Monday, April 20, 2009

A Day Out, Part Two

When we touched down at our destination, I was reminded again of one of the hidden strengths of having lots of locals on the payroll.* The advance party, who had driven down two days before, had arranged a proper reception for the clients.

*There are a few benefits to working with an Afghan company. These benefits are vastly outweighed by the negative aspects of what passes for local business practices. I'll leave those for another post.

The airfield, which sits inside the perimeter of an ANA base, was ringed by ANP troops for security and there was a delegation of senior officers of both the ANA and ANP to meet us. Overall, an impressive display of local clout, a nice show put together through reliance with the personal connections and tribal relationships which are the grease of social interaction here. Few other companies, local or international, could have pulled this off. And we did it with just a few phone calls.* The advance party even stayed in the ANP commander's house for two nights!

*And a bottle of bootleg whiskey for the local commander.

So, after a quick meeting with the local bigwigs, lots of salaams and handshakes, and half a pack of cigarettes given away to the locals, we set off on a tour of the base perimeter. Before we got fifty meters, one of the local ANA commanders said (through an terp*), "Would you like to meet the Americans?"

*Terp is short for interpreter, or translator. I've been told that terp is a mildly derogatory term in Iraq (where I have never been), but I can find no negative connotations in it. It's like calling an umpire ump.

We knew that there was an American facility within the ANA base, sort of a mini-camp. Turned out that they referred to themselves as a FOB, or Forward Operating Base. This was mildly inaccurate, since the total US Army force level was about sixty guys, and a standard FOB is company (200+) or battalion (800+) strength. Nevertheless, crammed into one corner of the vast ANA territory was a little sandbagged outpost, surrounded by double-thick and double-high layers of HESCO barriers.*

*HESCO barriers are basically large metal mesh cages lined with canvas and filled with sand and gravel. Think sandbags on steriods, but with the structural stability required to actually build walls out of them.

We wandered inside, past the ECP, with only a few bewildered stares from some soldiers in PT gear.* Not exactly rigorous security protocols, but then we were inside an ANA perimeter, for whatever that's worth.

*There I go with the acronyms again. ECP=Entry Control Point (i.e. the gate); PT=Physical Training (i.e. shorts and t-shirts); ANA=Afghan National Army.

Despite my best efforts, we hadn't been able to make contact with the US Army before we arrived, so I was expecting to get bounced out in a matter of minutes. Instead, we had a quick conference with the base commander, his deputy and the company first sergeant. These three guys, a full colonel, a major and a senior NCO (that's non-commissioned officer), all gave us the royal treatment, including going over the future plans for construction with the clients and taking us on a walking tour of the entire perimeter so that we could see the site from the guard towers. I was pleasantly surprised with both their professionalism (which I expected) and their openess (which I did not). They even pointed out the dead dog, a victim of a recent hunt,* so that we could stay well upwind.

*Yes, they hunt dogs. Not for sport, and certainly not for food. It's purely a security measure. Dogs here tend to run in packs and are almost always nearly feral. The week before a US soldier had been attacked right outside the gate and badly bitten. So, they do periodic culls of the local packs to keep the numbers in their favor. Besides, it's probably good target practice.

After half a day of tramping around in the Afghan dust (most of the land inside the perimeter was unoccupied and undeveloped; hence the reason for the clients, a bunch of construction contractors, to visit) we stopped for a quick photo op, climbed back into the chopper and headed home. All in all, a lot of work and organizational effort, and not a small amount of stress, for what was really a pretty simple look over a construction site. As they say, TIA: This Is Afghanistan. Nothing here is easy.

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