Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Some Real Military Tourism – Well, Business Travel, More Like

with 2 comments

One of the more interesting facets of my job is getting to see a bit of the country supporting training activities. Recently, the ANA instructors at my school organized a course to be run outside of Kabul, and as mentors we traveled with them to observe the course. We were prepared to teach if need be, because one thing that can be a challenge is getting instructors to where the courses are happening. This course looked like it was going to have trouble running at first because some of the staffing requirements weren’t being met, however, it did come together alright in the end. So off I went to Camp Clark in Khost Province, located in eastern Afghanistan, with two ANA officer instructors and the rest of my mentor team.

Getting there was an experience.

It started with a flight to Bagram Airfield, the main US air hub in Afghanistan. We spent more time on the taxiway in the aircraft (on the hilariously named “Inshallah Airlines”, a civilian contracted airline with connects all sorts of places in Afghanistan, hubbed out of BAF) then we did in the air. Arriving at BAF we had a chance to visit Green Beans for a Spiced Chai Latte (arguably the greatest consumable item in the entire country), have something to eat, and catch the next flight out to an American FOB in Khost. FOB Salerno is a fairly large place, home currently to “Task Force Sparta” (unlike Canada, the Americans give their task forces awe-inspiring names, we just use numbers). Unfortunately we didn’t have a flight lined up from there onward, and couldn’t get out, so we spent the night there.

The flight was interesting, seeing the mountainous terrain, and the patches of green from irrigated fields along watercourses that probably carry runoff from snowcaps down from the hills. As we went more to the east more and more green became visible, striking against the generally brown rocky terrain which some people call “moonscape”. Afghan homes are walled compounds, and it was bizarre to see some of them sitting appearing totally isolated throughout the wildly varied landscape. Gradually the settlements became more dense as we got to our destination.

FOB Salerno has an interesting nickname – “Rocket City” from the rather large quantity of indirect fire it receives – or rather, received as things have quieted down, chiefly in the form of Chinese-made 107mm rockets. No, none landed while we were there – and realistically, such incidents are generally rare anyhow. I knew this before going though, so I did make a point of noting where the bunkers were around us just to be safe. There wasn’t exactly any shortage.

We had a stroll around the PX, picking up a couple of things that I can’t get easily where I am, and hit the gym and the basketball court, where I displayed a complete inability to play that particular sport (which, sadly, is the case for most sports), so I recused myself and just went and did some cardio instead in the biggest gym I’ve seen here yet. Dinner was a pretty tasty Afghan chicken curry. We visited Green Beans again, and sat out on the patio (in the dark, there aren’t any lights on at night for security reasons there), and talked about all sorts of things until we realized we were all absolutely bagged. After a long day traveling, I went to bed in not the most comfortable transient quarters.

The next morning, we were up early to catch a flight over to Camp Clark where we jumped straight into delivering the course.

Now, Camp Clark is something of a well-kept open secret among all the different posts and bases and so on. Not only is it set in rather picturesque surroundings (mind you, so is FOB Salerno, and it has trees!), but it is home to a guy by the name of George Piccardi, who is probably the greatest contributor to morale ever. George is a chef who’s been there for years, and he does a lot more than is normally expected of a civilian contractor to keep up morale. A more detailed explanation of his contribution is here. George oversees great meals, and events that keep morale high. We enjoyed amazing steaks, great ribs, enchiladas, and all sorts of other goodies during our stay there, and given that there are almost no other soldiers but Americans there, we stood out so he made sure we felt welcome.

We only wish we could persuade him to decamp to Kabul, specifically to our corner of it.

The actual manager of the DFAC there, it turns out, is Canadian, he spotted my uniform and came over, looking rather stunned that there was a Canuck where we aren’t normally to be found – he too gave us a sincere “if you need anything, we’ll hook you up…” He’s been here for about as long as George, eight years or so. I don’t know how they do it, but people like this are what really make a difference in the lives of people deployed. We did a lot of extra PT while we were there, but I think I probably gained some weight from indulging in the various wonderful creations on offer.

The course itself was a smashing success, the Afghan students were engaged and saw value in the course material, offered suggestions on how to improve it, and gave us some ideas to work with for the future. We got requests to have chai with almost everyone there, but only were able to take up the offer with the base fire chief who was keen to show off his garden and gazebo, talk about his life and so on. We were then treated to a rather cryptic “demonstration” afterward. It’s interesting that in that part of the country gardens seem to be popular and a source of great pride to people. My mother would be impressed I think. My little knowledge of Dari was mostly useless there, because Pashto is the more common language there, and I’m pretty much useless with it. We did alright though, with both the interpreter we traveled with, and one from out there who gave us a lot of really great information, and told his story of growing up in a camp in Pakistan, teaching himself English, and making quite a decent life for himself.

I also got to present some of the all-important course certificates. Afghan graduations are something to see. The physical certificate is key – and we had some challenges getting them in time but managed by daring and guile to pull it off. The graduate, on being called, will march up (and Afghan drill is Russian in origin, sort of!), announce who he is and that he is ready to receive his certificate, which on being presented it is held high for all to say while he yells “To Better Serve Afghanistan”. It’s really something else.

Returning was more or less the same, though we lucked into a flight out of BAF just as we arrived (it was running late and we got Space-A), so endless waits were avoided. BAF is a massive place, huge amounts of air traffic – cargo aircraft of every description, including some more “obscure” types, like Antonov An-72 Coalers – a small STOL cargo aircraft with its engine nacelles on top of its wings, which give it a distinctive look. It’s done to improve its short field performance, and they can definitely stop on a dime, I noticed. I was craning my neck constantly, as something of an aviation buff, to see all the different aircraft, different liveries, and so on.

Arriving in Kabul, we visited an Italian-run restaurant for some expensive but very tasty pizza and had a stroll through the German PX where I almost parted with a good chunk of money on a couple of items, but I thought better of it and decided not to. I was a good decision – I found some of the stuff I was looking at cheaper elsewhere. We cruised back to camp through the city with remarkably little traffic, and I actually got a chance to see more of it in daylight than usual. It’s a strangely beautiful place in a lot of ways – especially if you don’t look too closely. There’s the city walls and ancient fortresses, the houses built up the sides of the mountains that look so precarious – and advertising for all the amenities of the modern world all smashed together. 3G cellular service has just come to Kabul, and ads everywhere let you know.

Now I’m back in the office getting organized for a busy month ahead. We’ve got a little more clarity on our own transition plans, and that’s great because it gives us something to work with in terms of planning. Works for me.

Written by Nick

April 9, 2012 at 6:56 am

2 Responses

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  1. It’s great that you’re getting the cultural experience that you are. Sadly, tourism in it’s traditional form isn’t a very viable option for that country for the time being at least, so it’s good to get some first hand accounts.

    The general perception here amongst civilians tends to be that whatever culture that was left after the war with Russia was sparce and just in its infancy of rebuilding when the current military campaign began against the Taliban over a decade ago. It does sound as if in Kabul, at least, some degree of infrastucture and economy exists. You mentioned purchasing goods; I’m curious if it’s all in a sort of flea-market setting amongst the locals or is this through some kind of military shop (see AAFES)?

    I’m also curious if you can comment on Afghan military recruitment; is it 100% voluntary or has there been some form of conscription? Or is there going to be some kind of mandatory military service as in Switzerland and Italy?

    And the linguist in me is curious if you’ve had a chance to try your Dari yet.

    Sorry for all the questions!

    Scott Robinson

    April 10, 2012 at 9:18 am

    • There are, believe it or not, tourists here. Lonely Planet even publishes a guide which is on its third edition now, and a trip to the forums on their website shows that indeed people to come here.

      As far as culture goes – the war with the Russians isn’t what really did the damage, the civil war that followed was – and it destroyed structures and infrastructure more than culture. A lot of culture was stamped out under Taliban rule (they banned music, kite flying, sports, all sorts of things like that) but they came back as soon as they were ousted.

      As far as goods goes: Where I live we have a little bazaar with a few Afghan run shops, they sell movies, snivel/gucci kit, electronics, toiletries, snacks, and so on – and if you want something they don’t have they’ll get it for you. There are also carpet shops, clothes shops, tailors, embroidery shops (to make our morale patches etc). Most bigger places have AAFES Exchanges and other shops. Kabul International Airport’s military side, for example, has American, German, Italian, and Turkish PXs (and more I think, those are just what I’ve been to). We hear we’re getting an AAFES PX at some point, but honestly, we don’t need it.

      ANSF recruitment is 100% voluntary. I have been told on several occasions that one of the biggest attractions (other than that it doesn’t pay badly, in relative terms) is that it gives people an opportunity to learn to read and write – literacy training is supposed to be available to all members of the ANSF.

      As far as Dari goes – yes. I use it every day. It’s rudimentary at best, but I interact with ANA and LN employees every day and I work at it as I go along.

      Nick

      April 10, 2012 at 9:36 am


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