Combined Action

Bing West’s The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out in Afghanistan is an interesting, provocative book on many levels, most so to me because its on-the-ground reportage of fighting in Konar and Helmand provinces in 2008-2010 mirrors much of my experience in Khowst and Paktia during roughly the same period.  I was struck in particular by a couple of descriptions of what I take to be representative types. 

If you will bear with me, I will twice quote West at length, and then make a point or two.   The first quotation describes a Special Forces captain—a West Pointer at that—named Matt Golsteyn:

“The Special Forces commander, Capt. Matt Golsteyn, nodded to me the next morning as he rushed by.  During the next hour, he assigned the day’s tasks to his team sections, reviewed the routes to be cleared of IEDs, paired up Afghan officers and advisors for three combat patrols,  briefed everyone on the frag order he had received from higher, set prices for buying a goat and chickens for dinner, approved payment for a schoolteacher, decided how much money to offer an informant, cleaned his M4, chatted over the radio with the regimental commander, pecked out an e-mail to his SOF commander, studied the photomap of his area, practiced a Pashto phrase with his terp, and rushed off to confer with the Afghan battalion commander.  He was the Energizer Bunny with a scruffy beard.”

The second description is of Siad, a native-born Afghanistan interpreter for US forces:

“Siad was typical of the local interpreters.  They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served loyally.  Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased….

…At the squad level, there were thousands of Siads, overachievers who had learned pidgin English memorizing old soaps playing on black-and-white television sets.  Incredibly hardworking, inevitably they were adopted into the rough fraternity of the grunts.  Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried.  Their hearts were huge.  Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”

West marvels at human dynamos like Golsteyn and Siad, but he doesn’t exactly approve of the fact that so much befalls upon them.  I think I know where he’s coming from.  I met plenty of officers who possessed Matt Golsteyn-like senses of responsibility and multi-tasking and information processing abilities.  I knew even better exactly how loyal and brave Afghan interpreters could be when bullets were flying.  What West doesn’t make clear is that in Afghanistan commanders like Golsteyn and interpreters such as Siad always come in pairs.  When and where you see one, you see the other.  They rely on one another and without each other would barely have a function.

The image of the (usually) white boss-man and his dark-skinned sidekick is actually a classically American one:  think of Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook of The Leatherstocking Tales, Moby Dick‘s Ishmael and Queequeg, Twain’s Huck and Jim, the salt-and-pepper cop buddy teams of dozens of movies.  Now here it reappears again, reincarnated, transported 14,000 miles, and put to the service of Afghan democracy and American foreign policy.

But I don’t want to be cynical or literary here.  We’re talking real life and a real war.

If you have trouble conceptualizing what is going on every day in Afghanistan, imagine thousands of Golsteyn-Siad teams energetically, purposefully, and cheerfully fighting back the Taliban, training the Afghan security forces, mentoring local government officials, fostering economic development, engaging with the populace, and taking care of their own.  Compared to their passionate application of human talent and will to the problems at hand, the contributions of the legions of soldiers under them and officers above them, important as they are, pale.  When the war is won, and to the extent that it has succeeded at all so far, it will be in large part due to the superhuman efforts of these ad hoc, essentially amateurish commander-terp dynamic duos. 

They’re not just carrying their fair share of the load and then some.  The whole damn thing depends on them.


3 Responses to “Combined Action”

  1. Elsie De Laere Says:

    Hi there,
    I agree with your recommendation to Emilie Jelenek’s Blog. She is an incredible keen observer of human behavior and her language is beautiful.
    I had come across it as I needed to google the organization she works for. A woman I communicate with about Afghan issues works for the same organization.
    Well, that also led to seeing your blog which I also find good and interesting, esp. since I consider my visit to Khost in 2008 as a teacher trainer one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. I had help from a retired Lt.Col. who at that time worked there as a contractor. The picture of you and the Khost ANA could very well be the same as he sent me except that he is older.
    My friend and I managed to come all the way out there with USAID flight and back on a military helicopter. We stayed at the base in Salerno and as teachers, we were given respect. Not something one hears every day, esp. as of late, at least on certain channels. After we shared with them we lived in the Bay Area, we were the subject of scrutiny we thought was pretty funny. Do people in the rest of the country really think we’re ALL weird, extreme left or liberals who don’t care about country, flag and the Constitution? We got a kick out of it and I’m sure they enjoyed giving us a difficult time!
    My friend and I ended up in a fight with a female captain of sorts in the PRT but our determination to execute our plan of giving an educational seminar to whomever was interested, won out. We managed to talk the governor into lodging us at the Khost guest house and were given two Afghan men as guards during the night. Whenever we woke up and peeked out both were sound asleep under the mosquito nets. The first day of the training we had more than 100 men and six women sitting down, first with some distrust but gradually with obvious enjoyment. The second day was canceled for security reasons and that almost started a riot. The teachers who had come took the matter to a reporter and then walked out to vent their anger at Khost officials. The next day everybody was back for more knowledge. Wish we could’ve had stayed for longer. The women begged us to return. they had proven themselves as the better students. I’ll never forget the faces as they came to meet us in the privacy of our room and took off their burkas. Still haunts me.
    the men who risked their lives driving us to and from the governor’s compound were great and I won’t forget their faces either.

    Khost and the people there will always be in my heart and mind (minus those in the Taleban and other insurgent groups of course).

    I too feel strongly that the drone strikes and the night raids are only backfiring. I can’t say I have answers but what I CAN say is that I fear that the little progress women have made will most likely be effected in negative terms if the US and its’ allies don’t pressure the Afghan government to stick with its’ obligations as per Afghan Constitution and international agreements involving human rights.

    Thanks for letting me tell my Khost story. Should you be returning there or some other place in Afghanistan, I hope you’ll come home safe and sound. Good luck and keep writing, sir!

  2. petermolin Says:

    Elsie: Thanks for posting, and thanks for your passion for making Khowst a better place. I’m home now–I was in Khowst in 2008-2009. In fact, you and I communicated while I was at Camp Clark, but the truth is I couldn’t get the higher headquarters to authorize your return visit. More frankly, I think people were just scared that you would get killed or kidnapped. The security situation got so much worse over the last half of the decade, sad to say. That doesn’t take away from the fact that you had some fantastic experiences seeing things that few Westerners get to observe, and you saw Afghans at their best, not worst. -Pete

  3. Elsie De Laere Says:

    Hi Peter,
    Now I know why your name and story sounded so awfully familiar.
    Thanks for your kind reply.
    The very best to you,

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