Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fortress Kandahar

My flight into Kandahar descended through pale grey clouds to emerge into a darker grey of drizzling rain. I couldn't see much, but I did notice that the land was a patchwork of small farms. I don't know why I had the impression that the place was mostly desert, but if the wooden shacks had been houses and the cart paths been dirt roads, the place could have been mistaken for any arid farm country. 

The flight out of Dubai started with little promise as we exited the terminal and got on a bus to get to the plane. Plenty of airports use this technique, so I didn't think much of it until the bus took a wide turn and stopped at a plane that was a stone's throw from the terminal door. While I might have appreciated the ride, I could have walked the distance in about thirty seconds. Adding insult to slight injury, we waited on that bus for fifteen minutes, looking at our plane, before they'd let us out to board. The aircraft was a commercial plane, complete with video entertainment, so the trip was pleasant enough. 

On the ground in Kandahar, we were ushered into the airport terminal; a structure of brick arches that looked much older than it probably was. We listened to a scripted welcome/warning lecture from a young Afghan national and then a soldier collected our identification cards. There was no one to meet me so I waiting in the rain for a bus that supposedly came by every once in a while. I struck up a conversation with a contractor working in the terminal and he offered to help. After a few phone calls, my contact was on his way. The two of us had to wait another half hour while one of his colleagues tracked down a vehicle to get us to the billeting office. I was prepared to walk in the rain if need be. Fortunately, he objected to this plan as most of the fort was covered by deep mud after the rain.

I collected my room assignment and we proceeded to the dormitory. I share my room with three other contractors, one of whom was sleeping when I entered to drop off my bags. I was lucky not have gotten a tent as they often house half a dozen or more people.

The only green in this fort is the uniforms worn by the various soldiers. There are a few dust covered trees that look like hairy ferns, but there's not a patch of grass to be seen. There are a few paved roads and sidewalks, but most of the ground consists of mud the texture and color of fine humus, with patches of gravel. When it rains, workers drop pallets in the low areas so we don't have to slog through too much mud. More permanent muddy areas have broken concrete slabs to act as stepping stones. The mud is extremely fine. When it's dry, it raises a very fine dust that hangs in the still air and coats every exposed surface. I fear for my camera gear and my computer.
Troops going about their business in the dusty afternoon.

I've only visited a few areas in the fort so far, but from I've seen, the place is made up of concrete walls with metal buildings interspersed. There are a few brick buildings though. Nearly all the metal buildings incorporate a rather clever design: they are surrounded by tall concrete slabs protecting them from explosives and weapons fire. Metal buildings are as safe as cardboard and a projectile can shred through several of them with ease. The great monoliths of concrete prevent projectiles from penetrating more than one building. They can also be easily rearranged with a crane.

The slabs are perfect canvases for graffiti "taggers," but only stencils appear on the walls. Some of them are quite excellent. I've been keeping my eyes out for a "Kilroy was here" mark, but so far, nothing.

While the concrete slaps afford some protection, there are also concrete bunkers where everyone takes shelter during an attack. I've heard them referred to as Soviet bus shelters. Some have sandbags stacked around them for even more protection. A few folks have taken to decorating their home away from home away from home with paint and crude furnishings.

There are shipping containers everywhere. Some are ready-built for specific needs like refrigerators, toilets, accommodations and electric plants, but most are obviously converted from shells to laundromats, offices, and storage facilities. They are either sitting alone or grouped with a few others or stacked up. There are a few compounds that consist of nothing but a wall of shipping containers. I have no idea what's behind them, but they are the modern equivalent of medieval keeps inside a castle.
Some compounds consist of stacked shipping containers, making them resemble ancient castle keeps.

The roads are occupied by SUVs, delivery vehicles and buses. There's an odd mix of right-hand and left-hand drive trucks and vans. On more than one occasion, I did a double-take when I saw a vehicle with no driver, only to realize that it was a British or Australian truck piloted by someone in the "passenger" seat. 
There are also great brooding monsters, tactical vehicles, that sit alongside the road like predators digesting a recent meal. Occasionally, a small convoy of these machines roll out on a mission. I was amused to watch one of them wait patiently for traffic to clear the street and pedestrians to move out of the way before it pulled onto the main boulevard. I dare say if it had appeared on any North American road, everyone would pull to the side in awe and fear. Here, it had to wait it's turn, yielding to vehicles that are little more than golf carts. 
I was told to prepare for cold weather, so I brought my cold weather gear. On my third day, the sun came out and I was walking around without hat or jacket it was so pleasant. A few days after that, I walked to the gym with only shorts and t-shirt. Some contractors were dressed in cargo shorts. The nights do get chilly, but so far I've seen scant evidence of frost. I was quite disturbed when I noticed a small swarm of mosquitoes near one of the large puddles. Malaria is a real problem here, but in December? Not good.

There are soldiers from many countries here and I make a game of identifying them based on their camouflage pattern. The US Army makes up easily eighty percent of the uniforms, but there are some marines and navy personnel mixed in. The second largest contingent is the Romanians with their lighter colored uniform and larger patterned camouflage. Their neighbors, the Bulgarians, don't seem to have camouflage but what can only be described as dressy fitness attire. My office has a few Australians so I've learned to recognize those. The Afghans have the sharpest uniforms, looking like WWII airmen in their short wool jackets. The United Arab Emirates soldiers I saw wear digital patterned sand-colored material while the two Singapore soldiers striking green camouflage in a similar digital form. The solitary Portuguese pilot I met wore dressy khakis. The British have a very practical green camouflage. I spotted a New Zealander and a Canadian but didn't have a chance to examine their attire. Contractors, oddly enough, are permitted to wear camouflage uniforms, but must include a "contractor" tag and obey all dress regulations. Like most of the civilian workers, I'm sticking with work clothes. 

My first few days were spent tracking down documents and missing requirements so I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to get back to me. That gave me an opportunity to take different routes when walking around the compound. One time I passed a group of soldiers shoveling a pile of gravel into buckets and wheel barrows. The shovels hitting the gravel made a delightful sound and it reverberated around the concrete walls. Having been sitting at a desk for a few days, I was up for a bit of exercise. I walked backed to the soldiers and asked that they identify the hardest working shoveler. They pointed to one of their fellows and I demanded his shovel. I explained that as an office worker, I seldom had an opportunity to perform honest labor, then I started in on the pile. They were quite amused at this and I insisted that I was serious. I spent almost half an hour, helping to fill half a dozen barrow loads and twice as many buckets. That was enough for me! They had been at work for at least an hour and spent a few more hours labor moving the gravel. I really think that desk jockeys should be required to spend one day of every five doing physical labor.

My dorm is quite near the Romanian compound. It provides me with one of the best landmarks for finding my way home: an Eastern Orthodox chapel. When I first saw it, I thought it might have been left over from the Russian occupation. I later learned it was  prefabricated and put together soon after the war began. Some of the other countries wanted it gone, calling it a target, but the Romanians held to their guns, so to speak.

The fort is really a small town. In addition to office buildings and residences, there are recreation areas, barbershops, two gyms, a few large dinning facilities, and a "downtown" consisting of a ring of shops and restaurants. Yes, there are restaurants, including a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a TGI Fridays. All the restaurants are expensive, but people go there for variety. Inside the ring is a soccer pitch build by the Brits (and used by the Americans for football), a basketball court and a hockey rink (courtesy of the Canadians).

The recreation halls and gyms offer activities for down time. The recreation center is equipped with half a dozen large screen televisions attached to gaming systems. It is a very odd experience to watch four camouflaged soldiers, their rifles and machine guns on the floor beside them, intently playing "Call of Duty." Actual warriors playing soldier on a computer in a combat zone.

Some of the rules and regulations around the base are a bit frustrating. At night, we're required to wear a reflective belt. I don't like that, but I support it a hundred percent as the lighting here is terrible and it's quite easy to get run over. We're supposed to wear protective goggles when outside and most people comply with this (though I've forgotten mine on more than a few occasions) . At night, we're also supposed to have a "battle buddy" when walking around (I call them "pacifist pal" or "shrapnel shield"), but my schedule is totally different from anyone else. Fortunately, they don't enforce this so much (plus I try to walk within spitting distance of anyone going my way to placate the MPs). We're not allowed to wear gym attire in the mess hall. I can see them wanting to keep the place professional, but not being able to eat while wearing sweat pants or shorts is inconvenient. We can't take a bag into the gym or into the mess hall, so we don't even get a chance to change. We must go back to our room. Bags aren't allowed in the recreation center and that means no computer bags. We can't even take our computer in a plastic shopping bag or transparent sack. Everyone has to walk with it under their arms; Great for the mini-tablet crowd, but I'm using a manly 17" computer that's more desktop than laptop.

I missed a USO tour where three athletes and a runner up on American Idol did some sort of meet and greet (where's Kathy Griffin when you need her?). I did manage to catch an Air-Force rock band called "Total Force." I was surprised at how good they were. While most rock bands wear hip clothing, they wore their camouflage fatigues. They would do well in some of the more rowdy American venues; they performed while wearing their sidearms. No one was going to throw a beer bottle at this band!

A few days later another Air-Force group performed. It was a ten-piece pop/rock band accompanied by a score of singers. One of the security soldiers told me that he was impressed with this particular group because not only did they put on a show, but they were responsible for setting up all the lighting and sound equipment and then breaking it down and stowing it afterward. Their show consisted of a medley of rock and pop songs. One or two singers would take the stage backed up by the rest of the musicians and singers. Those doing backup performed a dance routine worthy of any variety show on TV or Vegas. Unfortunately, they were dancing in their fatigues and that really bordered on the absurd  Still, they did a great job, putting 100% into the show. I'm glad they weren't wearing pistols, that would have been too much.

There are lots of soldiers walking around and most of them are armed with a rifle or machine gun and often a pistol as well. Between the domestic and foreign forces, there's quite a variety of weapons. I must admit that it was quite unnerving to have so many guns wandering about. What's even more unnerving are the people holding them. I expect to see some serious, hardened, bad-ass soldier walking around, and there are a few of those. Most of the guys look like regular Joe's with baggy clothing and hair cut too short. For them it's a job and a job that requires they carry around a weapon. It's the women who really throw me off. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for women serving in the military and while I have reservations about them serving in combat (that's a discussion for a different time and place), that's not what bothers me. What throws me is extremely good looking women walking around in camouflage fatigues toting killing machines.

I never look at a guy and think "That dude looks awesome, he should be on the cover of some fitness magazine," but I do look at some of the women and think they should be in Vogue or Glamour (seriously). Anywhere else, I'd be tempted to approach them about doing a photo shoot, but doing so here might get me a ticket home (fraternizing of any sort is frowned upon). So, I'm biased or prejudiced or something, but at least I'm aware of the fact.

One of the shops on the boardwalk sells "tactical gear," military clothing and accessories. I noticed that they have a calendar of hot babes, often wearing a bikini top, brandishing assault rifles and sub-machine-guns. All the models have a generic look that leaves me cold. In one afternoon I could recruit a score of more worthy "models" who are better looking and are actually capable of using their weapons.

The fort is really an airfield, Kandahar Air Field, but it's really a fort with an airfield. Some afternoons we hear, then see, fighter jets doing low-level passes over the airfield (which begs the question of why we need fighters here, but that's another topic). The jets are tremendously loud, but it's nothing compared to some of the large cargo planes taking off. Stuck behind concrete walls, I can never see them, but they make a sound that I'm sure is very similar to being close to a Saturn Five rocket at liftoff. They often take off while I'm asleep.  My dorm is probably about a kilometer from the airport, but sometimes it feels like I'm sleeping in a hangar at the end of the runway. I'm convinced there is some sort of atmospheric conditions or acoustic properties of the base that amplifies the volume.

The previous occupant of my bed tried to make it more comfortable by stacking a second mattress atop the first. The result is very soft, but that's not particularly comfortable. You see, the mattresses here are essentially bags of springs formed into rectangular shapes. A softer mattress affords those springs more opportunity to poke into me. I plan to get rid of the second mattress and obtain some sort of pad as soon as it's feasible. Meanwhile, I'm usually so exhausted by the end of the day that I fall fast asleep by 9:30. It's not like there's much to do here in the evenings, so sleep is welcome!

My roommates are quiet and we all pretty much keep to ourselves. Unfortunately, two of them snore occasionally. One sounds remarkably like an old single stroke fishing trawler ("putt-putt-putt-putt-putt ... putt-putt-putt-putt-putt ..."). The other sounds so much like a coffee peculator that I was convinced he was making coffee on the other side of the dividing closet ("Khhhhh ... khhhhhhh ... khhhhhhh ..."). They have no idea why I call them Tugboat and Captain Coffee.