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.