Here is the third installment of "Flirting with Afghanistan," text, photos and captions by Paul Avallone. Catch up on Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
GIs inspect a school, built the previous year through US aid and contracts, and subsequently destroyed by the Taliban. 2008.
A villager says his piece in a meeting with American soldiers. 2008.
"Afghan TV": With GIs in or passing through villages, the men just hang out to watch, photographed here from a Humvee.
GIs on patrol 2008.
Thirty-six hours without sleep patrolling, exhausted GIs find comfort on their steel mattresses.Wardak province, 2008.
So, we fight in Afghanistan as a battle on the frontline in the War on Terror, or, on an even grander scale, in the Global War on Terror, or GWOT for short, and in refusing to define our enemy we then commit a cardinal error in a nation's execution of war. One would think that a nation would have learned after having committed the same error in a previous war less than fifty years earlier. Yes, in the Vietnam War. By 1967 everyone knew that the war there was no longer between the home-grown Viet Cong guerrillas and the South Vietnamese government and its American sponsors. The enemy was the North Vietnamese. Invaders. Regardless the rightness or wrongness of their cause, it was an invasion, and the Americans were fighting it. As an invasion. Fighting them. In South Vietnam. I have not read Sun Tzu but have heard of and accept completely his theory that in warfare one must strike at the heart of his enemy. A body dies without a working heart. A strike at the heart is a killing blow. A strike at the heart is not a bomb-drop here a bomb-drop there, a truce, a bomb-drop, putting off-limits the Russian freighters in the Haiphong Harbor unloading SAM missiles, more bombs here, more there, a truce. Whether or not back then America was willing to recognize and define the true enemy, regardless of the geo-political fears and cautions dictating our behavior, we did not strike at the heart of the enemy, and we lost. We did not invade the North, we did not bomb their dikes, we did not nuke 'em to the Stone Age. Insane, immoral, isn't all war? I don't know if it's one of Sun Tzu's principles in the art of war, but it's common sense: One does not go to a fight, whether it's in the playground, the sandlot, the alley, the bar—wherever—unless one is willing to bring his all and is prepared to lose his all. Lose everything. Have his hair pulled, groin kicked, teeth knocked out, eyes gouged out, and ribcage crushed to powder by a guy or guys who are just bigger and tougher and meaner than oneself. Or give it right back to him or them. If you're not prepared for both, don't go. If you do head that way, you had better have weighed every conceivable pro and con and have concluded that a total loss, your disfigurement, injury or death, is worth it. And you had better know just exactly who the hell your enemy is. And had better to have judged the fight as warranting your striking at his heart, as he, by God, will be doing the same to you. Striking at the heart.
The Vietnam War was a failed strategy for America, but just fifteen years later, recognizing and defining the real enemy and striking at its heart, America pulled off a brilliant victory in El Salvador. With, of all things, congressional peacenik restrictions on warfare that limited the number of American troops in the country to a pinhead sized fifty-five. Fifty-five. Two numbers. 55—it's not a misprint. What started as an internal guerrilla civil war within El Salvador, the American leaders and commanders soon enough recognized as a proxy war fought with men and materiel from Nicaragua, most coming through Honduras. When closing the porous borders proved impossible, America formed the Nicaraguan refugees living in Honduras into an army, the Contras, and sent them into their homeland Nicaragua. An invasion. Striking at the heart of the enemy. And it worked. Nearly overthrown by the Contras, the communist Nicaraguan government negotiated a peace, and suddenly, the civil war in El Salvador was over. No bombing of dikes, no nuking to the Stone Age, but, at the same time, accurately measuring the value of victory or defeat, and precisely defining the enemy then striking at his heart.
So, why are we in Afghanistan? Who is our enemy? How much do we value his defeat? How much are we willing to sacrifice for his defeat? How will we know when he is defeated? Where is his heart, and how do we strike at it to kill him?
I'm just a regular Joe voter, who won't even be voting this year because there is no way to get me an absentee ballot way over here and get it back in time to be a counted vote, and I'm sure not privy to National Security Council White House briefing notes, nor CIA analyses, nor Pentagon and CentCom conference calls, nor closed-door congressional Foreign Affairs Committee hearings, nor ISAF memos to the commanding American general here and his right back at them, nor Obama or McCain's advisors' whispers of the real reasons behind the candidates' foreign policy positions, but I haven't heard one word out loud from any of these leaders that truthfully, rationally, raises or attempts to answer those questions.
Now, were these same leaders, both left and right and in the media, to admit that Look, we blew it with the WMDs in Iraq, but we're there now and we're stuck because, in a nutshell, the place has got oil and lots of it, the gas-guzzling, air-conditioned, energy demanding American public, with $5/gallon gasoline and $8/gallon milk, might not be comfortable with the morality of "War for Oil," but they'd buy it. And then demand of their leaders accountability for their twenty-year energy policies of ignoring a growing China and India while restricting our own homegrown product production, and they would demand instant drilling-based resource enhancement and government-sponsored Manhattan Project-type initiatives into alternative energy sources to sooner-rather-than-later make imported oil irrelevant.
Big-picture for Iraq—Iraq now, not Afghanistan—talk all you want about "democracy" and "containing Iran" and "bases in the Middle East" and blah blah blah—it's oil. For Afghanistan… Where's the oil?
Oh, didn't anyone mention it? There is no oil in Afghanistan. Sure, there was lots of excited blabber here a few years ago about the possibility of bringing Kazakhstan oil in a pipeline through Afghanistan down to the Indian Ocean. That sounds like a pretty good reason for a strong U.S. military presence in a stable Afghanistan, but I haven't been hearing any of that talk recently. Maybe because everyone realized that the pipeline is impractical because of the cost of securing it alone. This place would have to be one very stable country to not have the thing blown up here and there on a daily basis. And, even with a heavily-armed Afghan National Army (ANA) guarding the length, with the country's cultural acceptance and encouragement of corruption—baksheesh—each little guard post and each individual guard would be selling spigot rights, and the line would be tapped into the entire length, so that the drips that came out going into the ocean tanker at the port end would be so miniscule that they could be dabbed away with one of those little penile piss-dribble wipe stones.
Since there's no oil to be fighting for, and since, with the increased Taliban insurgency this year, the word is finally now being widely broadcast that the insurgents are coming across from their Pakistan-based training camps, another argument is coming out between the lines, and it too fails to define the enemy, judge the value of the fight, lay out an end-state, or rationalize an aim for the heart.
This undercover argument says that America owes it to Afghanistan to
rebuild it because America, after helping the Afghans defeat the Russians, left the Afghans—"neglected" them—to make something of their country all by their little ol' warring, helpless selves. It was our neglect, it is argued, that allowed Afghanistan to fall into chaos, which led to the Taliban taking over, which led to al-Qaeda being welcomed in, which led to 9-11, etcetera. The argument is based in part on guilt-trip, part on practicality. The poor country needs our help to avoid chaos; chaos will allow al-Qaeda a stronghold again. And in rebuilding, to rebuild we must at the same time secure the country—"hold it," if you will—against an internal/external insurgent enemy.
Isn't it a bit presumptuous of us to believe that the Afghans would think that they needed us or would ask for our help? Say what I will about the Afghan culture, and a lot of it is not good, but I will give it this much: The people are extremely proud and self-reliant, and they neither like to be told what to do nor told what they need and surely don't like to be told what they need to do. Don't misunderstand, the Afghans are shameless in asking for and taking whatever one has—a stick of gum, a cookie, a pen, a well, a road, a school, a hospital, a factory, a hydroelectric dam, a box of cookies, two pens, three pens, an MRE, a Humvee, a thousand Humvees, four pens, a case of MREs, a pallet of bottled water, a jingle truckload of bottled water, a fleet of brand-new Ford Ranger pickup trucks for their ANP, fifty thousand BDU uniforms for their ANA, a hundred thousand Kalashnikov rifles—but they are too proudly independent to allow there to be any strings attached to their taking. Any, period, end of discussion. You want to give it to them, give it—ask for nothing in return. Because you're not going to get it. It works both ways; when an Afghan gives he has no strings attached and expects nothing in return. Giving, sharing, hospitality is a part of his culture, and it is a shame for an Afghan not to offer, and as shameful to add strings to the offer.
Americans gave to the Afghans Stinger missiles and the training in their employment to defeat the Russians, but that's where the American influence would end, regardless if America had followed the Stingers with dollars, well diggers, State Department advisors and brigades of the 82nd Airborne. Don't accept that? Thirty-five thousand deployed U.S. soldiers presently in-country later, along with more than 150 billion dollars burned over time, as well as road-pavers, well-diggers and who-knows-how-many State Department advisors, and in 2008 we've got an increasingly aggressive and successful Taliban insurgency against a weak, corrupt federal government that is still standing only because it's backed by those 35,000 GIs and another 20,000 from NATO. What the hell do you think we could have done in the early 1990's to have kept chaos from reigning? How many American troops would we have had to have deployed over here then?
It is the Afghans and their culture that is solely to blame for their decline into chaos after the Russians picked up and took their marbles home. The Afghans are a warrior culture, no denying it, and a people who can be rallied to unify to fight an invader and, once the invader is thrown out, they explode into their own tribes to fight each other. That that American aid (the Stingers, etc.), in a clever move in Cold War Risk, was key to the mujahedeen victory over the Russians, does not mean that America was any more responsible for the aftermath than France, helping us throw out the British in our revolution, would have been responsible to ensure that afterwards Massachusetts didn't attack Rhode Island and George Washington didn't lob cannon balls John Adams' way.
It may be a harsh, harsh, harsh reality to admit, but Massoud, Dostum, Hekmatyar, Abdul Haq and the rest of the warlords were not and are not any George Washingtons or John Adams'.
It may be harsher still to declare, in these times of Western non-judgmentalism, that the Afghan culture is on a moral par—or, even, on a practical life-sustaining par—with that of America and the West.
With no viable argument for American economic self-interests in Afghanistan, (such as oil), none to sustain any longer the terrorist training camps rationale, (their camps are in Pakistan), and none given rationalizing for a strategic geo-political stronghold in the area, (Iraq will have to do, as it does have the oil), as both presidential candidates Obama and McCain are one-upping each other in increasing, almost to doubling, the American military in the country, I expect that the sloganeering justifications to be coming our way now will be emotionally based, heart-string arguments playing on an American guilt for past neglect and the overall generosity and kindness of a modern, rich American nation to a 7th century, impoverished, shambled one.
There are more poor or impoverished countries and peoples in the world than wealthy ones, and Americans instinctively know that giving to each and every one as we're presently giving to Afghanistan—thirty-five thousand troops and about thirty-five billion dollars a year—would bring our own country into shambles and ruinous poverty. A hundred countries could properly demand what the Afghans are getting from us. Choices must be made then. The crazed uncle in the attic, remember?
Until now, we've assumed that guy up there to be an uncle, but he may not be. He may be a vagrant who climbed the trellis, broke the window and just staked himself a comfortable spot out of the rain and cold. He's getting louder, we know that. We're sending up food now six times a day, and double portions each time, and the tray's always coming down empty. Our house cat's been missing since last week, and we haven't seen Rex the Black Lab since Tuesday, and something is starting to smell like dead meat from up there. What is he doing up there, really? Who, really, is this man? Blood relative or street vagrant? We don't really know, but one thing we sure do know is, for all we've done and are doing for him, we've yet to hear a thanks.
Then again, remember, what one gives to Afghans one gives with no strings attached, even that bare-hair-thin string called a thank-you. Afghans make marvelous, generous hosts but extremely demanding and taking, ungracious guests. And, in an insane irony, turning the uncle-in-the-attic metaphor upside-down, diplomatically we the Americans and NATO are the "invited guests" here and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) is the host, yet we're doing all the giving and they all the taking. Hot damn, if there were a hint of thankfulness in the Afghan culture (to anyone but Allah), instead of those five-times-a-day prayers just to Allah, the Afghans would reserve one, just one, to say Thank you, Osama bin Laden and your al-Qaeda for 9-11, for you brought us all these goodies for free!
It may all lead to nowhere and nothing except blood and dollars dropped down that dry well, but we did throw out the then-feared and despised Taliban, who had effectively brought law-and-order at the muzzle of a gun and ignored any bureaucratic aspects of governing—such as roads, schools, water, electricity—and who (hold the phone here, another irony coming up) nowadays are looking better and better to the Pashtun Afghans, as at least the Talibs are Pashtun, brothers, unlike the fifty-thousand foreign "infidels" who have "invaded" their land. And as those who threw out the Taliban and have given billions of dollars worth of all the bureaucratic governing things the Taliban ignored presently plan to increase their "infidel" numbers in the country, (Warning: We are parked squarely in Irony Central now), they, these "infidels," the Americans and NATO partners, will be mistrusted, despised and hated even more. And you think you're going to get a thank-you? Remember, the uncle's crazy, or he's a vagrant, not even a blood relative. Or, is he? Again, who the hell is he?
Don't ask, don't tell as applied to Afghanistan suits our leaders just fine, and the military folks on the ground here are expected to unquestioningly fight a war and (
re)build a country "putting an Afghan face on it." In a tiny spark of wisdom in recognizing that the Afghans do look at us as infidel invaders, our leaders, in a desperate attempt to downplay and whitewash our presence here, demand that all our gifts of schools, clinics, roads, hydro-electric dams, pens, bags of wheat, battlefield victories, government institutions and standards and practices have an "Afghan face." That is, have Afghan government up front, whether federal or local officials, the ANA, ANP, whatever, as if it is the Afghans who are bringing and giving the wells, schools, clinics, roads, pens, bags of wheat, victories, institutions, etcetera. The Afghan people may be ignorant and uneducated, but they are not stupid, and they certainly know their own culture and fellow Afghans, and regardless of the face the U.S. tries to put on the giving, the Afghans know that the gifts don't come from their fellow Afghans. Afghans give as hosts only, it is shameful not to, but they are tribal in their sense of obliged shared responsibility, not provincial and definitely not federal. They know their own people. They know that their politicians in their provincial capitals or in Kabul, if they had a road, a school, a bag of wheat, or a hydroelectric dam to give away, they'd keep it for themselves or for their own tribe rather than let some other tribe get it. Remember those competing warlords after jointly throwing out the Russians and overthrowing the communist government turning on each other, If I can't have it neither can you? Without being negatively judgmental, allowing Afghans to be whichever way they want to be—This land is your land, this land is my land—should we not at least, if we're giving away those bags of wheat, hydroelectric dams and our son's lives and limbs, know who we're giving them to?
That the Afghans have made so little of their land for more than two thousand years is due equal parts to fate and choice. There is an Afghan saying that goes something like this: When God made the earth, He had all kinds of rocks left over, and He dumped them all in Afghanistan. I would add, And then he created the Pakistanis, so that the Afghans could have a permanent enemy and someone to hate and to blame for all their problems, and I wouldn't be able to find an Afghan even who would disagree with that. More, the Afghan would go on and expound for thirty minutes why the Pakistanis are the root of all their problems and, what God didn't do with the rocks, the Pakistanis are doing just because they're Pakistanis.
The Afghans do deserve credit for surviving on and making something, however little, out of such a worthless land. They have taken those rocks and the dirt of a dry earth and without mortar or cement have built their houses and villages, and they have taken those rocks and terraced the inclined foothills and with them have laid down and lined irrigation ditches to bring the water from the snow-covered mountains down into dry soil to grow their patches of wheat, vegetables, fruits and nuts, hashish and, of course, opium poppies. More importantly, centuries ago they realized that the real value of their land was in its geography, as a transverse point, a way station, between East and West, and they made themselves the gatekeepers, the toll takers, living contently on the tariffs extracted, mostly by bandits, for little or no work done and even less product produced or provided. When conquerors invaded, from Alexander, to the Persians, to the Mongols, to the British to the Russians, the Afghans collapsed docilely, holding out their hands and taking what was offered, then asking for more and taking it happily, then, when a return (those strings) was asked or demanded of them, they unified into a strong force of absolute passive aggressive disobedient non-compliance, or directly aggressive warrior armies, with the positive end result the same: the invaders, considering the effort way not worth the bottom line of what they'd get from the land or people, leaving. Leaving the Afghans with nothing more than they'd had before the invasion and, apparently, winsomely content with that. Anyone got the pot of chai boiled up yet?
Ignoring for now the Islamic religious and cultural conversion post-Mohammed, the harshness, the miserableness, the near absolute worthlessness of most of their land itself is a pretty valid excuse for the Afghans having given the world nothing really of tangible value. No moon shots, no wheel, no vaccines, no Boulder Dams, no 32-gigabyte jump drives, no Citizen Kanes, no William Faulkners, no Grouch Marx' even. Again, ignoring for now the Islamic religious and cultural conversion, the common American soldiers' speculation upon first reacting to the Afghan landscape and people in a sense of wondered disbelief, "Man, it's like going back to Biblical times," is less a condemnation or insult upon the people than a quiet statement of reality.
Yes, indeed, and then came the Americans.
The all-powerful Americans it was back in 2002-03. As soldiers, whether in the cities, villages or settlements, we would arrive, and the men and boys would stop what they were doing and just stare at us, mouths often agape, eyes intense and curious—it was awe. They would even crowd close, not to touch, they would not do that, but just to draw near, pulled in by the power. All-powerful. And that's what it was, what they were in awe of. We were taller than them, bigger than them—healthy, strong, well fed, well bred Americans—and our clothes and weapons and equipment were different and modern. And deadly. So deadly that, even if the people had not seen our brothers before us in combat action, they'd heard the stories about them, and to them we were the same soldiers, it did not matter, of a power that was so mighty that it had just defeated in a matter of weeks the Taliban enemy that their own brothers of the Northern Alliance could not defeat in years of fighting and still now, today, 2008, seven years later, would not have been able to defeat. They would still be stalemated, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, at a draw. Heralded worldwide as great warriors, the Afghan fighter has an undeserved reputation, unless it's his bravery we're talking about. He's got bravery in spades, as I've witnessed dozens of times, as he'll run toward the fight, run toward the bullets. Our own militia soldiers, back in '02-'03 when I was a warrior too here, would insist on putting themselves in front of us to take the bullets to protect us. It's a part of their culture, a good part, where a man's courage is a part of his honor. As for the other qualities of soldiering—discipline, accountability, responsibility, technical knowledge, tactics and consistency—the Afghan is piss-poor at best. For one, he just doesn't care. It's the inshallah (if God wills it) part of the culture. Leaving everything to fate. For another, he just doesn't like to take orders. It's the stubborn, hard-headed independent part of the culture. That hard-headed independence is the great irony of the culture that is tribal, paternal, warlord. A man is subservient to the family, tribe and warlord, yet little more than a showing of respect for the family, tribal elders and warlord is asked of him, except that he not bring shame upon the family or tribe. Shame—remember the flatulence?—is big in the culture, it's huge, and it might be the best explanation for the Afghan warriors' reckless bravery and piss-poor soldiering. There is family and tribal shame in running away from the bullets; there is none in not caring about or being lousy or mediocre at one's job. Inshallah. Ironic also is that soldiering is the perfect job for an Afghan. There is almost no skill required—just know how to load and shoot a Kalashnikov, no aiming necessary—with even less work. Soldiering is like a family or tribe, with meals and lodging provided, and it's men being with men all the time. All the time, which is what Afghanistan is all about. Men doing nothing, hanging around with men. Basically, daily soldiering. Even a couple of Afghan soldiers on gate guard duty, there will be with them two or three more not on duty but just hanging out and maybe another four or five civilians too—all sitting, squatting, whatever, just shooting the breeze. Oh, yes, and drinking chai. Hour after hour after hour. In no hurry to do anything else. Which makes the Taliban/Northern Alliance stalemate years of the 1990's seem reasonable and natural. I was not there among them, but I can imagine a group from one stumbling upon a group of their enemy sitting around drinking chai, and the enemy inviting the first to join them, and they all do, rinsing the chai cups and boiling up a couple more pots, chit-chatting the afternoon away. They separate in the evening, and the next day, one group casually shoots a couple of RPGs at the other from one ridgeline, and the other returns fire with a couple of RPGs, and they separately call it a day and report to their commands it a battle well fought.
Then along comes the U.S. in a wham, bamm, 30-second match knocking out the Taliban, it's normal that the people would be awed by such a power. A power that had rained down 500-pound bombs from heard but unseen jets, and we too a year later, when needed, all powerful, would beckon those jets above. And call them down to fly low, at treetop level at ear-splitting decibels, shaking the ground like an earthquake, for their split-second flight overhead, terrifying. All powerful.
It's no wonder the people would stop and crowd and stare. In awe. That stopping and staring and crowding—for ten minutes, for an hour, it was the same—we called it "Afghan TV." We were on Afghan TV. We were the only channel, we were on all the channels. We were the show. No cameras, no television sets needed; it was live. Must See Live TV. We would leave the villages, and we would know that the Afghans would go back to their homes and, like us around the water cooler a few years earlier rehashing the previous night's Seinfeld episode, they'd be replaying the show they'd just seen, The Americans Coming to Town.
By 2006, the awe was gone. As well as the crowding. In the cities the people would just glance up and by at the American soldiers, then go back to what they were doing. In the villages they'd still stop and stare, it was still Afghan TV. But the mystique of power was gone, though the Americans' equipment, weapons and vehicles were yet again bigger and even more deadly. Without that mystique the Americans were accessible, approachable, and the kids would come close, to ask, with hands out, for candy, or "Pen," or "Book," in English. No question mark in the asking. Just, "Pen." "Book."
In the villages this year, 2008, it's still Afghan TV, and in the friendly ones, the kids will crowd the soldiers, chattering "Pen," "Pen," "Pen," quick like clucking hens—again, statements, demands, not questions. In the unfriendly villages in Taliban sanctuaries, where the nature of warfare demands so many American patrols go, it is still Afghan TV, but the boys don't come close, and will even be behind the men, who are all squatting, silent, with stares that are closed, angry, threatening. And one knows that these Afghans would change the channel if they could, because this show they don't want to watch. Most times they are not even Taliban, they're just villagers, but the Taliban are around, near, somewhere, or are coming back, and the men fear the Talib reprisal should it be learned that they spoke with the American soldiers, never mind actually helped them. In a nutshell, the villagers fear the Taliban, they do not fear the Americans. They would change the channel, they don't want this live show; they just want the Americans not to have come, and their hard stares relate that. There is no good that can come to them from the Americans' visit. When questioned by the soldiers, they mumble indecipherable answers and shoo away the relevance of being questioned with fibs, and then, noting the politeness of the Americans, confident that they will not be harmed by them no matter what, they grow ever bolder and laugh it all off with the outright lie, translated, "Taliban? No, no, we have not seen Taliban here for two years. Two years. More." And, please, their eyes are saying behind the false chuckles and spoken words, leave, leave us alone.