Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

A Week’s Trip To Bagram

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I’ve had a busy week or so – it seems a lot longer, though – time sometimes moves in bizarre ways here.

The greatest part of the job I do is getting to be on mobile training teams, though they’re not all that common. It’s even better when they’re MTTs I actually get to teach on, which is exceedingly rare given that my organization’s focus is on building ANA training capability.

I’ve just come back from a few days at Bagram Airfield (BAF in common speak), doing some training for some coalition folks – from Colonels down to Sergeants. They were really interested in having us come and present material to them, even though it’s not totally relevant to their jobs, but we figure the more people we talk to about our part of the world, the better. Counterinsurgency theory sometimes talks about the “oil spot” strategy – concentrating your resources where they’ll have the most impact at first, but knowing that if things work right, it’ll spread from there – so anyone we can talk to is probably going to be an asset because they might just get talking to some other people and our little spot will spread out.

I’d been there twice, technically – on the way out to Khost – but I hadn’t really spent any time there except to quickly find the DFAC, the PX, and the Green Beans. This time we were sticking around a while.

BAF is a sprawling airfield complex. It’s the USA’s logistics and air movements hub. Interestingly, it was originally built by the Americans many years ago (in the 1950s) at the height of the Cold War. It was then a major base for the Soviets after they invaded in 1979. Pictures hung in one of the offices we were visiting of what BAF looked like in 2001, mostly ruins, but now it’s grown to a hive of activity. Along the apron on any given day site cargo aircraft of all descriptions, military and civilian, unloading supplies for the campaign here. There’s also a lot of warplanes and helicopters based there. It’s a loud, active airfield 24/7. Most Americans who serve in Afghanistan enter and leave through BAF as well, so there’s always people coming and going. Suffice it to say that it is a much busier place than anywhere I’m normally to be found.

BAF was captured early in the invasion by Royal Marines, my boss (who is, of course, a Royal Marine) likes to point out, just as a little trivia.

Our course ran three days – and we include a day on either end for travel, because it can be… well… unpredictable. We had bookings to fly up there by helicopter and fortunately, they went relatively according to plan. I say relatively because we got bumped off our first flight out and put on another one, and our flight back was delayed significantly – more to that though, but I’ll get to the end of the story at the end of the story.

We were met at the passenger terminal by a young Captain who brought us to our lodgings – bunk beds in a massive transient tent – where people come and go constantly. It was also, just for added luxury, about 200 metres from the flightline. And featured no lockable storage. We made the mistake in hindsight of traveling with our rifles, which we came to regret having to drag them everywhere and learning they were not allowed in the gym at all. And really, there was no need to have them with us at all.

Things did start on a bit of a high note, by chance I noticed a poster in the PX for a Toby Keith USO show. I’m not a huge fan of the guy, but he does have some pretty funny songs that one of my colleagues plays in the office a lot, and so off we went. My Royal Marine boss, having no exposure to this “cultural icon” was particularly entertaining throughout. We struck up a conversation with some folks in the line and had quite a good time standing out on the apron while Toby and his band jammed in a hangar. I have to say I have a fair bit of respect for people that will make the trip to do shows for the USO, for not a lot of money I’m sure. Canada doesn’t really have an equivalent to the USO, but fortunately they open their events to all. They’ve even got lounges in a lot of airports in the USA I’ve taken great advantage of. I can’t say enough good stuff about them or their volunteers from my experiences, suffice it to say.

We left the show on a high note, bid good night to our “hosts”, and headed for the tent. The first night was loud, hot, and not particularly comfortable, but we managed to get enough sleep to be ready to deliver our material the next morning, and the audience was excellent – attentive, asked good questions, and so on.

The following night we cunningly disabled the heating in the tent, thinking it’d make things more pleasant to sleep. Wrong. Instead, we froze. Well, I did anyhow. I just took my ranger blanket (a super light sleeping bag/poncho liner/blanket) and it wasn’t enough at all –  wound up even using my towel as a supplementary blanket to no avail. Once I realized it was no win with sleeping, I think I felt a little better – resigned, as it were, to my fate.

Training wrapped up a little early which was alright, we had some time to stroll around the camp bazaar (where I looked at some more carpets – especially Herati silk ones, and some other styles I like, I think I’ll come home with at least a couple of carpets), haggled for some pashminas for our wives (and daughters, in the boss’ case), and so on. Our hosts worked in the same building as the Red Cross, so they suggested we go there to relax, unwind, and watch some movies. Sounded good enough to us, so we did. They had one of those Sharper Image massage chairs there, the kind they sell in SkyMall books on planes, and so I gave it a go – not as good as a real massage (which I got later), but quite awesome – I might even think about getting one of those some day, but I think the cost is ridiculous.

While there, we got a visit from Captain Christine Beck and Major Timmy. Timmy is a combat stress therapy dog, Capt. Beck is an occupational therapist. I’ll let you read the article that talks more about therapy dogs, but we were impressed to learn the impact Timmy has. He’s soon going to be leaving Afghanistan to go back to the USA, and Capt. Beck is hoping he will wind up at her base stateside so they can keep working together. I can understand why Timmy has a lot of success getting soldiers to open up about their stresses and mental health issues. The big problem you might read about with people who suffer from PTSD/OSIs is that there’s a stigma against getting help. Dogs like Timmy are apparently incredibly effective at getting people to talk, which is the first step of getting them help.

We also learned of the attack on Green Village in Kabul, which we’d been unaware of because of being away from “home” – and that President Obama had passed through BAF while we were there, we had absolutely no idea. We expected this might cause some disruption to our return travel, and whether it was the cause of not, we don’t know. But here’s how things work sometimes. We got told to be at the terminal at 6am to get our helo back “home”. We called the night before to confirm everything was good, but during the night some things happened that changed stuff. 5am I woke up, packed my gear, and started the hike to the terminal (it’s not a short walk!), only to learn on arrival that showtime was pushed back to 9:30. So I dropped my stuff, found the rest of my party, and we decided at least we could go for breakfast, check out the MWR, get some Green Beans Coffee (I’d go broke if we had one at my camp!) and we’d carry on from there.

No big deal.

But 9:30 became 10:30 became noon before we finally got on a chopper. I spent most of the afternoon in bed trying to catch up on my sleep. And I slept about 12 hours last night too.

I’m glad I fly with a Kindle and an iPhone with Angry Birds on it.

2 Responses

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  1. Hi, I thought you might find this Maclean’s article interesting. Enjoy! http://m.publishing.rogers.com/macleans/share/2012-18/09a_int_taliban.html

    Kris

    May 5, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    • That’s a pretty good summation of the challenge here. While lots of money has flowed into Afghanistan ostensibly for development and reconstruction, a lot of it has flowed out through corruption, too. One story I heard was about a plan to improve a road in a rural area in Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan. The funds were allocated, a company contracted to do the work, and the project started. But before long it was abandoned, the contractor disappeared (Afghans) – probably for Dubai or Pakistan or somewhere abroad, but the state the project was left in made conditions worse until finally ISAF got involved and sent military engineers to fix it. That’s one story but I’m sure it happens a lot.

      That article tells the story of the origins of what are sometimes called “$10/day Taliban” – they fight for cash because there’s nothing else, and if they can’t see that there’s a way forward for Afghanistan because it hasn’t reached their village, than it’s pretty understandable why it happens. There are no particularly easy solutions either. When it talks about mistrust between Afghans and “foreigners” there’s also the additional detail that a lot of the “foreigners” don’t trust each other either. Part of my job involves – or rather, involved – dealing with some of the development process, specifically something called the District Stability Framework, the process used to plan and effect development. It’s mainly run by civilians, both NGOs and government agency employees. Most of them are young idealists who think they’re going to save the world – a lot of them would probably have fit in very well at our alma mater. They blame the military for everything that goes wrong but can’t understand that there’s a mutual dependency there – and frankly, a lot of the military folks hate them for basically the same reason – they live in compounds totally detached from reality and expect that what they’re writing their Ph.D thesis on will work because in theory it does.

      I guess to be honest I’m in the middle. I have a bit of natural cynicism about how things will work out here, because the breadth of the problem is so huge – but the longer we stay, having as much contact as possible with Afghans and doing what we can to try to address some of the deep-rooted problems, the better the chances are. But that takes political will and money. And a better relationship with all parties involved.

      What’s tough is that what those people mentioned in the article are getting from the Taliban is only the most basic of their needs – their position is so bad that they can’t even conceive of how much worse things would likely be all around – for all Afghans – if the Taliban (or worse, some of the other factions) manage to seize power – they’ll set the country back another decade or more in no time. And for what?

      Nick

      May 6, 2012 at 12:40 am


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