In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, Frank Light rediscovered a journal he had kept for a few weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country more than thirty years earlier. Later he fleshed out the journal, starting a process that led to a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Fourteen literary reviews and anthologies have published excerpts from it. Further to Afghanistan, he met his wife on the cliffside Buddha in Bamiyan that the Taliban would later blow up, and in 2005/2006 he worked on Afghanistan policy while detailed to the Pentagon. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. A few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published.
(Photo: Kerry Greene)
Disclaimer: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
OCTOBER SURPRISE (PART III) by Frank Light
Part II. The Big Day
Early on election morning Asim appeared with an urgent report from the Governor about rockets aimed at our compound from a house in town. Scrambling like fighter pilots, the 2/5 civil affairs team, Rob, Asim, and several JEMB shooters piled into their pickup for a low-tech missile defense. As a non-combatant, I had to stay in the compound. That was supposed to be safer?
A couple of the remaining guards didn’t think so. They were hipping and hopping, two blokes late for a party. Shirts half-buttoned, AKs carelessly slung, they smiled and pointed at a parked Russian jeep to suggest we get while the getting was good.
A third guard, out by the north gate, looked bored, bored out of his mind. Like the first two, he was twisting and turning but more slowly, his face toward the blue, blue sky. Stoned, no doubt. I recognized the performance from my Peace Corps days. A few more guards stood on the ramparts. They were looking in more than they were looking out. The compound, which had largely emptied when the field coordinators ended their strike, now seemed emptier than ever. It housed more jeeps than people. Considering the occasion, I had expected all hands on deck.
As on 9/11, when I happened to be in the Pentagon, I found myself in the middle of the action yet cut off from it. I couldn’t see a thing beyond the compound walls. Nor could I find anything useful to do. My colleagues had left no weapons behind, and I didn’t know how to use their radio. Before I departed from Ripley, the MPs said they’d swing by on election day. We’d be poll watchers. But we hadn’t set a time, and something could have come up. I tried raising Kerry on the Thuraya, inquire about things up Gizab way. Negative contact. I got out the cheat sheet I’d brought for raising the PRT and the 2/5 on their Iridium satellite phones. No love there, either. It would have been easier to ring up Copenhagen, except my wife was in Washington for a conference and our daughter would be sleeping over at a friend's.
Well, Atiqullah, his staff, and Global Risk were still around. On the veranda in front of his room, pen in hand, notepad on thigh, Thuraya against his ear, winking, nodding, frowning, smiling, rolling his eyes, wagging his head while he heard a caller out, replying in short, quiet bursts, repeating them for clarity, raising his voice when he had to, the coordinator was in his element. He looked blessed. He looked like he knew he had been blessed. His aides waited for instructions, which they relayed on their own Thurayas. I was heartened to see that the Afghans, anyway, could get through.
The South African, cigarette on lip, business casual in flipflops, cargo shorts, and olive-drab tee shirt, pecked away on his laptop. Did these guys really not have weapons squirreled away? I wondered. Brown Dog stood nearby, hands in pockets. For the big day he wore faded blue jeans, a tawny sweatshirt, and a broad smirk. Like me, he didn’t seem to have a lot to do. As proof of that, he’d shaved and his hair was wet. I asked him what was up.
Ay, mate, just the usual fuck-up. He was either getting cynical or becoming the man who knew too much. He said we get one every 15 minutes, you know. More today. Today's special.
Just then the main gate swung open, and the civil affairs pickup rolled in.
Atiqullah put the Thuraya down to hear their account.
The team found six 107-mm rockets on the roof of an unoccupied house, a timer set to launch them in less than an hour. You could say they were aimed in our direction, though pointed was more like it. They could have landed anywhere in the neighborhood. The report had been accurate, right to the very house. How often did that happen?
Rob and the civil affairs team detoured for muffins, coffee, and a radio check with the 2/5. Staying back for questions, Asim stacked an AK against the passenger seat, adjusted the skull cap he always wore, and grinned. The sortie had served as a fine morning pick-up. He liked that go-getter stuff. If Special Forces had dealt more with the Governor, they might have lured him away. He said Jan Mohammed – J-Mo, he called him – probably arranged the rocketry to demonstrate the need for his militia and then tipped us off to avert an incident.
Soon after that the MPs drove up in a solitary Humvee, two vehicles short of what used to constitute the PRT minimum for a trip into town. The commander was probably reserving soldiers and equipment for contingencies. Our senior interpreter and two of the MPs were in the back, one of them on the turret gun. It felt like spring break, the sun and the road beckoning. They took me to the main mosque, located between the Governor’s palace and the provincial high school. A fresh coat of paint, white for the walls, turquoise for the doors, brightened its appearance. The guards were relaxed. Within the exterior wall, in a graveled courtyard sheltered by a few trees and bushes, each voter told a JEMB worker his registration number or showed him his card if he didn’t know the number, walked over to another worker, who matched the photo on the card with the one on file, got his thumb stained in what was supposed to be indelible ink, received a ballot, wrote his number on it (with help if necessary), marked the ballot on a stand with a privacy cloth, pushed it through a slit in a plastic box, and then a third worker marked his card as having voted.
Tall and stiff in pale blue vests, JEMB staff stood conscientiously, honored to contribute to this historic event. This was as organized as anything ever got in Afghanistan. The voters seemed happy, nearly joyous, surprised at how well the process was unfolding. So far, anyway, the election was not another empty promise. Local dignitaries mingled with ordinary citizens, smiles all around. And the police were in uniform! All except their chief – Rozi came over to chat after casting his ballot. He agreed with Asim about the rockets. No other incidents had come to his attention, but his net didn’t extend much beyond Chora and Tarin Kot towns.
Friends and well-wishers took turns greeting him. He, the MPs, their interpreter, and I eased ourselves into the street, away from the hubbub. The main bazaar ran straight from our position, in front of the palace, until it culminated, slightly uphill and a few blocks away, at Dead Man’s Circle. Even outside the walls there was a buzz, like the hum that comes from cheap or poorly connected sound equipment. It had a rhythm, like a chant in a language you’re not familiar with. Maybe Arabic. The mosque had loudspeakers. We could see them on the roof. So I asked what was playing.
Rozi laughed. His eyes glowed with the light of redemption. The MPs said what I heard must be everybody talking. We had never seen so many people in the bazaar. The town looked different this crisp, windless morning. Sunshine percolated through an aura of dust roused by pedestrians – no moving vehicles – as shoppers and voters going to and from the mosque – all of them men – strolled with a swing to their arms and a spring in their steps. The side street that intersected our position was, in contrast, empty. Its rundown buildings, some partially covered with tarps, had probably once been shops. One, in fact, was open. A stall run by a boy, it sold pomegranates and not much else. What destroyed the town, according to a local contractor I had talked to, was Barakzai against Populzai in the free-for-all between the communists and the Taliban.
Why so long? I asked Rozi, gesturing toward the ruins. This is such a great location.
Yes, he agreed, so close to the Governor. He let me chew on that and then said he had to get back to the police station, see how things were going. We should come by for lunch. He smiled as he left, like the shoppers, with a bounce to his gait.
At my request the MPs drove to a house converted into a site for women voters, who, Atiqullah claimed, made up 25% of the electorate in Tarin Kot district. None were in view, however, and I knew better than to enter. The sole guard said few had come. Maybe later in the day, he offered in an attempt to perk my spirits. Or perhaps at the other women’s site. That was probably very busy, he supposed. Across the street, construction continued on the Governor’s new house. His fourth, and newest, wife would live there.
Our Humvee forded the river north of town, and we drove west to the last village before the desert began. Men loitered around the voting tables, set in a sandy lot at the edge of the village. Armed guards watched from a dune above it.
I asked the MPs to hang back in deference to the ban against firearms at polling stations. They understood.
Everybody had already voted, the men in blue vests said. And Atiqullah had visited. He had been pleased, they reported. He just wanted to check the markers used to stain voters’ thumbs after casting their ballots.
I asked where the women voted. Staff said none had registered. Maybe the parliamentary elections, they added with a smile. That would be next year. They still couldn’t quite believe they had pulled this off. Nothing like this had ever happened to them, and it was happening across the nation. Uruzgan was part of something bigger. They were all trying to digest that.
As we were leaving, the PRT’s executive officer and its own civil affairs team drove up looking good with their weaponry, sunglasses, and newly purchased gunmen’s scarves. Like their predecessors, the new team tended to joke around but in a different manner. The last crew was loud, bawdy, profane. These guys were a situation short of intellectual, a hint of irony to their swagger.
Their interpreter must have helped them with their outfits. Returned from a lengthy leave, he smiled his Cheshire grin. Like Asim and Mohib, he was a guide as much as an interpreter. At this site, anyway, they didn’t do much talking. They could see how quiet things were. It was the same everywhere, they reported, everywhere they’d been. So much for no guns at polling stations. Not that anybody noticed. Guns were expected. We were, after all, American.
They joined us for lunch at Rozi’s. The MPs and I then walked to the high school, where Global Risk had installed a TV, dish, and generator hookup in the entranceway so townsfolk could watch newscasters in Kabul describe the day’s events. The UN must have put the package in the shipment with the ballot boxes. About 30 men sat transfixed by the medium more than the message. They had never seen such a sight. Fearing it made the school a target, the principal asked for guards. We walked him to Rozi's brother, who agreed to help. Can't be too careful – he reported a bridge blown in Khas Uruzgan.
What’d you think of the lunch? he asked. He was still licking his chops, as exhilarated that day as the men who worked for him.
Excellent. I had already thanked Rozi.
Better than the Governor’s?
I smiled. The police, in their new charcoal-hued uniforms, had laid a cloth on the floor of the largest room. There had been mutton, chicken, eggplant, yogurt, bread, Coke, Fanta – enough for all. Rozi, the harried host, came out late and ate quickly. He was shy and maybe didn’t like talking through interpreters.
The brother beamed. He had the good fortune to live in a province where right-minded residents with guns could always find work. And he had the keys to the SUV. Did we care to join him? He was going to check on his men.
The MPs shook their heads.
They drove me to a village east of town, off the road to Chenartu. Two of them guarded the Humvee while their staff sergeant, interpreter, and I hiked to a polling site in an almond grove underlaid with knee-high grasses. Everyone except a few stragglers had voted by then, though JEMB staff were staying until closing time when the guards would escort them, equipment, and ballot boxes to the compound in Tarin Kot. The supervisor reported some 50 men tried to vote more than once that morning on the pretext they had the proxy of disabled relatives and neighbors. They were told no, and that was the end of it. The guards would have deterred intimidation. As at the other village, no women had registered.
An unexpected issue had emerged on the national front, I learned on our return to the JEMB compound. Karzai’s opponents claimed the use of erasable instead of indelible ink to mark voters’ thumbs had allowed repeat voting on a massive scale. The Embassy deployed staff around Kabul, and it sent urgent requests for reporting from the field. Atiqullah told me he discovered incorrect use of erasable markers at the main mosque an hour after polling sites opened. He said he immediately ordered his staff to contact the voting centers to warn the sites. He claimed erasable markers were used incorrectly in only two of the sites under his supervision.
It probably happened in more than two. I know Kijran called to say it had run out of the good ink and so sent a guy to the bazaar for whatever ink was available. Atiqullah dismissed the report as inconsequential because the coordinator there was not a team player. Kijran called back to say they found the rest of the indelible ink. In the almond grove I observed one voter having his thumb marked with white-out; otherwise, procedures seemed correct. Repeat voters would have been recognized. Staff took their responsibilities seriously. Doing the right thing was a patriotic duty. All registration cards were punched as voters moved through the line. Of the many voting thumbs I inspected over the next few days, the ink could be completely removed on only one. That person voted early at the main mosque where the problem had been discovered. It hadn’t occurred to him to vote twice. Once was enough.
For some reason the Embassy queried the PRTs in Bamiyan and Kandahar about the blown bridge in Khas Uruzgan after I reported the incident, noting JEMB staff simply moved the polling site so voters could reach it. It had been a stone bridge, as I recalled, something you might expect in the English countryside. The river it spanned was the Tarin Kot, two districts upstream from the capital. Young guys in the nearest village made it clear, when we stopped to chat a couple weeks back, they wouldn’t want to live any closer.
I also reported an IED found in Nesh the day before, another in Deh Rawud, and news off the Internet (nothing in our own channels) of 25 Taliban killed in Charchina. The Embassy deleted all those incidents in its rewrite of my cable to Washington. It did include my report of three police killed and four wounded in an ambush while escorting ballot boxes from Langur. The survivors must have had a Thuraya. A call for help came in. PRT soldiers, reinforced by some of Matiollah’s men, left Ripley locked and loaded, careening down a road they had never driven, and at night. The shooting was over by the time they arrived, and the surviving police still held on to the ballot boxes.
Charchina reported four ballot boxes missing. In Nesh, Bravo Company disarmed a rocket aimed at a polling station. Soldiers at another site in Nesh left to investigate a nearby boom. Farmers had driven their tractor over a mine. Two men died in the few minutes it took the soldiers to respond. Out of concern the explosion had drawn them away from the Taliban’s main objective, they hurried back to the voting site: all quiet. Alpha reported a few shots fired around the destroyed bridge in Khas Uruzgan. Nobody hurt. It was snowing there but not sticking. Charchina found the missing ballot boxes.
I started to worry about Kerry. He and I couldn’t connect on our Thurayas, and there was no word from his expedition until it returned a day after the election, late in the afternoon after Rob and I got back from the JEMB compound. Kerry, his beard lightened with road dust that coated every inch of him, related tales of scenic beauty, drought-driven poverty, Afghan Army indiscipline, local corruption, a school built with PRT funds, and unhindered voting. He was so tired he forsook his nightly DVD for a cold shower. In the morning he would clean the AK-47 he purchased for out-of-town trips. Miles of bad road had exacerbated a hip that made him limp like Chester on "Gunsmoke." Years ago it caused him to give up baseball for surfing, which took him to Indonesia. There he married a local girl, opened a beach bar, and hired on with USAID Jakarta to supplement the family income after their son was born. The pay was better here. He'd signed up for a full year and would re-up for a second.
One inspiring story after another enlivened the reports out of Kabul. The new mood didn’t yet reach into every nook and cranny, however. A rocket-propelled grenade hit one of two Charlie Company Humvees escorting ballot boxes from Charchina to Deh Rawud. The vehicle was up-armored. No shrapnel penetrated the cab. But the jolt jarred the American lieutenant in it so seriously, shattering his facial bones, he had to be medevacked to Germany and then to Walter Reed.
Still, not one ballot box had been lost, in part because the 2/5 used the helicopters at its disposal to get the ballots to Ripley, and a C-130 flew them to Kandahar. The helicopters followed. Across the country, almost everyone agreed the election had been a great success. Sensing no resonance to their complaints, the opposition stopped carping about ink on thumbs.
Neither Karzai's brother, the Frenchwoman, the ex-Special Forces contractor, nor any other outsider made an appearance in Uruzgan. Though the Embassy never said as much, I think we were all disappointed by the low number of international observers. The European influence, I was sure. Secretly, they looked for the U.S. to fail. Punishment for Iraq. And for our moving in where the NGOs feared to tread. Ultimately it was their loss. Afghanistan did it without them.
Voting at the Main Mosque
III. The Big Payoff
It wasn’t over for Brown Dog. The few guards he settled with, primarily those who worked for Rozi, complained about being paid in dollars. They wanted their national currency. Now that was progress. Take it or leave it, Brown Dog told them. He was trying to convince the rest of his 992 guards to accept a $30 flat rate for the election. The Governor said no, he had arranged for 2000 guards, they should be paid $6 for each of the many days they worked, and the money should go through him. Atiqullah claimed he had written a letter to JEMB Kabul requesting authority to pay the Governor directly, the head of JEMB approved it, and Brown Dog agreed. Brown Dog denied that. He and Atiqullah weren’t speaking anymore.
He acknowledged that JEMB Kabul had directed him to meet the Governor’s price for convoy duty – $10 per man-day. So the Governor inflated the number of men and their number of days on the job. The Ministry of Interior came back with instructions to pay only $4 per man-day plus fuel, the rate authorized for registration. But, the Ministry directed, he should let the Governor distribute it. The Governor refused to accept the lower rate.
As the standoff continued, Bagram alerted Ripley to an imminent threat on the life of Brown Dog and possibly others at the JEMB compound. The two enlisted civil affairs soldiers were still on the premises, although their captain had departed for emergency leave on learning his brother had lost both legs to an IED in Iraq.
Bobcat 6 asked the PRT to respond. The 2/5 was already engaged. A few minutes earlier, an IED struck an up-armored Humvee, the last vehicle in a Charlie Company convoy from Deh Rawud to Charchina. Two American soldiers were killed, four seriously wounded. 2/5 was working the medevac and a reaction force to secure the site.
The PRT commander hastily formed his own reaction force. I told him he needed me on it, as I was the only member of the PRT ever to have entered the compound. To round out the skill set I found Mohib, alone in the interpreters’ tent, asleep on a cot in his uniform. He even had his boots on. Untied, but I don’t think he ever tied them. He was growing a beard, I think. Tough to tell at his age.
In ten minutes we were rolling. In another ten minutes we were there. Our three Humvees halted a couple blocks from the compound. The soldiers not on the mounted guns got out and took up positions. The commander, Mohib, and I started walking to the gate.
The streets were empty. Streets without names. It was that time of day – midafternoon – when people, even animals, took a breather. All you saw was walls. One-story buildings, a few trees, maybe, stood behind them. People, too, I guess, but you couldn’t see any.
The commander asked if the short one was Brown Dog. He'd met Global Risk at the Governor's.
You got it, I said. He and I were setting a brisk pace, especially me to keep up with his long, loping stride. Mohib followed close behind, trotting when he had to. Older, I went on to say, hawk nose, maybe it was broken, left most of the talking to the other guy.
Plain as day he had no time for the Governor.
He was watching the money, I remarked.
The side streets ran straight. You could peer a long ways down them, but it was only more of the same. Tunnel vision, really. The one we were on was different in that it ended at the JEMB compound. The gate guard there checked our approach with his eyes but without shifting slouch. Obviously he hadn’t received any threat warning. Not that he would be much help.
I noted that our threesome had no shooters if the commander got distracted. Mohib never carried, nor did I. The commander called a sergeant forward.
The sergeant shuffled up, elbows churning. With all the gear these guys packed, they couldn’t move real fast. Neither he nor our threesome kicked up much dust. Only a thin layer covered the streets here. I saw, and then remembered, this one didn’t really terminate at the compound. It made a dogleg to the left.
The gate guard was sitting on a stool, AK-47 across his lap. I didn’t see anyone else, no guards peering over the wall. He smiled a smile of recognition as I neared, but his eyes showed he was taken aback by my well-armed, purposeful friends. Loaded for bear, the commander was one imposing dude. He'd spent most of his career in Special Forces.
In Pashtu I asked the guard how things were going.
We ran through the pleasantries, the short version. The guard was clearly one of those who had grown up during the jihad, the era of no education. A lost generation. Mohib spoke up. The guard let us enter. The sergeant waited outside.
Brown Dog and the two civil affairs soldiers were very glad to see us. Maybe a little embarrassed. No soldier or ex-soldier likes to be rescued. But consider the alternatives.
Their gear, including Brown Dog’s moneybag, was packed and on the veranda. Screw it, he said. He would take his attendance sheets with him and let Kabul sort it out.
Asim wasn’t around. Bobcat 6 must have summoned him. At first I saw only one Afghan, a driver, I think, who had stopped doing nothing to take in the proceedings. A second one appeared in the safe-haven doorway. A third stepped out of the shower room fully clothed. There was always another if you kept looking. I asked about Atiqullah.
Brown Dog nodded toward a detached room in front of the veranda. Atiqullah was inside wrapping things up with his staff. As usual, they stood while he sat. I mean, the inner circle stood. The young Turks. A few white-bearded men – clerks, not elders – squatted on the floor. They may have been listening but they weren’t looking his way. With Mohib translating, I congratulated Atiqullah on the superb effort. It had been good for the country. He nodded and smiled like I told you so, but he didn’t say much.
Some thought he aspired to a seat in the new parliament. Governor, others said. Not that he’d ever let on to a foreigner. At times I saw in him the putative beatification, cunning, and vanity I remembered from Ho Chi Minh posters. But his beard conjured up visions of ZZ Top. I could picture him on a Harley, wearing leathers. He was more interested in money, Asim once said, than you’d suspect from his public behavior. True, he never talked money unless forced to. In that, he was like the Governor with human rights. Excusing himself, he leaned over to give direction to an old man shuffling papers on the floor. He didn’t need us anymore, and that’s the way it was supposed to be.
The streets were still empty when we left. That could be a good sign, or a bad sign. A dog in a dry ditch raised its head on hearing the commotion. It soon lay down again, already accustomed to us. Further down that street a man walked unsteadily as though he too had just woken from a nap. He was walking away, his back to us.
The return to base proved uneventful except that Brown Dog wasn’t feeling too well, and he had a lot to get off his chest. The Governor was behind this, he was sure.
I set up a cot for him in the tent where I slept and where Kerry, the PRT engineer, and I had our desks. He soon developed a high fever and chills. Flu, the medic diagnosed. She herself was out of sorts, concerned our engineer might burst through the flaps. It was quitting time, and he often stopped by on his way from the PRT construction site. Apparently our tent mouse disappeared during the election, and the engineer blamed it on her cat.
Brown Dog’s condition made it easier to keep him out of sight when the Governor and Matiollah accepted the 2/5’s mediation following an incident in town that morning, a near shootout between the Afghan Army and the Governor’s militia. Tensions were running high.
The 2/5's executive officer didn’t want to leave Ripley while Bobcat 6 was in Charchina. That the Governor came to Ripley showed how seriously he took the situation. I had never before seen him, or Matiollah, on the base.
He came in his best salwar kamiz, laundered and ironed, with a silver sheen that put most others to shame, and a matching shawl. Slender stripes in his black turban picked up on that sheen. It must have been the fashion: Rozi had worn a similar outfit the day I met him. A ballpoint pen poked out of the Governor’s gray, gabardine vest. He looked straight ahead as he tromped across the dust to the PRT, selected as the venue because it was “neutral ground.” Matiollah was all eyes, though he tried not to show it. He also wore a clean, albeit less elegant, outfit. Both men looked usually dangerous and temporarily pacified, like gangsters in church. They must have left their weapons with their bodyguards at the gate.
Rob and Asim escorted them to the table in front of my tent. The Afghan Army commander, his senior American advisor, and I joined the executive officer, a major, in shaking their hands. The rest of the PRT stayed away in an effort to keep the numbers down. All the Americans but me wore pistols strapped to their hips or sides. The Afghan Army commander carried a Kalashnikov with abbreviated stock slung across his mid-section.
The major conveyed Bobcat 6’s regards. The battalion commander had gone to Charchina to follow up on yesterday’s ambush. Last night, in another part of Charchina, a detachment of the Governor’s militia and our Special Forces captured seven Taliban, one of them wounded.
The Governor acted as if he already knew, but I didn’t think so because he had nothing to add. His eyes narrowed, and he breathed deeply as he absorbed the information. Breathing even more deeply, he offered condolences for the two Charlie Company soldiers killed the day before.
The major thanked him. They were good men. We didn’t want to lose any more. He asked the Governor what happened that morning in Tarin Kot.
The Governor’s discomfiture grew. He said he hadn’t been informed right away. As soon as he heard, he called Matiollah, who reported the Afghan Army had stopped a pickup driven by his soldiers. The Afghan Army demanded IDs. The driver showed his, issued by the Governor. The Army said they accepted only Coalition IDs. Words were exchanged, and then an Army soldier opened fire. So Matiollah sent reinforcements.
In the soothing, subtly authoritative voice of a peacekeeper the major said he heard that Matiollah’s men seized an Afghan Army soldier’s rifle and beat up the American advisor’s interpreter. The Afghan Army commander nodded on hearing the translation. He elaborated. Tall and trim in his army’s standard green beret, he looked like a real soldier and talked like one, too – brisk, deep, and in modulated volume. He spoke in Dari, which you didn’t hear much in Tarin Kot, and his cheekbones were broad and high, which you saw, though not as prominently, among the Hazara people in the highlands of Khas Uruzgan.
Pulling back his shoulders, the Governor said that wasn’t how it was reported to him. Anyway, he was responsible for security in Tarin Kot. The Afghan Army should accept his ID cards. He accepted the Army's presence. But shooting at his men was not acceptable.
The major explained that the Afghan Army, like the Coalition, wore uniforms. Everybody could see who they were. The militia didn’t wear uniforms. They carried guns. We didn’t know who they were.
The Governor said that’s why he issued IDs.
The major noted that Americans couldn’t read those IDs, which were written in Pashtu.
The Afghan Army can read them, the Governor responded, if they know any Pashtu.
None of their soldiers were local. The four townies who enlisted had washed out. That summer a team from Kabul flew in to scout for a recruiting station. There’d been no follow-up, and neither the commander nor his advisors knew of plans to expand the Army's footprint in the province. In Gizab those soldiers had fired over the heads of curious but rowdy boys who kept pressing in on the visitors. Their advisors corrected them. The soldiers threw stones after that, but not at the boys. Near them. It was like the rockets on election day. Afghan kabuki, a show of violence as substitute for the real thing.
If this happens again, the major said, the militia should defer to the soldiers in uniform and report outstanding issues up the chain for resolution.
The Governor’s back arched; his arms and neck stiffened. He said he’d heard no complaints from the Coalition in three years. What happened? What changed?
Rephrasing his last point, the major asked that the militia not send reinforcements in the event of a dispute. Leaders on both sides could defuse dangerous situations.
The Governor said he had already reprimanded the driver.
A moan issued from my tent. Brown Dog was still bedridden though well-medicated. At least his fever was down and the vomiting had stopped. A helicopter would take him, the money, and the roster to Kandahar as soon as he was able to travel.
A second moan caused the Governor to scrunch his eyes. But his posture relaxed.
He agreed that leaders should resolve such disputes.
The major put his palms together and smiled. He was a family man, three daughters younger than my own. His easy-going manner complemented that of his tightwired commander, and they both knew it. He offered to make IDs for everyone authorized to carry weapons, effectively a license to bear arms. If the names were on a roster approved by the Governor, we’d issue it. The Governor and Matiollah would be first. They could do it, right now, in the tent on the far side of the table, the same tent where the PRT held its evening briefings.
The Governor said fine; his soldiers would carry two IDs.
The major said we couldn’t have our interpreters abused.
Matiollah spoke for the first time. His guys didn’t beat up anybody.
The Governor said he’d talk to them.
A PRT interpreter walked past, taking it all in. I beckoned him to sit beside me. I had something to raise when the major finished. We had agreed to a division of labor.
The major pressed on. The Afghan Army represented the central government. They should be treated with respect, like Coalition Forces.
Of course, the Governor said. He wasn’t finding this much fun.
The major said pointing loaded weapons at our forces was risky behavior.
The Governor apologized for his men. I couldn’t believe my ears. He was either losing heart or building a grudge. Matiollah looked off in the distance, to the ridges between us and Kandahar. Life was simpler up there. That didn’t stop him from listening and, I imagined, learning how to and how not to manage the non-believers. Continuing, the Governor said his soldiers weren’t well-trained or educated. He’d fire the bad ones if he had to.
The sun had long since driven the chill out of the air, and even under the camouflage netting anybody not wearing sunglasses was squinting. The major said he wanted to offer food and drink, but he knew Ramazan had begun.
Please – the Governor waved his hand – don’t let us stop you.
Not a chance.
As he left to get his Coalition ID, I sidled up with interpreter in tow and mentioned the threats against Brown Dog, noting it’d be difficult to attract the UN and other donors to Tarin Kot if we had to keep extricating foreigners from the JEMB compound.
The Governor said Karzai’s other brother, not the one supposed to come for the election, called to say watch out, there was a report he, Jan Mohammed, was going to kill the Global Risk guy with the money. If he is killed, the brother, reputed to be in the drug trade, continued, they’ll blame you. The Governor had an aggrieved tone. This wasn’t his day. He told us what he said he told the brother: the Americans were basing this on a falsehood from a talib in Atiqullah’s inner circle. The Governor had repeatedly told Atiqullah to get rid of him. Eyewitnesses saw the man deliver three JEMB motorbikes to the Taliban, the Governor continued. We should have checked with him first.
I told him our information didn’t say where the threat originated. Anybody could have been after the JEMB’s cash. Taliban. Thieves.
The Governor harrumphed in a way that implied we foreigners were more trouble than we were worth, and the executive officer excorted him into the ID tent, where Matiollah waited so the Governor could be first.
To our great relief Karzai won an absolute majority, obviating the need for a runoff. He got 76% of the vote in Uruzgan. Second place, at 7%, went to a Hazara. Only 2% of the voters in the province were women, less than a third of the number registered and by far the lowest percentage in the country. Interestingly, the sole female candidate on the ballot won 3% of Uruzgan’s votes.
Karzai, the UN, and U.S. pointed to the accomplishment. In refutation of those who said the election should await the full restoration of order, the election helped create order. It brought the country together more than anything in its history. More than the Russians. More than the British. And it all happened in one day, one morning, really. A paper exercise, nonviolent to boot. The afterglow lingered. It was something to build on.
The Embassy, Bagram, and Washington went on to say this signaled the demise of the Taliban and the violence they wreaked. The Taliban would fade into the sunset, demoralized, discredited, and irrelevant.
The Age of Aquarius had yet to dawn in Uruzgan, however. In the month after the election the JEMB coordinator in Khas Uruzgan was shot and killed, an IED struck a PRT convoy between Chenartu and Tarin Kot, and two more 2/5 soldiers were killed in the western part of the province. You could say our job was to keep Uruzgan out of the news. The Embassy made sure we succeeded.
Kumbaya at the PRT
Atiqullah was gunned down the following year, after he announced his candidacy for parliament. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
The year after that, in 2006, President Karzai appointed a reconciled Taliban official to be Uruzgan's new governor and gave Jan Mohammed a sinecure in Kabul. A much larger Dutch force replaced most of the Americans in the province; FOB Ripley was renamed Camp Holland. A substantial Australian contingent also began to arrive.
In 2008 their operators accidentally shot and killed Rozi Khan while he was trying to mediate a standoff.
In 2010 Jan Mohammed was shot dead in Kabul by two men posing as students from Tarin Kot, Kerry was medevacked from Afghanistan to Germany, where he died of disease, and the Dutch pulled out of Uruzgan.
The Australians followed in 2013.
Bottom line: it’s the Afghans’ now. It always was.