One of the few U.S. military officers that I actually like and respect (aside from the former Prep students that I know) was the commanding officer of my detachment during my deployment to Kandahar in 2010. He knew that I had a background in teaching, and he decided that I was the guy to head up an interesting project. Since radio is the most popular and accessible form of media in Afghanistan, we decided to try to put a dent in the illiteracy problem through radio. As I’ve mentioned before, Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, and this seemed like an opportunity to put our talents to good use. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of pulling the trigger of a weapon on anyone, and this task seemed more suitable for me. The youngsters can go out into the field and fancy themselves heroes as far as I was concerned. A lot of the younger cats seemed to need a few war stories under their belts to add a few millimeters to where they obviously felt inadequate.
The plan went like this: We would print and distribute thousands of copies of the level one Pashto reading primer that is used in the Afghan school system to the people, mostly women, throughout the Kandahar City region. We would hire an experienced Afghan teacher to create lessons using the book and record the lessons in the recording studio that we had on the base. Our graphics department was led by an enormously talented and hilariously sarcastic artist who created a fabulous advertising campaign to get the word out about the program. In our dreams, Afghan women were going to be experiencing the power of reading across Kandahar.
Let the nightmare begin.
My background is in teaching, but this gig was going to be a test of my ability to manage a large-scale project, in a war zone, as a member of the most ludicrous bureaucracy of alpha-males on the planet, while having to play ball with officials in a government that garnered no respect from anyone and was teetering on the brink of collapse at the hands of a bloodthirsty insurgency of murderous savages. I could imagine nothing less than flawlessly smooth progress on the path to accolades and speaking engagements. My Nobel Peace Prize nomination would be no less worthy than that of the Dalai Lama himself.
The government of Afghanistan has a well-earned reputation for being notoriously corrupt. Having lived in Philadelphia for most of my life, I’m not going to cast too many stones in the direction of that subject, nor should any Americans when we elect so many useless, incompetent, and downright brain-dead stupid excuses for clowns to high ranking positions in our government. I’d be willing to bet, however, that any one of these dipshits could get one of their lackeys to sign a piece of paper in less than four months.
Four months. That’s how long it took to get some paunchy right-hand-man to the provincial minister of education of Kandahar with a fake “Dr.” title to sign a piece of paper giving us permission to reproduce their jealously guarded reading books. Everything in Afghan officialdom is handled in top-down style, and if there’s money to be made in a racket like, say, mass book printing, those at the top are going to hold back from allowing the job to get done until they know the right people get a proper cut of the goods. I rode in an armored convoy to Kandahar City to get an audience with this tool and to plead the case for our program.
With the ubiquitous one cup of tea in hand (I never got to two, let along three) and my M-4 rifle sitting at my feet, I got to listen to a lecture about schools, America, the Pashto language, and some other pointless topics before I left still wondering whether anything that was said indicated that we were going to get that signature. Another part of the mission was to drop off a large shipment of cold weather clothing donations. The "doctor" had a young lackey who looked at one of the sweaters, and with an eye-roll and scoff he dismissed the donation with, “Ehhh…well…Afghans really don’t wear THESE kinds of clothes.” The sweaters were more than likely burned for heating and the signature was granted about a month later.
Kabul can be a little rough around the edges. Kandahar is downright apocalyptic. To use a Philly comparison, Kandahar is Kensington to Kabul’s Chestnut Hill. Not that it wasn’t fun to go out on a couple of missions in Kandahar City as a military guy, but there is no way in the ever burning eternity of hell that I would take a civilian job there unless it was on the airfield several miles outside the city. But hey, we had a goal in mind - to bring the joy of reading to this population, and dammit that elusive milestone of getting the Afghan version of a TPS Report was just the first step toward becoming a hero like Greg Mortenson!
Once the presses got rolling things actually started to fall into place a bit. The advertising campaign was on track with excellent posters that depicted happy Afghans reading and going to school, and I was writing public service announcements for the radio that were stirring interest in the program. Every day, however, deadlines were looming, and when I would cross paths with the commanding officer, I would brace myself for the inevitable, “Did you hire that teacher yet?” Not only was I supposed to find an experienced teacher, but I was supposed to find a speaker of Pashto in the specifically Kandahari dialect, and a female teacher was preferred as well. There were a few, shall we say, “challenges” involved in this task.
First of all, you can’t just put up an ad on the Kandahar City page of craigslist with the job and ideal candidate descriptions, and start sorting through the resumes. It was difficult enough when I had to interview candidates for a math teaching job at St. Joseph’s Prep when a veteran teacher keeled over and died at a Phillies game. My choice for a replacement was overruled by a well-meaning principal, and I ended up with the now legendary and infamous Morton D. Fish in my department. Everything that I predicted would go wrong by hiring this silly little man happened within the first week of class. This Kandahari teacher deal was a whole other bargain.
Second, even if you could find someone that fit the desired profile, the process you have to go through to get clearance to come onto Kandahar Airfield, even escorted, takes months. And tracking down a drone who works in the office that handles this process and can explain it well is like finding a suitable wife for Rip Taylor. It was apropos that the only meaningful contact I had was with some sergeant named Disney who emailed me a 200 page document on the topic of entry clearance. I felt like I was in a cartoon.
Finally, the chances of finding a woman in Kandahar who can travel unescorted to work for the U.S. military are as likely as Rasheed Wallace breaking 700 on the SAT or admitting that he committed a foul.
The daunting task of finding “the voice” for the program was solved when another extremely likeable and down-to-earth officer in our unit found out that one of our cultural advisers was an experienced teacher in both the United States and in his native Kandahar, and he agreed to take on the job of turning the reading book into a radio program. I cannot speak highly enough of this outstanding gentleman without whom this project would have never seen the light of day.
The cultural advisers not only have full plates of translating to do, but they are given any and every task that requires the “Afghan touch.” They live in the same austere conditions as the military personnel, and they do their jobs with death threats looming of them and their families. Yes, the money is great, but what good is a paycheck if you are killed by fanatics that see you as a traitor and a tool of the invader?
The interpreters and cultural advisers are some of the bravest people that I have ever met, and they truly want to see a better future for their families and their country. I am proud to call the fellow teacher that made our program work a friend and colleague. I still exchange emails with him to this day and I am always happy to hear that he and his family are healthy, happy, and safe. He certainly did not deserve the shitstorm that rained down upon him when a new sheriff came to town in the form of the 10th Mountain Division.
The laid back, easygoing British leadership was stepping aside and we would soon have to answer to the “big army,” specifically to a man whose personality and juvenile fandom of his alma mater embodied everything I feared and loathed. It was going to be a long deployment.