Friday, December 31, 2010

Massoud Circle

This is right next to the Embassy, as in, you walk out the security checkpoint, and there it is. Massoud Circle is a traffic-choked roundabout named after the Ahmad Shah Massoud, the hero of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. He was assassinated in 2001. He's a towering, heroic figure. Of course, those not familiar with his likeness might mistake his portrait on the circle for Che Guevara, or Bob Marley, or anyone else with facial hair and a floppy hat rakishly draped off his head. Knowing tragically little of the history of the city, I don't really know if the monument here was re-purposed to be a Massoud monument recently or if it's recent construction. While we're busy getting into the minutiae of provincial budgets and insurgent reintegration plans, we don't learn about the geography or history of the city blocks right around us.

In a certain way that focus is surely appropriate. In another way, it's a shame.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cop, Zaranj

Another oldie but decent-ie.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We're So Boring

Hello loyal readers:

We haven't been out and about much lately. And even if we had been, the air around here is so thick with the disgusting haze of burning trash, the opportunities for photography would be pretty limited. We have had several nice Christmas parties, hosted both a Channukah and a Festivus party, and generally kept ourselves busy here in Kabul. But none of that is really worth saying a lot about here.

So here's an old picture that we like, from less hazy times in Afghanistan. More such coming over the next few days.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Xmas from Kabul!

No indication from the crew in this MRAP on whether the stocking was originally black or if the Kabul air turned it that way. Best part of Christmas here - two days off in a row!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mullah Omar Was Here

Or at least he paid for this mosque in Kandahar, reportedly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Afghan-style classroom, somewhere in Parwan.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Most of the housing in Afghanistan is of the humble, single-story, mud-walled variety. But in the neighborhoods not far from the Embassy one spots a great number of houses like the one pictured above - noticeably new, flashy, and of course relatively expensive. Every developing country I'm familiar with has a neighborhood like this, where the ruling elites live, and those few who make huge profits off of the country's prominent industries, whether legal or, ahem, not-so-legal.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shopping on FOB Connolly

A last picture from our jaunt around the East of Afghanistan. As mentioned previously, most of the bases have little stores for the soldiers. While this base has been growing, the retail opportunities haven't kept pace, so this little conex full of stuff is all they have.

Tomorrow: Something else!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Evening shopping in Khogyani

Just a couple pictures we like from the walk back to FOB Connolly from Khogyani. It was getting dark quickly so the pocket camera was having the tough time, but the blur was a happy accident on the picture below.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Security detail hanging out and waiting as the PRT and District Governor talked with students at the computer school in Khogyani.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mosques of America

This is a photo of a local government official in Khogyani, Nangarhar, and an attendant of some sort, each perusing a copy of a photo book of pictures of mosques in America. They were fascinated. The attendant, who in keeping with his job mostly hung around the periphery and didn't say much, was so intrigued by the book of American mosque pictures that he needed to come get a copy and take a look for himself.

It is shocking how many people in Afghanistan literally don't believe that there are mosques in America. The Lovely Katherine escorted a visiting American Imam around Kabul and some outlying provinces, and reported that at many of the medrassas and mosques where he spoke, the students literally did not believe at first that he could be a Muslim from America, because everyone knows that Muslims in America are persecuted or jailed or worse. I wish there were an easy way to fix it.

So you've got some ridiculous percentage of Americans believing President Obama is a Muslim (as if there would be some horrible problem if he were) and some ridiculous percentage of Afghans believing that there are no Muslims in America. I'm not supposed to get into policy issues in this forum, but it seems there just might be some space for further public diplomacy here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Your correspondent was privileged to attend a small shura, or meeting of elders, in Khogyani. They had some issues they wanted to address with the PRT and the local government. I can't really say more than that, and the staff photographer really couldn't take a lot of pictures at the meeting, as much as he would have liked to. This picture was snapped as the meeting was breaking up.

It was nice that the whole thing took place on a carpet in a garden outside, with plates of apples and bananas passed around for all the guests. We should do more of our government hearings that way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Afghanistan is one of several countries that considers itself home to the most generous, welcoming people on Earth. I don't have enough data to say for sure, but it's probably a contender. When we reached the Khogyani District Center, it was lunchtime, and the Deputy District Governor was having lunch. He immediately asked us to join him. When he found out I had come all the way from Kabul, he apologized profusely that if he had known he would have prepared a proper meal, rather than simple but delicious sweet potato fries and nan and rice. I wish I could eat simple rice and nan more and industrial cafeteria tortellini less.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Computer School Students

In Khogyani. The district governor showed us this school, hoping we might pay for a better generator there.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Light Bulbs

This graffiti is from the side of a computer school in Khogyani. Three light bulbs. But why? They are striking, but I doubt they're there for art's sake. Unfortunately I can't read the writing around them. I certainly hope, having posted this, that they don't say something like "Down with capitalism and its infernal light bulbs" or "The Taliban will give your family three light bulbs if you join them and live in a cave for a while."

The computers in the school ran off a diesel generator. It's possible the light bulb message is something about possibilities for electrification. In one of his less tactful moments, your correspondent was talking with a local government figure, who mentioned (through a translator) that he would like to improve his English. Always looking for an angle for commercial diplomacy, your correspondent suggested that a lot of people learn English by watching American TV shows or movies. My interlocutor quickly moved to checkmate by noting that he doesn't watch much television, what with the town not having electricity for the most part. It's a very different world out here, and it only increased my respect for the officers out in remote districts who have to build relationships based on so little in common.

Me, I'm just doing my part to prove that we're not always as clever as our wikileaked cables make us out to be.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Walking in Khogyani

A favorite from the stroll to the district center in Khogyani.

Monday, December 06, 2010

One Small Mosque

This is the kind of thing you can take in when walking through a town instead of speeding through in your armored SUV or MRAP. There's no way one would really get to see the more than a glance of the guy peeking over the fence, let alone the guy sitting in the courtyard reading a Koran, and definitely not both. Better to have loved and lost and all that, but it was a sad reminder of what the normal way of seeing a country is and how far abstracted from that we are here.

Of course, it's not like I was going to talk politics with these guys anyway. I've all but given up on learning more Dari than "Hello" and "Thank You." And the guys in this picture probably speak Pashto anyway, in which case I'm lucky that "Salaam Aleikum" means "Hello" all over the place.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Dismounted Mission

Your correspondent visited Khogyani, a kind of out-of-the-way district in Nangarhar Province, and it was a definite highlight of the whirlwind N2KL journey. First of all, it was definitely different to be in the middle of nowhere on a relatively small (but much bigger than it was just a few months ago) installation. And the view of the mountains of Tora Bora was nice. But the real peak was going on a "dismount mission," which in the military's typically complex way of saying things, means: We walked instead of driving to the district governor's office. It was only a 20-minute walk, but that's more walking than I do most months around here. Above, about twenty of my closest friends setting out from the base for the leisurely stroll.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


These little motorcycle pickups, often called Zaranjes (which may be the brand name), are all over Afghanistan. They seem like a really handy thing. For carrying vegetables to market or for getting five or six people around, they seem perfect. I'm sure they don't go very fast once fully loaded, but when the competition is taking a bunch of trips back and forth with a donkey, you don't necessarily need a F-150.

Friday, December 03, 2010


OK, it's kind of hard to tell, but those little dots are guys playing cricket right outside the walls of the Forward Operating Base in Jalalabad. I guess that's how it goes when your country has been at war for 30 years or so; you just shrug off the martial scenery sometimes and go about your life.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Of Jalalabad

After Asadabad, Kunar, we hopped a helicopter to Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province. Our base there is one of the weirdest military installations your correspondent has seen. It's on what was once a Soviet R&R hotel - complete with a swimming pool that is now drained and has a makeshift basketball court at the bottom. Unfortunately, no pictures on the base. The staff photographer did take this picture over the wall, looking at the fields adjacent, but still far enough away to test the limits of the little point-and-shoot camera. Thus, the oddly impressionist effect.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Of Asadabad

President Karzai's picture is everywhere in this country. He's watching you as you cross the street!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Now Taking Applications for Greeters

Each of the bases out here has a few stores run by the local Afghans. The stores come in two varieties: The first sells a limited array of supposedly Afghan souvenirs, like clunky marble tea sets or wooden trays or carpets. The second sells stuff you might actually want if you were stuck out on a base in the middle of the desert - batteries, small electronics, pirated DVDs galore. This "Wal Mart," being a super-store, may have offered some of both.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Back in Kunar

After a quick stop in Nuristan, your correspondent returned to Kunar. We have a great team of civilians out there, so it's always a pleasure to be there. One feature of the FOB there is a spot with a couple old soviet tanks. Exactly why remains a mystery. Did they move some tanks here to remind the Afghan contingent on the base of their military history? Did they build the base around the tanks, which have been there for years? Did they just put them there so visitors could get a few feet off the ground to improve their cell phone reception?

Oh and while we're talking about stuff that didn't seem to fit on a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, they had a little patch of grass with some donkeys, some dogs, and this ram. I guess the donkeys are for carrying stuff, and the dogs might be guards. I asked what the ram was for: "Fighting," said one of my hosts. I guess some other local group also has a ram, and they get them together every once in a while and let them run into each other.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Of Nuristan

Nuristan is kind of a crazy place. It's a famously remote and mountainous province, home to the Nuristani people, an ethnicity apart from the dominant Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks of the rest of the country. It was the last part of the region to be converted to Islam, and a center of the resistance to the Soviets. Now we're there, but it's hard to tell anyone else is. This is the view form one of our bases in Nuristan. Visible is the district center, where we hope some government is happening, and... well, and nothing else. It's really pretty out there, and I am assured there are actually thousands of people living there, but from what one can see from the base, it's pretty hard to tell.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Out and About in N2KL

Your intrepid correspondent has been on a whirlwind tour of Eastern Afghanistan, the provinces of Nuristan, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Laghman - or N2KL for short. At several different Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), your correspondent was treated to VIP accommodations. At FOB Fenty, at Jalalabad Air Field, we had the pleasure of staying in two different "hotel" rooms on different evenings. These guest accommodations are really quite fabulous in that you get a plywood box all to your self, which is not something everyone gets. So we shouldn't make fun. But it must be pointed out that these austere but still relatively luxurious rooms might be better left unadorned. Instead, each room features a striking diagonal arrangement of three pictures of the military in action - such as airlifting supplies or training Afghan soldiers... or changing a tire... or standing around a volleyball court.

That was a little silly, but more comfortable than the truly bizarre lodging at FOB Connolly, which is inside an old Afghan brick building, sectioned into multiple rooms with plywood, and featuring crib-like wrought-iron beds and the most aggressively patterned mattresses and pillows you can imagine. Again, I shouldn't complain -- the soldiers are putting up with a lot worse than ugly pillows. But I feel like I have a journalistic duty to let you know about these little details.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

We managed to celebrate Thanksgiving here with a fairly complete Thanksgiving meal. We pre-ordered a turkey that turned out to be maybe six or seven pounds - the size of a chicken, really. We ordered cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie ingredients - none of which arrived in time. In response, we had to go potluck style, which resulted in contributions of some less-traditional (for us) Thanksgiving dishes, like matzo-ball soup, but also great mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

The best addition to the evening was when The Lovely Katherine's boss announced that he had been gifted a fresh turkey by the Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs. Said boss, a former CNN correspondent of some renown, showed up at our door Wednesday evening to drop off the box above. It turns out it had taken some convincing to persuade the Minister that we really didn't want live turkeys - we had nowhere to put them and nowhere to slaughter them. So we got this very freshly killed and dressed turkey, which was just a bit scrawny but still certainly bigger than the tiny turkey we had shipped in.

The staff photographer has some pictures of the turkey out of the bag, with it's big creepy neck flopping all over, just beside the knife and scissors your correspondent had been using to hack out all the giblets from the inside. The picture is actually stunningly unattractive, and we've declined to publish it in case any of our loyal readers is reading this just before lunch. In any case, I don't know what professional turkey-cleaners' or hunters' secret is, but I can say with certainty that there must be a better way to remove turkey giblets than the one your correspondent resorted to.

In the end, we got it cooked, and it was, somewhat surprisingly, not more delicious than our American factory-famred Turkeys. But it was fine, and we had plenty of good food and good company, and most precious of all, a holiday that we didn't actually have to work through at the Embassy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More from the Egyptian Field Hospital

The Egyptian Field Hospital is actually a great endeavor. The Egyptian contribution to the Coalition effort, it's a full-service clinic, including primary care, surgery, dentistry, ophthalmology, a pharmacy, and more. It is on the Bagram Air Field base, but it treats the Afghan public from the surrounding area at no cost. As a fellow Muslim nation, the Egyptians are well-placed to be especially aware of the sensitivities of the local population. They've treated hundreds of thousands of patients, presenting a clear good-news story. It was also interesting that most of the guys waiting in line at the hospital seemed totally unfazed by the U.S. Ambassador and his huge entourage passing through and asking them what they were there for.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of Bagram, Take 2, Part 2

This is the Ambassador touring the hospital. In the foreground, that is. Ahem. In the middle ground, in focus and all, is one of the many people lined up seeking medical care that day. I'll admit that I'm not yet inured of the turbans and beards around here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Of Bagram, Take 2

After returning from our R & R, we were dispatched to Bagram Air Field in fairly short order. Mostly it involved the insides of conference rooms. One of them is actually kind of photogenic as conference rooms go, but that's not saying much. The one part of the trip where the staff photographer got to work a little was a visit to the Egyptian Field Hospital. Before the briefing and tour with the Egyptian commander, we were greeted by these guards in what is apparently a salute. Why any army would decide that the salute position is to hold your rifle pointed at your own head is one of the subtleties of military culture that this civilian may never penetrate.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kunar 7

Flying home.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kunar 3

I have been asked to remind readers that this is a historical trip that happened a month ago. Nobody shot an RPG at us when we were there.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kunar 2

This was our purpose for being in H.K. Kunar. This is a scene from the governor's office, which like all Afghan offices, is ringed with couches where various hangers on can sit while the VIPs pontificate and various people with cameras document the scene.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kunar 1

As promised yesterday, a picture from Asadabad, H.K. Kunar, obscured by RPG cage.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Week of Kunar

Remember this image, from way back, before we left for a few weeks in Tanzania? It was from a quick spin through Highly Kinetic Kunar province. Judging from any number of discussions on the topic, the US Government has unilaterally renamed "Kunar" to "Highly Kinetic Kunar." For those of you who don't know your military lingo, "kinetic" in this context means, "filled with active battle" or "violent" or "dangerous."

The truly devoted may also recall when we declared our adherence to the budding aesthetic of photography-through-bulletproof-glass-in-motion. Well, Highly Kinetic Kunar pushed it to the next level because the MRAPs have these special cages all around them to make RPGs detonate before they actually hit the MRAP. So you get pictures like the one above, which both shows you the kind of vehicle the staff photographer was in, and the photographic challenges of shooting from one. Despite this, we'll be presenting a week's worth of pictures from Highly Kinetic Kunar this week... at times without further comment.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

November Again

As we say each year: Another November, another Marine Ball. And yet again, The Lovely Katherine pouted and cried until I took her picture with the Marine Security Guard detachment here. One difference from previous years, which is kind of evident in the picture, is that rather than an embassy of 30 or 100, we're at a mission of 1,000. Unfortunate result: We barely know these guys. It's really our fault, we get kind of lazy and don't always go to the Marine House parties. Sorry, guys.

In any case, the Ball was a good time, as every year. Noteworthy this time for having a Major General as the keynote speaker rather than a Lieutenant Colonel (no offense to Lt. Colonels), the Ambassador's address interrupted by Blackhawks flying overhead, and a musical playlist apparently tailored to the tastes of the over-60 set. Fortunately, despite a location not conducive to alcoholism, there was an open bar, so we struggled through and had a fine time. Thanks, Marines!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Of Dubai, Again

So on our way back "home" to Kabul, we had to go through Dubai again. We had planned to stop for a night this direction (unlike on the way out of Kabul) -- it's pretty hard to avoid, and therefore Uncle Sugar was paying for a night of hotel for us. Since the Government has a ridiculous system of official rates that they'll pay for hotel in each city, we had no incentive to pay any less than the maximum the government would shell out. In the case of Dubai, that gets you a pretty nice hotel. We were staying at Raffles, which came recommended by colleagues. We arrived and found we had been upgraded to a completely ridiculous suite - the above is the living room, there were also two balconies and two bathrooms in addition to the bedroom, which was in itself what you would get at a normal hotel. It was the poshest, biggest hotel we've ever stayed at.

The only downside? Due to our friends at Ethiopian Airlines cancelling/delaying flights again, we arrived at 3:00 in the morning, and had to leave at 10:00 to catch our flight. So we didn't get to lounge around in all the chairs in our huge room. You'll no doubt be relieved to know that I took care to use both bathrooms, to make sure taxpayers got their money's worth.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Of Stone Town, Continued

So our plan to bust through our vacation stuff quickly and get back to the Afghan stuff failed both because we couldn't edit aggressively enough and because then we got too busy with work to post for a few days.

But we're pretty much at the end now. Our vacation ended with a few days in Stone Town, the olden part of Zanzibar's capital. It's historic. It's charming. It has lots of crooked narrow streets that put old European cities' streets to shame in the narrowness and crookedness departments. And all the buildings have this moldy motley appearance that is very atmospheric.

Due to all the above factors, it was easy to take a lot of pictures we quite like, but we'll save most of them for some other time.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Of Zanzibar

Our next stop in Tanzania was Zanzibar, completing the Kilimanjaro/Safari/Zanzibar trifecta that we only realized once we were there is the official routine tourist trail in Tanzania. Sometimes, the tourist trail exists because that's where the good stuff is, and we certainly endorse that theory as it regards Tanzania.

We stayed at a beautiful, small beach-front hotel on the east side of Zanzibar island. It was run by a friendly Italian couple, and our fellow guests were 80% Italians. And we went scuba diving with an Italian guide (and some dolphins, who I think were local but may have been Italian) for two days. Your correspondents never knew that the Indian Ocean coast of Zanzibar was an Italian colony, but that's why one travels: to learn about new places. Or to sip fruity drinks by an insanely white-sandy beach. The other noteworthy local denizens were the native Africans, dressed in blankets and carrying sticks a la the Masai from the post a couple days ago, but hanging out on the beach and wearing wayfarer shades. No photographic evidence of them exists -- only photos of the local fisherman, such as this gentleman carrying a reed basket out to go fishing, or of the traditional canoe-with-a-sail dhows that other fishermen use.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Of Mto w Mbu

Also not far from one of the national parks we visited was a more ordinary market. Still colorful, but the same piles of fruit and assortments of dry goods as you find in developing-world markets anywhere. This one however, is in a town with the unfortunate name "Mto w Mbu," which means "River of Mosquitoes." Hopefully the market keeps doing well, because I doubt the tourist trade is ever going to flock to River of Mosquitoes, for some reason.