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A Stick in the Mud

By Michael Fumento

Today we were supposed to go out on a mechanized patrol of the area, including the riverbed. And then, I thought, we were to go into town to meet with officials. The patrols go out four days out of five to check for Taliban and possibly draw a fight (In fact, a patrol was ambushed recently where we went today), but there's just not the manpower here to get really aggressive with them.

Thatched roof over a mud hut. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
First we stopped by an Afghan National Police station inside our wire, a series of mud huts. Mud huts are actually a lot more resilient than you might think, because they're not just mud. They mix in lots of straw and gravel and twigs, with larger pieces of wood going sideways across the top and thatch on top of that with or without another layer of mud. Far from washing away with a good rain, they'll probably last longer than some of the condo units being slapped together in my town.

The Afghan police were all neatly in uniform, seemed to have relatively new weaponry, were neither particularly old nor particularly young, and just gave the air of being more professional than the ones I saw along Highway One. When one barked out an order they piled into the back of a shiny green pickup truck, which looked fairly new.

Afghan National Police, loading up. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Then we drove into an area that separates the tough stomachs from the Dramamine reliant ones. It was like being caught in a force six hurricane. (Yes, I know there's no such thing.) I don't know how anybody could find any amusement park ride fun after that. Actually, having been a paratrooper forever destroyed the fun of carnival rides for me anyway. As we approached the river that essentially divides our side of the area from the part the Taliban like play in the path got muddier and muddier.

By the time we realized we were going to get stuck in just a few more feet, well, we got stuck right there. We called upon another Humvee to try to pull us out with winch but nothing doing. All four wheels just got stuck deeper. The soldiers tried putting rocks under the wheels, but to no avail.

Our Humvee, stuck in the mud. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Now the afternoon sun was coming up and for the first time in Afghanistan I felt quite hot. But fortunately where we stopped there were plenty of photo-ops, including kids, animals, and poppies. Poppies are among the loveliest flowers; it's too bad they do such damage. These will end up supplying junkies in Europe -- the U.S. gets its illegal opiates from South America.

Poppy eradication is a very tough political issue. No other crop can begin to bring in the type of revenue these flowers do. The only other crop I saw that day was boring old leaf cabbage, although Zabul province is one of the richest agricultural areas of the country. If you're going to destroy a farmer's poppies without compensating him, you threaten to make him a Taliban sympathizer. But if there's no money for bullets, there's no money for such compensation.

Spc. Jonathan Lackovic protects the stricken convoy from killer donkeys. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I was on the river side of the vehicles when the CO (1st Lt. Kevin Stofan) called me back to the other side. There was a report that woman and children had hurriedly abandoned a compound in the wood line behind the river as six men entered. Were they Taliban? We'll never know, but there was a good chance.

Eventually a third Humvee from our patrol came along with a reinforced bumper made for pushing. So we did a push-me-pull-you. With one pulling from the front and the other pushing from the back, out we popped. We headed very carefully back to the FOB, with the Lt. often getting out to check for mud.

Two hours later we "headed into town" to see the district chief. Actually, his headquarters are about 100 meters from where I sleep. The town is fairly safe, apparently, but not so much that it isn't smarter for him to live in a building with us. It was interesting seeing how our guys do business with the locals. The first order of business was compensation for a man whose house we accidentally dropped a bomb on. Eight people were wounded, but none killed.

He was to receive about $4,000 and Lt. Stefan's main concern was that this was an old man who would be walking from town and $4,000 was a heck of an incentive for a mugging. The district chief agreed, but seemed more interested in money to support his operations. You can't really blame him, I guess. His police haven't been paid in apparently five months. "We can fight better if we are paid," he insisted while fingering his prayer beads. Makes a certain amount of sense. But he also said he believed the money, which would be coming not straight from Kabul but rather via the administrator in Qalat, would be arriving in 20 days or so. The Lt. promised he would ask "my boss," meaning the C Co. commander, to intercede and that past such efforts appear to have met with some success.

Pretty but deadly poppies. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
It was interesting watching how the conversation played out, always mixing friendly conversation with business as opposed to in the States where we usually start out with the pleasantries and end up with the business. So then Lt. Stefan would ask about the district chief's recent visit to Qalat and somehow the district chief saw fit to bring up Lt. Stefan's predecessor, whom apparently he frowned upon somewhat because he was too skinny. Not that I've seen a non-skinny Afghan yet, but apparently it's okay for them to be quite thin but it just doesn't wear well on us. (None of the soldiers I've seen since Kandahar, by the way, have had anything more than a slight pot belly.)

Apparently Military Intelligence was of the belief that a mortar round had recently flown over the camp and that the tube was in town somewhere, because Lt. Stefan asked the chief about that too. "Who can we pay to tell us?" he asked. But the boss man said he wanted to discuss that privately. Perhaps he didn't trust his own men. I don't know. The district chief also informed us without being asked that the townspeople liked us very much and that when American or Afghan soldiers disrupted their lives with raids "They blame on Taliban" for prompting them. Is it true, or did he say it to make us feel good? Who knows?

Mizan district chief (right) next to police commander with bird’s nest hair. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Still, I sense much more friendship and trust between us and the locals here than I did back in Iraq. Certainly the ones who work on the camp like us and we like them. Tonight during chow one showed up a bit late and a server announced in a booming voice: "Sorry, but all that's left is pork! Even the noodles are pork!" The Afghan laughed, as did we all.

Today, or really tonight as it were, is the first time this trip I really felt homesick. I looked up at the mountain range that surrounds the FOB and it just made me feel all the more isolated. There's one world in here and another world, the one I know and love, past those peaks. I miss my wife and cat terribly, and if I had kids I'd miss them too. Still, I'll be home soon enough. Not so for the men.

There still seems to be some confusion over whether tours here have been extended from 12 to 15 months as they have in Iraq, but I was uploading a blog the other day and couldn't help but hear a heart-wrenching conversation between a GI and his wife. Clearly the extensions are going to hurt morale, and I must say that both in Iraq and here morale has been quite good where I've been stationed. Strange to think that when those Twin Towers fell in 2001 not a single one of us imagined we'd be here at any point in time, much less all these years later. And, dare I say it, all these years from now.

My cat Aspen, hiding from the camera. Even she knows freedom isn't free. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
But they have to fight and build. And I have to do what little I can to get the truth out about what's going on here. I mentioned in an earlier blog from Lagman that I was sharing a tiny room with two AP reporters. What I didn't say was that one believed 9/11 was a hoax and presumably the other one, who never took off his Che Guevera t-shirt, felt likewise. That's my opposition. Do you really trust what these guys are going to tell you and the people of other nations that will run their stories and show their video?

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 23, 2007 10:12 AM  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military