others pissed into the toilets, mixing the ammonia in their urine with the chlorine, and creating mustard gas.  Two other guys currently are suffering complications from this experience. 

The street from the Tillman House leading outside the compound.

This photo depicts the street separating the US Embassy from the Tillman House.  There's two blast walls adorned with concertina wire.  The shorter one on the inside keeps us from escaping our man-made prison.  The larger one prevents even the most persistent escapee from entering the US Embassy.  Walking or driving from here to the outer gate entails passing through four other checkpoints all of which are protected by armed guards. 

There's enough armed guards carrying AK-47s in our housing areas to maintain a certain level of safety.  Nearly everyone else is armed too with M-4s and pistols.  It's an armed camp that the Taliban can't easily penetrate.  So, the rockets and mortars come instead.

All of this makes me appreciate raking leaves back home.  At least there, I can drink beer.

Better Digs

I recently moved to a real Safe House, a new home called the Tillman House, named after Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinal turned Ranger who was killed by friendly fire here in Afghanistan a few years ago.

I'm out of the tent and into real quarters.  We can't walk from the house to the compound.  We have to be driven there in an armored car because we pass through streets that have been targets for IEDs and bombs in the past.  We also don't have commercial Internet access there yet, and that is why I have not updated this blog in the last week or so.  I've been chided by nearly everyone who reads this, so this is a quick update until I get the time to submit another post.

One view from the veranda of the Tillman House

And another view.

Kabul is surrounded by mountains that mostly have turned white with the recent snows.  And there's more on the way.  Days are still sunny and warm, but nights have cooled to the point where we know winter is coming and wet and muddy days will soon be the norm.