Monday, December 29, 2008

VBIED Attack in Khowst

In a brief this morning they showed us this video. It shows a truck loaded with explosives* as it approaches a security checkpoint outside of a government center in the Khowst province (in eastern Afghanistan) then detonates prematurely.


The government center was largely undamaged, but the same cannot be said for the crowd of elementary school students you see walking along the right side of the road in the video. Based on the last report I read, 14 of those kids were killed instantly in the blast and dozens more were seriously injured.

If you want to read a story about it.
CLICK HERE. For some reason, the video isn't getting a lot of circulation. I think it's the sort of story the world needs to be more aware of.

In other news, it snowed for a bit in Kabul today (finally) and there was an earthquake in the Badahkshan province (the northeast end of Afghanistan) that registered at 5.8 on the Richter scale.
More to come. Stay tuned.

*a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in current military language.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Addendum to Christmas Post

I didn't come up with this, but I thought it was pretty damned funny:

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And here's another Wondermark comic:

Interesting Reading for Today

This year's survey of the Afghan population by the Asian Foundation. It's an interesting look at how things are going in this country according the the folks that live here.

Click here for the key findings.

Click here for the full-length version with all the gritty details.

I'm sure there's other stuff out there, but if you're interested in an independent appraisal of local opinions here this is a good place to start.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On the Road Again

So the other day I found myself on the road to Bagram. There's a pretty regular shuttle flight from Kabul to get there, but since I hardly ever get a chance to go out and see what there is to see in Afghanistan, I'd rather drive.

Traffic in Kabul is always a bit of an adventure. This trip was pretty mild. There were no especially frightening moments. We did have a near collision in one of the traffic circles. Then, moments later, a passing car tried to merge into us. Along the way they snagged our front bumper cover and pulled it almost all the way off:
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Once we kicked the bumper cover off, the rest of the drive was thoroughly uneventful, so I'm afraid I really don't have all that much to say about it. I did snap a bunch of pictures on the way:
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Scattered along the sides of the road in construction zones were dozens of small boys who I'm told make a few cents here and there by filling potholes:
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I've made mention of all the dogs I keep seeing on the roads out here. So far this is by far the healthiest one I've seen (probably because of his exercise regimen):
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On the way back into Kabul, I spotted yet another burnt-out Soviet tank:
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And when we were finally in town again I caught a few more random scenes. Here's a typical Kabul commuter:
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And someone's less-than-effective security wall. Patchwork like this can be seen all over town:
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And because it wouldn't be Afghanistan without it, here's a shot of an open sewer:
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To wrap it all up, here's a bus with a political message:
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More to come. Stay tuned.

Kabul Kristmas

With all of the holiday well-wishing and whatnot, I've been unable to get enough bandwidth to post any bloggage. In case it matters, I apologize for the untimeliness of this entry.

In recognition of Christmas, we had a "low ops day" here at the HQ. That sounds really cool and all, but suddenly not having to spend all day in the office isn't the same as having a day off. The list of options for activities was pretty limited and pretty much everything was shut down. My solution: try to sleep through the whole day.

I failed.

Despite my best efforts, I woke up around 1400 in the afternoon and, bereft of anything else to do, went over to the office to check my email. Then I stopped at the US NSE (National Support Element, basically our admin shop) to see if there was anything going on there. I found a couple of other Navy officers equally bored who had stumbled across a build-your-own gingerbread house kit that was unclaimed in the mail.

It hadn't survived the trip intact and these two characters were trying to glue the roof parts together with icing in a vain attempt at rebuilding it. Enter Shawn. By the time I was done helping, we'd converted this run-of-the-mill gingerbread house into a bombed-out Taliban gingerbread house as shown below:

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The kit provided a few constraints, so we had to take artistic license. For example, there was no dust-colored icing, so this is the only house in Afghanistan with a green lawn. Also, there was nothing in the kit that looked like wires, so we had to substitute a couple of hair ties for the trigger leads on our SweetTart IED (visible in the right of the pic above). Finally, we were unable to come up with a good way of making any of the candies in the package look like opium poppies, so we settled for the more conventional Christmas trees that came with the kit.

At least the gingerbread insurgents look appropriately angry with their candy cane RPG launcher and pistol, as well as their frosting and candy suicide bomb belts:
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I'm told I've got a lot of loot coming in the mail, so there will be some delay before I can tell anyone what I got for Christmas. For now I can say that my sister Sheryl sent me some bulletproof sunglasses with interchangeable lenses made by Oakley. So now I can be stylish and stop ballistic threats with my eyes. Cool.

More to come, stay tuned...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My First Goofy Project in a War Zone

So the other day I got a pack of these guys in the mail:


There's nothing really special about them. They're the same cheap, green, plastic, injection-molded army men you can find in almost every drugstore or supermarket in the entire United States since 1952.

The problem though, was that they were horribly out of date. I'm not talking about the fact that they're wearing fatigues and helmets from World War II or the fact that they're clearly armed with weapons that can only be seen today in museums or third-world militias. I'm talking about the fact that they're all quite clearly Army guys. Nowhere in the entire package, all 40 pieces, were there any Individual Augmentee sailors like me helping them out.

That's why I went ahead and sculpted out these guys:
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I started with a plasticene sculpture, made a silicone mold, and then cranked out a few copies in urethane casting resin with a bit of blue pigment added in.

I'm pretty happy with them and they seem to look the part:
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Mostly I just got a kick out of making a cheap little plastic toy to represent myself in my current situation here:
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I plan to sculpt out at least three more unique poses. The bag originally had 12 unique army guys in it, so they won't be grossly outnumbered. For now, I've got the updated version of the package hanging over my desk:
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Now I just need to think up at least four or five other random things to tinker with over the next few months.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Connectivity Here is Pretty Bad...

...I've been trying for the past three or four days now to post a new blog entry, but it hasn't been working terribly well. I don't suppose there's been all that much to report from my little corner of Afghanistan, so it's not a terrible tragedy or anything.

In fact, now that I've finally managed to get a chance to make a new entry I'm hard pressed to come up with any intriguing narrative at all, so, um, here's some pictures...

I've been trying my damnedest to get some pictures of the view, but with the perimeter walls and wire and all the other crap in the way, this was the best I could do:
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After all sorts of trouble getting any kind of pictures of the surrounding countryside, I finally found my way up to a rooftop inside the compound where I could actually see over the wall. Unfortunately, it was a wall on the uninteresting side of the base:
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The weather's finally started cooling off and there's even been tiny bits of rain here and there. In fact, if it weren't for all the gunk in the air, it'd actually be a lot like winter at home. So far it hasn't really hit me that there will be no real Christmas this year, even though a few folks have actually tried to decorate for the occasion.

Here's what passes for holiday merriment here in Afghanistan:
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And here's a random shot of a nearby airstrip:
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Driving around lately I've been noticing a lot of dogs in the streets. I haven't managed to snap any pictures of them, but failing that, here's one of the great many members of our anti-rat squad:
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So that's basically all I've got for now. I'm sorry if it wasn't very entertaining. To make up for it, here's a strip from one of my favorite online comics:


Stay tuned, I'm sure the next entry will actually be interesting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Money is Funny Here

A while back I got tapped to be the extra guy in a vehicle to take a few visitors over to a meeting at what passes for a luxury hotel here in Kabul. Any vehicle we travel in needs a minimum of two, but preferably three or more, people in it. That way, in the event of an attack where the vehicle is immobilized, two people can set up a proper security perimeter while the other person stays inside where he can reach the radio and call for help. Since I'm usually desperate for any excuse at all to be out of the office and paroled from the HQ compound, I was glad to go along.

Anyway, we made the trip out to the airport to pick up the visitors and then headed over to the hotel. Once we got there, we had to drive through a couple of gates, get the vehicle’s undercarriage, trunk, and engine compartment searched for bombs, and proceed past the armed guards to the secure parking lot inside the hotel’s defensive perimeter. Our visitors then doffed their body armor and helmets, cleared and stowed their rifles, and went inside.

Since we didn’t know how long their meeting was going to take, the other two guys waited at the parking lot while I went in with our visitors to find out if we should wait around or just take off and return to pick them up later. As we walked up to the main entrance I spotted a couple of snipers stationed on the rooftops, part of the hotel’s security force and a friendly reminder that we were a long way from Disneyland.

The lobby itself was appointed at least as well as any Marriot you might find in the states. But what was really fun was when the doorman approached me as I walked in. At first I couldn’t understand the look on his face or why his posture was so deferential.

“I’m sorry sir,” says he, “But we can’t allow you to openly carry your firearms into the hotel.”

I’d completely forgotten that I was strolling around in full body armor with an M16A2 assault rifle slung over my shoulder and an M9 pistol strapped to my leg. Oh the silly little faux pas we find ourselves in in a combat zone.

So I waited outside while one of our folks went in to find out what our timeline looked like. He came back and said they’d be looking for a ride back to the airport in just over two hours, so we opted to stick around and wait it out. Back at the vehicle, I ditched my armor, helmet, ballistic glasses, rifle, and gloves. Since US forces are not allowed to be outside our own secure facilities unarmed, I opted to hang my hat on my pistol grip so I wouldn’t be “openly” carrying it into the hotel.

There were three of us with not much to do, so we opted to head to the hotel restaurant for the breakfast buffet. It was pretty much the sort of mid-range breakfast offerings you’d expect to find anywhere. There was a selection of fruits and pastries, some hard-boiled eggs, juice, and water. When the waiter came along, the three of us each ordered a cup of coffee.

Over the next hour or so we sat in the restaurant watching the other hotel guests wandering by and sipping our coffee. As near as I can figure, it was a sort of freeze-dried instant coffee that had probably been sitting on some basement shelf in the hotel since before the Soviet invasion of 1979. It was pretty foul, but with enough cream and sugar you could just about cover it up well enough to gag it down.

So after a lot of sea stories, two bites out of a couple of stale doughnuts, three pieces of toast, and three cups of the worst coffee in the Eastern hemisphere we asked for the check. The total: $54.00! At first we thought maybe we’d misunderstood it. Was this in Afghani?* Was there some misplaced decimal point? What the fuck?

We asked the waiter to verify the total. When he gave us a funny, almost scornful, look, we went on to ask the restaurant manager to confirm it as well. We were just plainly unable to believe that any meal in Afghanistan, let alone coffee and toast for three, could possibly cost $54.00. Then the manager actually had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, the sheer effrontery even, to scoff at our question! It was as if this poor bastard was usually the maĆ®tre d’ at the Waldorf Astoria and didn't realize that today he had woken up as the dude who runs a breakfast buffet in one of the most miserable, third-world nations in the universe.

Now by my math, assuming a cup of freeze-dried coffee and a stale donut have approximately the same value, each cup of coffee cost us a little over NINE U.S. dollars. To put this in perspective, the starting salary for an Afghan National Police officer is $70/month. To take it one step further, this would be like finding a hotel in Manhattan that serves yesterday's Folger’s for $230.00 per cup.**

Needless to say, we did not leave a tip.

Once we’d settled the rather ridiculous bill, we wandered over to the hotel gift shop. There we were able to peruse a tiny little room full of all the same sort of dusty crap we can buy on base in the HQ compound as well as in the weekly bazaar they set up for us to shop in. The only thing missing was the Chinese knock-off electronics and the pirate DVDs.

Since we were killing time, we sat and chatted with the shopkeeper about the design and construction of the various rugs he had for sale. It turns out that he actually owns a factory on the other side of town where they make handmade rugs in traditional as well as his own original designs. On top of that, he imports and sells pure silk rugs from Iran too.

While we were there we got a lengthy lesson in how to shop for rugs and I fell in love with a particular Persian rug he had on hand. It was pure silk in dark blue and rich golden hues and represented about two months’ worth of labor for an entire extended family. Fortunately I didn’t have enough money on hand to buy it, because I’d probably be pretty upset the first time I had to figure out how to clean dog urine out of a six thousand dollar rug.

Besides, I’d rather spend a lot less money on a rug made in Afghanistan. This makes sense to me because I'm actually in Afghanistan. I figure I’ll have to wait on buying an authentic Iranian rug until we invade Iran. At the current rate it’s only a matter of time.

*54 Afghani is something like twenty-five cents.
** Starting salary for an NYPD officer is about $25,100/year, or about $2,100/month, and no hotel in Manhattan would serve freeze-dried coffee.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

This Week's Weather in Kabul

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Somehow I've gotten the notion that a bit of precipitation will make it easier to breathe without gagging. I keep hoping for rain or snow here, but so far there's been naught.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Part IX: I Hate This Place

In a previous blog entry I wrote at great length about all of the good things that are going on here in Afghanistan. All of that is true when you look at the big picture. Life is slowly getting better for the indigenous people and without the intervention of the international community in the day-to-day goings on in this country, I do believe that it would continue to be prime breeding ground for international terrorism and crime groups.

That said, I need to do a better job of making my role in that effort clear. What specifically do I do here? Not much. I’m one of the 2,000+ staff personnel assigned to a headquarters compound built to accommodate 900 people. In the hierarchy of pain and suffering, especially in this godforsaken place, I don’t have much to complain about. But I’m going to go ahead and complain anyway.

The first thing that really got to me once I’d landed in Afghanistan was the air. Air quality in Afghanistan is shitty. I mean literally shitty. The closest thing to waste management here, in the few areas where the locals even make an attempt at it, is a network of open sewer trenches. On top of that, when the weather starts to cool off that’s when they light up their fireplaces to warm their homes. There’s a shortage of wood to use for fuel, so they substitute one of the few things they have an abundance of: crap. They actually burn human and animal feces to heat their homes. So when I say the air is shitty, I mean it in the very plainest literal sense.

The other key ingredient in the local atmosphere, aside from the feculence, is dust. There is absolutely no way of escaping the dust. It coats everything everywhere. The air is so thickly laced with it that you almost have to chew before you can inhale. I’m particularly sensitive to dust, so even though I’ve been here for over a month I still haven’t gone a day without a nosebleed. When the weather turns dry back home is usually the same time that I head out to sea. Here there is no way for me to escape this particular little hell.

Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so completely confined as I do here inside the compound. I’ve got a window in my living quarters that looks out at a reinforced concrete wall less than four feet away. In my office there’s a window with a clear view of another reinforced concrete wall. A while back I tried to find any place on the base where I could climb up high enough to see over the walls and take a few pictures of the scenery. After two hours of walking the perimeter I found out that aside from the guard towers there’s no vantage points to see over the walls at all. Even when I’ve been stuck on a ship at sea there’s at least been something to look at.

The distinct lack of scenery wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the things I do have to look at. The “building” I live in is essentially a stack of modified 20-foot shipping containers. All told there are something like 38 containers on my floor and another 38 or so on the upper level. There are two containers at one end configured as bathrooms.

Each container houses two or three people. They come from all over the world and they bring their various versions of hygiene and modesty with them. With somewhere between 80 and 120 dudes sharing five shower stalls, there’s not much chance to shut them down long enough to properly clean them. The facilities have been in place for most of seven years, and you can only imagine the buildup of soap scum, foot funk, gelled urine, and saturated dust that has accumulated in that time.

Left to my own devices I tend to lead a fairly isolated life. Since I get to make up my own schedule I manage to avoid people most of the time. Here I can’t get twenty minutes into my day before seeing some overweight, middle-aged, European dude strolling down my hallway in his briefs. The base regulations stipulate that unless you’re in the restroom you have to be covered from neck to knees at all times, but the few times I’ve mentioned this I was just accused of being a prude “like all the Americans,” and ignored. I guess I’ll just have to start shopping for eye bleach.

The morning shower is its own brand of annoying. It’s not uncommon to open the door to the bathroom and be confronted by some chubby, hairy, naked dude standing at the urinal. I guess they’ve got the idea that since they’re in that container to take a shower and they’ll be undressed anyway there’s no reason to wear any clothing at all in there. This is the sort of unpleasant thing that you really wish you could un-see. The image itself is so haunting that I keep wishing there was a way to poke out my mind’s eye.

I can’t mention the shower though without mentioning the water quality. I don’t know where we get water from, but I hear that after it’s piped into the compound it gets treated to make it safer. Even so, it’s still not healthy enough to drink. In fact, we are cautioned against using it to brush our teeth. Moreover, after washing our hands we’re expected to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill off all of the germs on our hands from the tapwater.

The handwashing thing is bothering me a bit too. There are regulations and standing orders and warning signs all over the place reminding us to wash our hands after using the restroom, before eating, after eating, after touching anything outdoors, before touching anything indoors, after touching any of the local people or animals, after shaking hands or any other physical contact with other folks in the compound, and after washing our hands. A while back it had gotten so bad that my skin was starting to split and crack even with regular moisturizing. Rather than suffer any more of that, I just started to scale back on the hand washing regimen. I figure there’s a chance that dysentery will be a good enough reason to rotate me back home, but probably not.

The foul state of the water goes to some length in explaining the local people’s reluctance to participate in any sort of personal cleanliness as well. The few stink-conscious Afghans I’ve met seem to opt for the cologne option over the bathing option. I went to get a haircut a while back and the base barbershop (staffed by locals) was so foul with body odor and the various masking scents that opening the door made my eyes water.

As long as I’m on a roll, I might as well bitch about the food. The dining facilities on base are set up to cater to the wide variety of international cuisine that might appeal to all of the various nationalities represented on the staff here. The problem is to find a way to offer food that will still be palatable for all concerned. To this end, the menu will tend to include everything except flavor. The food is so bland that I’ve taken to skipping at least one, occasionally three, meals a day. I’ve been forcing myself to eat just enough to maintain my weight. Believe me, it’s a challenge.

Again, I know that I’ve still got it pretty good here. Compared to the guys in the south who go out knocking down doors looking for insurgents and waiting for booby traps to explode, I’ve got it pretty easy. The distinction is that when they’ve finished their tour here at least they’ll be able to say that they were doing something that mattered, while my job could be replaced by one competently-managed spreadsheet.

My job is to ask questions about how the reconstruction effort is going. I don’t think up the questions and I don’t analyze the answers, I just ask the questions. So someone in another department will get a wild hair about, say, police training. Then they’ll put together a list of questions about the quality and effectiveness of the training, the number of local police officials who have had said training, the number that still need it, how long it takes, whether it should be longer or shorter, and so on. Then they send the list of questions to me. Then I send them to someone who sends them to someone else who actually answers them. Then I collect the answers that find their way back up the grapevine and forward them to whoever asked the questions. So basically I’m an auxiliary to middle management, an administrative speed bump.

So, if I weren’t here to do my job, the folks who ask the questions would instead have to ask the folks who answer the questions and the folks who answer the questions would instead have to provide answers to the folks who ask the questions. While I know life could be worse, I’m comfortable complaining about being here. Why? Because if I weren’t here, things would be just a bit more efficient.

I’m told that my job will become more significant once I’ve been here for a while longer. By then I’ll have actually gone out and visited a few of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. This will give me a chance to develop personal relationships with the folks in the field and gain insight into the challenges they face which I might be able to streamline through the judicious applications of my connections at headquarters. I don’t think I buy that. Either way, I’ve only got about four and a half months left here, so if they’re going to have me do something useful it’d be nice if they got started.

So it goes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Part VIII: Random Afghanistan Photos

So the other day I got invited out to go to the shooting range with a bunch of Canadian Army guys. The closest ranges we can go shoot at are actually located at the Afghan National Army Training Center on the other side of town. There's an American compound within the Afghan Army compound where the US advisors live and work. The Euro-random food served at the ISAF HQ is a bit unpleasant, so we drove over as early in the morning as we could stand and had breakfast.

After a tasty breakfast at the American chow hall (including the first properly cooked bacon I've seen since I landed in this godforsaken place*) I turned a corner and saw this shipping container with a very odd looking label on its side:

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I paused for a few moments while trying to decide what could possibly be contained in this container. When I gave up on it I continued to walk past it and realized it was the funniest thing I'd seen in weeks:
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After a brief chuckle I hopped back into the truck and we drove up to the shooting range. When we got up to the ranges I snapped a few pictures of the scenery:
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I also got this winning shot of me somewhere during the day:

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It was nice to get a chance to do some shooting. I'm not sure why, but there's something therapeutic about blowing holes in things from a few hundred feet away. One of the Canadians brought along a 12-guage shotgun and some slugs, so once we'd used up a couple of boxes worth of 5.56mm ammunition we got to set the ammo boxes down range and blast a few holes in them with the shotgun. Here's a winning shot of Master Corporal Gregg Scruton (assigned as driver/admin dude for my office) with the hapless ammo box victim:
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On the serious side, I got to do a bunch of move-and-shoot marksmanship training with the Canucks. It turned out as I'd've predicted. I still suck with the rifle, which is to say I'm acceptably lethal, but not the world's best sniper. On the other hand I did pretty well with the pistol and the shotgun. The shotgun especially. It was a pump action shotgun, so I got to practice the one-handed pump method might remember from Terminator 2.** A good time was had by all, but it was time to leave all the same.

On the way back we passed a huge area littered with the burnt-out leftovers of hundreds of Cold War era Soviet armored vehicles. These are all that remains of the Russian invasion that the Mujahedin fighters managed to defeat in the 1980s. It makes for a sobering reminder of what the locals are capable of:
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On the way back to the HQ compound, I took a bunch more pictures around the city of Kabul. Here's one of the countless random people who seem to spend much of their day camped out in the center median of some of the busiest thoroughfares:

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Here's one of the so-called "jingle trucks" that are commonplace on the highways here:
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More commonplace though, are the horsecarts:
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I'm not sure why, but the local version of commerce still fascinates me. Here's another bunch of roadside fruitstands:
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This is what passes for a strip mall in most of Kabul:
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And here's a downtown stockyard where you can buy yourself some really sad-looking barnyard animals:
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I'm not sure when I took this picture, but this dude can almost always be found begging on this road out:
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Something else I'd mentioned in a previous entry is the contrast between the generally drab, dusty environment and the surprisingly immaculate local women:
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Here's another shot that makes the contrast even more noticeable:
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While the burkhas (shown above) are still in style all over town, with the fall of the Taliban regime, more and more women are adopting a more Western style of dress:
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Here's a random shot of Massoud Circle:
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A little while ago there was a car bomb that was detonated in this intersection. It killed four locals (if you count the guy driving the car bomb) but otherwise did only minor damage to some other cars nearby. I'm still not sure what the intended target was.


Leave it to militant insurgent forces to take all the fun out of a nice drive across town.

*I realize fully that I should not expect to find decent bacon in a Muslim country any more than I should expect to find a decent hamburger in a Hindu country. The problem is: every single morning at the chow hall there is bacon. Sausage too. For some reason though, the exact formula for converting it from dead pig to some sort of palatable form continues to elude the cooking staff at my base.

**Toward the end, when she'd been wounded and couldn't use her right arm for much, this was the same one-handed method Sarah Connor used when she started blasting away that the T-1000. If you don't remember it, go rent the movie today. It's still just as good as it ever was.