The Transition Home

My Foot Falls Asleep

(Update from the Previous Post: Sitting Indian Style)

As often as possible, I try to make my way to the phone center on FOB Ramrod to call my parents. I wake them up in the middle of the night and bombard their sleepy ears with the week’s worth of news from Afghanistan. Talking to my family back home is a tremendous stress reliever, and I was certainly due for a call.

As I strolled along the main post road towards the phone center last Friday, I saw SGT Coolie, my senior gunner, running towards my flank. “Hey Sir!” He called out.

“Hey what’s up, man?” I tried my best to keep walking. Maybe I could out-run whatever bad news he was bringing with him.

“The Battalion XO (*XO = Executive Officer, 2nd in Command) is looking for you, Sir. He says it’s important.”

“Ah Crap,” I whined. Perfect timing. I did a lethargic about-face and headed towards the Battalion TOC. “Arright, just update the Platoon Sergeant, let him know where I’m at.”

“Yeah will do, Sir.”

I began a brisk walk towards the XO’s tent. I patted down my uniform to make sure I had all the essentials to report to a Major’s office without looking like the frustrated mess that I was. My uniform was dirty, and my face had some mild stubble. My boots were filthy, but at least they were tied and bloused. I had a pen and pad in my back pocket, and my weapon was in decent shape. Whatever trouble I was in, hopefully I could keep from making it worse with my undisciplined appearance.

“Hey Rajiv, how you doing!?” sounded the Major excitedly as he jumped out of the tent, anticipating my arrival.

“Not bad, Sir. Heard you were looking for me?”

“Yeah…we’ve got a visitor and I want you to sit in.”

“Who is it?” Just as fast as the words had left my mouth, Captain Abdul Kalam Kalay emerged from the desert tan entrance to the XO’s tent. Had it been any other day, I would have been pleasantly surprised to see him, but my demeanor remained composed. Captain Kalay, on the other hand, looked like he was about to pee his pants when he saw me. The Captain lifted up his left arm and gave me an affectionate slap on the back, his wide smile exposing every one of his brown, rotting teeth. It was certainly a more hospitable greeting than at our last engagement.

“I invited him to talk about his generator,” clarified the XO, “he was looking forward to seeing you.”

The enthusiastic manner in which the Captain received me improved my mood significantly. “Cool! This is great, Sir. I’m glad I get to sit down with him again. We definitely hit it off last time.” If I had to be pulled away from my family for anything, I’m glad it was for this. We walked into the FOB mess hall. A few contractors were sweeping the floors from the previous meal. The staff already prepped a table for us with coffee, tea, and fruit as we did our best to show a degree of our own Pashtunwali.

While an American may sit in a rickety plastic mess hall chair and feel uneasy, Captain Kalay’s body seemed to lounge in what he probably saw as the lavish luxury of an American outpost. His muscles were loose, and his voice was calm. It seemed we were actually making some headway in earning his favor.

“So,” the Major began, “Lt. Srinivasan tells me that you’re worried about a Generator.”

I don’t think anyone was quite ready to jump into matters of business yet. In fact, typical rules of hospitality in Afghanistan insist on enduring through some small talk and banter before jumping into official discussion. The break from courtesy was noticeable. The Captain sat up straight and leaned forward aggressively as the interpreter relayed the message.

“Yes. We gave you Americans our Generator almost three or four months ago, and still nothing has been done. Is it fixed yet?” asked the Captain.

“Well, here’s the problem,” began the XO as he opened up a folder with property and maintenance information, “We did take your generator, and we see that it’s missing a very important part. It’s an expensive part that needs to be shipped from the United States, which is why it’s taking so long. We certainly have ordered it, and it’s on its way.”

“That is unacceptable!” returned the Captain, “I know you have helicopters and planes flying all across the world every day. You have all the money to buy a new part and get it to us quickly. Our soldiers are suffering. You need to put us first for a change. You can’t give us another generator? How hard would that be for you? You have so many lying across this post!”

A door slam heard in the rear of the tent brought the conversation to a halt. We all turned to find Captain Quinn, a Cavalry Scout Company Commander, walking through the mess hall to join us.

Captain Kalay stood up and greeted Captain Quinn with the same love and enthusiasm with which he greeted me. The XO whispered in my ear, “Before you spoke with the ANA, Captain Quinn was their liaison. He should know about the generator, so asked him to come by.” Captain Kalay clearly had affection for Captain Quinn, so I figured only good things could come of his being here.

“Sorry I’m late, what are we talking about here,” began Captain Quinn. We spoke without the interpreter‘s relay to Captain Kalay. We needed to share notes on the issue.

“Well, we’re trying to make clear to Kalay that the generator part we ordered is on the way, but it takes time to get here. He seems pretty adamant about getting him another generator,” explained the XO.

Captain Quinn took a sip of his coffee as he shook his head gently, “Hell no. When I took his generator back in September, I gave him two of our own that we purchased with Company funds.” Captain Quinn turned to Kalay, “You remember the two generators I left for you, right? Where are they?”

Captain Kalay’s fist began to tighten, “First, you only gave me one generator. Second, it is also broken! You Americans only give me broken equipment because you don’t care about our needs or our soldiers.”

“Hey Sir,” Captain Quinn spoke to the XO, “He’s full of shit. I gave him two generators, I have the paper work for it. There’s no way they were broken ‘cause they were brand new.”

“Maybe they don’t have the fuel to run the generator, Sir. If these things run dry, it can damage the motor,” I added, trying to give the ANA commander some consideration.

“Yeah, that’s true, but it’s not like these guys didn’t have fuel before we came,” replied the XO. “How does he fuel that truck he rolls around in? And they know about machinery too. They have had generators before and they know to keep filling them with fuel.”

“It’s a good point, but I think this is different here,” continued Captain Quinn, “I mean they’ve essentially broken 3 generators within four months. Even the original generator they had was one bought for them by the previous unit who held this sector. And that still doesn’t explain why he’d be missing one of the generators I gave him.” The three American officers at the table sat silently. We looked at each other, and back at Captain Kalay who was leaning back in his chair, observing our discussion. Kalay could not understand our words, but it became clear to all of us that he certainly understood us…just a little too well.

When the news media classifies Afghanistan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, it’s hard for those of us in Western society to understand what that means; what it feels like to distrust everyone around you; to walk through our neighborhoods with cold hearts.  We take people for face value because strong democratic countries allow us the freedom, if not the expectation, to be genuine.

Unfortunately, that freedom does not exist in the lawlessness of Afghanistan. Our cordial conversation had now transformed into a tense understanding of dishonesty on the part of the ANA Commander. Though it was not spoken, we were all on the same page: Captain Kalay was trying to steal from the U.S. Army.

“Arright,” entered the Major as he broke the silence, “We’ll work on getting your generator part in. I’ll try and have it expedited. When it gets here, I’m going to send your generator back with two mechanics who are going to instruct your soldiers on how to inspect and maintain the generator. I’ll be sending them your way every couple days to make sure you’ll be set.”

It was clear what the XO was saying to the Captain:  I’ll fix your generator… and I’m going to keep sending people over there to make sure you’re not selling its parts.

The implication was not lost in translation as the ANA Commander shifted in his seat and turned his head away from the table.

“Thank you, that is a very kind gesture,” he said calmly as he turned back to the meeting. A strange and eerie smile came over his face. His intentions were transparent. Patience is a virtue, even in Kandahar, and Captain Kalay was a patient man. Our Battalion could watch him constantly, inspect his every move. But in less than seven months, the only thing Kalay knew for sure was that we’d be gone… and we’d be replaced by another inexperienced and naive unit for him to prey upon.

We stood up from the table, Kalay smiled and gave all of us his ceremonial hand shake and warm embrace. I returned the hospitable gesture as enthusiastically as I could, but my heart was now ridden with disappointment.

As a 23 year old platoon leader in Afghanistan, I’ve had to grow up pretty quickly here. I can handle knowing that a soldier may lose his life each time we leave the wire. I can accept the fact that there is no such thing as an “off-day” in a war zone. I can even understand that I may be serving in a war without a clear purpose. Sometimes, that’s just life, and we just have to make due. But Captain Kalay represented to me the greatest frustration and disappointment of all: No matter how many troops, how much time, or how much money we throw at Afghanistan, no democracy can take hold and nothing will change unless this country’s leaders want it for their own nation. Captain Kalay is a powerful man…he has no incentive to want anything more than the status quo.

I suppose the idea of “sitting Indian-style” sounds good from a counter-insurgency point of view; it sounds like another Army catch-phrase strategy to win hearts and minds. I was right about one thing though; this is indeed a math problem, not only to me, but to Captain Kalay and every Afghan leader in this country. It’s about the maximization of self-interest. No matter how much Captain Kalay likes me, or even identifies with me, it doesn’t change the fact that he will only act to maximize his personal gain.

Perhaps we as a nation need to spend a little less time on the “hearts” and start appealing to their “minds; appealing to this math problem of self-interest. How do we make it lucrative for Afghan leaders to support an honest and open democracy at such sacrifice to the power and influence they already garner? I don’t know…but I can tell you that I’ve been trying to sit Indian-style with the Afghan people for this entire tour in Afghanistan…and my foot is starting to fall asleep.


10 responses

  1. Bill Kinzie

    Heheheh! Why am I not surprised!! Your background gives you the requisite understanding attendant to the situation. This is the essential problem in Afghanistan as you you so superbly point out.

    This makes it difficult to fight this war with conviction.

    I’m sometimes tempted to believe that many of the wars, police actions, etc engaged in by the US of A is somehow relate to Eisenhower’s “Military-Industrial” complex. Part of our great economic engine needs “war” to fuel its forward progress.

    Guess as long as we’re making it uncomfortable for “bad guys” it doesn’t matter. Thinik we have to distinguish between really bad guys and those that are just venal and self serving.

    Our prayers are for your safety as you and your fellow soldiers carry out your missions.

    12 December 09 at 13:01

  2. Dude, that story is crazy. I suppose you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink… seems like we are leading people to democracy but we can’t make them deocracate (or whatever the word would be).

    Thanks for finishing out the story for us!

    12 December 09 at 14:20

  3. Cam Srpan

    Hi Jives,
    I heard on the news that corruption has been prevalent for many years in Afghanistan. Obviously that is true and we must understand that our presence there will not change that. Too bad…they could learn good lessons from us.
    Be smart and be safe and I hope your foot wakes up! 😉

    12 December 09 at 15:37

  4. Meredith

    Wow!! This new development with the captain is insane! I have read about corruption, but this first-hand example hits it home for me. I just think back to the captain and his colleague’s reaction to getting all those bottles of water and the captain’s long rant about the level of responsiveness he’d received. It has a theatrical feel to it…I liked your observation about making conversation before diving right into the generator. That was also a good tactic for you guys to go out and check up on the staying power of the new part that comes in. So the status quo persists, and how! There’s a huge American flag waving outside the window in front of my cozy bench. Thank you for working so hard over there and for persisting in spite of these frustrations!! Love,M

    13 December 09 at 00:54

  5. Bruce

    I may too be a little too trusting, could be a West Point thing.

    Your frustration is something I too have had in regards to purpose, I’m sure you more so. I have recently equated it to this. The Military is a spear being thrown by the Civilians. The Spear doesn’t choose his target, the Thrower does. We just have to make sure we pierce the heart of the thrower’s target.

    Hope to see you around.

    13 December 09 at 18:46

  6. dennis kearns

    Hi, Rajiv,

    Disillusionment comes with experience & age, but should also be perpetually tempered with hope. While it may be new to you, Caesar’s legions could probably commiserate.

    Semper fi,

    15 December 09 at 17:58

  7. Hang in there, Rajiv. Such a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. I can imagine it must be hard to hope, or find inspiration, when lawlessness and “each man for himself” becomes the status quo and most convenient means of survival…

    You definitely have a point about the math problem.


    15 December 09 at 19:50

  8. Tauseef

    Hey brother. I see you are gettin to experience the developing world first hand. I don’t even remember how many times I have been taken advantage of before. I definitely think this should be incorporated into every soldiers and officers training. Can I be the instructor? 😀

    17 December 09 at 01:52

  9. Tin


    First of all, I wouldn’t be discouraged by this. This is the kind of classic dilemma faced by central governments all over the world trying to figure out ways to deal with untrustworthy local officials that pilfer central resources. Even employees at US corporations typically do similar things–charge their finance departments for party dinners with friends/family claiming that the charge was because they worked overtime that day. Hell, I did that on some dinners I had with you back in the day, not going to lie. 😉

    However, I’m surprised that you don’t seem to have had access to a systematic record of Captain Kalay’s interactions with your battalion. Most businesses have an internally public record of every interaction they have with their suppliers and distributors so that no employee within the organization can be swindled. Government of Chicago saved hundreds of millions by just tracking what suppliers charged them at different times and to different departments, discovering huge price discrepancies for the same products, even from the same companies.

    I’m also surprised that your battalion previously gave Captain Kalay a valuable asset to utilize with neither (1) any contractual penalty for him not taking care of it, nor (2) any contractual benefit for taking care of it. Banks ask for collateral. Companies withhold bonuses. My landlord asks for a deposit that he keeps if I plug up the toilet and flood the bathroom.

    How is it that Captain Kalay got generators without being held accountable for them, and how is it that you didn’t know that history until Captain Quinn walked into the room? And don’t those mechanics who are going to be sent to Captain Kalay’s department every few days to look at his generator have better things to do??

    If Captain Kalay almost got away with stuff like this, I would question very carefully what else he is trying to get away with. I would also ask whether he is being accountable to his own men and the local communities under his jurisdiction. What you have received is a great indicator you can use to your advantage.

    You are right, the key is that people respond to incentives, and incentives have to be aligned throughout the country, at every level of government, for people to believe in and invest in a future devoted to sound governance and democratic principles.

    It seems like a big intractable math problem, but the truth is that like any math problem, it can usually also be solved by breaking it into its smallest individual components and conquering them one by one, building up transparent and consistently enforced institutional solutions that align those incentives in the right direction. It’s a long struggle that every country goes through, not just Afghanistan. The west just happens to have gotten farther along the process.

    I dig that you’re a part of this process and hope that you continue thinking about these problems you come across and sharing them with us. And please also let me know if I am being completely naive, not understanding something about military policy, or otherwise just being dead wrong!

    cheers man–

    19 December 09 at 09:31

  10. Pingback: राजीव श्रीनिवासन – गांधार के कुरुक्षेत्र से

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