Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Afghanistan

Several months ago, while on patrol with an Army unit in Samarra, Iraq, I mentioned to one of the platoon sergeants that my next combat embed would probably see me heading to Afghanistan. He went quiet for a moment, then turned to me, mentioning that he’d done some time in Afghanistan himself.

“Never before have I felt so alone, forgotten, and afraid for my life.” And he said nothing more about it.

As anyone who only casually follows the news knows, the United States has had forces operating in Afghanistan since 2001. Several months from now, we will have been on the ground for nine years. As anyone who more closely follows the news is aware, major operations are still very much underway, the Taliban still represents a formidable, and in some places firmly-entrenched enemy, and US/NATO, and Afghan Army casualties are on the rise. When the war began, improvised explosive devices were virtually unknown in that theater. Now, though, they claim more lives than any other form of attack.

The whole effort is not aided by the fact Afghanistan is considered the second most corrupt nation in the world next to Somalia. Additionally, the country has been at war with either a foreign power or itself for three decades. It is impoverished, ethnically diverse, extremely geographically isolated in some places, and now struggling in the infancy of an Islamic Republic – with the significant assistance of more than 40 other foreign powers representing five separate continents. The United States, with more than 45,000 personnel, accounts for over half of their number.

Despite a heavy international presence and mindboggling sums of money dumped into the country, the likelihood of success is a subject of much international, domestic and dinner table debate. Military commanders are optimistic, but one must wonder if they are only saying as they have been directed to say. The US military, after all, does not practice democracy (i.e. free speech); it only defends it.

A friend of mine once remarked that Afghanistan is where empires go to die. Throughout the course of their bloody history, Afghanis have seen numerous wars fought in their land, repulsed attempted foreign invasions, dissuaded imperialists, and then returned to killing each other in droves. By some standards, killing, death, and wholesale conflict are an Afghani way of life. The ultimate outcome of this international effort is as of yet unclear. When spring arrives, the Taliban will remobilize in force, friendly casualties will rise, and the outlook will be grim.

Some have speculated that US presence in Afghanistan has been sufficient to keep the Taliban and Al Qaeda at bay, yet not sufficient to expel them. Inarguably, the terrain has complicated the effort. It’s difficult to secure a village that can only be reached by either helicopters in the best of conditions, or on the back of a donkey. Until relatively recently, there were only two paved roads in the country.

War, coupled with frequent earthquakes, brutal winters, and a barren climate, have reduced many Afghanis from living to simply surviving. Moral ambiguity has authorized a number to switch to whatever side they think will win, not to a side that they believe to be right. International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) sweep through an area, clear it of Taliban, and move on. The Taliban returns from the hills, caves and rocks, and life continues as usual. Violently. Meanwhile, the country accounts for more than half of the world’s opium production. It’s often seen as the only crop that affords them a reasonable profit.

I will be in Afghanistan in three weeks, and have no idea what to expect. Many have made the mistake of assuming Iraqi Arab culture is nearly synonymous with that of Afghanistan. Most have been surprised with their vast differences. One similarity is irrefutable: it is a country where many would prefer to live in peace, yet many are working hard to ensure this never happens.

While the plight of the Afghani people is an important one and I imagine I will address it in part, my fundamental purpose is that “we” are there. Nearly 2,000,000 US men and women have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan (or both). Nevertheless, they still comprise less than one percent of the population of the United States. Many of them – primarily those under 30 – will struggle when they return; for understanding from the public, for peace of mind, and to move forward with their lives. After all, it is relatively easy to go to war, but relatively difficult to come home from it.

Their dominant emotions will be anger and the sincere belief that nobody understands them. Conversations with many will reinforce both of these. Ideally, they will encounter others who are willing to listen without judgment and demonstrate consistent friendship. It begins with people knowing their stories.

“The troops” aren’t a sea of faceless guys wearing digital uniforms and carrying rifles, but the sons and daughters of this country. They are loved ones to somebody, dearly missed in their absence, and wholly grieved if they do not make it home. They deserve treatment as citizens, patriots, volunteers, and servants. When one of them claims that “nobody cares what I did,” I want scores ready to eagerly prove him wrong. When one of them sinks into an all-too-common place of isolation, I want sincere friends willing to meet him or her there and walk alongside. When one needs to speak, I want people to listen. THAT is my mission, and I believe it begins with the public knowing what’s on their hearts. As before, I will be telling their stories. Let us see if anybody is listening.


Dear Friends;

This pursuit has not been without personal sacrifice. By the end of this upcoming tour, I will have spent nearly $4,000 on flights alone. I’ve already spent almost half of that on body armor. Electronics, gear and other expenses have added to these figures, too. The damage to relationships, worry I have caused, and other aspects of life I’ve had to temporarily shelve has been incalculable. Thus, I ask for two things.

First, prayer and encouragement. Though it is daunting, I am flattered that people believe in me and what I’m doing. Advocacy for my safety is certainly always appreciated. Secondly, I humbly ask for monetary support as well, since not a single word of what I write will earn me a penny. In truth, I’m going broke doing this. While money doesn’t guarantee any results and may be a poor investment, it will still help bring about something which I consider crucial to the reintegration of hundreds of thousands of US servicemembers.

After nearly nine years at war, we in the States have grown dangerously immune to it. We forget why we’re fighting, and more devastatingly we forget who is fighting on our behalf. Thus, we’re unimpressed when they return. And that simply serves to reinforce many servicemembers’ belief that nobody cares. Knowing them, however, and knowing their stories, can quickly prove them wrong. If you claim to support the troops, prove it.


Ben Shaw

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved