Archive for November, 2009

Fertilizing Insurgency

November 21, 2009

The Afghan insurgents’ improvised explosive devices are responsible for 80% of the casualties in this war. The bombs—buried in roads and trails, plastered into house walls, secreted in fields and orchards—cause horrific injuries. A relatively small IED can hurl dismembered bodies twenty-five feet in the air. The U.S.-led Coalition’s heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles patrolling the IED-spiked roads don’t even offer total protection. Though they often protect the passengers from the shrapnel, the explosions are causing an epidemic of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) from the pressure waves and heads hitting walls and ceilings. Since 2007, the military has diagnosed 70,000 soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injury, 20,000 this year. Insurgents are now building IEDs large enough to rupture even the 37,000-pound, bank-vault-like MRAPs. IEDs are the greatest threat to the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) in eastern Afghanistan’s volatile Khost Province.

Ironically, the main ingredient of this most feared and effective weapon is a basic agricultural product: ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Mixed with a fuel such as gasoline or diesel and armed with a power source and trigger, ammonium nitrate fertilizer has the 75% of the explosive power of TNT. And it is ubiquitous in Afghanistan.

While it has been outlawed since 2005, ammonium nitrate fertilizer is still commonly imported from neighboring Pakistan, both for farming and bombs. Earlier this month, Afghan authorities raided a warehouse in Kandahar, where they seized a half-million pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, 5,000 100-pound bags, along with 2,000 bomb devices, including timers and triggers. Fifteen Afghans were captured.

After the raid, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a press conference the obvious: the ammonium nitrate ban wasn’t being enforced. He said, “If we have to pay for some of it, I’m open to that.” A U. S. State Department official at Bagram Airfield, the largest Coalition base in Afghanistan, says there is now a directive to pay $28 for each bag of fertilizer turned in or seized. “We’re finding it everywhere,” he says.

The average size of an IED is about sixty pounds, most often packed into a plastic bowl or bucket to prevent metal detectors from finding it. Small anti-personnel mines, called toe-poppers, are sometimes packed in discarded ½-liter water bottles. According to Secretary Gates, aging Soviet-era mines serve as the initiators, though blasting caps work equally well. (In the hullabaloo following the Kandahar seizure, Gates announced a major new counter-IED initiative, as he decided the multi-billion-dollar, hydra-headed interagency JIEDDO—Joint IED Defeat Organization—wasn’t doing the job, an assessment underscored by a Government Accountability Office report two weeks earlier that criticized JIEDDO for a lack of organization and reliable data.)

Pressure plates were initially the most common IED triggers, sometimes hidden in military litter, such as plastic MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) bags or even candy wrappers. In Khost Province, where the Indiana ADT is working, trip wires are the most common triggers.

On a recent Quality Control/Quality Assurance mission to Tani District, an IED blew up a few hundred meters from where the ADT were paying Afghan villagers for their dam-building work. One ADT soldier says, “We were paying them, and Boom! We could see the smoke.” Most likely a band of Taliban operating out of a village about a kilometer away had earlier buried the IED. After the ADT convoy rolled further up the mountain, the insurgents had armed the bomb for the returning MRAPs to trigger. But instead a speeding Afghan villager on a motorcycle tripped the IED. He luckily escaped with minor injuries.

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Karzai’s Fortuitous Flu Bug

November 15, 2009

Karzai’s Fortuitous Flu Bug

As the election run-off between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah approached, tensions were running high, particularly among Abdullah’s Tajik supporters, who thought the election process was fatally flawed. There was widespread talk of anti-government protests—even among the Afghan population opposed to the Taliban.

When Abdullah withdraw from the run-off in early November, saying the process was corrupt, he urged his followers not to take action. But Abdullah thought mistrust could further alienate the disenchanted populace from the Kabul government. Abdullah told Stars and Stripes, “Anything can happen. The reason for the fragility is mainly because the government is not trusted.”

But in the days prior to the cancellation, the Karzai government had already hobbled the protest movement. The day before Abdullah withdrew, the government declared an HINI flu emergency in parts of the country, including Panjshir Province, the fierce Tajik region that has been a hotbed of support for Abdullah. With the run-off looming, the government declared mosques, schools and universities—the traditional gathering places for politically minded Afghans—to be closed for three weeks.

Though Ahmed Abdul Rahman, the UN World Health Organization officer-in-charge in Afghanistan declared the order to be “appropriate and timely,” there was widespread cynicism about the timing. The country had 320 HINI cases by November 3, with two fatalities tied to the disease. An Afghan member of parliament, Kabir Ranjbar, told the IRIN news agency, “The disease was not widespread and cannot justify a state of emergency in which the entire education system is closed.”

Charm Offensive

November 12, 2009

When I was last reporting in Afghanistan, I learned almost all soldiers carry lucky charms. Soldiers’ faces lit up as they talked about their father’s dogtags that survived Vietnam, their grandma’s Christian crosses, holy medals, auspicious coins, their children’s Crayola-ed art laminated to carry into the field. One soldier pulled out a pacifier, dropped in his duffel bag by his baby son who felt he needed the comfort of one too.

While preparing to return to Afghanistan, it struck me I was definitely charm-deprived— clearly in need of some luck for my second round of reporting in Afghanistan. So I called on friends and family for some auspicious amulets to tote with me. Very small and very light, I requested. I do have to haul this up mountains. But thus equipped, I promise to return in good health.

So I travel through Afghanistan with a mixed bag of talismans: My musician son Dylan’s lucky drum key; youngest son Seth’s Seattle Marathon medal. Both insist they want me to hand-return their cherished mementos. (I imagined the chunks of metal deflecting a bullet.) Grandchildren sent drawings. One sister had a retrograde priest bless a St. Christopher medal. While I thought Chris had been drummed out of the saint corps decades ago, I was happy to learn the priest insisted he’d be recalled.

Friends sent a variety of charms: buckeyes, one in a velvet bag, the other with a particularly large eye; a smooth Lake Michigan rock; a JFK fifty-cent piece; a “Gratitude and Attitude medal; a Thai Buddhist namol amulet; a paladhik Shiva lingam that protects me from dogs and snakes; a Wiccan charm; an all-seeing Eye of Osiris; a Santo Expedito card (token of Brazil’s favorite go-to saint); a small sky-blue bag with a Iemanja Goddess of the Sea traveler’s protection.

Consider me charmed.