How did we come to this?
With so many beginnings, we’ll start in the middle. From there we can look in all directions. Spring 2001, with our country at peace and nothing much on the horizon, John separated from the Marines after one hitch. By September 11 he was in grad school, and he stayed for an MBA he put to use, creatively, as the second civilian to serve on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. I’d been the first. Optimism was high, the footprint light. We were winging it, sure. At least I had prior knowledge of the area, having taught in a nearby village for the Peace Corps. Many wars ago.
I returned to leave without pay for the State Department in Denmark, where my wife had a position at the Embassy. John and I didn’t meet until August 2004, after he moved to Kabul to help manage PRTs. I was coming back for more, this time in south-central Afghanistan. Acquaintances might have chalked up my recidivism to boredom, wanderlust, or a shortfall in the daughter’s college fund. They saw a seemingly happy family in a government-owned mansion overlooking the water. Appearances aside, we were doing well, and the gracious Danes more than compensated for their weather. I wasn’t pushed. I must have been pulled. To tell the truth, the motives weren’t that personal. Or rational. Their significance, if any, lay beyond.
Most Afghans welcomed us. Like any infatuation, it wouldn’t last. Not only in Afghanistan: my own countrymen favored bold but brief evocations of past glory. “Reconstruction” didn’t measure up to the vision. Washington aimed for a total makeover, budget permitting.
The yardstick left by the Taliban made our advent providential. Accelerate success became the Embassy’s mantra. In the cities, girls went to school. Kites fluttered above rooftops. Voters registered for their first-ever presidential election, with interim president Karzai the leading candidate. The Taliban found themselves on the outside looking in.
Dinner guests in Copenhagen speculated the whole thing might be over before I departed. Hadn’t more than a year passed since Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced the end to major combat? That same day President Bush proclaimed “mission accomplished” in Iraq, answering the question General David Petraeus famously asked on the road to Baghdad: how will this end?
For Afghanistan, casus belli was clear. Hit us, we hit back. Harder. Osama bin Laden went to ground. The Taliban turned tail. Still, our troop levels crept up. The Pentagon was asking how soon could they pass the baton to State, if not to the Afghans. Failing that, NATO. Or the UN.
You had to walk through a tunnel to get to John’s office, set among a cluster of buildings so white and metallic they dazzled in the sunlight, an effect intensified by sand, sidewalks, haze, and an elevation more than a mile high. In November this had been a vacant lot, all litter and weeds. The inside flickered almost imperceptibly from an overhead light. The military had a penchant for these corrugated steel containers known as conexes. Affordable, portable, interchangeable. In Vietnam they had been brown. An air conditioner hummed.
John and I chatted about Jalalabad. He was devising theories on counterinsurgency and PRTs. In my ignorance I had categorized Marines into two sects—the gung-ho majority and the intellectual minority. John would have been in the minority. He had been a lieutenant, I knew, and it could have been infantry. He assured me Tarin Kot would be a “piece of cake.” That was the capital of Uruzgan province, my new home.
How so? Neither he nor anyone in the Embassy had been there.
You’ll have an AID rep. The Agency for International Development.
I’d heard that before. John himself was an AID contractor. He and I were supposed to work together last year in Jalalabad, but his arrival had been repeatedly postponed.
He should be on site already, John told me, assuming he got out of Kandahar. Name’s Kerry, you’ll like him. Surfer dude. John spread his hands as though to balance himself. Nice shirt, no tie. Easygoing, he continued. Direct from Indonesia, knows what he’s getting into. Your partner in development.
What’d you tell him?
Take detergent. You can’t get any there.
Maybe John wasn’t as intellectual as interested in efficiency. Any beard he might have grown for Jalalabad was gone. I’d passed through the same metamorphosis. Two outsiders trying to blend in.
That morning I’d signed for a laptop, printer, camera, satellite phone, cell phone, armored vest, and helmet, everything but the helmet brand new. The year before, all the Embassy issued was phones.
What else did you tell him?
I said money’s no problem. You can fund lots of projects.
That’d be a change, I said. State provided none last year, and AID’s was still “in the pipeline,” meaning don’t hold your breath.
John smiled. He said the military was flush.
You’d think, I said. They were copping it from Saddam’s coffers.
John leaned to his left—getting the kinks out, perhaps. In Jalalabad he’d walked away from a blast that wrecked the truck he was in. I told him you and the Army needed a strategy.
Not just criteria, John said. How things fit.
And not just the PRT, I reminded him. The infantry.
The PRT was co-located with a battalion of the 25th Division. I didn’t mention Special Forces. Or the Afghan government. That was a given. New place, new year. In Jalalabad we had forty Americans, no infantry, to cover three provinces.
John leaned back. Having worked for a public accounting firm, I recognized the posture. It left space for comment. He beat me to it, saying our mission was to turn a no-go zone into a place where al-Qaeda would never again find refuge. That was inconceivable in Kabul or anywhere in the north. But the Pashtun heartland was game on, places like Uruzgan. That’s where the war would be won.
Young in years, John was old in the eyes. He fit my definition of a wise man: somebody who said what was on your mind but you hadn’t put it that way before. He leaned forward, and his chair creaked.
Or lost, he added.
Won, I affirmed. It was a reflex action.
We were winning when I left, read a decal for Vietnam vets. As an auditor there for Special Forces, I saw valiant efforts undercut by impatience and its cousin: fatigue. Stateside claimed the high road, leaving downrange the grit. The middle ground is where we stumbled.
Our country had put that behind us. Me, I identified with Satchel Paige: don’t look back, something might be gaining on you. Vietnam. Jalalabad. The Peace Corps. 9/11.
From military headquarters at Bagram I caught a flight to Kandahar and then a helicopter to Forward Operating Base Ripley outside Tarin Kot. There the PRT’s executive officer directed me to the “VIP” tent, otherwise known as the transient tent and the only one without air conditioning. Inside I found Kerry on a cot, head supported by an overstuffed laundry bag, soda can in hand, laptop on stomach, watching a DVD. Fans blew dust over and into everything. The other residents, spillover from the 25th, must have had them on for ambience, as the air was too hot to cool anything. It hit you with more of what you were trying to get away from.Our job was to get things off dead center. We were the end of the line. Or the start, depending on point of view.
Kerry put the DVD on pause, removed the earphones, spit into the can, and sat up to shake hands. Big-bearded and large-boned, he seemed less surfer and more farmer, Type B to my A. He was new to Afghanistan, and the closest he’d come to this kind of work was as a local hire in the admin section of the AID mission in Jakarta. My partner in development knew as much about the subject as I did when in the Peace Corps I volunteered to go west of Uruzgan in response to a drought. Then as now, we didn’t have to be experts. Our job was to get things off dead center. We were the end of the line. Or the start, depending on point of view.
The PRT command would soon rotate to the States, with the five-man civil affairs team first to go. Those times the command looked outward, it focused on Tarin Kot: easy to reach, concentrated population, seat of government. That left the rest of the province to civil affairs, which geared up for one last expedition. Knowing replacements wouldn’t come right away, the team planned to check projects in Deh Rawud, the district in which Special Forces operated and the team had been based until ordered to join the new PRT at Ripley. Deh Rawud had also been home to the Taliban’s Supreme Leader Mullah Omar, then in hiding.
Injun country, somebody said. You’d hear that. It was a joke. Not a joke. A tribute. A test.
The team captain and the sergeant with him—we’ll call them Jackson and Jesse—had taken me under their wing in Kandahar, where they’d gone to collect cash for those projects. Like me, Kerry was itching to get out of town. I asked if we could join them.
Absolutely. Jackson, the captain, was pleased we civilians might support their work.
The PRT’s executive officer recommended against it. The commanding officer wanted to meet us, and he was due in from leave the morning the team departed for Deh Rawud. They wanted to clarify our roles; guidance was vague.
Due since I don’t know when, Jackson said. His team had a unique take and went places nobody else in the PRT was getting to.
As soon as we’re back, I promised the XO.
The journey entailed a four-hour drive to and through the high ground where the sun set from Ripley’s perspective and then down to the Helmand valley. Civil affairs never traveled with the 25th, which had its own battle rhythms, or with the PRT’s force-protection unit. The team valued its independence. Still, five Americans cruising the back roads of Uruzgan would have been equivalent to applying Taliban Shoot Me bumper stickers to their Humvees.
So they hired a village headman named Farouk and leased three pickups for the twenty-man force he assembled. That more than doubled their fleet and quadrupled the number of shooters. Most, including Farouk, dressed in the somber, baggy clothes of the south, tunics down to their shins. A few wore partial uniforms scavenged from various armies and eras. Farouk, slight of build and soft-spoken, didn’t strut or raise his voice. But he had a presence his men never questioned. The Americans trusted him completely. When he said take that road, not this one, because he had a feeling, they always complied. They had yet to be ambushed.
The convoy didn’t coalesce until 7 am, an hour later than planned. Among the complications, Bagram sent a message restricting payments to Farouk. As a workaround, the regional office in Kandahar suggested Americans drive the pickups.
We’ll be at Bragg before they make sense of that, Jackson muttered. Ft. Bragg was their home station, in North Carolina. As the only Regular Army civil affairs team in country, they considered themselves Special Forces and dressed the part.
I clambered into the back of a Humvee with him and Toby, the team sergeant, up front, Toby in the driver’s seat, Jackson sipping coffee from a commuter mug, Kerry on my left, window open for easy spitting. The rest of the team occupied the Humvee ahead of us, Rod the medic standing beside a mounted machine gun, his cap marking the column’s high point, the sack of Afghan currency Jackson had signed for in Kandahar at his feet.
From the back seat Doc, the interpreter, hunched forward to tell a story. Like the team, he wore desert fatigues with the Stars and Stripes on his shoulder. Like the militia, he wrapped a checkered scarf around his beard and hair, leaving only sunglasses exposed. His body armor was blue like Kerry’s and mine but faded, dust ground into the fabric. A holstered pistol rested against his hip.
Rod shuddered out of a whole-body yawn, surveyed the scene with left hand extended as a sunblock, snapped his right-hand fingers, pointed toward Jackson, took a tilt of the mug for consent, and spoke to the driver, who called to Farouk in the lead pickup. Turning, Rod flashed his near-perfect pearly whites and thrust his right arm forward.
Dust billowed out from the tires. Kerry couldn’t close his window fast enough. The other two pickups brought up the rear. It took longer to roll out of Ripley than to get to downtown Tarin Kot, to Dead Man’s Circle where the Governor’s militia dumped their kills. None today, but we were early. Not a street was paved or graveled, all vehicles but ours disabled.
The PRT had taken Kerry and me by here to see the provincial hospital. Would-be patients waited in the corridor, no one to treat them. Nor was there medicine, electricity, or indoor plumbing, only an outdoor well thanks to the PRT. Good news—it tapped into an aquifer. Bad news—the contractor hadn’t connected it, so water spilled onto the yard.
Beyond the circle lay the palace, as Americans called the furnished redoubt where the Governor held court when in town. The turret of a repurposed Soviet armored vehicle protruded from the gate. For an instant it pointed right at us. But like statuary, it never moved.
The convoy veered left.
Faces in tea houses followed our progression. A few men were in the street, more of them squatting than standing or walking. Boys bobbed and weaved. One ran toward us with hand out. He didn’t expect anything tangible. Recognition would do.
On the outskirts Jackson pointed to a leafy compound where the Governor lived. A fresh coat of mud raised and thickened the walls, with decorative etchings on top. Coils of barbed wire yet to be strung glistened in the sun. Inside, living quarters would be arrayed against the outer walls, and in a compound so large and well-maintained, a garden must have graced the center. Yet the façade was primitive compared to Jalalabad’s McMansions. There the Governor worked out of a palace built for a king. Literally. Afghanistan had a sameness. It also varied greatly from valley to valley.
So where is he? I asked. Nobody in Tarin Kot knew. He’d been gone for weeks, and the man had no deputy. The police, in a bit of wishful thinking, said he’d been fired.
Jackson looked at Toby. Quetta? A city in Pakistan, south of Kandahar. Taliban Central.
Kabul? That had been the XO’s guess.
Kandahar? So the 25th feared, jealous that the Governor liked to hang with our Special Forces there.
A man of many enemies, Toby said.
And one important friend.
Karzai? I asked. All governors were appointed by the President.
Who better? Same tribe, and their fathers had been together in Quetta when Karzai’s was assassinated.
A shallow wash crossed the road downhill from the compound. Two boys tended sheep in the shade of trees that prospered on leaks from an irrigation ditch to our left. That too crossed our path, through a culvert, as the road ran parallel to and south of the westward-flowing Tarin Kot River. Family compounds, fields, and orchards filled the spaces in-between. The air was brisk, not with temperature but with clarity. Dust was the only pollutant and it came from the soil, those who tended it, and their livestock. Even closed windows couldn’t keep it out. It didn’t so much smell as prick the nostrils. It felt due, preordained. It magnified things.
We stopped beside a village and tramped up a hillside to inspect a schoolhouse the team had commissioned. Jackson was dismayed to find the walls still at knee height. Farouk said the contractor was waiting on rebar, a new material for Uruzgan. It came from Pakistan, and for that he’d need money.
Jackson rubbed a knuckle along his mustache. Like me, he hadn’t shaved since Kandahar. Bagram’s recent insistence on building to earthquake standards added to the cost, he complained. Higher costs meant fewer projects. Contractors already had to self-insure against ambush. People considered earthquakes an act of God. New schools were on us.
I asked if the provincial Director of Education had signed off.
Jackson frowned. He said Farouk did a lot for us. Did a lot for his country.
What about teachers?
Farouk will handle it. This is his village.
That accounted for the location. It also invoked the old auditor’s dilemma, the conflict between principle and the people you knew. Jackson chose people. I understood. At times I’d chosen the other and regretted it. In a perfect world our friends upheld our principles, which in this case meant building schools the system would support.
Can he swing it? I asked.
Jackson gazed over the rooftops. Compounds abutted one another, and the conglomeration stretched toward a bend in the river. The largest had trees within. Fruit and nuts, the fat of the land. Let me tell you, he said. Mullah planted an IED here. He’d been preaching against it, had his own madrassa. See the crater. It was nighttime, a warning. Everybody knew who did it. He was bragging about it.
Madrassas were religious schools. IED stood for improvised explosive device, a landmine.
Kerry stood with us. In receiving mode, he offered a dip from his tobacco tin. It smelled familiar, like prunes.
Mm-hm, I intoned. Jackson needed prodding.
Farouk told the Governor.
Hands behind his back, Farouk walked the future campus in the manner of a scholar. He sported a full beard, and mustache tips projected, Pakistani style, like tusks. I hardly noticed the AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder.
Jackson suggested I talk to him.
I had tried, with Doc’s help, when we were preparing for departure. Too much going on. And neither of them knew me. Now we had to get back on the road. We had started late, and Jackson wanted to arrive before things went bump in the night.
The shortest route kept close to the river. Farouk advised against it. The valley downstream was narrow, the road in disrepair, the inhabitants unaccustomed to foreigners. We opted instead for a track that curved south away from the river and then west, past patches of pale greenery and attenuated settlements, toward a pass. That took us into Nesh, northernmost district in Kandahar province. A side track skewed left over a rise toward the district capital. Jackson said it was as destitute as the valley we were driving through except people actually lived there.
Foliage and structure were behind us. Like Farouk, the team felt less susceptible to ambush in open spaces like this than on the edge of civilization where Taliban but not us went unnoticed. As we climbed we crossed into Deh Rawud district.
The thing about a mountain pass: even higher settings watch over it. Rock faces on both sides were studded with spires, nooks, and crannies, not a cloud in the sky. The team’s request for air cover had been denied. The one aircraft I’d seen since our flight out of Kandahar belonged to the UN.
Near the summit we came to a man on a chair by the side of the road, AK-47 across his lap. A lone tree shaded him and a thatched hut ringed by stones.
One of J-Mo’s checkpoints, Jackson said. J-Mo was Jan Mohammed, the Governor.
How’s he survive?
Bearded and long-haired, wearing a wool cap common only in the eastern highlands, the man had no backup. His eyes widened. Belatedly, he waved.
Jackson sipped from his mug. Makes you wonder.
Makes you wonder whose side he’s on, Toby said.
Whoever comes next.
Might have something to say, I remarked. It could have been interesting.
Toby snorted. Would you believe him?
I’d factor it in.
Jackson decided it was not a good place to stop.
Especially since the vehicles ahead of us kept rolling, faster now that we crested the summit. The road eased down to a flatland drier and even more deserted than the pass.
Toby was telling tales on the Governor when suddenly the lead Humvee lurched to a halt. He slammed on the brakes.
Bop bop bop—my lungs seized and heart fibrillated as Rod’s machine gun ripped into the pebbled wasteland on our right.
Bop bop bop.
An aura of dust, or gun smoke, encircled his cap and beard.
Jesse opened the passenger door, took aim with his rifle, and squeezed off a round at a time. The one clean-shaven member of the team, he was also the youngest despite having parachuted into Iraq. Mud there, he said when asked the difference, dust here.
What the fuck! That was Jackson, officer in charge.
We had heard no incoming, nor could we see what they were shooting at even after Jackson and Toby opened their windows. Sand, gravel, and rock. Rod was smiling. Or else the sun and clatter made him wince. Bop bop bop jackhammered his shoulders, torso, legs.
The driver started firing out his side. On the left flank, where a ridge led down from the pass. In quick bursts he went through a first then a second magazine. A third! He yipped.
Jesse kept popping single rounds.
Doc held fire, his pistol effective only at close range.
Rod wiped the back of his wrist over his mouth, beamed us a happy face, and hollered words we couldn’t make out.
Toby scrambled with the dashboard radio as he poked his rifle out the window, Jackson the same on the passenger side. Both toted M-4s, sons of the M-16. Jackson tried raising somebody, anybody, on his handheld radio, static the sole response.
Kerry and I exchanged glances. His eyebrows lifted. Mine too in acknowledgement. A man of few words, he held hands in front of knees as though searching for something to grasp. Me too. We wanted our destiny in our own sweaty palms. Any American worthy of the name would rather drive than fly, fly economy anyway, and drive didn’t mean sitting in the back seat unarmed. At a loss, I tried acting my age, as if this were another day in the life.
God-dammit! Toby beckoned with his forearm while holding onto the M-4.
Kerry peered out his window and mine. I blew dust off my photo-grays. It changed nothing. I removed more with my handkerchief, to no effect. Bullet-proof glass made everything on the other side appear distant and immaterial. Last year we had no such problem: we drove around in pickups. I opened the window. In Washington they say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. In Afghanistan it is the heat. More than my palms were sweating. We listened for extraneous sounds, however faint.
Toby finally raised the driver—Mick—on the dashboard radio. Oh: test-firing. Mick said he had given a heads-up. We had been on the wrong frequency.
Jackson and Toby looked at each other. They might have said something had Kerry and I not been in back. Instead, they laughed. Couldn’t stop. Kerry and I, too. No harm, no foul.
The road led to a bowl outlined by jagged ridges except to the north, our direction of travel. The grayed-out green of dusty vegetation softened the sandscape ahead, and after a while we spotted adobe and angles. Firebase Tycz, named for a Special Forces medic killed in another part of the country, came first. Our caravansary. Satellite dishes, antennas, and watchtowers rose above the walls. Flags and laundry flapped in the breeze while generators chugged and air conditioners whirred the anthem of the American intervention.
Farouk’s pickup pulled over to let his employers negotiate entry. The two Humvees snaked through steel barriers and barbed wire to a cinderblock guardhouse. The beardless youth inside was Afghan National Army. Doc switched to Dari, the language of Kabul and the North, because the soldier didn’t know Pashtu, the language of Deh Rawud.
It had been my Peace Corps language, now atrophied to the point of no return.
We parked in back. End of journey.
The first half, anyway.
I snapped a group photo, and Jackson carried the moneybag to the Special Forces captain responsible for security. The rest of the team unpacked, cleaned weapons, drank Cokes Mick rousted from the psychological operations fridge, snacked on watermelon and cookies from the dining facility, and visited outhouses so new they had yet to stink. I took the opportunity to speak to Farouk, through Doc. The words flowed more readily now we’d traveled together.
Farouk had been twelve years old, his father the village headman, when they ran across Jan Mohammed in the anti-Soviet resistance. They shared a tribe, religion, watershed, and enemy but little else. Unlike the future Governor, father and son stayed out of the violence that flared after the Soviets left. The Taliban put an end to that and set out to confiscate all guns, radios, cars, and other things modern. The village objected. The Taliban trucked in reinforcements. Father and son slipped away, Quetta or bust.
Later a messenger came to say the Taliban would not punish those who returned. His aging father wasn’t up to it, so Farouk went by himself. The villagers insisted he succeed his father as headman, an honor he couldn’t refuse. The Taliban imprisoned him twice—for a mustache bushier than his beard. Both times the villagers successfully pleaded for his release.
After 9/11 Karzai urged Farouk’s father to go home. His country needed him. Like son, like father: he couldn’t refuse. The president-to-be subsequently showed up on a motorbike with a satellite phone and two other Afghans. Farouk and father took them in.
Karzai declared his intent to overthrow the Taliban. About time. The theocracy had never gotten in step with the Tarin Kot elites used to doing what they wanted as long as they complied with the five pillars of Islam and the Pashtun code. The code was as strict as the Taliban in regard to women but more relaxed on money, hair, drugs, and sex with boys.
Elders and warlord wannabes mustered at the Farouk family compound. Karzai invited them into the mountains. Farouk and forty villagers followed. American-supplied weapons parachuted from the sky as Karzai predicted. Taliban rallied to the commotion. Gunfire broke out. Karzai got on his phone. A helicopter whisked him away. Farouk and company made their getaway on foot.
He rejoined Karzai in Deh Rawud. Volunteers flowed in, and the insurgents drove, with American escort, to Tarin Kot. They gave the Taliban until 4 o’clock to leave. Although Farouk didn’t mention it, others told me the mayor was hanged.
As I learned in Jalalabad, any Afghan with ambition had a history with the Taliban, much of it open to interpretation. Before that it had been the Soviets. Now us.
The host captain spoke of progress while he waited for his laptop to load. From a low base, he admitted. Indeed, his PowerPoint showed two percent literacy in the district. I didn’t ask the source. The UN, most likely, but how would they, or anybody, know? So I asked about preparations for the presidential election (his detachment would assist), what the people wanted most (security), how Kerry and I could help (development projects), what the other detachment did (talk to them), if the national or provincial government provided support (negative), opium (not their mission), mood (the captain looked at Jackson, who nodded).
Going to be a long war, he concluded.
Three years gone, I said.
Still prepping the battle space.
That winter a Talib burst through the front gate and launched a rocket-propelled grenade that blinded an American and an Afghan soldier. Since then fifteen IEDs had been set within a few kilometers. One killed an American the previous month. The last detonated three days ago. Another was found four days before that. In June the District Chief’s compound was overrun. He survived, though four died, one of them his brother. Later that month a grenade killed the wife and children of the only doctor in the district who treated female patients. He packed up and left.
Asymmetric warfare, a term in vogue, included all that. Its many facets formed a symmetry of their own. Tycz’s medics, as case in point, treated anyone with a gunshot wound. Three or four a week got in line for the daily sick call.
I brought up old news about civilians killed by airstrikes Special Forces called in. It wouldn’t have been these soldiers. Like civil affairs and me, Special Forces didn’t stick around.
The captain logged out. Not an issue, he said. The people want us here.
Projects? It wasn’t enough.
And security. He thought about that. We’re working on it.
They were not alone. An Afghan Army company and its two American advisors often accompanied the Special Forces, and its soldiers guarded an unfinished bridge at the Tarin Kot River near where it joined the Helmand River. They fended off attacks there in July and again two days ago.
A platoon from the 25th manned Tycz’s watchtowers and sent motorized patrols into town, freeing the two Special Forces detachments for their primary missions. The captain’s team cultivated their surroundings in a classic counterinsurgency campaign similar to that pursued by their forerunners in Vietnam. The other ranged farther afield, continuing a separate Special Forces tradition. The military would characterize the latter’s activities as kinetic. Kinetic did not encompass long conversations with State officers.
The most senior representative of the Afghan government was District Chief Amirjan, a carpetbagger disliked for levying taxes and fines decreed by the Governor. In a province where Jan Mohammed and almost all his appointees bonded in the jihad against the Russians, Amirjan spent the war studying in the Soviet Union.
The district council had not convened in his tenure until yesterday, at the captain’s insistence.
The elders demanded to know why the Americans were there.
Your government invited us, the captain said.
The elders sneered.
To help rebuild your country. Make it safe again.
They’re our guests, Amirjan interjected.
They stay too long, somebody shouted.
The captain hadn’t expected that. Afghans were known for their hospitality, their patience.
It’s a process, I counseled.
A West Pointer, he liked to look on the bright side. First time’s the hardest, he reckoned.
Doc had the exercise tent to himself until I slipped through the flaps after dinner. Thirty years my junior, in shorts and a sweat-soaked U.S. Army tee shirt, he worked the weights even though guys his age kept in shape without trying. Jackson, for example, could have passed for the cross-country runner he used to be. Yet he didn’t have the time or inclination to put in the miles while deployed. A bad hip that sidelined Kerry from a career in baseball or competitive surfing prevented him from running. Copenhagen tobacco held his appetite in check. A former employer of mine, the Forest Service, used to hand it out at fires. I became a chain chewer until I got hypnotized because it didn’t comport with marriage or a career in diplomacy. Now at the end of that latter pursuit, with bad back, blown-out knee, and swollen shin, I found the aerobic machines here beat jogging inside Ripley’s perimeter, where ankle-twisting stones lay in wait under the sand, grains of which slipped into your shoes each step you took.
Doc came from a district near Jalalabad I visited last year to see if an elementary school received the desks civil affairs had ordered. Classes were about to begin after summer recess, and the teachers were excited to see us. They hadn’t been paid since March. We promised to investigate. The new well a Japanese nonprofit drilled had already run dry. Noted. And no desks. Add it to the list.
We had gone to the wrong school. The GPS device, or our soldiers’ understanding of it, misled us. The teachers set us straight. Doc laughed. The right school, sheltered behind salt cedars, sounded like one he attended. No desks there, either. Soon, we were told.
With Tycz on blackout, the stars outshone the slashes and pinpricks of light that escaped our encampment. The breeze died. Air cooled. Dust settled. A ridge to the east darkened as the sky above it brightened and the moon floated behind it, casting beams and shadows while Kerry paced the outdoor basketball court, satellite phone to his ear.
Our phones could prove handy, theoretically, in an emergency or when military radios didn’t get through. John knew I’d use mine to call home, as I’d done from Kandahar and Tarin Kot. At Tycz, antennas and dishes interfered. Kerry had been trying since dinner. He didn’t want his three-year-old son to forget him—or English. The boy lived with his Indonesian mother on the south coast of Java, their beach bar barely breaking even. Exasperated, Kerry repaired to his bunk for a DVD.
I took his spot at the foul line, stretching my hamstrings as the moon lifted. Almost full, it was three-and-half hours from Copenhagen, less, really, because there were no mountains to delay its appearance. Our daughter was probably at soccer practice, my wife at a reception.
We met in Afghanistan, 1972.
Be careful, she whispered at the departure gate, 2004. Our daughter and I could barely speak. We all hugged a hug I still felt.
That afternoon the team had taken Kerry and me toward the moon-blocking ridge for weapons familiarization. An Embassy prohibition on straphangers carrying firearms had evolved into don’t-ask-don’t tell, and it never precluded picking one up should those around us become incapacitated.
I wasn’t about to get caught as unprepared as on 9/11. Flight 77 ended some seventy feet from my desk. Assigned to counterterrorism policy in the Pentagon, I and the two officers with me thought we should hold the fort, so to speak. Smoke spread slowly then broke through with a rush. The worst sensation after the first day was the smell. It permeated everything. I took my suit to the cleaners to get the odor out. Ah, the lady said, you’re not the only one.
A mortar thumped. Outgoing. The pungent physicality of flares, firearms, and helicopters evoked Vietnam, my first time abroad. Funny, then, that the Bamiyan valley came to mind. I pictured it through a rock frame, an ancient, massive Buddha underfoot, a cave to the left, indistinct voices, footsteps, laughter, a smile to die for, a woman who would become my wife. I was a romantic, I told her. That’s why I had to go.
Lights blinked across the valley whenever a patrol left after dark. Xenophobia increased with distance from town. No usable bridges spanned the Helmand or Tarin Kot Rivers in Deh Rawud, and the Helmand had few fords. Patrols couldn’t cross without giving the Taliban early warning. They last went in July, the kinetic team on the scent of a “high-value target,” the captain’s detachment in support. A firefight erupted in a village so hardcore the women retrieved rifles from the fallen. The Americans killed one who raised hers into a firing position. The target got away, but they captured his brother.
In the morning our convoy splashed through puddles in the bed of the drying Tarin Kot River alongside bridgework started by the Taliban. The stone and concrete foundation looked substantial but lacked horizontal connectors. North of it, we drove to wells the team had commissioned. At each site another well was going down within meters of theirs. Nobody could explain it. Jackson had touted wells as a way for Kerry and me to get our feet in the door. I worried new wells would drain water from the old. To Jackson that was a hypothetical. At another location I asked why so far from the village.You had to believe the people who sent you had a clue. You had to believe they cared. Or you could take the Nike approach: just do it. Let the Afghans take it from there.
The Taliban would destroy it if it were closer, an elder said. Boys had gathered behind him, everyone on the verge of a smirk. Irony substituted for real things, necessary things like water. We came to break the cycle.
Mm-hm. I pocketed my notepad.
Taking the cue, Jackson said the team before theirs had proposed a girls school at the mouth of a valley discernible through the haze to the north. Kerry and I could do that.
I asked to take a look.
Toby pointed to blackened holes in the road where IEDs had detonated, and Jackson suggested we build the school remotely through a contractor. The earlier team ran a gauntlet to get out, potshots from both sides of the valley.
We don’t see it, I said, we don’t do it.
Jackson tipped his mug. He’d drink to that.
We swung into town to visit the clinic where the doctor who treated women had toiled. It still employed two doctors, a midwife who saw women regardless of ailment, and a male nurse. No other caregivers or patients were present. “Busier in the mornings,” the nurse said. He greeted Rod, the team’s medic, like an old friend. Rod had volunteered here, sometimes with the Special Forces medics. Joyous tears welled in Doc’s eyes as the nurse also embraced him.
Doc had been a refugee, first in Pakistan, then Iran. Denied entry into Iranian medical schools, he went home when the Taliban restored order. After he trained as a lab technician, a nonprofit asked if he would go to a clinic in Deh Rawud staffed by European doctors. He’d be the one lab tech for the province. Although he knew no one in Uruzgan, life as a refugee had habituated him to being on his own.
At first the solitude was more than he bargained for. Under the scrutiny of Arab advisors, the Taliban shooed patients away. So the Europeans left. Elders complained. The Taliban relented. Eventually the Arabs left, too.
Doc found himself in charge, not really thinking how the American response to 9/11 might affect sleepy Deh Rawud. He married the day our planes first appeared. They bombed the district office, which at that time was next to the clinic.
He refused a Taliban demand to cache weapons in the storeroom. They threatened to kill him but fled Deh Rawud first.
An extrovert, he liked to visit with the Americans. One day a captain said, Doc, you speak great English. Why don’t you come work for us?
Doc knew the Taliban had murdered the captain’s interpreter. Yet he admired how the team went about its business: competent, honest, brave, and with a sense of humor. Also, we paid more.
A European nonprofit covered clinic salaries and medicines, though the cupboards were bare because staff wouldn’t hazard the journey. The Governor’s militia delivered supplies to a private “hospital” owned by the Director of Health. It gleamed with fresh paint, white with blue trim.
This isolated district capital was faring better than Tarin Kot—no body-strewn traffic circle, dilapidated junkers, or block after sullen block of ten-year-old rubble. Here the bazaar crackled with construction, and large compounds were going up on the periphery.
Doc offered a one-word explanation: opium.
Absentee landlords in Kabul and Quetta financed the improvements, Amirjan told us when we visited. Gray-bearded, balding, portly, and garrulous, he came from Helmand; his family lived in Quetta. Following my glance, he said rocket-propelled grenades caused the scorch marks outside his office window. He pointed to the adjacent wall he had scrambled over while his brother, AK-47 in hand, covered his retreat from the far end of the compound.
Not too high, I observed, Doc interpreting. Not too low.
The dimples that bracketed Amirjan’s smile brought to mind a baby with indigestion. An escape as narrow as his could leave a person feeling both blessed and cursed. It invited misinterpretation. Going higher, he said. Special Forces would pay for it.
Our party settled onto a patio but declined his invitation to tea, which came nonetheless. I gave him an Embassy booklet in Pashtu about democracy and a smaller one on elections. There’d been nothing like that for Jalalabad. We Americans slowly upped our game while our friends expanded their toeholds. As in Vietnam, we hadn’t anticipated the extent and didn’t know how to deal with it. We couldn’t come right out and say do this, don’t do that. It wouldn’t go over. So we discouraged bad practices through questions and indirect comments. We encouraged with praise, incentives, and pamphlets.
And we tried to set an example. At least one member of the team or I had been with that sack of money at all times until it entered the captain’s safe. Special Forces, I was told in Kandahar, the atmosphere that of a roustabouts’ bunkhouse. They scrounge.
Amirjan smiled as he leafed through the booklets; Americans were so earnest. Lest that lead to complacency, he said rural Deh Rawud was in decline. Drought was the main problem. And the poppy crop had been disappointing. People blamed it on American spraying.
I told him we weren’t spraying.
He looked doubtful.
We’re not. Our military wanted nothing to do with it. Nor did State or the Drug Enforcement Agency have plans for the province.
They won’t believe you.
I sighed. Taxpayers hated when we became scapegoats.
They want jobs, he said.
Jobs were a positive spin-off but not our primary objective. We endeavored to instill faith in themselves, their government, and its American sponsor. Islam was a given.
I mentioned the duplicate wells we’d seen. Each had a derrick and gas-powered winch.
He dispatched an aide who returned with a contract in Pashtu. It called for a “non-governmental organization” to dig 171 wells in the district. Amirjan knew the “organization,” a contractor in Kandahar. Romanized letters appeared at the bottom of the last page—USAID. Kerry shook his head. This was the first he or any of us had heard of it.
Having treated us to tea and Pakistani biscuits, Amirjan asked if our programs included English tutors.
We preferred projects that could be photographed and tallied. My smile broke it to him gently.
His smile was one Afghans used when fate played a trick. All that Russian—useless.
I switched to a subject that matched the Embassy’s interest: how many women registered to vote?
None. That smile again. Sometimes the trick was on us.
Zero? The national rate was forty percent, a talking point that played well at home.
They won’t leave their houses.
You mean the men won’t let them.
They don’t want to. Where would they go?
I was glad not to see boys in the compound. The UN had relayed a rumor to that effect. Any girls’ schools in the district? I asked.
Would you provide protection if we built one?
The time for schools will come. For now the people need work.
Doing what? We weren’t paying to pound sand.
They have to feed their families.
Irrigation creates the most jobs.
You have to know what you’re doing, I said. The voice of experience.
The people know. Give them the tools and pay them. You’ll see.
The Taliban bridge?
Kerry nodded ever so slightly in my direction. He and I had discussed it. Today he let me do the talking.
No contractors! Amirjan said it in English. They take all the money.
Somebody has to supervise.
Doc looked to see if translation was necessary.
I supervise. Amirjan kept up the English.
You have the time? That came out in my remnant Pashtu. Crazy – we were each speaking the other’s language.
My deputy. Back to Pashtu.
A boy entered from stage right and whispered in his ear. Amirjan tapped himself on the knee. He swayed like a man summoning the nerve to break us the news. Unlike his subjects, he had options. Who could fault him if he cut and ran as the bereaved doctor did? Did he stay for the money? The boys? Something more? Or was it simply too dangerous to leave? And would Quetta, if he made it that far, be safer?
He stood, excusing himself. The cooks hadn’t known we were coming. Dinner waited.
More than three decades earlier the government and its donors embarked on a jobs program like the one he advocated except we paid in wheat, not cash. The wheat averted starvation, a result the irrigation projects were supposed to replicate the following harvest. Ideally villagers would see how much they could achieve on their own. They didn’t have to accept drought as God’s will. Okay, we conceded, maybe it was. They could adjust.
Not that we knew more. We knew less. But foreigners were impervious to the usual influences. We could go hard because we weren’t going long. Our spirits were high in the belief, never expressed, we were doing something useful nobody else could, or would, do.
What I sought in the Peace Corps was a new direction. I had traipsed through hamlets, I wrote in my application, M-16 in hand. True, but misleading. I wasn’t a grunt, only an auditor looking for context. Once the monthly paperwork was done, we visited as many teams as time and transport permitted. No gotchas—our hosts had higher priorities. We just wanted them to know somebody was watching. We wanted to help.
In my lifetime the U.S. won a war, tied one, lost the next, and the current two remained in doubt, a worrisome trend. I regretted being so oblivious—young, dumb, and obtuse—in the lost war. Although I reengaged as State’s Vietnam desk officer while posted to Washington during the POW/MIA controversy in the early Nineties, my greatest regret was not staying longer, going deeper like John. He’d moved to a regional command down toward the Pakistan border by the time I got back to Kabul. We didn’t see each other until I was again at the Pentagon, working on Afghanistan, and he came to brief soldiers on orders for PRTs.
While John and I moved on, Kerry kept returning to Uruzgan. Eventually it killed him.
Well before that, on my final trip out of Tarin Kot, east rather than west, with Kerry and this team’s replacements, Doc got slammed by an IED he couldn’t walk away from as easily as John did from his. Helicopters rescued only Americans, and the new team had no medic. They bandaged him and an even more seriously wounded militiaman then drove them to Ripley as darkness descended.
He was on the mend, leg in cast, joking and telling stories, when I left for good.
In Vietnam I discovered nothing was like they said or even like you expected. You didn’t have to have been there. No need to go deep. Everything that mattered revealed itself, sooner or later, one form or another, on the surface. All deep did was eliminate, imperfectly at that, the element of surprise.
It took time.
And gave it back.
Deh Rawud was the 1970s, probably the 1570s, all over again. Desperate conditions, desperate men. In contrast to my Peace Corps days, the restraints were off, and the consequences respected no borders.
No way were we going to, as I heard in Kabul, prime the pump. Nor would a drop here, a drop there, turn the desert into a garden. But it might give cause for hope. That was the most we could aspire to.
Enough with the wells, I told Jackson. And with the hypotheticals.
No argument. He was watching Toby run through worksheets for transferring the cash to the captain. Both captains concurred with Kerry’s and my decision, when and if the AID pipeline unclogged, to finish the Taliban bridge. In the rainy season everybody north of it was cut off, as was the government from them.
Earlier, after a session with the mayor and police chief, black-turbaned survivors in search of a lifeline, Doc and I zigzagged through the front gate, his new friend the sentry greeting us in Dari, to catch up with the team at Tycz’s firing range. It might have been then, in the quiet of the reload, a train of camels to our fore, red green and black Afghan flag above the guardhouse roof, I asked Doc if he missed Deh Rawud. I figured he’d say no, are you kidding? With the Taliban?
It was good here, he replied. I think he meant he could say what he thought instead of just saying, as interpreters did, what others said. I suspected he took his wife to Jalalabad but didn’t know him well enough to ask.
Though late to the party, we got off a few rounds, including quick draws with pistols. I wouldn’t say this team wanted to be ambushed but boy were they ready. Incentivized, Kerry arranged with Farouk to buy an AK-47 in Tarin Kot. I refrained. Afghans needed to see one American, anyway, unarmed.
That night Taliban in Afghan Army uniforms executed several men just north of the unfinished bridge. Doc told us at first light as we were packing. Also, a motorized American patrol had been attacked with small arms, a machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenades. No casualties. It happened on the road to Tarin Kot.
Locked and loaded, we cruised through the ambush zone while the perpetrators slept it off. The road turned east, its shoulders bare before the dawn. Our early start kept us in the shadow of a ridge rising like a buttress to the pass. I didn’t ask Jackson how he felt. It would have prompted him to ask that of me. Lessons learned would have broken the spell. I let him savor his coffee. The mug was stainless steel, with a black, plastic lid. Deh Rawud receded in the rear view as Ft. Lewis, close to his wife’s home in Seattle, loomed; he had requested a change of station. Unless you traveled with these guys, as Doc and Farouk did, they didn’t have time for relationships. They were not a Peace Corps with guns. They were Johnny Appleseeds with guns. Instead of trees they planted wells. They built schools. The Afghans the projects were designed for would be their judge, the verdict subject to that age-old question: what have you done for me lately?
A carful of people flagged us down as we neared the high point. Theirs was the first vehicle we had seen on that road, coming or going. So much dust lay over it, like a car abandoned to a blizzard, you might have thought it’d been there for years. The driver was white-haired, the three female passengers of a similar age, their clothes faded, faces drawn. He said the checkpoint guard tried to extort 500 Pakistani rupees, the currency of choice in Uruzgan. Even collectively they couldn’t pool that sum (about $10). They and the guard were waiting each other out.
Toby turned to Jackson.
Jackson had security concerns, so I kept my mouth shut. I had faith.
All right, he allowed, only a little grumpy. Keep it short.
We weren’t doing this in a vacuum. Global War on Terror, you bet. Accelerate success, whatever—the team gave it their all. Kerry took note. He wasn’t admin anymore.
That late-waving troll we’d seen on the way in rose to his feet as our motorcade pulled up.
Surely the man had heard our test-fire after we dropped out of view when going in the other direction. He must have taken the racket for an extended ambush, and our return in full force showed how bad-ass, lucky, and/or blessed, how deserving of respect, we were. No one spoke, Jackson by the radio, Rod with the machine gun, as Farouk and his men formed a perimeter facing outward. Mick and Jesse stood with them, their hair as shaggy as the Afghans’.
Sunshine slid down the mountainsides. For a moment it felt good, like a sign.
Toby asked for an explanation.
Back arched in an exaggerated posture of attention, eyes scrunched against the glare, the guard said the Governor issued a directive to collect that sum from any adult male without a voter registration card (the Taliban killed anyone they found with such a card).
Look. Toby pointed down the road. Dust stirred by our passage caught the light. We could barely make out the sedan, still parked. They have no money, he said. Like you. He and the guard were about the same age and weight. Separated at birth, all of us.
The guard grimaced. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Plenty of that going around, and you could tell he was used to it. You could also see why the Taliban didn’t mess with him. In doing his job he was turning people against the government. Anything more, he wasn’t telling.
We’ll talk to the Governor, Toby said, his demeanor that of a steely Gabby Hayes.
Amirjan had heard Jan Mohammed was in Tarin Kot.
That turned out to be premature.
Nor was the PRT commander back.
To do this right required credulity. You had to cross fingers that small and flawed led to bigger and better. You had to believe the people who sent you had a clue. You had to believe they cared. Or you could take the Nike approach: just do it. Let the Afghans take it from there. I mean, what was the alternative? Hang back and do nothing? Tried it already. They say change is a constant but not here, not inside. Those days are gone.
Names of Special Forces personnel were changed in the process of obtaining clearances from the Departments of State and Defense, which granted permission for publication with the stipulation I state the obvious: opinions and characterizations are my own, not the government’s.
This story was published in collaboration with The Delacorte Review the literary nonfiction publication from The Columbia Journalism School. You can follow the Review on Twitter #delacortereview and on its newsletter Writerland, an ongoing journey to finding joy in writing.