Weird and Interesting Facts About Afghanistan:
The summer weather has arrived along with the fighting season. This will be the United States’ 12th [summer] fighting season in a row out here in this “Land of Wonderment”, it will be our last one too as we are on pace to remove all “combat” forces by 2014. This is the Afghan’s 35th fighting season in a row. The US military currently has about 68,000 uniformed troops on the ground here in Afghanistan. By the time you throw in all the “Coalition Forces”, defense contractors (mainly from the US), “Third Country Nationals (TCN”) and “Local Nationals (LN)” all working in direct support of the war effort, the total easily exceeds 500,000, so we’re still a long way from truly “drawing down”, but the politicians make it a point to only “count” the uniformed military personnel (pure politics which yields only a fraction of the reality). Nonetheless, we’re “leaving” Afghanistan and the process is now underway, and all Americans over here agree that it can’t happen fast enough. Concurrently, the peaceful locals (and most of them are actually very peaceful people) getting very nervous at the predictions of more fighting once we depart. These Afghans fought for centuries before we arrived and will fight for centuries more after we depart, it’s just that the US is their most current and convenient excuse for being so screwed up. No matter what we do or don’t do here from this point forward won’t divert the path the Afghans have already put themselves on, and let’s just say it’s not a promising one. Our focus these days is “Force Protection” and a bit of “advisory and assistance” to the Afghan military and government who are targeted to conduct 100% of the combat operations by the end of 2013. Personally, I’m about 75 days from being home and now consider myself in the “home stretch”.
I’m not sure how much more time I’ll have for writing as the fighting season is rapidly increasing our workload, so I thought I’d deliver at least one more salvo of “Weird and Interesting Facts About Afghanistan” before I run out of time. So here are some unfiltered insights and perspectives from Panjwai:
- As we are nearly the end of the annual poppy harvest, Afghanistan remains the top producer of opium in the world today, currently providing about 93% of the world’s demand. There are currently two million Afghans involved in opium production and trade (which is about 5% of this country’s population). Afghanistan is also now the world’s largest producer of cannabis/marijuana (last year there were 1,300 to metric tons of hashish produced here). The best pot shops in Amsterdam sell Afghan hashish (made from the marijuana resin) (since my arrival here I’ve learned more about narcotics cultivation, production and smuggling than I would have ever guessed!!). Not coincidentally, Afghanistan has the largest population of opiate addicts in the world (estimated at around 900,000, out of 31MIL, or about 3% of the population). Also not coincidentally, Afghanistan is commonly referred to as the most impoverished nation on earth as well as the most miserable country for women to live.
- Afghans are allowed to possess up to 5 pounds of opium “for personal use”.
- Wine and any type of alcohol are against Islam and possession of it brings harsh punishment.
- Afghanistan has been described as “war over 40,000 villages” none of whom are linked to a single common denominator, but rather are divided by many. Each have their own identity, religion or religious sects, ethnicities, tribe and tribal alignment, history and list of grievances and requisite need for revenge (e.g. Pashtun proverb: “I took my revenge after a hundred years, and I only regretted that I acted in haste.”)
- 23% of the Afghan GDP is paid in bribes. This place puts Chicago to shame!
- In addition to striped hyenas, Persian leopards and Asiatic black bears here in Panjwai we also have porcupines and squirrels. Did I mention Neanderthals? Yeah, we have them here too; they are just commonly referred to as “Taliban” (Sorry to insult the Neanderthals in such a callous manner!)
- Our military interrogate a lot of “detainees” throughout the various “detainment facilities” throughout country, down at our battalion level we call it “tactical questioning”, up higher, and subject to more restrictive rules and more specialized “interrogators” it’s called “interrogation”. Just for the record, there’s no torture or water boarding, or anything of the sort going on in these places, quite the opposite in fact. Each detainee receives a full medical screening, hot showers, hot food, dental checkups along with appropriate dental work done, they get a full eye checkup along with eye glasses. For the vast majority of them, it’s the first time they ever had either a dentist or a doctor check them out, for almost every one of them it’s the first pair of glasses they’ve ever received. Also, for most of them it’s not only the first hot shower they’ve ever received, but they also have routine access to them. But, ….. now that the Afghan govt is taking over many of these facilities (part of their self proclaimed “sovereignty” (less the $BILs we’re pouring into this place) the quality of care, food and cleanliness has plummeted. In these cases even the most hardcore Taliban mass murderers are missing the American Soldiers!! Throughout their own villages and communities the Taliban don’t allow sports like volleyball or soccer, but in prison they ignore their own proclamations and play both with vigor, and in sandals!
- During one interrogation the detainee who was being interrogated was told factually that his fingerprints had been found on an IED. Of course he denied it, when pressed the interrogators asked him how his fingerprints could have ended up on the bomb. The detainee finally remembered, and explained, “Oh yeah, was watching TV and I touched the TV screen. Later on they showed the bomb on the TV and then my fingerprints went onto the bomb”. Sure Haji.
- During another interrogation with a different detainee who also had his fingerprints found on a bomb the interrogator again challenged the detainee fully explaining to him that NINE of his fingerprints were found on the bomb. The detainee got all excited and proclaimed, while showing the interrogator both of his hands, each with five fingers, “See, it couldn’t have been me, I have TEN fingers!”
- Several months ago one of our UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems, better known by civilians as “drones”) crashed in a mountainous area. This particular model was relatively small (you could roll it into your two-car garage) and it was quickly found by some Taliban fighters. They quickly found a chain and chained it to a tree. Shortly thereafter they were captured and confessed to finding the downed UAS and eventually directed US Soldiers to its location. Upon finding the UAS, still chained to the tree, the Soldiers asked the Taliban fighters why they chained it to a tree. They explained, “because we were not sure what it would do next”. Apparently these guys have watched one too many pirated “Transformers” movies.
- Some of our slang names for insurgents or other nefarious characters who roam this area, whose names are unknown, are referred to as “Abu Bubba” or “Haji Akshit” or “Haji Bubba”.
- Recently there was a Shura (like a “town hall meeting”) here in Panjwai, this one included US military leaders. As usual, they talked about security, the Taliban, monetary claims against US forces (typically for damaging or destroying cropland, buildings or livestock), free UN handouts (like grains, seed, fertilizers, etc.), medical support and the like. This time they came up with a great recommendation for US forces. They suggested that the Americans not only build them a new school, but that we ought to pay people to go to school. We had to tactfully tell them we don’t even do that for our own US citizens in American. They couldn’t believe we were so callous. We had to remind them again of how many US and NATO funded schools still remain vacant throughout the area. They were not happy.
- Polio still exists in Afghanistan and Pakistan (only two countries in the world left with cases of polio). In Kandahar District only about 40% of children in Kandahar have been vaccinated, so new cases are diagnosed frequently.
- Afghans like to keep pigeons as pets but view dogs as dirty and are not kept as pets or allowed in the homes. They use dogs to guard their homes and livestock.
- The insurgents here use a method of shooting called “Spray and Pray”, and quite literally, that’s what it is. It’s taken me a while to figure out, but I now know there are a several reasons why they can’t shoot their small arms with anything that can resemble marksmanship. First, they don’t maintain their weapons hardly at all. Secondly, they receive little to no actual marksmanship training, at best it’s familiarization training. Third, virtually NO ONE has corrective eyeglasses (let alone Lasik!!) and lastly, they have openly admitted during interrogations that they believe it is Allah’s decision whether to make a bullet hit the intended target or not. Truly, that’s why they are always chanting “Allah Akbar” (“God is the Greatest”) whenever they are shooting. Truly, they pray to Allah asking him to make the bullets hit the “infidels”. We’ve actually watched Taliban fighters shooting Dragunov sniper rifles from the hip!!!. Oh, and for the record, according to the Koran, Christians are NOT infidels since we pray to the same God as do Muslims. But this slight religious technicality is conveniently overlooked as it helps motivate the illiterate Taliban who believe what they are told and what they want to believe. Since Korans are written in Arabic and since the Koran says it should never be translated (must be read in its “original form”) and since very very few Afghans can actually read Arabic, let alone their native language, it is very fair to assume that at least 99.97% of all the people we are fighting here in Afghanistan have NEVER read the Koran. As an alternative, they attend Madrassa schools which are where they are taught the Koran, and nothing else. It’s a favorite tactic of the Taliban to tell the locals that the Koran tells them that they have to do this or that, and since no one there can even read the Koran, they have to agree because it’s “what the Koran says”.
- Late last summer during some very hot days (105-110F), there were a number of incidents where our US Soldiers were conducting “combined” operations with our Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units and repeatedly, our Soldiers outworked and out marched their Afghan counterparts. Keep in mind our Soldiers were their full “kit” (AKA “Battle Rattle”) consisting of 50-60 pounds of body armor, helmet, camel-back, at least 210 rounds of ammo, personal locator beacon, first aid kit, night vision goggles and a slew of other “tactical bling bling”. Apparently, the Afghans were embarrassed that they couldn’t keep up with the US Soldiers and somehow some Afghan made the claim that it’s because the US Soldiers were given “heat pills” that allowed them to perform so well and so long in the heat. Immediately they demanded to be given heat pills too. Of course there are no such things, but they wouldn’t believe it and the whole situation almost grew to a full riot of sorts. We tried to explain to them again and again there were no heat pills. I’m guessing they finally accepted that there either no such thing or that they were just not going to be given any. Of course we’ve been over here for a dozen years already trying to share with them our work ethic, physical training, discipline, sense of duty and purpose, selflessness and personal courage, but it just doesn’t seem to translate. Heat pills or just plain old American guts, grit, elbow grease and brow sweat … you tell me. Sometimes just giving a damn about a better tomorrow and working for it can do more than any fictitious pill could ever do. But that’s not what they wanted to hear.
- Afghan men squat to urinate and believe Western men, Americans included, are dirty for standing and urinating. Their logic is that when you stand and pee, some of it splashes onto your clothing and that would mean you are then “soiled” and cannot pray to Allah (which is done 5 times a day) with soiled clothes. They also don’t use toilet paper (even when it’s available) since they do not believe it can possibly clean one’s anus as well as a bare hand (they only use their left hands). The other method for them to clean themselves after #2 is to take a bottle of water and with a knife punch holes in the cap and then squirt the water against themselves, we call this the “Afghan douche”. It might work, but it also leaves water all over the toilet seat (which they don’t wipe off). Just to recap: Americans are “dirty” because: we stand to pee, we use toilet paper, we eat pork, we let dogs in our homes and we wear shoes in our homes. Guilty!
- Each of our Soldiers, regardless of rank or time in service, receives $325.00 per month “combat pay”.
- Let it be known that our troops are doing magnificently out here and are again showing the world that there is not a finer, more disciplined military in the world today. I work with them daily and have the privilege of knowing this to be an absolute truth.
- That’s about all for this week from Lake Wobegon, save one parting thought; A couple of weeks ago I jotted a little poem of sorts, I call it “The Warrior Spirit”, goes like this: “The Warrior Spirit is a Soldier’s passion; a passion and capacity to unleash the Dogs of War when allowed to, and to keep the peace when directed to. It is the passion for excellence of character, service and selflessness. It is the passion of knowing that America is worth fighting and sacrificing for. It is the sure knowledge that our freedom’s can be lost in a single generation and the commitment that it will not be lost during this generation’s time in service to our nation. The Warrior Spirit is a uniquely American combination of duty, bravery, sweat, blood and tenacity we more commonly call ‘GUTS’