Provincial Police Headquarters, Kandahar City
Got a good reason/For taking the easy way out/Got a good reason/For taking the easy way out now
I stare up at a late-model Toyota Hilux, white with red racing trim down the side, sitting parked, incongruously, ten feet above the ground and atop a faded-maroon rusted steel shipping container, a dirty twin mattress balanced on its roof like a hat. It is an odd place to put a mattress, I think, on top of a truck on top of a shipping container. A wood and concrete water tower, ancient looking but likely built by the Russians, partially obscures my view, as does a tree of undetermined type. I know it is brown. Everything here is brown. There are varying shades, but far and away the most abundant is a sandy, tannish-brown, the color of the earth here in Kandahar Province, pervasive in the brick used to make the buildings, or in the mud and straw mix used to cover those bricks, or in the dust that covers everything from brick to tree to child to perched Toyota Hilux. Even the one frog and one lizard I see – the sum total of non-avian wildlife I spy in a thirty-day period – have adapted to a gritty light brown the exact same color as the ground upon which they walk; I would have stepped on them but for their movement. The houses and villages here, too, would be unintentionally crushed were a giant to walk among them, they rise up from the earth seamlessly, giving the effect they have either been molded out of the ground below or the earth scraped away from around them.
I turn from the truck and water tower and walk back towards Police Headquarters (PHQ), a two-story building on one end of a small dirt and gravel courtyard surrounded by other nondescript two-story buildings, stepping over a rivulet of sewer water and then around a line of men of varying ages waiting to do business at PHQ. There is activity here, the ubiquitous goings-on of daily life at a bureaucratic center, noteworthy only because of the loaded pistol on my hip and the stark absence of women. I see only one, though she sees me first, furiously waving her hand at me, an exaggerated version of the hand-and-arm signal my grandmother, in her rare moments of impatience, would use to hush me up. The woman is in full burqa, squatting in the courtyard against the passenger side door of a truck, no skin visible but for her left hand and wrist, and that only because of her extended-arm wave, violent, not to say hello or to beckon but clearly to indicate that I should, immediately, cease looking at her. I suspect she cares not that I was not, in fact, looking at her until her waving caught my attention, first causing in me curiosity that quickly shifted to bewilderment and then to something just short of alarm as I suspected this hand-wave was the functional equivalent of her running her hand across her throat.
This is very much Kandahar. The American footprint here is small, the few tents and plywood buildings housing Security Force Assistance Team-10 (SFAT-10) so jammed together into a space about as big as a basketball court I turn sideways to walk between them. SFAT-10 is on an open base, meaning the Americans walk around freely between their own small area and the police headquarters next to it, walking past a mosque in between; and though there has been a glut of “blue on green” (the board game-simplistic name given to the event when Afghan Soldiers shoot coalition forces) attacks in Afghanistan, this is PHQ, a relative zone of safety run by a Chief of Police one American calls a “god-king.” The Chief is a young man, somewhere in his early thirties – Afghans tend to give their birth date in brackets, like [in the winter, before the Russians came]; he’s also a Brigadier General and Chief of Police with neither military nor policing experience who rose to power the old-fashioned way, by being a complete but discriminate ass-kicker. Another American tells me he enjoys power and popularity because he is the epitome of what a Pashtun man should be, which I take to mean that in conjunction with valuing honor and respect, he has no problem sending you on your way, metaphorically speaking.
I have come here to speak with the Chief via the good graces of both the Chief and SFAT-10, who picked me up from my own home at Kandahar Airfield in a three-vehicle convoy of giant, armored vehicles having a passing similarity to a semi truck with a gun turret. Kandahar Airfield (KAF) itself is as a big a base as any in Afghanistan, essentially the acreage of any one-runway international airport, plus outbuildings, and a deployment experience here is a world away from the smaller, spartaned existences of the FOBs and COPs and VSPs spread throughout the villages south and west of here. At one of these male-only outposts, you might walk past a Soldier nonchalantly pissing, openly, into a steel pipe sticking out of the ground specifically for this purpose, and time is passed by patrols and camp improvements during the day and video games and muted masturbatory sessions by night, but KAF has indoor showers, and a KFC, and a T.G.I. Friday’s, and its own currency and at least six different dining facilities and The Boardwalk, an oval, wood-planked, covered walkway with shops and restaurants and barber shops on the outside and a turf football field, basketball court, and hockey rink, courtesy of the Canadian forces, on the in. I spend less than thirty days here, but the surreality of the multitude of nations and uniforms and civilian contractors and armored vehicles and budding Boardwalk romances and sheer bizarreness of the post-apocalyptic Mad Maxness of it all never lessens. Rocket attacks are spare but marked by their own oddity, precursed with a siren and a disarmingly calm human-imposter female voice. The siren wails and then, over a camp-wide P.A. system, the Rocket Attack lady warns: ROCKET. ATTACK. ROCKET, ATTACK. Her digitized accent is slighted to the British just enough to share their air of understatement and calm, yet still conspiratorial and a bit creepy and certainly not human enough to assuage my suspicions she’s in on it, like she knows the rockets are coming and waits until the last minute simply to continue to exert her dominance over us. There are just one or two sirens in a matter of weeks, but then there is a night with five in a matter of a few hours, two of which are followed by audibly impacting rockets, and she has us scrambling from vehicle or office to bunker and then back again, multiple times, like cockroaches when the lights are turned on.
SFAT-10 picks me up in their M-ATVs, huge, rubber wheeled vehicles one driver tells me handles “like an F-150”; we wind our way past the NATO barracks, and the infamous “poo-pond,” indisputably Kandahar Airfield’s signature landmark, a Walden Pond of treated human shit. We exit KAF through one of the several Entry Control Points and onto the highway towards the city. The forty-five minute drive from KAF to PHQ in Kandahar City is smooth and uneventful; I pass it largely by staring out the thick, quadrilateral slit of window to my left, looking forward only when I feel the beginnings of backseat-nausea. Each vehicle is manned by four personnel: a driver, a TC (truck commander), a security man, and a turret-gunner; their radio chatter is brilliant in its mundanity. They discuss the vast array of dirt available at KAF; their live-burial preferences, were their choices limited to concrete, gravel, or sand; how much it would hurt to get run over by one of their own vehicles (clarifying question: “are we talking head to feet, or feet to head?”); how many pounds in a ton; the cultural and religious transcendentalism of Hacky Sack; how KAF, due to the excess of sports injuries, is the most dangerous place in Afghanistan; the delicious irony in the name of the gypsy people of Afghanistan, the Kuchis. A female soldier in another vehicle delivers, spoken word and over the radio, the first forty-five seconds of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s magnum opus, “Baby Got Back.”
My vision of Afghanistan is asterisked: I have a uniform, and a gun, and I travel via helicopter or armored vehicle and see the world through bullet-proof glass. I have no beard. I speak with the locals exclusively through a translator, outside of my disastrously pronounced “asalaam alaikum,” “sangyee,” and “manana,” and I speak with them only because of the tragedy imposed upon them by an American soldier who murdered their children and wives and fathers. I am neither a Muslim nor one of the People of the Book. I am an intruder, I reside here only for an eye-blink, and, being Western and specifically American, my worldview is based selfishly upon me and how I fit into it, not upon my father’s history, or my tribe’s, or my people’s. Yet, also being Western and specifically American and perhaps a bit introspective, I have opinions, and difficulty squaring them, or posing them for that matter, and am perplexed by much that is Afghanistan. I, perhaps unfairly, also determine that I could be here one hundred years more and my perplexity would not be much diminished.
On the way home to America I stop, again, at Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, for years now a stopover for service members on their way forward, or home; once a thriving metropolis and now a bit of a ghost town as one war ends and another, presumably, winds down. The USO is still open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and always populated by Soldiers and Marines and Airmen in uniform, asleep on couches or armchairs or on the phone to family at home or, most likely, either playing or watching first-person shooter video games. For some, just like real life. There are six televisions and 360 degree viewing of, I assume, some version of Call of Duty, the sights and sounds of death and destruction and carnage piped in for your viewing and listening pleasure, be it four a.m. or in the heat of the late afternoon. Like the Afghans I see, I know not how to square what I see with what I think, and with my own asterisked experiences, and I think instead of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote, to paraphrase, that words are simply abbreviations anyway, perpetually inadequate to properly express what you see and feel, which I take to mean you have to be there to know it, and even then it’s probably not enough.