October 18, 2012

Name: Skip Rohde
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Asheville, NC
Milblog: Ramblings From A Painter
Email: skip@skiprohde

The title of this post pretty much describes what I've been doing over the past few days. We've been busy little government bureaucrats, but at least we're out of the office.

A few days ago, a group of us went on a walk through the bazaar right here in Hutal. We needed to get a good look at some areas where we might do some projects to improve the place. The goal is to make it more of an economic engine for this really, really poor district. So our group of Army Civil Affairs people and DST members, along with a contingent of seriously-armed soldiers, met up with the District Governor in the morning. We wandered up and down the three main thoroughfares, looking at the roads (dirt), parking areas (dirt), ramps off the highway (dirt), and areas where we might put sidewalks and other pedestrian control features (gravel and dirt). We also checked out the grounds of the government-run clinic to check on its wells, power, security, and general condition. Our stroll took about an hour and we returned back to the COP before it got too hot.

Regarding the general condition of the bazaar, I'd say that it makes Tijuana look like Beverly Hills. The shops are tiny, most of them around 8-10 feet wide, maybe 10-15 feet deep, made out of mud bricks with dirt floors. Some of them have electricity provided by either a small solar panel on the roof or else a small portable generator. No a/c, of course, no fans, usually no lights, and no water. I didn't want to ask where their restrooms were -- the last time I saw a restroom (at the school), I almost wished I hadn't. The shops sold the usual stuff: cell phones, drinks, food, clothes, sewing materials, seed and fertilizer, bicycles, and cars and motorcycles. There were service shops as well: tractor repair, welding, a dentist, and so on. I know that there were shops specializing in the cultivation and sale of poppy, but I wasn't able to pick them out.

As for the people, I've seen friendlier faces at an Appalachian family feud. Nobody smiled at us, except for a few kids. Nobody was angry, either. Rather, they just stared, with this cold hard stare that said "Go. Away." There was no indication that they would actually do anything to us, not with all the Afghan police and Army soldiers around, but they certainly did not want us hanging around their bazaar.

So after an hour of this, we had all the information that we needed, and walked back to our base. We're starting the process to get these projects planned and built. Will it affect their opinion of us? No, and I don't care, frankly. The goal is to improve their facilities a little bit so they can all become a little more prosperous and less interested in blowing things up.

I went on another trip sometime later. This one was to an important village where we needed to talk about security issues. It was some distance away, so we went in a couple of groups of MRAPs and Strykers. This was my first time out in the boonies, and let me tell you, these guys have some serious boonies. Imagine driving across the Mojave Desert, only it's dirt, with fewer tumbleweeds, and with farm fields carved out of it for no obvious reason, and you've got a good idea. I rode in an MRAP. These things look like monster-sized Hot Wheels, but as big as they are, they have less room for a passenger than a Mazda Miata does. Every other cubic inch is taken up by radios, ammo boxes, electronic equipment, cables, and who-knows-what.

We got to the village and settled in for some serious haggling. We had brought along several Afghan district officials, and they were the ones who did most of the talking with the elders. It went on for quite some time, with a lot of give and take, and some raised voices, before things began approaching some sort of decision.

Most people (ourselves included, unfortunately) think of Afghan villagers as illiterate and ignorant Taliban sympathizers. None of that was true here. These people were intelligent, articulate, polite, forceful, educated, well-organized, and uninterested in any government-Taliban war. They reminded me of a group of pacifist Quakers who were familiar with the outside world and didn't want anything to do with it. And they were far different from the people we saw in the bazaar.

Once we reached a decision point, hospitality demanded that food be served. So out came the tablecloth, the bread, the bowls of yogurt drink, and the plates of ... well, stuff. I had plenty of the bread (it's really good), but passed on the yogurt drink as well as whatever the cooked stuff was. In my old age, if I can't identify it, I don't want to eat it.

Then it was time to go. We shook hands with everybody, headed back to our vehicles, loaded up, and headed out across the Mojave again. Our day's work was done. Well, no, it wasn't: I had to spend several hours on the computer writing up reports on everything that happened.

But I tell you what: it beats the hell out of working on the staff!


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