26 November 2011

Another Saturday Night

Perhaps you're wondering what a Saturday night is like in Afghanistan. I'm more than happy to oblige. And I'll get there. Stick with me.

We affectionately refer to Saturdays in Afghanistan as Afghan Mondays. As the weekend here is Thursday afternoon and Friday (the Muslim holy day), Saturday morning is usually when we see our Afghan counterparts for the first time that week. So already the days are all jumbled. We did that today...headed out to work and tried to have a few meetings, but our counterparts were all scattered elsewhere in the city today (unbeknownst to us, and impossible to predict as we cannot call ahead to schedule meetings since that might jeopardize our security). We ate a very unmemorable lunch (imagine previously frozen lunch meat, sliced cheese, tomatoes, and oops, someone forgot to bring the bread). And finally we were just sick of sitting around, so we left. There really aren't working hours here, so the fact that we left in the very early afternoon was no big deal. Work was done. We left.

We returned to our base and decided that since we had some extra time, we would wash our trucks. I know, lots of people wash cars on the weekends, so this really isn't much of a stretch. Except these trucks are gigantic. And they were caked with inches and inches of mud on the undercarriage, in the wheel wells, and plastered to the sides of the monstrous vehicles That ordeal took about an hour of power washing using non-potable water that kept splattering in our faces. Don't think about that. We didn't. Disgusting.

And even after all of that, it was hardly late afternoon. So I went to the gym for the second time today, because quite frankly I couldn't think of anything else to do. Then I took one of my guys who is celebrating his 40th birthday today "out" to "birthday dinner" which is to say that we sat in the same dining facility where we always sit, ate the same mediocre food, celebrated with dessert, and then about 30 minutes later went back to our own rooms.

Then I started getting creative. What do really crazy people do on a Saturday night in Afghanistan? They bleach their socks and washcloths in their trashcan. In their room. Yes, that's what cool people do. So I did that. And performed decoupage on the new city route map we need to put in our trucks...using contact paper and a straight knife. And printed a bunch of pictures I took of the young cops who work at the main gate at our Afghan base (Julia and I fondly refer to them as the DAWGS). And started writing Christmas cards. And listened to This American Life.

Every day in Afghanistan blends into the next one. Saturday is like Tuesday. Thursday is like Tuesday. Tuesday is like Tuesday. But the silver lining here is that although tonight was just another Saturday night in Afghanistan, I have less than a handful of such evenings left here before my return to spending Saturday nights in various European cities, nursing a glass of wine and enjoying great company. And that's a Saturday night experience I can't wait to relive.

23 November 2011


There is a fascinating sequence of events unfolding on the Afghan base at which I work, and the women who work there have no viable voice or advocate. I only have a few weeks left, but this is a battle worth fighting...and my argument below to the senior leaders at the Coalition's decision-making base is an interesting insight into the life and struggles of Afghan military woman.



I appreciated the opportunity to provide you with information about the 28 military women who work at Headquarters X. Y. earlier this month. They were thrilled to share their personal stories with me, and I'd like to provide you with an update on their well-being a few weeks later.

Approximately three months ago, the Coalition pushed hard to make significant changes in one unit's manning document, which happens to be the unit in which 9 of the 28 military women at HQ X.Y. are employed. During that reorganization, 37 Afghan National Army military members were demoted (based solely on lack of positions, and not based on merit), including 7 of the 9 women employed in the unit.

The impacted women, Del Jahn (former E-9), Sahibo (former E-9), Wahida (former E-8), Mina (former E-8), Shafika (former E-7), Nadia (former E-7), and Fahima (former E-6) have all been demoted to lower-level positions with neither notice nor justification. The command's Afghan personnel officer worked with his superiors at two higher echelons to resolve the matter, but was told that the women could search for vacant positions in other organizations elsewhere in the Afghan National Army (at various geographic locations) or accept the demotions and corresponding cut in pay.

My concern is that such a policy at a time when the Coalition and Afghan National Army are both focused on women's integration, these demotions send a very mixed message to the Afghan women brave enough to accept military jobs. This group of 28 women has worked together at HQ X.Y. since the command stood up six years ago. Some of them have worked in the military (and together) as many as 30 years. Of the 28 women, only five are currently married. The remaining 23 (and all of the recently demoted women) are sole providers for their families and are either war widows or their husbands have left them, in most cases taking their daughters, in accordance with Afghan law.

When I ask the women why they stay in jobs where they receive less than idea treatment, they tell me that the answer for them is simple...they consider each other family. The Coalition and the Afghan government have both invested significant resources in aiding the women at HQ X.Y. We anticipate opening a kindergarten for 20 children, particularly those of female employees, in mid-December (funded by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Social Labor Affairs). We've built the Women's Center, a dedicated facility where women can meet for lunch, literacy and English classes, and for their regular Sunday morning meeting. They have taken many positive steps, and I've watched them grow and thrive over the past five months I've spent with them in Afghanistan.

Afghan women, particularly in the military, lack a viable advocate. In this case, I fear that their lack of a voice at higher-levels of military leadership will deter many of them (and their daughters) from future service. It will surely break the close female bonds they find so valuable on the base. I firmly believe in the role of a Combat Advisor, and I have provided the women, particularly the Women's Center Officer, MAJ Nadia, advice and counsel over the past three weeks without giving them the solution, but it is now evident that they are not able to resolve this matter without Coalition intervention. That is not for lack of trying. It's mostly out of fear for their jobs (even a lower-paying job is still a job) and their families.

I see this unfortunate incident as a great opportunity for the Coalition and Afghan National Army to work together to build confidence in the women at HQ X.Y. We have more military women working at this location than any other, and they eagerly await any expert advice that you and other senior advocates for women's issues in the Afghan National Army may be able to provide.

I look forward to discussing this matter with you at your convenience,