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Had a chance to interview some of the dog handlers here on FOB Marjeh today, really great guys–but not nearly as great as their dogs. This is me with Jawdy, a three and a half year old black lab who is a glutton for attention when she’s not busy sniffing out bombs. Story on these amazing pups forthcoming.

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Staff Sergeant Miller drops me off at the terminal at four forty-five. I’ve just woken up from a jetlag-induced afternoon sleep and still feel groggy, my eyeballs par-boiled. The tent is large and cylindrical and the dozen people there seem half-comatose themselves. I collapse onto a seat and try to read some of the great gonzoist but can’t keep my eyes open. I don’t know enough about the 1972 election cycle to follow what he’s saying anyways.

An hour and a half later they call us up and we slug into our flak jackets and helmets and stumble in a line through the door. There are no other civilians on this flight, a first for me. Usually at least a contractor or two, which pretty much everyone takes me for most of the time. It is already full dark.

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Passport found.

Camera and all camera equipment stolen while retrieving passport.

Sigh.

To the camera thief: F*ck you, guy. Seriously, f*ck you.

Dinky yet expensive replacement camera acquired. Onwards and upwards!

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Arrived in Kabul. Immediately set off in the wrong direction, on foot, and found myself accompanied by seemingly friendly young policeman intent on leading me to a car. Got increasingly far from signs of military or police presence. Asked, “Do you know where the main military gate is?” Response, “Haha! Yes, yes.” Considered this. Asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Small frown, “Aha, yes, friend. Car.” Recalled scene from Nicole Kidman flick about mail order bride. Asked, “Are you a giraffe?” Response, “Oh, yes, yes.” Frowned. Policeman sped up, carrying my duffel with body armor. At least too heavy to steal on foot.

Didn’t trust him so asked a white guy driving a truck in parking lot where I ought to be headed & whether I should trust this cop and car he is leading me to. White guy and comrades definitely military contractors, tough British types with aggressive tattoos and scarves for concealing non-Afghan-ness. Eyeballed cop and gave me a once-0ver. Took pity on obvious cluelessness and moderately stranded situation and agreed to give me a lift to the military gate, a good mile and a half away (not in the airport, as I had been led to believe).

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The layover in Munich has been relatively painless, despite a jarring time difference and increasingly pressing need to shower. My first flight carried a healthy ladle of military contractors, identifiable a mile away by their buzzcuts, black knapsacks, and distaste for German beer (“They don’t have anything like a good Budweiser,”). The US government’s use of these gentlemen in lieu of regular troops (most, it should be noted, recently were regular troops) has been widely discussed and often criticized, but I’m going to refrain from weighing in on anything until I see some in action.

We landed in a fog so thick I thought we were still descending through the cloud later when we hit ground. Perhaps five feet visibility, about thirty to see the runway lights, a miraculous feat that the pilot landed us at all. Munich has been a blur of cobble stones, coffee shops ,and cold weather, a never-ending search for viable internet access  that eventually led me in desperation to McDonald’s, who have become renowned among backpackers as a world-wide source of free wifi. German McDonald’s, though, have pre-empted the influx of odorous dreadlocked Australians by requiring a German cell phone to use their internet (they text you a temporary password, cleverly disguising their xenophobia behind a façade of savvy marketing). In the end I remained unsuccessful, and had to upload this in Dubai.

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There are plenty of reasons to decide that you want to spend your life making no money, risking death & dismemberment, and being universally mistrusted by everyone you meet. Certainly it seems like a career that would appeal to those with a masochistic streak. Likewise anyone with overtly antisocial tendencies, like a deep seated need to take pictures of corpses and fireballs, preferably both at the same time.

I couldn’t articulate exactly why I felt the need to join the strange legions of war correspondents when this opportunity came up, nor when I first began to think about it over a decade ago. I still can’t, though I’m much better at articulating what doesn’t motivate me. I’m not into corpses. I’m not out to expose the government for the manipulative lying shysters they are (they can do that well enough on their own). While there is a vague thrum of adrenaline at the thought of being in a firefight, if all I wanted to do was risk being killed by other people I could spend my time road-tripping across deep teabag country with a bunch of Obama ‘12/Gay Pride stickers plastered across the bumper of an electric pink Prius.

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(Photo credit: Flickr/isafmedia)

Luke Mogelson has produced an excellent investigative piece for NYT Magazine on the role that the new Afghan Local Police (or ALP, not to be confused with Afghan National Police, or ANP) are playing in provincial politics. The quick and dirty is that ethnic, tribal, and family affiliations are causing the ALP to serve as the proxy du jour for local militias—i.e. warlordism, i.e. the “bad old days” before the Taliban took over.

One thing many people fail to realize about the Taliban is that it actually was worse before they came to power. That was part of what enabled them to keep power, despite being morally equivalent to a homicidal pederast working for the Spanish Inquisition. Few Afghans appreciated the restrictions on their day-to-day lives that the Taliban imposed, but being forced to grow a beard was better than having Warlord A ride through and steal all your village’s food one week, then Warlord B ride through and slaughter all the village’s men for collaborating with Warlord A the next.

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Going into a warzone takes a lot of equipment. And a lot of patience. Few things move with more deliberate, grinding slowness than a military bureaucracy. So while I waited for embed approval and/or the continents of Australia and Antarctica to merge, I put together a shopping list.

Big ticket items are fairly obvious. Flak jackets, for not being blown up. Cameras, for photographing other things being blown up. Helmets and impact-resistant sunglasses and flame-proof gloves, for further non-blow-upableness. Pants. Underwear doesn’t make the cut, with the long intervals of time between bathing and the extreme sweat-producing heat. I was explicitly advised to skip the undies and bring gym shorts to sleep in, so as to “let that junk dry out.” Wiser words.

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(Flickr/The U.S. Army)

On July 8th, 1853, US Commodore Matthew C. Perry dropped anchor off the coast of Japan. His fleet of four steam-powered gunships had arrived near the city of Edo, the imperial capital, known to the world in later years as Tokyo. Until that landing, the Japanese had explicitly limited all outside contact with their nation to a single port–Nagasaki–and assiduously rejected all foreign involvement in Japan’s commerce or society. Their xenophobia was not without cause: many of Japan’s neighbors, including China, had become abject vassals to the quickly expanding empires of Great Britain, Holland, and France.

Commodore Perry was having none of this. He refused Japanese requests to move on to Nagasaki, and when his small fleet was encircled by Japanese ships, he calmly notified their commander that a refusal to disperse and allow him to land would result in the Japanese vessels’ prompt destruction.

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