Dispatches from FOBistan: Escape from Kyrgyzstan

by Joshua Foust on 1/30/2009 · 7 comments

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — I’ve been out of commission for several days. It’s nothing bad, just… well, sometimes it’s not too easy to get to Afghanistan, at least if you’re piggy-backing on some other flights that may or may not have room for you. But first things first: until I find other arrangements, I can’t upload any photos. The vast majority of the photos I’ve taken so far have been with my trusty iPhone, which is great if you’re NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, but not so helpful if you’d like to share your pics but need a USB cable to do it.

See, the Army has banned the use of USB ports on all its computers. The Army is my main lifeline to teh interwebz out in these parts, since I can’t find free wifi, loathe paying for it (even when I can just expense it), and I don’t trust the weird people at the Bagram PX who charge $35 for 64kb of bandwidth. I can download all my photos to my normal laptop, burn a CD, and bring that into the office… but unless I have dozens, it doesn’t make sense, and if I can’t post them onto my flickr stream or something it really doesn’t make sense.

Which brings me to a rant I must make about Army IT policy. I’ve made this in other settings, but it bears repeating here: it is quite simply irrational. I depend on blogs, twitter, flickr, and other online “smart crowd” style collaboration tools to keep up on news. I depend on blogs like Grand Trunk Road to keep up on Pakistan (for example), and I devour Baktash Siawash’s Afghan Citizen to get news on Afghanistan. I have my COIN blogs, I sometimes read Tom Ricks, and I also like to post on Registan.net.


I can do none of that with the restrictions the Army has placed on Internet usage—Nathan is kindly pasting from an email I sent him. All blogs are blocked, even “DipNote,” the State Department’s blog (I’ve attached a picture to my email to Nathan). The government community (and even a lot of the military) is all abuzz about collaboration, Web 2.0, and so on. But it doesn’t do me a lot of good to have all these wonderful tools to collaborate with my home office and the rest of the IC/UGOV community if the Army blocks access to it. Intelink is not even fast enough to be called a crawl, and Army web policy means I can post to Registan.net (if it weren’t blocked, weird how they allow that), but if I want to post to my organization’s Intelink blog (assuming it’s not blocked that hour), I need to ask my Brigade CO’s permission. Put simply, all of our wonderful ideas about collaboration and transparency (which are legitimately wonderful ideas) don’t mean jack in the Army. So long as they cripple their thinkers like this, they won’t get anywhere.

Now all that being said, I can read most blogs I have already subscribed to using my RSS Reader. Thank Hades they haven’t blocked that. But many RSS feeds also only post excerpts, and require I click on the actual blog to read the full post. So I remain cut out of about 60% of the information I normally peruse. And I would like to show my parents my pictures from here and my journey through the Manas air base without overloading their inbox with images, or overloading my meagre ability to upload them through a borrowed connection. It’s ridiculous.

It was a wonderful day, the day I left Kuwait. I was horribly sleep deprived—my tent, the one with all the sand on the concrete floor and the poorly secured roof that flapped loudly even in light breeze, was right next to one of the diesel generators running the flood lights—and slept through one roll call in the overstuffed leather chairs in the PAX Terminal (they use roll call to determine who will get onto standby flights). This was my third day of waiting, which wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but that place wears you down.

But I got on a flight! At 9:45 pm they called my name, number 17 on the list, the first to respond, to get on a flight from Kuwait into Bagram. And so I checked in, then scurried back to my sandy tent to gather my 275 lbs. of gear and lug it back up to the terminal. By 10:45 we were being briefed on what to expect (wear body armor and helmet on the flight), and where to go. So I lugged my 275 lbs. of gear over to the concrete pad where it was palletized. Then we waited some more hours.

By 12:45, we were snuggled into the bus, waiting at the tail section of a C-17, watching our baggage pallets be loaded onto the airplane. By 1:15 am, we were boarding. I was in a vaguely zombie-like state, but excited to go. By the time I sat, by chance, in the third of five seats across, nestled between two brawny 82 Airborne types who wear their side plates at all times, all I needed to do was Ninja-grab my inflatable neck pillow and pass out.

By the time I woke up, it was seven hours later and the pilot was yelling something over the intercom I couldn’t understand through my ear plugs and I really had to pee. We had two hours before landing. I glanced at my watch. We should have landed two hours ago. It was too noisy to ask much, so I tried to sleep as we rattled around and slammed to the tarmac.

I stepped out of the plane, blinking at the blinding white and biting cold seeping through my fleece. Those mountains look very wrong, I thought to myself. Once we were out and I missed the first batch of three buses taking us back to the terminal, I asked a Sergeant next to me where we were. He giggled and made some comment about me being “out of it,” then said we were in Manas.

“I thought we were going to Bagram?”

“Yeah,” he said. “We circled Bagram for an hour, but they had like really bad fog, so they diverted us here.”

All I could say was, “huh.” I really hadn’t planned on winding up in Kyrgyzstan. I whipped out my iPhone and began snapping pictures.

“Sir, please don’t take any photographs,” a rather insistent woman of some enlisted rank I couldn’t recognize said. I got a few decent ones, but that’s fine. I know they don’t want to give away secrets you could great reading Defense Technology International.

Eventually, another bus came to bring us back to the terminal. We got to eat at the Manas DFAC, I got to experience the Kyrgyz soldiers laughing at my laughable pidgin Russian, and I realized that all DFAC food is the same, worldwide, all the time. How depressing. We were then herded outside, and told to wait 30 minutes for buses to take us back to the plane. Two and a half hours later, the buses showed up (I passed the time talking about nothing with this cool Major who flies Chinooks), and we got on our merry way back to the tarmac.

Three hours after that, we were airborn again. I slept, utterly exhausted. We landed around 7:30pm Bagram time, many many many hours after we were supposed to. My colleague met me at the terminal and took me up to our room, whereby I promptly passed out.

So far, I’ve been enjoying it here. There isn’t too much to do apart from work (I am writing this in the office at 9:07 pm), but since I passionately love my work (no joke, I really do) I’m pretty much in hawg heaven. Already I’m seeing benefits to being here: I met some people who offered some information that might invalidate some of the only research we have on some people in Afghanistan. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but work comes first, and we (me and my colleagues) need to digest everything before we even think about asking permission to make anything available outside the IC/UGOV/DOD community.

But it is wonderful. I am really excited about being here at long last, escaping Bagram for some field trips, and getting to see this country I already love so deeply. But my Dari is woefully inadequate. Good thing I’ve befriended some people who can help. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to upload pictures.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Mark Hamm January 30, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Congratulations on making it.

Joshua Simeon Narins January 31, 2009 at 9:46 am

For security reasons, letters out of the front during WWII were read, or, at least, the letters were opened and resealed so that it seemed someone had read them.

Maybe the PX cost of $35/64KB is the DOD’s estimated cost for reading emails 😉

But not letting web traffic IN to Afghanistan, that is another matter altogether. Naturally for me, the only idea about *that* is they are doing their damnedest to keep enlisted folks ignorant. This sounds “evil” or something, but really, public ignorance has always, always, always been in the interest of certain ruling parties.

My favorite example is a Colonial Governor of Virginia. Francis Parkman “Sir William Berkeley once thanked God that there were no free schools, and no prospect of any for a century.” [Parkman’s Montcalm & Wolfe]. Another philosophy which lends itself to public ignorance is free market capitalism. If the people _know_ that the product is cheap because of child or slave-like labor, you might not be able to buy from the best price producer anymore.

Nathan January 31, 2009 at 10:52 am

Joshua N., I assure you that the reason for these internet problems has more to do with government IT being awful than a plan to keep anyone ignorant.

Joshua Simeon Narins January 31, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Nathan. I read that article last week. As lots of the commenters say, the person quoted by McArdle has no clue what they are talking about. I know this because, well, how good am I at computers? I am at the top of my field of perl programming. I work with people whose names you wouldn’t know, but who, for example, were responsible for the development of perl version 6 for a long time, and the author of a book on perl.

In fact, the McArdle article has much, much more to do with Gov IT _development_ (i.e. writing software the gov’t can use) than choices of “what website to block.” For most purposes, these issues (McArdle’s example and blocking websites) are orthogonal. One has to do with “what technology do we deploy to block websites” and the other is “what websites do we block?”

Those decisions are based on a variety of factors. Do you remember Marvin Olasky, author of Compassionate Conservatism (2000, forward by George Walker Bush), publisher of World Magazine? One blog he hosted, Caffeine & Irony, was blocked by the White House… too much traffic! Personally, I never saw what was so neat about the site, but, hey, I’m godless.

You would, I hope, at least grant that _some_ people, powerful people, do want to keep people ignorant? Ignorant, for example, of images of the dead servicemembers returning to America? One could hardly argue that the conditions inside U.S. run prisons in the Middle East are transparent. Remember those fake “enhanced” interrogations that the military showed Members of Congress? Faking out members of Congress is another way to keep them ignorant.

Nathan February 1, 2009 at 11:04 am

I’m sure that almost none of those commenters use government systems or sit in government IT planning meetings. I agree that the article hardly scratches the surface of what the problems in government IT are. They are legion. Chief among them seems to be that the thinking process isn’t as often “how can we give people the tools they need to do their jobs?” as it is “how can we force people to use technology in ways that are convenient for the IT department?”

Sure, someone could want to keep people ignorant. But a handy rule of thumb that’s done me well is to never posit malfeasance when incompetence suffices.

Joshua Simeon Narins February 2, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Another rule of thumb is to only open your trap when you know what you are talking about.

I’ve worked in government IT. I know very well what Section 508 sites require. I’ve used the PCs at Camp LeJeune and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and, I must reiterate, I am near the top of the field in the most widely known programming language on Earth. The person McArdle talked to didn’t now what the bleep he was talking about, and McArdle, no IT expert herself, didn’t bother to check around.

You are completely missing the larger point, which is the technology choice has little to nothing to do with what sites to block. It’s the difference between debating the type of lawnmower (what technology) and who mows what lawns when.

You are also saying I am positing malfeasance. The military has a job. That job does _not_ include availing every soldier of every web-published opinion on Earth. It never has, nor will it ever. It doesn’t take a genius to see that, in fact, to accomplish the military mission in the most expeditious fashion, there is a utility in PREVENTING soldiers from seeing enemy propaganda. Morale matters.

I don’t come here telling you about Central Asia. I ask questions. I asked you for a book that had about one chapter each on each ex-Soviet central Asian republic, you didn’t bother to answer. That, combined with the above bit of NONSENSE, makes me think I really don’t like you, in the human being sense, even if I greatly appreciate any bumble-bleep American taking in an interest in something other than their own navel.


John Hale February 6, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Joshua, I am a PM over at the Intelink office, can you contact me directly so I can ask some questions about performance from in theater?

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