Bagram is on the site of an old Soviet air base, which long before that was the camping spot of Alexander the Great. The American version is a massive dust-blown shanty and trailer-town city of 18,000 soldiers and contractors. It is a war-fighting support hub, an air base, ops center, insurgent prison, and one of the more zealously regulated sites in Afghanistan. Notices and signs, rules and warnings are posted on every wall. Military police use radar guns to catch speeders, and uniform standards are imposed in a grim fury that would make the Taliban jealous. Our little outpost of freedom is the kind of place where there are carefully typed notices telling you how to use the numbered toilet stalls ("for a good flush put your paper on top") and what to do if you need to take a leak ("don't forget to lift the seat first").
There are many tribes at Bagram. The dominant ones are easily identifiable by their digital camo, bad haircuts, and guns banging against their butts even in the chow hall. The other main tribe, the contractors, are recognizable by their Fu Manchu mustaches, Realtree camo, and crushed KBR baseball caps. These groups are augmented by an invisible population of about 600 prisoners. The only Afghans we spy during our Burger King, DQ, and Subway meals are those who clean tables and scrub toilets.
My first night in the Afghan countryside is made more exotic by the sound of the amplified Jazzercise instructor yelling encouragement from inside a giant inflatable tent, and I am pleased to find that despite the Taliban's best efforts at instilling modesty in Afghanistan, premium cable is available for $115 a month here and massages from young Kyrgyz ladies for $15. Bagram is America's duty-free space station in the war on terror and may be the most culturally isolated outpost on the planet. The world's most effective killing machine has ensconced itself in a hastily constructed replica of a Midwest strip mall.
The press office eventually finds the human terrain team of Task Force Warrior sitting literally across the street in a cramped 15-by-25-foot makeshift building. The team's own terrain is filled with laptops, maps, pens, notebooks, and cluttered desks. The unit consists of one social scientist, three research managers, an IT guy, and three translators, or "terps."
The scientist, Jim, is easy to identify as he is the one who begs not to his have his photo taken or last name used. It seems that within left-leaning academic circles, hanging out with the military is the equivalent of a movie star doing infomercials. He's a 50-something anthro who worked in Afghanistan two decades ago but seems more preoccupied with the subject of how unique the genetic makeup of Laotians is. (According to one of the research managers, the scientist spends much of his time in Kabul and has authored exactly three reports: "one on Ramadan, the Muslim holiday; another on funerals; and some other on Afghan and Islamic influences.")
Two of the research managers are reserve officers, and the other is an ex-soldier who served in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Of the two civilian interpreters, one describes himself as "Persian," which I take to mean that he's a Shia Iranian-American working in an environment mostly hostile to Shias, and the other, Gulam, is an Afghan mechanic from Colorado who hasn't been here since he left in the '70s.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Rotzoll is the man in charge. He is 5-foot-2 and Buddha-like in demeanor and shape. A former analyst for the CIA, his special skill is that he is fluent in Chinese. "I would have been a civil affairs officer flipping PowerPoint charts in Baghdad's green zone," he admits. "So I chose this."
So that's a Laotian DNA expert, a Chinese speaker, an ex-army grunt, and an auto mechanic.
The other thing I quickly size up is that Rotzoll's team doesn't have a specific mission or even any vehicles, so they are left to tag along on other missions out of Bagram. The team works for Colonel Spellman, the brigade commander, who, as Rotzoll puts it, "owns" the nearby northern provinces of Kapisa, Panjshir, Parwan, and Bamiyan. "He gives us an overarching idea for 180 days," Rotzoll says. The best he can sum up their job is this: "to understand what is happening on the ground and advise the brigade as to the best path." Rotzoll's team is relatively new but he credits more established HTTs with reducing "kinetic" operations in this war by 40 to 60 percent. "Kinetic" is mil-speak for violence, which in Afghanistan typically begets more violence.
What kinds of things do the Afghans want the most? "Its pretty much always the same thing here," says Rotzoll. "Security, water, schools, and roads."
The civilian scientist seems as chatty as a Mafia don at a federal hearing, so I focus on the uniformed side of the team. From what I've gathered so far, when it comes to getting out in the field and talking to locals, the research manager who seems to do much of the heavy lifting is Lieutenant Jeremy Jones. From Indiana. And therefore "Indiana Jones." He has sandy brown hair, with an eager face and pink cheeks, and, like Rotzoll, is very short: 5-foot-4 in this case. He will turn 26 in two weeks. The son of missionaries, Jones went to a lower-tier liberal arts college and got a bachelor's in history. His last civilian employment was selling weight-loss products and waiting tables at a Cheesecake Factory in Indianapolis. "I was an engineer in the reserve army, and I couldn't get a job," he says. "So here I am." As an army lieutenant Jones makes about $30,000 before danger pay, while a top-tier scientist can make $250,000 a year in the program. Even Gulam, his interpreter, makes four times what Jones does.
But Jones does have cool toys. During our initial chat he is constantly pulling his Beretta pistol out of his belt, playing with it, putting it on the desk, then back in his pants. He has a custom-made cowboy holster and a tricked-out assault rifle. "No one who is cool carries an M16," he says. "The army owns this" – he points to the standard base – "but it doesn't own this" – he points to the multiple accessories, such as an optical sight and the collapsing light stock, that convert his M16 into an M4. "It gives me more credibility."
Jones explains his scientific approach to doing his human terrain thing on Afghans: "I try to take my helmet off. I don't wear sunglasses. The eyes convey emotions. Give me an hour with someone and I can get anything out of them."
The enterprising Jones comes up with a trip for us to a forward operating base about two hours northeast. FOB Morales-Frazier covers the bottom part of a valley that provides a smuggling corridor into Pakistan. Depending on where you go, it's either a calm Tajik area or a hostile Pashtun one.
As we load up the MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles – better-fortified replacements for Humvees, designed to survive IEDs), a large blond soldier from the Pennsylvania National Guard whom we'll call "Krieger" is enjoying a pre-trip cigarette and wants to know whom our tiny lieutenant works for. "Human terrain," Jones answers with panache. Krieger leans back and cocks a puzzled eyebrow. "You aren't one of those HT assholes who wants to talk to the locals while I sit in my MRAP for 10 hours?"
Krieger is on a roll. "Hey, I talk to the Afghans. The last time I talked to an Afghan?" – Krieger launches into a violent pantomime of beating someone up, throwing him down on the ground, and zip-tying them – "was like that."
Pretend-dusting himself off, he goes for the punch line. "Hey!" He whips around. "I told you to stay the fuck down!!!" And here he mimics crushing the invisible Afghan's skull with his boots and then cutting his throat with his knife.
"Fuck that shit." Krieger chuckles, folding his knife and shaking his head.
This is my first sense that the farther Jones gets from Bagram, and the deeper into hostile territory, the less touchy-feely this war is going to get. We put on flak jackets and helmets and climb into a convoy of a half-dozen 20-ton, 12-foot-high, tan-colored MRAPs. The heavy rear hatch thunks shut with an added hydraulic hiss, and once inside the belly of our mastodon-size steel steed we are instructed to put on noise-reduction headsets. Then air-conditioning from 12 vents blasts us into an arctic stupor. Our only connection to the outside world is through four-inch-thick glass portholes, which add a green tinge.
Morales-Frazier, the base we're headed to, was originally named after its Afghan location of Nijrab but now, in the curious American cultural overlay, takes its name from two U.S. soldiers killed in action. It houses a State Department-run provincial reconstruction team tasked with supervising regional development projects, a 12-man marine team training the local Afghan army, a 400-man French paratrooper unit, and a revolving door of various military and intel units. It's a mishmash of nations, groups, goals, and activities – the perfect petri dish for culture clash and confusion. It's also a dangerous place. A week earlier a French patrol was ambushed nearby and lost 10 men. And a few days before that three marines were killed in an explosion.
The armored vehicles lumber and sway up switchbacks and through narrow village streets. The top gunners on the MRAPs give alternating fists, waves, or verbal threats to scatter the locals – mostly waving children and indifferent donkey herders. The contrast between our futuristic ride and the mud-village Tatooine-type poverty makes us look like the ultimate Imperial Stormtrooper, made-in-America, million-dollar-a-copy, fuck-you occupation parade.
After a long, hermetic ride we finally snake around blast barriers and through foot-deep waves of powder to enter the sprawling cocoon of FOB Morales-Frazier. Other than a fine coating of dust from the open gunner hatch above, we have managed to avoid seeing, smelling, or touching a single bit of Afghanistan.