Friday, February 26, 2010


A friend of mine from my University of Portland cross country and track days finds himself in Afghanistan these days. That top photo is a shot of the bucolic countryside in Afghanistan. Looming in the background is one of the snow-capped peaks in the country's friendly neighbor, Pakistan. The second photo shows my friend, "Hank" (the nickname is a play on the name of a great, great Kenyan runner from the late 1970s and early '80s named Henry Rono; us college running chums were fairly certain our comrade Hank is not related to Henry Rono, but we were never quite sure), standing next to a Russian MIG fighter jet that's a leftover from the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. Hank is an FBI agent who typically investigates corruption and the like. He drew a tour in Afghanistan, where he is investigating military corruption and the like. I'll enclose a copy of one of his e-mails, edited down somewhat, to give you a taste of life on the other side of this frequently hostile world. God bless you Hank.

I complained about how dry and dusty it was in Afghanistan and I will now complain about the rain. Last week we were on another very small base. We arrived in the middle of a very cold 36-hour rainstorm. The base only has about 100 or 150 US soldiers. The small gym only had elliptical machines that ran on human power, since I think they only had plugs for the stereo and the lights. I did not think ahead and worked out just before dark. It was dark by the time I headed to the shower. Very dark. This is a different kind of dark. Most small bases are blacked out at night (remember, haji can't see in the dark), so you need to have your flashlight (and in some places you need to have a red or blue cover over the light so you can't be seen at all from off the base). Picture being on a base you have never been on before, in the rain, in the dark, looking for the shower. My shower shoes were not equal to the massive puddles (they eventually put out pallets to hop across some of the bigger ones) and I had to put my towel over my head with my flashlight headlamp to try to keep dry and warm. A word about my travel towel. I bough a chamois towel for traveling over here because it folds up very small and dries very quickly. In fact, it is almost a perfect towel with the only drawback being that it does not dry me off at all. Don't buy one for home use. Anyway, the rain stopped and the sky cleared the next day and the next night was beautiful. Without the base's lights on and without electricity in the village, the full moon was the brightest I've ever seen. It was so bright that it made the snow on the mountains all around us look like it was glowing. Of course, the fact that some of the mountains were actually in Pakistan gave the whole experience a different feeling than if I were in say, Yosemite.
When I was running around the Jalalabad base the other day I finally got to talk a little bit with some Afghans. The base, called FOB Fenty, was built on and around Nangahar Airport. Fun fact: Nangahar Airport is the airport where Osama Bin Laden landed in the late 1990s when he left Sudan. The old terminal building is on the opposite side of the runway from where most of the base buildings are and next to it there is a wrecked Russian MIG available for picture posing (I took advantage of this opportunity myself a couple weeks ago). I knew that the ANA (Afghan National Army) used the old terminal building because every afternoon they play cricket and volleyball out front and I could see lights on through the basement windows. When I was making my second loop around the base I decided to explore the terminal building because. . . well who wouldn't take the opportunity to walk through the same building as Bin Laden? I just wanted to see the main floor, which was very obviously unoccupied and I saw was under renovation. There was not much to see. It was getting dark and it was really just a concrete shell with a lot of non-OSHA approved work being done with low scaffolding that would have given me a war injury had I bumped my head. On the way out of the terminal one of the soldiers came up to me. I had met Ismael a couple weeks ago when we were in the area taking a picture with the MIG and looking for the Afghan bread bakery. He speaks okay English. Immediately four other soldiers came up and we started talking. Their English was about as good as my Pashtu. We talked for a few minutes and they invited me down to their place. I figured that they lived on the base, so if they really wanted to kill me they had plenty of chances while I was jogging by and they were playing cricket. Also, they risked a lot more living on that base and serving in the ANA than I ever have and frankly, if we can't trust them, we may as well close this whole operation down and go home. Seriously. The basement of the Nangahar Airport terminal where they live used to be a jail. The barred doors across the hall are still there and the rooms have very heavy metal doors. I didn't know there were cells down there and the guys did not seem to want to discuss it. If I had to guess, I'd say some pretty bad things happened down there, since it had to have been used by the Soviets and/or the Taliban.
Ismael shares a room with 6 other guys. There were 3 bunks and a single bed. I sat on one of the bunk beds. If that were my mattress I would sleep on the floor. I did not think mattresses could bend the way it did. The only other thing in the room was a computer on the floor and of course the guys' AK-47s. At first it was a tiny bit off-putting to be by myself in a converted prison cell with a bunch of Afghans carrying automatic weapons, but I got used to it. I remembered to take off my shoes. A soldier was sitting on the floor doing some kind of word processing on the computer. He spoke pretty good English, too. He stopped working and they showed me some music videos on the computer from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, India and the U.S. They like looking at girls singing and dancing (I don't think they want anyone to know that). With Ismael translating they asked me a lot of questions about the U.S. They wanted to know what the U.S. thought of Pakistan. I was diplomatic and gave a non-answer. What do I know about that and why would I want to say something they didn't like? They are not stupid and they pressed me a little bit. I told them that OF COURSE we liked Afghanistan more than Pakistan (hey, what was I going to say?). We talked about families and I pressed propriety a little bit when the subject came to wives. I included obligatory jokes about how they are allowed to have up to four wives. All of these guys' wives wear burkas. They don't have pictures of them and it was apparently inappropriate to even ask about them (they made concessions for my ignorance and did not seem too offended). We talked about kids. One of the guys wanted to know why I only had three. They asked if the U.S. soldiers they see on the base were wives of the male soldiers. We showed each other our wedding rings and passed them around (I'm not sure why). They offered me a Pepsi. I said sure and after throwing colorful Afghan money at each other and trying to pay for me, one of the guys brought me a can of Boom Boom Energy Drink. Another dilemma: these dirt poor guys have just gone out and bought the first American who has probably ever sat in their room and talked to them a drink to show their hospitality (AND I said I wanted one). Remember, it's getting dark and about 6:30 pm now. If I drink the Boom Boom I won't sleep for at least 2 days. If I don't drink it they will be very insulted and it would have been better for me to have never gone down there. I opened it and took a few sips, then when I left I took the can with me so they wouldn't know how little I drank. It's all I could think to do. When I excused myself I took advantage of an interesting feature of the base. There is a stop light on the runway. When it's green, you can across the runway. Fortunately it was green, because it was now dark and getting chilly and I was wearing damp running clothes.
I've had a chance to sit down with former mujahadeen and interview them for my cases, but I have to ask them about fighting the Soviets. I can't help it. They are not educated but they are not dumb and very interesting to talk to. Some of the muj went bad and are fighting us now, but a lot of them are on our side and I really admire them. I also really admire the young guys who have stepped up to join the police and military. They risk their lives for their country at a level far beyond any American ever has to do. There will always be a few bad apples in a group like that, but for the most part they are very trustworthy and brave and we cannot win without them.
I'll be in touch.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Matt for sharing a glimpse into that part of the world.