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Afghan women line up to vote under Afghan National Police protection*

Workers take ballot boxes to a remote polling station in Panjshir Province **

Within hours, the polls will open for the 2010 Afghan Parliamentary elections

I supported the Afghan National Army and Police forces during the 2009 Afghan Presidential election and was relieved when the parliamentary elections (originally scheduled for May) were postponed.

So with apologies to Clint Eastwood, here’s my take on the upcoming elections…

The good:  People will vote.  It’s obvious, but we tend to forget that an election in a country like Afghanistan is a Big Deal.  Are Afghans racked by war?   Duh.  Illiterate?  Almost entirely.  Discriminatory?  Mostly…especially against women.   But despite all that, Afghans will turn out to vote tomorrow, choosing their representatives on a ballot (like this) with candidate icons and pictures.   And 405 of the 2,577 candidates will be women.

The bad:  There will be fraud.  With fake voter registration cards going for only 23 cents apiece, it might be more accurate to say there will be LOTS of fraud.  But there is some silver lining:  It shouldn’t be as bad as the 2009 Presidential elections, and both Afghans and the International Community are watching closely, so it should get better over time.

The ugly:  As Joshua Faust points out, there will be blood.  According to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, Afghanistan has deployed 52,000 Afghan National Police and 63,000 Afghan National Army personnel across the country to provide election security.  Additionally, NATO forces stand ready to provide emergency security, medical and logistical support.  But voters are a VERY lucrative target for the insurgents, and the Taliban is both ruthless and effective…

Bottom line: For good, bad, or ugly, Afghans will choose their representatives tomorrow.  Like Rat, in Stephan Pastis’ comic Pearls Before Swine, I expect the best…

* Photo by Tyler Hicks, of the New York Times

** Photo by Shah Marai, of Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Luncheon at the Communication Support Unit headquarters

SSgt Jara, USAF, eats lunch with Afghan security guards in Panjshir*

Ramadan — known in Afghanistan as Ramazan — was a bummer, mostly because I’d really grown to love Afghan food.

When meeting with Afghans, we ALWAYS had chai, and usually also had a tray with tidbits like yellow raisins, dried yellow peas, almonds, pistachios, and rock candy crystals.  Often we  shared more exotic tidbits too…strange commercial candies, simyan (kind of like thin, curry-flavored chow mein noodles), laddu (honeyed balls of chick-pea flour), or almond meringue chunks.  And sometimes, we enjoyed a full-blown luncheon…shishkabobs and fresh naan, exotic soups, fruits, and vegetables, and sometimes even khabili, a traditional Afghan rice dish.

Except during Ramazan.  Most Afghans fast and refrain from drinking during daylight hours, and Coalition members go out of our way to not eat or drink around Afghans.  Which means neither chai nor fun Afghan food.

Most interesting though was talking to Afghans about the Coalition perspective on fasting.  My Afghan friends found it hilarious that we referred to ‘not eating food’ as ‘fasting’…to drink while fasting was almost inconceivable.

Bottom line:  I was embarrassed to forget that for most Afghans, not eating food during the day isn’t part of Ramazan.  It’s just a normal day…

* Photo by SGT Teddy Wade, US Army

Kids near the airport: My final view of Kabul

My last evening in Afghanistan

I left Afghanistan late on 22 April, returning to Okinawa for a brief period, then moving to Texas and a new assignment.

My last image of Kabul was a small group of kids with big smiles…the girls were waving and the boys were giving us the “thumbs up.”  I like to think they believed things were getting better — slowly of course, but better — and appreciated our help.  But to this day, I wonder.

In Afghanistan, a “thumbs up” is notoriously hard to interpret.  Those who wish us well use it, because they’ve learned it means “excellent” in America.  But those who wish us ill use it too, because traditionally, it’s an obscene gesture.

Maybe they were just being ironic…

Bottom line:  To the kids of Afghanistan, farewell.  And fare well!

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High five

High fives in Kunar*

Soap bubbles

Bubbles in Kabul**

One of my most popular posts is one from a while back on Dari Phrases You Need to Know.   In case it’s not obvious, this is the sequel:  Ten phrases that can take you beyond the “minimum essential” and into the “nice to know”…

  1. Mushkelnest – No problem.
  2. Qabelishnest – You’re welcome.
  3. Zhwan! – Energy/life.  Soldiers will often say this after being recognized for exceptional performance.  I asked a terp what it meant the other day, and he struggled a little, as it doesn’t really have an exact English translation.  A different terp though, who can speak Dari, English, and Army explained, “It means ‘Hoo-ah!'”
  4. Drust – OK.
  5. Ba’le – Yes.  And its counterpart…
    Ne – No.
  6. Khub’ast – Cool (lit., “good is”).  You can make it a little stronger too, as…
    Besyar khub! – Very good!
  7. Booga booga booga – Say it, say it, say it.  Kind of an all-purpose phrase, it’s sometimes used like, “Blah blah blah…” but more often as the Dari equivalent of, “You go, girl!”
  8. Chitur hasti? How are you?  This is the informal version, used between friends (the formal version is in my previous post).
    Khub hastam – I’m good.
    Chuma chitur hasti? And you?
  9. Zenda bashi – Take care (lit., “health always”).
  10. Yak team wahed – One team together.  I love this phrase because it speaks volumes about the challenge of serving here in Afghanistan.  We have to build enduring National Security Forces in a country that, until we got here, didn’t even have a word for Team (Americans are known for being fiercely independent, but geesh, we’ve got nothing on the Afghans…).  After 50,000 years of history though, the Afghans finally have a word for Team:  team.  Almost without exception, Afghans are quick to pick up the good ideas the Coalition has to offer.  And teamwork is certainly one of our better ones!

Bottom line:  Language matters.  Give some Dari a try!

* Photo by SSG Gary A. Witte, US Army, from Soldiers Media Center on flikr.
** Photo by Stephon M. Sterns.

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HQ ISAF

From the posh courtyard of Headquarters ISAF...

Helmand

...to a shallow pit in Helmand, this country has it all!*

A few folks have stumbled upon this blog while searching for “Poster Experience May Vary”…you may even have been one of them!

And though they found a bunch of cautiously optimistic posts (and a few snarky ones), they never found the poster they were looking for.

Until now.  Here it is, the official Afghanistan: Your Experience May Vary poster!

This poster is also available on a light background, if you prefer.  Both are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence.

Bottom line: Thanks for reading!  Hope this was the poster you were looking for!

* Photo by David Guttenfelder, from Time magazine.

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IT2 Gonzalez

IT2 Gonzalez, gathering gear for a support mission*

IT1 Beiser

IT1 Beiser and children during a volunteer mission**

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve got a GREAT team of Coalition Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in my organization.  But three have really stood out recently:

IT2 Gonzalez is a communications technician working in my Current Operations section.  He is directly responsible for providing mobile comm support for LTG Caldwell, the Commander of NTM-A and CSTC-A.

Because of his professionalism and expertise, IT2 Gonzalez was my #1 select to provide communications support to LTG Caldwell during his recent visits to forward operating bases in Afghanistan.  He flew ahead of the General and coordinated classified and unclassified telephone and network services with each host site.  He was recognized by the Command Sergeant Major for his ability to anticipate LTG Caldwell’s every communications need.

IT1 Beiser is my Afghan National Army (ANA) Tactical Communications Fielding NCO. In this job, he helps the ANA field the correct number and type of radios to the correct units, ensuring ANA Commanders have the means to effectively command their units in combat.  IT1 Beiser also advises an Afghan Colonel, providing valuable input into ANA radio equipment, supply, and storage plans.

IT1 Beiser assists the ANA Communications Support Unit (CSU) too, advising generator mechanics, radio maintainers and operators, and even First Sergeants within the unit.  While working with the CSU, he’s driven vehicles and been entrusted with Vehicle Commander and Convoy Commander duties as well.

Finally, Capt Grocki is my Afghan National Police (ANP) Budget and Program Support Planner here at Camp Eggers.  As my ANP Contracting Officer Representative, he manages $221M in sales of US communications equipment and services, and ensures 13 multi-million dollar ANP comm support contracts remain in scope and on schedule.

Capt Grocki also worked closely with the Kabul Regional Contracting Center, shepherding four contracts through technical evaluation and contract award.  He developed Quality Assurance plans for each contract and ensured Technical Oversight Representatives were assigned to conduct regular inspections of contractor performance.

Bottom line: IT2 Gonzalez, IT1 Beiser, and Capt Grocki are great Americans, making great things happen in Afghanistan.  I’m honored to serve with them here.

* Photo by LCDR Tony Saxon, USN.
** Photo by Lt Col Fred Kelsey, USAF.

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Afghan Policeman

ANP Policemen in Kunar province*

ANA Commandos

ANA Commandos in Khandahar**

There was a great article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times earlier this week about the Afghan National Security Forces operating in Marjah.

It’s a great article NOT because it’s got great news.  On the contrary.  It’s great because transparency about ANA and ANP deficiencies is the first step to fixing them.  Some excerpts:

Fundamental to plans for undermining the insurgency is to set up Afghan security forces — robust, competent, honest, well equipped and well led. If such forces can be created, then the plan is to hand them responsibility for the security achieved by the Army and Marines, allowing for an American withdrawal.

But the bad reputation of the Afghan police forces, in particular, along with the spotty performance of Afghan forces in Marja, suggest that the work and the spending of billions of American dollars to date had not achieved anything like the desired effects.

The Afghans in the meeting with the colonels were blunt: ‘We’re with you. We want to help you build. We will support you. But if you bring in the cops, we will fight you till death.’

Afghan soldiers … looted the 84-booth Semitay Bazaar immediately after the Marines swept through and secured it. Then the Afghan soldiers refused to stand post in defensive bunkers, or to fill sandbags as the Americans, sometimes under fire, hardened their joint outpost. Instead, they spent much of their time walking in the bazaar, smoking hashish.

Bottom line:  C.J. Chivers describes the next phase of the Marjah operation perfectly:  “It is a race for Afghan government competence and a contest for respect and for trust, in a place where all are in short supply.”

* Photo by Liu Jin, from Foreign Policy.
** Photo by SSgt Larry E. Reid Jr., USAF, from Defense Imagery.

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