Heros: Medical Professionals Working Miracles On Their Own Dime

International hospitals in Kabul do not allow cameras on their facilities because of cultural sensitivities. The treatment of female patients by male doctors is not universally accepted in this corner of the world. Educated families in Kabul have no problem with male doctors treating their woman; in the south men will fight to the death to avenge the slight to their family honor if a male doctor so much as looks at their woman. I have been to both the CURE hospital and the French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC) on the job and have a good idea about their missions and operations. I have a good friend who volunteers his time and skill at CURE which is how I was able to obtain these photos. There is also a German hospital in Kabul, but I have never visited it. There are no similar efforts by closer rich influential nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or China. I often wonder why?

Young child in pre-op – his life is about to be changed forever by Americans who are in Kabul at their own expense


Birth defects in Afghanistan are common. The culturally accepted practice of marrying within the family is generally believed to be the cause of this alarming problem. Last winter Phil Woolas, of the British Environmental Ministry ignited a fire storm by calling attention to the alarming rates of birth defects in the Pakistani community due to cousin marriages. Just raising issues like that in England is now grounds for dismissal. That to me is very strange.

In Afghanistan it is common to see children with club feet awkwardly moving down the street. I was born with a club foot. I read somewhere that former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aiken was too. Correcting that type of birth defect has been a routine procedure in the west for over a hundred years. Correcting those defects is not common here and when you see children with cleft palates or club foots on public they are not laughing and playing. They are out too stigmatized by their appearance in this culture. CURE hospital fixes cleft palates and club feet at no cost to the Afghan families daily. The demand far outstrips their capacity. Like their French counterpart, they also train Afghan doctors to do these procedures and over the years have developed some real talent in the Afghan medical community.

A young mother comforts her child as she waits her turn in the OR

The heroes of this story are the doctors and nurses who volunteer their time and spend their own money to come here and do these procedures. They do not seek attention, they are not self promoters, they live outside the wire without any of the elaborate security procedures found in official US government programs. They come here to help and help they do. My Dad, who is a retired general officer (Marine of course), forwarded me an email he received from a friend about a highly qualified doctor sent to Kabul on a six month deployment. He related a story about going out to the main Kabul hospital to consult on an orthopedic case but getting there (about a mile away from his base) took days as the security escort package was arranged. When he arrived the head of the hospital served up tea and a good hour of chit chat, when the Americans asked to see the patient they came to examine they were told the child was sent to Pakistan for treatment days ago.

This is stupidity beyond measurement. I used to walk to work daily down the same streets he had to travel for his appointment because driving is such a nightmare in downtown Kabul. We are losing the war in Afghanistan and losing it fast and one reason for that is our military acts like force protection is mission number one. Guess what? If force protection is the mission it is easier to do that back in the United States. The US military sent a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon here for a six month tour and all he will do is go to Bagram (his first trip to Bagram took three days as he had to stage a day early at the Kabul military airfield which is half a mile away from his base and wait for a flight.  We drive from Kabul to Bagram in 45 minutes) once a month to sit in conferences and suffer death by PowerPoint. His civilian counterparts who are here at their own expense and do not have armored trucks or armed escorts would operate on hundreds of patients and train scores of doctors if they could afford to stay six months. As a retired military officer it pains me to write this but it is true.

Team Texas in action – this team will operate on dozens of children during the next three days

 

Most Afghans have no idea how they receive treatment without paying bribes but they are thankful. This is how you fight a counterinsurgency, fixing one child at a time with honesty, integrity and compassion.

 

The doctors who volunteer at CURE also work on adults. Team Texas had a great plastic surgeon who replaced the ear of a truck driver who had lost his to a Taliban checkpoint in the south when he was stopped while hauling fuel for ISAF.

 

The Taliban may be able to take ears but could never put one back. This lesson will not be lost on the family and friends of this man

The men and women from France, Germany and America who come to this war torn land to help people who are so poor and need so much represent the best of what our countries stand for. To give so much and ask for nothing in return…that means something to me and should to you too. They do not get medals, or bands, or parades, or any formal recognition. They are heroes and do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. They make all of us a little prouder and little better. May God watch over and bless them.

Travelling South: Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Khandahar

The southern region of Afghanistan is unstable, dangerous, and an extremely risky place to travel by road these days. This is a new development which started about one year ago. Prior to that we would make trips down to Kandahar routinely, tracing the same route made famous in James Michener’s excellent book Caravans. Back in 2005 and 2006 it was still a risky trip, but the risks were manageable. We always travel in armored trucks in these contested areas but unlike 98% of the other security companies in Afghanistan we opted for the low profile trucks with firing ports. These are not comfortable rides and they are noisy too, but they perform as advertised.

The War Pig – armored low profile

I hate being stuck in large armored SUV’s because you are locked in and cannot use your weapons unless the Taliban opens the vehicle for you. Normally that is done with an RPG which of course disables the vehicle as well any survivors inside. People working outside the wire in Afghanistan are like people anywhere they really don’t think that they will be targeted or attacked and therefore they value the comfort and false sense of security large brand new armored American SUV’s provide.

 

Hope is a bad security plan but it is the most common plan people use. Every second of every day somewhere in the world someone is being victimized. The chances that you are the one being victimized are very small. But that is irrelevant when you find yourself the target of criminals or terrorists. When that happens the statistical chances for you are now 100% and at exactly the time you realize they are 100% you also discover you are dealing with a pack of wolves (terrorists) or a rabid dog (criminals) and they do not respond to reason.

Most people are sheep my friends and I are sheep dogs who protect the sheep and boy am I drifting way off the story line reservation here sorry dear readers I’ll get back on track. Remember be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them that is a good place to start if you too want to be a sheepdog. The next step is a good multi-day handgun course; followed by obtaining a concealed carry permit, (if you live in the United States) and then learning how to apply the color code of mental awareness to your daily routine. If you live in a country where owning firearms or any type of weapon is prohibitedwell I guess it is back to “hope” for you. Call your local police and then call Dominos Pizza and see who gets to your house first then tell me how Neanderthal us Americans are for owning guns. OK I’m stopping the rant…honest.

The route to Kandahar runs southwest through the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar. Up until last year Wardak and Ghazni provinces were pretty safe. Our Panjshir fighters used to pick up their weapons from the police in Ghazni when operating in Kabul city became too difficult due to police harassment. They are a registered company with weapon permits but that has nothing to do with getting arrested by the Kabul police. The amount of corruption in Kabul is truly stunning and the local cops have gotten bolder in the last few years. They have even locked up internationals from large security companies who had weapons permits, licenses and letters from one of the generals running the Ministry of the Interior. Our embassy and those of our allies couldn’t care less security contractors are as popular with them as an ACORN trained community activist would be with me. Local Afghan security companies have it much worse depending on who owns them and who is watching over them. I would go on about this rather sore topic but prudence dictates I leave this sleeping bear alone.

Our team of Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley getting their weapons and body armor from the ANP in Ghazni. The chief of police there is an uncle of the team leader

Wardak province is now statically the most dangerous portion of the trip south. Earlier this month AOG fighters ambushed a convoy guarded by Afghan security guards in the middle of the day. They killed three guards in the firefight and captured four whom they beheaded, again in broad daylight, on the main ring road. These AOG fighters call themselves Taliban but they are not the Taliban we read about training and infiltrating out of Pakistan. The “Taliban” elements who routinely attack military units and oil tankers along the route south are local people who may or may not be sympathetic to the Taliban cause. Many are local criminals who the Taliban pay to do their bidding which is most ironic. The Taliban got their start back in the 90’s in Kandahar by hanging an Afghan soldier (and his commander) who had raped a local school girl the day prior. Mullah Omar was the leader of this group of religious students which entered the Army camp reportedly armed with only the Koran and self righteous indignation. I guess that makes Omar sort of an Afghan version of Gandhi because showing up unarmed to lynch a few miscreants is as close to non violent protest as Afghans are ever going to get. Now instead of protecting the faithful from criminals they are using criminals to prey on the faithful.

The road out of Wardak descends down to the plains of Afghanistan and the ancient city of Ghazni. Ghazni was once considered the greatest military fort of its day but that fame was short lived after the British Army arrived in 1839 and stormed it rather quickly with little effort. Here is how it looked when the British first arrived:

Old Ghazni

And here is a picture of the city today

Source: http://avalon.unomaha.edu/afghan/afghanistan/ghazni/bz01pic.htm

The Ghazni PRT, which is run by the American military, sits outside of the town astride the main road. Not all the PRT’s are manned by Americans, our NATO allies are responsible for over half of them. Here is a map of the PRT’s which I pulled off the Wikipedia. Like many things on Wikipedia it is wrong the Swedes have the PRT in Mazar, the Canadians in Lashkar Gah and Pul-i-Khumri belongs to the Romanians.

Knowing which country is in which PRT is critical for internationals working in Afghanistan because each nation in ISAF has its own set of caveats covering which missions they are authorized, by their respective governments, to do. This is a fancy way of saying that many of our allies are not allowed to leave their compounds and come to the rescue of internationals in distress. The American PRT’s will always respond to calls for help anytime and in any conditions. I understand the Brits, Canadians, and Aussies have identical rules and attitudes. As for the others.you are on your own. Needless to say these caveats have contributed to glacier like pace of international reconstruction.

Like many of the bases situated in unstable areas the Ghazni PRT has an aerostatic balloon for surveillance and controlling fires.

Aerostatic Balloon at the Ghazni PRT

These aerostatic systems are impressive – some friends and I got to see how they work at FOB Lonestar right down the road from the Taj in Khogyani district. The technology is impressive, the capabilities unbelievable and the details best kept on the down low, but trust me this is one piece of technology worth every penny spent developing it.

Ghazni used to be the last safe place to stop for any needed vehicle maintenance which we did on one of our trips in the summer of 2006. One of our vehicles had a tire problem and we wanted to fix it before heading into Indian country. There are no tire stores here, just stands on the side of the road with a compressor. The stand we pulled into was run by a young boy and his even younger brother. Here they are diagnosing the problem.

Boys working on tire in Ghazni

After diagnosing the problem it is up to the younger of the two to get the tire off which he does using a pry bar and tackle rig.

It was well over 100 degrees that day if we came back during the winter months these two boys would probably be wearing the exact same clothes. The people here are that poor, my friends, and if you think this looks sad you should see the beggars and trash dump kids. Having patched the tire the younger child fills it while his brother prepares to mount it on the car. This pit stop was over in 5 minutes, the boys worked with the intensity and speed of a NASCAR pit crew.

Afghan pit crew

 

Kids with kites normally indicate limited Taliban in the area

Heading south out of Ghazni towards Qalat you run through a series of villages that even back in 2006 were not safe for foreigners. One of the most notorious was Shah Joy and it is the scene of the only attack against us if you could call it that. I was in the trail vehicle when out of the corner of my eye I saw a frag grenade sailing towards the truck. We were doing about 70 kph so hitting us with the thing was not going to happen and the bazaar was packed with local people I watched in utter amazement as it went off, clearly injuring some of the bystanders who did not even react when the grenade landed in the middle of the road. How weird is that?

But the Taliban is not the only threat on the Kabul to Kandahar road. The terrain and weather conspire to turn this route into a real pain at times. The only way to build roads in this part of the country is to build them to withstand floods. The easiest way to do that is to allow the water to spill over the road in traditional areas of flooding. We discovered during a November trip that there are 23 such spots on the road and here is the first one you run into when heading from Kandahar towards Kabul.

Decision time – cross or wait? I hate being out in the open like this.

We were already late and clearly not too happy about this. The locals were of good cheer as Afghans almost always are and offered all sorts of advice. Understanding when you are in danger and when you are not is a key skill  and these people were not a threat and seemed to enjoy having us stuck there too.

If you can’t move the next best thing is to chat up the locals to make sure everything is on the up and up

One way to tell if they are a threat is to look for high water pants and tennis shoes. Afghans wear open toed sandals, tennis shoes are normally seen only on male children and fighters transiting the area. The high water trousers seem to be a style statement but I do not know why. In this type of situation if you saw a group of men in tennis shoes the best thing to do is walk up and offer a formal greeting. If the men do not immediately break into wide smiles and offer a return greeting chances are they are Taliban or associates. When that happens guys like us get in our trucks and turn around because unless they produce a gun we can do nothing. We operate with the same rules of engagement as our military but unlike our military are also subject to the laws of Afghanistan. Do not be fooled by the main stream media writing stories about armed contractors being able to do anything they like in Afghanistan. There are expatriates sitting behind bars in the big house at Pul-e-Charkhi to prove the media reports and agenda not facts.

This logjam was broken when a large bus when it plowed through the deep fast moving water

The truck was followed by a small passenger car which triggered a mad rush from our side of river.

If this little car could make it we were going too

Qalat is the provincial capital of Zabul Province and also the home of another impressive old fortress. Qalat has an American PRT co-located inside an ANA base and they were always very hospitable when we dropped by. Here is what the town looks like as you drive in from the south. Every hilltop in this country seems to have a fort or outpost built on its crest the one in Qalat is really cool when you see it pop up on the horizon.

Qalat

Heading south from Qalat there are just a few isolated compounds and no major bazaars or towns. In sparsely populated areas like that attack by AOG fighters are rare. Taliban do not like humping around in the boonies much and confine most of their activity to populated areas. That makes sense because the civilian population is cover and concealment for the bad guys. Moving out in the desert away from the protection innocent civilians provide is very risky for insurgents.

 

Our trips south always terminated in Kandahar city home of the Continental Inn. We could find a bunk out at the Kandahar Airfield but would have to leave our escort to fend for themselves which is uncool. Here is a shot of the Continental which has slow internet but a super cook who excels at making curry.

The Continental Inn in Khandarhar

Before hitting the Continental we would normally pull into the Kandahar Air Field (KAF) which is home to about 15,000 international troops and is a rear echelon establishment extraordinaire. Gyms, restaurants, fast food stands, a boardwalk, stores, a hockey rink, and field music on Sundays.

band at Khandarhar base

A vast majority of the troops on this base will never set one foot outside the wire during their tour. Many from allied nations are obese and have problems so fat they have problems with the heat even though they do not wear body armor or carry weapons on base. For my padres and I KAF means getting a double double at Timmy Horton’s and Burger King. Afghans love Burger King and we like the Timmy Horton’s.

We do not run down south without at least one if not two escort vehicles filled with Tajik fighters from the Panjshir valley. We use Sediqi Security Services (SSS) exclusively for work in both the south and west for two reasons. They are great fighters who battled the Taliban back in the day and the bad guys hate them more than they do us. This is an age old technique for outsiders operating in central Asia. If the north were as dangerous as the south we’d travel the north with Pashtun escorts for exactly the same reason.

The SSS Tajik crew

We use the same guys on all the high risk trips we have done over the years and needless to say we are a tight crew. The owners of SSS are young mid thirties and as children would sneak into Taliban lines to steal disarm and then steal anti personnel mines. They would then sell them to the Northern Alliance. Below is a picture of them leading the way back to Kabul.

SSS crew in vehicle headed back from Kandahar

That is a PKM machinegun sticking out of the back window which is a good piece of gear to bring along on trips south. The new laws being written for private security companies in Afghanistan will prohibit us from owning or using machineguns. That is taking stupidity to new and higher levels but the laws here are designed for one thing only and that is to make the people writing them rich. In that respect the Afghan law makers are just like their democratic counterparts in Washington only a little more up front about it.

Kandahar had a large population of expatriates in 2006 who lived and worked inside the city. There was even a starbucks influenced coffee shop run by an Afghan American which was very popular with the locals. The internationals are almost all gone now; those who remain live in heavily guarded compounds and rarely travel. On our last trip down we were leaving the Continental to head back to Kabul and I took this snap shot of the street.

Kandahar street

Suddenly the next block was empty, the shops shuttered and the hair on the back of me neck was standing tall. I took another picture before picking up my weapon. Here it is:

Kandahar EMPTY street

When you roll down a street that looks like this you are heading for big time trouble. There was only one way out of the city, so we had no choice but to keep on moving north, but Jesus it was a scary 10 minutes. Nothing happened that day and I don’t know why the street cleared out like it did but I’ll tell you what. Don’t think we’ll be heading back to Kandahar anytime soon.

Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress

Mazar-i-Shariff is home to the Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress which was the scene of a famous battle in November 2001. Unfortunately I only have one picture of the fort’s exterior which does not do it justice. My good friend CC (code-name Cautious Citizen) and I were in the area on a site visit. He is one of the few guys I know who served in the very top tier of our Special Operations establishment which is why I don’t use his real name. He probably could care less but you never know about those tier one guys and I’d hate to have one mad at me. He and I got a tour of the portion inside Kala Jangi where the fighting occurred. The remainder of the base was off limits when we were there which was in June 2007.

Just last week the Shem Bot and Michael Yon tried twice to get inside but were denied entry. The Bot speaks good Dari which the Afghans appreciate and it is most unusual that he was unable to BS his way in. The Eid holidays were last week and the commander was home with his family which may have been the reason Shem couldn’t get past the gate. It would be a shame if American or British visitors are no longer allowed to see where their special operators fought with such courage and ability. Fortunately I have spent a few afternoons wandering around inside and have plenty of interesting photos to share.

CC and I outside the fotress

On November 25th, 2001 two CIA agents went to the Kala Jangi fortress to interview the Taliban who had surrendered to Gen Dostum’s Northern Alliance fighters the day before. While interviewing a group of prisoners the Taliban suddenly attacked the agents and their Northern Alliance escort. One of the agents and all the Northern Alliance fighters were killed. The 300 prisoners revolted and armed themselves with weapons and munitions the Taliban had stored in this portion of the fortress years before. What followed was a three day battle reported to the world in near real time.

The American military and their CIA colleagues had arrived in Central Asia mere weeks after the attacks on our homeland. The Pentagon and Langley had been pushed by Donald Rumsfeld to go quickly. No military professional likes to execute ad-hoc seat of the pants combat operations half a world away but the Pentagon let loose the dogs of war allowing our SF teams aided by CIA paramilitary, CIA paramilitary contractors and advance elements of the US Army 10th Mountain Division to operate independently with mission type orders and without micro management. The result of this initial phase of our campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a brilliant success.

This appears to be what the Marines would term a “Tactical Air Control Party” in action on the north wall of the fortress. They are probably from the 10th Mountain Division. It is interesting to see the old war belt load bearing rigs which were being phased out back then in favor of the load bearing vests in use today.

It is hard to conduct such a fluid wide ranging battle where all the targeting and ordinance delivery is based on inputs from ground controllers in contact. The fog of war is a powerful performance inhibitor which affects all men on the field of battle and the fog of war inserted itself on the battle of Kala Jangi when a 2,000 pound JDAM hit adjacent to the team who had called it in. It was a miracle that none of our troops were killed by this blue-on-blue SNAFU. Dozens American, British and Afghan soldiers were injured, five Americans required medical evacuation and British casualties are unknown because the UK never releases information about SAS operations. The Northern Alliance reported over 30 KIA from this JDAM strike.

Point of impact of the arrant JDAM crater as it appeared in 2007

 

This is the view from the SF teams position when they were calling in the JDAM’s. The Taliban occupied the line of buildings to the front which are 300 meters away. It takes real balls to call in air-delivered ordinance this close to you and I mean real balls.

I remember watching this unfold through the video of a German TV crew who had the good luck to be on hand when the fighting started. I was amazed that we were conducting such a ballsy mobile warfare style campaign and had gotten there so quickly. Checking out this old battlefield was as opportunity I could not pass up.

“devil Taliban” – have to love that.

 

The portion of the fort where all the fighting took place is the southeastern quarter which was right behind the gate next to the sign pictured above. The battlefield is essentially untouched since the battle. EOD teams did remove or destroy most of the UXO (unexploded ordinance) but our Afghan Army guide was adamant that we stay on the many paths through the brush least we step on some live ordinance or a cobra. We were there in July and apparently snakes are a problem in that area during the summer months.

Gen Dostum’s men had not searched the Taliban nor the portion of the fort where they put the Taliban (who had owned the fort until just days before they surrenderd) when American CIA agents arrived to interrogate the captured Taliban fighters they had no idea they were being held in a portion of the fort that the Taliban had used for weapons and ammunition storage. I am certain that they had detected in previous encounters with the Taliban a certain battlefield rhythm and part of that rhythm was acceptance of surrendered Taliban of their POW status. For whatever reason the Taliban in Kala Jangi were in no mood to accept their fate and they revolted killing a CIA agent (and former Marine Corps officer) Mike Spann and a dozen Northern Alliance guards. They then opened up the weapons storage containers they had put there previously and the fight was on.

A CIA agent identified in the media as “Dave” using the sat phone from a German TV crew to call the K2 base in Uzbekistan for reinforcements.

In response the the call made from a CIA agent identified as “Dave” a mixed group of 9 American special operators, 6 British Special Boat Service operators and a nine man advance party from the 10th Mountain Division arrived on scene.

The Taliban weapons stores remain there to this day although the Afghan Army has rendered the weapons un-serviceable. The second picture below is of one of the shipping containers which received much attention from an AC-130 gunship during the night of 26 November.

The weapons in this conex were here in 2001 and functional
Inside a weapons conex that got some AC130 love  – it looked like Swiss cheese it was so shot up

Although the battle lasted for three days it was essentially over after the AC-130’s pounded the Taliban on the night of the 26th. On the morning of the 27th the surviving Taliban retreated into the basements under the mud huts which line the southern wall.

This is a shot from the Taliban perspective looking north towards the allied positions.

You can still find medicine bottles, primitive field dressings, torn and bloody clothing, and a ton of rusty un-serviceable small arms ammo down in the these basements.

What is left of the stairs leading down to the basement rooms.

In order to drive the surviving band of die hard fighters out of the basement Dostum’s men flooded it. And when they did out popped Johnny Walker Lindh and another 80 or so surviving fighters. There are few absolutes in life but the death penalty for traitors to our great land is one of them. Lindh should have been hung a long time ago. In public. Nothing personal but the same principal applies here as it did to the murdering horse thieves in Lonesome Dove. Gus and Captain Call had to string up the group they caught which included their life-long friend Jake Spoon. The didn’t want to do it but they had to because it was their duty under their code. There are some things a man cannot tolerate if he is going to call himself a free man. Horse thieves and traitors are two of those things. Again this is not personal – I can understand the ennui which drove young Walker to Islam. I can admire his courage and fortitude in leaving home at such a young age to venture into the northwest frontier of Pakistan alone. But he turned traitor and at that point all the understanding and empathy in the world is irrelevant. The issue becomes black and white. Just like a Panda.

Johnny Walker Lindh moments after being recaptured
Picture taken after the battle which I lifted off the net along with Lindh’s pic. Apparently nobody knew the Taliban had an arms cache inside that portion of the fort because Gen Dostum used it to stable his horses.

I arrived in Afghanistan four years after this battle and can only imagine what it was like for the American and British operators who drove into the breach back in 2001. They were free to operate as they saw fit based on what they developed on the ground. The Afghan people were 100% behind our efforts to rid them of the Taliban scourge. They must have been greeted like liberators everywhere they went and when the Taliban tried to stand and fight they were able to defeat them in detail with precision direct and indirect fire. What could be better than that?

Visiting Northern Afghanistan is a trip of a lifetime but if you want to make it you better hurry.

Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

The northern regions of Afghanistan are the safest areas in the country. A majority of the population in these provinces are Tajik or Hazara and were not known for supporting the Taliban. We routinely travel in the north without body armor or rifles and have, on occasion, left the side arms at home out of respect for the local leaders and populace. All my trips into the north have terminated in the fabled city of Mazar-i-Shariff where our main client JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has an office and several programs.

The trip north starts by crossing the Shamali Plain (Shamali means “windy” in Dari) which saw much fighting during the Soviet invasion in the 80’s. As a point of interest, the main road from Kabul to Bagram airbase used by our armed forces today was built by the Soviets so they could stay out of the Shamali plain as much as possible. The Soviets fought hard and often all along the main road to the north. After the Northern Alliance and our SF teams drove out the Taliban in 2001 there has been no fighting or attacks on the international or Afghan military on the plain or anywhere else along the route to Mazar-i-Shariff.

Shamali plain just north of Kabul

In 2006 an American army convoy caused a fatal traffic accident where the roads above terminates inside Kabul. They opened fire on the crowd that gathered at the accident site sparking an entire day of rioting in Kabul. Unruly and agitated crowds are a staple at Afghan traffic accidents which occur frequently and tend to be gruesome given the speeds at which Afghans drive and their propensity for stuffing extra women and children in car trunks or on roof racks. Firing into the crowd that day (I saw it live on Tolo TV) is a symptom of the big base big army mentality that infected our efforts here as soon as the regular army took over the fight. The solider I saw unleash his 50 cal into the Afghan crowd at point blank range was scared. He was scared because he did not understand Afghanistan or its people and he thought the crowd was after him and his fellow soldiers. This was four years after we first set foot in the country. Today, some seven years into the fight, a majority of the soldiers are just as clueless about the Afghan people and their customs as the knucklehead on the machinegun that day. But I digress.

Istalif Pottery

Halfway across the plain is the town of Istalif which is famous for its pottery. With a little haggling and good humor you can buy any of these pieces for just one dollar although after haggling and completing the sale I always give a tip. Haggling is fun but a couple extra dollars thrown in at the end of the deal is fun too. Afghans seem to enjoy foreigners who are of good humor and fair.

After getting through the Shamali you have to climb up the Salang Pass which is 12,723 feet up into the Hindu Kush Mountains making it one of the highest roads in the world. Here is a view going up the pass and looking back towards Kabul.

Kabul side of the Salang Pass

The Soviet Union built a tunnel through the pass back in the 60’s which is 2.6 kilometers long and scary. The road bed is pitted and often filled with slush, the evacuation fan system stopped working decades ago, it is dark, and the Afghans have no ability to deal with vehicle accidents or any serious injuries. In 1982 an explosion in the tunnel caused the Soviets to block both ends as they thought there was an attack in progress. Those trapped inside kept their vehicles running to avoid freezing, the resulting buildup of carbon monoxide and smoke killed as many as 700 Soviet troops and over 2,000 Afghans.

Northern entrance to the Salang Pass

Once you’re through the Salang tunnel it is a steep drop down into the valley floor where one can find the best fresh fish in Afghanistan. Here is my favorite seasonal fish stand seen from the road above:

Approaching the valley floor on the northern side of the Salang Pass

Like I said it is a step grade down the north side of the Salang.

My two new friends and I enjoying fine Afghan dining al fresco

The guys sitting behind me in the picture above are truck drivers who wandered over just in case I ate like an Afghan which is to automatically share food and drink. I have been here long enough to understand that so the three of us tucked into the excellent fish and engaged in conversations with a mix of basic Dari, American slang, and sign language.

The drive from the Salang Pass to Mazar is pleasant and fast over good roads. The largest city along the route is Puli Khumri which has little international presence but also few AOG (armed opposition group) incidents. One of the more interesting aspects of driving around the country is to discover how the industrious Afghans can be with found objects. The picture below demonstrates that point well and is also the best use of old Soviet BTR’s I’ve yet to see.

Fuel station a few miles south of Puli Khumri built on top of old Soviet BTR 72’s that were stacked into the river, covered with dirt and rock, compacted and leveled – one way to get a land title in Afghanistan is to create your own land.

From Puli Khumri it is about three hours of  driving through one small hamlet after another. It is not a good idea to move off the main road in areas where there are no villages or towns. Every natural choke-point has an old Soviet command post and the terrain around them could still be seeded with anti-personnel mines. Most of these areas have been cleared but the sign below provides a warning that remains applicable today to the smart traveler.

A warning from HALO trust (de-mining NGO) in Dari and English explaining the land off of the main highway in this pass contains an active mine field.

The Afghanistan state-controlled media back in the Soviet days called Soviet soldiers Quay Dhost which means “friendly forces”. When we rolled up to Afghan police checkpoints we’d smile and introduce ourselves as Quay Dhost which generated a look of surprise followed by a big belly laugh.  Afghans love jokes and funny foreigners who make an effort at speaking Dari.

I took this picture at an old soviet check point on the main ring road in 2005. It was gone when I was last up north in 2007.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a small city famous for the Blue Mosque which is supposed to contain the remains of Hazrat Ali, who was a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic scholars believe the real grave of Ali is in the Imam Mosque in Najaf Iraq.

 

Checking out the Blue Mosque in Mazar

I have read and also heard from the locals that the Mosque was buried to prevent its sacking by Genghis Khan in 1220 and not uncovered until the 1480’s. I have no idea how the locals could have done that back then but I also don’t know how the Egyptian Pyramids were built so maybe it’s a true story. For us foreigners this is as close as we can get to the Mosque which is fine because the real treat when visiting the North is checking out the Kala Jangi fortress which was the scene of a big fight on 25 November 2001.

There is also work and in Mazar and that means looking after Ms Tani san of JICA who runs the women empowerment program. The picture below is of Tani san issuing a critique to one of her woman’s groups who have been slacking on keeping the cows and barn that the people of Japan provided them clean and functional.

JICA’s Woman’s Empowerment Program in action. The woman huddled in a school circle are catching hell for being behind the maintenance of their new cattle barn

While she is in the villages the police guard and I hang out with the males of the village often  sitting in the closest field for a little nan and yogurt. If we check up on five villages that’s five lunches of nan and yogurt and sometimes kabob that you can’t not eat because it’s impolite for guests to refuse hospitality. The life of an independent international security operative often looks like this:

I’m going to get fat if I keep doing this. The cold mint yogurt tea is damn good though and I’ve never tasted anything like it.

The eggplant we are eating with the nan (bread) is called Borani Banjan and is absolutely delicious; greasy as the day is long but delicious. Next stop will be the Fortress but it deserves a post of its own.

Afghanistan Travel Series

One of the advantages of working outside the wire is the ability to travel. Internationals can move freely through most of Afghanistan without taking elaborate or expensive security measures. It is always a good idea to be armed due to the extent of armed criminality which plagues the land. One reason that internationals are rarely targeted by criminals is the universal belief among Afghans that we are all armed and capable with those arms. That is not always true but it is the conventional wisdom.

My oldest daughter Megan came over last summer and worked for us when we had a few bomb and drug dog contracts. She is an excellent dog handler/trainer and like her father thrives on travel and adventure. Here she is with her friend Sarah, formerly of the Australian Army and at the time the Kabul coordinator for ANSO (Afghan NGO Safety Office.)

Megan and Sarah exploring the Panjshir Valley

The picture above was taken in the Panjshir Valley where the girls had gone to visit with the families of Sarah’s driver and her interpreter. This was not considered by myself or any of my colleagues to be unusually risky. My daughter is very capable with a sidearm after taking multiple four day handgun courses at Front Sight in Las Vegas when I was on the staff there. Sarah has a few years of experience and is very capable too but the reason they were perfectly safe on this trip is the Afghan people.

Megan and I at the Taj in Jalalabad

One of the facts of life on the ground here which has not translated well in the media coverage is the acceptance of internationals by vast majorities of the Afghan people. Without their active support the various international organizations involved in the reconstruction fight could not stay here or operate. Afghanistan is a poor country with little infrastructure, a spotty track record of central government control, and no ability to extract the valuable natural resources (which are considerable) that have been identified to date. The people have little and expect little which is why they respond so positively to internationals who have come to help them. This includes the international military. There are few places in this country happier than an isolated village who just had a platoon of Americans roll in with plans to stay for awhile.

I took this picture of a kid who was working a one person vehicle maintenance stall on the Shamoli Plain just north of Kabul in the summer of 2006

The more the average Afghans interact with internationals and specifically the international military, the more they like us. We have tens of thousands of troops deployed here but a vast majority spend their entire tour behind the wire on gigantic military bases. These bases are called FOB’s (forward operating base) but when there are restaurants, American and Canadian fast food stands, coffee shops, gigantic bazaars and massage parlors it is hard to think of a base as being forward or operating. The words rear and supporting are better descriptors.

We cannot continue to rely on technology to solve tactical problems. When you do that you end up with the MRAP a vehicle so tall it will rip out the electrical wires from every street it drives down if it moves off a main road into a village or town. It is also so heavy it cannot maneuver well on the local dirt roads, or cross local bridges, or climb the many mountain passes in Afghanistan.

MRAP’s – not as useful as one would think. Not good on narrow canal roads or inside villages due to their width and height

Yes it will protect the troops inside from most of the mines and IED’s used by the AOG but as a student of history I know it is easier and cheaper to defeat new technology then to develop it. The AOG will develop IED’s big enough to defeat this improved armor. All the players in the game know that.

There will be additional posts covering the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. They include lots of pictures which I hope all enjoy. Many of the places pictured are no longer safe for internationals. It will be decades before another westerner is able to photograph them again. We are losing terrain to the bad guys and with the terrain go the people. In a counter insurgency fight the people are the center of gravity, we cannot allow this current trend of ceding terrain to the Taliban to continue or we will lose. It is that simple.

LaRue Tactical Hats

Shem and I took advantage of getting kitted out in all our gear to re-take some pictures for LaRue Tactical in Texas. All the furniture and sights on or M4’s comes from LaRue and they were kind enough to send a surprise care package full of hats, their signature dry rub and other goodies. We figured the least we could do is send a snap shot back with a written thank you. Here is the most interesting of the photos we took.

It is hard to describe what makes a good photo good but the one above caught everyones eye as having some good qualities. Maybe it is the lighting or a fleeting expression or some other intangible but this one just feels interesting.

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Talking with the AOG

There are many names used in Afghanistan to describe the groups hostile to the central government. Taliban, insurgents, Anti Government Elements (AGE) and Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) are the most common descriptors. AOG can be Taliban, criminal gangs who cooperate with the Taliban, rent-a-Taliban (mostly teenage boys who need money and want adventure) or militias controlled by warlords. Every armed group has its own agenda and few cooperate with each other. This is their principal weakness -the inability to operate with unity of command or purpose. Our big weakness is that we cannot take advantage of their weakness because most (not all) of our military is confined to large bases and most (not all) have a limited understanding of tribal dynamics in their areas of operation.

We were asked by a journalist if we could set up an interview for a story he’s working on. Here he is talking with the village Malik from Spur Kunday and an AOG fighter up in the hills above Surobi.

It is not comfortable for us being out in the open like this. We are at the mouth of the Uzbin valley up in the foothills just off the dirt track which is the only road in the area. The valley has seen much fighting since the French ambush last month. The chances of a predator or some other American surveillance platform zooming in on us to determine friend or foe status is high. We are certain that the American ROE would prohibit attacking us as long as they do not see weapons. But who wants to chance that? Not us which is why we tried to hurry the interview along as best we could.

Shem and I left the weapons and body armor in our vehicle and pulled security for the hour or so it took to conduct the interview. It is a strange situation to be in – we could not put a US flag or an air panel on our roof because we know there are bad guys in the hills above us. We also could not walk around with our rifles which would offer protection from local AOG but open the door for a visit from Mr. Predator.

Friday morning we got organized and set off for our interview – here is a shot of us getting jocked up in the local garb. Shawal Kameez, pakol hat, scarf and vest over the body armor. On the road we take off the sunglasses because Afghans don’t wear them. We do not fool any locals who get a good look at us as we scream by in our vehicle but that is not the point. The point is to be inside the OODA loop of anyone looking to cause mischief. If a bad guy wants to ambush internationals on the Jalalabad – Kabul road he has to Observe the target, Orient his weapon systems on the target, Decided to attack and then Attack the target. Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA.) That loop takes much longer then most people realize because most people received their tactical combat training via Hollywood movies. In the real world understanding the OODA loop theory and how to apply it is the fundamental building block upon which an accurate threat assessment is made. Unless AOG spotters have identified us and radioed ahead to an ambush team (something we have never seen on the Jbad road to date) it would require superhuman decision making ability to ID us and decide to attack us as we scream by in a vehicle that looks just like every other local SUV on the road.

The key to low visibility ops is being smooth because smooth = fast and fast is how we move on the highway up to Surobi. And I mean really fast – we always put new tires and brakes on every vehicle we rent. Being in an auto accident is our number one security concern so we don’t skimp on the vehicle maintenance.

 

The meeting took a long time but that is a story for our journalist friend to tell. Shem and I spread out and kept watch moving to the vehicle and our guns any time another vehicle drove past. Check out our haji SUV:

 

This is what I mean about being exposed, sitting on the topographical crest like this is no good but what are you going to do? The trip back was uneventful and smooth.

Launching the Tajmahal Guesthouse Website

This is the second day in a row we have been working on upgrading the Tajmahal website. With the able help of webmaster Ken and many others we are finally there. www.tajmahalguesthouse.com Here is a great shot of geek central. The Taj’s Bamboo bar where we hang out most evenings with our laptops listening to Soma FM and sometimes chatting about the stories we email each other from a foot or two away.

The services and security section of the website is pretty good so I’m posting it here too for the edification of my readership.

Continue reading “Launching the Tajmahal Guesthouse Website”

The Caves of Little Barabad

We recently took a trip across the river into Beshud District to the village of Little Barabad to photograph the old caves that line northern shore of the Kabul river.

When we show up at this village we often pick up and escort of local kids – the tend to segregate by gender and here are some of the girls from Little Barabad

The people of Little Barabad are Kuchi tribesmen who are dirt poor from a different tribe than the Shinwari’s who live up the river in the village of Big Barabad. Because the elders from these two villages can’t agree on anything Little Barabad suffers and cannot spend their NSP (National Solidarity Program) monies to build a well or make other infrastructure improvements. The NSP money comes from the World Bank and they have $2,000 for each household but that money can only be spent on projects which collectively benefit the village and the only recognized village in this area is Big Barabad

The San Diego sister cities project is scheduled to be build a foot bridge over the Kabul River which would allow the kids from Little Barabad to attend school. There is a large school just 300 meters away on the Jalalabad side of the river but it is an hour’s drive by road. The people of little Barabad do not have a vehicle or much of a road for that matter so their kids are not able to attend school.

San Diego and the La Jolla Rotary Club have been very active in Jalalabad which is a sister city to San Diego. How that happened remains a mystery but believe it or not they (both the city and its Rotary Club) have dumped a ton of money into Nangarhar University and Jalalabad. Here is the current method of crossing the Kabul River and the reason why a foot bridge will be such a God send. When you look at this float keep in mind the river is swift and none of the people in these parts know how to swim.

Fording the river Afghan style

One goal of today’s trip was to get a proper picture of my new SOMA FM tee shirt to send into their web site. Inshallah they will post it so getting the pistol in frame was important. From looking at my fellow donors at the Soma FM site I’m sure to be the only one who even owns a pistol. Soma is based out of San Francisco so I’m sure they’ll find the pic of an armed American to be innately disturbing. Guns = authority = bad to them. To me guns = keeping authority in check and small = good. Plus there is a war going on here and even though it is easy to avoid drama one must be prepared. Be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them. That’s a Marine moto that is worth remembering in this line of work.

Some of the boys who escort us around the area

 

Shem making friends – I think the boy on the left may have some Russian blood in his family 

T

Chai with the locals

The village kids love to have their pictures taken and always enjoy it when we come by to hike up to the caves. We hook them up with a bottled water and a dollar each for being our guides. See how blond the kid in the middle of the photograph above is? You see that a lot of that in Nangarhar Province. The Soviets kept it pretty quiet when they were here and even had an R&R camp in Jalalabad. They also let their troops off the base and into the bazaar where they could support the local economy. I go to the bazaar all the time myself and the local merchants seem to enjoy it when an international stops in to chat them up and buy junk.

Many of the locals think our troops are cowards because they only see them in armored trucks racing through the town and pointing weapons at anyone and who they feel gets to close to them.  The Soviets flooded the bazaar when they were off duty and I believe our troops and the Afghan people would both benefit if our military adopted the same liberty policy as the Soviets. Getting close to the locals is a good thing and the basic tenant of our counterinsurgency doctrine. Judging from all the blond and red headed kids we see in Jalalabad some of the Russians got a little too close to the locals which is a dangerous game to play in Pashtun lands.

The cave complex. Our speculation is they date from the Buddhist era around 178 AD

Little Barabad is really a collection of compounds belonging to one extended family. They have goats and sheep, three cows, plus a little corn and wheat but that is about it.

Last July the caves were full of bats.

The bats were “nishta” or all gone this time because they seem to occupy the caves during the heat of summer. We will have to wait until next year to get a good picture of the bats. Inshallah we will still be able to move freely then…Inshallah

Kabul Re-up Run

Today the Bot and I had to run to Kabul for a re-up. We started our journey by striking a pose for our sponsor. Well not a real sponsor but they sent us some hats, bumper stickers, steak rub, and a generous assortment of candy so we feel sponsored. Here is Shem (a.k.a. Shem Bot a.k.a. Bot) and I at the start of the day with our signature La Rue Tactical hats. We’ll have to do this again as I have been told by the resident expert that this picture lacks technical merit due to failure to use proper lens filters.

The drive was smooth and fast. We rent SUV’s and switch them up frequently so we do not stand out on the road. We stop at all checkpoints and chat up the ANP (Afghan National Police) who appreciate that we speak some Pashto and are polite. In this country a little Pashto or Dari and a big smile will win you a ton of goodwill from the local officials and people.

 The problem with traveling in low profile mode is running into an ISAF or American military convoy can cause drama. I was shot at by the American Army in downtown Kabul back in ’07 while driving a brand new Armored Land Cruiser with diplomatic plates identifying it as belonging to the Government of Japan. A rear gunner in a five truck convoy thought I got a little too close to them as they were exiting a traffic circle. I may well have strayed too close but it never occurred to me that the young trooper would not recognize a large brand new armored SUV as being on his side. The startled gunner unleashed a good 6 round burst into the hills above my truck (where about 3000 people live packed into squalid mud huts.) I was out of the drivers door and running down the road yelling at this idiot before I realized what I was doing. That startled the five hundred or so Afghan pedestrians who stopped and watched this unfold in utter amazement.

That was an embarrassing incident, getting too close to the convoy was sloppy on my part, getting shot at was bad, bolting out of the drivers door without even letting the vehicle stop was very bad but it elicited one of the more memorable quotes from my favorite Japanese client. He was a senior diplomat who I consider a great man and who I was very fond of and proud to work for. When I came back to the truck he looked at me shaking his head and muttering Tim san I do not understand how you people beat us. It is a funny story to tell now but it is also still a problem; our military is not learning how to operate here.

 We were jamming up the Mahipar Pass passing a slow moving truck when up pops the American Army in MRAPs and the Bot swears the turret gunner has his pistol pointed at him. The kid did have his pistol out but as the more experienced professional I opined that the chances of him even hitting the car from up on top of that giant armored vehicle were remote. Plus the soldier was switched on and lowered his pistol once he saw we were expats. The Bot took no comfort from that and unleashed a torrent of invective (as us high-speed writers say) which seemed to calm him down.

 Here are the guilty bastards (I say that in good humor mind you) as they moved further down the pass note the futility of attempting to keep all civilian traffic away from you which the military tries to do on all their convoys. Only once have I seen a convoy of obviously very experienced soldiers (French) who moved with the traffic and let the local vehicles get mixed in with their convoy. That is good solid thinking on their part.

As you can probably tell the pass is a long series of hairpin switchbacks and one can always count on a old truck to be broken down and blocking one lane in the road. The fuel truck in this photo is broken down which is why the buses are stacked up behind it. I have spent hours sitting on the road here because a truck broke down and blocked one of the four tunnels. Here is a good shot of the Mahpair pass;

After that bit of minor excitement we were off to Kabul to shop for proper pasta, some seafood, beer, wine, and spirits. We hit our favorite Italian place for a proper sit down lunch and spent the next few hours running around Kabul sans body armor and long guns. The Kabul PD gets crappy with expats for having full kit while transiting the metropolitan area. That is fair enough Kabul – is not currently a place where you can expect any problems unless you are driving in American or ISAF armored vehicles. There is no real reason for body armor or long guns, they upset the local citizenry as well as the authorities, so we go with the concealed carry route.

 Here is what the ole Haji ride looked like after our last stop in the greater Kabul area:

It was smooth sailing back to the Taj. We made it from Camp Warehouse to here in 85 minutes. There was little traffic on the road, no ISAF convoys thank god (they can double or triple your trip time and often jam up traffic for 5 to 10 miles behind them because they move so slow) and the weather was perfect. The Taj is now stocked and ready for the arrival of Baba Ken the leader of the Jbad geek squad. One of the wonders of the third world is the number of young men in these places who are scary proficient with computers.