Just The Facts

Facts are the foundation of a free society

Saturday, September 18, 2004


Kabul, Afghanistan, September 5, 2004--Much like the Mongol hordes that wreaked havoc on the Holy Roman Empire as they swept their way from the cruel plains of southwest Asia to the effete and ill-prepared society of Western Europe, I made my trip from Baku, Azerbaijan to London, wreaking havoc and destruction on all around me. In my instance, however, the havoc I wreaked wasn’t in the form of defenstration, disembowelment or crucifixion. Rather, it was in the form of, and there is no delicate way to put this, projectile heaving as the result of a batch of bad caviar that I ate while dining in Baku. From the shores of the Caspian to bustle of Heathrow, I ruined the day of virtually everyone with whom I came into contact at airports, departure lounges and on airplanes. Then, after landing in Blighty, I fell into the arms of Morpheus and slept all the way back to San Francisco. Suffice it to say, I ain’t eating no stinkin’ caviar in the near future.

The trip back was really the only bad experience I had in the first phase of my Afghan journey. The three weeks I spent in the severe, dusty climes of the war-torn country were the most exhilarating of my career. The work was fascinating, and my State Department colleagues, the Marines who guard the Embassy, the ex-pats and the Afghans were universally optimistic and dedicated to their missions.

I also found out that, contrary to my fears, Happy Hours do exist in Kabul, and in fact, there is a great deal of happiness, tempered by a sense of anxiety over what might come as the nation’s first presidential elections approach, elections that the Taliban remnants, Al Qaeda elements and various warlords have vowed to disrupt. Even with these threats, the people of Afghanistan, who have endured an almost 25 years of uninterrupted war, are generally optimistic about the future.

In spite of murderous attacks on election workers and Afghans who have registered, more than 90% of the adults who are eligible have registered to vote in the October 9 election. In addition to the overwhelming registration results, more than 2 million Afghan refugees have come back to their nation, one of the largest returns from a Diaspora in modern history.

A little about our living and working conditions in Kabul. First, we live in converted ship containers, fitted out with TV, a DVD player, Internet connection and a phone. It isn’t The Ritz, or even Motel 6, but it’s better than living in a tent as so many of our soldiers and Marines are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. We also work in containers, outfitted with computers and all the accoutrements of a big time office, except for two things. We have neither fax machines nor scanners. Of course there are 11 brand new scanners in their original boxes in the supply room of the Embassy. However, since an inventory control number isn’t on the boxes, because the clerk whose responsibility it is to put the number on the box can’t be hired for another month, we can’t have the brand new scanners! That situation is a perfect example of the sclerotic bureaucracy that runs the State Department, certainly the most inept group of admin, supply and HR people I have ever encountered. This is the same organization that allowed some of my health records to lie on someone’s desk for three weeks because they couldn’t figure out that Raymond Raleigh and Jeffrey Raleigh, who had the same Social Security numbers and birthday were the same person! What a crew!

Despite the inept bureaucracy, I was finally sworn in as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) on Friday, August 27. It actually was a fairly impressive ceremony held in an Ambassador’s office at the State Department. So, some 33 years after I took the Foreign Service exam, and I might add, passed it, I finally became a FSO. Those of you who know me, and know my commitment to being a shy, retiring type, who is loathe to voice an opinion, are probably shuddering that I am now a full-fledged diplomat. I guess I can’t do much damage since I’m going to a war zone anyway.

Then on Monday, after receiving my diplomatic passport, I boarded a flight in DC with stops in Frankfurt and Baku, to rejoin my comrades in Kabul. I would be arriving in a city that was reeling from a car bombing that killed three Americans and five others. Nonetheless, I was happy to get back to Kabul to resume the work I started on my first trip. This tour, which is scheduled to last a year, was to start out working on the first Afghan national election in its long and storied history. And though the forces of evil, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and HiG are planning to do all they can to disrupt and intimidate the Afghans who, in the face of enormous hardship and fear, want to vote.

We, the Americans and forces from more than 35 other nations, are doing all we can to help the Afghans as they make this tough journey to democracy. Our hope is that the evil, as epitomized by the monsters that massacred Russian children, who blew up Israeli bus passengers and Russian airplane passengers and are threatening to kill any Afghan who exercises his or her right to vote, don’t prevail. If they do, we will find ourselves in an age that makes the Dark Ages look like The Renaissance.

More later.