This might seem peripheral to the war against the Taliban, but in some ways Hart represents the future of the American involvement in the conflict. As U.S. troops begin to leave this year, the focus will shift from combat to training Afghan soldiers and police. And the ability of these forces to master the logistics of supplying and sustaining themselves — to keep, for example, the water buffaloes flowing — is perhaps their biggest obstacle to self-sufficiency.
A former U.S. Army reservist, Hart, 45, has worked as a butcher and meat market manager and with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, where he was part of a program to bring the troops mobile Burger Kings in bulletproof Winnebagos. Now a civilian employee with the Defense Commissary Agency, he’s on a two-year tour to help modernize the Afghan army’s approach to feeding itself and to help plan a new $24 million U.S.-funded slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Kabul.
“I have an extensive background in meat,” Hart said. “That’s why I’m the slaughterhouse dude.”
Hart approaches this unique mission with gusto and a bit of war-zone swagger. He drives himself to work each morning in an armored sport-utility vehicle, his shoulders strapped with two guns — an M16 machine gun and a 9mm pistol, worn in an over-the-shirt holster. He used to wear an 18-inch knife strapped to his back until he became more comfortable being the only American at the slaughterhouse.
“I don’t want somebody holding my arms behind me and slitting my jugular like some goat. I’d rather put a cap in ’em,” he said. “I can hit you at 25 meters with a 9 millimeter.”
When Hart started in July, the conditions at the slaughterhouse were, by his account, “medieval.” Butchers wore sandals as they hacked away at animals with hatchets and makeshift sheet-metal knives duct-taped to wooden handles, using tree trunks as chopping blocks. They dissolved the animal remains with acid and flushed it all into the Kabul River. One slaughterhouse employee, a dwarf, was responsible for climbing inside water buffalo carcasses to cut out their colons.
“They would take a hatchet and just cut off pieces with no rhyme or reason,” Hart said.
In his work, Hart has faced some unexpected cultural differences. The Afghan soldiers have an aversion to freezing meat, he said, and instead prefer to ship fresh meat daily; it is then prepared on the bases in pressure cookers. The coalition has funded renovations for the cold-storage rooms and purchased thousands of plastic boxes for shipping frozen meat, but they remain largely unused.
“If you keep it in the freezer for too long, it loses its taste,” said Col. Abdul Majid, the head veterinarian at the slaughterhouse. “And people in the rural areas don’t have electricity for refrigerators, so they tend to prefer fresh meat.”