On the Front Lines in Afghanistan, Part Two

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.

It’s hard to say how much of this fight belongs to the Afghans, and how much is ours. It should be theirs. It won’t succeed until it is their fight — even if they need some back-up help from us. One thing is certain: We are not “rebuilding” Afghanistan; it was never built to begin with. Centuries of repelling invaders kept the country free. But, perversely, it also meant that Afghanistan never benefited from the advances that most colonial power brought to the remote, primitive places they colonized. And thirty years of war, from the day the Soviets marched in in the winter of 1979, though the internecine battles of the past decade, has destroyed much of what was there — from the roads, to the mud compounds, to a certain amount of the culture, generosity, and spirit of the people.


Captain Means and his team are preparing to go home — and will “RIP” with Captain Garrett’s team. Here, Captain Garrett shakes hands with the local NDS officer (Afghan intelligence service). The night before, three U.S. officers, CPTs Means and Garrett, LT Erikson, and I had dinner with 21 Afghans.

Dinner Afghan style. Men were seated around all four walls of the room. Captain Means apparently knew every man’s name; he seemed to introduce everyone and talked briefly about each man’s job. This is all very traditional — except for the soda!

All were hospitable. U.S. soldiers seem to like Afghans, despite that many see the situation as either hopeless or near hopeless. There is something about Afghans that resonates with Americans, and I find this true as well. Maybe it’s their fierce sense of independence, or their hospitality, but despite my personal misgivings about our probability for success in Afghanistan, I also tend to like these people. American soldiers, journalists, and foreign civilians seem to make easier friendships with Afghans than with Iraqis, for instance.

Captain Means talked with this elder, thumbing his prayer beads, about registration for the upcoming elections. The Afghans in this room seemed enthusiastic about elections.

The NDS officer (in very top photo) was sitting to my left. He said that he had worked for the Russians, and I asked if he went to any Soviet military schools. The NDS officer said he had gone to an intelligence school in Tashkent. He told of many sorts of fighters who are coming into Zabul Province, and I asked what he thought about al-Qaeda. He said that the fight between the Americans and al-Qaeda is our fight, and he has nothing against al-Qaeda. I asked what he thought of the Lithuanian Special Forces soldiers, and he said they were very good. I said those are big words coming from an Afghan man, and the whole room laughed. I asked the NDS officer when the war would end, and he said he has been fighting since he was nine-years-old, and that now he is forty, and that fighting is all he knows.


Zabul Province, the Boonies of Afghanistan

Captain Odelle Means, an Iraq war veteran, looks on approvingly as one of his men tests his new green laser site. The soldiers say they like green lasers better than red lasers, because the green can be seen from greater ranges. Weapons remain loaded here because we are deep in enemy territory with only 12 U.S. soldiers. Captain Means told me, “If we get attacked tonight, we are on our own. There won’t be any backup. Stay with Sergeant First Class Kersey and he’ll take care of you while I run the fight.”

And they do get attacked here. I told Captain Means that, as a journalist I am forbidden from using a weapon, but will carry the wounded and do whatever else he needs. Now that U.S. ranks are filled with war veterans like Captain Means, my job as a war correspondent is getting easier each year.

Hell’s Angels — Lithuanian Style:

U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Zabul Province give high marks to the Lithuanian Special Forces, who like to ride these captured Taliban motorbikes to sneak up on, and chase Taliban fighters. The “LithSof” are on their way to becoming living legends: Both Afghans and Americans report that the Taliban are afraid of the Lithuanians. Stories about them are filled with dangerous escapades and humor.

Americans say that the Lithuanians are sort of a weaponized version of Borat, who think nothing of sauntering around a base in nothing but flip-flops and underwear. “They look like mountain men. They never shave, sometimes don’t bathe, and often roll out the gate wearing nothing but body armor and weapons. Not even a t-shirt,” an American soldier told me. The Lithuanians may be a little bit nuts, but the Americans love to have them around because Lithuanians love to fight, and when you need backup, you can count on them. That contrasts starkly with many of the NATO “partners.” Maybe when your country spends almost a half-century with the Soviet boot on its neck, its first generation of free soldiers know what freedom is worth — and that you sometimes have to fight for it.


Night patrol: “Viper Team” needed resupply, and so they drove into Kandahar Air field from a remote and dangerous outpost in Zabul Province.

Please stay tuned: I’ll be in Afghanistan during most of 2009, with occasional trips to countries like Iraq. Updates can be found here at Pajamas Media.


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