Monday, December 31, 2007

Do Americans understand insurgencies?

The New York Times today had a list of the presidential candidates’ stands on various relevant topics. Of course, Iraq was near the top of the list. It was disappointing to see that the the Times only mentioned troop removal as the solution to Iraq’s problems. A more comprehensive plan that included an intensive re-building of infrastructure: education, sanitation, energy, health, transportation, and a judicial system would be more productive than just getting the troops home as soon as possible. And though this sentiment is on every Democratic candidate’s website, it was completely neglected in the Times article. Perhaps it is too complex an issue for Times readers to grasp?

The multiple failures following the West’s support of a mujahedeen insurgency against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan should be an enduring lesson that you can’t simply arm factions, then walk away to let them fight it out. There are good alternatives to a military occupation that can build an enduring peace. Afghans would not follow the Talibs one single step, if their basic human needs were being met by the Western coalition.

Even the U.S. military is taking this position more and more, but American politicians and media pander to the uninformed majority that see either “winning the war” or “getting out of the war” as the only solutions. Both are absurd: it is impossible to win or to ignore a war of insurgency. I would love to hear just one politician say “every soldier who leaves Iraq will be replaced by a doctor, lawyer, engineer, carpenter, mechanic, accountant, etc. etc. etc. and have the media repeat it.

Sadly, that goes against the grain of so much of American culture which says that winning only comes through force and submission. That may have been true in the pre-Internet, jet-plane, satellite, nuclear age, but we face a new paradigm where crazed men with a few sticks of dynamite become “Armies of One” (to borrow a U.S. Army recruiting slogan) with more power than a division of thousands—or a Humvee with a few unlucky soldiers. Hopefully our leaders will explore more solutions than running away or sacrificing its best for an impossible “victory.” Hopefully the media will support this, and not promote simplistic solutions.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas message from an Afghan exile to American troops in Afghanistan

A message received from our friend Amin Wahidi, a writer and educational TV producer from Afghanistan, who now lives in a refugee shelter in Italy, waiting for a judgment on his request for political asylum there. Amin fled Afghanistan last fall after receiving death threats from the Taliban, because he produced programs on English instruction, film history, and music instruction. He is an outspoken supporter of freedom of speech and religion, democracy, peace and social justice.

Merry Christmas – Buon Natale

Eid ul Addha ( The Feast of Sacrifice) one of the biggest feasts for the Muslims came and passed while I am apart from my family, home, friends and I felt how difficult it is to be far from family and miss them on such an important occasion.

When I couldn't say happy eid to my family and friends face to face, now I would like to take the chance of saying merry Christmas to those people from foreign lands who serve in my country and are far from their families at Christmas and the new year occasion.

Merry Christmas to you all, who are reading my blog right now.

And merry Christmas to you who is now far from his home, family and relatives but serving for peace, rebuilding and democracy in my country Afghanistan though missing your dearest ones back in your country in this important occasion, now being far from home, I can feel you very well.

Merry Christmas to you all, who serve in the cold, mountainous and snowy central highlands of my country to keep peace and security for my people, al though you miss your family, country and friends in this occasions that only comes once a year.

Merry Christmas to you all who serve in the windy, dusty and dangerous deserts of Helmand and other south western provinces of my country to keep peace for my people although any moment could be of death or life for you.

Merry Christmas to you all who serve and patrol in the streets of Kabul, where any moment you could expect a bomb blast and could lose your life for peace, freedom and democracy for my people.

And merry Christmas to all civilian and military who serve for peace, security, freedom and democracy in different corners of Afghanistan.

May God bless you all and you will begin the new year with hopes and full of peace, security, happiness for you and for the people of Afghanistan.

Mohammad Amin Wahidi
Exiled writer, journalist and filmmaker from Afghanistan

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Documentary film, "No End In Sight"

We just saw this riveting and detailed documentary about how the Iraq invasion was planned by those in charge of our loved ones in the military. Long interviews with key insider players are included. Ebert & Roeper gave it "two very big thumbs up"; Time magazine said it is "the most important movie you are likely to see this year." It won the special jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Both Blockbuster and Netflix have it. Check it out and tell your friends who are curious about how the past 4 years in Iraq happened.

Blogger story about Afghan filmmaker friend in exile

I met Wahidi in Kabul, and we're helping him get his work out to the world. He is currently living in a refugee camp in Milan Italy, waiting for a hearing on his request for political asylum. Read the story here by Christopher Allbritton, a respected journalist who specializes in Middle East issues.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Real Iraq We Knew-- A view from 12 former Army Captains

This is an interesting Washington Post article about how soldiers on the ground feel about what they're doing in Iraq. Finally the mainstream media is questioning the government's management of the war and a realistic view of the future.

Read the article here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Car Bomb

Evan phoned yesterday from Iraq, a rare occurrence, because he usually calls on the weekend. His work schedule, as always is unpredictable. It had been an easy, but boring day because his unit had been on the emergency response duty. He was upset because the day before, a car bomber wiped out a checkpoint run by one of the little local militia units that were being trained by Evan’s unit. It wasn’t the exact group his squad worked with, but they were close.

Evan said he felt the huge explosion while in his barracks and knew it was something huge. His squad rushed to the scene, but nothing was left—no car, no guard shack, no barriers, just a big hole in the road. Five young men were killed. It must have been beyond horrible.

The U.S. troops vowed to return right away with materials to build a new checkpoint, and re-double their training efforts. There are ways to avoid bombs at checkpoints, but making a mistake in procedure can be fatal. The Iraqis need that extra important training. It is so sad to see your good work destroyed by nihilists.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an intense article about an extremist jihadi, Samir Khan, who lives right here in Charlotte and runs a jihadi website that includes links to videos of car bomb explosions on the Internet, placed to entertain and attract potential “martyrs”. These videos are cut like music videos and are dedicated to some god, not Allah, for sure. Khan, born in Saudi-Arabia, home of most of the 9/11gang, grew up in the U.S. and lives with his parents in a middle class home in Charlotte. I hope somebody gets hold of him before he gets his wish to become a martyr himself soon.

I’m sure the families of the five young militia men who put their lives on the line to help stop the rampage of criminal gangs in Iraq would like to get hold of Mr. Samir Khan too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Young Afghan Journalists Receiving Death Threats

Amin Wahidi, 25 year old journalist, filmmaker, and free-speech advocate was recently granted refugee status in Italy after attending the Venice International Film Festival and participating in a Summer School on Cinema and Human Rights at the European Inter-university Center for Human Rights and Democratization. He is currently living in a refugee shelter in Milan, Italy.

Wahidi has spent his whole life in Afghanistan, but after recent numerous death threats has decided to remain in Italy. A series of comments left on Wahidi’s blog from a self-proclaimed Taliban said a suicide bomber would meet Wahidi’s plane when it landed in Kabul. His family recently fled Kabul due to similar threats against them.

Wahidi’s experience is but one example of a widening pattern of violence against young Afghan media workers and journalists. It is part of an alarming relapse back to the days of the Taliban and warlords. Young activists are facing increasing violence and censorship—some from within the U.S. supported Afghan government. They have been threatened, arrested, jailed, kidnapped, had their studios vandalized, and been beaten.

Several young media personalities, including women, have been murdered in the past three years. This year, two have been killed, and they are held up as examples of what will happen to others who attempt to speak out. As a result, many educated, creative media people are fleeing Afghanistan, making it easier for the violent fundamentalists and criminal gangs to have their way.

Though fearing for his safety, Wahidi wants to tell the true story of how Afghanistan is slipping backwards, despite the efforts of many concerned countries and organizations such as NATO, the U.S., and the UN. Like many Afghans, he feels these efforts are insufficient and that Afghanistan is being forgotten by the world once again.

In the short term, Wahidi wants to come to the U.S. to finish his university education, and make films and documentaries about conditions in Afghanistan. He also wants to be a lifeline to colleagues remaining in Afghanistan through the Afghan Academy of Arts and Cinema Education and The Filmmakers Union of Afghanistan. Most important, he wants to return to Afghanistan to work for re-building a democratic, just, and productive society there. His primary interest is to make films on the difficulty of establishing freedom of expression, justice, and human rights in his country.

In early 2005, Wahidi was hired as one of the first writer/producer/director/presenters at the new Ariana Television and Radio Network (ATN), based in Kabul. It was the first independent network to broadcast across Afghanistan, and quickly added coverage via satellite to North America, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and across South Asia to the Pacific.

Wahidi produced and hosted three concurrent television programs for ATN: a magazine-style news series on world cinema, an English language instructional series, and a cultural history series focusing on music. He also worked in network promotion and was the assistant programmer for a time. After leaving ATN in 2007, he worked in the production and news departments of two other Afghan broadcast networks, Nureen and Farda.

Prior to working in broadcast, Wahidi developed strong English language skills. In 2004 he was a lead translator/interpreter for the U.S. Army’s Office of Military Co-operation for Afghanistan, in Kabul. He has worked for other translation companies, able to conduct simultaneous English/Farsi-Dari interpretations and document translation.

Wahidi’s ethnic background is Hazara, a consistently persecuted Afghan minority. His father, a Hazara activist, has been arrested and threatened for organizing demonstrations and speaking out against mistreatment of not just Hazara, but all Afghans.

After the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, there was hope for Afghanistan. Cinemas re-opened, Independent TV and radio stations went on the air, scores of newspapers and magazines began to publish, art galleries and performance spaces became active, schools opened, and women returned to work in media, education, healthcare, and government. The country which had endured 30 years of brutal occupation and civil war began to breathe again, a situation especially welcomed by a young generation eager to join the modern world. Now these gains are losing ground, and this sad story is almost invisible to the American public.

Any assistance to help Wahidi reach his goals will be greatly appreciated.

See more about Amin Wahidi and subscribe to his blog at

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A cow is a lion in Iraq

Evan sent this story through Beth:

Evan's patrol was investigating an area after an explosion and came upon a small barn-- more like a shed. Inside was a cow; a very disturbed cow, and who could blame her? A bomb had just gone off. She became more agitated, as Evan and a buddy looked around to see if any dangerous stuff was hidden under the dirt.

The cow suddenly became aggressive, and the soldiers thought it might be better to retreat a little. A staff sergeant, seeing them back out of the barn shouted,

"Hey you guys, it's a cow, not a lion!"

At that very moment the enraged cow leapt over its pen and charged the staff sergeant. He turned and ran up the outside stairs of a nearby house. The angry cow stood below, trapping the hapless sergeant on the roof.

Fortunately, one of the soldiers had a camera and photographed the standoff. Unfortunately, for the sergeant, they were duplicated back at the base and posted in several obvious places with the caption "It's a cow, not a lion!"

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A friend flees Afghanistan

A young writer/producer friend in Afghanistan was invited to the Venice Film Festival last month. Because of escalating death threats against him and his family from Taliban in Afghanistan, he has decided it would be safer to stay in Italy. He is living as a refugee there now, contemplating his next steps.

Please read part of his story sent to me last night. It's a long piece, but an amazing piece of writing:

Friday, October 05, 2007

The mysterious man in the trunk

An interesting story from Evan a few weeks ago. His unit has a fair to adequate relationship with the local residents of the area he patrols. They are training a small local militia group, mainly in road checkpoint management 101. One day a group of their young trainees ran up breathlessly saying they had a surprise. They led the soldiers to a car and opened the trunk. Inside was one of the more dangerous local trouble-makers, whom they had somehow managed to recognize and capture.

The militiamen were very proud they caught the fellow. They locked him in the trunk, since it was the only way they had to hold him. I wonder if they’ve been given handcuffs yet. It can get mighty hot in a trunk.

The militia are paid a small amount to keep them steadily working, but there is a sliding reward scale if they provide information or capture a wanted criminal. They were especially happy to deliver this guy who had a higher than average price.

This is a much more community-friendly counter-insurgency tactic than Blackwater’s style of doing business, for example.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Poor Afghanistan- now "The Kite Runner" movie is a problem

A brewing problem demonstrating modern cultural conflicts between East and West. Read this article in today's New York Times. You'll have to copy and past the link below.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More news from Iraq

Evan was able to call us for the first time since his return to Iraq three weeks ago. He has been very busy with an unpredictable schedule—sometimes working during the day, sometimes at night. He was surprised to find an increase in dangerous situations in his area. He has had a few close calls in past weeks, which is a little frightening to us.

A high-ranking officer addressed his group and said there had been a measurable increase in safety due to the work of the soldiers out in the streets. It was a welcome pep talk, but whether or not it is enough to rescue Iraq from chaos is something we won’t know for months. My thoughts keep returning to the numbers of troops generals like Colin Powell, Anthony Zinni, and Eric Shinseki recommended to liberate Iraq. It was several hundred thousand. I think you would be hard pressed to find any military on the ground that felt that the 170,000 troops we have can accomplish much.

The answer is difficult, and getting out of Iraq without causing WW III may not be in the will or power of the American people. I hope that when a new president and congress are elected, a more sensible path will be chosen.

We cannot abandon Iraq, but it’s foolish to expect a traditional military victory either. The only people who gain from our current half-hearted occupation of Iraq are the terrorists and military contractors.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A little news from Iraq

I spoke to Beth yesterday, and Evan had gotten a phone call through to her from Iraq. He is back to his post near Baghdad after a relaxing eighteen day leave home to Texas. All's well with him, but you hear an increasing frustration. From what I gather in my readings and conversations, the U.S. force is/was about 1/3 of what was recommended by experienced Army experts to stabilize Iraq. This higher number was ridiculed by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle the civilian heads of the Department of Defense, who plotted the Iraq invasion.

An additional 200,000 troops for the invasion would probably have secured the streets of Baghdad and prevented looting. It would have preserved the infrastructure. It would have controlled Iraq's porous borders with Iran and Syria, where so many of the insurgency came from. It would have allowed posting guards at hundreds of munitions dumps where millions of firearms and tons of ammunition had been stored by Saddam-- most of those munitions were stolen by the insurgency and gangs. More troops would have shown the Iraqi civilian population that we meant business, that we cared about their security and re-building their country into a democracy-- and that we weren't going to hit 'n run and leave them high and dry like we did to the Vietnamese who had helped us in the early 1970s.

Bush's Iraq fiasco is turning into one of history's greatest debacles. It's too bad, our military deserves better.

A bright piece of news from Evan is that his unit is training a local "militia-type group" in police work-- mainly how to maintain a vehicle checkpoint to keep trouble makers out of their village. There is no Iraqi or any other police or army presence in the area except Evan's troop. Most of militia are teenagers-- the age of an average Eagle Scout. He says the work is slow, but the kids are eager enough. This is how we're preparing for our exit. In a way it's heartening, in a way, sad beyond comprehension. What will happen to these kids when the troops leave?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A good book about Iraq

Evan has come and gone back to Iraq. He had a relaxing time in Texas with Beth, and we spoke with them over Skype videophone a few times. No news from him since he has been back. He has a long hike on his base from barracks to phone center. His schedule is erratic, and there can be long lines at the phones. We have learned to assume that no news is good news.

Right now, we are very interested in the news on state of the surge, as delivered by the government. No surprises there. Crocker and Petraeus were both handpicked by Bush, and Petraeus was chosen for his job after several more seasoned retired generals had turned it down. Given Bush’s history with the Iraq situation, who knows what to believe?

The news we hear is that the soldiers want to get back home as soon as possible. The military has been amazingly overstressed, no matter what your political stance.

I’m reading the book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Thomas E. Ricks. It’s a real eye-opener, covering all the warnings by many experts inside and outside the government who predicted the situation we’re in today. The whole mis-adventure was railroaded by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Libbey, Rice, Chalabi, Miller, Feith, Tenet, and a host of their factotums who thought that war was a football game, where winner takes all, and moves on with a pot of money to the next big game.

Congress and the press fell for it hook, line, and sinker. However, there were plenty in congress, the Army, and press who saw a 10+ year large US military presence in Iraq, but they were shunted aside. The great US military leaders Shinseki and Zinni were pushed out when they expressed their profound doubts.

Read the book for more insight into the truths that are conveniently forgotten. Do whatever you can to see our troops get home safely and the Iraqis find real help through education, infrastructure, and justice. These things cannot be delivered by the military.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why Afghans are afraid to speak out

The following comment from Payame Haq was buried in my Afghan filmmaker friend Wahidi's blog. Wahidi is an intelligent, peaceful, justice-seeking artist who is being threatened in Afghanistan for advocating free speech.

People like Payame Haq are the people Evan is protecting Iraqis from. Though they claim to be doing the will of God with their hateful deeds, they have nothing to do with real Islam, just like Pat Robertson has nothing to do with real Christianity. Both wear religion as a mask to dupe the gullible into gratifying their own egos and greed, not doing God's will.

This type of religious fanatic is and has always been one of humanity's greatest afflictions. So read Payame Haq and check out his website (address at the bottom of the page).

"Payame Haq said...

The Power of Allah (Jallejallalahu) stops the people who are selfish and try to stand against soldiers of Islam.

Islam is the only way of prosperity. It is our responsibility to invite every one towards Tanweer (brightness) and immortality, and to stop those who are led astray and going towards the darkness.

Allah (Jallejallalahu) is the only one who controls the world, who controls our day and night and can stop anything at all.

Allah (Jallejallalahu) is the only one who controls the essence of each breath we take.

You are born from a Muslim father and mother (Alhamdullellah). It is your religious responsibility to expand Islam by supporting the real forces of Islam.

Do not stand against Islam with Writing and encouraging the KOFARS against ISLAM in your Sites, and come to the right way.

Brighten your mind and fresh your spirit by referring to the Holy Ayat of Qurranel Hakim below;

بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم.

آلله لا یهدی القوم الکفرین. یا ایها الذین ءامنو اما لکم اذا قیل لکم انفروا فی سبیل الله اثا قلتم الی الارض ارضیتم بالحیوه الدنیا من الاخره فما متع الحیوه الدنیا فی الاخر الا قلیل. الا تنفرو ایعذبکم عذاباً الیما و یستبدل قوماً غیرکم ولا تضروه شیاً والله علی کل شی قدیر. ( آیه 39 سوره توبه)

صدق الله العظیم.

Otherwise Allah will soon punish you!!!

Always Remember in ISLAM it is never too late to come back towards the reality of ISLAM and its TANWEER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

August 10, 2007 5:59 AM

Monday, August 06, 2007

In US for leave

We heard from Beth yesterday that Evan was waiting in Kuwait for a plane to Dallas. He has 18 days leave and plans to spend it at their house in Ft. Hood, just chilling out. At this point his deployment is due to end in December. So, this is a nice break before the homestretch.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Afghan Free Speech in Jeopardy; Journalists Threatened and Murdered

Zakia Zaki a female radio journalist killed in June 06 2007 in Parwan Province ( photo from

After a lapse of two years, I have been corresponding with Amin Wahidi, a young journalist/filmmaker/activist colleague in Kabul. Although not covered much in the U.S. media, there has been a frightening pattern of intimidation, arrest, beatings and even murder of young Afghan journalists. Some claim the U.S.-supported Karzai government is doing nothing to stop it, and it is emblematic of the chaos and increasing control over Afghanistan by fundamentalist gangs supported by outsiders.

Read Amin Wahidi's sad and frightening description of life for those trying to build democracy, peace and justice in a country where we have spent billions of dollars and shed the blood of hundreds of brave Americans.

The blog address is

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Example of relations between Iraqis and US patrols

Beth sent this short exchange along, when she and Even found eachother on-line the other day. It speaks volumes.

EVAN: we arrested some kidnappers/hitmen/assasin types the other day, they had come up from baghdad. they might have been after some our iraqi buddies, or just looking to make some money with kidnapping, dunno, other than that its been pretty quiet really

BETH: how did you find the kidnappers?

EVAN: one of the locals told us about some suspicious people driving around in a new car

BETH: are new cars not very common?

EVAN: not out here, its really rural - mostly decent, but well-used toyotas and chinese knock-offs of toyotas

BETH: toyotas have knockoffs?

EVAN: oh yeah (our interpreter): "japanese cars very nice, very expensive though" and those (morons) were driving around a mercedes

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Not much news from Iraq

We were away for a short holiday in the mountains last week when we missed Evan's call home. At least he called, so we know things were OK last week. He may be back at his post or still in Baghdad. It's tough getting calls out, but he's supposed to be getting a laptop which should make emails and maybe Skype video calls a possibility.

One little nugget passed on through Beth when he was in the Green Zone a couple weeks ago. He was especially taken with a sign by one of Saddam's palace pools: "No Drinking While Armed." Would have been a good souvenir, but he passed.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Good news source about Iraq

If you're dissatisfied by the cursory view of Iraq offered by the mainstream US news media, check out this site. You'll be amazed by what you've been missing:

In the "Green Zone"

Evan was unexpectedly whisked by Blackhawk helicopter from his rural digs to busy downtown Baghdad-- the green zone. The ride, at 500 ft., was spectacular, and he was especially impressed with the aerial view of Saddam's notorious crossed swords monument. He sent an email from an Internet cafe "set up in an old palace. It's a mind-blowing building. Huge vaulted ceilings, intricate stone carvings and chandeliers everywhere." Ever the curious tourist, he hopes to visit the crossed swords monument and take a few souvenir snapshots. Maybe he'll buy me a T-shirt.

Friday, June 29, 2007

iPhones vs. IEDs

Evan tells us that sometimes he walks on patrol and sometimes rides in a HUMVEE (one of the newer armored ones-- thank-you). I thought walking would be pretty dangerous.

But an article in yesterday morning's paper noted that soldiers patrolling the streets in Iraq can be more comfortable with walking than riding in a vehicle. It seems the gangs are burying newer, deadlier IEDs and mines deeper under the streets. They 're harder to detonate so that only a heavy vehicle will set them off. An expensive bomb would be wasted if it only got a foot soldier instead of a million$ armored vehicle. And so they walk in the open for safety.

With all the hi-tech excitement about the new iPhone coming out today, I'm wondering why our great technological skills aren't mustered to protect our troops better. Maybe the Pentagon should give Apple a ring.

Leave! and car trouble on the streets of Iraq

Another call from Evan to Beth. She relays he’s doing fine. Still patrolling streets near Baghdad.

The interesting news was that he was notified he would be granted leave soon. That’s two weeks back home in the U.S. As usual for the Army, they don’t give an exact time—it could be another 6-8 weeks. But it’s something to look forward to. I remember his leave from Afghanistan, and it was a very happy time.

He mentioned he spends a lot of time taking vehicles to the motor pool for repair. The streets are rough, and Humvees are surprisingly susceptible to problems. Power steering hoses pop, and you lose control—not good.

The engine’s moving parts are connected by one long serpentine belt. If it breaks—which is common, they’re completely out of commission. It must be a pretty anxious moment to break down on an Iraqi street. I read a lot in the press how much of the army’s equipment has broken down, so I’m not surprised.

The Humvee was designed during the Cold War to cruise the cool or snow-bound paved highways of Central Europe, not the pock-marked 120 degree gravel paths of the Iraqi desert. The words of Captain Donald Rumsfeld, ring in my ears, when complained to by a soldier that the gear was inadequate, if not downright unsafe for the job: “Sometimes you have to fight a war with what you have, not what you want.” Same goes for leadership, I suppose.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

How can you have 2 addresses in Iraq?

Heard from Evan yesterday via Beth. He sounds fine, but very busy. He's not involved in the actions you're reading about near Baquba in Diyala. His platoon continues its work patrolling a particular neighborhood, trying to keep the people safe there by disrupting the activities of the violent gangs. Much of this is establishing a visible, positive presence, but frequently it is acting on tips from locals about strangers in the neighborhood who may be up to no good.

One culture-bending experience last week involved a search for a particular suspect. Evan's platoon approached someone on the street and asked (through their interpreter) if this fellow lived nearby, and what was his address. The man gave an address and said he was a good person. They spoke a bit more, and then asked again to confirm the address. The man gave a different address, a few blocks away.

Ah ha, they thought, this guy's story is changing. Lying maybe? They asked him, "how can he have two addresses?" "Oh, he has two wives," the man answered.

Monday, June 18, 2007

No father's day call

Bethany heard from Evan twice last week, Wed. and Fri. which is good. No call on father's day. But then again, with over 150,000 military in Iraq who are fathers or have one they might call, it's hard to imagine the phone system could handle more than a half-second call from each person. We heard from one friend who did get a call. It lasted 30 seconds, and all they could hear from Iraq was shouting in the background of "hurry up, get off the phone!"

Monday, June 11, 2007

The gummy bear brick

Another quick story from yesterday's phone call. Evan's platoon received a 4x4 ft. box of little gifts and candy from the U.S. to give to Iraqi children. After being shipped through the 115 degree heat, the candy bars had become little packets of syrup. A large bag of gummy bears had morphed into a large single brick-- a gummy brick. But there were lots of little toys which went over well.

When sending anything to Iraq it's good to remember the heat factor. I suggest the driveway test. If it won't survive a sunny summer day on your driveway, don't send it. I'll try biscotti for his gourmet coffee. Hopefully it doesn't arrive as biscotti powder.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Evan called Beth yesterday to say he's OK, but it's tough. He's in a very active area of Iraq, and if you follow the news, things are not calming down.

He's regularly receiving books and letters from home, which are great distractions. A highlight was his receipt of freshly ground coffee from Summit. He immediately brewed a pot and relayed it was great.

There's a link to the right with Evan's wish list for items from all books and music. If you know someone who wants to support the troops, here's a good way:

Why Did Evan Join the Army?

People ask why, of all people, did my son join the Army. After all, he came from an educated, white, middle-class family and grew up in a quiet well-to-do college town where all the kids are above average, go to good colleges and get good jobs. Thousands of troops were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan—why would he want to get involved in that? Did his family—a notorious nest of liberals-- encourage or discourage him?

I don’t have the definitive answer, but the short one is that Evan really, and I mean, really cares about helping and protecting people, and does not do it half-way. He was in the safety patrol in elementary school. At age 15 he was a lifeguard certified in CPR and First Aid. He can’t pass a blood drive without rolling up a sleeve. He helped lead fasts for the hungry in high school. He played a rough defense on high school soccer and lacrosse teams. He was (and is) an avid student of world politics, diplomacy, and history. He loved team work in school, at play, summer camp, and church youth groups. He never owned a gun, but loved shooting off fireworks-- a weakness picked up from his dad.

You’ll find a lot of people like this in the military. They are not the stereo-typed jar heads some expect. They are people who are driven, or “called” to put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. They are also police officers, firefighters and rescue workers of all sorts. They are the ones you see rushing around car wrecks, like their own lives depended on saving total strangers.

As a parent, can one argue with that? Would one dare to say—“let someone else’s child do it?”

Sometimes, no matter how much we want to and try to avoid it, we need protection from ignorant, wrong-headed, fanatic, abusive, maniacal gangs in the world. When I see people confronted by those gangs; in Darfur, Bosnia, Baghdad, Kandahar, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and even Washington, D.C., I’m given hope, and am proud beyond words that there are people like my son, ready and eager to jump out and face them down.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Reading List about Iraq and Afghanistan

At one of the first dinners I had when I was in Afghanistan, with a group of Malaysians, Pakistani, East Indian, Afghans, Brits, Germans and Australians, the talk turned to politics. Someone began quoting negative statistics about the U.S. Offended, I asked where he got this ridiculous information. He replied, "The 9/11 Report, you've read it haven't you?" I said, well, no, and I couldn't think of anyone else I knew who had.

Most of this group had read it, and were astounded."You mean the most important political event in US and world history of the past 50 years and you haven't read about it?"I felt like the really dumb American so much of the world has grown to mistrust-- and vowed to get educated.

To understand American actions and policies in the Middle East and Central Asia, you have to go beyond the thin surface sensationalism of cable news, daily newspapers and weekly magazines. There are many well-researched books that detail the U.S. involvement in the "global war against terrorism."

I've picked a few that provide interesting perspectives on the politics that sent us into Iraq in Afghanistan. They are very readable. The list is to the right, and is in a somewhat historical chronological order. Each builds on the next, so the progression of how we got here and what the real threats are becomes clearer and clearer.

I'll add to this list and include a group of excellent documentaries and movies, later. We are heading deeper into a quagmire with potentially terrible consequences. Only an informed American public will make a difference.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mail to Iraq is fast!

News from Beth received early today...

Evan called this morning. He sounded more upbeat, but tired. He received the first shipment of books I sent him from Amazon, and was really happy about it. One of them was written by the founder of the Lonely Planet books and is about traveling to all of the countries known as the "axis of evil." (Iran, Albania, Libya, North Korea, etc). He was really excited about that one. Mail to Iraq doesn't take nearly as long as mail to Afghanistan did. It took at least two weeks, (sometimes three), for packages to reach Evan in Afghanistan, but now they take just one week, or even less. He should be getting the Summit coffee sent to him last Friday, very soon.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Evan got a quick call out to Bethany yesterday morning. No news, except that he's doing OK, and that his schedule will be extra full for the next two weeks, so don't expect to hear much from him. It's always good to get that kind of warning. Every day you wonder why there was no call, and after a week, it starts to get nerve-wracking. Everyone with a kid in college feels the same way, but when you hear on the news that 4 American soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday, it especially ratchets up the fears.

I've met some families with loved ones in Iraq who refuse to read, listen or watch anything in the news. I understand completely.

The blue star banner above notes that someone in your immediate family is deployed in a war zone; you'll occasionally see them in front windows or on car bumbers; during WWII, nearly every house on every block had one. In the "war on terrorism," most people do not even know what it stands for.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Thanks to Davidson's Summit Coffee Shop

Bethany sent an email today with another detail from Evan. There’s an old Mr. Coffee in his barracks room. Evan’s a primo barista who cut his chops at the Summit when in high school—so he’s, well… a bit of a coffee snob. But there’s no good coffee on his base and no filters for the maker.

He asked me to run down to Summit, pick up some fresh ground and mail it to him—with a stack of filters (unbleached only, please). To get it out today, I walked to the Summit and asked the barista for a bag. Faced with a hundred kinds of beans, I said Evan worked there in HS, so what would they recommend for a fellow barista; he’d been in Iraq for a few weeks and really missing good coffee. We picked out a few bags, and with a big smile, they said it was on the house. “And tell him whenever he needs more fuel, we’ll take care of him.”

That was really nice, and the sentiment a really big deal for us. I told Beth, and she relayed the story back to Evan later, when he got one more call out. He said “Cool, I’ll get a picture of me and my bags of Summit in Iraq and send it to them.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bored in Iraq?

Bethany heard from Evan twice today. Not much news. He is actually bored this week, and not as satisfied with the work patrolling the streets of Iraq.

When in Afghanistan, he worked in landmine and IED removal, mostly on large, rural road construction projects. It was usually a good experience. At the end of the day he could look back and say—“yep, opened two miles of road today, found and blew up a couple landmines, nobody got hurt, that’s good.”

After a few months, when sections of the road opened, he watched what was once a barely navigable path now carry trucks full of wheelbarrows, food or people across the countryside. Working in the desert, while very rough, provided wide-open views and generally peaceful days.

Iraq, so far, has been a crowded urban experience. Sometimes he’ll just sit in his gear all night on standby with his squad, in case they are needed for an emergency mission. But the personal active sense of "mission accomplished" is not the way it was in Afghanistan.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Arrival in Baghdad

Evan spent a week in Kuwait waiting for a plane ride to Baghdad. He hung around the barracks, did some field training, and adjusted to the 100 degree+ heat. He had no idea when he would arrive in Baghdad, and felt it could be several weeks. He was able to talk for about 45 minutes. The Kuwait base was large and comfortable in contrast to the isolated sandy tents where he had spent so many days in Afghanistan

He sounded chipper and healthy.

The next day we got an email from Bethany saying he'd landed in Baghdad and would try to get in touch as soon as things settled down. He was busy with stuff like, finding a bunk, the chow hall, and those other details. It would probably be a while before he went out on missions because much of his unit was out on leave for a few days.

One of the first missions

Evan's work is similar to a police officer's patrol. Sometimes he stands by for an emergency response-- Humvees gassed up, and loaded in case another patrol calls in for assistance. Sometimes they are assigned a specific mission, for example, checking out a tip that a cache of weapons might be stored in a particular building. Other times he will just ride or walk through neighborhoods.

Through a translator they speak to local residents about problems or fears they may be experiencing, and ask how to help. In one of his first missions, a family invited his patrol into their home for a cup of tea. They sat on the floor and drank a glass of strong, sweet black tea. The family said they appreciated the patrols, because they feared violence in the street from outsiders, and the soldiers patrols definitely made them feel safer. They had nothing specific to report or any immediate problems. They just wanted to express gratitude and hospitality.

I thought this was interesting, because one picture we get here is that every Iraqi is afraid to speak with the troops because they might be seen as "collaborators." But this family actually invited a whole group of soldiers into their home. I'm sure it wasn't missed by the neighbors. Something to think about.

Mission and a child

Message from Evan's wife, Bethany around 5/14...

I spoke to Evan on the phone for over an hour this morning. It had been several days since our last real conversation. The last time he called I couldn't understand anything he said because of the poor connection so I talked the entire time. It was the definition of a one-sided conversation.

He told me a story that I have decided to post here so that all of you can know how good and wonderful he is.

Evan's squad was on a mission to check out a house somewhere in Iraq. I don't know where and wouldn't mention it, even if I did. Evan and a buddy went around to the back of the house to make sure no one escaped. Before the family within knew what was going on a little boy slipped out the back door, probably to use the outhouse. As soon as the child saw Evan he burst into tears. He was very small - probably no more than three years old. Evan scooped him up as he ran, held him and tried to comfort him. It didn't work; Evan was wearing all of his gear, including his night-vision goggles and probably looked a little like the Terminator, but he still tried to make the boy feel better. After the action, he set him back inside the house. I think this was very sweet and it was more than Evan had to do.

Evan downplayed this story. He said "I just didn't want anyone to get surprised by him and make a stupid mistake, AND I didn't want him to get scared and run away and have his family wonder where he was. It wasn't a big deal, but you can post it if you want."

What to do about Iraq?

A friend from Afghanistan emailed me today asking if I felt the troops should leave Iraq immediately. I have a split opinion. If they leave immediately, there would be a genocidal bloodbath where millions would be killed. Afghanistan after the Soviet departure is a good lesson there—or maybe the major Iraqi factions could unite and oust all the trouble makers and criminals on their own. On the other hand, if the soldiers stay long enough in Iraq, some stability could be attained, though many thousands will be killed over several years by insurgents and those who profit from political instability—or maybe we’ll be stuck in a quagmire where 1,000 Americans will be killed each year on an impossible mission.

Above all, I feel the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have been terribly mis-managed. I can provide a reading list of well-researched books that support this point of view. My experience in Afghanistan clarified it. Kabul lacked so many basic services: sewerage, electricity, phone lines, trash collection, basic road repair, honest police and government. All these were simple things, but even after 4 years of international presence, there wasn’t even trash collection. If you can’t take care of the basic needs of the people, you invite insurgency. That’s how the Taliban came to power.

If the U.S. really wants to “win” the war against “terrorists” it needs to make a national commitment on the level of WWII, but not building HUMVEES and bombers. We need to build transit busses, hospital operating rooms, university libraries, fair judicial systems, street lights, water treatment plants, and well-paid and trained police forces. Our soldiers play a vital transition role to fight the gangs, but it is grossly unfair for them to shoulder the main burden of putting Iraq and Afghanistan together. Even 100,000 more soldiers cannot make peace in Iraq, as long as we fail the people’s basic needs there.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Son Goes to War

My 22 year old son, joined the Army Reserve two years ago. He had hoped to finish college, spending a weekend a month in uniform, but would have no problem if called up in a national emergency. That was when Americans thought Iraq and Afghanistan would settle down within months, not years. Last year, rumors of deployment spread through his Asheville-based engineering unit, until it became certain that in April they would go to Afghanistan for up to a year and a half.

It is rare for an American these days to grasp the reality of a child preparing for war. My son, who wants to be a librarian, completed an eight week army training course last summer. As a combat engineer he learned about de-mining operations, shooting an M-16, surviving gas attacks and hand-to-hand combat. He was actually awarded a couple of medals and got a promotion. Over the next months, my wife and I became used to the shocked looks from friends when we answered “What’s you son up to?” with “Well…. he’s going to Afghanistan for a year to dig up land mines.”

In the three months leading to his actual departure, he spent increasing amounts of time with military duties and training. There were endless shots, mounds of paper work (including his will), and day-long trips to military bases to collect gas masks, desert uniforms, radios, etc.

Then one sunny February day we drove up to Asheville for a farewell party at the armory. It wasn’t the final departure. His unit was going to Ft. Bragg for two months of intense training (mostly in urban combat). We could visit occasional weekends, talk on the phone, and send care packages, kind of like summer camp ten years earlier. There was always the feeling that at the last minute peace would be declared and the troops would return to their families.

But in April, the big departure day came, when the soldiers would fly from Ft. Bragg to Kabul. Families were allowed to spend the last two days on base, mingling with the troops, helping with last-minute packing, buying batteries for CD players and Moon Pies for the long trip. It was a picnic atmosphere. We met our son’s buddies, and everyone pledged they would get home safe and sound. It was more like a departure for a field trip to the beach. But as the minutes ticked by, wives cuddled closer to their battle-dressed husbands. Eyes filled with tears and lips tightened and trembled while oblivious knots of kids played tag and munched candy bars.

A loud sergeant shouted it was time to go, and the crowd separated like oil and water as soldiers flowed into a mass of desert camo, M16s slung over their shoulders. Emotional shock waves rippled through the families. This was the real good-bye. My son gave his new wife a last hug. The knots of kids clung to their daddys and cried: “Daddy, I’m going too.” “Daddy don’t go.” “No daddy, stay here.”

A line of 400 soldiers snaked out the terminal door, across the tarmac, and into a lone white airliner. Many families left, knowing the actual departure would be too much, but we stayed. Too quickly the last soldier entered the plane, and then they were gone. No music, no flag waving, but everyone waved slowly, in a silent collective prayer, hoping the last glimpse of home would be of loved ones wishing farewell. The giant airliner rushed up the runway, thundered over our heads, and banked gracefully east. Its pure, white-winged body against the blue Carolina sky reminded me of an angel.

The 3 hour ride home was a numb blur. After an hour we said they must be over New York. An hour later, we agreed they were crossing into Canada. Time has been measured like that ever since. We changed a kitchen clock to Afghanistan time, and taped a blue star in the front window to remember the other time and the other place, and count every day as a victory.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Day 5 in Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I just spent my fifth day in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sights and events are becoming more familiar. I finally met some other Americans and found a grocery with familiar products, so I am now more assured that I wasn’t plucked up by an alien space ship and dropped into a strange parallel universe.

The first views of Kabul as you approach by airplane are incredibly forbidding mountain ranges, wave after wave of 12,000 ft.+ snow-covered peaks and barren desert valleys. The plane, (a sketchy c. 1970 Boeing 727) weaves through a last few peaks and quickly drops onto a runway marked by wrecked skeletons of bombed out planes and a few mine removal teams. A short walk down the outside roll-up staircase, takes you into the terminal. Kabul has a population of about 1.5 million. The airport has one baggage claim carousel. That’s a small airport.

You exit through the waiting room with beautifully detailed wood paneled walls and ceiling that if restored could be one of the most stunning airport lobbies in the world. A crowd of people 5-6 deep hangs outside the gates. No parking garages. No drive up. No snack bar. You carry your bags 50 yards to the gate, hoping your driver will spot you.

A dozen guards anxiously grip their AK47 automatic rifles. This will become a familiar sight. The AK47 is the Afghanistan billy club, and quickly becomes a comforting object, though always still slightly shocking. Many Afghans have body guards who carry AKs so you see them a lot. Ariana TV, where I work, has several armed guards who come and go.

My favorite is General Nabi (Afghan Army retired), who watches after the CEO, an Afghan-American, visiting this week. The General is ultimate cool. A relaxed, stocky 30-something guy with a blood-orange goatee and mop top of curly hair, he sports a custom bullet-proof vest with 20 pockets holding who knows what. A cell phone headset hangs from one ear. With a 9mm pistol strapped to his right leg, he carries his AK with the aplomb of a Hilton Head Island tennis player toting their racket.

He has the friendliest, impish smile, a Bill Clinton handshake, and always stumbles through a few kind English words. In 2001 General Nabi led a battalion of Northern Alliance troops into Mazar-i-Sharif, where they smashed the Taliban. If I’m ever faced with a violent event, I want to be around General Nabi.

On the subject of violence. Kabul seems to be surprisingly a very calm, very friendly place. Foreigners are vulnerable, because they are visible, which is the reason for the guards, who are superb deterrents. But on the other hand the person on the street is happy to have foreigners here (especially Americans, it seems). All guests are honored, and they go out of their way to smile, show me something, include me, and offer assistance.

There has never been a violent event in the company in the four years of its existence. Though there was one murder three days ago, it was a huge exception; the first in a year or so, and a very shoddy deed by a mad man. A native pointed out that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are at least 40 murders a night, in Washington, D.C. 3-4 murders a night. The one a year in Kabul makes international headlines for days. Go figure.

Though not reported in the news in the US, the Afghans hate the criminals, they love the coalition forces for freeing them from the Russians and then the Taliban, and are constantly cooperating with the police, informing on gang activity, threats, etc. and with very few exceptions, it’s working. Kabul appears safe, if not safer than any city in the world of its size, because of the peaceful attitudes of its citizens.

The Russians, the Afghan civil war and the Taliban were horribly, viciously cruel to the people here, and the Americans and coalition allies have provided them with peace and safety unknown for a generation. The Russians, warlords and Taliban destroyed the country’s infrastructure for thirty years; water, electricity, roads, libraries, schools, hospitals, theaters, nearly everything of value. They murdered one or more members of nearly every single Afghan family. The scars run very, very, very deep here. They are on every street corner.

The Afghans lived through a debasing horror most Americans simply cannot grasp. And so the Afghans are deeply and humbly and optimistically grateful. Don’t be swayed by the scare stories in the media. The last thing the mass media wants to report is a nice quiet night in Kabul, which the vast, vast majority are.

The real story here is how the poor cope with their destroyed society and work with almost nothing to re-build lives, to recover from three lost decades and a million and a half loved ones. It will take much, much more than the occasional murder to slow them down. And if the US really wants to bring peace, freedom and justice to these countries, it cannot bolt and run at the first gunshot on the other side of town. I will not allow myself to feel that fear. If I did, I would be too deeply ashamed. The people I have met here have endured so much. The least I can do is stay and help. They have shown so much hope, faith, respect, warmth, welcome and joy to me.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Streets of Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Exiting the Airport brings you into a wide boulevard. And scenes of vast destruction. The scars of 30 years of war and tyrants are everywhere. Piles of barely identifiable rubble are interspersed with buildings pockmarked with hundreds of bullet and shrapnel hits. Some 4-5 story buildings are partially collapsed on one end, with fronts and backs blown out. 1,000 lb. chunks of concrete dangle over the sidewalk, attached only by a piece of re-bar—and there’s no yellow caution ribbon (imagine that).

Other buildings are completely collapsed, the floors pancaked on top of one another. Some larger buildings are not terribly damaged, but all the windows are blown out and a fence surrounds them. You wonder if they are due for rebuilding or demolition.

The streets. The thing about the streets and sidewalks here are that they look like they were once comfortable and elegant. Most are wide and were once well paved. There are sensible traffic circles and definitely identifiable districts of nice-looking4-5 story buildings 50-100 years old. Now, though, most of the grand boulevards are an obstacle course of potholes. Many are 1-2 feet wide and 3-6 inches deep. If you drive through them at more than 5 mph, you’ll tear off a wheel and give every passenger a concussion.

So driving here is like a bumper car ride slalom course, with a little grand prix video game mixed in. Drivers swerve at top speed left and right to avoid the pot holes. The main boulevard into downtown from where I work is maybe 6 lanes wide. There are no lane markings, and the goal of drivers in both directions is avoiding potholes. We’ll frequently swerve 2 lanes into opposing traffic to avoid a series of nasty potholes on our side. I now know the definition of a “hair-raising ride”. I sit in the backseat, the only one wearing a seatbelt, screaming “how could you do that?” Amazingly, I have not seen a single accident. We kissed bumpers with another car once in traffic, but given the condition of most Kabuli cars, if nothing falls off in a crash, then no harm done. Think bumper cars at an amusement park—or NASCAR unplugged.

I haven’t seen a single road sign, in Kabul, not one traffic light, one street light (operating), nor one stripe on a road. I was told they were all destroyed in the wars to confuse invaders. Besides the wide boulevard, the city is a warren of small roads and neighborhoods that look nearly the same. A river and a few canals slash through the city, adding unexpected barricades and detours. I don’t know how anyone finds their way around. If I drove a car here, I’d be lost for years.

There are many traffic circles, and some even have policemen sitting inside little sheds in the middle. They don’t appear to be too interested in directing traffic. A few times when traffic became a hopeless snarl they would wade out into the sea of cars with a little paddle like sign that said stop. It had a small effect on the half dozen cars in his immediate vicinity, but mostly no one else knew he was there. At one circle, a traffic cop shouted directions over a loudspeaker from his car. Innovative and unique, but doubtful anyone paid much attention.

In my neighborhood where there was a lot of fighting during the Afghan Civil war in the 1990s, so the sidewalks are torn up into large concrete chunks, and most people walk in the streets. On the side streets, speed is kept down by significant speed bumps at each intersection. They must have been built as a defensive measure to discourage drive by shootings. They’d never get past the intersection without coming to a full halt. The speed bumps are just piles of rubble, and in some places they have worn away to reveal a 3-4 deep by 12’ wide trench, a concave speed bump that is just as effective in slowing or stopping cars.

Despite all the craziness, I never see road rage. Horns honk constantly, but they are politely melodic horns that play a little ditty, not loud and pushy like American cars’ horns.

People constantly cut each other off, but it’s all part of the game, like a chess game. Stoic drivers all, they know that the aim is to get in front of the person who is in front of you. And after a week of hundreds of what Americans would call close calls, no car I’ve been in has been hit, or hit another (well, one little tap at a stop), and I’ve never even seen a wreck—though I hear there are terrible ones all the time.

On some street corners, there are piles of trash 4-5 feet high in a 20’ circle. Sometimes a herd of goats browses on top looking for something to eat. Every couple of days a dump truck is there and a handful of guys shovel the trash for a couple of hours. This is the trash disposal system for this neighborhood. I’m told that after the US led invasion trash littered the streets everywhere for months. This is a huge improvement.

There is remarkably little trash blowing in the streets or piled other than these apparently designated spots. I’ve seen worse on I-77. Among the great needs here are dumpsters to contain the trash and a fleet of trucks to empty them. The health risks are huge, especially considering the dry dusty winds that pick up all sorts of junk and blow it everywhere. The US should melt down all its SUVs and send the steel to Afghanistan where they could mold it into dumpsters. That would be one of the most effective things we could do to “fight terrorism.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

America 's Debt to Afghanistan

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Just when I thought it can’t get any wilder, today I took a trip into one of the poorest sections of Kabul, a neighborhood of families from the Northern Afghanistan Panjir Valley. I was invited by my assistant, Ayoob, to attend a lunch celebrating a cousin’s engagement. He thought I would be interested in the local ceremony. Since it was Friday, the Muslim day off, the office was closed and of course I wanted to see more of the city and its people. We took off on one of the hair-raising car rides across town. I shot some video from the front passenger seat that captured the ride pretty well.

We ended up at a dead end street that climbed one of the several mountains that thrust maybe 1,500 feet up from the valley that comprises greater Kabul and divide the city into 2-3 sections. The paved road became gravel, then two hard mud ruts as we drove up several hundred feet then stopped in front of a tiny shack of a store. A half-dozen kids watched, fascinated with us while Ayoob spoke with a group of young men.

The store, which had a few packs of cookies, the ubiquitous 2 litre Pepsi and other colorful soft drink bottles, some neatly displayed plates of lentils, rice and greens, and a few household items like bleach, soap and tissues. The owner was proud to have me take pictures. The homes were cockeyed mud shacks of among the worst you could imagine. A spigot ran with water and kids played in it. The sum total of visible recreation. No soccer fields, no basketball hoops, swings.

It was on the edge of a sprawling cemetery with headstones of all shapes, from finely carved to a raw piece of field stone. There were thousands. Hardly a tree, or patch of green; just piles of dry dusty rocks with dusty paths threading between them. Green flags flew above some of the graves. Poorer ones had just a slash of green paint, which I learned are memorials to fallen soldiers of the wars- martyr’s graves which you see everywhere.

Ayoob said we had to walk from there to his cousins’ house. We struck off through the cemetery. A group of kids tagged, along, mostly boys, but some jaunty girls too, wanting nothing more than to stare, be smiled at and have their picture taken. They were quiet and polite. We climbed up a path into a group of houses that blended together in a multi-story jumble. Quite steep and rutted and impassable except by foot. Knots of tough-looking characters hid from the bright sun on the corners and in doorways; not menacing, just curious.

This was becoming the classic third-world back alley slum, I’d see in news stories about the poor and starving of Africa and India, and I was a bit concerned how far in we would hike and how bad it would get. A small stream of raw sewage ran down a narrow trench in the middle of the path, fed by pipes from each house. It was lined with old plastic bags and it was as difficult to maneuver, like an uphill mountain path, though houses clung to both sides.

Even tinier alleys zipped off and around the “sewer” path. At times we had to jump from rock to rock to avoid the sewer. The smell was pure outhouse. Yes, it had become a model of the kind of 3rd world poverty you see in documentaries made only by people braver than me—or so I thought. But here I was right in the middle, surrounded by gaggles of kids and stared at by strange, shadowy figures in doorways. I trusted that Ayoob, our driver and another of his friends weren’t leading me into some sort of ambush. My video camera rolled continually.

Finally after a couple of breaks to catch our breaths from the up hill climb, Ayoob motioned me into a patio-like area saying it was his cousin’s house. The house was mud and straw, brown—we had stepped though a time warp of 2,000 years. But it was swept clean and we walked through a dark doorway. Entering a side room was a pleasant shock. A stunning, spotless red Persian carpet was on the floor. The walls were a soft, freshly painted ochre, and comfortable red cushions hugged the wall. The ceiling had visible round wooden beams, again a soft ochre color. It was actually a design that you might pay thousands of dollars to create in the West.

Coming in from the hot sun, the thick stone/mud walls made it cool. We were much higher than the Kabul dust bowl, so the air was lovely. A large window looked down over the cemetery and beyond. Ayoob pointed to an Afghan flag about 2 km distant. It was home of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president. After the walk, it was one of the most inviting rooms I’d ever seen, and an absolute contrast to the outside in its ordered serenity. At one end was a cabinet with glass and china dishes, a few photos and a teapot.

One gentleman already seated on the floor. He was a relative, but also introduced by Ayoob as a former teacher and Dean of the Faculty at Kabul University. Ayoob warned me that professors and teachers are among the poorest Afghans, but this was still a surprise.

We had a long talk, which I video taped, about his experiences during the Taliban reign of terror, when he ran a secret school. The school room where he taught a handful of neighborhood girls from the neighborhood to read and do math was behind a hidden door in this house. The Taliban had come regularly and tried to arrest him, but could never find any evidence that he actually had a school.

He told me this slum was populated by people from the Panshir Valley up north. They are a very proud, independent people. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s, most of the families living here (maybe 500-600) had been living temporarily in Kabul, working, attending the University, or just visiting on business. The Soviets closed all the roads into the Panshir, stranding these people in Kabul. They had no permanent homes, so they built shacks in this difficult to reach area of the city. They were against the law to build, but basically out of reach of the Soviets. Their lives became a sad, concentration camp of an existence with no water, sewerage or electricity.

Today, it continues to be a terrible slum. There are no medical facilities or stores. Water and everything else has to be carried up the steep, rocky paths. There is very little fuel to cook with. There are no schools or transportation. Many of the people are hungry. Most workers sell things on the street making a few cents a day for the barest amount of food and clothing. One blessing is municipal electricity, but it fluctuates and is only on for a few hours a day at best.

The people from the Panjir Valley are the people of the mujahadeen; the Northern Alliance which helped the US defeat the Taliban. They were also the people armed by the US to defeat the Soviets who overthrew Afghanistan’s open and flourishing society in the early 1970s. Later they fought the fanatic warlords in Afghanistan’s civil war. They fought the Taliban for years before 9/11, with no help from the US or Europe. They were the forgotten people who harried the Soviets, and were a great influence on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

In that alone the U.S. and the world owes them a great debt.

The Panshiri then fought the fanatic followers of Gulbadin Hekmatyr, the bloody Afghan despot who made his home in Kabul and caused so much unrest and destruction in the civil war that followed the Soviet departure. With the end of the cold war, sadly, the U.S. neglected their mujahadeen friends, dropped their support, drastically weakened the Panshir and they were pused into the northern Panshir valley. This opened the door to the Taliban who put a yoke of nightmarish proportions on the Afghans. But the Panshir still kept their freedom up north and against all odds fought the Taliban as the Northern Alliance.

For years, the US provided only meager military support to the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, were locked safely away in a place few people knew how to find on a map, and the struggle against them by the Northern Alliance meant little or nothing to the US. Consistent with its historically inane foreign policy, the U.S. actually thought the bloody, draconian Talibs were good for Afghanistan. Until 9/11.

When it decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001, the US suddenly remembered its friends from 20 years earlier who helped with the Soviet collapse. If you remember, the first month of the war went very slow for the US. Critics called it a quagmire comparable to Viet Nam. No cities were conquered. The US was losing troops. Though the U.S. dropped millions of bombs on the already shattered Afghan infrastructure, they weren’t making much headway on the ground.

TheTalibs, knowing the culture and land, ran circles around the US. The Northern Alliance, still stung by the U.S.’s short memory during the Afghan civil war and subsequent Taliban takeover were a bit reticent. But when they decided to cooperate, the Taliban was beaten in a matter of weeks.

It should not be lost on any American that Afghanistan has been a comparatively peaceful place for years now. (Although due to neglecting rebuilding infrastructure, the Taliban are becoming more popular and brazen in 2007.)

It is of the utmost sadness that this community in Kabul is so destitute. I met two Northern Alliance, Mujahadeen officers. They told me they loved America, but they are poor, they had both lost their feet in a mine explosion during the Soviet war. They want to be remembered by Americans. Their children do not have a school there. There is no access for emergency vehicles. Water has to be carried from the village well, up hundreds of feet to the houses, most is carried by the young. There is no medical care. They have been shut out of Afghan government in favor of warlords who support the Taliban, even after the coalition victory.

Despite this, they were overjoyed that an American would trek up to visit their desperate village. They wanted to send a message to America through my video camera, asking them not to be forgotten. They feel a strong, soulful bond with Americans in their love of freedom and their willingness to fight for it.

They are grateful that America helped them defeat the Taliban, and want America to stay and help secure the freedom of their country. There are many enemies of Afghanistan. The Afghans have gone to great lengths to tell me that the violence this spring is not being done by native Afghans. They are orchestrated by criminal gangs of Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Arabs and others who want an unstable Afghanistan with no law and order, and jump on every opportunity to encourage the naïve and ignorant. The press here goes to great lengths to prove that the violence and destruction has no benefit or logic for Afghans. It is all from outsiders. I don’t know if that message is getting across to America.

The Afghans are willing to fight these forces, but they are certain it will not be against Americans. They only ask that Americans help their children and their war-injured, and help bring their people, who fought together with and did so much for America, to return just a little of the favor they so desperately need. I hope this message gets across to America.

They graciously invited me to share their meal and celebration, were proud to be photographed and interviewed. I thanked them for sharing the meal and the joy of their children’s engagement and walked back down the steep paths, in a daze, a parade of children following, still wanting their pictures taken. We passed a dozen children carrying water up the hill, in cast-off yellow jugs of brake fluid, side stepping the open sewers, climbing up the scattered rock steps.

And beautiful children they all were, indeed. If any one in America wants to help Afghanistan, to thank these people for saving the children of America, this is a place to start.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Life in a Kabuli guesthouse

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I thought it might be interesting to describe a day in the life here. It’s a very different life, and being the only, well not just American, but westerner I see or even speak with all day gives everything an interesting slant.

Sun rises just after 4:00 am in Kabul. For the first week I was up even earlier. A mosque around the corner and the mullah begins calling over a tinny loudspeaker around 3:30 AM. I quickly learned that using earplugs I might get another hour or so of sleep. I live in what is known in Afghanistan as a guest house. There are scores of them in Kabul, and have a long history of being a major lodging for travelers. There are only 2-3 full-service hotels in Kabul at the moment (very pricey and not worth it), and the guest houses fill the gap.

Guest houses are 2-3 story buildings in a compound with high walls topped by concertina wire. They have 5-10 comfortably sized guest rooms. Mine is about 12x14 ft. There is a wardrobe and a closet. The walls are nearly 2 ft thick masonry and stucco on both sides, but there are 2 large windows. Opening the garish red velveteen curtains provides views of the 8 ft. high walls with concertina wire crowns. But the sun shines in when I pull open the curtains-- if they don’t fall down from the tugging-- and you can see a slice of blue sky a few taller green trees and birds flitting from them. It’s like a prison, actually. You begin to appreciate the smallest things.

The bed has been very lumpy, but they put on a new three inch thick foam mattress, so it’s much improved, despite being three inches too short to fully stretch out. There’s no TV, but I do have a reading light, and I bought a tiny Chinese-made shortwave radio (a “Singbox”) that picks up the few local stations. In the right weather I can pick up the BBC. Hearing clear English is a comfort. There is a desk where I keep a 2 litre bottle of purified water and a power strip to recharge all my battery operated things: camera, computer, cell phone, video camera batteries, etc. A thin red carpet that keeps down the echos bouncing off the concrete walls. Stains cover the walls and furniture. It looks like a cheap city flop house room. Adequate, but nothing comfortable about it. Nothing at all.

The bathrooms are down the hall in one “bathroom” suite. There are 4 private bathrooms for 5-6 men. It’s an all male guest house. Each bathroom has a western sink and toilet, but the shower juts out of the wall into the middle of the room and splashes on the floor, so the whole room is the shower stall. Well, floor to ceiling is all tiled, so what the heck, but the water does splash everywhere including the toilet seat, your shaving kit on the little shelf, your dry towel hanging on the door, and your night clothes hanging on the wall. There’s plenty of hot water before 6:30 am, which is the one comfort, not the least because the dry dusty Kabul air cakes in your sinus, and the steam gives them a good cleaning. The five minutes after a shower is the best breathing of the day.

(to be continued)