Charikar, Afghanistan - August 3, 2010
Maybe it's because yesterday was such a flurry of activity, or maybe it's because I'm excited about what's next on our journey, but I can't sleep. So instead, I blog.
It's about 4 a.m. here in Charikar, Afghanistan. Lance and I are still embedded with our Vt. National Guard troops who are training Afghan National Police. We leave here later this morning. Technology is limited, so it may be a day or more before I can provide another update.
The sun is rising over the mountains here. It rises early and it's a spectacular view. They call the mountains here the "small Himalayas." It's quiet and peaceful at this hour. But Afghanistan is a war-torn country, and a country that is very divided.
We began our day yesterday with a convoy ride into Charikar. Most of the road was paved. That lessons the risk of roadside bombings. But some of the route was a bumpy, dirt road. Vt. Guard troops in the convoy remain alert and are constantly scanning for anything out of the ordinary. At one point, a warning came over the headset from the lead MRAP, or mine resistant ambush protection vehicle. One of the Guard soldiers spotted a man release a pigeon. He was concerned it may be a way to signal other insurgents that the "convoy was coming." As a passenger in the back seat, that made me uneasy. We fortunately made it to Charikar without incident. Once we arrived, the soldiers blocked off all of the roads surrounding the police station in Charikar. They put up concrete barriers on a dead end street near the station, to prevent a suicide bomber from ramming the building. This is the reality here.
All of the Vt. Guard soldiers who are stationed here in Charikar are total professionals. We learned that quickly. We joined the soldiers on a three mile foot patrol around the city in the afternoon. As I mentioned, the mountains here are beautiful, but there is extreme poverty. Through the city's neighborhoods, the soldiers are strategically spread out. This is to minimize casualties, if there's an attack. Again, they are constantly on the look-out. The goal of this foot patrol is to create a presence in the city, but it's also to get and give information to the local people. Earlier in the day, we heard three loud explosions. The soldiers questioned residents along the foot patrol to see if anyone knew where the blasts came from. Everything is done through translators. They are crucial in connecting with residents here. The language barrier makes it difficult. No one knew what caused the explosions and strangely no one seemed to hear them. Or that's what they said, anyway. The soldiers also handed out information about a new radio station that sends out critical information to residents, including details about emergencies. They even hand out radios to those without them. Most people here in Charikar seem to support our troops and the mission.
But again, Afghanistan is a divided country. Support varies from village to village. There also seems to be a generational divide. Younger people in Afghanistan often line the streets as the soldiers walk or drive by, giving them a thumbs up, even yelling 'thank-you.' But many older Afghan people are skeptical. One of the translators tells me that's because they are simply tired of war, occupation, and 'others' being in their country. Conflict is nothing new to Afghanistan.
In the center of Charikar, is a wonderful market where locals sell produce and handmade goods. Several vendors we spoke with say having the soldiers here has made visiting the market safer and business is up. But a few remarked that having men with machine guns strolling through the marketplace and convoys through the city can be disruptive to business.
Not long after we returned to the police station, there was a commotion in the parking lot. Afghan National Police officers pulled into the station after at least four Taliban insurgents were arrested. It was locals who initially captured them. The soldiers here say it's a sign that people are "fed up" with the Taliban. After the men were subdued following a firefight, the Afghan Police were called in to arrest and detain them. It was a strange feeling to see Taliban fighters personally. Very strange. Vt. Guard soldiers screened them and tested them for explosive residue. They were found with a cache of weapons, including bomb-making materials. The Lieutenant here says they were likely making roadside bombs.
But among all of this, there is so much kindness. The Afghan people who support the U.S. are extremely hospitable, even those who can barely feed themselves. And at the end of the day, we joined soldiers from the United Arab Emirates for a traditional dinner. I had an amazing discussion with the Commander of the UAE soldiers and ate way too much food prepared over a coal fire. It was delicious. He told me how upsetting it is that many people in the U.S. look at all Arabs as enemies. The UAE soldiers are here in support of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He also said that he's made it a top priority to change the minds of people in his country about the U.S. Many people there have a negative impression of the U.S. The UAE soldiers feed our Vt. Guard soldiers here at least a couple times a week. Everyone sits on the floor, surrounding a bounty of food. He says he hopes small gestures and acts of kindness lead to big changes in attitude and perception of his culture and ours, even if it's one person at a time. And as I was leaving, he asked that I tell one person that. Maybe this reaches more than just one person.