KABUL — Many men have seen the ugliness of war. Then there is Chris Hart, the slaughterhouse dude, whose service to the U.S. military is performed far from the battlefield.
Hart has the unglamorous job of advising the Afghan army on an aging facility in Kabul that processes up to 1,500 sheep, goats and water buffaloes a day to feed more than 30,000 Afghan soldiers in and around the capital.
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.”
Each day, the animals get herded into the slaughterhouse in the early morning, some from as far away as Pakistan. The slaughterhouse purchases its daily orders from livestock brokers.
Some of the butchers at the slaughterhouse — which is halal, meaning it adheres to Islamic principles — are former insurgents, Hart said. But they have earned his respect.
“It’s not an easy job. They’re in a very nasty, dirty environment, and it takes a strong individual to process the meat. Not everybody can go in there and start whacking on an animal all day long. And smell flesh,” he said. “I’ve cut one jugular vein since I’ve been here. I don’t make a habit of it. It’s very messy, for one. You’re going to get nailed soon as you cut that jugular vein.”
The slaughterhouse has existed for more than 50 years, but it was badly damaged during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s and has been slowly rebuilt over the past several years under the command of Brig. Gen. Mohammad Zarif. During Hart’s tenure, the U.S. military has purchased band saws and boning knives with plastic handles, steel-toed rubber boots for the butchers and biodegradable cleaning products to replace the acid.
“We basically started from scratch with this facility because it was so badly damaged,” said Col. Sayed Ishaq Sadaat, the deputy director at the slaughterhouse. “Mr. Adviser helped us quite a lot by bringing equipment from the United States, including modern tools to chop meat. We didn’t have this type of equipment in the old days.”
Hart is working with Zarif on plans for a new slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the city near the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. The growing Afghan army will need 1.3 million pounds of meat a month just in the Kabul area, but the current slaughterhouse has a capacity to produce less than half that. Hart expects construction will begin next year.
“We’re busting at the seams here in terms of the amount of meat we process,” he said.
On a recent tour of the slaughterhouse, Hart tried to smooth out some of the rough edges that remain. He reminded the butchers to use their new plastic-
handled knives and to hold the goats’ heads down when they sliced their jugulars, so they didn’t spray blood all over. He cringed as workers dropped a goat carcass on the pavement, then picked it up and loaded it onto a truck.
“In the States, that meat would be gone as soon as it hit the ground,” he said.
But in his little patch of the war, Hart believes that he and his Afghan team are on the path to victory, and he knows exactly what that will look like when they get there.
“At this point, they’re not too worried about T-bone, porterhouse, top sirloin steaks,” he said. “They just want meat.”