I spent most of last week in Bamian Province, visiting with the New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. The original plan was for Vic an myself to spend one full day there gathering information and situational awareness before returning to Kabul.
Because nothing goes according to plan, we spent three full days there before Vic went back to Kabul and I went on to Bagram Air Base in Parwan Province. I'm sure there were plenty of reasons for the change in plans, but I don't know enough about them to write about them. Apparently there were larger forces at work than me.
The trip started bright and early with a drive over to the USAID air terminal again. Unlike our last trip to the terminal, this time there was actually a flight that was actually going somewhere.
This is what Vic looks like when he's going somewhere:
Vic and I were the only two military personnel on the plane. The only part that made it wierd was all of the civilian folks who decided to take pictures of us boarding because they thought it was strange to see people with guns on a plane.
We flew fairly low over the mountain tops on the way, so it made for some interesting views:
As we were landing we also took a long lap of the entire valley where the town of Bamian (the capitol of Bamian Province) is situated. We landed on a gravel airstrip next door to the PRT compound and we were met by a major from the New Zealand Defense Forces who drove us to the compound.
Our first day was mostly spent talking to the folks working there. The Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamian is led and mostly staffed by soldiers from New Zealand. There is also a detachment of Singaporean soldiers as well as a handful of Americans. They fund and manage a wide variety of projects ranging from road construction to communications infrastructure and everything in between. There's also an Afghan Police Recruit Training Center next door where a number of New Zealand Police officers assist in training personnel for the Afghan National Police. There's a lot more to it, but it would take a long time to explain all of the great work that they've got going in the province.
We got a quick walking tour of the facility and were shown to our accomodations, a modest room in a plywood shack across from the plywood shack where two of the three dogs on base lived. Here's one of them:
After we'd gotten settled in and acquainted with their operations, we caught a ride around the outlying area with a couple of their guys. As we drove into town, we passed a prominent statue of the martyr Abdul Ali Mazari. He fought against the Russians in the 1980s and then went on to fight against the Taliban during the Afghan Civil War. After prolonged fighting, the Taliban leadership invited him to discuss a peacful resolution. His convoy was ambushed by the Taliban and disarmed then he was arrested, tortured, and later thrown from a helicopter flying over Ghazni Province where his body was found:
Further into town I caught this blurry snapshot of an Afghan National Police (ANP) officer on traffic duty with one of the holes where the giant buddha statues used to be in the background:
A little later we saw rush hour over by the provincial hospital:
In addition to the holes where the giant Buddhas used to be, there is an ancient Muslim fortification called Shahr-e-Golgola (translated literally as "City of Screams") atop a conspicuous peak in the middle of the valley. The fortress dates back to the 10th century and was sacked by Genghis Khan when he invaded in the 1220's A.C.E..
The Mongol invasion of Afghanistan accounts for the predominantly Mongoloid appearance of the local ethnic group, called "Hazaras." Apparently when Genghis Khan invaded Bamian this fortress caused him such trouble that, when it finally fell, he ended up killing every living thing in the valley. The bloodshed was considered overwhelmingly harsh even by the standards of the Mongolian Hordes. Men, women, animals, and even the grass were dead by the time he moved on. So it goes.
He left behind one thousand of his men to keep control of the area. Incidentally, the Farsi word for "thousand" is "hazar."
Before the Mongols there had been countless skirmishes between local tribal warlords and before that, in about 330 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered the region (though it's worth noting that the locals mounted a guerilla campaign against him that he never managed to put down completely).
While we were driving past Shahr-e Golgola, we passed a local farmer tilling his field:
Whenever I see a scene like this, I can't help but chuckle at some of the misunderstandings that come from back home. A while back I had to answer some questions about the number of local schoolchildren in Afghanistan who have internet access. I had to be honest and say that I really had no idea and, more importantly, that I really didn't think it made any difference. It seems to me that before we should worry about getting a laptop computer for every Afghan student, we should get a building for every school. Then fit them with roofs. Then books, plumbing, electricity, and sometime in the next couple of decades we can sort out a few wi-fi hotspots.
Internet access or not, the local kids seem pretty happy:
Although we also got no shortage of wierd looks:
Along the way we stopped to take a look at the irrigation canal that he kiwis are working to rehabilitate. While we were stopped we picked up an audience:
Once we'd returned from our drive, Vic and I had some time to kill. We were cramming a one-day visit into three days, so there wasn't much of a rush. We decided to go for a walk. Just behind the PRT compound was a peak that climbed over 500 feet above the altitude where our room was. The kiwis call it "PT hill" and mentioned several times in our first 24 hours there that it was a decent workout. Everyone there agreed that it was worth hiking it.
They also told us to bring a rifle in case we ran afoul of any wild dogs. It turns out that the wild dogs in Bamian are readily identifiably by their ears. Once a local takes in a dog as a pet, they cut the ears off. Apparently they've never heard of dog collars.
So, burdened only by drinking water and weapons, we set off up the road. Along the way I spotted this unusually adorned abandoned building:
On the North face of PT hill, they've dug little ditches designed to trap snowmelt and keep the soil moist. There are also little divots where they apparently plan to plant trees that will take advantage of this moisture:
The hike itself was a bit of a pain in the butt, but Vic looked like he was having fun, so we pressed on:
About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, it was time to take a break:
But once we were on top of the peak, there were some fantastic views. Here you can see all the way across the valley, the town of Bamian, and the Buddha holes in the cliff faces to the North:
At this point, we were 9,250 feet above sea level (give or take 25 feet according to my GPS). After that, the rest of the day was downhill.
On our second day there, we joined a foot patrol on the way out to inspect one of the US-funded construction sites. To get there, we ended up walking right through the middle of town. The strangest part about the walk was the fact that we were fully armed and armored as we walked down main street and nobody paid us the slightest bit of attention. In fact, until I pulled out my camera, this guy didn't even glance at us:
While we were at the construction site, one of the engineers spent a lot of time talking to the construction foreman, asking him about mixing ratios for the concrete they were pouring and whatnot. I got tired of it all pretty quick, so instead of listening in like I should have I walked over to the bank of the river next to the site and snapped a few pictures of the local girls doing their laundry on the opposite bank:
Just a few yards upriver, a local shepherd was watering his flock:
As we walked back to the PRT compound, I snapped this winning shot of main street Bamian:
That evening, we accompanied some representatives of the US Army Agribusiness Development Team to a meeting at the Provincial Governor's office. These were soldiers from the Nebraska National Guard with a background in agriculture who volunteered to come to Afghanistan to teach the local farmers how to improve their methods of planting, harvesting, and marketing their crops. They're doing a lot of great work and they were pretty good guys to talk with. More on them some other time.
Unfortunately we arrived a bit early and had to wait outside for Afghanistan time to catch up with us. The local kids took a bit of interest in us:
Since we really didn't have any advice to offer on the cultivation of soybeans or grapes or anything else for that matter, Vic and I ended up hanging out in the anteroom outside the office and chatting (as best we could manage given the language barrier) with the Afghan National Police guards who were stationed there. They were pretty nice, albeit simple, guys and it was all I could do to convince them that I didn't want to trade any of my equipment or weapons for any of theirs.
It would've been nice to meet the governor. She's the only female provincial governor in the country and her province was the first one to ever have female police officers (in 2006), so she's picked up a bit of celebrity value as well.
The next day Vic and I started out with nothing pressing to do except wait for flights. Then it got interesting.
Stay tuned for the rest of this exciting adventure (and a heck of a lot more scenery pictures)...