ON A CLEAR DAY |
February 21, 2012
It’s been cold a lot here in Mazar-e Sharif (MeS, pronounced, “mez” in the shorthand of English-speakers in Afghanistan). On my first tour, I think I got rained on a grand total of six times. On my second tour, there was a lot more rain. I even got rained on a few times in Helmand. I think we have had precipitation of one sort of another at least half the days I’ve been in country so far.
For water availability year-round, it’s more important to have snow stay on the mountains, especially where I have been before. In Kapisa, there were mountains that held snow right up to the beginning of July. The mountains around here seem to be just as massive, but lower in elevation overall. The snow on the mountains right here near MeS doesn’t seem to stay much longer than the snow on the surrounding lowland.
My first trip to meet with our Afghan counterparts, it was foggy and cold. The smoke of the many fires in MeS combined to form a thick, persistent smog that would have made Los Angeles of the 1970′s weep. The smell of wood smoke hung heavy in the air and burned the eyes slightly. Not much of MeS could be seen. Not much of anything could be seen. Add to that the fact that I was stuck in the back of a MAXXPro MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protective) vehicle, and my view of the city was limited to say the least.
The next trip was more visually stimulating. I worked as a vehicle commander, what we call a TC (Truck Commander), so I had a better view. The weather, while cold, was pretty clear. It seemed just a little warmer than the previous couple of days.
Perhaps that was just the sun.
Each movement starts out with a briefing called a Convoy Brief. Our SECFOR (Security Force) leader, SSG Pick, does a nice job of this. It’s very businesslike. A quick roll call to make sure everyone is present, the order in which the vehicles will travel is briefed, as well as who will ride in each vehicle and any special jobs they may be tasked with. Various contingencies are planned for, and this is briefed as well. If this happens, then we do that -- that type of thing. Communications issues such as frequencies, and who to call in case of various events that could possibly occur are addressed. The briefing doesn’t take long because SSG Pick keeps it focused and direct. After the briefing, there are a few minutes to mount the vehicles and position any carry-on gear so that it isn’t loose inside the vehicle.
The MRAPs are huge compared to the armored Humvees of my first tour. I traveled occasionally in MRAPs on my second tour, but always as a “guest.” Some of them have powered ramps with steps built into them that open at the rear of the vehicle for passengers to use to get to the passenger seats. Each seat has four-point restraints, and a few have five-point restraints. The interior of the vehicle is full of metal that one can bump one's head on, and each seat has an outlet for the communication system. Then there is the turret mounted on the top of each vehicle. Windows are thick, bulletproof laminate -- where there are windows. The passengers in the rear of the vehicle face the center, and so visibility is limited. It’s like riding in a can.
Body armor and helmets are worn, so climbing up into the vehicle, getting settled and pulling and buckling the restraint straps into place is done with extra weight and bulk on. As large as these vehicles are, there is little room to move. If you’ve ever struggled with a seat belt in an airplane seat after you’re already seated, imagine doing that with a barrel on and that’s along the lines of dealing with the restraints in the MRAPs. No one gives up on strapping in, though. The suspension systems are stiff, and it is quite possible to get bounced around the inside of one hard enough to break bones or get a concussion. In the event of a rollover in one of the top-heavy vehicles, being unrestrained could prove fatal.
The tall, diesel-powered trucks are guided by ground guides to the gate of the compound in which we live, then the ground guide (usually the vehicle commander) mounts up and straps in as quickly as possible. The convoy moves out towards the exit of the base. There is a ritual to exiting a FOB or base. Things are done just so.
And finally we move away from the mass of coalition forces and head off along the route to work. The path goes over a combination of paved and unpaved roads.
Each crewman wears a set of headphones with a microphone that is made to fit under the ACH (Army Combat Helmet) and affords the ability to speak both internally and over the radio. Radio traffic is generally limited to transmissions that let the other vehicles stay aware of events that may affect them, like approaching vehicles passing in the opposite direction, and when the lead vehicle has reached certain checkpoints. This is contrasted to the chatter within the vehicle, which may be muted or may be fairly animated and humorous. On this morning, the young Soldiers were playing a game that involved movie quotes. This mental game was interspersed with business conversation, the young Soldiers easily switching between the business at hand and the idle chatter of the chosen game.
We moved like steel elephants through the flow of Afghan morning traffic. People on their way to work at the base, trucks carrying fuel and other supplies, and Coalition patrols pass our little convoy. Each is quickly assessed and the appropriate level of attention paid to whether or not some threat may exist. Nothing happens other than vehicles pass, each bound for the business of the day. Sometimes there is a wave, often there is merely the successful passing of our monstrosities by a local driver.
As we get into the outskirts of the city, pedestrians appear. Civilian cars, taxis and tricycle vehicles built around a motorcycle, somewith passenger compartments, some with pickup truck-like beds, scuttle about. Jingle trucks and semi trucks chug through their workday as well. The lumbering MRAPs are just another large, top-heavy vehicle in Afghanistan. We do not bully the other traffic, and cars or trucks will occasionally get mixed into the convoy. A little girl waves and the young gunner in the turret waves back, commenting on how cute Afghan kids are in general.
Finally we head up the road towards the compound where we do most of our work. At every entry to every camp, FOB or base, there is a ritual performed to enter. Some are complex, some are simple. This one is marred by a gate that is frozen on its rollers. The convoy is almost diverted to another gate before the gate is finally freed and opens.
We park the vehicles in a large parking area and execute the process of dismounting, doffing unneeded armor, securing materials that will be needed and assembling together with the interpreters -- who are now being called Language Assistants or LAs -- prior to breaking into small teams and heading off to do what is planned for the day.
There are several buildings, and Afghans in uniform move about the compound. Some are obviously busy, some are casually going about the business of the morning. Others are clearly waiting. They watch us curiously as we move towards various offices. Most do not speak English. Many nod or exchange a greeting with us as we pass. After a movement in an armored vehicle, many of the Soldiers wish to visit the tashnab, the restroom. We enter one of the buildings and walk up a lit hallway to the doors halfway down the hall. Afghan soldiers move through the hallway, some chat in small groups.
The buildings are fairly new. There is electricity water runs in the pipes. Illuminated green exit signs hang at intervals from the ceiling in the hallways. The building is cold. I’m told that there is a heating system, but that it is too expensive to run. Many of the offices have electric space heaters which take enough of the chill away to be moderately comfortable.
Afghan offices are all very similar.The desk is usually placed near the windows, facing the door. Each office has some kind of cheap carpeting that was installed as part of the building. Over that is laid a handmade Persian-type carpet, often burgundy in color, that anyone would be proud to have in their living room. Most couldn’t afford carpets of this size, especially not in their office at work. A bed is often present (more often than not), usually against the wall where the door is located. Along the walls are either couches or harder bench-type seating, along with a chair that is normally reserved for the occupant of the office. Usually there are low tables, like coffee tables, in front of the seating. Most meetings are held in this central area of the office, with the officer coming out from behind his desk to sit with his guests. Some offices have runners laid between the door and the desk so that as people come in and out on routing business, the dirt isn’t on the plush carpet.
We enter an office and meet with a Colonel, who summons chai. This is a first meeting, and introductions are in order. The Colonel seems pleased with my Dari greetings, but mildly disappointed that I cannot carry on too much further without help from the LA. Chai arrives nearly instantly; we must have been expected.
The Colonel is quick to get down to business, and I’m not sure if this is because he is familiar with dealing with Americans or for another reason. The meeting goes smoothly, but longer than intended. This is to be a short day for us; the Afghan holiday celebrating the day the Russians left Afghanistan is coming, and many will have the next several days off. For an initial meeting, all went well.
A second, shorter meeting with another Colonel follows. A third Colonel, who needs to get a little time with us, jumps into the meeting. This is not LTC Grass’ first meeting with either, although it is mine. Courses of action for the near future are agreed upon, and soon we are headed out to repeat the ritual of mounting up to move back to Marmal.
As we head out, the terrain slopes down towards the city of Mazar-e Sharif. I see the city itself for the first time, stretching out into the distance. It is largely on flat ground, contrasting with the way that Kabul laps up the bases of numerous mountains. I search the tableau for the famous Blue Mosque but can’t identify it. Mildly disappointed, I am still impressed with the size of the city laid out before me.
We head back to the mud at Marmal. We made incremental progress, and my mood reflects that positivism.
This mission happened yesterday. It was Valentine’s Day. Somewhere.