Free Ranging The Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death)

Editors note: We are re-posting some of  our older material in preparation for another round of Free Ranging in Afghanistan

I’m back in my compound after attending a bunch of ceremonies in Zaranj marking the end of our efforts in Nimroz Province.When we flew in last week the skies were dark and it rained that night. The next morning was clear as a bell making for excellent photography and perfect weather for what turned out to be 15 hours of driving through the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). Our mission that day was the dedication ceremony for the Charborjak Irrigation system which we had built, mostly with shovels, wheelbarrows and lots of man power, over the previous 11 months. We had originally scheduled the ceremony for the 5th of October but changed the date at the last minute. On the 5th there was an ambush waiting for us; when we moved out last Thursday we were a mobile ambush looking for anyone who was looking for us.

The Provincial Governor of Nimroz Province is Al Haji Karim Barahwi and those of you who have read this blog know I’m a big fan of his. He’s a graduate of the Kabul Military Academy and served in the Afghan Army as an officer until the Soviets invaded. Governor Barahwi then became a Muj commander who fought the entire war without any help from the United States.  He was working out of Iran and obviously had a little help from them despite the fact that he is not too happy with Iran at the moment. The trip he took us on was remarkable because we did not go the way we have always gone to Cahrborjak; we jumped the Helmand and moved deep into the desert where the Governor wanted to show us something. This story is best told through pictures and I have around 1800 from that one drive alone. So stand by for a story told the Marine way – lots of pictures and no big words.

We drove to the Governors compound where a large escort of various Afghan Security Forces and a dozen or so Baloch fighters who did not wear uniforms. All of the Afghans escorting us on that day were Baloch men from Nimroz Province
We drove to the Governors compound where a large escort of various Afghan Security Forces and a dozen or so Baloch fighters who did not wear uniforms waiting to escort us to Charborjak.  All of the Afghans escorting us on that day were Baloch men from Nimroz Province

 

We exited Zaranj and headed towards Charborjak on the Lashkary Canal road
We exited Zaranj and headed towards Charborjak on the Lashkary Canal road

 

I note the Lashkary Canal was dry - we just finished that project last year and I ask Bashir why the canal is dry - he claims to have no idea
I note the Lashkary Canal was dry – we just finished that project last year and I ask Bashir why the canal is dry – he claimed to have no idea

 

We entered the choke point of ambush ally spread put and moving fast
We entered the choke point of ambush ally spread out and moving fast

 

Moving out of ambush ally we passed the spot where the Highway Patrol Commander's truck was torched after the ambush last week
Coming out of ambush ally we passed the spot where the Highway Patrol Commander’s truck was torched after the ambush last week

 

And stopped on a plateau for what turned out to be a brief on the days route
And stopped on a plateau for what turned out to be a brief on the days route

 

Governor Barahwi walking along with the Provincial Chief of Police and Haji the Chief of the Highway Police and the man who fought his way out of the ambush last week is directly on the Governor's left
Governor Barahwi walking along with the Provincial Chief of Police and Haji Nematullah, the Chief of the Highway Police and the man who fought his way out of the ambush last week.  Haji Nematullah is directly to the Governor’s left

 

The ANSF convoy team - most of them are from the Zaranj QRF - gets the word from Gov Barahwi and that word is we are sending a small force up the regular route while the rest of us ford the Helmand and head out into the desert. We will ultimately arrive at the Charborjak site from the opposite direction and on the other side of the Helmand River then originally planned
The ANSF convoy team – most of them are from the Zaranj QRF – gets the word from Gov Barahwi and that word is we are sending a small force up the regular route while the rest of us ford the Helmand and head out into the desert. We will ultimately arrive at the Charborjak site from the opposite direction and on the other side of the Helmand River then originally planned

 

Our escorts head back to their trucks for the next stage of the trip
Our escorts head back to their trucks for the next stage of the trip

 

Once we crossed the Helmand we were in the bad lands of the Dasht-e Margo. There is nothing out there is this triangle of land that borders both Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban (and smugglers) move through this area regularly
After crossing the Helmand we were in the bad lands of the Dasht-e Margo. There is nothing out there in this triangle of land that borders Iran. The Taliban (and smugglers) move through the area regularly

 

Once on the other side of the Helmand we passed no less than 25 old forts and walled cities - they were literally dotting the horizon for miles and miles in this empty desert
On the other side of the Helmand we passed no less than 25 old forts and walled cities – they were literally dotting the horizon for miles and miles in this empty desert

 

About 90 minutes into the desert we stopped so Governor Barahwi could explain in great detail why this area was not under his control and what he needs to seal the area. Michael Yon video tapped the entire discussion and it is interesting. What the Governor needs is helicopters and a flying squad with soime Americans in it so they can fly around and pounce on anything moving through the desert. That's apparently what the Soviets did to him back in the day and he admitted that tactic had cost him a ton in weapons, vehicles and manpower
About 90 minutes into the desert we stopped so Governor Barahwi could explain in great detail why this area was not under his control and what he needs to fix that. Michael Yon video tapped the entire discussion and it is interesting. The Governor needs helicopters and a flying squad with some Americans in it so they can fly around and pounce on anything moving through the desert. That’s apparently what the Soviets did to him back in the day and he admitted that tactic had cost him a ton in weapons, vehicles and manpower

 

We headed back towards the Helmand - the old truck on the right was the Chicken Truck and carried all the food and drinks for our lunch
We headed back towards the Helmand – the old truck on the right was the Chicken Truck and carried all the food and drinks for our lunch

 

This is the first of about 15 times that the Chicken Truck got stuck in the sand
This is the first of about 15 times that the Chicken Truck got stuck in the sand

 

We had one armored HUMVEE with us and it didn't handle the sand any better than the Chicken Truck. The Toyota and Ford light pickups had no problems
We had one armored HUMVEE with us and it didn’t handle the sand any better than the Chicken Truck. The Toyota and Ford light pickups had no problems

 

We arrive at the ceremony site - you can see dust trails from the escorts who have been working the flanks and are just now crossing the Helmand. Which is dry downstream. Because we built a check dam that is apparently checking the entire river at the moment. I ask Bashir if maybe this dam had something to do with the Lashkary being dry and he said "maybe".
We arrive at the ceremony site – you can see dust trails from the escorts who have been working the flanks and are just now coming towards the Helmand.  Which is dry downstream. Because we built a check dam that is apparently checking the entire river at the moment. I asked Bashir if maybe this dam had something to do with the Lashkary being dry and he said “maybe”.  Five minutes after sending this picture in with my official report my email lit up like a Christmas tree.  Did you know that at Camp Leatherneck there is a PhD Hydrologist who is in charge of the lower Helmand water basin?  Me either, and she was pretty upset to see this dam, that she had no idea existed, plugging up the Helmand.  What could I say? It was in the proposal although to be honest this damn dam is much bigger than I thought it would be.  The Iranians are pretty upset about the water too and will make their ire known to all by launching missiles into a hamlet  just outside Zaranj later that evening.  That act caused the Governor to miss the morning ceremony the next day which is why I was sitting the following morning frozen in place as my bladder remorsefully filled from all the coffee I drank before I arrived.

 

And here it is - the Charborjak canal intake. Not bad for a cash for work program is it? Know how much water it takes in when running at full capacity? Six cubic meters per second. I had to find that and a lot more out about the project after receiving so many emails from agitated Americans who were trying to determine exactly what the hell was going on in Nimroz Province.
And here it is – the Charborjak canal intake our signature project for this year. Not bad for a cash for work program is it? Know how much water it takes in when running at full capacity? Six cubic meters per second. I had to find that and a lot more out about the project after receiving so many emails from agitated Americans who were trying to determine exactly what the hell was going on in Nimroz Province.

 

Governor Barahawi addressing the local folks who had made it out for the opening ceremony and the free chow which followed. This is a sparsely populated area which I bet you can figure out from the photo
Governor Barahawi addressing the local folks who had made it out for the opening ceremony and the free chow which followed. This is a sparsely populated area which I bet you can figure out from the photo

 

Some of the QRF troops hanging out while the Governor talks
Some of the QRF troops hanging out while the Governor talks

 

After speeches by the local politicians, a prayer by the senior mullah followed by our ops manager Zabi (his dad is the senior Mulllah in the province) singing an Islamic hymn which I didn't understand but Zabi can sing - I mean he is really really good and I've since found out quite well know for his voice.
After speeches by the local politicians, a prayer by the senior mullah followed by our ops manager Zabi (his dad is the senior Mulllah in the province) singing an Islamic hymn which I didn’t understand but Zabi can sing – we cut the ribbon and opened the gates.  As the senior American present I had to relinquish my camera so I asked Mike if I could use some of his pictures for the post.

 

After lunch we headed back across the Helmand towards the desert
After lunch we headed back across the Helmand towards the desert

 

But we didn't go into the desert hugging the bank of the Helmand instead which is why the Chicken Truck and Hummer got stuck so many times. There really isn't a road here at all - just sand and every few miles a dirt poor small village
But we didn’t go into the desert hugging the bank of the Helmand instead which is why the Chicken Truck and Hummer got stuck so many times. There really isn’t a road here at all – just sand and every few miles a dirt poor small village

 

We crisscrossed the Helmand about 5 or 6 times
We ford the Helmand about 5 or 6 times

 

We ran into these boys at one of the fords. They are miles from anywhere and as I look at this pic I wonder what people back home will make of it. Kids alone in a desert riding donkey's and without safety helmets!!!!!
We ran into these boys at one of the fords. They are miles from anywhere and as I look at this pic I wonder what people back home will make of it. Kids alone in a desert riding donkey’s and without safety helmets!!!!!

 

On this side of the river the villages are small and dirt poor
On this side of the river the villages are small and dirt poor

Along the way back to Zaranj we stopped at the village where Governor Barahwi was born and raised.  It was slightly bigger than this one. We also stopped at the village of the ANP soldier who was killed in the ambush last week. We did not take pictures in either place and we hung out in the village of the ANP soldier for a good hour or so too, paying respects as it were. It was a great day and my camera battery died after I took this picture so it is time for analysis and commentary.

The kerfuffle over the dam being built is an interesting contrast between two styles of doing the “build” part of the current Afghanistan plan.  There are direct implementers like us who take USAID money and use it according to the priorities of the Provincial and District governments.  We did not build anything new – we restored a check dam and a major irrigation intake that had been destroyed back in the 80’s. We used the same plans and the same engineers who built those irrigation systems back before the Soviets arrived and depopulated the rural areas of southwestern Afghanistan. The provincial irrigation department coordinated with their national level counterparts in Kabul on every step of this project and sent in regular progress reports. We also employed every man who could handle a shovel in the district for almost a year which is the whole point to cash for work programs.

The dozens of senior, highly credentialed people who reacted with great emotion boarding on distress when they found out about this project are the other side of the coin. These are people who have been given a great deal of authority yet have no responsibility for tangible on the ground results. They never leave the FOB’s and never see anything of the country except what they can see while flying over it. There is a PhD hydrologist working for the USG and also coordinating with a British subject matter expert to come up with the Helmand Water Shed Master Plan. I am sure they are professionals who take their work seriously. But good intentions are meaningless and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to bring people like that to Afghanistan for a year of FOB life might as well be thrown into a rubbish bin.  Do they honestly think that when we leave here their “master plan” will be worth more than a cup of warm of spit?  How can smart people be so stupid?

The Helmand River Valley will never reach its full potential unless every farmers field is dug up, the clay removed, and the fields leveled which we tried to do in the 1960’s but the farmers got their guns out and refused to allow the bulldozers in.   That was when Lashkar Gah was called “Little America” and the State Department was trying to salvage the disaster that was the original Hellmand River Valley project run by the engineering firm Morrison Knudsen. Since the completion of that project local farmers have irrigated their fields by flooding them. The NGO I work for tried to introduce drip irrigation to the local farmers years ago but they pulled the hoses out of the ground using them to tether sheep and goats. You cannot force change on Afghan farmers any easier than you can force change in Americas’ two-party political system. Proving that drip irrigation is efficient and works better turned out to be completely irrelevant; the Afghans are going to farm the way they farm and the way they farm wastes water.

Not that using less water is a big deal because, as any Afghan sod buster will tell you, that just means more water for the Iranians. Water is a zero sum game for Helmand Valley farmers; changing that mind set is not going to happen in my life time….or yours.

Last year Michael Yon visited our Nimroz projects and put up an interesting post called Please don’t forget us. He was writing about a massive women’s training program we ran that year because Zaranj has a more Persian culture, woman can drive in Zaranj, work outside the home and attend training courses without any problems.We tried to do an even bigger woman’s training program this year but we’re rejected.  The woman had already been forgotten and this year’s crew in Kabul wanted “capacity building” which is the new buzzword from the geniuses at our State Department.  For 1/10th of the cost of keeping just one hydrologist in this country for a year, and I’m talking the million bucks of life support and security costs, not the salary or cost of mobilization which would easily add another million to the sum, for 1/10th of that we could have trained 300 woman and sent them on their way with the tools they needed (Sewing Machines, beauty salon equipment, wool and weaving boards etc..) to start their own business.

My PM Bashir is now gone having moved on to bigger and better things.  I’m right behind him as my time living in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The people of Zaranj have already been forgotten by our political/media class and are now on their own.

We have no business foisting a “watershed master plan” on the Afghans – it’s their country, their river, and their breadbasket and when allowed to do so they will build things back to the way they were.  It may not be optimal, there may be inefficiencies in the system that a PhD hydrologist could fix (if she had freedom of movement and actually spent time on the river) but who cares? What is going to remain when we leave is an Afghan system, built by and for Afghans and to be honest, I have no idea why we think we should be bringing all these “subject matter experts” over here in the first place.  Who are we to dictate to them how to manage their own natural resources? We should send all the hydrologists back to America to aid in a gigantic shovel ready program I’d like to see started called “Get all our oil from Alaska and the Western States Project”. That’s where we should be spending 2 billion a week and we’d even see a return on our investment.  How strange would that be?