Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Kabul

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

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Friday mornings are my “weekend”. We knock off work early Thursday and don’t have to be in the office until 1pm on Friday, giving me a morning to sleep in, and generally, we all meet for pancakes at the Afghan restaurant for brunch. It’s a nice little routine.

It’s now been eight weeks I’ve been here (actually a little more – I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Kabul International Airport on February 23) and I’m pretty well settled in. We’ve got a pattern of life mostly established, I work with a pretty awesome team of people, and we not only get our work done, we have a fair bit of fun doing it. There’s really no one in the cell I work in that I don’t get along with. Of course, we have extra incentive to get along, it’s not that easy to just move along.

Just like at home, we have training to get done, and we’ve now worked out a schedule to keep up on it. Things like ethics training are normal components of military life, and as one of the Canadian Unit Ethics Coordinators on the ground, I have a chore to run an hour refresher on a regular basis. We have first aid refreshers, ROE training refreshers, and of course range training.

Yesterday was a pretty rainy day in Kabul, and just as you might expect, it was also the day appointed for us to go to the range. There’s only a small contingent of Canadians where I work, but we’re close to another bunch, so we pool some of our training activities, so off we drove to the 100m range. It’s a rather unusual setting, more austere than a range at home, but that’s not shocking. The plan was to do some rifle zero confirmation (that is, making sure what you see through our optical sight matches where the bullets are hitting) for those who needed it, and then do some transition shooting. That means switching between rifle/carbine and pistol, which you might need to do if for some reason your rifle fails to fire and you need to get rounds down range.

Arriving at the range, which was a good test of the four wheel drive in the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser we had for the day, we discovered the rain had created a vast sea of sucking, heavy mud. Trudging around in it wasn’t much fun, and I found myself rather glad that I had jumped at a chance to do my zeroing already, because to do it right, you have to shoot from the prone, and laying in a mud pit wasn’t my idea of a good time. Transitions, on the other hand, weren’t so bad – but it went quickly, and I honestly can’t complain, because the wind, the rain, and the wet was just unpleasant, and I was happy to get back to camp and go to the gym to warm up. The range we went to faces into a mountain, but has lots of pasture land around, and several herds of goats and sheep could be seen, their tenders paying little attention to us.

On ranges in Canada, at the end of the day’s shooting, you have to pick up brass – all the spent casings. On courses, it’s common for staff to threaten some punishment for missing any – usually 10 pushups per casing. Here, before we could even imagine picking up any brass, the ANA tend to race down to take care of it. Brass is valuable, after all. The speed with which they work makes me think that they’re the closest thing to the mythical “brass magnet” that we suggest recruits should have brought with them.

One of the training/professional development events coming up will be a rather amusing fusion of my two careers – recently, a change to the retirement benefits Canadian soldiers get was announced. It’s similar to what was done for civilian defence employees last year, which kept me busy at my day job, so I’m going to run a little seminar for my colleagues who are impacted so I can help them understand what’s changing and the financial implications. Kind of funny to see my two professions collide, but I got enough requests that it only made sense.

Things are going well. Kabul is back to normal after last week’s attack, and I traveled through the city including past the site of one of the incidents shortly after and there was no real sign of anything having happened. Life has returned to normal, I think.

A bit about Kabul. I’ll try to get some pictures at some point, but it’s a bit of a crazy city. I’ve never seen traffic anything like it. Most intersections are traffic circles with police trying to direct traffic, but the reality is that they are trying to shoehorn chaos and it barely works. Add to this pandemonium seemingly aimless pedestrians everywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster, though it doesn’t seem like there’s that many real accidents. Most vehicles are Toyota Corollas imported from everywhere. Canadian ones are particularly prized apparently, and often have Canadian flag stickers on them. Where I used to live, in Oshawa, Ontario, an Afghan-Canadian who owned a pizza shop had a side business of buying used Corollas and sending them over – there were always several parked in front of his shop. There’s also a wide assortment of buses (often old German ones) and trucks (again, commonly German, with their original marking intact), and Toyota HiAce minivans, into which you can pack about 45 Afghans.. Often an Afghan license plate is simply put on top of the original German/European one. The other popular means of conveyance are motorcycles – generally Japanese or Chinese bikes, normally 150cc or so. They’re often adorned with all sorts of personalization – flags, stickers, tassels, and carpets on the seats. They make me miss bikes, but I’ve picked out my new one for when I get home.

Signs are everywhere advertising the latest technology – 3G phones are now available here, with Roshan and Etisalat rolling out their networks. Cell phone adds are most common, but you’ll see advertising for banks, insurance companies, and so on. Business is brisk, often in little shops, but new office/commercial buildings are everywhere as well, and there’s lots under construction (though it’s from buildings under construction that the most serious attacks have been launched). In addition to internet cafes and schools, you’ll see bakeries with footbread hanging on display (they generally sport fluorescent orange and yellow awnings, I’ve noticed), and butcher shops with meat just hanging out in the open – a little bit bizarre. Apparently, some of our guys saw a cow being slaughtered in the street in the city, locals didn’t seem to think anything of it. Not exactly what you’d expect at home.

What is most astounding is the sprawl, though. Kabul’s surrounded by steep mountains, and settlements are built all up them – little goat track-like roads lead up almost impossibly steep slopes to shanty towns which make me think of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. They’re a sign of the real problem – Kabul was a city of about 500,000 until just a few years ago, now estimates place its population anywhere from 2-5 million – and the city doesn’t have adequate housing or services for them. That’s an issue they’ll have to tackle over time – but how, I’m not sure.

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

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Here, from another blog I quite enjoy, is some info on what happened yesterday, and a pretty good take on it. I particularly agree with the derision about the comparison to the Tet Offensive. That’s probably the most nonsensical comment I’ve ever heard. It was nothing like Tet at all.

Written by Nick

April 16, 2012 at 3:00 am

Getting A Look At City Life

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A few days ago, I went with my boss out to visit another training facility, one which is looking to us for advice on how to improve on the quality of training they are delivering in the field we’re experts on. They have been delivering their own training, but are trying to standardize what they’re doing with what is becoming ANSF doctrine. The meeting was relatively quick and simple, with a view that we’re going to review their training package, see how we can improve it, and help them with some instructor development training if needed. The idea, after all, is to build the capacity of the ANA to not only operate, but to also train their own people. We don’t just want to teach them how to do things, or teach them doctrinal concepts. We want them to own those ideas and be able to continue teaching their people. That builds sustainability.

More interesting than the meeting itself was the trip, which gave me a chance to see a lot of Kabul city life. Being somewhat sheltered in a camp limits your ability to really understand what goes on in the country, I do interact with Afghans constantly, and I enjoy getting the chance to learn about their lives, but it’s not the same.

Winding down the roads I got a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city – roads were lined with little shops and kiosks featuring people of all descriptions out to earn a living. A lot of them were tradesmen: carpenters, metalworkers, and so on. There were mechanics shops working on the 150cc motorcycles that are everywhere. Taxis. Shops selling everything from gas canisters for cookstoves to door and window frames, and so on. And people everywhere. What was interesting was seeing lots of kids coming and going from schools. I asked one of the interpreters about that,because the times seemed odd, and he told me that schools are generally run in “shifts” so kids come and go throughout the day to maximize the use of the facilities.

The schools we passed seemed mostly to be girls’ schools – they were all over the place in their sharp blue uniforms and white headscarves. That, I suppose, is a sign of progress, although Kabul is different than the rural areas, probably what you might call more “progressive”. In my view, though, any amount of children going to school and getting whatever education they can is progress. And girls in particular, though one wonders how long they’ll be in school. Still, basic literacy will be a good start for them, rates of literacy here are tragically low.

There were also a lot of markets – large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even bananas, which I thought would be a rarity, were on display. Bakeries, too. Naan/footbread is a staple food here, so there’s lots of bakeries, displaying loaves of various sizes in windows. The Afghans who work in our camp usually come to work with bags full of it, it’s their main meal during the day. Every now and then our interpreters bring some for us too, which is always a welcome treat. There’s nothing quite like it at home.

What did strike me, though, is the amount of garbage everywhere. In theory, we could probably revive the Afghan economy very quickly simply by paying people to pick up the tremendous amount of litter that’s on the streets and in the gutters. That does actually happen in some places, but not where I was. I don’t know how much there is in terms of municipal services in Kabul though, but perhaps someone entrepreneurial could come up with something. I saw an interesting documentary some months ago about Cairo, Egypt, where a whole economic system emerged to deal with waste management. Now, viewed through western optics, the idea of a class (or ethnic minority as it were) “relegated” to being trash collectors seems awful, but the fact is that this group did alright. They recycled huge amounts of Cairo’s refuse, including using organic waste to feed the pigs they used to support themselves. The system worked until Cairo started contracting out waste management (which residents apparently find doesn’t work as well) and the government culled their pigs during the swine flu paranoia. Incidentally, the Kabul Zoo was at that time home of the only pig in Afghanistan, which was quarantined.

Perhaps there is scope for some sort of system like that to emerge, who knows. It wouldn’t be pig based like the Zabbaleen in Cairo, but something might be possible.

It does make for a good argument for urban planning and sustainable growth, but Kabul doesn’t really have that, because people have streamed into the city over the last few years, and no one even really knows how many people live here. Housing is in short supply and extremely expensive, so what basically amount to shantytowns have emerged everywhere, and disputes over land ownership along with them, because as I understand it what records did exist didn’t survive the civil war.

Housing, thus, will be another challenge that Afghanistan will face. If economic activity continues to be concentrated here, as well, it will likely only get worse as people will migrate in from the rural areas.

Written by Nick

April 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm