THREE WEEKS after 9/11, I traveled to Northern Afghanistan, to the tiny sliver of the country not under Taliban control. Khwaja Bahauddin, the war capital of the Northern Alliance, was backwards even by Afghan standards.
The essay below was written in December 2001. Read it as a missive from a more optimistic moment in our misbegotten “War on Terror.” Or better, as a love poem to a place and a people I feel blessed to have met.
After a Mad Max race across the desert, after seven days bouncing around in Bulgarian cargo planes and huge Russian trucks, you finally arrive here, at a flimsy card table, manufactured somewhere in the old Soviet Union, by the edge of a river.
This table marks the end of the Russian Empire. A soldier, handsome, with green eyes and angular Slavic features, smokes cigarettes and desultorily examines documents. You wonder what did he do to deserve such a God-forsaken post, so far from Moscow.
The Soviet Union may have dissolved, and Tajikistan may be an independent state, but its borders are still controlled by Russia. So a handful of soldiers man this post, surrounded by dust and nothingness, dreaming of “R&R” and the bright lights of Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, six hours away by four-wheel drive.
After years of drought, the river — called the Oxus by Herodotus, but the Amu Darya by current atlases, and the Panj by the people who live here — is little more than an overgrown stream. It seems too slight to mark an international border, to mark a cultural divide.
On this side, the Cyrillic alphabet; on the other, Persian. On this side, the men wear shirts and pants; on the other, baggy pajamas and turbans. On this side a certain level of law and order; on the other, 23 years of war.
Of course, there is no bridge. The “ferry” is a barge pulled by winches. The barge is within Taliban artillery range, but they haven’t fired on it for at least a month.
A truck — half wood, half metal, only its chassis and motor original, a handmade piece of folk art with six-wheel drive — rolls onto the ferry and is winched across. It is your truck; you pack it with equipment, military rations, water.
The Russian soldier looks at you, looks at your passport, stamps it. You clamber onto the truck and get pulled across the river.
Strangely dressed men shout in Dari. You walk to a shack, like no other passport control you’ve ever seen. A man squats on a dirty carpet on a dirt floor. You squat with him.
He writes your data in a ledger no one will ever read. You exit into the sunlight.
You see mud houses that might have looked modern in Babylon. You see an old man, perhaps 45, hunched over, carrying a huge load of sticks on his back, walking a vast expanse, seemingly from nowhere to nowhere. You see adolescent boys, AK-47s slung over their shoulders as casually as book bags.
You are in Afghanistan.
The sky is so black here, so filled with stars. You can see the Milky Way, a thin band of dust in the middle of the sky.
The night is dark, houses generally lit by a single kerosene lamp. Everything shuts down at sunset, the Afghans retreating into their homes, leaving the streets empty, except for packs of hungry dogs.
The stars are the brightest objects in your field of vision. You understand why the ancients made them gods.
In the morning, children walk their oxen into the green irrigated fields. They plow as their ancestors did 3,000 years ago, a yoke around two beasts, pulling a wooden stick through the clotted earth.
A man in a chapan leads three camels. Little girls fill yellow jugs with brackish river water. A man with a face like a prophet rides an Arabian stallion. If you look a certain way, if you make only minor adjustments, if you ignore the guns, the RPGs, the jeeps, you could be in biblical times.
In the week you traveled from New York to Northern Afghanistan, you also traveled from 2001 to the Iron Age.
English and Sanskrit and Russian and Latin are Indo-European languages (they used to be called Indo-Aryan until the ‘40s when Hitler gave Aryan a bad name) because 3,000 years ago someone around here invented the axle. With the axle and the already domesticated horse came the chariot.
With the chariot came what was then-unimaginable war-making ability. Some people from this land headed south and conquered India. They invented Hinduism and wrote the Mahabharata to commemorate their victories.
Others headed west to Egypt and Greece. The languages we speak are descended from the language of these conquerors. The word in Dari for brother is . . . brother.
You can see it in the faces. In most third world countries the faces of the poor and dispossessed are darker than your own, the hair either tight curls or black and shiny. Here, you could take the little beggar girl in the red scarf, change her outfit, clean her up, and she looks like she could be your son’s private school classmate, her father an investment banker instead of a goatherd.
Green eyes, light hair, aquiline features, these inhabitants of Northern Afghanistan are the original Aryan people, the conquerors of the ancient world, who spawned your ancestors.
But we of the Western democracies have advanced since the invention of the axle. Here, in this most remote and primitive part of this primitive and remote country, life is harder than it was 3,000 years ago.
Despite every third man carrying an AK-47, despite being eight miles from the Taliban front line, despite the thud of B-52 strikes, I felt utterly safe. Back then we were as exotic to the Afghans as they were to us. I was enchanted. I had never been anywhere so primitive, so timeless, so pure.
Yes, I was naïve.
Your first two weeks in Khwaja Bahauddin you live in Massoud’s house, the house in which he was killed. His bodyguards tell you the story of his death. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the "Lion of the Panjshir," the scourge of the Russians, the military and moral leader of the Northern Alliance, had by the summer of 2001 become tired of life. In a tour of western Europe, he, like Martin Luther King, had predicted his own death.
At least, that is the explanation given by his acolytes for the extraordinary lapse of security that resulted in his murder. His killers, two Arabs carrying Belgian passports, posed as journalists. For five weeks, they lived at the Foreign Ministry compound next door, going to the front, shooting interviews, waiting.
Several Western journalists warned Massoud there was something off about these two Belgians. They had come in through Taliban lines, brought in by someone with Taliban ties, and despite their Belgian passports, they certainly looked like Arabs.
Nonetheless, on September 9, Massoud agreed to an interview. The “journalists” walked the 50 yards from the Foreign Ministry, entered his home, and set up their gear. None of the bodyguards checked them, or their equipment. The “reporter” had C4 plastic explosive strapped to his body. A simple pat-down would have revealed his intentions.
Massoud entered the room, shook hands, sat down. One question, something incongruous, and the reporter set off a spark, ignited the C4, blew himself up, shattered all the windows, and killed Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Two days later, the World Trade Center massacre. If it hadn’t been for that terrorist attack and America’s response, Massoud’s death would have been the end of the Northern Alliance and, thus, the consolidation of Taliban rule throughout Afghanistan.
The Taliban front lines were only eight miles from Massoud’s house. Little more than a handful of troops, and a river, kept them from attacking Khwaja Bahauddin. But Massoud didn’t know Osama bin Laden’s plans.
After all his victories against the Russians, after taking Kabul in 1992, lately, Massoud had known little but defeat. Ousted from Kabul in 1996, thrown out of Taliqan, the Northern Alliance provisional capital, in 1999, perhaps he saw his inevitable end.
Perhaps he could not bear further defeat. Perhaps rather than watch the destruction of his Northern Alliance, he shook the “Belgians’” hands, sat down for a last interview and chose death.
Would things have gone better for Afghanistan and America, had Massoud not been killed?
As president, he would not have been as corrupt as Hamid Karzai. He certainly would not have been seen as the West’s lackey.
Of all the warlords and politicians Massoud had the greatest legitimacy, the deepest right to rule. Karzai had none. We imposed Karzai on Afghanistan because he fit our image of a proper Afghan leader. Sadly he didn’t fit many Afghans’ image of a leader.
“In America, do men beat their wives?”
The Afghans find us as exotic as we find them. Faiyuz, a sweet-faced 19 year old (who looks 15), takes advantage of a quiet moment to try to learn about the West.
“No,” you reply. In the West, wife-beating is frowned upon. You admit it occasionally happens, but it is shameful. We consider wife-beating one of the worst things a man can do. Your answer boggles Faiyuz’s mind. You see the confusion as he tries to process this odd information.
“So do the women beat the men?”
You laugh and take the opportunity to ask him about Afghan male-female relationships.
Yes, his mother and sisters wear burqas. For them to walk down the street showing their face would be as embarrassing as a Western woman walking down Fifth Avenue topless.
No, the men don’t cook or clean. The men work, women don’t, they take care of all household tasks.
Yes, men do get married to women whose face they have never seen until the wedding night. The men ask their mothers to check and see if their betrothed is pretty.
You return to the question of the burqa. Afghans must be irritated at our Western obsession with this custom. What is the point, you ask? Wouldn’t Afghan men enjoy seeing the faces of women?
Of course they would, Faiyuz admits. Young men would love to see strange women’s faces and hair. But they don’t want anybody else to see their sisters’ faces, or their wives'. If a woman’s face were to be seen in public, the whole town would gossip. It would bring great shame on the family.
Faiyuz tells you a story. In his town, two years ago, a neighbor of his was to be married to a young girl. In a month, they would be man and wife. Naturally, the boy wants to see his future bride. He walks to her house, knocks on the door.
She opens it and invites him in. She makes him tea. They sit on the floor and chat. Of course, they dare not touch. Her brother comes home. He sees the neighbor boy sitting quietly with his sister. He takes his AK-47, shoots and kills his sister (the “slut”), then shoots and kills the boy.
The boy’s father is outraged. He demands revenge, demands justice. The village elders reject his plea. Clearly, the killing is justified. After all, he was sitting with a woman not his relative. Killing the sister is never questioned. A small fine is paid to the boy’s family and that is that.
With death as its penalty, premarital heterosexual sex is rare in rural Afghanistan. By law, only the women are stoned, but the men get shot by indignant fathers or brothers.
“In your country do men have sex with donkeys?” a BBC translator asks.
“No actually, we prefer our own species,” replies the witty Englishman.
Under questioning, the translator admits he has had sex with donkeys, but only a long time ago, when he was 15. Of course in Afghanistan, bestiality is less dangerous than heterosexuality. The donkey’s father won’t be looking for revenge.
Perhaps this is just a Western secular humanist notion, but what happens when adolescent males don’t have an opportunity to relieve their sexual urges? Maybe they sublimate them into violence.
Issa is looking at an old copy of Time magazine. You point out a picture of Yasser Arafat. You ask him “Who is that?” He doesn’t know. You tell him. Of course, he has heard of the president of Palestine, even has an opinion about him, but in a land without mass media, he has never seen his picture.
You find a page of pictures of Afghan leaders. These faces he knows. You point at Burhanuddin Rabbani, the president of the Northern Alliance. “Rabbani khub?” (Khub, one of the few words in Dari you have learned means cool, or good.)
“Khub.” He replies. You knew that would be his answer. Of course he likes Rabbani. He is a Northern Alliance soldier and Rabbani is his president.
You point at a picture of Massoud. Issa has fought alongside Massoud since he was a boy. He touches his heart and looks at you with his big brown eyes. He loves Massoud. He says his name with feeling. “Ahmad Shah Massoud.” It is as if you had asked Patroclus how he felt about Achilles. For Issa, Massoud is as khub as a man can be.
Osama bin Laden? “Ney khub, bin Laden terrorist.” Terrorist is one of the few words in English that Issa knows.
You ask him about Abdul Haq, the Pashtun commander executed a few days earlier by the Taliban. “Abdul Haq khub.” Despite being a Pashtun — Issa like most Northern Alliance soldiers is Tajik — Haq was a hero in the war against the Soviets, and unlike many other commanders, he never fought Massoud so Issa likes him.
You decide to give him some easy ones. “Taliban?”
“Taliban haram, Taliban terrorist.” Haram means "unclean," the opposite of halal, which means "kosher." Issa gets worked up. “Pakistan terrorist.” You know what he means. Various soldiers have given you the Northern Alliance party line, over cups of tea, over chess games. The Taliban, they tell you, is a creation of the ISI, the Pakistani secret service.
“Taliban ney Afghanistan. Taliban Pakistan.” For Issa and his Northern Alliance comrades, the Taliban doesn’t represent anyone in Afghanistan. It is a foreign invading army financed by Pakistan, and thus, in their eyes, by Pakistan’s superpower protector, the United States. You wonder what Pashtuns in the south would say to the same question.
Issa points to a picture of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun mujahideen commander. “Hekmatyar haram.” He stares at you intensely. Hekmatyar received more funding from the West than any other commander during the jihad against the Soviets. After the Soviet withdrawal, he fought Massoud for control of Kabul. Their artillery battles destroyed the heart of the city in the early 1990s. He is more hated than anyone, more than the Taliban, more than Osama bin Laden, perhaps even more than Pakistan by Northern Alliance soldiers.
So far, you have known what Issa would say to all your questions. Now you decide to get tricky. You point to General Dostum, the Uzbek warlord presently attacking the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum, a brutal and rapacious commander, first fought for the Soviets against the Mujahideen. He switched sides when he saw the tide was turning and for several years fought alongside Massoud.
Then, in typical warlord fashion, at a crucial moment he betrayed Massoud and joined Hekmatyar in an assault on Kabul. All this history would make you think Issa would hate him. But things aren’t so simple in Afghanistan. In 1997, when both threatened by the Taliban, Massoud and Dostum concluded an alliance. Now Dostum is a key leader of the Northern Alliance[WH1] .
So you point to Dostum and wonder what Issa will reply. Can he forgive the ex-communist general’s perfidy, his betrayals of the Mujahideen and of Massoud? If not, how can he square their current alliance?
Issa answers immediately, without any doubt in his mind. He tells you Dostum used to be haram, but now he is khub. When he fought Massoud he was bad. Now that he allied himself with him he is good.
Despite yourself, you have to admire the simplicity, the almost Viking quality to Issa’s political thought. He who fights my leader, my lord, is evil, but once he joins him, all is forgiven, he is good.
I was lucky.
Most Americans experienced Afghanistan from behind eight-foot-high T-walls or from inside armored personnel carriers. When we arrived in Takhar Province in October 2001, the only American boots on the ground were a handful of Special Forces hiding in the hills, calling airstrikes on Taliban positions.
We few journalists had no guards. We slept on the floor in locals’ homes. We rented rooms in bombed out buildings for $1 a night. No wonder we had more fun (and liked Afghanistan more) than the journalists and soldiers who came later.
Your first day in Kabul, bright and sunny, standing outside your Western-looking house on Wazir Agbar Khan in the best neighborhood in town. It has taken five days to travel the 250 miles from Takhar province in the north, your Jeep rarely topping seven miles an hour through the mountain-goat paths marked as highways on your map.
You’ve driven through minefields, carefully following the tracks of the truck in front of you. You’ve watched drivers fix flat tires — five of them in one day — by sewing the inner tube then vulcanizing the patch with gunpowder. You’ve chatted with bandits who fortunately fear your Northern Alliance escort — six soldiers but only one gun — enough not to rob you.
Two weeks ago, Kabul had been under Taliban rule. Journalists now dine in ex-Taliban restaurants, live in ex-Taliban houses, probably hire ex-Taliban help. The Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani soldiers had been the rich foreigners two weeks ago. Now you are.
Your house, built 34 years ago by a rich businessman, has a bar, bathtubs, sit-down toilets. You don’t yet realize the plumbing doesn’t work. Before the communist coup, before the Russian invasion, before the fraternal destruction of downtown Kabul by Mujahideen liberators, the elite of Kabul was optimistic enough, Westernized enough to build such a house, a house that could be in Southern California.
Two weeks before, Mazar-i-Sharif fell to General Dostum of the Northern Alliance. American pinpoint bombing of Taliban front lines shattered the morale of the jihadis. The Afghani fighters realized who was going to win and deserted, abandoning their Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani comrades to their fates.
After Mazar, the Kalakata front collapsed and Taliqan fell. So did Herat, so did Kabul. Northern Alliance soldiers had told you repeatedly that the Taliban was fundamentally a foreign invading force in Afghanistan, financed by the Pakistanis, financed by the Americans, financed by bin Laden, that Afghans had no loyalty to it. You had doubted them. Now you realize it might be true.
It is time to unload the three big Kamaz trucks with all the gear you brought from Khwaja Bahauddin. When you first arrived in Afghanistan six weeks ago, you unloaded the trucks yourself. You’ve learned better. Now you will supervise, let Afghans do the heavy lifting.
A crowd of workers, boys, and men, surround the trucks. First, the sacks of water bottles. Children, seven-year olds, lift the heavy sacks. The bags are bigger than they are. Some boys fall to the ground under their weight. And yet, they don’t complain. Indeed, they fight and struggle, push and shove, for the right to labor. They need the money. Some of these children support their families. If they work, perhaps their families will eat.
A man approaches you, speaks English to you. He shows you his diploma from school. He is Pashtun, the first Pashtun you’ve met. Everybody up north, every Afghan you have befriended, has been Tajik. You’ve seen the occasional Uzbek or Hazari, but until Kabul, you have never met a Pashtun.
He tells you he is out of work. His father is out of work. He needs a job. Do you need a translator? You say no, you have translators. He says he will come tomorrow. He asks you for money, “Because I am hungry.” Up north, no man had ever begged from you. Children and women, yes, but not grown men. You are taken aback. Perhaps things are different here in Kabul.
After the water and food are unloaded come the cases of satellite equipment. The children want to carry these fragile cases. You push them away. “Only men,” you say. You don’t want electronic equipment dropped.
Watching all the heavy lifting, you wonder how these workers will get paid. Twenty men and boys are carrying loads, pushing each other away to get the opportunity to lift the heaviest cases. How can you tell, after it is all done, who worked hardest, who just stood around?
Of course, you can’t. You hope Hakim or Maboub or Helim, trusted translators you’ve brought with you from Khwaja Bahauddin, can figure it out. You walk through the compound, checking that all your gear has been put in the appropriate place. After five days on trucks, all the cases are covered in fine dust, but so far, nothing seems to be broken.
The doors to the compound are shut. Helim goes outside with a stack of money. At current exchange rates, a million Afghanis is about 20 dollars. The smallest bill, 10,000 Afghanis, is 20 cents. The crowd surrounds Helim. They fill the street, shouting, clawing, pushing. He starts to hand out money, perhaps 50 US cents per worker. The crowd goes wild. It sounds and feels like a riot. They shove each other trying to get closer to Helim, closer to the money. He has a stack of Afghanis in his hand; they attack him like hungry dogs.
Helim retreats into the compound. He tries to shut the door. The mob pushes it open. He hands more money, perhaps 50,000 Afghanis through the opening. A small boy has pushed his way to the front; he is being crushed by the crowd against the metal door. He is crying, but he sticks his hand inside as the door is finally slammed shut.
You will never forget that sight. A seven-year-old boy, who had done a man’s work, slammed against a door, crying in pain, and not getting the 30 or 50 cents he deserves.
Kabul is a desperate city, desperate people fighting over scraps. Up north, the poverty is more picturesque, more timeless. Money is more irrelevant, subsistence agriculture is the way people eat. Here there is food in the market, but people don’t have the money to buy it. You have money, they have guns. For the first time, you feel danger.
When we arrived in October we had no idea the war would be over so quickly. Since all the major population centers were in the hands of the Taliban, we assumed it would be six months before Kabul fell. But American air power and Northern Alliance boots on the ground proved an unbeatable combination. B-52s functioned as Northern Alliance artillery and within six weeks, all over the country, even in Kandahar, the Taliban disintegrated.
We never expected them to fall so quickly, but even less did we expect them to return. It is a sign of our political and military failure that such an unlikable group did not remain in the dustbin of history.
While cleaning up after a dust storm, you have a frightening thought.
The day before had been warm and pleasant. But as you were getting ready for bed — actually, bed is a misnomer, you sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag in a room with four other journalists — you heard the wind pick up, you saw the cloud of dust. You had been told of the thousand-day wind. You know the damage it can do. You secure your gear, close the doors, and shut the windows.
Throughout the night you hear the pounding of the sand. It sounds like a rainstorm, like a hurricane. In the morning, the storm over, you reach for your glasses. Something is wrong, the world is still out of focus. You realize that your lenses are caked with dust even though you are inside a battened down house. You look outside. The top of the shack has been blown off. Your satellite dish, rated for 100-mph winds, has been knocked off its axis. Two inches of fine powder cover every surface. The sky is yellow.
The Afghan soldiers you share the house with aren’t particularly concerned. These dust storms are a common occurrence. They just stay inside until it ends.
Five hundred years ago, this part of Afghanistan had been forested. To smelt iron, people chopped down trees for firewood. They chopped down a lot of trees. Deforestation led to the erosion of topsoil, leaving only this fine dust you are always breathing.
Without topsoil, agriculture became precarious. Resources became scarce. When resources become scarce, be they food, or water, or women, people fight over them. Maybe, you think, the problem with Afghanistan, this ancient civilization, this trade route between Rome and China, this intellectual center where algebra was invented 800 years ago, isn’t political or cultural, but ecological.
Now some people say that we are destroying the earth in a similar way that Afghanis destroyed their forests 500 years ago. If that is true, then perhaps, perhaps, you were wrong when you thought Afghanistan was a vision of the past, that in Afghanistan you could see how people lived thousands of years ago.
Perhaps, if the environmentalists are right, if we are overpopulating the earth and destroying the resources we need to survive, if we are sliding towards an environmental apocalypse, if we are turning our planet into an arid wasteland, then perhaps someday the whole world will be like Afghanistan. Perhaps then — pray it isn’t so — Afghanistan is a vision of our future.
What will you remember? What will you miss? Not the tastes. The food — beans and rice, greasy mutton, no vegetables except for onions — ranges from bland to foul. Not the smells. The food may give you diarrhea, but the latrines give you constipation. No, the smells you won’t miss. Nor the feel of dust in your lungs, all over your body and clothes, the constant filth.
The sound of American bombing, the crack of a Kalashnikov, the thud of an RPG, the cry of the muezzin in the morning have a certain exotic romance, but no, you will not miss them.
The sights then. Yes, you’ll miss the sights. The beautiful faces of the little girls wrapped in colorful scarves — which make you wonder what the women look like, since unless you marry one, you will never know — the bright eyes of the men, the camels, the donkeys, the oxen, the stark landscape, the light filtered through the omnipresent dust, the tragic gorgeousness of the rubble, the images of Afghanistan will stay with you forever.
But what you’ll really miss is the people. The men really, you’ve hardly met any women. Your colleagues in the press certainly have become dear to you, but it is the Afghan men you’ll remember.
You have never met anyone like them. They are like heroes in the Iliad. Brave, hospitable, resourceful, hardy, loyal, unselfish. They never complain, they are never ironic. They play chess like champions. They are oddly gentle, these killers, cupping their hands around a moth, helping it escape.
Afghanistan was never conquered, never colonized. Unlike most third world peoples, Afghans have no sense of inferiority to the West, actually hardly any sense of the West at all. They do not doubt themselves. They do not compare themselves to Donald Trump or Michael Jordan or Brad Pitt. They envy no one. They are not postmodern, not even modern at all.
Perhaps you can learn something from them. Perhaps you have.
I only went back to Afghanistan one time, in 2007 or 2008 for a week, filming a special for a network news anchor. Instead, like the American military, I spent much of the last decade in Iraq. It was a nice gig. Four months of work a year allowed me a middle-class lifestyle.
The War on Terror was good to me, not so good for anybody else.
Hard to remember, but 10 years ago pompous pundits proclaimed America the world’s only hyperpower, mightier than Rome, the Mongols, and the British ever were. We would dominate the planet another 100 years. We were the indispensible nation. Our political and economic system was the Platonic ideal and the rest of the world wanted nothing more than to be us. We were the culmination of history, one best seller told us, and too few of us called the author a fool.
Of course it was never true. But the hubris of the Bush administration made our fall even more precipitous. Future historians are going to love the first decade of this millennium. So many preconceptions were shattered, so much changed. The financial crisis revealed the flaws in the dominant neoliberal economic theories and our ineptitude during the War on Terror finally shattered Washington’s presumption that America deserved to be the world’s policeman.
We didn’t go to war for oil. If that were our motivation, we could have easily cut a deal with Saddam Hussein. Had we demanded exclusive concessions for American oil companies in return for not invading, Saddam would have jumped to do our bidding. Ask any Iraqi. They will tell you Saddam had no objection to serving American interests. After all, the CIA funded the coup that brought him to power back in 1968. Today, the Chinese control more Iraqi oil fields than we do.
Nor did we go to war to avenge the death of 3,000 Americans. If justice was our goal, we would have treated 9/11 as a police matter, not an excuse to invade two countries. By October 2001, the Taliban was tired of Osama bin Laden, and approached subtly, they might well have found a way to hand him over to us.
The best explanation I ever heard for the invasion of Iraq was from neocon Jonah Goldberg, who by the way did his military service not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in the West Bank with the Israeli Army. He said in 2002 , paraphrasing Michael Ledeen, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
In other words, we invaded Iraq to show the world we had a big dick. Sadly, the rest of the world wasn’t impressed. Spending more on war than every other country combined and still having a hard time controlling the road from Baghdad to its airport does not make anyone fear your wrath.
Shock and awe, my ass.
In Iraq we proved Hobbes right. Even a brutal police state is infinitely preferable to anarchy. During the worst days of the civil war, men who had spent years in Saddam’s jails told me they missed his rule. Even police beatings were better than the plethora of armed gangs randomly slaughtering citizens at checkpoints.
Had we not invaded Iraq, had we kept our Special Forces and CIA focused on Afghanistan, could we have avoided disaster in that country? Probably, although it is impossible to be certain. What is undeniable is that, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, a disregard for inconvenient reality combined with an obsession with our own security — and a casual disregard for anyone else’s — ensured we would fuck it up.
You can’t run an empire blinded to the truths on the ground, just because they contradict your boss’ preconceptions. The people who ran the War on Terror cared only how their policies played in Washington and worried too little how they would play in Anbar, Najaf, Helmand, and Khost.
It is late afternoon. The sun low in the sky. Gold, beautiful light. Two little girls are playing in the graveyard next door. The children come to the graveyard, where the Northern Alliance dead are buried, to pick through our garbage.
Like most Westerners, we don’t believe in littering. We bought small red trashcans in Dushanbe — there are no garbage cans in Afghanistan — and conscientiously put our empty water bottles in one and the detritus of our military rations in the other.
When they are filled, Assfal, our houseboy, dumps them over the wall into the graveyard. There our garbage is picked through by people whose diet is improved when they find our old crackers. Our water bottles became the jug of choice, spoiling several photographs of ancient exoticism because of the tell-tale modernity of a blue Tajik water bottle.
There are no garbage cans here because there is no garbage. Everything we throw out, including empty aluminum pouches, bits of pear still sticking to it, is taken and used. At the end of the day, no garbage mars the graveyard.
The girls are wearing bright scarves, the light is gorgeous, one of them is quite pretty, you grab your camera. The girls are natural, smile shyly for the camera, touching each other gently with the familiarity of sisters. Snap snap snap, you shoot half a roll. You know some of the photographs will turn out, you are grateful to the little garbage picker girls.
You think, “I may profit from these photographs, but they never will.”
You reach for your wallet. No Afghan money, only dollars, the smallest a five. Five dollars is a lot of money here, the average annual income $300. You don’t really want to give them so much money, but now that the wallet is out, their eyes are on it.
You hand the prettier girl the five-dollar bill, telling her (in English) to share it with her sister. The other girl, shorter but stockier, attacks immediately. She knocks her sister to the ground (maybe they are not sisters) and grabs the money. It all happens in a flash, she runs off grasping the fiver, her friend crying in the dirt.
You can’t comfort the pretty little girl with words. Now your smallest bill is a 10. Nothing to do but hand it to her. Her tears dry immediately and she runs off to join her friend (maybe they are sisters).
A pack of cigarettes (Mild 88s, a Korean brand) costs 20 cents. Ten shish kebabs a dime.
A few days after the fall of Kabul, driving from Khwaja Bahauddin to Talaqan, one of our translators complained bitterly he felt betrayed by America. He said we supported the mujahideen as long as they were fighting the Soviets, but once the Russians retreated across the Oxus, America abandoned his country to warlordism and anarchy. We used Afghanistan to defeat communism, but after they had served our purpose we left them to rot. I told him not to worry, I promised this time we would do better.
I thought it would be easy to improve life for most Afghans. They had so little that just building roads, building schools, digging wells, and staying out of their way would probably be enough. Use foreign aid funds to hire local workers and let their salaries stimulate growth. Instead, we created a kleptocracy, encouraged an insurgency, made a few people richer, and the rest just as insecure. When we leave next year, we will leave turmoil.
Like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Americans will forget. Afghans won’t be able to.