by Graham B.
Some thoughts on the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
|In 2010 I looked out of an armored vehicle at a landscape of stark beauty; of mustard-colored rock broken up by shocking green foliage and indomitable trees, whose stubborn roots pried their way into cracks in the rock. I remember that scene while traveling through the Spera district in the Khost province of Afghanistan. The vehicle I was in, hulking, tan, sprouting antennae and a large gun, rumbled along with the others in a cloud of dust. That same dust permeated everything and had worked itself permanently into the tread of my boots. I felt out of place, removed some 13,000 miles from home.
Sitting next to me wearing police-style armor was a civilian who worked for the U.S. State Department, Diane Saint-Germaine, her red hair peeking from around the edges of her helmet. She was a fountain of optimism, bubbling over at the possibilities of what could be accomplished in partnership with the local population. Perhaps among everyone in the truck, she was the only one for whom U.S. policy was more than just an abstraction, a hazy mirage which disappeared when approached, leaving only hard realities behind. Across from me sat Sergeant Marcus Reid, tapping his finger nervously on his rifle. His scars ran much deeper than the one which twisted from his left hand to his elbow. Reid would later be sent home because of his crippling addiction to painkillers, which he had picked up after being wounded in Iraq. It was ridiculously easy to buy narcotics in the local economy. I wonder what Saint-Germaine thought about this particular policy failure. In the gun turret was Petty Officer Armando Del Rosario, a Navy reservist who was a police officer in Austin before he was activated. He would regale us of stories from his days on patrol while spitting tobacco into an old water bottle he kept in a cup holder that he had rigged to the front of his body armor. A capsule of American experience, we watched the countryside roll by through several inches of glass, some of us apprehensive, some of us excited, but most of us bored. That was life outside the wire in Afghanistan; long periods boredom punctuated by staccato events of sheer terror, an irregular, post-modern symphony of violence and drudgery.
The people who walked among the buildings made of stone chipped from the landscape were as hardy and unyielding as the trees, and their eyes were unreadable as we drove by, but I knew what was behind them, having spoken to many. And I can guess what is going on behind them now that our president has announced that we will be leaving them behind. There are many reasons given, most of which are entirely reasonable and even urgent. But perhaps the most compelling reason to leave this land is a story not spoken aloud. It is one of invasion and intervention, and of broken empires. The last empire that broke itself upon this rugged land was that of the Soviet Union, which limped away after failing to crush a thousand years of history and culture with Marxist-Leninism. Will American-style representative democracy follow? Could the seeds of democracy ever germinate when fired from the barrel of a gun, or dropped from the wing of a fighter-bomber?
One day I watched the white smoke trails of rockets rise into the sky, heading for a place I could not see. They were sort of beautiful, looking almost like angels. Like angels, they would take life away from the earth. They were hunting down enemies of the peace effort, an enemy as stubborn as the country was old. It is an event that repeats itself again and the again, a microcosm of Afghanistan’s relationship with the world. In 1893 in the waning days of their empire, the British forced the emir of Afghanistan to sign an agreement which drew an almost arbitrary border between Afghanistan and British India. This border is known as the Durand Line, and is still recognized by nearly every nation except for Afghanistan itself. While it was drawn to protect British interests against Russian incursion, the line also went through ethnic Pashtun territory, and to this day divides Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pashtuns do not recognize this line and behave as if the border is not there, which causes endless headaches for Pakistanis and American forces who try to enforce it. Violence flows back and forth across the line like a tide, and leaves detritus in its wake. It was in the shadow of this tide that my convoy trundled toward its mission to strengthen U.S. ties with provincial governments. It is only in retrospect that I feel the weight of history on our shoulders, and the forces that are working against us. The national Afghan leadership’s position on our mission is murky at best. Imagine a Chinese delegation flying directly to New Jersey – complete with military escort – to negotiate economic and political ties with the mayor of Newark without any input from Washington D.C.
It is difficult to map past events onto present circumstance. History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I cannot help but hear the ancient voices of history whispering failure, and the vicious cycle that brings around the endless clashes of titanic international forces batter at each other again and again. And yet, I hear hope from some of the people there. I spoke to a member of the Afghan Nation Police, and he told me about his daughter learning math and science in a newly built public school. He hoped that she would become a doctor, something that never would have been allowed under Taliban rule. His hopes were tempered by the reality of circumstances, but it was there, a faint glimmer in the darkness and dust of conflict. When he asked me whether the U.S. would see the mission through and leave behind a secure country for his daughter to grow up in, I had no answer, for history tied my tongue. My hope mirrors his, the hope that his child’s future will not be extinguished in a tide of cultural regression that threatens to wash over the country when the last of American boots leaves Afghan soil. My hope is that twenty-six hundred American lives, and countless thousands of Afghan lives lost were not for nothing. I hope that the scars carried by soldiers like Sgt. Reid could eventually be seen as a mark of honor, rather than testimony of failure. I imagine that hope is as hardy as the land itself and the people who live in it, but all too often imagination outstrips reality.
Somewhere in a cardboard box in my garage lies a pair of heavily worn boots. The soil of Afghanistan is still imbedded in the treads, a piece of another strange time in my life. I suspect that Afghanistan has changed America more than America has changed Afghanistan. I see the endless conversations shift in tone toward questioning the limits of American strength overseas, and the efficacy of military force to solve every problem. Even the hawks with the sharpest talons are calling for new strategies, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere. After centuries of invasion, from Persians to Sikhs, from the British to the Soviets, what is one more foreign power jockeying for position in an unreasonably important part of the world? The people were there before these foreigners appeared, and they will be there long after the last of them leaves. Their lives will continue in one form or another, even after waves of killer angels cross the skies hunting down elusive enemies.
In the middle of it all is a man who wears the uniform of a police officer to protect those he holds most dear. A man who, despite the worldwide circumstances that have come crashing down upon his head, dreams of a future where his child grows up to be a healer. It seems like hope, so fragile everywhere else, is as stubborn as the roots of trees in this ancient land.
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* The people mentioned in this essay are real. Their names have been altered to respect their privacy.