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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Afghanistan National Water Polo Becomes Official

Since the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team tryouts have ended, I have only heard from Rohullah, the Swim Chair at the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee once. This was at the national swim competition a few days ago. Reshad and I were trying to get a hold of him but he was not answering his phone or email. Reshad finally got a hold of him last night and when he came to work today, he told me, in front of the S-1 Officer, that we would be meeting with Rohullah.

Since I knew that the S-1 Officer would insist on the armed escort, I thought that we could kill two birds with one stone. The S-1 Officer and I were talking about taking a trip to Darul Aman to recruit graduating soldiers, from the Afghan National Army boot camp, to fill some shortfalls in the 201st Commando Kandak. It was a perfect opportunity to go to Darul Aman today.

Abdul Kholic, the S-1 Officer, agreed that today would be a great day to go as the Commando Kandak was already paid and all of the pay reports, that show that every Commando was paid, were already submitted. This saved me from having to sneak out without an armed escort and leaving Abdul Kholic feeling like I did not want to listen to a very respected man, full of wisdom, about how a "well known and important American" needs to remain protected and safe.

Abdul Kholic quickly coordinated a three vehicle convoy, two pickup trucks with mounted weapons and a 7-ton truck to carry all of the soldiers we were planning on bringing back, and about ten Commandos as drivers and to man the crew served weapons and protect the convoy.

Knowing how the Commandos drive, how much traffic there is, and that most of the people on the road are first time drivers, I opted to ride with Abdul Kholic. I have been a passenger in his vehicle on many trips before and he is a very defensive and proactive driver. I think that he would do quite well driving in California, the Republic of Korea, or other places around the world that have unpredictable drivers.

The drive to Rohullah's office was quick and uneventful as there was not a lot of traffic. We arrived early at Rohullah's office, but he was not there yet. His assistant said that he was meeting with the President of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee about some swim matters. His assistant quickly ushered Abdul Kholic, Reshad, and I into Rohullah's office and had tea and some pastries made for us. He also had someone bring tea and pastries out for all of the Commandos who were waiting by the vehicles. Hospitality is so wonderful in Afghanistan!

When Rohullah arrived, he quickly came into the office and was very excited to meet with us. After the introduction of Abdul Kholic and Rohullah and listening to the two of them speak for a while, we all started speaking about current events, the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the weather, and the success of the national swim competition. Rohullah was very optimistic about the results of the swim competition, which was the first ever swim meet in Afghanistan, especially when "the expert", believe me, I am no expert, agreed that it was a well run competition with great results. I think my encouragement about how well the swim meet went made his day.

Rohullah quickly cut to the chase and said that he appreciated my help with teaching aquatics sports to the people of his country and for helping him strengthen aquatics in Afghanistan. He reviewed the strategic plan of a proposed national program over the past week and read the list of athletes that were recommended for the national team. He was even approving of my recommendations for coaches for the national team. He profusely thanked me for my hard work and dedication and hoped that this would be the beginnings of something great for Afghanistan.

Rohullah started telling me that hopefully they will be able to continue the program in the future because things are very tough as he receives no money from the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee for the national swim program. He said "God willing" they will be able to do something in the future with the team. This was a little disappointing as it seemed that Rohullah was not focused on taking on this program. Seeing my disappointment, Reshad and Abdul Kholic started telling him how great a national water polo program, with Afghans from Afghanistan, would be for the country. That Afghanistan needed this.

After about ten minutes of me not being able to get a word in edgewise because of the heated discussion between Rohullah, Reshad, and Abdul Kholic, about the future of the potential Afghanistan National Water Polo Team, Rohullah stopped the discussion and asked Reshad a question for me. The question was simple, "What were my thoughts?" My response was simple, to tell the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee to create a national water polo program, based off of the plan we worked so hard to make. Upon hearing my response, he asked Reshad "Will I help them?" I answered "I wanted to continue to support them in the development of a national water polo program."

During Rohullah's recent meeting with the President of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, Rohullah was discussing the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee's thought process on their budgeting or lack thereof and the lack of support to the national swim program. The president, not wanting to be questioned about his direction, started asking Rohullah about the progression of water polo. By the end of their meeting, Rohullah did not get any swim questions answered but came back with the approval to officially start a national water polo program. Rohullah knowing this, did not share his excitement about this when we first started talking today, but it still made me happy.

Rohullah also wanted to know if I would lead the program. I was touched by the notion that he would think of me that way. I told him that I would help them in developing the program and that I did not have the background to lead a national program. I explained that I was just a high school varsity water polo coach, a club swim coach, and previously ran some club water polo teams that were successful. I would help them find some quality coaches and help them in the development from the plan we created. I was also concerned about my availability between my job and how much longer I would actually be in Afghanistan. I did not want to commit to something that I could not follow through on. I did not want to be like the "old story" that I was just another westerner or American who promised something and did not follow through. I did not have any of the skills needed to start, develop, and fundraise for a national sports program and its national team, other than interest and my recent focus of starting the team at Pol-e-Charki and organizing the national team tryouts. I told him that I would speak with Leilani and we would pray and discuss about it. I would give him an answer in a few days.

Since we had to get to Darul Aman, we had to finish our meeting. Rohullah was hoping for us to stay longer and for an answer, but I told him it will come soon.

Our trip to Darul Aman was very interesting. Between us almost getting in 50 accidents and Abdul Kholic's sole focus on why I would not coach the team, it was a pretty stressful ride. It was amazing to see how a big 7-ton truck can maneuver through traffic. We survived the ride there but Abdul Kholic was not done asking why I was not willing to help. I tried ten different ways to explain it to him that I did not say no, I just needed to think about it, discuss it with Leilani, and look at the feasibility of it. Could this be something that could really be put together? If I were to take this program on, the team could not train two-three months out of the year. We would have to get them out of Afghanistan and into a first world country to train the team. I tried explaining this Abdul Kholic, through Reshad, that there was a lot to think about. Abdul Kholic was still not happy and felt that I did not care about Afghanistan.

Towards the entrance of the base at Darul Aman, there was a palace from a former king of Afghanistan. Even though it was almost completely destroyed, you could see the beauty and could imagine how it once looked. I tried asking Abdul Kholic about it, but he was frustrated with me. Reshad tried giving me a little history about the palace.

The graduation ceremony at Darul Aman was very quaint. It was on a dirt track, the graduating platoons did a pass in review, there were two band members who were just learning how to play their instruments, and it took seven minutes. Other than Reshad, the Commandos, and I, there were no other spectators. It was very different from a boot camp graduation ceremony in the United States, where the bleachers would be full of families and friends, a big military band participating, a pass in review where everyone is in step, a honor guard, a long speech from the commander and maybe a guest speaker, all of which could take between thirty minutes and an hour.

After the ceremony, Abdul Kholic went to the drill instructors and told them which soldiers he wanted. During the ceremony, he watched at how the soldiers marched and stood in formation. He also looked at how healthy and strong they looked. The drill instructors called the soldiers out of formation after Abdul Kholic would point them out. The soldiers then went to get their bags and jumped on the truck. It was a very quick process and the soldiers were not told where they were going or anything. It was an interesting evolution to watch and I wondered how the Afghan National Army would account for these individuals or what would happen when these soldiers did not show up at their new commands. I guess we will see how this works.

Even though Abdul Kholic was satisfied that we accomplished a big mission that he and I have been working for a long time, he was still mad at me and did not say much on the way back to Pol-e-Charki. We were still defying death and accidents by the miracle of us fitting in spaces half the size of the vehicles. With no regard for the newly recruited soldiers who were stuffed in the back of the 7-ton truck like sardines, they somehow made it back to Pol-e-Charki with no incident too.

The rest of the day was very quiet. Not much was said in the office. Hopefully, I will be able to talk about this with Leilani soon.

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