Saturday, July 31, 2010

Of Helmand: Lashkar Gah

Your correspondent's intra-Helmand flights, detailed in previous installments, were from the Regional Command at Camp Leatherneck to the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the capital of Lashkar Gah. "Lash" (as it's known to people too busy to give any place name three syllables) is an interesting case. It was formerly known for its extensive USAID-financed infrastructure, and was sort of the envy of many neighbors. Now, not so much. Sadly, as these things go, your correspondent didn't see much of Lash because he never left the walls of the compound where the PRT works. I did note that they had a pretty nice little garden, a much more talented reader reciting the call to prayer over the town loudspeaker than the one near Embassy Kabul, and a much better cafeteria than we have. Helmand PRT is run by the Brits, and they have a different food contractor than we do. Illustrative examples: We have fridges full of canned soft drinks and boxed juices; they have a little fountain dispensing tang. While we have nice dessert at the embassy cafeteria, they have options that include a broad selection of imported cheeses. We all have our priorities, I suppose.

Photo Note: I got a few good pictures at Lash that I fear may be unpublishable for security reasons, but I think this one of barbed wire and the moon is probably not revealing any defense secrets.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Of Helmand: Even More Transport

The coolest means of aerial conveyance that your correspondent utilized on this trip was the pictured Osprey helicopter. Which is almost a given because it's maybe the coolest helicopter in the world. Or at least the one that a 13-year-old boy would consider the coolest. As a teaser to get people to talk with me in real life, I'll mention that there is a brief but crazy story that goes along with my ride in the Osprey that I don't think it would be right to put out there on the interwebs. So make a note to ask next time you see me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Helmand: More Transport

Your correspondent's least favorite military aircraft of the trip was the Sea-King helicopter, seen above refueling, which your correspondent flew home back from a day-trip to Lashkar Gah to Bastion. This is the same kind of helicopter generally used to fly the President of the United States of America around to Camp David or such. I can only hope that the President gets a specially modified version where the interior cabin isn't exposed to the main rotor that leaks hydraulic fluid all over the passengers below. This wasn't just bad luck on my part - one of my hosts in Lashkar Gah heard I would be flying on a Sea King and his first reaction was, "Don't sit too close to the center or you'll get hydraulic fluid all over you." Unfortunately, on these military flights, I feel sort of obliged to sit wherever the Marine or Soldier points and not request seat upgrades or an extra package of peanuts when the beverage service comes around.

Photo note: This picture was taken in the absolute dead of night by setting the point-n-shoot camera on long exposer and then setting it down on a rock while the helicopter was refueling.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Helmand: Transport

Your correspondent flew to and from Camp Bastion (adjacent to Camp Leatherneck) on a British military C-130, a big cargo plane. The flights left as inconveniently close to the middle of the night as possible. Most of the passengers were Afghans (seen boarding above) - although I never deciphered with certainty what connection qualified them to fly on an ISAF flight. The flight from Kabul to Bastion for some reason had the call sign "Swampy."

The C-130 was not your correspondent's most favorite or least favorite of the aircraft he used over the course of the trip - about which, more tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Helmand: Camp Leatherneck

Camp Leatherneck is not scenic. It is mostly row after row of tent, some of them impressively large or occasionally surrounded by barbed wire. It's also not a place where they probably get real excited about having pictures of their tents and barbed wire published on The Dirty Internet (as it is apparently called by some security-minded IT people). So here is a picture that I hope is sufficiently nondescript to be publishable. The first is out on the edge of the camp, where the sea of tents gives way to the sea of dust that surrounds Leatherneck for untold miles.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Of Helmand

Your correspondent spent a few days in lovely Helmand province, in the Southwestern part of Afghanistan, and home to Marjah and other famously rough parts of town. It was an interesting and highly educational experience. But since Helmand is what our military colleagues call a "kinetic" area (i.e., actual fighting happens there a lot), we did not get to see much other than Camp Leatherneck and the Lashkar Gah PRT - both relatively safe compounds amidst all the fuss. Above, a scene at Camp Bastion, a British base adjacent to our Camp Leatherneck, in the line to get on the flight back to Kabul.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The King's Palace

Pretty much wrecked in the various wars of the last 30 years, the building in the distance was once a magnificent palace. Now there's not even enough left to be restored, even if they wanted to.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cafe Life

It's easy to imagine from afar that Kabul must be a vast wasteland, but it does have restaurants and shops and hotels and multi-story buildings. I don't have enough sense of the geography of town to tell you much about this place - just that we drove by it and the second-story balcony was lined with what I presume were men in a tea shop or something similar.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Kabul River

Yes, there is a Kabul River. And sometimes, it even has water in it. The road on either side of the river is one of the main shopping areas in town, and the time your correspondent drove by it, it was bustling with shoppers. The riverbed itself actually has some water flowing through it, between the piles of trash.

Monday, July 12, 2010


There is some amount of construction going on in Kabul. I guess a lot of that is thanks to foreign development dollars coming in. For example, India is financing a snazzy new home for the Afghan Parliament on the outskirts of town. Many of the Muslim nations hoping to assist/influence Afghanistan finance the construction of mosques. There seem to be several relatively new ones around town, often paid for by Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

We Aren't in Riga Anymore, or, Women's Fashion

The above outfit is perhaps as daring as most Afghan women would ever wear, and would be a little conservative for an old matron in Riga. But still, lest our loyal readers get the impression that all the women of Kabul are wearing burqas when they go out: there is a full range of fashion from the full traditional blue burqa as seen yesterday to the style seen above - much more colorful and less restrictive, but always what one might call generously cut and with a veil covering the hair. And little girls can apparently dress like little Westerners until or unless they have to dress in school uniforms, which few I've seen feature a hijab covering the hair and neck.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Out and About in Kabul!

Your correspondent has had a few chances to get off the Embassy compound, but hasn't had a chance to bring the staff photographer. That finally changed, and we took a bunch of pictures of uniformly poor quality through the dusty window of our armored SUV. But, hey, pictures is pictures. More to come! (With a frequency determined only by how low we're willing to let our photo-editorial standards slip in deference to the degree of difficulty at play.)

Monday, July 05, 2010

Independence Day!

Unlike all of you normal Americans who get the 5th of July off of work as Independence Day (Observed), those of us in the part of the world where Sundays are work days got the actual 4th of July off as Independence Day (Observed (Observed)). Sort of. At least, we worked less.

Saturday was the Big Official National Day reception, where we hosted a thousand Afghans and had speeches by the Ambassador and General Petraeus, about which you can find coverage in other press outlets. As with every Embassy, this was a working event for all employees. Your humble correspondent pulled duty checking VIP invitations and decorating the grounds with one million tiny American flags.

On Sunday, we had the Embassy Community Event, i.e., the 4th of July party where you're actually allowed to have fun. Both the American and Afghan staff at the Embassy were invited, and the Afghans brought their families, which was great - a glimpse of a side of Afghan life we usually don't see (however abstracted from real Afghan family life the behavior at a work function might be). There were lots of kids dressed in their finest princess outfits and velour tuxes. There was Afghan music, and then the Embassy house band ("Danger Pay") played rock covers for a while (as seen above).

The staff photographer had a fine time and took a lot of pictures of the various attendees, carefully avoiding any shots with backgrounds including top secret buildings or fences. While many of the Afghans were quite eager to have their picture taken, and some of the pictures even turned out ok, I'm still a bit nervous about posting them on the internets, since not all the Afghan staff are super-excited about advertising the fact that they work for the U.S. Embassy. Not that I think the Taliban are avid readers of the Holla. But still.

I hope the fine people of Danger Pay aren't similarly upset about having their likeness on the interwebs, but that's the risk they take being rock stars.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fine Dining in Kabul

We went to a snazzy French restaurant in Kabul. Yes, they have a French restaurant in Kabul. The "snazzy" part is entirely relative. In almost any other city, you wouldn't consider it snazzy at all. But this is Kabul, so the standards are a bit different. I had some nice but not amazing lamb and some pumpkin soup and the table shared a couple teapots of a top secret grape beverage often served with French food.

Total, per person: $60! In Kabul! Afghanistan!

And yet, it's totally worth it since your correspondent hasn't had to pay for any other meal in the three weeks he's been here. I'm sure we'll be back and ready to pay through the nose again next time we need a break from the salisbury steaks in the Embassy Dining Facility.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Atterbury Revisited

Long story in the Washington Post today about the training course that I did in Indiana over the summer. It's not that exciting a story, but it does give a sense of the training and doesn't get anything glaringly wrong, at least not that I remember. The picture from a Blackhawk helicopter above the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana. Hope for some Afghanistan pictures soon!

Friday, July 02, 2010

Rewinding a bit

We'll try to post trenchant little observations about Afghanistan when we can. But really, it's hard not to talk about stuff here without it sounding like political commentary, which we studiously avoid. We have to parcel out our comments on such mundane items as the food or the laundry room so that they last the full year.

So, for now we're going to go back and fill in a few gaps with pictures or whatever from the last couple months. Sorry if hearing about home leave isn't as exciting as hearing about taking rocket fire in Afghanistan. But so far, we haven't taken any rocket fire, so we're working with what we've got here.

Above: Noe Valley, SF. Shot with the little camera that apparently had a big hair in the middle of the lens.