Saturday, November 7, 2009

Flight to Nowhere

I've been fortunate enough to do a fair amount of traveling in the last week or so. It's always good to get out of Kabul (especially after the events of two weeks ago make the city seem considerably less safe), and I enjoy seeing different parts of the country, even if the scenery doesn't really change all that much.

The first trip was a quick, three hour helicopter ride down to Uruzgan Province.* Uruzgan is usually described as part of "southern" Afghanistan, like Helmand or Kandahar, but to my mind it's really part of central Afghanistan. Uruzgan is more mountainous than Helmand or Kandahar**, and it's also more sparsely populated. It's also the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, so that tells you all you need to know about the attitude of the locals.

*At least this time the crew was largely sober. As usual, they were Russian pilots with a mixed Eastern European ground crew, but this group was considerably more professional than last time. Plus, the chopper started on the first try without anyone having to get on top and bang on the engine with a wrench.
**Not that one should make the mistake of thinking that Uruzgan's mountains are lush valleys of pine forests and clear mountain streams. It's basically high desert. Broadly speaking, in most of Afghanistan, there are two types of terrain. There's the desert (rocks on flat ground) and the mountains (rocks on sloped ground). Either way, it's rocks. And dust.

This is what Uruzgan looks like from the air:

And this is what it looks like on the ground:

I think you'll agree, not exactly inspiring scenery.

Two hours at the KAIA waiting for the bird, three hours flight time down and another three hours back, all for about forty-five minutes on the ground while the construction guys take soil samples and measure the depth of gullys. My job in all this (besides providing cigarettes to those expats who failed to bring their own) is to manage my guys while the pull security on the chopper and keep an eye out for locals.

Of course, as one would expect for a remote valley like the one we went to, the only locals around were the shepherds tending their herds of goats. Down in Uruzgan, just about everyone goes armed, even the shepherds. As long as they keep their distance and don't show too much interest, we don't mess with them. After all, before too long we might need to hire their cousins or sons to work on the project we're in Uruzgan to scout. Fortunately, they seem to take the same attitude. As long as we don't mess with their goats, they don't try to approach closer than about 300 meters. Any closer than that and things get real tense real fast.

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