Wounded Soldiers: They Didn't Know What They Were Getting Into
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The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar. In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts. The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.
I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoys were racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles. Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.
Enter the Warriors
I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children. In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals -- few in number then -- to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes. They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.
After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital. Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps -- no helmets or armor -- and walked into shops like casual tourists. They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.
Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run overby speeding soldiers. A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?” I had, at the time, no answer for her.
In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans. As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”
The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum. Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.
To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars -- Iraq, for example, or Vietnam -- and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics. To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.