As the six or seven regular readers of this blog know, I served in Pakistan back in the long distant early eighties. One of my jobs there involved overseeing our assistance to the Afghan refugees in Pakistan--some 3 million of them had fled the Soviet invasion. That job provided a wonderful opportunity to get out of the office and cover Pakistan from the Chinese border to the Iranian border, and from the Indian border to the Afghan border; I ate a lot of goat, rice, and dust and put a lot of miles on my faithful Suburban.
As the Embassy's refugee guru, I had a large budget and had to make decisions on how to spend it. The Pakistani refugee effort suffered from a shortage of trucks. I thought we could address that, and make an inroad for US-made trucks in the Pakistani truck market then dominated by Japan. We put out a request for bids, went through a long evaluation process, and awarded the contract to the then International Harvester. That company would build several hundred trucks in the US and would make them right-hand drive. They were the only ones willing to do that. Both GM and Ford had bid on the project but proposed to build their right-hand trucks in factories outside the US. I wanted the work to go to Americans since we would use their tax money to buy the trucks. That turned into a battle with the State bureaucracy which insisted on Japanese trucks since those already dominated the market. They overturned the IH decision and went with Toyota. We quietly got a couple of Congressmen interested, the refugee bureau got overruled, and the contract went back to IH. The trucks got built in the US and exported on US flag ships.
That trucking episode got me on the outs with certain people in the refugee bureau in DC. They got their chance to get "even." My job required interaction with US agencies involved in "other forms" of support to the Afghans. One day in casual conversation a representative of an agency with no name mentioned the difficulty in getting
A distorted version of the above story got to certain people who, as noted, saw a chance to get me. They fired off the bureaucrat version of a nuke-tipped missile, i.e., the "inspector." Regardless of what DNA analyses might show, inspectors do not belong to the human race. They often come from the ranks of frustrated and angry individuals for whom the gods of fruitful careers have not smiled. The bureau sent out two beast-folk straight from the lab of Dr. Moreau. At considerable cost to the taxpayer, they came to Islamabad. I, however, must give them credit: they arrived very early in the morning after a grueling all day flight, went to their hotel, took a shower, and immediately came to the Embassy to interview me. In about five minutes they realized they had come on a fool's errand. I remember one looking at me saying in a voice full of puzzlement, "So the trucks belonged to the Pakistanis not to the State Department?" I nodded. He slammed shut his notebook and said, "Why are we here?" I shrugged, trying not to smile, imagining them on the plane back to DC the next day. The other inspector, the one with whom Dr. Moreau seemed to have had slightly more success in his House of Pain, said, "Well, we're here. Why not have our friend (that's me) take us on a tour of refugee camps and let us see the whole program?" My world came crashing down. I went from a delightful fantasy of getting rid of the beast-folk in record time to contemplating days on the road with them.
I won't bore you with details of days riding through the countryside, stopping at dozens of refugee camps, drinking gallons of sugary tea, eating goat, getting sick in places with no toilet paper or running water, and meeting only Zeus knows how many officials--or when we got "busted" by a military patrol for taking a picture of a bridge that appears on about three million postcards.
We covered the Northwest Frontier Province and then headed to Baluchistan. The less beastly one couldn't get enough. He loved the road, meeting refugees and mujahedeen, visiting the wounded at the Red Cross hospital, etc. He warmed up a bit to me and my weird sense of humor and got me to tell him of my last visit to Baluchistan (which I wrote about here). He wanted to go to Pishin, too, and onward to the wild border crossing at Chaman. The other inspector kept muttering that he had not signed up for this, and that since no official refugee camps existed in either of those towns why go there? He became increasingly grumpy, and on many stops would not get out of the vehicle. He, frankly, appeared annoyed in Chaman, and could not get used to people walking around with all sorts of weapons.
Chaman, at least then, consisted of a hard-to-describe assemblage of mud huts, low houses and buildings made of a variety of materials, run-down government offices that did God knows what, and vast open dirt spaces. Dust, kicked up by a never-ceasing parade of vehicles of all sorts, filled the air. We saw the border crossing: a zig-zag obstacle course of barbed wire, and cement filled barrels.
We visited a mud fort run by, I think, the military or perhaps some provincial Rifles unit. The two inspectors and I stood in the middle of this Beau Geste-type fort's courtyard, talking to an official (I don't remember who) when yelling broke out outside the walls. Some soldiers slammed shut the gates. The official, very agitated, told us to take cover; he ran and threw himself against one of the walls, just under a catwalk with soldiers. We saw him run, so we did not hesitate, either. We got flat against the wall as he instructed. Above us, the soldiers on the catwalk opened fire, to paraphrase Monty Python, in the general direction of Afghanistan with a 12.7mm MG; hot shell casings rained down on us. This was the closest I have been to combat. From that experience, I find the one aspect rarely discussed in books, articles, and films on war is the noise. The sound that comes from modern weapons is not as in the movies, or even on the pistol range; not only loud, it makes your insides vibrate; your head throb. You quickly find yourself disoriented, unable to hear, speak, or make rational decisions. I can't imagine what it must be like in real combat. We had only one heavy machine gun firing, admittedly just above our heads, with some AKs as accompaniment, and I found myself lost, confused, in a fog. I leaned very hard against that wall, hoping it would swallow me. I noticed that my left leg would not stop twitching. Chagrined, I grabbed it with my left hand as tightly as I could, hoping nobody would notice.
The shooting stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I looked up, and saw the ultra beast inspector smiling at me, "With me, it's my right leg." It seemed, after all, that he might have had a bit more human DNA than I had given him credit.