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Jeff's Afghan Diary: On Patrol
May 19, 2007

          Working with the ABP, we are often working with other US forces operating in our AO.  The 82nd Airborne has a Cavalry unit within our FOB here in Doa China, and they frequently go on patrols throughout the surrounding area, looking for signs of ACM (Anti-Coalition Militia) forces to engage.  The ABP have specific authority to search homes in the area; the US does not.  So if the 82nd want to search houses, they must take the ABP along for the trip.  And wherever the ABP go, we are supposed to go as well, as a sort of quality control and coach.

      Recently, we have had a lot of these sort of patrols.  We call them “presence patrols,” because even if we don’t find any signs of ACM, we show the seriousness of our intent to the local population, which is a deterrent to their thinking of supporting ACM.  Not that many want to in our area, but just in case, our presence should give them second thoughts.

      In fact, in the Doa China district and surrounding areas, we have not found any evidence yet of anyone either being part of or supporting the Taliban or any ACM.  We continue to hear how each village we visit do not want Taliban.  This would be encouraging, but we remain skeptical, since there is still Taliban activity just beyond our area.  Given the geography, there is some logic to our assuming that there are some supply routes the Taliban are using which run through our AO, which should be known to at least some locals.  But we have yet to find any.

      We do see a lot of villages, though, and speak to a lot of village elders.  Some of them have been quite hospitable, offering us tea and sometimes something to eat.  During these meetings and visits, I have seen and learned a lot about the people of this part of Afghanistan.

      We have traveled to parts of Afghanistan and visited people who have never seen an American or anyone working on behalf of their own government.  One village we had to travel to by hiking over a mountain ridge: there are no passable roads in or out.  En route, a train of camels brought supplies, the only means of getting goods to the village.

      In a typical rural village, there are several huts, made of either stone or mud, with roofs made of straw, wooden supports, and mud.  Often there are walls around fields of wheat or grass, and perhaps some irrigation canals.  There are almost always goats, and often chickens, with goat manure all around.  Some villages have donkeys as well, or camels, with their manure prominent everywhere.  Walking through the village, it is impossible to avoid stepping in some.

      The people keep these animals in their homes.  Manure is found here, as well.  Our concept of sanitation is far removed from their lives.  In fact, most  Afghan villages do not have anything that resembles even an outhouse or latrine, let alone a bathroom.  It’s primitive on a scale that might shock many Americans, and quite dirty.

      These Afghan villages are run by the village elders - men who often bear the name of the village itself.  They can usually be identified by their turbans and beards.  The elders are the first ones to come to meet us, while the women and children remain hidden in their homes.  I’ve seen children stare from the shadows of a house, terrified of the strangers with their huge vehicles, wearing sunglasses and body armor.  We must resemble Martians to them, more robot-like than human in many respects, scarier than anything they have ever seen before.  Often, they will not move from their hiding spot the entire time of our visit.  If I have a chance, I get some candy for the ABP to take to them, which sometimes takes away some of their fear and generates a natural curiosity.

      I have thought about how these people are similar to tribal peoples in other parts of the world: the Yanamamo Indians of South America, the Masai of Africa, the Native American tribes of America when it was being settled.  Many of these peoples are still not what we would consider “civilized” in our sense of the word, choosing to live without modern conveniences such as plumbing and electricity in some places.  (In this way, the Amish are also like them!).  Yet many of these people coexist peaceably with the rest of their society; they simply choose to retain a large part of their indigenous heritage and background.  It’s as much a part of identity as choice for them, and that may be the case for a long time in this part of Afghanistan.  My job is to ensure it’s personal choice and not coercion that motivates their lifestyle.

      There are signs that many of these people want some of the advantages of modernity: there are motorcycles in many villages (they can navigate the roads and passes much more easily than our lumbering HMMWV’s) and sometimes satellite phones, and an occasional AM radio or cassette player.  Unfortunately, such conveniences are few and infrequent.  Camels outnumber motorcycles by  at least tenfold.

      The outfits worn are similar from one village to another: women wear brightly-colored dresses, embroidered with ribbons and perhaps some silk, with a brightly colored scarf over their heads, hiding their face from men when protocol deems it necessary.  Women start covering their faces around age 14.  Men wear long trousers with shirts that hang down to their knees, with the distinctive Afghan caps on their heads.  Boys and men alike wear these caps - they wrap their turbans around these caps.  Usually the men’s outfits are a dull or dark color, or perhaps beige or tan.  The pants match the shirts, and often a contrasting vest is worn over the shirt.  Sandals are the norm.

      Rumbling into these towns with our HMMWV’s, I feel like Hannibal and his elephants, rumbling into ancient Rome.  If we were supposed to be sneaking up on any ACM, it would be impossible in these rigs!

-- Jeff Courter

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

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