Day 19: the streets of Kabul

Today we went “outside the wire” again through the streets of Kabul. The insurgents keep thinking up new ways to attack enemy vehicles with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), so much so that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is struggling to create new acronyms to keep up with their deviousness! However, I felt quite safe in our “up-armoured” 4WD, wearing my body armour, helmet and ballistic eye protection and being driven by two experienced Australian soldiers. (By now you’ve probably heard the news that five soldiers – two from Australia and two from the ANA were injured in an IED attack on Easter Sunday).

IMG_0618 resized street in Kabul Nth

Street in Kabul – none of the roads we travelled on were sealed – some were graded

I managed to take a few photos through the window of Kabul.  We were travelling around the northern outskirts of the city, not far from where the book “The bookseller of Kabul” is set. I can highly recommend this book for its objective portrayal of life in an extended family who have lived through 30 years of Afghanistan’s turbulent and violent political history.

IMG_0603resized houses, scrap metal yard behind CSD Kabul

Scrap metal yard and houses on the mountainside in Kabul

Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in 330 BC as did Genghis Khan in 1204. Venetian Merchant, Marco Polo travelled through Afghanistan and possibly stayed in Kabul during the 13th century. Kabul was the capital of the Mughal empire from 1504. Britain fought three wars with the Afghans before the Russians invaded in 1979 and the Taliban in 1996. The country has only known 40 years of relative peace and stability in the last 200. No wonder it’s so impoverished.

IMG_0593 resized goats in Kabul

goats sometimes share the road in Kabul

I felt a sense of despair travelling through Kabul. The nation needs peace, and an educated workforce of men and women – but only 43% of adult men and 12% of adult women are literate.

IMG_0592 resized bicycle repair shop

Bicycle repair shop, Kabul – many Afghans are expert bush mechanics

The ADF is part of an international effort to build up the capability of the Afghan National Security Force (army and police); but what about building the capabilities of the country’s teachers, doctors, accountants, farmers etc.?

Fruit sellers, Kabul

Fruit sellers, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul


Day 18: not really here

Today we arrived in the capital of Afghanistan: Kabul. We are staying at Kabul International Airfield – North (KAIA-N), home to defence personnel from many countries who have joined the fight against the Taliban. This is my second trip into Afghanistan – the first was to Tarin Kot (TK) but then we flew out to the UAE again. On neither occasion was my passport checked nor stamped. It’s as if the two military bases I have worked and stayed in are island enclaves within the country. The military talk about going “into country”.  I feel like I’m geographically in Afghanistan, but not really here. I haven’t tasted any Afghan food, heard the call to prayer or seen any feasting celebrating the Afghan new year (Spring Equinox – 21 March 2013).

I feel more like an intruder, than a visitor. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), lead by Hamid Karzi, welcomes the support of countries like Australia, so I guess my intrusion under the umbrella of the ADF (Australian Defence Forces) is sanctioned.

The majestic mountains around Kabul are part of the Hindu Kush and are closer than those around TK. They look ripe for climbing. If Afghanistan had not been at war for most of the last 200 years, it could have a thriving nature tourism industry.

IMG_0577 resized sunrise looking sthwest from KAIA-N base

sunrise looking South West from KAIA-N base

For the first time, I have gone ‘outside the wire’ “in country” as we drove to the other side of Kabul to visit the burgeoning Afghan National Defence University. This is where Afghanistan will train its military officers and soldiers. A coalition of nations – Australia, Britain, USA, France, Romania, and a few others – are helping Afghanistan to establish its “Sandhurst of the sands” (although “Duntroon of the dust” is more accurate, in my opinion.) One of the subjects in our portrait project is mentoring Afghans in their roles as company sergeant majors. He finds this easier than negotiating the politics around security and SOPs (standard operating procedures) at a multinational base where every country has their own way of doing things which they think is best.

Women are able to join the defence forces, and segregated accommodation is being built for them at the base. ABC journalist Sally Sara tells the story of two Afghan sisters who had to overcome entrenched discrimination in order to train and work as helicopter pilots in the Afghan airforce –

Although it was Good Friday when we arrived in Kabul, there were no hot cross buns in the mess. I don’t think the Easter Bunny will hop into Afghanistan, even though he won’t need a passport.

The Easter bunny hopped in to the Kabul ISAF airbase, but didn't bring any eggs :(

The Easter bunny didn’t bring any eggs to Kabul ISAF airbase 😦

Day 17: Battle rhythmn

Back in Australia, you’ll hear the phrase: “work/life balance”. Balancing the needs of children or significant others with the demands of a job while running a household can be a complex and sometimes stressful juggling act. Things get out of balance easily. On deployment, I’ve come to the conclusion that the equation is not “work/life” but “work = life”.

People work weekends. The cycle of a week is created by the Friday morning sleep in they get at Multinational Base Tarin Kot, which is preceded by pizza every Thursday night in the mess. Otherwise every day has the same routine.

One of the soldiers I interviewed talked about getting into a “battle rhythmn”.  He would get up about 6am every morning, go the gym or go for a run, shower, eat, then be in the (windowless) office by 8am. His duties during the day were punctuated by making coffee (in the espresso machine), eating lunch and dinner, contacting his family, and another PT (personal training) session. The absence of domestic chores meant he could work through until 9 or 10pm before starting it all again the next day. As an RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) or “senior soldier” of a regiment, I think the only battles he had engaged in were with the printer and the coffee machine!

Creating a routine is a common way for people to make sense of an expanse of undifferentiated time. An eight month deployment can feel endless, especially when the days lack variety. Creating a routine is also a strategy that hostage prisoners use to help them get through their days/weeks/months in captivity. As Australia prepares to withdraw from Uruzgan province, it has taken a step back from the “front line” (see Day 13) to advise and allow the Afghan National Army (ANA) to lead the fight against the Taliban. Even when the Special Forces (SF) go outside the wire now, they must take an ANA soldier with them for each SF soldier. This means that there are a lot of soldiers from 7RAR back at the base doing mundane tasks who are getting thoroughly bored and frustrated. They may be part of a QRT (Quick Response Team) or MRT (Medical Response Team) but when there are no emergencies to respond to… then they are getting paid handsomely to stay fit and healthy.

Boredom can mess with your head just like seeing a mate injured can. I admire the section leaders who can keep their troops from becoming complacent and venting their frustations inappropriately. Gym sessions are both physical and psychological workouts.

I am writing this post from one of the lounge chairs in the recreation area. Sometimes the “sounds of war” are the roar of a crowd at a footy match (broadcast on a wide screen TV), the click of a cue on a billiard ball and the whirr of air-conditioners.

relaxing in front of a footy match at AMAB

relaxing in front of a footy match at AMAB

table games

table games

Day 16: staying connected

No modern soldier goes to war without a laptop. This was an observation that Sally Sara, the ABC’s former foreign correspondent in Afghanistan made.  Sara reported that when some troops who were stationed at a remote patrol base and hadn’t been able to have a shower for three months were offered the choice of having showers or internet access installed, they chose internet.

When you’re sent on a 6-12 month deployment, chances are that you’ll miss significant events like birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversaries, or your child’s first day at school. One mother I spoke to participated in her son’s 5th birthday via skype. The family had the i-pad on the table and put a party hat on it. She sang ‘happy birthday’ to him with the rest of the family and watched him cut the cake. She said it was as good as it could have been, given the 11,600 km and seven time zones between them.

Some people, particularly mothers who deploy, try to stay very connected to their family while they are away. For example, one mother listens to her son read his school reading books and another gave advice about the making of an Easter bonnet via skype. Another mother was very hurt when she returned from a six month deployment and found her now 18 month old son was initially very cautious and wary of her. It was a day or two before he would accept physical affection from her.

There is some debate in the ADF about whether this is a good thing – whether it is good to have deployees emotionally connected with their families back home. In previous wars, people waited weeks or months for a letter to arrive, so they couldn’t be as involved or connected. Will today’s ADF employee be distracted from their work if they are watching the clock to see when the time will be right to telephone or skype? Will they miss a warning sign in a battle zone if they are thinking about how to help their son stand up to the school bully, or help their daughter adjust to kindergarten?  I think that if you want to have highly skilled women in war zones, then you need to make it as easy as possible for them to be there. Reducing the amount of contact with your family doesn’t reduce the pain of separation nor the need for emotional attachment. You never stop being a mother.

Day 15: Hurry up and wait

Like parents who get their children’s names muddled up, the three blokes I am travelling with often get each other’s names confused. So now they are called G1, G2 and G3, and collectively, the G-force. 

I am known as ‘Dead eye dick”, because I shot 13 out of 13 rounds on target with the pistol. However, the enemy would probaby be on top of me before I managed to line up the shot and pull the trigger. As someone who advocates that war should always be a last resort, I never expected to be learning to fire a pistol!

Learning to fire a pistol at the practice range with Captain Stuart, photo by G1

Learning to fire a pistol at the practice range with Captain Stuart, photo by G1

Nick-names are de rigueur in the armed services. I’ve met “Pipes” (beacause he blows his own trumpet); “Swede”, (because he’s tall, blonde and hunky) and thought “Polly” was a girl, until I was introduced to Ian Polanski. I haven’t yet heard a nick-name for a CO (Commanding Officer) or XO (Executive Officer) though. Perhaps it’s only in the non-commissioned ranks.

The G-force are currently playing darts and drinking angry bears (see day 8). I’m still wobbly from another flight on a flying whale (see day 8) and desperately tired from all the waiting. Armies have been sitting around waiting since wars began, so at least I am getting an authentic experience!

We were told to hurry up and have our bags ready by 10am today, so that we could wait 3.5 hours for the plane to arrive. Then we were told to hurry up and put our body armour on to board the hercules, so that we could wait 20 minutes for another plane to land and spray us with dust as it taxied within 20 metres.  After 7.5 hours we arrived back at Al Minhad Air Base (AMAB).

G2, myself and G3 waiting to board flight from TK to AMAB - I'm clutching reading matter, which I feel much more comfortable with than a gun

G2, myself and G3 waiting to board flight from TK to AMAB – I’m clutching reading matter, which I feel much more comfortable with than a gun

AMAB is like a holiday caravan park compared to Multinational Base Tarin Kot (MNB-TK). All it lacks is the swimming pool. I will never again take for granted having a window in my room (no windows in the dorms or offices at TK as they are rocket proof – see day 13); being able to clean my teeth with water from the tap; or having living things around me, like plants and pets. Members of the ADF (Australian Defence Forces) who are on deployment to AMAB still get the extra $239/day for being away from home, plus their usual wage, all tax-free. 

grass sculpture in between accommodation blocks, AMAB

grass sculpture in between accommodation blocks, AMAB

I was initially shocked by the environmentally footprint of AMAB, but MNB-TK’s is far bigger. As water is scare, and expensive, only paper plates, bowls and cups and plastic cutlery are used in the mess and in offices. When you feed 1600 people three times a day (see day 14), that’s a lot of disposable plates! All the rubbish is burned nightly, which adds to the acrid grey fug (see day 13). There is no recycling of plastics or paper in TK, and perhaps none in Afghanistan. The Taliban are experts at recycling – they will re-use bits of wire, metal, mobile phones, wood, cigarettes and batteries to make IEDs (see day 6).The Taliban would say: “they have the watches, but we have the time” (as quoted in Chris Masters, ‘Uncommon Soldier’ p.153). They are practiced at waiting too.

Day 14: “An army marches on its stomach”

Napoleon Boneparte was spot on when he (is credited to have) said: “an army marches on its stomach”,  I haven’t noticed a lot of marching going on around the base, but there’s certainly a lot of eating!

The food at the Aussie mess in Tarin Kot is excellent. There is fresh fruit and salads at every meal – I tasted okra for the first time and pounced on the mangosteens (an exotic fruit even in Asia where they grow). A full hot breakfast is available from 5.30 – 9.15am. The food is cooked in stages, so that the tomatoes, hash browns, mushrooms, baked beans, bacon and eggs (scrambled, boiled, poached or fried) are as fresh as possible. If you don’t want something heavy, you can savor the fresh grapefruit and danishes baked on-site.

There is heaps of fresh fruit and salad at every meal

There is heaps of fresh fruit and salad at every meal

Today I interviewed the soldier-chef, WO2 David Mooney, who manages the catering contract for Multi-national Base Tarin Kot. He was passionate about his job and fully understood the link between food, nutrition and morale.  He is currently feeding about 1600 people at four meal times each day – they offer supper at 11pm -1.30am (bascially a second dinner) for the people coming off night shifts. Last September, when 7RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) took over from 3RAR and all the men came in from the Forward Operating Bases and Patrol Bases which are “outside the wire” (of the base) the number of hungry mouths more than doubled.

Soft serve icecream machines - vanilla, strawberry and chocolate - a popular choice for the Yankee diners

Soft serve icecream machines – vanilla, strawberry and chocolate – a popular choice for the Yankee diners

I was interested in how you feed an army after doing some research on food at Gallipoli.  In 1915, the men existed on tins of bully beef, tooth-cracking biscuits and sweet, black tea. There would be a riot if you served this to the modern Aussie soldier!

Grilling steaks (from Australia) and kebabs for dinner

Grilling steaks (from Australia) and kebabs for dinner

As you can imagine, if any of the food gets contaminated or hygiene standards slip, then food posioning or gastroenteritis can wreck havoc on an army. This happened to British troops about a week after they invaded Iraq in 2003 when 1,340 troops got gastro and 73% of them required hospitalisation. It also happened at Gallipoli where the majority of the men got sick during the summer months as flies flew from the shallow pit latrines into the mouths of hungry diggers.  

To help prevent the spread of desease, everyone at Tarin Kot has to wash their hands and use alcohol disinfectent before entering the mess. Food preparation areas are separated for meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and breads, cakes and pastries. The temperature of food is tested every hour that it is available at the serving points. A sample of everything served in the mess is kept and labelled so that if anyone does complain of food posioning, the food can be tested for bacteria.

Testing the temperature of the cold tuna at the serving point

Testing the temperature of the cold tuna at the serving point

Taking samples of every dish from the serving point in case it needs to be tested

The statistics and logistics are staggering. The catering company employs 109 staff who work 12 hour shifts and eat together when they have finished serving the rest of the base. They have a budget of $26/person/day – the price is higher than it would be in Australia due to the transport costs. There is a stockpile of about a month’s worth of food for 1600 people kept on site, just in case the base gets attacked and supply trucks and planes can’t come in and out.

a half-empty shipping container of water bottles at TK

a half-empty shipping container of water bottles at TK

Every couple of weeks, Afghan ‘jingle’ trucks each deliver 8 crates of water bottles to the base.  Each crate contains 2016, 500ml water bottles. That’s 161,128 water bottles with an average of 7 bottles (3.5 litres) per person per day. The ANZACs at Gallipoli were given a water ration of about 1.25 litres per person per day, but usually had to survive on less because fresh water was so hard to come by. Perhaps this ANZAC day, we should lay a water bottle instead of a wreath of flowers, in memory of the soldiers who suffered diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition.

Manager/chef 'Monty' prepares a maquette for his pastry sculpture of Simpson and his donkey for ANZAC Day

‘Monty’, one of the chefs at TK prepares the base for his pastry sculpture of Simpson and his donkey for ANZAC Day

Day 13: colours of the battle zone

The rain has cleared leaving the sky clear of dust.  This provided some spectacular views to the distant mountains beyond the Tarin Kot base.

View from the balcony of my dormitory of TK township and the green zone

View from the balcony of my dormitory to the green zone and the mountains

Just outside the base is the township of Tarin Kot and the “green zone”.  This is the fertile land in the river valleys where crops grow through the summer. It sounds peaceful, but it isn’t. Tall crops like wheat provide cover for insurgents. Terrorism flourishes alongside the essential food crops.

The military uses colours to symbolise the different players in the war zone. The green space is the term used to signify the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Police Force. The blue space refers to the coalition forces who are fighting the insurgents – hence the term “green on blue attacks” which are now known as “insider threats”.

The red space is the contact zone, where the fighting takes place. Often the fighting occurs in a human space, inside a house or a village where civilians live and insurgents hide. There is no “front line”. Lastly, the white space is the strategic space where governments, NATO, and the Defence Department make decisions that affect the battle space. Like the white clouds that float above the mountains of Afghanistan – they don’t get dirty but they have a big impact.

What do you get when you mix the colours red, white, green and blue? A big black mess.

For me, the colours of Multi-national base Tarin Kot are fifty shades of brown, and grey. From the brown of the Hesco barriers to the beige of the uniforms, one is swimming in a sea of brown. Each night when I go outside my accommodation cell, I’m enveloped in a fog of grey tobacco smoke. Cigarettes are cheap here – about 50 cents a packet, and it gives you something to do outside of an evening. The dorms are so tiny and airless that they are not a fun place to hang out. Smoking is a regular recreational activity for soldiers, then they puff it out at the gym!

A dorm for four people, about 3M wide x 8M long  x 2M high

A dorm for four people, about 3M wide x 8M long x 2M high

American soldiers enjoying a smoke and a game of cards outside blg 14

American soldiers enjoying a smoke and a game of cards outside blg 14