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Sam Jacobson

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Radio-in-a-Box: Afghanistan's New Warrior-DJs

Posted: 07/13/11 12:42 PM ET

The News

"Will the sharwal please come to Rankel as soon as possible."

"Will the sharwal please come to Rankel as soon as possible."

Our civil affairs Marine needed to speak with the sharwal (town mayor) at our base, Combat Outpost (COP) Rankel, and a public radio message was the best way to get him there. There's no tweeting in Safar, Garmser District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. No gchat, no facebook messaging, no texting. No newspapers or television. No foursquare to see where the mayor last "checked-in." Many of the locals have cell phones, but they use them for photos and music; there's no cell tower in southern Garmser. And there are no landline phones -- just a few storefront calling centers in the bazaar with unreliable satellite connections. So when we need to get a message to the mayor -- or anyone else -- we use our Radio-in-a-Box, or RIAB, as an intercom:

"Will the sharwal please come to COP Rankel as soon as possible."

We played the message every few minutes, on loop, interrupting the regularly scheduled music programming until the mayor did in fact come to Rankel, 30 minutes later. Whoever heard the message probably didn't pass it along to the mayor out of love for his public servant. He did it because he wanted to stop our broken record messaging. He wanted the music back on.

Garmser is a skinny little district splayed out along the Helmand River. Over the last couple years Marines and Afghan soldiers have slowly been pushing south through the area, holding and securing one village after another. Safar is the southernmost area in that push, so the government presence here is brand new and in most ways still tenuous. COP Rankel was the first base built in Safar, just outside the bazaar, in September 2010, and is now home to a hundred Marines and a dozen Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. Another hundred Marines and Afghan soldiers are scattered throughout the area at several smaller satellite patrol bases.

The Radio-in-a-Box was one of the first pieces of gear to come down on a logistics convoy after the initial assault through Safar. We immediately started passing out little battery-powered and hand-cranked portable radios to anyone who wanted one, and nicer models are still a hot item in the bazaar. At first all we had was a small makeshift antenna peeking out above our HESCO blast walls; later, a new antenna came with its own contractor, who helped set it up and teach a designated Marine how to use it. It sits now on a piece of high and dusty ground in the middle of our outpost. It's the tallest thing in town, slightly out-climbing our camera surveillance tower for prominence in the Safar Skyline. It's an easy reference point for navigation. You can make out its outline from anywhere we patrol.

The Marines run the RIAB, but the Afghan soldiers have played an active role since the beginning. For almost a year I served as the mentor and advisor to the company of Afghan National Army infantry soldiers in Safar, and I encouraged the Afghan commander, Captain Gefar, to get his voice out to the locals. The radio is a good tool for him to communicate his thoughts directly to the people in a way that he can't through small shuras (meetings) with the elders, or patrolling from one village to another. When Captain Gefar has something to say we work to write it up, he reads it into a recorder, and the Marine RIAB corporal incorporates it into the day's [iTunes compatible] playlist.

Captain Gefar begins his messages with a religious injunction: "Bismi'allah rachman rahim, a salam aleychum warach matullah wa barakhat." And then down to business:

  • You may protest the poppy eradication campaign, but make it a peaceful protest.
  • The Taliban are poisoning innocent Afghans with drugs. We are distributing seeds as part of our poppy alternatives campaign.
  • A local's truck is stuck; come with your tractor and we'll hire you to get it out.
  • The newly rebuilt shops have opened in the bazaar.
  • The Taliban are not "Islamic Students!" Their IED attacks in Safar kill innocent Muslim children.
  • The explosion you just heard was a controlled detonation by Marine engineers.
  • Parents, send your children to the new Safar school for religious and secular education.
  • Kids, don't play with toy guns or get too close to military vehicles.
  • Come celebrate Now Ruz (New Year) with us in the bazaar.
  • The cowardly Taliban are using explosives made from Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer to cause death to our innocent brothers and sisters. Please purchase a legal fertilizer such as Urea or Diammonium Phosphate.
  • Who represents progress and who represents destruction? Choose which future you desire for your offspring.
  • Join the Afghan National Army and Police.
The RIAB corporal can also play pre-recorded mp3s from a centralized RIAB website. He downloads public service snippets on malaria prevention, hygiene, the dangers of opium, scorpions, constipation, and frost bite; kids programming; and comedy -- which I tested out on Afghan soldiers who didn't so much as crack a smile.

Also available for download is national news, either as an mp3 or transcribed in Pashto for an Afghan interpreter to read on the air. It can't be overstated that before the introduction of the RIAB, the locals in Safar had almost no access to news outside their villages, other than by word of mouth. Captain Gefar spends slow afternoons sitting in the gazebo he built at COP Rankel, drinking chai, popping dried peas and yogurt clusters, and listening to adapted Washington Post stories on his portable receiver. But in an area where recitation of the Koran is some of the hottest programming, there's surely a large contingent that follows Thoreau in preferring to "Read not the Times. Read the Eternities."