Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘travel

A Busy Week

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I’ve spent the last few days on mobile training teams – both with my ANA partners, and also as part of a team delivering some training to some coalition folks – Hungarians. It feels like I’ve been gone from the office quite a while, even though I haven’t – but part of that is from the conspicuous absence of some of the cast of characters – some of the key people are on leave right now, so it’s going to be a quiet little while.

The training I was part of delivering happened at KAIA – Kabul International Airport, which in addition to its obvious function has a lot going on in the area. It’s home to the ISAF Joint Command, among other things (and yes, you can find that on ISAF’s own website!). IJC hosted a women’s shura the other day, which conveniently coincided with our arrival. We had planned to go a day early to give us time to survey the facility we were using for the classes, meet the points of contact, and mainly, to avail ourselves of the many amenities to be found at KAIA. It may have the worst DFAC in the whole country, but it also has several PXs, a veritable strip mall of Afghan shops, and some great restaurants.

Which, because of the shura, were all closed.

So we basically were sitting on a base where there was almost nothing to do but go to the gym for the day.

The training itself went pretty well – on both accounts. Getting to the site of the first event was a little bit chaotic on account of Kabul’s terrible traffic, amplified by the heavy rain and notable lack of storm drains – entire roads were basically flooded out, we didn’t know this until we were basically stuck in it. However, things were good – the ANA instructor I went out with was excellent, the students were attentive, and we made some connections for people who have some interesting contributions to make to training, and want to participate. We’ll see how that goes. We also drank copious amounts of the best damned chai I’ve ever had, I don’t know what was different about it from regular green tea, but it was really good.

We did, finally, before leaving KAIA, get a chance to do some window shopping and get some awesome pizza from Ciano – which is basically the Italian PX. I browsed some other things I was interested in (among other things, I need clothes for when I go on leave!), but didn’t buy much, despite the valiant effort of a carpet salesman to get me to buy a stunning Kunduz carpet, but the price just wasn’t right, and I’m not buying any now anyhow.

I also spent 18 Euros on an hour long full body massage. Which was worth every penny, and then some.

Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, and given that there are several Australians on my camp, we’ll be out for a ceremony in the morning. It’ll be the first time I’ve worn my beret since I got here, and fortunately I was able to find it. Then it’s back to planning my next training adventure, probably the last chance I’ll have to do actual instruction here, because we’re having the ANA take the lead on that now, and any coalition folks who wanted to hear from us got their final notice a few weeks ago.

Written by Nick

April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

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

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

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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

Please, Don’t Fret About Coffee

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I know many of you have been worried about the coffee situation here.

It’s okay. We’re going to be okay. A massive stepdown transformer magically appeared which is powering the Keurig we “found”, and the wonderful folks at Keurig are replacing my machine anyhow, which is awesome. My colleagues are now scrambling to order their own K-Cups as I’m not planning on supporting them forever. We’ll survive okay.

In addition to that triumph, I’m also incredibly happy with the memory foam/gel mattress cover thing I picked up at Costco for my UAB. It took a bit of a struggle to get the thing on to my top bunk, but I think it’s probably just about the best $100 I have ever spent. Good sleep is key to everything, after all.

Beyond that, life is moving along just fine. We’re figuring out how the transition process for the school I’m working at, which will determine how long we are actually here. There’s a bit of a luxury in not having an end date, because I’m not “counting down the days” until the end. Officially, our redeployment plan starts in October, but we’ll have more clarity when the overall plan for the school I’m working at emerges. I’m hoping we don’t get cut too short.

I’ve got a Word document that I’m slowly building an itinerary for leave for – it is a good way to take a break from work to start doing research on the various destinations. I’ve got another month or so before I can officially book everything, but I’m mainly trying to figure out what to do in each of the cities we are visiting. Berlin has some amazing walking tours (and a zoo) that we’re planning on. Budapest has a very highly recommended guide that I think we’ll hire for a day tour, and Prague – well, Prague I haven’t really gotten to researching yet. But I know the major sites to start working with. I also am trying to pin down a budget for the trip, because while I want to enjoy it, I don’t want to blow everything. I’m so far pretty happy with the fact that my HLTA allowance should cover all the major travel expenses (flights and rail passes), and I’ve found pretty good accommodations for fairly cheap rates, without staying in pits.

The only real variable is my wife’s vacation time. She booked off the time I was going to be off originally, but plans changed and now she’s having some issues with getting the time off. Hopefully it’ll resolve itself in time.

April looks to be a busy month, with several training events happening, and some travel for me lined up. We’re experiencing some of the challenges of transition already, getting movements of instructors approved, getting lesson plans and resources sorted out, and so on. There’s even challenges with getting our own movements sorted out – everyone has to be accounted for, and with small groups traveling everything needs coordination, but in the end it’s all coming together, and we’re getting things taken care of. It should be a good chance to see a little more of the country, and to meet more of my peers, interesting things indeed. It means my roommate will get the room to himself for a while (which is probably good for him, I snore like a bastard), as well.

I’m also starting slowly to think about post-tour things – like work and longer term career plans, most specifically more education. I don’t know how it will all fit together, but I’d really like to return to school, even if only part time, because I think having only an undergraduate degree isn’t enough for me – I’ve got so many different ideas about what I want to do next that none of them have completely gelled though, and that’s making things complicated in a way. I know that I while I’m likely going to stay in the same field, but I don’t think I want to return to the same job, necessarily. I have something of a luxury in working for a very large firm with almost limitless possibilities though, so as my goals and ideas become clearer, I’ll start engaging them about where to go next. I’ve got some ideas, already, but they’re just not quite clear.

Written by Nick

March 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

Courses, Sandstorms, Leave Plans, And Motorcycles

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks here, mainly with coursework. I completed a couple of courses which were both incredibly interesting, and incredibly frustrating at the same time. The first course on counterinsurgency featured some long days, but generally interesting material. The second course was on the District Stability Framework, the “way forward” in taking care of the non-kinetic aspects of building a stable Afghanistan. In military speak, “kinetic” operations mean basically killing people (ideally incorrigible insurgents who deserve it), “non-kinetic” operations are those which do not involve the use of force. Ideally, we want to maximize non-kinetic operations, I guess you could say. The reality is that at this point, dealing with security is a responsibility we want to shift to the ANSF, while ISAF works more toward advising and capacity building and draws down toward 2014 when the majority of coalition forces leave and Afghanistan, we hope, can start to take its first steps on its own. There will be a lot of support required in those initial steps, but it’ll be more in the development aid area, vice military aid.

DSF was interesting but in a way frustrating, as I suggested above, because the civilians involved in the course have a very different point of view from the military, and in group practical exercises it was hard sometimes to overcome the biases we carry toward each other. It was also made difficult by the fact that all of the facilitators usually involved were not available, leaving the lion’s share of work to a friend of mine, a junior officer from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who is actually the guy I’m replacing. He did a brilliant job of fending off some difficult questions and challenges and managed to keep things mostly on track. Mostly.

I was supposed to miss the last day of the course, because I was all set and rather excited to accompany my institution’s director on a liaison visit to one of the regions where we support courses, out in eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad. I had my bags all packed, threw on all my battle rattle, and came to the office ready to catch a ride to the HLS to board a helicopter, only to learn that I had a missed call on my phone from the Operations Officer calling to tell me that due to a dust storm (my first), helos weren’t flying for routine operations, and we weren’t going anywhere. I was disappointed, and I suspect my roommate was too, because he was going to get the place to himself for a few days, and I happen to know all too well that I snore like a bastard, so I’m sure it’d have been appreciated.

Fortunately, there’s another trip planned to another site in a couple weeks’ time, and hopefully that one won’t be impaired. However, I understand Kabul’s spring is sometimes called “120 Days of Winds”, and if they’re like today’s, well, who knows what will happen. We’ll just have to watch and shoot, as the saying goes.

I have to say, my first sand/dust storm was interesting. The way the sky looks, the way it feels, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, and stupidly I didn’t grab a camera. However, it’s supposed to continue for a while, so I’m sure I’ll have the chance. I’d like to add more pictures here, but uploading them is a nightmare as I work off a ridiculously slow connection and it’s painful at times.

My fallback plan to occupy my mind was starting to plan for my leave. I got word a few days ago that my dates had been changed. I had one of the last leave blocks, and they’ve apparently eliminated that block so I got moved earlier, to August instead of mid-September. That’s probably because I’ll likely be coming home a little earlier than originally planned, but that’s the nature of the beast. This causes a little problem because my wife had the time booked off and it’s not clear that she’ll be able to change it, but we’ll hope for the best with lots of time to work on resolutions.

I think I explained a bit about HLTA before – it’s basically a travel allowance for when we go on leave that’s based on the cost of traveling home to Canada, but it can be used to go to a “third location”, and to bring your next of kin to meet you there. What I’m looking at doing right now is flying to Frankfurt, Germany, and meeting my wife there (because she should in theory be able to get a direct flight from Halifax), spending a couple of weeks exploring Europe, and then I’m going to head back here with a short side trip to Jordan. I’ve wanted to see Petra for as long as I’ve known it existed, and conveniently, I work with a Jordanian Army officer here who’s not only stirred that by having the camp plastered with Jordanian tourist posters, but he’s also offered to help organize the trip for me. My wife might come, she might not. But I played around with flight schedules and managed to make it all work potentially, and without even spending all my allowance (yet, anyhow), so we’ll have some to use on rail passes or something like that. It’s a long way off, but starting to plan for it makes me have something to look forward to, and when I get back from leave, things will be winding down nicely here.

My other occasional diversion is motorcycle shopping. I basically consigned my bike (a 2003 Suzuki Intruder VS800) back to the dealer who hooked me up with it for a steal, and should have a good chunk in trade for when I get home. Most of what I save up from being here is going to deal with paying off debts and retirement savings and things like that (and to making the leave trip awesome), but my one “reward” for deploying is a new bike. I’m looking at a Suzuki VStrom for the simple reason that I want a touring bike, and frankly, that bike’s pretty incredible as a commuting bike, a long haul tourer, and so on. I thought I’d go for something more “classic”, but it really struck me when I first saw one at the dealer. I’m debating between the 650cc version and 1000cc version, but I think I’ll go with the 650. It’ll be cheaper to insure, and according to all the reviews I’ve seen, more than adequate for the long rides I like – including quite possibly a tear down to Arizona where my parents winter. I’m thinking ride down, leave the bike there for the winter, fly back in the spring and ride home (via a different route), but we’ll see. My wife may have different ideas about what I do right when I get home.

Well, I don’t have much else to report on for now – things are good. We sent off a few people who are headed home, and there’s something of a tradition of roasting departing team mates, which last night turned into a good ribbing of each other’s cultures, primarily done in the form of YouTube videos. My contribution was introducing our American and Coalition Friends to Rick Mercer’s Talking To Americans, and ribbing our Italian brother with the hilarious “Europe & Italy”, a crude but funny animation on cultural differences that I found to be 100% true in the week I spent there in 2005. Good laughs make the thought of someone leaving “for good” easier, but reality is that life-long friendships are made here, and military folks have an amazing and constantly expanding networks of people who will insist on offering hospitality whenever you’re in the neighbourhood.

And with that all said, I’m going to bed.