As promised, the first installment of "Flirting with Afghanistan: Dispatches from the Frontline." Text, photographs and captions by Paul Avallone.
Written in 2008, this essay presents provocative and thoughtful analysis by someone with the dual credentials of having served in Afghanistan in US Special Forces and having later returned there as a journalist. And it includes some of the most evocative and raw writing on Afghan culture you will ever read on the war ....
A party thrown by a rural warlord for US Army Special Forces is missing only one thing, what anything outside the immediate family is always missing: females. In this completely dominate male culture, it is men with men only and always. Period. Nangarhar province, 2003.
Khowst province, August 2008
"Seven day shit suit" is what some American soldiers back in the first couple of years of the war would call the Afghan male garb. You've seen the outfit—real thin, lightweight cotton cloth, the same color top and bottom, loose and baggy everywhere, with the shirt tails, both rear and front, hanging down to the knees. The real name for the clothes is shalwar kameeze, or some such spelling, but I have never heard a soldier use that term. Shalwar kameeze? Come on, to a GI that's two strange words that mean nothing, describe nothing. "Seven day shit suit," on the other hand, is sort of accurate and gaily colorful, and the S's roll off the tongue with the playful childhood singsong of "She sells sea shells."
The way the soldiers saw it, based on the filthiness of the clothes in an environment of dirt and mud, the Afghans wear the outfit at minimum for seven days and, as a GI might say, "they shit in 'em." Well, not exactly in the pants, as if in a diaper, but when not at home in the comfort of their houses, with public toilets not just rare but very rare, the people do their business, both No. 1 and No. 2, just off the streets, in empty lots, in alleys, in the fields, and just in any spot of the great expanse of sand, dirt and rock that is most of the country. Out in the open. Nothing wrong with that; when a guy's gotta go, a guy's gotta go. Here's the rub: the men squat for both No.2 and No. 1, defecation and urination. Yep, squat for both. And the long shirt tails of the top both front and back work splendidly for this because anyone by chance catching sight of a man in the act can't tell which one the guy's doing, 2 or 1. Wear the suit, as I have at times when futilely attempting to blend in for security reasons, and you'll find that No. 1 is nearly impossible to do while standing, the normal Western style, because there is no zipper in the baggy, billowing, loose pants and, cinched tight against the waist with a rope—yes, rope, not belt—when loosened, if not held up with one's hand, the pants will fall to one's ankles, and then everything is displayed for all the world to see. Standing, it's a struggle to both lower the waist of the pants below the penis, yet holding it up from falling to one's ankles, while trying to hold the long front shirt tail up and away, and still manage an aimed spray without wetting oneself. Phew…! Easier to squat, as the pants have nowhere to fall and the shirt tails hang on their own, as curtains, if you will, keeping all body parts and all one's business hidden from the public. Only the dirt, stones and little rocks see and know what's going on directly above them. And the men will then, completing No. 1, wipe or dab away the last little penile drips and dribbles with a little rock or stone at hand right there on the ground off the path, in the lot, alley or great expanse of desert. If the women dab with a rock, I have no idea, as a Western man is not allowed to even recognize the existence of women in the Afghan culture, let alone know anything about them, but that's a whole 'nuther matter altogether. To an Afghan man, my mere mention of Afghan women—they who must not exist in my vision or my imagination but only as shapeless blue blurs passing by—I risk bringing shame upon the culture simply by bringing them up.
Shame, one learns quickly in Afghanistan, is a huge part of the culture. It is shameful, for example, for a man in public, squatting on his haunches or sitting, to show his crotch, even hidden under the billows of those loose pants. That's where, again, the seven day shit suit suits nicely; the long front tail of the shirt hangs down, being another layer of coverage. No crotch shown, no shame. And that's a minor shameful sin compared with one rivaling even the shame of having one's young wife's face seen—yes, just seen, as that non-existent blue blur then becomes a real person—by a non-Muslim Westerner. That cultural sin we all know of (but don't mention), but the other, nearly equally shameful one is not in the cultural custom handbooks I've seen, nor is it brought up or mentioned among Afghans. It is an Afghan's shame of……a public display of……flatulence. And I'm not joking here. Even one little tiny little almost unheard ppt, among Afghans it is just not released. And failing there, doing it, ppppting, is not just an embarrassment as it is in America among polite company or one's parents or girlfriend, or at the dinner table, or at a White House state dinner. It may still be an embarrassment in America to let one rip, but Eddie Murphy and his gang, centering entire movies on extended fart scenes, have helped take the bite out of any shame. In America, public flatulence is a rite of passage for junior high boys, a societal rebellion in college dorms, a return to childhood innocence on hunting and fishing outings, and it's so common in the Army that a sleeping bag has for decades been called a "fart sack." In Afghanistan children are taught the shame from early on, with stories like that of the rich man who was entertaining guests when one of his young sons, bending over pouring chai, released a fart. The rich man was so ashamed in front of his guests that he wished aloud that his son were dead, and the son, so ashamed of his own action and of his having so shamed his father, at that very moment keeled over completely, flat onto the floor, dead as a doornail. The children learn of a young husband who one night, by accident, farts in front of his wife and is so ashamed of himself that he leaves the house and leaves the village, and he does not return for fifteen years, whereupon his now teenage son asks where he has been all this time, and the mother admits that his father, her husband, left for shame of farting in her presence, and the father is so ashamed at the revealing that he leaves again and never returns. In the present day, in answer to my inquiries to the veracity of these morality tales, an interpreter ("terp") related to me of a time he was at a shura, or council, translating for the U.S. Army unit and the local village elders, and the American sergeant was ensuring the villagers that his soldiers, his unit, could control the region and provide security for the villagers, when he let out a fart, pppppt, and the head elder told his companions, in Pashtu, untranslated, in mocking scorn, "How can he control anything when he can't even control his own farts?" And not a word that sergeant said that day or at other engagements had a shred of meaning to the Afghans.
And what's all that got to do with Afghanistan? It is Afghanistan. A slice of the real Afghanistan, not the fuzzy enigma pitched to a busy, complacent American public as a noble place that can be transformed with blood and dollars from an 7th century wasteland into a modern Garden of democratic Eden. Pitched, yes, as in sold, as in sweet-talked, as in pulled-the-wool-over-the-eyes, for the purpose, most naturally, of justifying all that blood and treasure being squandered.
Before 9-11, Afghanistan was of little importance to America the country and even less to the people. I would guess that not more than a handful of Americans could actually pinpoint it on a blank map before 9-11. I being one of that big, ignorant majority. It's a country that Americans then might have simply known as Russia's Vietnam and that distant land of that exotic looking, intense-eyed girl on the cover of National Geographic. Russia is long gone, that exotic girl is now a woman under a burqa, and the U.S. and its NATO partners are settled into an intensifying holding action that, until recently, the American media and public have had limited interest in, accepting and echoing the pitch (or sweet talk, etc.) that it is "the good war," "the right war," the well spun "noble enterprise." When the media did pop up now and then with some concern, they coined the phrase and called this conflict "The Forgotten War," in stark contrast to that big ugly mess that became the Iraq War, and they would repeatedly state matter-of-factly that the Bush Administration outright neglected Afghanistan for Iraq. True or not, that became the mantra. "Neglected," which led to "forgotten."
As for Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, that war was a big land battle to begin with (which makes for good video and print), and it turned out to have been fought under false pretenses and nearly turned victors into the defeated. Tinged, in particular, with the bile aftertaste of those false pretenses, along with the ever multiplying American death toll year in and year out after "mission accomplished," the war was a natural headline maker. Afghanistan, on the other hand, had been won, more or less, easily, and with that one-scene drama all played out, all eyes turned to and became transfixed on that growing three-act disaster of Iraq.
It is easy to see how the on-going but quiet war in Afghanistan became to Americans like that crazy uncle in the attic. You can't throw him out into the streets, you can't put him in an institution because he's not that crazy, and you've got to feed him and make sure he's got clean clothes and bathes every now and then, but you don't really talk about him among family, and when guests come over, they all know he's up there, but no one mentions him. He's there, he's not going anywhere, he's family so you hope he'll get better on his own, but you know he really won't, and there's nothing you can do but take care of him. And not have to be reminded of him. Afghanistan. Not forgotten, not neglected; rather, a pesky nuisance we tune out because we know that there are no painless, immediate, permanent, satisfying, good solutions to it and it's going to be around for a long long time. Tuning it out just makes enduring it all that much more easy.
Every once in a while, a Seal team gets whacked in the mountains and their rescue helicopter gets shot down, with all sixteen aboard also dying, or the opium harvest comes in again as a "bumper crop," or someone tries to kill Karzai, or the Marines land in Helmand province, or nine GIs are killed when a remote outpost is nearly overrun, or the U.S. presidential candidates start upping the ante on how many more combat brigades they're going to throw into the pot, and the Afghan war becomes suddenly remembered and talked about and difficult to tune out. As if that uncle has started ranting and now screaming, and stomping the floor, and even throwing wads of feces down the stairs. But like before, after a short while, he'll calm down, he always has and always does. He will. We hope. And we can sort of pretend he's not there again.
If only it were only a crazy uncle. It has been nearly seven years now that America has been in Afghanistan and, increasing on both counts the past three, for seven years spilling our sons' blood into the dirt, while throwing our own billions of dollars down a bottomless, and probably dry, well. As the greatly unchallenged political and media chorus now seems to be demanding more in both sons and dollars, isn't it long overdue that we climbed those stairs, unlocked that attic door and, though it may be unpleasant to look, honestly appraised that uncle once and for all, starting perhaps with his loose, filthy garb and all that it implies about who he is?
My first experience in Afghanistan was for seven months in 2002-03 when I deployed as a Green Beret with the U.S. Army. My team operated in the east in Nangarhar province, famous then for its opium poppies, for the Khyber Pass, and for its Tora Bora mountains in which a short while earlier the U.S. had lost bin Laden. For the most part, Afghanistan had been tamed a year after 9-11, and it was a quiet time, which we filled by hunting the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while busting opium processing rings and feasting with our Afghan militia, our companion terps and their families (that is to say, the male members), the various local warlords and even the governor now and then.
I returned to Afghanistan at the beginning of 2006 and stayed the entire year, as a civilian, at first operating out of Kabul, with a consulting company trying to win contracts with the U.S. military, foreign agencies and various Afghan governmental ministries. In other words, doing little or no real work, but socializing greatly among Afghans—even from the ministries and Parliament—and even more among the ex-pats—from the embassies and NGOs—in what was then a safe, free-wheeling time in the capital. Now and again, I'd pop over east to Nangarhar to see old friends and warlords, and when the job thankfully ended after eight months, I spent the next four as an embedded journalist with the U.S. Army. Not with the Green Berets, as my prior status as one did not then, nor now, seem to matter; they just don't want any journalists snooping around, period. The U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division was running the conventional side of the military ops then, and it is with their units that I embedded.
It is the 101st Airborne Division running the U.S.'s Regional Command East (RC East) since March of this year, and it is with them that I came over for this third time. Again, as an embedded journalist—a writer and photographer, really, not a deadline reporter.
I'll admit to never having been to the north, centered in Mazar-e-sherif, nor to the west, centered in Herat. The east and south, where the majority population (best estimate, 60%) Pashtun are, and Kabul as well, I know. As the minority ethnic groups the Tajik might argue differently, the Uzbeks as well, though the Hazaras have never seemed to have any voice at all, but the adage, "As the Pashtuns go, so goes Afghanistan," is far more accurate than accepting as viable dominant alternatives the exceptions such as a Tajik warlord Massoud or an Uzbek warlord Dostum. The Tajiks may think they are the rightful rulers simply from an historical perspective, the Uzbeks just want power, the Hazaras work hard and dream that someday they will be considered on par ethnically with the others, but it is the Pashtuns who dominate by sheer numbers and hardened cultural traditions. The Pashtuns are the east and south, and that's the Afghanistan that I know first-hand. The Taliban originated within the Pashtuns, and still today Talibs are mainly Pashtuns, whether Afghan or Pakistani, headquartered and infiltrating from the western, so called "lawless" Pashtun territories of Pakistan.
The present rising insurgent war is more than just Taliban fighters, though, with Haqqanni and Hezb-e-Islami factions as well as al-Qaeda, which includes Arabs, Chechens, Turks and what-have-you, and the U.S. and NATO have struggled to find an all-inclusive, one-fits-all, catchy label for them. Last year it was "ACM," for anti-coalition militants—the coalition being the U.S., its NATO partners and the Afghans. As the insurgency and fighting have increased and more American and NATO soldiers are deploying and dying, in an irony, in Big Brother double-speak, in an attempt to "put an Afghan face on it," the official term for the enemy is now "AAF," for anti-Afghan forces. It is as if by labeling the opposition in such a misleading, watered-down term, the military officers and diplomat bureaucrats who came up with this sham can deny the reality that it is the American, the British, the Canadian, the Dutch, the Pole, the French, the Romanian and other Western nations' soldiers who are doing the majority of the fighting, and it is those same Western powers whom the AAF are targeting because they know that if they can run the West out, the Afghans will collapse completely under the Taliban's fiercer, more passionate, more disciplined jihad. In a second irony, while taking themselves out of the enemy's label, the Western powers are trying to sell their own publics on the necessity of increasing their troop deployments to the war.
Double-speak, triple-speak, quadruple-speak, it makes no sense. ACM and AAF are such nebulous, passive terms, it makes me question whether their usage isn't to take the war out of the war. "Taliban" says something. "Al Qaeda" says something. Talibs are the long black-turban, long scraggily-bearded men with guns on the back of white Datsun pickup trucks, sneering, vile, and running through our brains are jumpy videotape images of them putting the muzzles of Kalashnikovs to blue burqa-cloaked women's heads and blowing them away. Al-Qaeda fly planeloads of people into World Trade Centers and with ancient curved swords chop heads off of Daniel Pearls. With the words Taliban and al-Qaeda we have an immediate, strong sense of "warrior," "violent," "vicious"—an enemy, meaning a war being fought. Anti-coalition militants? Anti-Afghan forces? ACM and AAF? What are we talking here, where's the sense of war?
In the Vietnam War, for instance, "VC" and "NVA" meant something; there was a stark essence of violence in them, and forty years later they still connote warriors, fighters, an enemy, a killing enemy, to respect and fear. Here yesterday it was ACM, today it's AAF, what tomorrow? "Anti-coalition militants" may be a proper scholarly-discourse label for the collection of groups trying to overthrow the government here, and "anti-Afghan forces" may be a half accurate description, but neither comes down and hits the nail smack on the head, in one word—short, sweet, meaningful—as "Taliban" does. And should the Afghans and their coalition Western partners lose the war, it will be they, the Taliban, not the ACM or AAF, in their long black turbans and long beards, once again running the show here. And there is no way then that they'll call their soldiers "militants" or "forces"; they will be an "army," which is what perhaps we should call them today. As for them actually winning on down the road a bit, estimates say the Taliban number 25,000 here in Afghanistan this summer, and, though no match in numbers, weaponry and assets against the coalition, with an endless pipeline of men and materiel through Pakistan, they are not losing.
That should be repeated: They are not losing.
Employing classic guerrilla tactics of small units, as small as
cells, attacking in their time and place of choosing in sharp,
violent, deadly pinpricks against a thinly spread coalition, by
killing enough British, Canadians, Dutch, Poles, French and
Americans—as crass as that may sound—the Taliban believe
they can get those representative democracies to referendum
what so many others in the past have declared, that This place
and these people just ain't worth it.
End of Part 1