“So, What is Afghanistan Like?” (Part 1/2)

From the day-to-day to the social and economic, Nanette K. Pawelek delivers an on the ground view of life on US and NATO operated bases in Afghanistan. This is the first of two parts.

“So, what is Afghanistan like?” This is the number one question people have asked me lately. It is a broad question and begs reflection upon the last nine and a half months when I taught undergraduate university courses to deployed US service members on two separate NATO installations. In an attempt to offer a more extended answer to this question, it is important to note that I cannot speak for everyone’s experience in Afghanistan.

Often referred to as “the graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan involves many participants, both past and present, who possess certain voices I cannot assume. I am not an Afghan and I am not an official service member of the US military or NATO forces present in Afghanistan. Rather, I am a 30-year-old female who lived and worked in the Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif regions. Although I often maintained a rigorous schedule and taught five or six courses concurrently per eight-week term, I am a naturally curious person who also wished to answer the seemingly simplistic five-word question: “So, what is Afghanistan like?”

Kandahar Air Field

In early September 2011, I flew into the Kandahar Airfield on a C-130 US military aircraft, dressed in my minimal issued “battle rattle,” a helmet, and flak vest. Although the other US service members I traveled with carried far more gear and equipment than I did, we were all greeted with the same welcome: 100 degree Fahrenheit weather and a large “Welcome to Kandahar Airfield” sign.

Kandahar Airfield (KAF) is a NATO operated base with a strong US presence. Situated over and across a large mountain range from the actual city of Kandahar, KAF feels like its own dust infested city, with some paved roads among numerous serpentine-like dirt roads, a large exquisite hospital, a paradoxically pristine NATO gym, and an education center. The airfield has a functioning economy seen readily at the base’s bazaar and on the token rectangular “boardwalk” that takes the average person approximately ten minutes to tread along. German and French International Post Exchange stores (PXs), a Green Beans coffee house, TGI Fridays, electronic shops, carpet merchants, and other fast food establishments line the perimeter of the boardwalk while its interior houses a hockey rink, a rugby field, and a few volleyball nets. The boardwalk, in its own right, is an international spectacle, drawing an intriguing conglomeration of “guests.” It happens to be one of the main “attractions” and venture points for US and NATO forces. Among others, on any given day, I witnessed Canadian, Hungarian, Romanian, Dutch, American, Turkish, British, and Australian forces walking along it, purchasing goods from local Afghan vendors, drinking coffee, and playing sports.

Although for a warzone, the boardwalk sounds very much like a luxurious “walk in the park” KAF is not all relaxation and smiles. A lunch hour at the visually decadent and distracting TGI Fridays often reminds its patrons of “real life” back home. However, “reality” quickly sets in when a haphazard rocket attack forces all customers face down to the ground for two minutes (standard protocol ordered by the base commander) then scrambling into nearby concrete bunkers as the alarm shrieks and the token recorded British female voice declares, “Rocket Attack, Rocket Attack.” Troops, civilian contractors, and foreign nationals, are commanded to remain in the bunkers until the British female voice sounds the “all clear.” Her voice slowly, but crisply bellows throughout the base, “All clear… all clear,” and then military personnel and independent contractors return to their meals or prior task.

Yes, KAF accommodates militaries from several nations, but the airfield also features scores of contractors from the US, Kosovo, and the Philippines, and those from various countries in Africa. While the term “contractor” is often misconstrued and associated with former private security contracting companies such as “Blackwater,” in actuality, contractors hold a variety of positions such as baristas at base cafes, construction and base infrastructure management personnel, base-wide billeting administrative staff, barbers and beauty shop employees, IT or security analysts, general logistics, translators, and the list continues. Ironically, the term “Blackwater” now refers to the human waste or contaminated water that large trucks from contracting companies like Ecolog dispose of.

Varying Salaries

Contractors are not paid equally. Although largely unpublicized and not readily accessible on the Internet, predominant contracting companies’ pay scales vary greatly. Aside from Education Center related employment, contractors who work at KAF and on other military bases in Afghanistan are often paid according to their nationality. Practically any KAF inhabitant can attest to the fact that many individuals from the Philippines, also referred to as Third Country Nationals (TCNs), do not earn anything close to what US contractor’s earn.

The substantial gap between contractors’ and US service members’ salaries, became a particularly contentious topic for some of my military students who frequently criticized such issues in the courses I taught. In addition to reading about or listening to my students’ opinions on the matter, I heard dozens of US contractors, many of whom possessed only a high school diploma, disclose and even boast that they earned between $150,000 and $250,000 per year while some contractors from the Philippines said that they earned $400 per month. To many, it seemed ironic that even US service members, who left the base regularly and conducted dangerous route clearance missions or foot patrols, were paid significantly less than their civilian counterparts who enjoyed a “safer” job and better living conditions.

Similar to the issue of incongruent salaries, housing conditions also vary. Although the variables are subject to change as time passes and as troop movements remain in flux, in the months I spent at KAF, many NATO troops, higher-end US and NATO contractors, members of US and NATO Special Forces, and even some officers, were fortunate to have their own quarters or live two or three persons to a room in a transportable Containerized Housing Unit (CHU). By contrast, the average enlisted US service member, and many other contractors, lived in Modular Housing (MODs) or Re-locatable Buildings (RLBs), which lodged six to eight people per unit.

The Female Linguists

Many individuals at KAF live in the same quarters with their co-workers, but I lived with female Afghan-American linguists. The linguists I met were responsible for translating texts, recordings, or face-to-face conversations of local Afghans from Pashtu to English. Most of the linguists I lived with were in their late forties or early fifties, spoke Pashtu (if not Dari as well), were born or raised in Afghanistan and fled their native country in the late 1970s and then settled in the US. I did, however, encounter a young linguist in her late twenties who was born and raised in the US but whose parents were from Afghanistan.

I quickly learned that some of these linguists were assigned to or had been assigned to units that conducted foot patrols outside the base. Despite our amiable personalities, fast friendships, and obvious shared location, I often marveled at our contrasting existence. As I put on my button-up, collared shirt in the morning, these ladies tied their hair back, concealed their hair with a bland-colored scarf, and cinched up their Kevlar vests and combat boots. These female linguists received very little military training and were certainly not seasoned combat veterans, but still, some of them forged rivers in standard issued military gear, went into both rural and mountain-based villages to speak with local Afghans and village elders, and traveled via helicopter or military convoys. Although compensated quite well, earning at least six figures a year, the linguists I met said that they were not required to have any formal education. They often remarked that because of the various dialects present throughout Afghanistan, other linguists they worked with were sometimes not up to the standard to effectively translate or interpret conversations conducted in the Kandahar province.

The linguists I lived with also commented that verbal translation was crucial to mission success, and therefore, some linguists who worked at KAF and completed missions outside the base were only required speak Pashtu, not write it. Thus, some linguists were assigned to missions involving oral rather than written communication because they could not read or write Pashtu.

From time to time, my roommates detailed stories about their childhoods in Afghanistan. Some of them spoke of a time where they wore fitted dresses, stayed out late socializing with friends in the city, and attended university. The shifting politics, changing regimes, and terrorist activities endangered many and I was often rendered speechless as I listened to my roommates’ stories of their treacherous journeys and dangerous escapes from their homeland. Some walked for days, others were caught by the Soviets and forced back into Afghanistan, and others made it to Pakistan where they lived in refugee camps before being granted asylum in the US. I distinctly remember one of them lament: “I have watched my country go backwards.”

Through these revelations, I watched these women grapple with the riddle of their own identity politics. For many of them, the deployment experience was the first time that they had returned to Afghanistan since their initial exodus. Many felt as though they were no longer Afghan, or at least not Afghan enough to be accepted by or safe in the presence of local Afghans. These female linguists explained that Afghan men would certainly consider them “whores” and that other Afghans would not truly accept them if they returned to Afghanistan permanently. They also remarked that some military members they worked alongside did not acknowledge or refer to them as “American,” despite official immigration paperwork and naturalization status.

Simply put, the experiences my Afghan-American roommates relayed were some of the most tangled, yet fascinating cultural discussions I took part in. Ironically, when I relinquished my room key at the end of my stay in Kandahar, the woman who worked at the billeting office visually scanned me from head to toe, took my key, chuckled and said, “You do not look like a linguist.” She shook her head slightly and informed me that I had been “mistakenly” issued to the linguist room and should have been assigned to the Education Center room. Possibly more ironic than the error that gave me access to such incredible personal narratives, was how frequently my roommates and I openly admitted how fortunate we felt that our room was positioned next to the latrine and how grateful we were not to have to walk outside across several other tents to use the bathroom or take a shower. This now seems like such a simple thought in the midst of a “warzone” and the unmistakably heavy stories that unfolded.

Read the final part of Nanette K. Pawelek’s article on August 11.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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