Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Kandahar and Qalat, The Governor and Alexander's Castle

Since that day, I departed from Camp Phoenix and have been down in the South. I just returned to Kandahar this afternoon, having spent the past two days in Qalat. I am escorting NPR reporter J.J. Sutherland here in the South of Afghanistan. He is a great reporter with a razor’s focus on getting the story out. That said, he also has a patience based on his experience of multiple trips into Baghdad. As he says, “That is the whole embed process, you never get the story you thought you were going to get. You get a different one.” Well, he has definitely gotten a different story than expected. We have been meeting so many key leaders and seeing so many places within this sort period of time it is incredible. From traveling to the peak of Alexander’s Castle to dining with the Governor of Qalat twice in one day, to interviewing a young captain about his recent role and wounds received while leading an Afghan platoon in a Canadian led battalion movement to contact, Mr. Sutherland and I have been able to document much of this campaign in the past 72 hours.

Traveling through Qalat was fascinating. Rolling in a fully up-armored High Mobility Multiple Wheeled Vehicle, or M114 as it is known, through the heart of Taliban controlled country that, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, infrastructure and relative stability remains dominated by the repressive policies of the Taliban that frequently move through this village. All of the women above the age of puberty I this remote corner of the word were cloaked in the traditional blue Burkha, despite the 110 degree heat. Few of the children on the sides of the road will wave or smile, lest they be beaten as a consequence of their lack of judgment.

Driving down the hilltop forward operating base, or FOB, named Camp Apache, we passed the “Bala Haizar” or “Castle” I the local tongue, a 3,000 year old ruin originally built by Alexander the Great and occupied by every successive Army of the past two millennia. We passed it as we needed to get to a vitally important meeting held weekly on the Governor’s Compound, but were assured that we would see more of it later. When I asked LTC Evrage if I could walk up the street to take a photo of the striking fortress, he quietly smirked “Hell no. This is a very dangerous part of town here, know what I’m saying? Inside these walls we’re relatively safe ‘cuz it’s a bad idea to gun someone down in front of the Governor’s place. No, we’ll go up there later.”

We entered the Governor’s compound through a bamboo lift and a metallic gate into a facility surrounded by a four meter wall. Once within the walls, we were welcomed into the meeting, an enormous room with over a dozen guests already seated. These included members of the Governor’s staff, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and their security detail, the leader of the local Afghan National Police squadron and his deputy, the executive officer of the infantry battalion from the 10th Mountain Division that continues to conduct offensive operations against the Taliban in this area, and us, the trainers of the Afghan National Army. It was a closed meeting during which we discussed the priorities of the region.

From the start Governor Dill bar jan “Arman” exerted control over the entire meeting. Speaking in Pashto and working through an interpreter that translated the speaker’s addres into both English and Dari, he spoke of his recent meeting with President Karzai and strongly voiced his leadership in the region. Much of the content of the meeting was, as I mention above, was closed to official notes, but his focus, leadership and command of the region was clear from the start. Half way through the meeting he dismissed the interpreters, other than his own and declared suddenly in very clear and commanding English, “I have told all of you before and I do not want to say this again, so please listen to me this time. When we are discussing security issues of the Zabol province, we will do so with on interpreter that understands American English an that has been approved by me and my staff. I will not be lulled into false security by discussing matters with Terps (local American slang for Interpreters) that do not have a proper security credential or need to know these matters, understand?”

It was clear that all in the room understood both his intent and that he was in charge.

The meeting lasted for about three hours, during which time we were served the traditional chai and small plates of nuts, raisins, and sweets. After we had our meeting, the Governor invited us to join him for a walk and lunch. We exited the compound and walked down the street. The Governor had two teenaged boys that he walked with initially, their hands in his hands, as we exited the walls of his citadel. I asked him if they were his sons. He explained, “No. Their father was a strong supporter and friend of mine. He was killed by the Taliban. I am offering them some time to be with me, a good meal and some support during this hard time for them. Do you understand,” again emphasizing the need to reaffirm that his English was clear enough to be fathomed. We entered his home, another walled citadel that he had only finished the month before. We entered the building washed our hands and were seated at a four meter by one meter table with he at the head and LTC Evrage and I to his immediate right, the battalion XO and the two boys to his immediate left. Business, as in any civil breaking of bread regardless of culture, was not discussed at the table. It was a lavish meal with fresh bread, a cucumber, yolk and cream drink with paprika favoring the top, beef kabobs, stewed lamb, macaroni noodles and Pepsi colas for the entire table. However, I noticed, the Governor drank a Coca-Cola, perhaps a soda connoisseur at heart.

As we finished our meal, the Governor spoke of how a previous American medical staff officer was always coming to his door every day reminding him to get out and go for a walk, to exercise his body as well as his mind. “He was a good man,” he said “I miss him,” he laughed as he placed his hand on his belly. “Sir,” I asked “How will these boys ever become big and strong like us if they eat so sparingly?” alluding to the boys barely eaten plates. “I do not know,” he replied. Lt. Col. Evrage leaned over to me, “That is more food than these boys have likely seen in a week, Bud,” he explained. So many small things noticed in this far away place.

We left after lunch, but not without gaining the Governor’s invitation to join him for in the evening for a formal interview with J.J. Southerland, for the record, on tape, at his home. “Join me again for dinner tonight. It will be beautiful.” We agreed to return at seven in the evening.

Remounting the truck is a ritual of combat. First the combat locks of the doors need to be opened, then removing the pistol holster from over the shoulders, clipping the M4 rifle’s Wolf clip to the right shoulder of the 60 plus pounds of the Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) protective vest. With nothing mounted on it, it weighs about forty pounds. With a basic load of 9mm and 5.56mm ball ammo, a first aid kit, Camelbak hydration system and a wolf-clipped M4 rifle hanging from your right shoulder, it is easily 60-70 pounds. I then replaced the shoulder holster, gave myself the shakes to get it all to settle into position and replaced my Boonie cap with my Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH). Finally, I did the most uncomfortable part…fitting my six foot, five inch (the extra inch from the helmet) frame into a space designed for a five foot eight inch average soldier compartment of the front seat of this armored rig. It is much more easily said than done. No wonder the Army is reconsidering its century old disinterest in chiropractic medicine.

Off to the castle.
We then drove up the fortress into the history. Entering the castle walls had an eerie feeling of entering the realm of the ancients. Amazing to see the entire Qalat Valley from this peak defensive position that had been held by the Ancient Greeks, the Afghans, the British, the Soviet Russians, the Taliban and now the Americans. From here, the second brigade of the 205th Corps has its headquarters. Inside these walls, the brigade commander and his Afghan troops hold the key terrain, launching operations from their command post.

We walked around the area in unrelenting 120 degreee heat, viewing the ancient columns and archways and ascending to the peak. Here atop the highest point of the Castle, what once was an observation post, the Governor's new tea house is under construction. He started this project after an historic visit of "His Excellent Highness President Hamid Karzai" as he is properly referred to by the people of his country. "He was the first leader of Afghanistan," Governor Arman had explained to me "to ever visit Qalat. His visit was a great honor. Soon we will have a house to have tea and discussion and to view this renewed country."

The builders of this tea house had a serious look.

We met the Embedded trainers of this team, two lieutenants that are part of a four man team that makes this austere locale their home. It was much like a firehouse in its feel. A central kitchen, a work out room, bunks and cold storage rooms. All within walls that once housed every one from Afghan mujahideen to Alexandrian centurians. Extraordinary.

Later that evening, we returned to join the Governor for dinner. After an extensive interview with JJ, the Governor asked us to join him for dinner. Another lavish feast and interesting discussion.

I will follow this up again later this evening...have to move to a mission currently. I will load photos after we return to my work place and I can download the imagery.

-out here

4 Comments:

Blogger MB said...

I found your blog today and have just finished reading through all of your posts. Thanks for your wisdom and insight. They are so valuable and it is enlightening to hear the real stories. I am a member of Soldiers' Angels and have adopted a CJTF P V soldier but I haven't heard from him yet. If you are interested or know of any of your soldiers who might benefit, you can email me at thedeltadoula@yahoo.com. Thank you for your service and for the sacrifices that you and your family are making to protect and defend.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Huntress said...

What a wonderful experience this turned out to be for you, and all those involved.

I'd love to know when JJ Sutherlands interview will be aired.

I m also relieved that the Governor is smart enough NOT to trust local terps who have not received clearance from him or his staff. EXCELLENT. It's a lesson I hope we are applying in Iraq.
I know that some will interpret this as a sign of failure that some local terps cannot be trusted, but such is our enemy...smart and able to blend into any society pretending to be worthy of ones trust..and then betraying all of us.
(Hmm ...almost sounds like the NYTimes....sorree I couldn't resist the dig!! )

This dispatch provides great insight into the realities occuring in AFG.
We still have alot of work to do to keep a resurging Taliban influence from gaining further ground.

Stay safe!

6:53 AM  
Blogger Kat said...

WOW!

9:39 AM  
Blogger ALG said...

Do you know if Alexander's Castle in Qalat is Alexandria-in-Arachosia or is Alexander's city at Kandahar?

6:17 PM  

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