Monday, November 29, 2010

DUST: Never mind the bollards.

Readers and friends have been nagging me for another, more detailed article on Afghanistan. I wanted to get a blog post out before the end of the month, and tomorrow I leave for an indefinite amount of time to explore yet two more bases (my fourth and fifth since I’ve been here in the Afghan theater). Internet access for my personal computer—where I store all my photos—is still limited but improving, little by little. The biggest hindrance now, though, is that I have not been able to vet my observations for national security concerns. I have learned that photography of some things on base is strictly verboten, but I haven’t learned exactly what may compromise Department of Defense internal information—and it’s possible that something seemingly innocuous all of a sudden becomes classifiable when subject to further analytical scrutiny.

Which is why I’ve chosen something for my first real essay which is so mundane that you can find it anywhere in the US. And I’ve clearly always had a penchant for the mundane. The subject is bollards, and my most recent home base, Camp Marmal outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, has them everywhere:

I realize that “bollard” isn’t exactly part of common parlance, so if the photo above didn’t make it clear, a bollard is any short post or impediment, usually of concrete, that restricts vehicular movement. Apparently it's more of a British term; “bollard” in the American sense is mostly nautical, referring to the post at a wharf to which mooring lines from vessels are tied. Typically bollards shield pedestrians from cars, and that was most likely the intent of the German engineers who built the original infrastructure at this base six or seven years ago. Unlike some of the other bases I’ve visited, Camp Marmal has made a conspicuous effort to accommodate pedestrians. It would seem foolish not to do so: nearly everyone on a base gets around by foot, and only the largest ones can justify a shuttle that would comprise the equivalent of mass transit. In addition, most bases are almost completely unlit at night, so it is incredibly dangerous to walk alongside a road without sidewalks. Yet the much larger, NATO-managed Kandahar Air Field in the south of the country has virtually no sidewalks. Everyone is forced to walk in a bed of rocks—they’re too big to be considered gravel—similar to the groundscape visible in the photos above. (Nearly everyone at Kandahar also wears reflector belts at night; you could receive a fine if you don’t.) The bollards at Camp Marmal also severely restrict parking, since a vehicle cannot park on the side of the roads, all of which are only two lanes wide. Kandahar, conversely, lacks bollards for the most part, and drivers park willy-nilly with little consequence. The bollards here aren’t aesthetic, like one might see in a public square; they are as coldly utilitarian as virtually everything else in the austere landscape of an Afghanistan military installation.

They get the job done, but are they fully necessary? I regret now that my photos don’t capture it as well, but a closer look reveals that the pedestrian environment on the opposite side of the street is not quite the same.

No sidewalk there. For the most part, Camp Marmal has only invested in sidewalks on one side of the road, which is better than nothing, but much of the space at the verge on the other side is devoted to an open drainage ditch, to accommodate the water during the rare but violent Afghan thunderstorms.

But wouldn’t these drainage ditches serve as an impediment to vehicles in themselves, and are the bollards really necessary on that side of the street? The truth is, I don’t entirely know the answer. My guess is that these ditches would restrict virtually all cars in a non-military setting, but nearly a third of the locomotives on an Afghan base are the gargantuan MRAPs, whose tires could easily negotiate a mere drainage ditch. Then again, MRAPs are among the most top-heavy vehicles in existence, so even if they can handle the groove, it could disrupt their center of gravity enough to cause a rollover. Ideally, a careful consideration of the necessity of bollards at each location—rather than just installing them en masse as a precaution, could have saved a great deal of money, if it turns out that stormwater management infrastructure genuinely serves much the same purpose.

Elsewhere in the base, some construction managers with a more artistic bent have tried to improve a different type of bollard, this time at a bridge crossing.
The colors of the German flag clearly evoke a patriotic gesture imparted upon the bollard in the foreground. But what about that striped object in the distance? Could Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat have met its demise in a bed of wet cement?

No, it’s another painted bollard, this time apparently referencing the American flag, with clearly less successful results. I suspect that the artist chose these two flags because the countries represent the overwhelming majority of the troops bedded at Camp Marmal (the remaining 20% consist largely of Scandinavians and Balkans), but the aesthetic gesture clearly wasn’t as well thought out. I had to pass by this multiple times before I determined it was a flag, even though I should have known, since it leads to the entrance of the American compound. But the artist clearly didn’t refine his or her space management skills.

At least all 47 states are accounted for.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In limbo a bit longer.

My apologies to all, but I have yet to stabilize here in Afghanistan--I am still base-hopping, and will continue to do so for a bit longer. This was not my intention, and I have by no means forgotten my blog, but while I remain a transient, I cannot form a contract with a private Internet Provider. And without an Internet Provider, my only option for blogging is the occasional 30-minute allotments we get at the shared Internet cafes, which is not enough time for a substantive post, and it makes it hard to draw from the research and photographs stored on my personal computer. I will say that I am currently at Bagram Air Field, it is much more compact than Kandahar (and therefore far more walkable), it's a more picturesque setting, and the old infrastructure/architecture initially installed by the Soviets seems to be serving the American forces well (as well as French, Polish, Egyptian, Korean, and Macedonian).

Thanks for your patience while I continue to establish a "hub" for my work here. As always, comments are greatly appreciated.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sweeping the dust bunnies.

Much thanks for your patience as I adjust to the technical challenges that life here in Afghanistan affords. I'm currently working at Kandahar Air Field, and only within the past twenty-four hours have I (after much difficulty) procured an open Internet connection. And by "open", I mean that it is unrestricted: obviously through work I can easily access the Internet, but the Department of Defense understandably limits access to "time-waster" sites, so I have little ability to use the Web for purposes other than checking the news and sending e-mail. All blogs are prohibited. Fortunately I've found a reasonably secure wireless connection at an Internet cafe, though it is slower and more expensive than anything I would encounter stateside. Needless to say, my access is limited and will continue to remain that way until I've found a rhythm.

But that rhythm will elude me for quite some time. Within the past two days, I have found out that I am most likely going to transfer to one of the bases in the north of the country, with a probable interim period at Bagram Air Field (also in the north). Thus, I cannot forge a contract with an IP here in Kandahar because in all likelihood I won't remain here much longer. To avoid this post from seeming overwhelmingly negative, let it be known that these changes, though jarring, should also prove exhilarating and will allow me to explore military installations within a variety of milieus: some run by NATO, some by Americans, some by other allies; some in regions more peaceful than others; some in milder climates and lower elevations while others are nestled in the lofty, frigid Hindu Kush range that comprises a huge portion of this landlocked nation. I will continue to work on posts of American landscapes which will appear intermittently here at the blog, and--security concerns notwithstanding--will alternate those more conventional posts with montages of the dusty valleys of eastern Afghanistan.

I conclude with a photo from the "Boardwalk" of Kandahar Air Field--essentially the downtown of the base, a commercial center where the most people congregate and the majority of conventional goods and services are available. (Also the most frequent target of hostile rocket attacks.) Are these distance measurements accurate?