Dinner was over, and darkness masked everything beyond the immediate exterior of the dining facility. I wanted to check in with my battalion, but I still only had my Roshan phone. While the Afghan capital city has twenty-four-hour cell phone coverage, Paktika province only had about twelve hours per day. The local insurgency had intimidated the tower operators, and the plausible death threats ensured that they would switch off the towers’ generators at night.
I walked back to the bunk to which I had been assigned. The “guest lodging” side of Camp Phoenix, adjacent to the airport, abuts a massive cinder block wall topped with concertina wire. Whereas the rest of the base held gravel yards, plywood B-huts, concrete bunkers, mazes of alleyways and tangles of electric lines, the tent city of transient housing contained massive fuel and water tanks, sheds, storage depots and seemingly haphazard scatterings of shipping containers. Some areas were blacked out; others stood under stadium lights. There seemed to be a serious absence of people.
I encountered one familiar face: a sergeant first class from my battalion had been stuck at the same base for over a week awaiting a flight home. He had flown as an escort for two Afghan National Police officers heading for a conference at the Ministry of the Interior, but foul weather and the fickle nature of air movements in Afghanistan had kept him there. We swapped stories of mutual disbelief in what we had seen. He told me that Camp Eggers was far worse—it was almost all senior officers.
I had thought about going to meet with the leadership of Combined Security Transition Command—Afghanistan, or CSTC-A (we pronounced it “See-stick-uh”) in order to plead my case for some logistics support at our facility: we needed generators, heaters, an electrical overhaul (by that point we were having daily electrical fires), and if they were the ones to make the financial decisions for facilities like mine, I wanted to let them know personally. My companion advised against it.
“Honestly, sir, you can go over there if you want,” he said, “But here’s what’s going to happen: you’re only going to get to talk to a captain, who is the coffee bitch for a lieutenant colonel, who is the coffee bitch for a full bird, who might be able to help you, but if you even make it into his office he’s going to tell you to go fuck yourself, because he has so many other problems and he’s never left the FOB, anyway.”
Getting to Camp Eggers would be a problem, too—I’d need to make a reservation on the same convoy that brought me, but with any luck I imagined I would be on a helicopter out of there the next day. I just needed to coordinate it with my battalion, and as fortune would have it, my friend had been to the Base Defense Operations Cell, or BDOC, where one of the only secret-classified phones on the whole compound existed. He indicated how to get there, and I set out in that direction.
Their office was warm and well lit, and everything inside was made of unvarnished plywood. There were long, twisting hallways that seemed to have been constructed after the main building, as if the place had started out as a one-room structure and had evolved into a military Winchester Mansion of maps, laptops, weapons racks and radio sets. I entered during their night shift, and as such there were only about three or four people inside. I explained my situation to the first person I encountered—the company first sergeant for the group in charge of base defense—and he was more than happy to help. He told me that they rarely encountered people from outside of their area of operations, which he indicated on the map. They did a significant amount of patrolling within Kabul city limits and in its surrounding districts, he said, and it was mostly quiet. The only real threat came from suicide bombers and vehicle-borne explosives—one of which had detonated at the gate only two weeks before. Thankfully, he said, there was an Afghan who worked at the gate who had warned them—a guy they called “Booger”—who had apparently lost his entire family to the Taliban and had worked as a gate guard since the first regular U.S. military units arrived.
“They let Booger carry this great big stick,” the first sergeant said, “And if Afghanis try to muscle their way in, or they get attitude about being searched, he just hits them with it. You’ll see him if you go to the gate—the stick was a gift from the U.S., and it’s got his name carved in it.”
I explained what life was like in Paktika. One of the soldiers remarked that it sounded like a place that needed to be nuked off the map. I asked him if I could use the SIPR phone, and from there I exited the conversation. I finally checked in with my battalion.
Our new air coordinator was my old platoon sergeant from my time as a platoon leader, but he couldn’t do me any favors. I wasn’t going to get a flight out the next day, he said, and the day after looked sketchy. I might as well wait until the day after next, at which point those same two Afghan National Police officers that my friend had escorted up there would need a ride and an escort back to Paktika. I told him that I needed to get back as soon as possible, to which he replied, “Come on, sir, are you really complaining that you have to sit around and do nothing for two days?”
Back at the tent, my friend was neither thrilled nor despondent. We had nothing but time.
I bought a Roshan phone card and sent a text to my friend John. He had just gotten back into the United States after a solid year spent in country; he sounded ecstatic to have returned. I explained to him the way that Camp Phoenix made me feel about the entire war effort and my own insignificant personal efforts therein, and he told me not to worry about it. “Just laugh,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about not doing enough. I know what you did, you know what you did, and the mountains of Afghanistan know what we both did.”
It was a hard feeling to articulate, but the place left me in despair. Something was missing. The one thing that Camp Phoenix didn’t have in abundance was Afghans. Everything else—food, supplies, hot water, privileges, burger joints, massage parlors—was stocked to capacity. There wasn’t any partnership between the Afghans and U.S. forces; Afghans were literally banned from the base unless under full escort. Camp Phoenix in turn seemed like a poorly-sited resort property. I appreciated the fact that I could always find running water, and hot water at that. I appreciated the fact that I could eat Burger King every day if I wanted to (this was before the ISAF sergeant major closed down the fast food chains in country). I appreciated the fact that I could get Green Beans coffee and shoot pool twenty-four hours of the day and that, within the confines of that same refurbished Soviet concrete structure, I could get a $20 massage from a female masseuse imported from Kyrgyzstan. They set you up to do anything and everything you wanted at Camp Phoenix, it seemed, except to win the fucking war and get out of this place for good.
All of which was utterly tragic; Kabul is the safest part of the country. Wandering the base, I saw flyers from a charity drive showing the Afghan National Army delivering donated clothing and blankets to children in a Kabul school—the children in the photo were clean and wearing Western clothes, like overalls, blue jeans and sweatshirts. It was a different planet. So, given the receptive population, you’d think that partnership and counterinsurgency operations would make sense. The whole point of the production is to support the government and develop the military. There must be something better to do than hunker like an astronaut inside a life capsule for a year’s deployment and see whether or not it’s physically possible to survive—the last decade has proven that you most certainly can.
There was no flight the next day, or the day after that. It was all happening like the air coordinator said. I called the two Afghan National Police officers on my Roshan phone and told them to be at the gate at 8 a.m. the next day. We were speaking in Pashto, and when I hung up, one of the soldiers asked me, “God damn, sir! How many times you been deployed?” I told him this was my first, but that I had gone native.
A female lieutenant spoke from an office behind me: “That was you? I thought one of them had gotten in here.”
The next morning, I walked to the gate with my armor and rifle. I told the guards my intent and went out to stand at the entrance. Booger was there, holding his monogrammed staff and clad in an old Army field jacket, and he didn’t seem disturbed by my presence. I told the interpreter that two policemen would soon arrive. The gate stood adjacent to a busy road, and the sheer volume of traffic on the four-lane highway surprised me. The sun was rising, but it was still bitterly cold and the sky was choked with diesel exhaust and chimney smoke.
Once my two showed up, I walked them past Booger and to the pedestrian gate. I had to sign a waiver before they could be issued temporary ID badges; it stated that I understood that they were not allowed to use the dining facility on Camp Phoenix, nor take water from the numerous pallets of bottled water, nor use the shopping facilities, nor use the latrines. I just initialed next to the boxes and let the KBR worker in the security booth run the biometric scans on them. They passed, and they were issued their badges: big red signs that they had to hang around their necks that read RESTRICTED.
We walked to the helicopter landing zone. The Georgia National Guard soldiers that were awake at 9 a.m. were having their morning cigarettes, and there was a general appearance of shock or unease at the fact that there were two Afghans in blue wool uniforms walking alongside an American lieutenant. Maybe I was projecting, too—maybe no one cared. They certainly looked like they cared.
We sat in a heated shipping container that had been fashioned as a waiting room. I sat on a threadbare blue sofa between the two Afghans as we watched the movie “Dead Presidents” on a miniature TV/VCR combination. They were just getting to the Vietnam scenes when the ground controller told us to get out to the landing zone. The original flight was cancelled, but they managed to secure us four available spots with Presidential Airways. It was a white Sikorsky S-61, and the pilots agreed to us escorting the two Afghans. We would fly to Gardez and then, finally, back to our compound in Sharana.
Takeoff relieved me immensely. We stopped in Gardez to refuel, and I fixated on the city’s neatness and the deep snow that surrounded the tiny concrete landing pad. It only got deeper as we approached the mountains that separated us from what we called home. The mountains of Afghanistan, jutting and stabbing upwards until we reached the far side of the peaks and white snow began turning to familiar brown earth.