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On the Front Lines in Afghanistan, Part Two

As the Iraq conflict winds down, the war in Afghanistan is, in many ways, just getting started. PJM presents the second in a series of exclusive reports from Michael Yon — our 21st-century "Ernie Pyle." (Read part one here.)

by
Michael Yon

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December 13, 2008 - 1:21 am
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Read my first PJM report from Afghanistan here.

In Iraq, there were always a few journalists who would see signs like this translated into English for humanitarian projects like the clinic shown below and would wax cynical, claiming that it was just propaganda to mask the uglier side of the occupation. I’ve heard people say things like “This is just for the cameras and the journalists who will devour lies.” Of course, if these signs were not translated into English, an equally cynical person might say, “Look, they aren’t even smart enough to translate the signs into English. How do you expect people to know about the good things you’re doing?”

Not that it matters what language signs are printed in Afghanistan: most people in Zabul Province cannot read any language. The government estimates that the literacy rate is, more or less, 15%. Not that they have any real way of measuring. It could be lower. And that is why the schools that are being built by foreigners are the most important thing happening in the country. For Afghanistan to have any hope of basic material progress in coming decades, it’s important to make sure that girls can attend those schools without fear of having acid thrown on their faces by Taliban members. Boys, for that matter, need access to education unlike the fundamentalist brainwashing provided by the Taliban-run madrassas.

As for the clinics, they are just a small start to meeting the nation’s vast health care needs. The sad truth is that for the majority of Afghan peasants, the pathetically small amount of medical care that they received over the war years when they languished in the refugee camps of Pakistan — occasional inoculations, rehydration salts to prevent deaths to children and infants from diarrhea, antibiotics that we Westerners take for granted, a modicum of hygienic assistance with childbirth — were the first instances of modern medicine available to them. These clinics, which are pretty basic by our standards, represent a huge leap forward across most of this poor, war-torn nation.

This clinic in Zabul Province, like the nearby girl’s school still under construction, is being built with foreign money.

At a moment when much of the Islamic world is suspicious of the U.S., publicizing the positive changes that Western nations have provided is essential. The enemy advertises cutting off heads, or attacking innocent civilians in India, or blowing up a train in Spain. They smile when blowing up tourists in Bali, and dance as buildings fall. We smile when babies recover and the children of illiterate shepherds and subsistence farmers learn to read. You have to be willfully blind not to know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys in this place.


This Afghan commander was shot in the leg but has not left his post. Afghan physical bravery is the stuff of legend. But seeing it here, in this man, in this place, Captain Means wanted the commander to know how much he respected his courage.

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