Putting the Seat Down
The 6th Kandak Battalion Commander, LTC Abdul, has always been a mild-mannered and pleasant individual to deal with. He rarely panics or becomes rude. He’s always treated me with the same respect that he’d show any of his direct coalition counterparts, even as a Lieutenant. So last week, when a winded ANA private came beating down the door of our Company CP yelling, “Commandan mekwahat ke bah shemah bebenat…The Commander needs to speak with you!” I felt a sense of urgency.
I strode out of the CP, praying that nothing too serious was going on. IEDs? Small Arms? Another fuel tanker on fire? At this point, there are very few chaotic emergencies the ANA can instigate that would surprise me. I wondered what was going to be on my plate that day.
I entered the LTC’s office. He had two of his minions (soldiers that should be on the ground fighting) standing by with tea and sweets. He sat cross legged at his desk with an expression of grave seriousness on his face. Next to him sat a man in a metal folding chair wearing an elegant white curtha. I recognized him. He had certainly come to our COP before. Was he a tribal elder? A politician?
“Asalaamu Alaykum, Sir,” I said as I extended my hand. The Colonel ignored it.
“Rajiv Khan, this is a very important matter. Is your battalion commander here? I must speak with him immediately.”
I was slightly offended. After nearly six months of joint-operations on this outpost, I legitimately was the only officer, if not the only American soldier, on post who cared about this ANA unit. Not because I think the ANA are worth America’s efforts; but being from India, I guess I have always understood these men a little better than my colleagues have. After all the help I’ve given their soldiers and the time I’ve invested in building relations with these officers, I felt I at least deserved the courtesy of knowing LTC Abdul’s concerns.
“Well, the battalion commander is at another FOB,” I explained, “My CO is in a meeting right now. Whatever it is, Sir, I’m sure myself and the First Sergeant can get the wheels spinning to help you out.”
The LTC stood up. I grew very worried at the bad news he was about to deliver…what possibly could have happened?
“We have a very frustrating matter, and I’m very upset,” said the ANA Commander, “We need to talk about our toilets.”
What the hell? I chuckled. Unless there was a new Taliban tactic…the Toilet-borne IED…I was not following what was going on.
“Oh…toilets…okay,” I humored him, “what’s wrong?”
The commander lost his composure, “You Americans cancelled the contract for our toilets! Now this man,” he eagerly pointed to the man in the white curtha, “is taking my soldiers’ toilets away! What are my soldiers to use?! I will not let him take away our toilets!”
You must know that we’re not talking about toilets in the traditional sense; they’re port-a-johns. On a COP with no plumbing, they’re the closet thing we can have to a sanitary solution for getting rid of human waste. I began to explain the situation to the Colonel in my capacity as the COP’s primary contracting officer.
“First things first, Sir. You have to understand that the Americans were paying for your toilet contract even before we got here. It is our contract to make, break, or change. Secondly, that isn’t your property. It’s not even our property. It belongs to the contractor—“
“NO!” Objected the Colonel, “This is absolutely unacceptable!”
“Lastly,” I continued as if talking to a child, “The number of toilets allotted for both American and ANA soldiers is based on the number of soldiers we each have at the COP. You have only about 40-50 soldiers. We have nearly 120. So we adjust the number of toilets you have to reflect the number of soldiers that will be using them.”
“But this man is taking away all of our toilets!”
“Well, based on the ratio, we gave you three toilets instead of the seven you previously had…the three you have right in front of your office.” I didn’t think it was necessary to remind the Lieutenant Colonel that he, his XO, and S3 put padlocks on those three toilets because each of them believed they deserved their own personal port-a-john. I kid you not…padlocks. I guess either these senior officers feel much too delicate and insecure to share a toilet with their soldiers…or maybe they think their own soldiers are too filthy. I’d guess the latter.
“But what are my soldiers supposed to use! I refuse to let this contractor’s trucks on post to take away my soldiers’ toilets! You Americans don’t support us at all! You need to leave my office. I want you out! Tell your commander to come here! I will not talk with you! You get out of my office now!” LTC Abdul had officially lost it. He started yelling in Dari to his minions and motioned to them to escort me outside. One of them grabbed my shoulder as if I were to be taken prisoner… I didn’t move. I looked at the soldier in the eye and whispered to him in Urdu, “You take your hand off me, or I will beat the shit out of you.” The soldier let go. I suppose, to him, a threat from a random American Lieutenant held more weight than an order from his own battalion commander.
I raised my voice. “Listen, Sir. You need to stop talking to me like a servant and start talking to me like a U.S. Army officer who has done more than his share of supporting you. Now, let’s calm down…these are just toilets. This is a simple misunderstanding. There are much more serious matters going on, I promise you.” It occurred to me that I was standing in front of an ANA Lieutenant Colonel, a U.S. Army War College graduate and a battalion commander. Taliban are running rampant around the Zhari district; U.S. and Afghan soldiers are taking IEDs and small arms fire contact multiple times a day…and in the midst of the chaos, there we were…the Global War on Terror halted because this ANA battalion commander had to find closure on where he would take his next bathroom break.
LTC Abdul refused to acknowledge my presence in his office. He took his anger out on his minions as he continued to yell his orders in Dari. I stood their awkwardly. Jesus, how much longer am I going to have to put up with this bullshit?! I’m about to go insane…Thankfully, my company commander called me on our COP internal radio, “Sir, the ANA BN CDR is throwing a fit. I think you need to come down here.”
My CO stands about 6’4”. Despite being nearly a foot taller than me, he’s so thin he probably weighs just the same. He entered LTC Abdul’s office with the same mannerisms that I had but with a certain authority that can only come from being the highest ranking American officer on the post. I remembered when I first came out to the COP and how I felt when I was able to command such respect…good riddance. There’s no ego boost on the planet that would make me want to deal with this every day. Thankfully, this sort of monotony was no longer my entirely responsibility.
Our company First Sergeant followed the CO into the office. We now had an ANA Lieutenant Colonel, an American Company Commander, a First Sergeant, and the post’s primary contracting officer in one room…decades of experience in military leadership reduced to a summit on port-a-johns.
“So what seems to be the problem, Sir?” asked my CO. LTC Abdul explained his frustrations as my commander did whatever he could to hold in his outburst. I don’t know if he was holding in laughter or rage, but he did it brilliantly. I was actually impressed. It’s been a long tour, and so many of us are coming to our wits’ ends with these incompetent and corrupt ANA. I envied the composure he was able to show over such menial use of his valuable time. “You’ve got to understand, Sir, that we’re here to help. It just takes time to make changes. I can’t change all the rules over night.”
LTC Abdul fired back. “My problem with you is that you do not support us! My soldiers do not have water at our outpost in the east. We do not get fuel. We do not get anything from you! I will tell your Brigade Commander!”
My CO remained calm and unemotional. I couldn’t tell if he was really that good or if he was just that apathetic. “Sir, like I said…this takes time.” I knew what was running through his mind. It was the same thing running through my mind and the mind of the First Sergeant…We don’t support them? Is this guy blind?
I tried to count the number of times I gave Infrared lights to the ANA for their night patrols so they could use our air assets without receiving friendly fire. How many pallets of water have we delivered around the district to their soldiers? How many times have I ordered helicopters to fire on the enemy forces shooting at their checkpoints? How many IEDs have our engineers disarmed and destroyed for them? How many ANA soldiers have we medically evacuated and treated who would otherwise be dead? Why the hell are we here? These people just want everything handed to them on a silver platter? Where do they get this sense of entitlement?
I tried to look at the world through LTC Abdul’s shoes. Maybe if Afghanistan had bombed my country into oblivion, I’d have a sense of entitlement to my assailant’s wealth too. But that doesn’t change the fact that America is not responsible for, nor capable of, solving all of this country’s problems. I tried to draw a parallel between America’s occupation of Afghanistan and the British occupation of our colonies. The colonies no doubt blamed the crown for so many of their woes…but what inspired just a few leaders to stand up and take charge of their own problems? What inspired them to not be a victim anymore? Whatever it was, we need a little of that in Afghanistan.
The conversation ended with the CO and First Sergeant reasserting their intent to resolve the port-a-john issue as soon as possible; they also gave me orders, in front of LTC Abdul, to contract a water pump for the ANA’s eastern outpost. I agreed. When we all stood up to leave the office, I could almost see a snicker in the Lieutenant Colonel’s eye. And it all became clear. I saw the act. I saw a repetition of the same show that he must have performed with every American force he had ever worked with in the past ten years. He throws a fit at a key moment in our tour: when the Americans care enough about the mission to invest a few thousand dollars into the ANA’s development, but don’t care enough to ensure none of the funds are embezzled or kicked-back. LTC Abdul knew exactly what he was doing. He was playing us like a fiddle.
On the way out of the office, I passed by LTC Abdul’s personal port-a-john…padlock and all. After all the tea I had drank in that office, I had to pee like a racehorse. I thought about breaking into LTC Abdul’s toilet just to spite him. I wonder if Abdul would notice if I didn’t put the seat down? I laughed to myself as I came to a realization on the preceding events. When I came to Afghanistan, I cared so much about the mission…I wanted to kill terrorists and train the ANA to secure their country. But the more I saw politicians not care… I saw America not care… I saw my soldiers not care…I saw the ANA not care…I guess I stopped caring too. I stopped caring about killing terrorists. I stopped caring about building up the ANA. The only thing I want from this tour is to bring my soldiers back home in one piece.
If LTC Abdul wants the Americans to pay for his personal port-a-john, why should I care?! What skin is it off my back?! It’s not my money! It’s not my time or effort. I have nothing to lose…if it means never having to put up with him again, I’ll give him whatever he wants! After all, I get to go home in just a couple months, and LTC Abdul will become someone else’s problem… It occurred to me that this was not only what I wanted…it’s what LTC Abdul wanted too.
The constant changeover of units—the resetting of America’s cultural memory in Afghanistan—makes it so impossible for us to enforce accountability of the national treasure we spend in this country. All an ANA officer needs to have is a bit of cunning and a few connections, and the American presence in Afghanistan can make him a very wealthy man. And you know what…if I were in their shoes, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same. I looked one last time at LTC Abdul’s toilet. Perhaps there’s at least one piece of common ground I could share with him: we both were very thankful for America’s limited 12 month tour.