Notes from a Visit to Rosewood

My father and I left my parent’s assisted living apartment for lunch just a short walk down the hall on the second floor of Rosewood. If you said you were on the second floor, all Rosewood residents knew you were in assisted living, midway health-wise between independent retirement living in the tower, and the Health Center in the adjoining building. My mother had just been returned from a local hospital to the Health Center.

Two dinning rooms stand out in my experience as particularly memorable: the massive mess in one of the ballrooms in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace in Baghdad (another story) and the assisted living dinning room on the second floor of Rosewood. The entrance to the dining room was lined on both sides with “parked” walkers. My dad parked his and walked stooped over the rest of the way to his seat at the table. An extra place had been set for me–the visiting son.

Our fellow 2nd floor diners were a very diverse group of old women and few men, about 20 people in all. They all arrived ten minutes before the official start of lunch. Most spoke cheerfully about past or upcoming events. Rosewood offers and organizes a lot of activities for its senior residents. Some made jokes about this or that. The Rosewood staff efficiently and warmly serviced the group the day’s offerings. The food was surprisingly good.

A few stared silently ahead and ate slowly. One lady who sat across the table and four seats to the right of my father and me alternated between making angry comments about the service rudely at one moment then somewhat politely at another moment. Her relatively short hair was combed straight back and tended to stand up reminding me of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (or most any other Jack Nicholson movie). At our first breakfast together in the second floor dining room the same lady came earlier than scheduled and asked the lady next to her whether she wanted her food and if not whether she could eat it. She yelled at the servers for not serving her more quickly and
shouted that she would fire them all. We soon learned that the poor lady had had nothing to eat since lunch the day before because she was having her blood taken at 8:00 that morning and it was still only 7:50. She was not allowed to eat for a bit longer. The room fell silent.

The lady who sat directly across from me was very attractive despite her wrinkles. Her hair was carefully and tastefully combed and each day she wore a different outfit with very nice colors. She had heard that my mother had been returned to Rosewood to the Health Center and she asked me how she was. “Not very well” I replied. My father and I eat on in silence. A few minutes later the attractive lady across the table asked: “How is your mother?” “Not very well,” I replied.

After lunch dad and I walked over to the Health Center to visit mom.  The flower gardens
along the way were lovely; the sun was bright and warm. Entering the Center, we passed the dining room on the right of the entrance. It was very well appointed with a high ceiling and chandeliers and round tables widely spaced to allow diners to eat from their wheel chairs. Wheel chairs and walkers were not allowed in the dining room on the second floor where the residents had to be able to walk. The flower gardens could be seen from the dinning room window. My mother would have loved it but she had never made it to the dining room in the Center.

We passed through the TV room to the left of the entrance toward my mom’s room. The usual viewer was sitting in his wheel chair in his usual place up against the screen watching a Jimmy Stewart movie. Down the hall we passed several people sitting quietly in their wheel chairs looking vacantly at nothing in particular and one man was exercising his legs by pulling himself down the hall in his wheel chair.

My mom was awake when we entered her room and actually smiled at me.

“I want to get up and go walking with my son,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether I should tell her that she was too weak to walk or whether I should play along.

“Why don’t we take a spin in the wheel chair just to warm up? This place is really lovely and you should see it,” I finally said.

Mom seemed almost in high spirits. Thank God for antidepressants. The nurses lifted
her into her wheel chair. She insisted on putting on her lipstick and the nurse combed her hair. I was beginning to think we might enjoy this.

With the first attempt to move her into the hall, she slumped a bit and said: “I
feel sick, please put me back in bed.” Back in bed she said, “Why am I here? Where is my furniture,” and she fell asleep.

Dad and I walked back to the tower building and took the elevator to the second floor. We shared the elevator with another of Rosewood’s senior residents. She was holding on to her walker firmly. “Growing old is not for sissies,” she said with a smile.

The next day I packed for my flight back to Washington, DC, finalized arrangements for my father to move to a smaller unit, and ran a few other last minute errands for him. I then walked over to the Health Center to join dad and to say goodbye to mom.

“She has been asleep the whole time I have been here” he said.

“Should we try to wake her?” I asked. “Let’s try gently. Mom…, mom…, I want to say goodbye.” She opened her eyes and turned her head toward me.

“Leave me alone. Why is God punishing me this way?”

As dad and I walked back down the hall toward the entrance, the elder residents had lined up along the wall in their wheel chairs waiting for the opening of the dining room for lunch.

One very bedraggled and frightened looking woman said: “I don’t know the way home.” And then she repeated more loudly: “I DON’T KNOW THE WAY HOME. I WANT TO GO HOME!” Then she cried in loud sobs. I was trembling.

More on the Lockerbie bomber

Those of you interested in this subject might find the following letter to the editor of the Economist of interest. The conclusion is that because the convicted bomber Mr. Megrahi withdrew his legal appeal of his conviction just before being released from prison, our chances of ever knowing the truth of who bombed Pan Am103 over Scotland years ago are small.

Outside IMF Guesthouse, Kabul, Afghanistan



Guards and driver Wahid and I outside IMF guesthouse in Kabul

Foreign Wars

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” says my friend Bob Gregorio with reference to the NATO bombing near Kunduz of two hijacked fuel tankers that may have killed 120
people including maybe two dozen civilians (the numbers keep changing). This
observation contains a profound lesson for those contemplating foreign wars and
no place more so than here in Afghanistan.

An Afghan friend here in Kabul gave me two videos to watch
and then spent over an hour downloading all the viewers and right CODEXes to
make sure I could watch it on my laptop. So I felt obligated to watch all two
hours of “The Road to Guantanamo” about three British Pakistani boys who flew
from London to Karachi to get married, traveled into Afghanistan to see if they
could help their Taliban “brothers” in November 2001, were captured by the
Northern Alliance forces (largely Tajik Afghans fighting Pashtun Taliban) in
December 2001 (a few weeks before I arrived in Kabul), were turned over to
American forces and spent the next four years in Guantanamo before being
released with no charges every having been made against them. If that didn’t
leave me sickened, the other, thankfully shorter, video certainly did. In it a
female journalist travels with a U.S. Army unit (I forgot its name) north of
Kandahar through remote villages looking for Taliban. Working with local
village chiefs they do their best. The journalist then returns on her own to
the same villages for further interviews. While I do not find the claims of the
villagers that American solders abused them credible (demanding that men strip,
face the wall, and then groped them), just seeing the American invasions of
their homes from the eyes of humiliated, poor Afghanis, even if used for
propaganda purposes, tells us a lot about the futility and foolishness of
bringing democracy to foreign lands by force. How can our 19, 20 year old
solders, with their human strengths and weaknesses, possibly succeed (at what?)
in such environments. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, indeed.

I really cringe when I hear well-meaning Americans praising
our brave boys overseas. How dare we send them into such bewildering and
foolish danger? These fellow American’s have no idea what they are asking. If
they did, they wouldn’t do it. President Bush, for all of his faults, at least
had a clear purpose in attacking Afghanistan—to kill Ben Laden. Too bad he
failed so miserably as a result of the disastrous Iraqi diversion. My respected
friend Robert Schadler (a senior official in the Reagan administration’s now
defunct United States Information Agency) makes some important observations
about such situations in response to my earlier note on this bombing:

Dear Warren,

My sense, without ever having traveled there, is that our notion of  “who they are” is
very different than their own.

We say: “Saddam viciously committed genocide on his own people.” He says, “They
were Kurds and Shi’a. None were from Tikrit. They were not “my people”; they were my enemies.”

Similarly, the Afghans who are pleased with the bombings [in Kunduz] probably don’t view those who were killed as “fellow Afghans” but some barbarous tribe who happen to also live in a place called Afghanistan.

That’s only one layer. Western analysts are trained, by Aristotle, Anselm and others, to avoid obvious contradictions in thinking and feeling. As a counter, I recall a story that
baffled and amused my mother for most of her life. She had lived in Turkey during the last days of Ataturk. A rather sophisticated neighbor of hers, a Turk, was very proud of the fact that Turkey had such a strong leader — not like the weak-kneed European leaders at the time. Yet, minutes later, she said she expected Allah to strike down Ataturk for his vicious efforts to rid Turkey of various traditional Islamic practices — Arabic script, Friday holidays, forbidding the fez, etc.

Another layer yet is telling the powerful — and Westerners are often deemed powerful and the conquerors — what they want to hear or, more accurately, what they think the Westerners want to hear.

As for the policy shift in Afghanistan: the US had about half a million “boots on the
ground” to push Saddam out of Kuwait — a very small country. Figuring out who was who and where Kuwait ended and Iraq began did not require a lot of sophisticated intelligence and cultural awareness.

Protecting Afghans — from all mean, vicious and armed thugs or just the Taliban-inspired ones — means at lot more than another 20K  or 30K troops. Training the
Afghans to police themselves ….  Training them is the minor problem. Getting them to view members of other tribes and themselves as Afghans first and foremost is the tough challenge. And it’s one I’m dubious our Marines, however fine they may be, is something they signed up to do and have been properly trained to accomplish.

The political problem at home is only somewhat related. The original mission in Afghanistan was to kill or capture bin Laden. This mission was an utter failure. It needed to be done quickly, in any case, to send the message that attacks such as 9/11 have dire
consequences. The message now received is that these attacks can be carried out and, with a little cleverness and close loyalties, can escape punishment. There was virtually no dissent over the goal of killing or capturing bin Laden. Had the Taliban government “given him up” the US would not have gone into Afghanistan.

Today, the mission cannot be clearly stated. I heard Gen. Zinni  last week (at the New
America Foundation). While he was against going into Iraq, he is against pulling out of Afghanistan — for reasons of credibility. He agreed al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. “Protecting the Afghan people” is hardly a policy — given the dozens of the 192 countries have populations that need “protection.” “Keeping Karzai in power” or “Keeping the Taliban out of power” would be palatable only if it could be connected to some larger, important, America-centric purpose. And if the costs were plausible vs other uses of those resources.

Bush was famously inarticulate, but “bin Laden dead or alive” was vivid, clear and
arguably worthwhile. Obama, famously articulate, has said, “Afghanistan is a war of necessity” and the “important war”. But it is doubtful he’ll make his reasoning plausible. For that reason, it is deemed he was saying these things simply because he wanted to avoid being a “weak on security, McGovernite Democrat”.  And that mission was
accomplished — at least during the pre- election period.



I believe in the value and virtues of “nation building.”  That is why I am here and why I worked in such places as Iraq, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, to name a few. By “nation building” I mean sharing the accumulated wisdom of successful, productive, and human societies with those not yet as successful for their people. It only works as a long slow process of education and persuasion within the context of the existing social
and political structures, even when the goal is to change them. Our solders don’t help. We should keep them home and spend the money and lives saved on keeping our economy and society strong (the source and basis of our military strength). How best to withdraw from the messes we have created and are now in is another and more complicated matter. It will involve a lot of Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And damned those who seem to like sending our youth on fools’ errands with little understanding or regard for the lives disrupted or destroyed around the world, all with good intention, of course.

It has not escaped my attention that I am leaving
Afghanistan on 9/11.


Fighting the Taliban

Saturday, September 5, 2009

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has wisely refocused on
protecting Afghans rather than killing Taliban and increasing the resources for
training and equipping Afghan solders and policemen (vastly cheaper than
financing additional NATO forces, though they will be needed for a while as
well). This means exposing NATO solders to increased risks as they hunt down
the Taliban in order to reduce the prospects of killing innocent civilians.
General support of the population is obviously essential if the NATO backed
government is to gain and maintain control of the country.

Thus the apparent death of about 70 Afghanis, which may have
included a significant number of civilians, in the northern city of Kunduz on
Friday seems a set back for the new strategy. The story reported here in Kabul
was that one of the two NATO fuel tanker truck hijacked by Taliban became stuck
crossing a river. The local villagers rushed to fill cans and bottles with the
fuel so that when German NATO troops in the area call for a U.S. air strike,
local villagers where killed along with many Taliban. According to an AP report
today it is still “unclear how many were militants and how many were villagers
who had rushed to the scene to siphon fuel from the trucks.”

I was discussing this with my Afghan driver on the way in to
the central bank this morning when he surprised me with the following comments
(as well as I can remember them): “Bombing that tanker and the Taliban was a
good thing. If villagers were killed along with Taliban they deserved it. Good
Muslims don’t steal – especially during Ramadan.” Ramadan is a month long
period for spiritual purification achieved through (day time) fasting,
self-sacrifice and prayers

The AP report goes on to say: “At least one local official
supported the allied bombing, saying it would help drive the insurgents from
the area. ‘If we did three more operations like we did yesterday morning, the
Kunduz situation would be peaceful and stable,’ said Ahmadullah Wardak, a
provincial council chief.”

I have no idea.

Guns and things

Sorry to dwell on guns and traffic, but they are the two
most conspicuous features of Kabul along with the utter poverty and collapsed
structures everywhere. I just came back from a little walk up and down my
street and a few side streets. They are all enclosed at either end with
barricades and armed guards. My street, on which sits the IMF guesthouse, has
six barricades spaced out from one end to the other, two with zig zig concrete
approaches, a dozen armed pillboxes and about 50 or 60 armed guards. Behind the
sand bags and high concrete walls are houses like mine, the Canadian Embassy,
the British Embassy, the World Bank and a few others. You can’t see any of them
from the street. The side streets are even more cluttered with barriers. The
guards find my strolls amusing, I think, as they wave me on through their
respective checkpoints with a smile. The weather out today is wonderful. The
nearby Himalayan Mountains—the other most conspicuous feature of Kabul—were
shining beautifully in the sun.

Guns—AK 47s mainly—are everywhere, inside the central bank
and out. You just get used to it. Driving between the IMF guesthouse and the
central bank we always pass a number of pickup trucks with three or four guys
in the back with machine guns. Some are police. Some are dressed in black with
black masks covering their entire faces (not just their mouths cowboy style).
It can be kind of spooky. The masked ones are not as usual.

As usual, there are several Canadians staying in our
guesthouse. These guys are preparing for a major irrigation/farming project
near Kandahar that involves repairing a damn and levies, introducing more
efficient irrigation techniques and equipment, training maintenance people, working
with farmers to introduce new crops (poppies don’t need much water so this
opens up broader options), adjustments in processing plants, establishing markets
for the new crops and transportation to get them there, and political
negotiations with the surrounding village chiefs to obtain their buy in and
cooperation (some of the land along the waterway is owned by Taliban). My
Canadian friends commented how shockingly large a share of the project’s costs
went for security (one of their cars had already been hit by gun fire). I
replied that five years from now a congressional (Parliamentary) inquiry would
notice and refer to the large and wasteful payments to securities contractors
who made big profits (if they survived). Did someone think we could have a war cheaply? A private American security company has gotten into trouble here recently. I hope this does not give outsourcing a bad name because it is generally a very good and efficient thing to do.

Traffic has gone from bad to worse. The economy is
growing rapidly (around 10 percent per year for the last seven years) and
people keep buying more cars. But as security has deteriorated, more and more
roads are closed to regular traffic or more checkpoints erected, so more cars
are trying to travel fewer roads. Those still moving their commerce by donkey
cart and wheel borrow have an advantage. The IMF has three heavy armored cars
with three very skilled drivers. In my seven and a half years of coming here
never once have they hit or even grazed anything (or anyone). Thus I guess I
can still believe in miracles.