Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gotta love them MRAPs

On the way to breakfast yesterday morning, we passed a heavy salvage vehicle (read “industrial-strength tow truck”) with a small MRAP, known as a “Rhino,” hitched up to it.  The engine compartment was blow away, and twisted metal surrounded the front end.  The front tires, though, looked intact, as was the passenger compartment.

Come to find out that some of our boys hit an IED while on patrol yesterday.  No casualties, no injuries, just one seriously-messed-up vehicle.  It was reassuring to see that intact passenger compartment, to know that the Taliban had been foiled again.

The wind continues to howl, almost knocked me over last night as I slogged from the data center to my office.  And I am no dainty little thing, you know.  The dust continues to blow, so hard, in fact, that my optician is replacing the glasses I sent back for repairs to the frames, the lenses are scratched beyond any hope of polishing or refurbishing.

Wednesday morning, the wind is still here, but the dust storm is abating.  We could actually see the mountains on the way to breakfast.  Not crystal-clear, but they’re there, and the sun was shining.

The TV is showing a rerun of the Kathy Lee Gifford morning show.  Why are these people paid to run their yaps all morning?  And what really caught my eye … “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” … who are the Kardashians and why should anyone bother keeping up with them?

Back to the topic of that infernal dust … we’re now getting more confirmation that the dust is not good for one’s health.  I’d heard anecdotal evidence about increased levels of asthma and other respiratory ailments among people who’ve spent a minimum of four to six months here.  Now, a study being circulated on a USG-sponsored web site provides more substance:

Yet another reason for me not to go running along the roads here (aside from the fact that my creaky knees won’t handle it).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where’s the Horizon?

Here it is Tuesday, and we still can’t see the mountains.  The wind has pretty much died down, and it was intermittent yesterday.  But the dust cloud thrown up in the air on Saturday remains.  Which reminds me … how many of you could actually see the sun in the photo I posted on Saturday?  If you right-click on the image and open it up to its full 2Mb size, it’s easier to spot as a small dark circle.

The wind and dust were bad enough on Saturday night to preempt our weekly Herf.  Three of us hardy souls clustered Sunday night by the data center, inside a chain-link fence wrapped in green sniper shield, which helped break up the wind.  We managed to actually enjoy the smokes and hash out several issues bedeviling us here on Bagram.

On a side note, on Sunday night I smoked an Arturo Fuente 8-5-8 (natural, for those curious minds out there) that I bought in the exchange here on base.  They stock a fair number of non-Cuban stogies here, but there is no humidification whatsoever.  The cigars are left in their boxes on the shelves to dry out.  I grabbed a couple sticks two weeks ago after determining they hadn’t dried out too badly and threw them into the humidor.  Two weeks of recovery and, aside from a wrapper leaf that started to loosen, it smoked quite nicely.

Pizza night was disrupted on Saturday.  Not by the winds, but by the owners of the grill, who came over from their own portion of Area 82 to reclaim it.  Apparently, it was on loan to DISO.  Undeterred, my elite black ops team hit the road Saturday night and procured, among other things, a 55-gallon drum, a grate, and 18 bags of charcoal, and we’ve got a line on some angle iron.  It’s amazing the things you can acquire when you drive around at night in an ATV.  We’ve made arrangements for some local workers who doing a construction contract here on Area 82 to hook us up with some welding services and make us a new grill.

Yesterday, I made a major contribution in the Stupid Human Tricks Department.  A half-dozen of us were piled into the Land Cruiser, driving to dinner.  After turning onto the main drag, we rolled past a particularly attractive young lady from our compound.  She works with one of the other three-letter agencies and, having seen her in uniform, I know she’s in the Norwegian Army.  Amid the general rash of comments and proclamations of undying love and admiration erupting in the vehicle, this cute young blonde inspired me to do an "air" Bronsky.  She chose that exact moment to turn and look at all of us, as though she’d heard the distinctive sounds.  And she smiled at us.  I’m going to hear about that one until I leave in August.

If nothing else, life here is always interesting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Dustbowl

The wind here is generally very intense, sometime gusting up to 45-50 knots.  That's bad enough, as it's strong enough to blow down chain link fences with the green sniper shield attached.

Today, it's been awful.  Dust storms kicked up by the wind blotted out the entire surrounding view.  To look out, you'd never know we are ringed in by mountains here.  Even the sun was reduced to a speck, as the photo shows ...

See that little dot just left of center?  That's the sun.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to wash that dust out of my mouth.  And nose. And ears.  You get the picture.

Is “G.O-1” a Verb?

Central Command put a regulation into effect here, General Order 1, known as G.O.-1, which governs behavior in-theater.  Among other things, consumption of alcohol is completely prohibited, as are conjugal relations between service members out here.  Which makes me wonder why one can buy a box of condoms in the Exchange.  But that’s a topic for another post.

What really grinds my gears is the ban on alcohol consumption.  Go to Herat, where the Italians and Spanish run the show, and there is wine available in the DFAC to accompany lunch or dinner.  Go to Mazar-e-Sharif, and I suspect the Germans have beer.  But God help the U.S. soldier who is caught imbibing.  When I jokingly discussed going to Herat to check out our operation there, and maybe have a glass of vino with my pasta at the Italian DFAC, our OIC said, “You do and I’ll D.O-1 your ass out of theater!”

I’ve long complained about the butchering of the English language.  Watch the Olympics, and you’ll see athletes and commentators alike using “medal” and “podium” as verbs.  I cringe every time someone says “like”” in the wrong context.  One can’t “say” something, but how often do you hear, “I was like, dude, I’m out of here,” or words to that effect.  So it goes with verbifying G.O.-1.

But I digress.  Although I’m enjoying the help that this no-beer-zone has had on my weight loss, I’m a big opponent of total bans.  Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy who banned alcohol onboard Navy ships, is my idea of the anti-Christ.  I’m convinced that sailors often go out and get stupid drunk in liberty ports because the ships are dry and their first instinct after walking down the brow is to find a bar and pound down a beer or two … or more.  They do in excess what they couldn’t do at all while at sea.  Indulge in the forbidden fruit.

The ban on alcohol here irks me as a matter of principle.  Are we afraid of soldiers getting drunk on duty?  Make it a leadership challenge, not a total ban.  Hold officer and NCOs responsible for the behavior of their troops.  Restrict all members of the QRF – Quick Reaction Force – from drinking alcohol while on call to do short-fuzed missions outside the wire.  Active-duty military pilots can’t drink within a set timeframe of being scheduled to fly.  But a total ban???

I don’t know if the issue is fear of drunk soldiers, or a fear of offending our Islamic hosts.  America seems to be displaying a sad mix of political correctness and Puritanical instincts.

I sure would like a couple fingers of single malt with my Saturday night cigar, or maybe a cold brew.  That’s not going to happen … but at least they haven’t tried to take away the cigar smoking.

Friday, June 24, 2011

NEWS FLASH!!! Fatboy Slim

Me, not the famous musician.

The results are in, sports fans.  The Area-82 DIA Systems Biggest Loser competition officially ended this morning with an 8AM weigh-in.  I didn’t win, only dropped 7 pounds … but, at 193, I’m under 200 for the first time in a long time.  A nice feeling, although I’m going to be dropping a bunch of coin after my return to tailor or replace my suits.  I’m calling it a “metaphysical win.”

Doug was the big winner, plummeting from 195 to 171.  He was the stealth contestant, he’s a retired Army Sergeant Major, runs five miles a day out here in this heat, and doesn’t look like he’s carrying an extra pound on him.  Doug came out of nowhere and smoked us all.  I understand he’s treating us all to dinner tonight … surf & turf.  What a swell guy!

Next steps – keep it off, then push hard in the gym for my last 53 days (not like I’m counting or anything) here to convert fat weight to muscle weight.  Given the food here, I wouldn’t be surprised if I shed another 5-10 pounds before redeploying.  But don’t cry for me, Argentina; I’ll be spending two weeks in Central Europe after I wrap this up, I’m sure the local bier-und-wurst diet will help me creep back up.

The Really Bad Guys

We’ve known for a long time that the Taliban are bad actors.  Everything they do, from destroying centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan to throwing acid on the faces of girls who have the temerity to pursue education, demonstrates they are lowlife miscreants.  But recently, it’s become quantifiable.

According to recent press reporting, a survey by the U.N. (a crowd always willing to give terrorists the benefit of the doubt) holds the Taliban responsible for 75% of civilian deaths and 78% of civilian casualties here in 2010.  An ISAF survey puts the figure even higher, at around 85%, although that figure is based on figures from January to May of 2011.

This is a good thing for the Coalition, in that we are severely limiting collateral damage to civilians.  But it still sucks to be Afghan.  Taliban IEDs do not discriminate, they kill or maim whoever trips the triggering device.  And that’s just the coincidental deaths;  the Taliban also do not hesitate to assassinate government officials in an effort to undermine popular confidence in the government.  And when they send suicide bombers into, say, hospitals set up for the military, or maybe police recruiting stations, they also manage to kill innocent civilian bystanders.

Now if that turd of a president, Hamid Karzai, will kindly pull his head out of his ass and stop berating the Coalition for causing civilian casualties, polluting the environment, and every other evil under the sun, maybe we can make some progress here.  Every time he opens his yap on the subject, he darn near echoes the Taliban party line and helps fan the flames against the only people who really care about helping this country.

Moving on … encouraging news from the home front.  I see that the Senate unanimously confirmed Leon Panetta as the new SecDef.  After years of bitter and acrimonious partisanship, it’s refreshing to see those knuckleheads on the Hill come together on something.  Now if they can just do the same thing on the budget and deficit reduction.  Yeah, I know, I’m not holding my breath.

I note with some amusement that the New York Times emphasized that among Mr. Panetta’s new responsibilities will be the implementation of the DADT Repeal (come on now, that’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell).  Ummm, guys, we’ve got two wars and a limited intervention (which is still mired in a War Powers Resolution quagmire) going on … do you really think DADT is on the top of Panetta’s agenda?  (And I’ll refrain from commenting on the prevalence of “Man-Love-Thursday” among the Air Force types out here, despite DADT.)

I also see the commander-in-chief had made his decision on troop withdrawals.  Pulling back 10,000 troops this year looks like a compromise between the minimalist approach favored by the Pentagon and others, and the massive cuts called for by the far left.  My sense is that Obama, while trying to walk a fine line, will end up pleasing no one.  Conservatives will accuse him of gutting the war effort, and liberals will pillory him for not drawing down fast enough.  We’ll see if the big drawdown next September will help him in the 2012 election.

Also of note, it only took Sarkozy a few short hours to announce that France will also start drawing down.  Good, that means the U.S. guys at ISAF won’t have to stand in line so long at the espresso bars.  I wonder what that means for the French-run hospital at KAIA?  For the sake of my buddies at IJC, I hope the hot French nurses in short skirts are the last to leave.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Achtung Minen!

That’s German for “Danger, Will Robinson!  There’s mines up ahead!”  Yeah, I know, wrong language, unless you’re on the coalition base at Mazar-e-Sharif.

I was surprised to find out that portions of BAF are still riddled with land mines left over from the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.  The Red Army dumped untold thousands of mines wherever they thought they might be able to kill a few civilians and basically terrorize the populace at large.

Every now and then, I see groups of soldiers and civilians planting little white flags on metal wires in the ground, on fields behind big T-wall barriers.  They look like the little flags that the lawn service guys leave in your front lawn after doing their thing.  Except that these are a bit more ominous.

On the up side, the residual minefields are pretty well identified and cordoned off, so there’s no chance I’ll go blundering in.

Anyhow, back to the combat engineers.  They’re out in these fields, detecting and flagging and disarming or removing the mines.  I’ve got a better idea.

We’ve got a prison full of bad guys here.  Some are really bad actors, some are just bozos who drank the Taliban's Kool-Aid.  Some are willing and eager to spill their guts to the interrogators, some are tight-lipped.  Some are Taliban commanders, most are just foot soldiers.  So here’s the plan.  We get a few big Coleman coolers filled with sweet ice tea, and huge platters of fried chicken and potato salad.  And we take the prisoners out for an old-fashioned picnic.  Can’t feed ‘em ribs, now, can we?

After they’ve eaten their fill, it’s time for fun and games.  Sack races, anyone?  How about three-legged races?  Send out the lower-level minions first, let the tough old guys watch as we prove the axiom that anyone can be a minesweeper once.  I bet there would be a lot of loosened tongues after a few detonations.

Nobody from the prison has bought into my idea. Go figure.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Women 'n' Stuff

NOTE:  Despite the subject line, there is nothing, sexist, misogynistic or otherwise offensive in this post.  Read at your leisure, not at your own risk.

An issue of the New York Times last week contained details of a survey which identified the three most dangerous countries to women.  While Pakistan and Congo made the Top Three … drum roll, please … Afghanistan topped the list.  Afghan women face “one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, minimal access to basic health care and education and scarcely any economic rights.  Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate and one in 11 dies in childbirth, UNICEF estimates.  As many as 8 in 10 face forced marriages.”

Eighty-freakin’-seven percent of women are illiterate?  That’s worse than West Virginia or Kentucky!

But seriously, I consider this appalling, and I hope to God that our presence here can do something to fix that.  I have come to live in fear of the possibility that all the lives and treasure we (and our allies) have invested in this feudal moonscape will have been in vain.

Shortly after reading this article, I was out rooting around in a vacant lot across the road trying to find two manholes so we can pull a mile or so of fiber to connect the data center to the outside world.  A gaggle of local Afghan men were milling about a truck, doing what they do best … milling about.  I was approached by a female Army Specialist, toting an M-4 and sporting a combat patch from 10th Mountain.  After we talked for a moment, she hopped into the driver’s seat of a big-ass forklift, fired it up and started loading pallets into a truck.  I chuckled inwardly at those Afghan men.  And the men from all those other backward Islamic countries who treat 50% of their populations like crap, because it’s the prophet’s will.  While they continue to repress women in their patriarchal societies, we have gun-toting women of substance who think nothing of driving a forklift … very competently, I might add.  Despite all the stupid, sleazy politicians (did someone say “Wiener?”) and slimeball defense lawyers and other miscreants that waste oxygen around us, I am nonetheless reminded every day here that America is still the greatest country in the world.

On to something else, more informative and less opinion-based.  Danger Room, the National Security blog from Wired magazine, ran a great piece back in April about a company of paratroopers from the Screaming Eagles (101st Airborne) in a remote part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.  Here’s the link:  It’s very well-written, and provides great insights into life in a real combat zone (as opposed to what I’m personally experiencing).  Thanks, Bill, for pointing me toward Danger Room.

Final tidbit for the day … in Sunday’s Times, SecDef Gates gave one of his final interviews before walking out of the Pentagon for the last time.  Sounds like he’s very much looking forward to retirement, to being able to move around without an ever-present security detail.  In his words:  “A wild and crazy weekend involves sitting on the front porch, smoking a cigar, reading a book.”  What, Secretary Gates, no beer?  I’m looking forward to the very same thing … eight weeks and counting.