A place with almost 5 million more people than Iraq.
Yesterday, we turned the uncontrollable south of Afghanistan over to NATO.
I reported from the south of Afghanistan in 2003 for just a week, as an embedded reporter with a crew from Fort Lewis on behalf of The News Tribune. I’m far from an expert on Afghan affairs. I can say that in the past few months, I’ve been increasingly depressed at the reports coming out of the country. (I was in Kandahar, the historic capital, and the former Taliban stronghold, where a warlord who had me over for dinner afterwards showed me his black Land Cruiser and bragged that it had been one of Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s seven identical Land Cruisers before the Mullah fled across the Pakistani border in the 2001 airstrikes.)
Not that I’m surprised. When I was there, U.S. servicemen and -women could not go into the city of Kandahar, which is 10 miles from the air base at the former airport, without a security detail provided by the local warlord (whose brother had recently been deposed as provincial governor for his lack of loyalty to Karzai).
(Just for a quick aside, check out the architecture of the Kandahar airport. The tower at the far left was being used in 2003 as a holding pen for guys on their way to Guantanamo.)
The “coalition” forces—I think I saw about five Romanians in addition to all of the Americans at the mess hall every day—were lining the pockets of said warlord by renting his banged-up pickup trucks for $1,300 a month and employing many of his 1,050 “associates” for trips off-base that included speeding past the mountains where the regular rocket attacks originated, and where a great sign in white rocks read, “NO DRUGS.” (At that point, the opium trade had ballooned several-fold since the fall of the Taliban.)
“As long as we’re paying them, I guess they’re on our side,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hoffman, a tough-talking decorated Vietnam vet who is a police officer when he’s home. “It’s not that safe here,” he told me matter-of-factly.
That was 2003, when Rumsfeld was still claiming that combat in Afghanistan was over. According to the New York Times, 2005 was the bloodiest year since 2001 in “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan. Now, we don’t hear much from the administration about the forgotten war—not that we really ever did, especially after the invasion of Iraq. This, from the New York Times a week ago:
The plan is for European and Canadian NATO forces to step in and provide security for civilian teams in southern and eastern Afghanistan while the remaining Americans concentrate on fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This is a new variant of the Bush administration’s misbegotten theory that Americans should be war-fighters and leave nation-building to others.
There are two big problems with this. First, in violent situations like that in southern Afghanistan, NATO can assure security only if America, its leading member, provides reconnaissance, transport and combat support. Second, the idea that American troops are there not to bring security to Afghans but to hunt down the Taliban—and too bad if Afghan civilians are caught in the cross-fire—is a disastrous approach to counterinsurgency warfare. It has not worked in Iraq and it is not working in Afghanistan.
Afghan women in the south are still buried in burqas, only now it’s not required by any law but demanded by fear of violating social custom and family tradition. Widows are still worthless and dependent, and the average woman bears five children. When I met with a dozen women at a small domestic-arts compound in Kandahar, they removed their burqas and sat on the floor against the walls of the room, speaking through a translator. The older the women were, the more furious they were. Hanging over them were the tall, menacing ghosts of their burqas. In a nearby hospital, I heard the story of a woman whose husband had shot her in the back. She was treated and sent back to him.
The on-base hospital—a room with a few beds and one operating room with oxygen pumped by hand—was wild, and it was tame compared to the city hospital 10 miles away in Kandahar proper. On base, in a single regular afternoon, in one bed was a 20-year-old student looking for the first time at his bombed-off stump of a left arm. The bomb had been intended for American soldiers in Kandahar, but it missed them completely. On another table was a man who moaned loudly for hours, something about a car crash, but who had no identifiable physical injuries. In another bed was another victim of the bombing, whose bowel had been cut in six places, his penis torn, and whose chest wound was sutured with horse hair for lack of surgical stitches in the city hospital. There, conditions were “horrid,” Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Wahl of Wisconsin, head of the surgical team, told me. “The director there told me it was better under the Taliban. These people are getting slaughtered.” It was hard to kill their pain, because since the Afghans use opium casually, their tolerance for opiate painkillers is high, and doctors have to use about seven times the dose used for American patients.
Meanwhile, at the red-roofed warlord’s compound right next to the cabins where the troops sleep, the warlord can not decide whether he prefers the LED fake palm tree outside his front door in red, or in green, so he has his men exchanging the two back and forth until he decides. He picks green. Then it stops working. The troops are disappointed they no longer have the glowing palm tree to see.