Category Archives: Afghanistan

September 11, 2001

Ten years ago I took these photos from the roof of my apartment building in SoHo:

My neighbor and friend Pete, who had just woken up and who I ran into in the stairwell in his boxers as we were all heading to the roof to see what was going on:

Today, I took these photos from a Blackhawk flying through Paktika province, Afghanistan – near the border with Pakistan.

I’m at FOB Ghazni, and I’ve realized 9/11 does not mean the same thing to the Polish as it does to the Americans. To Americans it only means one searing thing. When I ask a Polish soldier where he was on 9/11, he’ll pause for a moment and say, “You mean  2001?”   The Americans don’t need clarification.

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Afghan Villages

I’m currently in Afghanistan, and on my way to Ghazni again, but wanted to post some more pictures from my embed in May. I wrote about the time I spent with the American 2-2 infantry  here.  Here are some pictures from one of the patrols.

Sneaking up:

The moment I remember most — right before we ran across the field to take cover under the far wall:

 

Climbed up on the roof and this was the view:

Looking down from roof – women and children huddling in the corner:

They told us they were just pipes – no plumbing within dozens of miles though.

Poo pancakes the kids put together and once dried, used as fuel.

Rest of the pictures are here.

With the American infantry in Andar and Deh Yak

I spent several days with the American infantry unit that is based in the eastern part of Ghazni province  (Andar and Deh-Yak disricts). Approximately 1,000 soldiers were added to Ghazni last fall as part of President Obama’s 30,000 strong troop surge. They are technically under the command of the Polish General, but their direct commander is a U.S. Colonel. I wanted to get a feel for how American operations compared to the Polish, and to talk to the Americans about the progress they had made since they arrived. The guys I spent time with were from Fort Knox, Kentucky. The bases I visited while embedded with them were basically just tiny outposts – Deh Yak had maybe 100 guys stationed there, and for the duration I was definitely the only XX chromosome around. I had to yell “FEMALE!” every time I walked into the “bathroom” (shudder to remember it) and had to ask a boy to stand guard when I wanted a shower.

They were all gentlemen, and in true gentleman form fought over who got to carry my bag. For sleep arrangements they had part of one of the tents walled off with two cots on the other side (They used to have a female cook who lived there). They boys were polite enough to knock on the plywood to see if I needed anything. If I ran into them at the mall I would have guessed they were 13 years old. They ran an extension cord over the wall so I could have power, and made sure to let me know that if I needed anything I just holler.  They all yelled “goodnight ma’am!” and  then I heard them make fart jokes and play shoot-em-up videos games all night.

The tents:

Andar and Deh-Yak are two of the most dangerous provinces in Ghazni, possibly in all of Afghanistan at the moment. The troops in these regions were getting attacked every day, often several times a day. They were seeing a lot of action. The U.S. Colonel had been to the main base to visit the General, so I hitched a ride with his convoy for the return trip to Andar, about a 45 minute ride.

Depending on how many camels crossed the road.

My second day with them our 10:00am patrol was delayed because four of their best Afghan Police officers were ambushed and killed during the night. It was the first time such an attack had happened in the Police Chief’s home town, one of the few places the ANP felt secure enough to patrol without an American escort. It was not a good sign and everyone took it pretty hard. Some of the Americans had grown close to their Afghan counterparts. All patrols are required to have an Afghan element, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to continue with the mission as our escorts were all dead.

The Americans did eventually find someone who was willing to go with us. A mangy looking Afghan Army soldier who wore his army cargo pants tucked into his two-sizes-too-big laceless-sockless-combat boots. He flopped ahead as we patrolled through towns and wore his rifle haphazardly on a string, pointing this way and that. The Afghan security forces don’t have armored vehicles, and usually just ride around in the back of a pickup truck. The guy who stands there manning the gun in the flatbed has balls of steel. Everyone knows he’s the bullseye.

The briefing that morning was one of the most tense I’d seen. The Americans knew they were going to see some action, and they were fired up. The platoon sergeant briefed at a yell, “We’re going to go out and kill some fucking bad guys today! You see a dude holding a fucking weapon you hose him down!” Then he added, still yelling, “And make sure you drink some fucking water, and eat some fucking snacks!”

We had a long day ahead of us. We were headed out. More pictures to come.

Here are some pictures from around the base.

Pano I stitched together of Deh Yak:

Water bottles everywhere.

With the American PRT

These are from a patrol with the American PRT. We went out for a full day of visits to several development projects.

The U.S. PRT’s engineering representative stops to talk to the Afghan engineer on a road expansion project. Part of the goal that day was to inform Afghans with shops along the road that in addition to billions of dollars in aid,  the Americans had also brought with them the  concept of eminent domain. Those in the way were told they’d have to move so that the Kabul-Kandahar highway could go from two lanes to four.

The Americans spent a significant amount of time in the market that day. One soldier took the opportunity to get some shopping done – he cleared out all the eggs, onions, peppers and potatoes from a single surprised shopkeeper. The soldiers cook on hot pots in their rooms (anything to avoid chow hall food). The Afghans get really excited and happy when they see PRT soldiers coming their way. Little kids swarmed all over us saying “Give me something!”— the one phrase they know in English.

Of course when you don’t give them something, they often reveal the other English phrase they know, “Fu*k You.”

All the little boys were tugging at me asking me to take their picture and then show it to them on my display screen. It’s an endless source of entertainment for them.

These men wanted their picture taken as well. The one on the left spoke a few words in English. He asked me to bring him a copy of the picture and I told him his English was very good. He proudly said he is studying from a book, and pointed to his electronics shop to let me know where I could find him when I came back to give him his picture.

Training Afghan Security Forces

A portion of the Polish troops are dedicated to training Afghan National Security Forces. This is mostly done by Special Forces units, akin to U.S. Green Berets. Once the SF teams got to know me they were happy to have me along on some of their missions.
Here Polish SF soldiers train Afghan National Police (ANP) in a day at the firing range.

The Polish soldiers told me the ANP were making great progress – some who couldn’t even hit the target at 10 feet a week ago, were able to hit the bullseye at 100 feet today.

The ANP also receive basic emergency combat medical training – and as usual, they are pleased as peach to have their picture taken by a woman.

Ghazni Hospital

Polish and U.S. representatives from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) visited the main Ghazni hospital in May to participate in a working group meeting with doctors and hospital administrators.

Here’s a female Polish doctor from the PRT sitting next to physician’s assistant from the U.S. National Guard. The green and tan digital camouflage uniform in the foreground is what most Americans wear. (Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic about why digital camo is actually better at fooling the eye than traditional swirly/tiger stripes camo.)

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The purpose of the meeting was to set priorities and action items for hospital projects with the funds allocated by the central government. At least, that’s what the PRT thought going in. The Afghans are (unfortunately) used to handing over a list of projects, which the PRT dutifully gets to work on. This means things get built but it is obviously not a long term solution. The Afghans are still getting used to the idea of working with a central bureaucracy.  The PRT is trying to transition to a support role, and is encouraging the Afghans to take the lead — teaching them to work through their local government channels. It’s difficult and slow going. For example:

Afghans: “But the PRT could just do this for us, that would be easier.”

PRT reps: “We aren’t going to do that anymore. You have money from your government and you have to find out how much you have, and set priorities. We can help fund the gap.”

Afghans: “But we don’t even know how much our budget from Kabul is. We’ve never gotten money from them.”

PRT reps: “You have to ask your local district represenative about your budget, and we can go from there.”

Afghans: “We don’t even know who that is.”

Another Afghan: “I think it’s [so-and-so], but I sent him a letter two months ago and haven’t heard anything or seen him.”

And on.

This meeting did however end on a positive note — the Afghan doctors were an impressive bunch; It was clear many of them understood English and a few even spoke it quite well. There were two women in attendance, who confidently smiled and shook my hand as they walked in before the meeting began. Everyone around the table took turns listening to others speak. They provided a generous amount of delicious weak tea, and tasty cakes and candies for their visitors. Very kind, considering Afghan meetings are known to go on for hours, and this one was no exception.

These were smart, educated people, and I could sense they understood what was being asked of them. They didn’t appear to shy away from the challenge.

More pictures from the meeting here.

Polish Civil-Military Affairs team visits troubled village

These pictures are from a patrol May 2 with the Polish Civil-Military (CIMIC) Affairs team to a village called Espandi, not far from the main Ghazni city center.  The CIMIC team was sent to Espandi mainly because the base keeps getting attacked from the general direction of this village, and they wanted to talk to the locals about what they can do to make it stop.

As usual, most locals will play dumb and say they haven’t seen the Taliban for months. But after you get the elders out, and sit everybody down, and they realize you are not going away, they start admitting…. “well, yeah, the Taliban does come through here at night, on motorcycles… and they threaten us…. but we don’t know where they keep their weapons… and they’re never here long… and they say they’ll kill us if we talk to you.” At which point the CIMIC soldiers have to try to convince the elders that they can protect them from the Taliban.

The Afghans are understandably skeptical.

Children out in the streets when the convoy arrives are a good sign – if there is an ambush in the works generally the locals will know and they will be hiding. Curious little girls poking their heads around the corner take the stress level down a notch for everyone.

The vehicles generate a line of dust as they drive across sandy fields back to the base. You can see tracks from previous days in the foreground, as the convoys generally avoid taking the same route twice as a security precaution.