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Northern Impression

Camp Northern Lights | Day 16 – We’ve had such an interesting day with the Swedish and Finnish provincial reconstruction team, I’m not even sure where to begin.

We were picked up by the team at 9 a.m. today and were taken to Camp Northern Lights, which is within the city of Mazer-e Sharif. From the first moment we left the gate, I could tell there was something totally different here. There was construction.

It wasn’t just one building being constructed, but all along the route there was construction. The gem of all of this was out in the distance, there was a massive office building being built, it had at least 10 floors. The Swedish crewmembers began to joke about it being Mazer-e Sharif’s first skyscraper.

There were metal buildings everywhere and a lot of the buildings were made out of brick. There were still a lot of mud and straw houses, but bricks seem to be a great business venture here. At one point, I looked out across farmer’s fields and it reminded me of home.

Driving through the city, we saw popcorn carts, shops and all sorts of commerce happening. Children were waving and adults were smiling at us. There were even two children holding balloons which bumbled around in the breeze.

We arrived at Camp Northern Lights and we were shown our rooms, shown around the camp, given some lunch and we readied for the afternoon foot patrol through the city.

This isn’t Ken and my first foot patrol, but it was our first in the North. As anticipated, the children were absolutely cute, begging for their photos to be taken and wanting to shake our hands and give us high fives. The one thing they always ask for, regardless of what area of Afghanistan we’re in, is pens and soccer balls. The deal is though, that you can’t give away pens or balls unless you have enough for everyone, and you never have enough. I’ve talked with other soldiers around the country and it generally isn’t a good idea to hand out the stuff because then the children will begin to beg and beg until it gets really out of control. So for as much as I love the little guys and gals, I’m left saying “ne pen, ne pen,” (no pen, no pen) all the time. It breaks my heart.

Throughout the patrol, the team leader would stop and talk with Afghans. Near the beginning of the patrol, he noticed some Afghans working on a water tower. He found out they needed some help to fix it and is now working on the paperwork to see if he can get them some assistance. He also stopped just to chat and find out how the people are doing. He wasn’t the only person stopping; we had a medic with us who was carrying a backpack full of medical supplies. We stopped at a local clinic and she gave it all to them. 

At one point, a teenage boy walked with me for quite awhile. He spoke great English and when he found out I was American, he really wanted to know why in the world I was walking around the city when there were people that wanted to kill me. I explained our 30 Days project, but I’m not sure he understood. He talked to me about how much he hated the Taliban and how tired he was there was still fighting. He talked to me about how his city was safe, but the Taliban needed to be kicked out of the other areas of his country. He really knew his stuff. I was impressed. We talked for about 100 yards before he had to head home.

We rounded a corner and there were more children, everywhere… all wanting their picture taken. No thanks to Ken, who ships all of the children asking him for a photo to me, because he has a video camera. A good 75 percent of my foot patrol life is taking pictures of Afghan children because when I take a picture of one, their face just lights up and they just laugh and giggle and point and just turn giddy when you show it to them. I can’t help being addicted to making them smile.

I took some time to ask some of the questions from the forums and comments. Merle Hower asked about water. While I saw this comment after we returned, it doesn’t seem there’s a problem with water itself in this area, but I can only imagine there must be a problem with water being clean. They have streams running through the city and I counted two wells along our foot patrol path.

Kristin Swanton asked about ethnic diversity and its effects on COIN and whether they’re isolated. Here in Mazer-e Sharif, there is something like five ethnic diversities in the city. One of the Afghans we talked to on the street said he was Hazara, while Tajik Afghans lived right down the road. I asked whether there were any problems and he told me not at all. Keep in mind though, this is one Afghan. This is going to be a topic of discussion throughout our journey, as long as I can remember to ask the question… I forgot my notebook today.

Now, all of this makes it sound as if north Afghanistan is a safe place, which it is not. There are still pockets of enemies all around here. The Swedish lost two soldiers and an interpreter in a shooting at a police station three weeks ago. In October, three soldiers were wounded and an interpreter was killed in an IED strike and four Finnish soldiers were wounded in an IED strike in September. There is a memorial here for all of them. It’s a sobering reminder, that regardless of how calm or developing an area is, you still have to be on your guard for anything.

Regardless of the dangers here, the Swedes and the Finnish are still working closely together to secure and develop this area. They have various Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams, which work with the Afghan National Army, and Mobile Observation Teams, who go around collecting information. They also work with the local population to determine their needs so development projects can happen through Afghan contractors. It’s a busy life for these guys, but as you can see at the end of Ken’s vlog, they definitely know how to keep the morale high here without expending a ton of resources.

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