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"About The Children"

From summer 2010 to autumn 2011, I ran the U.S. government’s civilian stabilization assistance shop in Afghanistan, referred heartily by many as The Stab U. The Stab U housed seven major contracts during my tenure with a value of more than $1.5 billion.

A busy little trailer The Stab U.

The Stab U contractors spent the money on local transition initiatives and stabilization programs. After my arrival in 2010, The Stab U became a key civilian partner office to help Special Operations Forces (SOF) implement a new counterinsurgency effort dubbed Village Stability Operations.

Some would say this civilian partnership with SOF strengthened our value in the Afghanistan theater and increased our street crew with SOF officers, particularly when we deployed with their convoys and escorts into their area of responsibility.

Lucky us.

Which brings us here. A small village in Kunduz, a northern province near the Tajik border. to get here as a civilian, and I believe here is near Chahar Dara but don't hold me to that, I rolled with a military security escort many might interpret as a bit excessive.

Not me. Afghanistan was no joke.

On this day, three MRAP vehicles (google it. Stands for "extremely impressive civilian escort machine."), each creeped by four, heavily armed and equally impressive troopers, departed early to carry me here near Chahar Dara. My mission? To unf**k something that somebody else f**ked up. I did that a lot.

Try picturing a convoy of war machines rolling down a washed-out mud road and then rubbing to a stop in the center of a small, Afghan village. Each MRAP topped with.50 caliber machine gun turrets, yards of ammo belts and redundant comms hear, and operation by helmeted troopers missioned to protect me while I met with the village elders. Prior to our arrival, a SOF team sorted the logistics with the elders to sit down and yet at me. Elders did that a lot.

Taking photos was an issue. Absolutely forbidden near anything military, which was pretty much everything in Afghanistan. You choose your pic moments carefully. I choose this moment.

Prior to our departure from the base, I obtained photo permission from the convoy lead. He gave me the rules and I promised to follow. “Only people. If you piss someone off, run.”

I jumped off the back end of the MRAP, secured my bearings and spotted this quartet assembled at the far end of the road. I changed lenses behind the cover of the MRAP door, turned, focused, and snapped. Done.

Absolute confession, I had no plans to photograph children. Younger children were sometimes allowed out and about, but rarely seen during convoy visits. No plan. Just took it. After 13 years, I see this result and now have a few thoughts.

The four children were staring right at the convoy. The bizarre allure of military hardware. Fully armored beings with helmets, dark glasses, crackling radios, and small arm weaponry drawing the attention of four awestruck children. Impossible to imagine their thoughts. What Dari or Pashto or Turkmeni words were they processing? I doubt they got the pre-site visit briefing. Look at their eyes. Think first encounter of the real kind.

The girl’s eyes whisper an unease, caution, almost fear, but with a pinch of wonderment. The young lad, a bit more afraid perhaps and screened somewhat behind his sister’s protection, yet seemingly more curious about this whole scene. His eyes elevated to something different on the MRAP. The .50 caliber maybe? The radio antennas? The diesel exhaust smoke? Or simply, “Wow, I wish I had one of those things.”

I am also drawn to the degree of sparkles and colors of the two, younger girl’s clothes. The youngest being most apparent. A little less color and fewer sparkles with the second in age and then pretty much absent with the oldest. Must be an age rule with color and sparkles.

The youngest’s head is not fully covered; the second sister’s head is covered. Then the eldest’s head covered, but unlike her sisters, her face is half covered with the black, sparkle-less niqab. Maybe she is coming of age for marriage. Pretty sure it’s not to buy beer.


Then you have the arms. Call me a wannabe anthropologist, but the moment seems an instinctive reaction to the unknown spectacle before them. Look closely at the oldest girl’s pose. You can make out her left hand nervously covering her mouth at this pause of unease. Same as her younger sister’s hands. I can’t see her right arm, but my money has her right arm across her chest, again, like her sisters.

Do American parents teach their children to cover their mouths with both hands when they see something freaky? Like a baby crawling near a cliff, a missed field goal, alien beings emerging from mechanical beasts? Nope. It’s a natural reaction. This pose is the Afghan version of the two-handed American WTH mouth cover.

The four adventurers were rapidly shooed away by an elder with a stick before the MRAP door slammed shut. The moment preserved safely within the Nikon. We did what we did with the elders, I got yelled at, and we left hurriedly to make curfew at the base before dark.

We can argue about the U.S./Afghanistan era until the MRAPs come home. Maybe later. In 2011, The Stab Uwas all in about contributing to help the people of Afghanistan. And we had children on our minds. World Bank stats claim that from 2001, when the coalition first entered Afghanistan through 2019, primary school aged girls's enrollment went from zero to 88 percent. Current reporting from Afghanistan conveys considerably different statistics. Search "selling Afghan girls" and your hands will cover you bought in horror.

We were believers in 2011. I can't say how these four remember this day. My memory was one of hope, of rearranging the rules, of being about the children of getting yelled at.

My hope now that they survived.

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