Saturday, 30 January 2010

Well digging

The well digging process and the end result.

Bicycling in Afghanistan

The pictured bike is about the only type I have seen in this country so far. They all have the same design and same green color, but are customized / jingled up by their owners - flowers, decorative tape, painting... I believe they're single speed? Commonly used to carry two people.

Scenery from Apache - no explanation needed

Dr. Seuss Tree

Aptly named by Captain Leeds

Feed delivery service

We were heading back from a walk up Apache when I saw a pile of moving corn stalks. This shy little boy (maybe 6 or 8 years old?) was carrying this huge pile of fodder home for his family's livestock. I wouldn't doubt he was carrying almost as much as he weighed. Get this picture out the next time your (grand) son / daughter complains about how tough he / she has got it!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Meeting with Haji Hakim

This picture shows (l to r) me, Haji Hakim (District Forestry Manager), Mohammad and Capt. Leeds reviewing a reforestation project proposal in the district government center. As you've seen in other photos, the rocky mountains surrounding the river valleys do not absorb rain / snowmelt and runoff can result in the loss of farm ground and village homes. These mountains used to be covered with trees and vegetation and restoring those natural features will help minimize erosion and the need for ad hoc projects like retaining walls. Hakim proposed a series of check dams and terraces built by hand labor in the mountains to slow down the water and help retain soil (what little there is) and plant trees. It will be interesting to watch this project unfold over the next few months. Mohammad works with the USAID (US Agency for International Development) and Captain Leeds works with Civil Affairs. Funding for these projects comes from a variety of sources.

Winter Fuel Storage

We frequently see this scene almost anywhere in Afghanistan. The round circles on the wall are "cow pies" that have been placed here to dry; they'll eventually be used to fuel the family fire for cooking and to keep the house warm.

Jingle truck

This is picture of a typical "jingle truck." These little vehicles are seen everywhere in large numbers and are the traveling salesmen of Afghanistan, carrying goods to all parts of the country. According to a co-worker the decorations and metal "chimes
(seen hanging off the bottom front of the truck bed) are meant to ward off the "jinn" or evil spirits. These little buggies are somewhere between the size of a golf cart and a Smart 4 2 and can go about 25mph max. (One soldier compared them to the ice cream truck!)


Winter finally paid its first visit to our area on Jan. 28 and 29. We had drizzling rain all day on the 28th with big snowflakes falling late in the day. By early morning we had about two inches of slushy, wet snow on the ground, cutting out internet and phone service for a few hours. While it makes a muddy mess of everything around here, the moisture was most welcome - during my recent travels to Jalalabad and Asadabad the rivers were low and the non - irrigated fields looked parched. The top two pictures were actually taken later in the day after the sun came out. The fields were a beautiful emrald green and the clouds hanging in the mountains made for breath-taking scenery.

Vocational school

These pictures are from a vocational school just a short distance from the basewith woodworking and rug weaving the choice of courses. Note the planer, band saw and generator - rare luxuries since there is no electricity. Most of the work is done by hand - the top picture shows some of the hand tools and a cricket bat someone probably made during their spare time. The chairs were ordered by the district center and are stout enough to hold up the proverbial fat lady they roll out when its over. Several of the soldiers commissioned some chairs of their own design; the going rate I believe was $30 for a custom made chair. Behind the planer is an intricately carved bed headboard - worth a look for the wood carving enthusiasts.

Village tour

In Mid january we took an afternoon walking tour of the neighboring villages and ended up covering about 5 miles. The top two pictures show a wooden bridge we crossed; those that get sea sick would not enjoy the walk over this bridge as every step coincides with a change of direction in the bridge. The third picture is an attempt to show a house WAY up the mountain (see brown rectangle at the top) ... my photograph does not do justice to the perspective. We wondered why anyone would build something so far away from the roads, water, food - 'twould be interesting to see if they have their own gardens and well up there. From here we had to wade across a canal 'cuz Captain Migs led us down a dead end path... Then across the newer foot bride seen in the last photo.

Fitting right in

Went to Mass at FOB Fenty in Asadabad - the priest wore camouflage vestments!

Asadabad Camp Wright

These are some pictures taken at Camp Wright, the home of the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team. Asadabad is the provincial capital of Kunar province, much the same as Springfield being the capital of Illinois. The PRT is to have a provincial perspective on the reconstruction efforts, to coordinate larger scale projects that would have impacts throughout the province. The top two pictures show a couple of abandoned soviet tanks and the bottom show a garden area on the PRT. I spend two and a half days here meeting with Dr. Safi from the AVA, meeting the PRT civilian reps, and two other new USDA employees coming into Kunar. The Agricultural Development Team (a group of National Guardsmen who come from agricultural background) headquarter here as well; these guys are a great asset, they bring a lot of enthusiasm for their job and will cause things to happen.

Downtown Jalalabad

I took this picture in downtown J'bad - a paint store. I thought the picture of the colonial style home on the left side of their sign a little out of place.... haven't seen that style of architecture in this country yet!

Met with Afghanistan Veterinary Association DVMs

On Jan. 25 I traveled to Jalalabad to meet with Dr. Safi, (center) the head of the Afghanistan Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Safi grew up near the Blessing FOB and knows the area where I work well - both the terrain and the people! The district agriculture director in Manogai had presented a broiler house project - one house for 4,000 birds. One important part of our job is to determine the sustainability of projects and I had concerns about the sustainability of this one due to its size, its mismatch to the size of the local market, the lack of electricity (for wells, fans, feed production, etc.) and other design challenges. We contacted the AVA to involve the Afghani's in the decision making process, and Dr. Safi provided invaluable information, revising the project into something that should be more workable and will provide a positive impact to a much greater percentage of the Afghan population. Dr. Safi has traveled in the US more than I have and speaks (at least) 4 different languages and I hope we'll be able to work together professionally on some other important and necessary veterinary / agriculture initiatives.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

First days

A few folks have asked about my start here - this post was written shortly after my arrival at Blessing.

Greetings from Afghanistan and Merry Christmas / Happy New Year wishes as well. Here's a brief run down on what's been going on... Boarded a flight to Dubai, UAE around 11:30 in the evening on Dec. 3and had the "privilege" of a 13 hours flight. Arrived in Dubai around 9PM (their time) and stayed at the Dubai International Hotel which can be accessed directly from the airport, no need to go through customs,etc. Beautiful room complete with marble tile on the walls and floor of the bathroom, marble walk in shower, fresh fruit in the room. Fell into bed but only slept a couple of hours due to internal time clock discrepancies and concerns over whether my luggage was going to make it to A'stan. Boarded a 3 hour flight on Safi Airlines and had a routine trip to Afghanistan. I was amazed at the ruggedness of the country we flew over - nothing but rocks, windswept dirt / sand plains, no signs of vegetation, no signs of water aside from the dried out flood plains, and few signs of human life. Got through the Kabul airport with no problems, the ride to the embassy was another story. All the vehicles on the road seemed to be in a race with each other, no lane markings, traffic basically out of control; all this mixed in with bicycle riders and donkeys meandering down the side of the road. Our driver was determined to finish first and repeatedly gunned the engine to cut in front of other drivers,slammed on the brakes and honked the horn when vehicles didn't get outof the way. I was surprised by the number of overloaded compact vehicles - 6 or 8 people crammed into a little Toyota with a multi -foot high pile of stuff strapped to the top or the truck of the car.It looked like these cars could be tipped over with the slightest push. The surrounding area was a mix of bombed out buildings, plain clay brick shacks, and "shops" one to three stories high that had been added onto and propped up multiple times; Beverly Hills it ain't. The air is permeated with an acrid, brownish particulate smog, a combination of the animal manure and tires they burn for heat and the emissions from the cars and who knows what else. And grey uniformed police bristling with assault rifles. Got to the US Embassy in the late afternoon on Friday and passed the inspection by the bomb sniffing dogs. Then over to our lodging which is a rectangular 32 x 16x8 steel sided "hooch" surrounded by sandbagsand "heskos" (5 foot cloth coated wire cubes filled with sand) to protect from possible incoming. I stay awaked until about 9 PM trying to get my internal clock adjusted - am absolutely exhausted but wake up at 1:30 and can't sleep. This pattern repeats itself for the first 5 nights before I can finally get a good night's sleep. The reality of the situation also hit very hard; I profoundly miss my family and friends back in the states and seriously question why I'm doing this... I'm here with 7 other USDA guys around my age and we've all, more or less, gone through training in DC and Indiana together. Their professional background is in soil conservation, forestry, and range management; one is from an almond farm in California. They're a great bunch of guys and together we help lighten the atmosphere. Two have been here before and share their experiences with us and its good to know the stress I'm going through is typical and temporary. The first 5 days we have orientation classes and a meeting with all the in country USDA staff. We got to meet the ambassadors and the generals in charge and get in depth looks at the overall strategy and how we'll fit in. (Amazingly enough, I meet another USDA employee, Ray Lehn, who works for the Iowa Forestry Department; he is well acquainted with Steve Hamilton of Fairfax, Iowa, the husband of my first cousin Brenda Boland! What an amazing coincidence to travel halfway around the world and meet someone who knows such a close relative!) On Monday we receive all our government issued equipment - two lap top computers, two nice backbacks, a digital camera, thumb drives, a cellphone, a satellite phone, flashlight, sleeping bag, gloves - a bunch of real nice stuff! Then our travel orders start to come but many of us get cancelled for one reason or another - had several days of overcast weather and they don't fly many places unless there are clear lines of sight, had some VIP visits that bumped less important airflights, etc. I was scheduled to leave on Saturday, get all the way to the airport only to have to go back to the embassy after a two hour wait. I get rescheduled for Tuesday to fly to Jalalabad. About 45minutes before I'm due to meet the ride to the airport I'm in the hooch packing and I hear a boom on the door, like someone fell into it. Didn't think much of it until a few minutes later when the PA announced there had been a suicide car bombing about 200 meters west of the embassy compound and to stay tuned for further developments. Great, I thought, there goes my flight, but after 30 minutes or so they announce the Afghan authorities have the situation under control and the embassy should return to normal operations. Fly to J'bad in a helicopter and stay at the Provincial armed forces center, and then fly out on another helicopter at 10:30 PM on Wed. night to my final destination, the District Support Team located at Forward Operating Base Blessing in the Pech River Valley, Kunar Province. There are no outside lights at Blessing (makes it a harder target to hit at night)and its darker than the inside of a cow when we land. Fortunately I've got my flashlight Liz packed along with my government issued flashlight and I'm led to a "B hut" - basically a plywood shed made to house about a dozen guys on cots for my new quarters. The next day I was invited to go out on a mountain climb with a group of about a dozen soldiers - there was a camera at the top of the mountain that needed to be repaired. Once I received assurances that it would be a walk and not a run I agreed to go. What a great experience! This is a pretty substantial mountain as you've seen in the photos, we were walking narrow trails but I never felt unsafe or afraid of the heights. Found out I'm in decent enough shape too, didn't have any trouble while a couple of soldiers were really sucking for air. There's a small outpost at the top of the mountain with a staff a maybe 10 soldiers. Got the camera fixed and then rested for awhile, and drank Afghan green tea - chi as it is commonly called. Then down the west side of the mountain in into the villages of Guru and Nangalam. Kids (boys only of course) are everywhere and they follow along the soldieers and converse in key English phrases - "You my goodfriend" - "Gimme candy" - "Wanna buy ... " and that sort of thing. A couple of them come up to me and start conversing in Pashto, their native language, and are surprised when I don't understand. Then they say "You no 'terp' (interpreter)" so I guess they thought I was an interpretor since I'm not wearing fatigues and carrying arms. After our climb I head to check out the gym - they've got a bunch of weights and couple of state of the art exercise bikes, so I put in 20 miles on the bike. I'm still in the process of getting my bearings, figuring out what to do, getting computers properly configured, and meeting the key people both in the Armed Forces and the Afghan governance, So far I've been out every day in the Afghan countryside for one reason or another(went to the village of Wala Tangay and met with a village elder -they had a street light project there and one of the street lights wound up in a community member's house yard instead of on the street -typical of the issues faced here) - yesterday sat in on a district governance meeting. There are more exciting things to come but I'm not at liberty to divulge things that will happen in the future due to security concerns. So far things seem very safe and secure here on the base and I don't go off the compound unless escorted by the armed forces. Merry Christmas andHappy New Year to all! Tom V

Monday, 11 January 2010

Gen. McChrystal visit, page 3

A news crew was here during the entire visit filming the brief, the award ceremony and the shura. The second picture shows Diane Sawyer covering her head with a scarf after being admonished (jokingly) by Gov. Rahkman that the Taliban will beat her if they see her without a head covering. I was surprised how young (and frankly attractive) Diane Sawyer looked in person; several of my colleagues made similar remarks (one called her totally hot). Lasty, two helicopters came in around 4PM and took the news crew and the general back.

I feel most fortunate to have had an opportunity to see and experience the modus opporandi of such a successful person who is undoubtedly under strong pressure from a wide variety of people and widely held range of opinions on how to succeed. Several of the military leaders remarked how relaxed he seems to be under all the pressure, and it may be a relief for him to get out amongst the soldiers and away from all the "experts" and the conflicting approaches to such a difficult and challenging international situation.

Gen. McChrystal visit page 2

Apologies for the interruption, still getting used to this blog program. During the meet and greet Gen. McChrystal encouraged eveyone to get their pictures taken with him, the armed forces were thrilled, and us civilian guys (Paul Negley and I) were lucky enough to be invited in as well. During this session I mentioned to Gen. McChrystal that a quote of his hangs in Mark's work space and is a favorite of his. After the meet and greet we moved to a "shura" (meeting) with District governor Rahkman (the man in the white picol (felt hat) immediately to McChrystal's right and some other village elders and power brokers in the area. Gratitude was expressed as well as some explicit requests for various projects. Reconciliation with former fighters was another part of the discussion - the difficulties involved, disarmament, incentives (jobs, economic opportunity, willingness to live a member of civil society, etc. Gen. McChrystal did a lot of listening during this session.

Gen. Stanley McCrystal visit to Michigan

On Jan. 11 a few of us traveled from Blessing about 10 miles west to a smaller base called Michigan. For two weeks we've had to keep the secret that Gen. McChrystal was coming to award a silver start to Lt. Zambarda for valor in battle. I don't know the whole story, bit from what I understand he had been here less than three weeks; he and a group of his men were attacked and he ran over 2000 across a mountain while udner fire to pursue and finish off the enemy combatants. McChrystal came into the flew in by heliocopoter and first introduced himslef to everyone in the command post where I was waiting. I was surprised by what a "regular guy" he was; he conversed easily with all of us an has the talent of relaxing those around him in spite of his considerable achievements; he conversed well with everyone and asked lots of questions. He also listens very carefully to answers. When he came to me he made some small talk and asked about where I was from and asked, not what I was doing, but more how am I doing questions. He looks right at you when you answer questions and seems to peer right into your soul - I'm sure he can pry right to the heart of matters when he chooses. The brief went well, then on to the award ceremony, a meet & greet picutre taking opportunity

Friday, 8 January 2010

New office

Pictures of the inside and outside of the new civilian office at FOB Blessing. The pictured open room will eventually have DSL internet access and will serve as a meeting area. Note the plywood and 2 x 4 desk - this is actually a pretty nice desk but was too big for us to use in an office about 8 x 10 that is shared by three people. On the day we moved in here we hastily built 3 - 2 x 4 and plywood tables for our computers. The wood was awful - the 2 x 4's split with every nail and the laminates of plywood were serarating. Hopefull won't have to file a workman's comp claim for repeated splinter infestation!

Bazaar shops

Here's typical design for bazaar shops; a small one story bulding with several roll - up garage or wooden doors. Each garage door represents one shop. This picture was taken around 9 AM on a Friday, the Muslin holy day; shops usually open around mid morning and stay open till dusk. Again, note the skillful rock construction; this building is fairly new and only part of it has been plastered with a finish coat of mud. The mud plaster can then be painted, although that's not common.

Wall contruction

I'm consistently amazed at the rock walls and houses constructed by the Afghans - how they line the rocks up to form such a perfectly flat surface. Houses are built with stacks of rocks and then typically covered with mud. The more affluent may build a house out of brick.


Supposedly Afghanistan rocks are loaded with semi precious and precious gems; this picture shows the types of rock typically identified as having good potential for having something of value teased forth from within. Separating the small, dark deposits may yield emeralds, rubies, and possibly even gold. I'm no geologist and rocks with these characteristics are everywhere; this picture was taken on the way down from Hammerhead on 1/8. A'stan also has a substantial copper deposit and China is interested in mining this deposit.

The Hammerhead outpost has acquired two puppies in addition to the monkey I saw at the last visit. They're much more friendly than the monkey.

Puppies at Hammerhead

During the last visit to Hammerhead on 1/8 two new puppies have joined the monkey as outpost pets. These two guys were a lot more friendly than the monkey.