What is going on in Sherzad District? Part 2
Yet the Afghans have never been able to govern themselves effectively. Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth and not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” that much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal they are not like American poor with health issues stemming from morbid obesity. Poor people here die of starvation daily. Poor children die of exposure during the harsh winters even on the streets of Kabul daily. Watching the polarization of the American electorate from afar during this presidential campaign has me thinking about politics a lot lately.
And speaking of politics guess what the first topic of conversation was when I joined the elders of Sherzad district for a lunch meeting last Thursday? If you guessed Barack Obama you are correct and I am not making this up. Talk about weird but let me set the trip up before I get to that.
Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. After consulting with some other internationals who work the area we went for the single unarmored vehicle option in native mufti. The reason for that choice is that Sherzad is too active with too many IED’s and too many reported Taliban groups to risk traveling with a large escort. This is one of those paradoxes which are hard to explain moving in high threat areas with no back up or escorts sounds risky but it works. The only downside is if you are detected you have to shoot first, shoot fast and run like hell. That kind of immediate action drill looks good in Hollywood movies but it is one I hope to never execute. It is easy to lose an eye or worse in a desperate close quarter’s fight and boy would my Mom be pissed if I got hurt like that especially if she found out I was after a battlefield tour and home cooked Kabuli Pilau (local rice dish.)
We traveled into the southern triangle on the excellent paved road which was built by PSS two years ago. But the road is a single track which heads into Khogyani as in most of the country there is no paved or even graded roads in the remainder of the southern triangle. As we exited the road leading to Sherzad district we were on dirt tracks. Near the paved road we came upon a refugee camp that was situated in the middle of a mine field which was being de-mined. Yeah I know that sounds a little strange I asked five different elders why there was a refugee camp in a mine field and got five different answers. This is a UN operation and the elders have obviously washed their hands of the affair.
The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges which once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better than when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine.
It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without. You can see the difference in the health of the children, livestock and woman (which is the correct order of importance for the tribes.)
The green foliage seen from afar was confined to dry stream beds. The fields were fallow; the village drainage ditches empty, the livestock skinny and the kids looked hungry. The trees which provide comforting shade during the heat of summer will be thinned out again this year to provide fuel for the swelling village population during the winter months. The elders are afraid that within the next five years all the trees will be gone and they understand that losing the them equals losing the village but they have limited options.
Our meeting took place in the home of the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me in perfect English “I speak English fluently.” I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning and bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew was “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger which is a vital for the health and comfort of his ichi ban employer.
The other Maliks arrived shortly after we did. Several walked into the meeting room armed (I left my weapons in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do) but that is expected in the rural districts. The order of business was a meeting, followed by a tour of the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842., and then lunch.
As the Maliks arrived I they started talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and kept hearing the name “Barak Obama.” I was apprehensive I am surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing other than Obama is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more than ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that we already have the most progressive tax system in the west and that our rich already pay more than the rich of other lands is pointless facts are for nerds I guess and boy I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span this was not starting off well.
As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barak Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun maliks could identify with so I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored a little with little supposition, and augmented with my fevered imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out competition using the law and judges instead of guns I think they got the picture. A man clever enough to win virtually every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan but that he had promised to add resources to our efforts here. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? and instead said his father was a black American, his mother was white American but he identifies himself as black American.
They asked if he could declare himself as a white American and I said sure although he obviously would not be the democratic candidate if he self identified as a white man. They asked why that would be true.are not all the democratic leaders white men? I explained that you are not supposed to notice that which probably makes as much sense to them as it does to me but I was growing tired of trying to explain the unexplainable. What followed was (I think) a long discussion about if Africans were or were not good Muslims. I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered the local equivalent of scumbags. They talked amongst themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And they scare the cows which already don’t have enough water and feed which causes them to produce even less milk and on and on .these guys can beat a point to death like nobody else I have ever seen.
We talked for around 35 minutes about reconstruction efforts, their perception of the roll and goals of America, their needs, and the rise in armed militancy. With their permission I recorded the meeting but the sound quality was poor. I turned a copy of the tape over to the Human Terrain Team on FOB Fenty in case it contained insights they would find useful. They have the resources to enhance it and have it translated. Here are some highlights that I think the reader will find interesting. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) very much appreciate. It sounds like they also run a MEDCAP or two (holding a sick call with their medical teams) which also is much appreciated. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better is they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts too much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer and how we could go about securing his release they shrugged and continued on with their talking points. That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway.
The elders again went over the story about giving up Poppy cultivation, not receiving the promised financial aid, and their plans to grow poppy again if they get enough rain inshallah. The serious part of our discussion involved their needs which were simple. They need a road over which to transport their goods to market. They need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.
I pitched a plan I have been working on which they thought to be a good idea. No reason to bore you with the details but their response did seem to validate the concept paper we have been working on for the past week. At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.
The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.
Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “the British Prison” which was up on the side of a pass about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down they could have established a garrison years later but that would be hard for me to determine from here. Plus why would they shove their prisoners down inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain? It was a nice brisk walk and I kept up with the senior malik which was probably the point to this detour.
After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell and people poured into their ancestral homes from Pakistan with little money and no work. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jam until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue there which they figured the British must have pilfered in Kabul. By my rough estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one of a kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to think they are genuine. The penalties for getting caught with ancient artifacts are very severe and rightfully so messing around with that stuff is not something reasonable people do in unstable third world lands. Once again I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area on the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assume we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.
The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel short is good.
I watched the recent Frontline show about Afghanistan called “The War Briefing” which focused on grunts from the 101st Airborne Division who man the firebases in Kunar Province. The paratroopers working those isolated villages have a very difficult job. They walk for hours to reach isolated villages which are full of clannish mountain people not even remotely on our side of the battle. The soviets (and every other army to roll through Afghanistan) would have isolated and then systematically killed the people in these small poor places. That is not a bad strategy for counterinsurgencyunless you are from a western military where such tactics are beyond the pale based upon the foundation of Judeo Christian heritage passed on to us from Roman times. I ignored the tone of this PBS documentary and focused on something few people realize and that no MSM reporter could hope to understand.
There have never been a people in this world like the Americans and our western European based allies. It is inconceivable that any other military would spend so much blood and treasure to repeatedly visit marginal isolated villages which have no strategic value or domestic support. It would be so much easier to let Mr. B-52 level these enemy safe havens, put up aerostatic balloons which could target anything moving out there with a human heat signature and completely cut off infiltration from Pakistan through the Korengal valley. We don’t even consider steps like that and we are the only ones who exercise constraint as national policy.
Remember a few short years ago Obama’s mentor, friend, and ghost writer William Ayers was talking about exterminating 25% of the American population during Weather Underground meetings in 1981. The meeting was documented FBI surveillance tapes but it is now down the MSM memory hole. Highly educated “progressive” liberals born and raised in the upper classes of America, are not the least bit shy about planning the mass extermination of opponents. It does not surprise me at all the college professors and people with advanced degrees would concoct plans like this – their lives of privilege have warped their sense of reality. What would shock is to hear of regular working people talking of gaining power and killing millions of their fellow citizens. Pol Pot was a mild mannered college professor who never personally killed or hurt anyone he probably willingly shared all his toys in kindergarten too.
The real adult supervision in our societies, the conservative old fashioned military and main stream politicians, people with actual achievements far surpassing publishing ghost written fictional autobiographical accounts, would never consider such things. Power is a dangerous, seductive, tool which is best controlled by people capable of using, not abusing it. This is why character counts and the character of our venture in Afghanistan is best displayed by the grit, determination, fortitude and simple human decency of those 101st paratroopers who go out everyday knowing they will be shot at but trying all the same to bring peace in a valley which time has forgotten. We could save many of them by bombing the villages and driving the Taliban sympathizing villagers out but we never give such options consideration. Which is the only way the grunts doing the fighting would have it a very real and relevant contrast to the fringe academics who have gained tenure in our universities, hold men like the grunts of the 101st in contempt, and who, if given power, would exterminate you and your children without hesitation or concern.
The PBS special contained footage of gigantic crowds of armed Waziristan tribal fighters screaming for death to America which is an intimidating thing to see. But Afghanistan is not Waziristan.yet. A window of opportunity remains for us to get the people solidly behind us which will strip away the ability of Taliban affiliated fighters to move or live in the districts. To take advantage of this window we are going to have to find a new approach, we can no longer shovel in “more of the same” and expect results. The window is open but we don’t think it will stay open for much longer.