See How We Are

Our Afghan allies. Khowst Province, May 2009.

An Air Force officer who served a tour as a physical education advisor at the Afghanistan military academy writes in a military journal that the Afghan mission is doomed.  The evidence, he says, begins with the failure of the Afghans to keep their US-supplied volleyballs filled with air.  They just don’t care, he says.  They don’t have it in them.  We’re wasting our time trying to help them.

An Army officer with a better base of experience in combat units writes a long article that also castigates Afghan inefficiency and commitment.  In another recent case, a two-star general is fired for publicly criticizing President Karzai.  And now, an American unit generates a crisis by burning a number of Korans, one result of which is that ANA soldiers have turned their guns on American partners.

Not good, clearly.

Against this recent dismal record I submit the following.  It’s taken from a message board query that asks US soldiers if they met anybody downrange that they’d like to see again.  One officer replied with a vignette from his Iraq deployment, and I think his claims are relevant to Afghanistan, too:

“Over the course of 15 months spent during the surge in Iraq 2007-2008 my entire company came to develop a relationship with those who we worked with daily… the Sons of Iraq. There is no question that in the early months of the deployment we called some of them insurgents; in fact we had detained several key individuals who would later become leaders of the movement. It is difficult to characterize the friendship shared.

“When the SoI movement first started, we trusted them the same way you would trust a man holding a pistol with a hood over his head. Over time, however, we conducted clearing operations in which they played a critical role. Often they would fight along side us. Several of the Iraqis were wounded in the attempt to protect us. We began to spend more and more time with our “partners.” Toward the end of the tour, it was not uncommon for us to go to the leader’s house (Sheik Ali) and have lunch with him and the others. It was clear that what had initially started as a mutual hatred for Al Qaeda, turned into concern for each other.

“One day a group of over 100 SoI leaders came rushing to our Combat Out Post because they had been deceived by a rumor that our Company Commander had been kidnapped by the insurgents. They wanted to get let in on the plan to lock down the city and rescue him and they were looking for direction for their 2000+ followers.

“They took ownership over the security of their town and they felt proud of their ability to lay stake in its success. Instead of resenting us, they appreciated us for assisting them in protecting the community.

“Our last two days in theatre were suppose to be left confidential, but as with everything, they seemed to already know. The leaders came to our COP to send us off with genuine tears in their eyes. They recounted stories of the past year and our first encounters with each other. They did not want to leave, we shared some old photos with each other, and they thanked us for what we had mutually accomplished in the area. Lastly, they wanted to give us gifts as tokens of their appreciation.

“It would be difficult, but I dream of someday going back there to recount and relive the good and the bad.”

Screwing up is always possible, but so too is getting it right.

Afghan security force leaders putting their heads together.


3 Responses to “See How We Are”

  1. anvi hoang Says:

    I love this post because I feel confused a little thinking about it 🙂 I think the understanding and connection among soldiers in your story are rare and they maybe the only good things that come out of a war. However, we don’t need a war to build connections to get things done. At the same time, I also doubt if we can build more connections out of war anyway! More confusing thoughts over here…
    I am glad you posted this story, anyway.

    • anvi hoang Says:

      i meant “I doubt if we can build more connections in peace”

      • petermolin Says:

        Anvi, thanks. I agree that the mindset and circumstances that allow deep trust and lasting friendship to develop between US forces and our allies are rare. That’s just one of many things that have made the wars hard. At the poetry reading I wrote of in “92Y,” Brian Turner asked from stage how many Americans know the Arabic (or Dari, or Pashto) word for “friend”? For “love”? His answers, not stated but obvious, were “not many.”

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