The Shir Khan Bandar Bridge

I took the Team to the Shir Khan Bandar Bridge on the Tajik border.   This is a very important bridge linking Afghanistan to the north with Tajikistan. We had two gun-trucks and some extra people from an adjacent Province with me and two interpreters (“Terps”) so I felt pretty good about the combat strength.  This was part of a two-day reconnaissance I had planned, and we expected no more than terrain familiarization and a few photos of this key bridge.  We got close and took a dismounted patrol to the bridge site.  Suddenly, the Border Police Colonel in charge of the site appeared.  What a coincidence. The word is that he paid $500,000 U.S. for the post.  An e-fuckin’-normous sum by any standard and for Afghanistan, where annual income averages $410, this is crazy money.  Why?  So he can profit from, and control, the opium-and-weapons-laden trucks crossing by the minute at this new multi-million dollar Coalition-Forces constructed bridge. 

So, here he is talking to me through my Terp. Of course, I’m acting like I’m out for a Sunday stroll and he is visibly flustered that the Americans are here. He was puffing up defensively but I acted sleepy and slow and suddenly we were drinking Chai in his office a short distance away. A blue bird flew in and out of the room, circling overhead like an ancient Roman portent of great moment, streaking to hate me with his little black eyes at each pass. 

His closest bodyguard stood in the doorway and looked at me curiously the whole time. The bodyguards that guard the Province Generals and key people like this Colonel always seem like wiry little fucks who can handle themselves in any situation. Especially when they squint at you.  So, after all the plastic preliminaries, I got around to talking about things like truck searches, screening criteria for the traffic, and the total amount of criminal activity they intercept.  It turns out that he’s been there a good long time and only “found some wine in a truck once.”  I laughed immediately and involuntarily.  Even my Terp almost laughed.  The Colonel and the bodyguard were not amused with us laughing and the bodyguard clutched his AK-47 rifle tightly and I could suddenly feel how animal-close he was to me. This little Tajik with the rifle, (weathered, Asian, mahogany), would have been at home on a horse with a double-curved bow ranging the central Asian steppes in a great cloud with Genghis Khan. After things calmed down, the Colonel wanted to talk only about how he wants to catch fish from the river and have his people specially prepare it for me. 

Ah, well,. . . there are some things one doesn’t mention in polite society.

Landing

     February 29th, 2008.

The plane landed on the runway and we were there finally. Afghanistan. Camp Marmal airport.  The other side of the world. 

     Sixteen of us, an Army ‘Embedded Training Team’ (ETT), slowly spilled out onto the smooth concrete at Camp Marmal airport amid the high whine of the jet engines ramping down. I was a member of an ETT–a new concept wherein small teams of officers and experienced sergeants embed with a Corps of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers to train and mentor the ANA.

     As we moved toward the rear of the military jet to help unload equipment, I spun around slowly, taking in the ring of distant mountains, the flat light, the austerity.

  We gathered and sniffed the air warily, like dogs.  We made small jokes about nothing and tried to hide our carnival excitement at being in a ‘combat zone’.  It was a time to hone indifference. 

     I watched a couple of Afghan men a short distance away working on the runway. These were the first real Afghans I had seen, outside of the trainers and interpreters who rotate to the United States to try to train Americans in Afghan language and culture.

     So, I watched these two.  They were both bearded and dressed in Afghan garb, which struck me at distance as girlish.  Each was wearing a housedress over the balloon-like flowing pants of a stilt-walker.  And the hats, dear lord, the little crazy colorful hats.  Sandals rounded out the costume.  All of this in a strange-smelling breeze which moved their clothing in undulations.   

     One guy was holding a very long iron spike and the other had a sledgehammer.  They were breaking up a portion of the runway for some maintenance or repair reason.  I could see no obvious reason why this intact section of the expansive runway needed breaking up, nor could I see any obvious stopping point for them.  I noticed also that they were in no hurry, though, (and maybe because), even a small measure of progress would take forever.  One held while the other struck:  a small chip of concrete would fly.  Kang!  Sometimes a weak or off-center hit would result in a Clink!  I realized how dangerous this was to the man holding the spike.  I wondered why someone, spending God-only-knows how much money over here daily, hadn’t provided a jackhammer, or more men.  Clink!  I wondered what the overall project was supposed to be, and I wondered what these two were thinking as they watched the Americans assemble near them so laden down with weaponry and equipment.  Kang!  It all seemed so elemental–muscle and metal against stone in the thin air.

     Then my mind returned to the big picture.  The complexity of the American mission, and especially that of the ETTs, was incredible, and I had so many questions.  I didn’t know it then, but I had just learned everything.