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OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE VII


Hook 'em Horns!

This is the continuation of a series of selected excerpts from my Afghanistan war journal recorded from October 2003 to August 2004. All OEB entries are previously unpublished.

The ruling to kill all Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.
-Osama bin Laden

CHRISTMAS IN KABUL

Tuesday 16December2003
Kabul, Afghanistan
Today, our platoon arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul via C-130 for a planned six-week stay through the holidays. This Afghan "city" is not exactly the Big Apple (it's more of a core, really), yet is still worlds apart from the Khost bowl area we've been used to.

-It has a real airport with actual commercial flights! (My first question: Why?)
-It has paved streets! (With sidewalks, no less!)
-It has a Starbucks with a ride-thru donkey window! (Okay, not really... but it can't possibly be far behind).

Granted, it is still undeniably a Third World capital of barely a Third World country, but nonetheless, all the signs of a burgeoning capitalism-in-training society are present. Think the abject poverty of Mexico City and the hustle & bustle of Hong Kong, mixed together with the landscape and potential volatility of South Central Los Angeles. And then throw in a whole lot of hajis with AK-47s.

The tiny camp that 2nd Platoon will be taking over perimeter security for is on the outskirts of the city. The five-ton truck driver who picked us up from the airfield apologetically cautioned us about the “bumpy roads” ahead. This was our initial clue that we had landed ourselves a virtual six-week R&R vacation here in Kabul compared to our previous surroundings. After the collective ass-pounding we took during last week’s missions, this ride felt as smooth as a lunar orbit.

And things only got better from there:

-An outstanding chow hall (not even a tent, but a real building at that!)
-A fantastic weight room, internet access terminals, dormitory-style rooms with actual doors that lock! From the inside!
-Real latrines with individual shower stalls and all the hot water you could possibly waste.

It's amusing that the element from Bravo Company we're relieving appears to believe they have been suffering up here all by themselves. Well, they have yet to set foot in FOB Fellatio! Boy are they in for a rude awakening. They truly have no idea how good they’ve had it here, a fact they are about to learn the hard way in just a few short days.

Until then, 2nd Platoon is being billeted all together -- basic training style -- in a makeshift tent adjacent to the rest of the shared facilities until B co. departs. It’s easily the best tent we’ve yet slept in since arriving in country. Internally heated, lights that actually work, and real doors instead of mere flaps on each end. And this is the worst it will be for us while we’re here? We’re not going to want to leave this place in six weeks time, that’s a given.

Wednesday 17December2003

Day two at tiny Camp Blackhorse. Here we’re actually served three full meals a day, as opposed to Salerno’s “two hots & a cot” status quo. I consume an individually packaged cup of chocolate ice cream with each one, simply because I CAN. Not gonna lose any weight here, no sir-ee-bob.
Being here is definitely a vacation of sorts from the war. The camp is actually a perimeter inside a perimeter and the threat level here is probably less than that of most major U.S. cities.

It’s also Officer Heaven (or Hell, depending on how you look at it). I'm willing to bet there are more “little bird” colonels and majors per sq. ft. hiding out here than anywhere else in theater. And just like our Bravo company, they all think this place is a shithole!

If anyone ever wonders why enlisted soldiers hate officers, this is your first clue. Most officers above the rank of captain -- especially noncombat arms "pogue" officers -- are complete sham-masters. They do nothing all day but drink coffee and send emails, and then complain about having to “rough it” while the rest of us work to ensure no bad guys kill them while they're getting their beauty sleep.

Salute this, Sir.

Thursday 18December2003

There’s a polyglot of approximately 5,700 NATO peacekeeping forces stationed in and around Kabul. So far we’ve encountered Germans, Italians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Mongolians… Mongolians? No word yet on what it is that these Multicultural Diversity Detachments actually do here. Judging by what we’re presently doing, it’s most likely setting up small camps like this one, guarding the perimeter of said camp, and spending the remainder eating, sleeping, working out, sending email, and watching movies. I.e., killing time rather than the enemy. It’s a good thing portable DVD players weren’t around during the Greatest Generation’s war or they’d likely still be camped out in England waiting to decide when to invade Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Friday 19December2003

We have only our platoon available for guard duty, but thankfully there are only four towers and a main gate to man, so the shifts aren’t too long or too often. (Six hours on, twelve hours off). Like everything else here at “Camp VIP” (with all the rank walking around here, that name seems to fit nicely) the OP towers are much improved over the ones at FOB Salerno. There are stools to sit on and much better wind protection, thus, even though we are at nearly 6000 ft. here in Kabul, the nights spent on guard are actually more tolerable.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) barracks are just outside the wire adjacent to my OP. The instructor NCOs who are training them stay here within our walls and it’s amusing to see the way they’re attempting to mold these former ragged tribesmen into Western-style soldiers.
They strut around all day in their new fatigues and combat boots, bright green berets cocked just so on their heads. They haven’t adopted U.S. Army grooming standards by any measure (or even Air Force Special Ops standards for that matter), but the hair length appears to be kept within reason and the beards neatly trimmed.

The scene doesn’t exactly recall Fort Benning (a distinct lack of drill sergeants and accompanying yelling prevents that), yet they appear to have promise. And doubly so when you consider that traditional Afghan warriors considered training to be an insult, and what are by now standard military tactics to be cowardly. All that business of "seeking cover" and "aiming at one's target"... for the birds. I'd say it depends on what kind of bird you had in mind -- eagles... or dodos.

I don’t quite think these guys are ready to fly solo and have us leave just yet, but hopefully they’re on their way to establishing some solid institutions that -- like our own armed forces -- can weather both good times and bad without disintegrating and reverting back to tribalism and “World of the Warlords.”

This certainly doesn’t appear to be a “kindler, gentler” Afghan army in the works -- not a female among them. And judging from the various stories of allegedly witnessed “man-love” incidents among even the top ANA commanders (I’ll spare you the specifics of said rumors in the name of common decency), “don’t ask, don’t tell” doesn’t seem to carry much weight among them either. These “Green Berets” would leave John Wayne speechless.

Saturday 20December2003
Today my squad led a QRF contingent to escort the departing elements of Bravo co. to KIA (Kabul International Airport; fitting acronym, is it not?). Try not to let the “airport” part throw you -- it bears about as much resemblance to a civilian air field as an up-armored humvee does to a Hummer H2.

The razor wired checkpoints were manned by machine gun-toting Krauts and crossing through it felt creepily similar to what it must have been like trying to circumvent the Berlin Wall during the bad old days of the Cold War. I half-expected to hear in a sinister German accent: “Ze papers, pleeze.”

You can add Canada, Sweden and the French (yes, even the backstabbing, lowly French) to the list of countries here with a NATO presence. There’s a few more I haven’t credited, but I can’t recognize their obscure flags so they’re SOL.

I got to ride up in the gun turret with my SAW during the ride in and out of the city. The funny thing about Kabul is that yes, there are actual streets and traffic but few, if any, discernible rules by which the traffic governs itself. Other than a loose (and when I say loose, I mean loose) consensus that opposing traffic drive on opposite sides of the road, there is little else to manage the flow. The few street signs you do see apparently are merely traffic "suggestions" to be followed only if one is in an agreeable mood. (And most Afghan drivers certainly do not meet this criteria).

When we roll out in force we necessarily have to “own the road,” as our security needs dictate that we not allow our vehicles to become boxed in or stalled by ordinary traffic. Plus, we’re Americans, we’re in a hurry, and we have very large guns mounted on our roofs. You’d think this would be enough to intimidate just about anyone.

Haji, however, is less than impressed. There’s some kind of strange Afghan driving machismo here that demands that even in the face of a giant armored convoy that could squash you like a bug--you must not back down. Hajis in tiny, beat-up Subarus will play chicken with our bulletproof humvees until we literally have to force them off the road to keep the convoy moving.

Kabul residents are understandably more jaded when it comes to a foreign military presence in their lives. Very few Afghans here even bother to wave at us anymore when we pass by; a huge departure from the rock star crowds we had become accustomed to attracting in rural Khost. Our popularity has gone overnight from Van Halen c. 1983 to Van Hagar c. 2003.

As I sit here writing these words, waiting in line to use the camp computer facilities, a trio of Mongolian soldiers are surfing the internet and using Yahoo! Instant Messenger. Before today, I wouldn’t have guessed that Mongolians were even aware of this technological marvel known as the internet, much less veteran IM chat masters on it. I suppose my cultural ignorance is showing again.

Sunday 21December2003

According to the Army news daily Stars & Stripes, my political hero Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Middle East recently, to include Afghanistan. (This development being the first negative result of us eradicating the Taliban I’ve yet to discover).

Her Travesty proceeded to wow us with her astute foreign policy expertise, pontificating that the Bush administration needs to increasingly internationalize its efforts [in the region] with a UN mandate: “We need the legitimacy of the United Nations in order to move forward,” said Slick Hillie.

In other words, we need to obtain continuing “permission” to proceed with the War on Terrorism from a world body that we had to drag kicking and screaming into the conflict in the first place.

Disgusting. And to think that this woman is discussed as a potential presidential candidate. A role model for freedom she is not. “Concerning Afghanistan, Clinton said, the political situation is much more stable than in Iraq but security issues regarding terrorists, especially along the border with Pakistan, remain a major concern.” [Emphasis mine].

Nice work, Senator Obvious. We were just over there recently, and I have to tell you, there is close to zero security along much of the Pakistani border. There are no roadblocks (other than ones we set up ourselves for a few days at a stretch), there are no roving border patrols; there are only a few widely dispersed observation posts at the top of various mountain peaks, too far away to stop and check foot and vehicle traffic even if they wanted to (which they evidently do not). Essentially, the border -- although technically “closed to commerce” (smugglers often trek their goods over the hills by mule to avoid notice) -- is an open sieve, allowing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces near complete freedom of movement in and out of the country.

Still, the Pakistanis claim to be an “ally” in the hunt for bin Laden and his cronies. With friends like these, who needs enemies? In my not-so-humble opinion, we will never find UBL or eradicate the remaining ACMs without unfettered access across the border and into the heart of Pakistan. Invasion, if you will. I would, but I know we won’t.

Like Cambodia was for the Vietcong, al-Qaeda will continue to use Pakistan as a safe haven and launching pad for further attacks on coalition forces for as long as they know that it is politically off limits to us. I seem to recall the Bush Doctrine as stating that all terrorists, and any nations that harbor them, will be held equally to account.

Apply your doctrine, Mr. Bush. The Paki’s are not our friends.

Monday 22December2003

Our living quarters have now improved dramatically -- barracks style rooms, central heat, real latrines and showers, a tv in every room -- yet our round-the-clock guard schedule dictates that we’re hardly afforded any free time to spend in them other than to sleep. Every time your guard shift begins it feels like you’ve just ended your previous one. This “R&R” is beginning to feel more like the “Three W’s”: work, work, and work. It helps to keep in mind that things could always be worse. Last month alone was proof enough of that.

It snowed for most of the daylight hours today. I’d say it reminded me of our post in Alaska, except for the fact that I haven’t actually spent enough time in Alaska to even see any snowfall. To date, I have racked up 4 ½ months on various deployments and an equal 4 ½ months in Anchorage since arriving at the 501st. And this is the unit that supposedly “never goes anywhere?"

Famous last words.

Tuesday 23December2003

B co. left behind a resident mascot to keep us company in the OP towers, a lab-mix puppy affectionately dubbed White Trash. Or Molly, depending on who you ask. In any event, W.T./Molly is the main attraction during lunch hours, as the dozens of coalition soldiers who come over from Camp Phoenix to take advantage of our vastly superior KBR civilian contractor chow facilities also tend to make the pilgrimage up to OP tower 1 to have their picture taken with the pup. White Trash never leaves the sanctuary of the various towers, so how she eats or “does her business” I do not know. I suppose her continued survival rests solely on the benevolence of her thrice-daily rotating tower mates.

My own OP has yet to benefit from her company. We have only Moby the Mystery Mouse to occupy our time, though only in the abstract. None of us has yet to actually witness Moby in action, but we hear him “lima charlie”* each and every night.

* Radiospeak for 'loud & clear'

Lunch was literally a star-studded affair today. Several generals -- even an escorted Afghan one -- graced us with their "god-like" presence, wolfed down some beans n’ burgers, and temporarily increased the officer to enlisted ratio at Camp VIP even further, though if only for a few hours.

The glut of silver bars and oak leaf clusters all in one place reminded me of the story of a battalion commander of the 101st on D-Day, misrouted along with everyone else across the Normandy drop zones, who happened to link up with an impromptu squad composed of nearly all officers. Paraphrasing Churchill, he quipped: “Never have so few been led by so many.”
Today I used a sat-com phone to finally talk with my family for the first time since I left Alaska in October. It was great to be able to speak with them, even if the three-second delay meant that we were constantly stepping on each other’s sentences. (“Sorry, go ahead... No, you go... No, really... you go...")

Tomorrow I get a bit of a respite from OP monotony in order to take part in Operation Mail Recovery. The platoon sergeant and a few of us joes will ride up to Bagram to see about tracking down whatever packages and letters we may have received since arriving in Kabul. The 501st mail clerk that we have there is supposed to have rerouted it to Camp Phoenix instead of Salerno, but lately he’s been incommunicado.

Wednesday 24December2003

Christmas Eve
Welcome to Bagram Air Field: Land of the Big P/X!

It turned out to be not quite so big after all, but BAF is still the Epcot Center to our little Pogueworld home away from home (FOB Salerno) away from home (Ft. Richardson) away from home (our actual homes).

Roughly 45 minutes north of Kabul, Bagram was the headquarters for the Russians throughout the Soviet occupation and is by far the largest military installation in the country. It is also the logistical center for U.S. forces, as there are more lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains here in one place than anywhere else in Afghanistan. Even our own Camp Blackhorse; it looks like I would have lost that bet.

The ride to BAF from Kabul was a harrowing experience, to say the least. Four of us piled into a white Ford Ranger with our platoon sergeant, SFC Blenker, behind the wheel. SFC Blenker has adapted quite well to the Haji Rules of the Road, which is to say, no real identifiable rules at all. His driving certainly reflected this, as we spent more time on the "wrong side" of the road as we did the right. (Although, to be fair, there really is no “right” side, either).

The haji children in and around Kabul like to cross the road in front of your vehicle at the last minute, especially when you’re racing toward them at 100km/hour. (And don’t ask me to convert that into mph either; like any other red blooded American, I am a proud metric system moron). Apparently, it’s some kind of Afghan test of manhood to see how close you can come to causing a catastrophic accident utilizing your own body, without actually causing one. Perhaps video games and satellite tv aren't such bad ways to keep our kids occupied after all.

Hajis also have no use for street signs or traffic signals (probably due to the fact that there aren't any), yet they seem to just adore the scourge of the western world: the speed bump.

Who needs yield signs when we can just emplace a speed bump in the middle of the highway with virtually no warning and hilariously send unsuspecting foreign drivers careening weightlessly into the roof of their own car?

Haji humor. Always a laugh riot. Nothing says “funny” quite like a bruised tailbone and a lacerated scalp.

As it turned out, the trip was all-for-naught, minus a mild case of tendonitis from the near perpetual saluting required in such an officer-rich environment. (At one point, a captain yelled at me for inadvertently standing on “his” fresh patch of concrete. If you’re wondering, “Don’t they have anything better to do?” my answer to you is, no. From the looks of it, they really don’t). Our platoon’s mail had already beaten us to Camp Blackhorse via another unrelated misrouting. Though, if nothing else, it was one less guard shift I had to pull today. Score.

Thursday 25December2003

Christmas Day
Our latest batch of mail made its way here last night just in time for Christmas. That meant packages from my family! Never before would I have guessed that I could receive toiletries and socks as Christmas gifts and not only be happy about it, but wildly ecstatic. Only in Afghanistan.

The gifts were great; everyone who’s sent me stuff always seem to intuitively know exactly what I need or have a craving for, personal requests aside. I may have overstated my desire for extra smokes just a tad, however. I now have so many cartons on hand, if I were in prison I could start up a Savings & Loan.

Anytime I happen to catch any news or come across weathered backissues of Newsweek or Time, it seems that the War in Afghanistan has taken quite a media backseat to another prominent American conflict in the broader Middle East. I understand the reasons why, yet it's still irritating to feel like you're risking your life in a place and for a cause that no one even remembers or cares about anymore.

As if to illustrate my point, this note arrived in a care package addressed to our squad yesterday:

Thank you for all your help in Iraq. You’re all in our hearts! Thanks so much!
Sincerely,
Deanna, Deering High School

IRAQ?
Oh well, I suppose it’s the thought that counts, after all.
Merry Christmas Deanna, and to all a good night.

Just dropped by to wish you a Merry Christmas. Thank you again for serving our country.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, Buck Sgt!

Merry Christmas, Darling!

Love,
Your Biggest Fan

I have thoroughy enjoyed your stories. Hope yopu had a Merry Christmas. Now, you've just been tagged! You can thank mom, lol.

Cherie Says......
I love when you publish your old blogs from Af-CRAP-istan. It gives me a glimpse of my husbands daily life from when he was over there with you.
Merry Christmas Brian!

Well, Happy New Year! and I do hope your Christmas was very boring.
I've added you to my bloglist, so I'll be checking back regularly. Take care and know there are a lot of supporters here in Texas that are praying for a free, safe Iraq and your safe return.

Nice ending to your story. I'm a bit late for Christmas but I'll toast you for the New Year!

You're all ate up and all you'll ever be is enlisted doo doo. Salute me, little E-5 while I take quadruple your pay to the bank and make you sleep in a leaky tent while I have cable, internet and a private room. Go OCS like I did if all you can do is whine.

WOW. Enlisted "doo doo"? Despite the contempt I have more 99% of officers, even I have a difficult time believing you are actually one. (Although you certainly possess the vocabulary of one.) I suppose you could be a butterbar 2LT, though. They're practically civilians in camouflage anyway.

Have fun in your "private room" with your cable tv and internet, "sir". We'll let you know how the war is going when we get back.

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"Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed." -- Abraham Lincoln