Afghanistan

02/04/2010

Thanks Joe, and Happy Birthday!

When you think about it, Joe is a complete pain. I had to have him bailed out of a Tehran jail one time.
 
Seems he couldn't sleep, and decided to go out and take some still photo's in the capitol city of one of the world's most repressive regimes. And the building he just couldn't resit taking pictures of happened to be the offices of the secret police. When I woke up and Joe wasn't in his room, I didn't know what had happened. Had he been kidnapped? His room had cables and computers and equipment scattered all over it...was that a sign of a struggle?
 
Well, we got that little mess straightened out, and we didn't miss any stories or live shots and it turned in to another story to tell. We have a million of them. (As his wife, Barara points out, nobody wants to hear our stories, but we have a million of them.)
 
Joe Tesauro is the photographer/editor/engineer/magician with whom I travel the world for Eyewitness News. For a dozen years or so, he has been my American Express card: I never leave home without him. And with good reason. Joe has gotten me on TV from places nobody gets on TV. From war zones on three continents, from hurricanes in the south, from Michael Jackson's rented home in California. Most of the time, I have no idea how he does it, I just know that at the right time, Joe will have some strange set-up or mix-up of cables and boxes and trap doors and when I start talking, you hear me and see me in your living room.
 
Mind you, he's complaining and whining the whole time. "How am I supposed to make this work," "We don't have enough time," "moan, moan, whine." And then, once again, its all together and we get on. You have to tune it out, really.
 
In Kandahar last week, it was the same as always. There was some issue about changing our digital signal into someone else's analog signal and the guy Joe was working with said, matter of factly, that it couldn't be done, the two systems were incompatible. But Joe had some box with him. I shouldn't pretend to understand it. Wires crossed, lights flashed, sirens wailed, and suddenly systems never designed to work together s started singing "Hosanna in the Highest" in perfect harmony and, once again, I was on TV back in New York.
 
During the week, Joe and I had the  following conversations:
 
Me: "Joe, I can't find my ear piece."
 
Joe: "I have a spare. Can't you hold on to anything?"
 
Me: "Joe, the microphone fell out the helicopter."
 
Joe: "I have a spare. Can't you hold on to anything."
 
So, Yesterday was Joe's birthday. We have spent many of his birthdays together in foreign city's, and this was the same as all of them: around twenty hours of continuous work, shooting stories, editing them, and figuring out a path to get them to you. Happy birthday, Joe. Now, go get three hours of sleep, and we'll do it all again tomorrow.
 
I get e-mails from home telling me they liked a piece or two. I take all the credit. Joe's back needs about four Advil.
 
I haven't even mentioned that Joe is an artist with his camera and editing computer. Mind you, he is excruciatingly slow at editing and whines like a two year old when I have written a phrase he doesn't think works with the pictures he's shot, but again, you learn to tune it out. Because at the end of the whining is a story that is better than it had any right to be, because he made it work.
 
We have traveled the world together. As John Prine says, we could build a castle with memory's. And many of them would never have happened, unless Joe had been there to make them work.Or if I hadn't been there to bail him out of jail.  
 
So happy birthday, Joe. Thanks for heading out with me.Thanks for getting me on. Thanks for working so hard and getting none of the credit.  
 
Now...Wanna go to Yemen? 
 

02/03/2010

Sorry about the equipment...

Boss,

Okay, here it is. This is a war zone. From time to time in a war zone, when you set out to cover difficult situations, elements come into play you did not anticipate. Bombs explode, helicopter doors open when they were supposed to remain closed. Stuff falls. Sometimes stuff falls all the way to the rocks and dirt hundreds of feet below. That kind of a fall is not really what our equipment was built to withstand. That kind of a fall is a pretty sure way to assure that the equipment will break. Into a lot of pieces. Pieces you can't really reassemble.

 

That's sort of what happened to our brand new lavalier microphone. You know, the one we just went out and purchased for this trip, so we would have top notch equipment for this trip? Cost a whole bunch of money? Yeah, that one. Its scattered in the dust of Kandahar in a lot of pieces I would think, because when we looked at the altimeter just after it fell, the helicopter was at 1000 feet. It was a reliable, excellent, and, yes, expensive microphone, until it fell a hundred stories to its certain demise.

 

Oh, and while we're on this topic, you know that new device you purchased that attaches to the camera that provides that professional illumination on the faces of all the people we interview? Well, as I said, sometimes these are very difficult situations you send us to. Sometimes the equipment isn't quite as sturdy as we hope. It seems to me, when a company sells a product, they should tell you it won't withstand the impact of, say, the thud of a collission with  a concrete bunker. If I had known...

 

OK, we lost one more little item. The keyboard I'm on lost a letter. Just one. I have avoided the use of that one letter this entire e-mail. I will leave it to you, and our readers, to discern the letter. I'm pretty sure I've used every other letter but that.

 

Have fun with the puzzle, and... sorry about the equipment.

 

Jim

02/02/2010

Leathermen and machine guns

Joe and I were boarding a U.S. Air Force cargo plane last week with around thirty soldiers headed for the front in Southern Afghanistan. Each soldier had his own m-16 or m-4 rifle thrown over his shoulder.  Many also had hand guns strapped to their hip, and one had what looked like a grenade launcher. As Joe approached the boarding area, one of the airmen stopped him and asked what he had on his belt. Joe took out his "leatherman" -- a sort of glorified pliers, and handed it to the airman.

 

"We'll hold this for you until after the flight," he said.

 

Apparently, the pliers posed too big a threat to the guys with the guns and grenade launcher who were getting on the flight.  An airman, asked what the problem was with the leatherman, said he had a list of things that were forbidden. Leathermen were on it. Machine guns were not.

 

The military can be tough to work with. They are not efficient in the way you and I describe efficiency. They lose paper work as consistently as a teenage boy loses his homework. Time seems an arbitrary concept in which "be there no later that 1300 hours" really means "be there no later than 1300 hours even though we have no intention of doing anything useful until at least 1530, but it amuses us to see you bang your head against our concrete bomb shelters."

 

A Chaplain, who stayed in the same trailer as Joe and me, waited two days in order to catch a flight to his vacation. Well, his vacation doesn't start until he reaches American soil, so that was two days he wasn't counseling grieving soldiers or holding prayer services for the soldiers fighting this war. Another soldier waited two days and then, in frustration, booked a commercial flight because he was meeting his wife and children and was tired of waiting.

 

And yet, they are stretched further than any military since World War II. Many have served more combat time than almost anyone in U.S. history. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq... they have served in all and it's hard to fault them for their big picture of success... and dedication. There are guys you meet, foot soldiers, who served in Vietnam. Grey haired and irritable... a little creaky, they serve because it's what they are called on to do. And not to put too fine a point on it for some, because they love their country.

 

After close to a hundred e-mails concerning our embed, when we showed up at the gate at the Kabul air field to hook up with the military, they had never heard of us. When we talked our way onto a flight with their assurance that someone would be there to pick us up on the other end, the people on the other end had never heard of us. When we were ready to leave the embed, to hop on a pre-arranged flight back to Kabul, they had never heard of us. When we arrived here in Kabul, those folks had never heard of us. Despite scores of e-mails and phone calls along the way, Joe and I managed to cause surprise everywhere we went this past week.

 

And yet, they did get us our embed.  They did show us a side of this war we don't often get to see. And they are starting to make some progress in the war here, after pretty much mopping up in Iraq. The business of fighting a war, they've got down. Communication and efficiency...  They are, apparently, on the list.


 Jim Dolan

Caught between ideology and economics in Afghanistan

A block or so away from the home we're staying at here in Kabul is a circle, maybe 200 feet around and it is filled with trash, three or four feet high.

 

Most days, two young men in orange government uniforms come to the circle and load the trash into big plastic bags. They spend the whole day there, but they never finish, and when they arrive the next day, it is filled with trash again. It is Sisyphus in an orange jump suit, a metaphor for a struggling and vexing nation.

 

In Afghanistan today, you have a war of ideology, but only among the leadership. The Taliban, still smarting from being summarily bounced from the country they terrorized until 2002, want to regain power. Sure, the leadership may well believe strongly that music and dance lead to the deepest circle of hell, but, as in most revolutions, the majority of the foot soldiers are just along for the ride.

 

Steve Earl, the great singer and songwriter who now lives in New York, has a song called "Mercenaries" about a couple guys who join Poncho Villa's army because "we hear that he's paying with gold." When there are no jobs, that's a powerful incentive, and here in Afghanistan the Taliban provide one of the nation's few reliable employers. 

 

That's why the Karzai government wants to offer the insurgents jobs... jobs paid for with your tax dollars.  He has no illusion that all of the Taliban soldiers will take him up on the offer...but what if twenty per cent do? That's twenty per cent less killing and twenty per cent fewer of their soldiers shooting at our soldiers.

 

The problem is a person with close ties with the Taliban says Karzai should be careful, that ideology runs deeper than he thinks. He said last week that some of those who take the jobs are doing so only to get closer to the enemy, so they can cause even greater destruction and death.

The trash pile grows, whether the guys in orange jumpsuits show up or not.

 

It's the economy, stupid. It almost always is. The Taliban insurgents aren't likely to take the new jobs and then send their female children to school and let their wives wear miniskirts and vote in the next election. They won't embrace an ideology they think is in opposition to their view of Islam. But maybe... maybe some will put down the machine guns for a while and try and provide a decent life for the wives they keep in burkha-clad servitude and the daughters they keep ignorant. Maybe it;s a start.

 

Or, it may be more trash for the pile. But I think the legend says that Sisyphus kept trying. Clearly the pile isn't going anywhere now. 

Jim Dolan

01/27/2010

Life in Kabul

 

In the crowded and congested traffic circles here in Kabul, pre-teen boys approach the cars with burning incense on a shiny silver tray. For a small price, they'll let you breathe in the smoke from the incense, which, they say, wards off evil spirits. But it may not be all its cracked up to be. Evil spirits, it seems, lurk around every corner in Afghanistan, apparently unimpressed with the power of the incense.

 

Unemployment isn't a statistic here. What would be the point of keeping track? Those with jobs worry if they'll make it home alive at the end of the day. Women shop the markets shrouded in sky blue Burkhas, their children unable to play outside because the Taliban likes killing children. They like killing just about anyone. The economy in tatters, the prospect of terror haunting day and night, Afghanistan is a tough place to live.

 

But they do live. "Business is great," a man selling shoes at a local market says with a big smile. "What is the point of complaining? I have to come out and support my family. It doesn't do any good to stay home."

 

Many feel the Karzai government hasn't done enough to protect them, nor to improve the economy. The unemployed are enraged that the President wants to give jobs to Taliban members who agree to switch sides. It's inviting the enemy in and rewarding them for their terrorist activity at the same time, one man without a job told us today. How about rewarding the people who didn't blow up orphanages and girl's schools?

 

Kabul was a cultural and nightlife hotspot back in the 1960's and 70's, The Paris of South Asia. Before The Soviets got hold of it, before the Taliban got hold of it, before the U.S. got hold of it. The road back will be long and congested. A 25 year old man told us yesterday its already too late for him, his life is over. His hopes, he said, are with his two children. Maybe their lives can be better. Maybe. Up ahead is a boy with a silver tray. Breath deep.


Jim Dolan

 


 

Taliban Business

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Dolan is in Afghanistan. He's the only local reporter in the region getting a first hand look at what's happening there right now.  You can read Jim’s blogs here, and tune in to his reports beginning Wednesday on Eyewitness News.

By Jim Dolan

Dawn came in gray and smokey in Kabul today. Our plane, rickety and unsure, fit in nicely with the other helicopters and planes on the bumpy tarmac, none of which appeared operable. At that hour, and on the Muslim Sabath, there wasn't much activity, just one man trying to salvage parts from a Soviet era chopper, but it was cold and he seemed to give up shortly after the sun rose.

The airport is a metaphor for Kabul. There is little commerce, little movement, and fear around every corner. No one knows where the next bomb will explode, nor who will be its intended target. The Taliban fighters are getting more sophisticated now, hitting multiple targets at once and hitting deeper into what had been considered safe areas. The concept of safe areas is gone now. Nothing is safe. No one is safe.

That reality is not crippling. People go to work, students go to school.But they know that some of them won't come home. Nearly every day, some of them will leave for their jobs or to visit relatives or to attend prayer services, and they will be killed. It doesn't matter what they believe. It doesn't matter whom they support. Nothing personal. Just business. Taliban business.

Its not clear what the point of it all is. The Taliban wants to regain power, but how this tactic is supposed to achieve that goal is kind of a mystery. Where, exactly has it worked? Killing many more has worked, but the Taliban doesn't have nearly the kind of support needed for that level of destruction. They have enough to wreck families, to cause untold grief and to murder innocent men and women, nearly all of them Muslims, but not enough to defeat a U.S. backed government. If the idea is to wait us out, well, President Obama seems committed to hanging out a while.

The sun chased away the gray by afternoon. On Fridays not much gets done in Afghanistan. Its quiet. Until suddenly it isn't. Where will it happen today? Most Muslims rest on Friday here. But the Taliban doesn't believe much in that. They call themselves Jihadi, or Holy Warriors. But its not holy at all. Its just business.

01/26/2010

Heading back to Afghanistan

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Dolan is in Afghanistan. He's the only local reporter in the region getting a first hand look at what's happening there right now.  You can read Jim’s blogs here, and tune in to his reports beginning Wednesday on Eyewitness News.

By Jim Dolan

Things have changed.

Joe and I are headed back to Afghanistan. Its been a little while since we’ve been there, and the whole dynamic is different. “The whole dynamic is different” is how reporters say “The hotel we stayed at last time has been bombed twice since we were there and is no longer safe.”  Much of the country is no longer safe, not just for Americans, but for anyone.

The Taliban is making a vicious and bloodthirsty stand in Afghanistan. Like al Qaeda, they have perfected the business of killing…anyone, anytime, and anywhere in the country. They want the people of Afghanistan to know that they could be next, regardless of their political or religious beliefs, regardless of their sympathies. And it’s working. People are afraid, with good reason.

Killing is easy. Al Qaeda and the Taliban prove it every day. They couldn’t build roads or buildings or much of an economy when they had power, but they have this killing thing down pat. I’m no expert on Islam, but I’ve read the Koran and am pretty sure it takes some wicked twisting of the beautiful prose that make up Islam’s Holy Koran, to justify killing other Muslims. Yet they twist away, in their quest for power and a world that conforms to their harsh and unforgiving version of that glorious and rich faith.

So we will spend some time on the streets of Kabul and in the homes of the people who live there. We’ll see how their lives have changed and how their view of both America and the Taliban have changed in the years since 9/11. Joe and I always look forward to that part of the story. The Afghan people are gracious and inviting, and though they are poor to a degree that is hard to imagine, they have open homes and hearts.

And we will spend a week or so with the military. We’ll be embedded with the army in the southern part of the country, which a colleague refers to as “Taliban Central.”  Even in the harsh winter, the Taliban manage still to plant roadside bombs and send suicide bombers into the marketplaces and mosques. Again, they’re good at killing. We’ll talk to the men and women of the military, some barely older than my own son, about the danger they face, the conditions in which they face it, and about the isolation of being away from their own families for so long a stretch.

Things have changed. Conditions are worse, and a new President is addressing it with more troops and a firmer resolve. Is it working? Can it work? What would “working” even look like?

It’ll take us a few days to get in place, but we should be on the air from Kandahar in a week or so. And I’ll blog whenever Joe lets me borrow his computer (he can be very possessive of the laptop) and tell a few stories we can’t get on TV.

Hope you’ll stay tuned and come along for the ride.