I’m on a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, mostly set up in the small (9 feet wide by 23 feet long) barracks room where I’ll live until June. It took some doing getting here. I left our home in Highland Falls, New York, early in the morning on 8 January 2011, and showed up at the CONUS Replacement Center at Fort Benning, Georgia later that day. I’ll be necessarily vague on some of the details that took me from there to here, but after a number of days I traveled from Fort Benning and spent some hours in the air before setting down in Europe to refuel, and then a few more hours to an airbase in the Middle East that serves as sort of a gateway to various destinations in that part of the world, broadly considered. That was where I last posted from; that dusty place with the enormous wide-open sky, assembled semi-permanently in the desert out of concrete pads and hundreds of tents and various tan-colored trailers and shipping containers and generators and half-shells and diesel-powered floodlights and highway barriers, populated by transient soldiers and civilians and contractors and maintained mostly by people from other poorer parts of the world. Lots of waiting and checking monitors and standing in lines.
I expected to be there longer than I was, but there was a flight unexpectedly added, a military plane, and we sat facing center on either side of the cargo bay, hoping that the chains that held down the large armored vehicles between us would hold tightly enough on takeoff and landing. From there, another few hours in the air to land in the cold dark early hours of the morning at another airbase, one far less well-equipped to deal with travelers in significant number than the previous installation, where no one seemed to know anything about the various forms of transportation that might be able to take us from there to here. The flights were full, with nothing projected for days, and with the weight we were carrying, rotary-wing wasn’t an option, and so it took a number of phone calls and emails — a remarkably difficult proposition, with inoperative cell phones and mostly unavailable internet — to get us linked up with an officer who was eventually able to find a place for us in an overland armored convoy. (Part of the solution came from me calling home on the free phones at the USO coffee shop and asking the Orientalist to send an email from Highland Falls describing my situation to a member of the unit waiting for us in Kabul.) For that leg of the trip, I got up first at 4 o’clock in the morning to see if I could get on one flight, but couldn’t, and then there were two more toward mid-day, and then finally the surprise flight was announced mid-afternoon, which meant by the time that I found out I was getting on the convoy, I’d had about four hours of sleep and been awake for thirty hours.
The convoy was the first event that opened my eyes to what I’ve signed up for, at least in terms of the day-to-day exigencies of life for Americans in Afghanistan.
Body armor and kevlar helmet were expected, but the forthrightness, gravity, and clarity with which the convoy commander briefed us on various procedures were something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from my time in the Army: ear and eye protection, what to do in case of various scenarios and injuries, and the advice that “If you’re a casualty, I’m going to intubate you, which goes in your nose and down your throat, and the best thing you can do is swallow because it’s going in whether you want it to or not, and don’t fight it ’cause then I’ll have to hit you and then still shove it in there anyway,” said with a combination of warm humor and total seriousness.
Once we left the barriers surrounding the base, traffic parted for our convoy in a way that reminded me how large and heavily armed a vehicle I was riding in. It was a bumpy, loud few hours on mostly gravel roads, passing mud-walled kalats enclosing brambled grape vines and orchards and ramshackle strips of open-fronted stores selling cell phones, fruit, wheels, mufflers, past broken-down vehicles and half-destroyed buildings and half-constructed buildings, and always people by the side of the road looking at the Americans passing by in their big armored vehicles.
Kabul itself was visible from a few miles out in its bowl ringed by mountains, but only a few, with the brown haze that surrounded it. The air quality is as terrible as you’ve heard, the smell a mix of sewage and cook fires and the acrid tang of diesel that hurts your eyes and tastes bitter on your tongue. Even in the city, traffic seemed to part around our vehicles, but in patterns that obeyed no laws: people drive where they want to go, as fast as they can. Once the convoy deposited us at the small base that was our penultimate destination, we were able to contact our receiving unit by phone and verify that we could indeed be picked up that evening, although there was some discomfort from those picking us up at the prospect of riding around Kabul so close to sunset. We piled ourselves and our gear into reinforced civilian SUVs and took a final quick tailgating dash through the city streets before clearing our way through multiple checkpoints to arrive here at the barracks where I’m writing this. Today is Friday, jum’ah (جمعة), so there are no classes at the Academy (NMAA, the National Military Academy of Afghanistan), and I can recuperate a bit from the trip.
Before dinner, I’ll go down to the Morale and Welfare tent with the free wireless (there’s none in my room yet) and post it and check email and voicemail, and then head over to Dining Facility (DFAC) #2, which seems rather better in quality than DFAC #1, though both are operated by KBR: from what I understand, #1 is run by a British staff, and #2 is run by Sri Lankans. The food isn’t really bad at either, and there’s actually an excellent independently operated real Thai restaurant on this base, and the lunches at NMAA — we sit at the table with the Afghan military faculty and eat Afghan food — are quite good, though it’s a challenge for me to not use my left hand to eat. The Americans and the Turks are the primary non-Afghan presence at NMAA, but here at the base, there’s a dizzying array of uniforms and forces and flags: Czech, Croat, Italian, lots of Belgians, French, British, Jordanian, German, Dutch, Portugese, Mongolians, and the Australian Navy, whose unfortunately-colored camouflage makes them extraordinarily well-prepared to blend in at circuses, day care centers, and nursery schools.
After dinner, I’ll continue my self-imposed refresher course on Walter Ong’s work, much of which seems extraordinarily relevant here, and then early to bed for a 5:00 wake-up tomorrow to depart for work at NMAA by 7:15 or so. I’ll have more to say soon about the nature of my academic work here, which I’ve begun to realize will present a far larger challenge than I previously anticipated — which is kinda scary, but also seriously exciting.