Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America's Longest Warby Brian Glyn Williams
Originally published by the U.S. Army to provide an overview of the terrain, tribes, history, and course of the war for American troops, Afghanistan Declassified provides an essential background to the war in Afghanistan as well as offering a vivid account of the country's people, history, and geography.See more details below
Originally published by the U.S. Army to provide an overview of the terrain, tribes, history, and course of the war for American troops, Afghanistan Declassified provides an essential background to the war in Afghanistan as well as offering a vivid account of the country's people, history, and geography.
"Williams's work adds personal experience and his deep knowledge of the culture and history of the country as he travels it, describing historical sites, a colorful, friendly people, and their sometimes friendly leaders."—Publishers Weekly
"A useful, well-written, and well-researched primer on Afghanistan."—Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda
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Afghanistan DeclassifiedA Guide to America's Longest War
By Brian Glyn Williams
UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 University of Pennsylvania Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionIn April 2007 I boarded a plane in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan—a former Soviet Muslim country located in the Caucasus Mountains south of Russia—and flew over the Caspian Sea, crossed Iran, and descended through the snowcapped Hindu Kush Mountains to Kabul. Azerbaijan had been fascinating. Baku, formerly the fifth-largest city in the USSR, was a wonderful port on the Caspian Sea made up of fifteenth-century Muslim palaces, nineteenth-century Tsarist-era buildings, Stalin-era drab apartment housing for the proletariat, and gleaming post-Soviet skyscrapers—the latter built with new money coming into the country from local oil.
It was great to be able to use both my Russian and my Turkish among the Russified Azerbaijani Turks, who seemed more inclined to drink the local beer than attend the rare mosque I saw in the country. But as my plane made its final approach over the Afghan capital, I put Azerbaijan behind me and stared out the cabin windows with a mixture of expectation and excitement. After months of planning for this occasion, it was finally here. I was now descending into a land that was defined in most Americans' imagination simply as a theater of action for the "war on terror."
But as my plane touched down, I realized that I was seeing Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in a way that few Americans ever do: as a sprawling city located at the foot of the Hindu Kush that seems to rise out of the brown earth from which it is made. I was seeing it not as a backdrop for a thirty-second CNN sound bite on a suicide bombing or part of a disjointed series of images related to the war against the Taliban, but as a living, breathing city.
Suicide Bombers, Traffic Jams, and Poverty: Kabul in Three Dimensions
The first sight that greets you when you deplane at Kabul International Airport's crumbling concrete terminal is the large military transport aircraft from various NATO countries involved in the struggle against the Taliban. Their looming presence serves to remind that you are entering a country that is in the throes of war and is home to enemies that many in America prematurely wrote off as "dead-enders" back in 2002.
But most travelers are not immediately concerned with such larger issues. The traveler's initial "war" involves navigating the chaos of Kabul Airport. When I arrived, the airport terminal lacked electricity, foreign women from various NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) were scrambling to put on their modest head scarves, and Afghan customs officials sought in vain to channel incoming passengers through a series of ad hoc customs checkpoints.
Having made my way through this controlled chaos relatively unscathed, I walked out into the 80-degree sunlight to find that my host, a member of the Karzai clan who ran a small think tank, had not arrived. A friendly Afghan porter promptly offered his cell phone and contacted my host who said the driver was on his way. My driver apologetically explained that he had been delayed by traffic jams in Kabul.
This fact in and of itself was important, since Kabul was not always packed with the hordes of exhaust-spewing cars that fill it today. Under the Taliban, the population of Kabul was considerably smaller, the local economy was in tatters, and many luxury products, such as televisions, radios, VCRs, cell phones, and Western clothing (and even Western "infidel" haircuts) were both unaffordable and forbidden. But things had changed since the city was liberated in December 2001 and hundreds of thousands of Afghans have come back to the city.
As we made our way through the city in our Japanese SUV, I even sensed tremendous transformations in Kabul since my last visit in the summer of 2005. Several modern steel and glass buildings had gone up downtown, every street corner seemed to have a Roshan brand cell phone shop, and many young men were wearing trendy Western fashions (some even sported fashionable goatees) that would have gotten them beaten with iron cables during the Taliban period.
Most important, among the ghostlike forms of women clad in blue burqas, I saw hordes of young women out and about with their heads covered only with head scarves. Amazingly, many of these women were wearing makeup and fashionable clothing. Many were frankly stunning.
This had certainly not been the case two years earlier and was of course cause for beatings and imprisonment during the Taliban's rule. But here these young Afghan women were confidently navigating the crowds of turbaned men and burqa-clad women. From my perspective, the multitude of new cars, liberated young men and women, and Western-style billboards were cause for optimism.
But despite such outward signs of progress, I could not help but notice that a great deal of Kabul operated much as it had in the Taliban period, seemingly unaffected by the sweeping changes that had transformed Afghanistan's comparatively moderate, urbane capital. The hordes of barefoot street urchins hawking items on the streets, beggars with outstretched hands, and simple folk desperately trying to eke out an existence reminded us that this was the poorest country in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
As we made our way through the throngs of Kabulis, my driver continued to point out evidence that the outward signs of progress did not mean that the days of the Taliban were gone forever. He disconcertingly slowed down to show me places where suicide bombings had taken place in the past year. Here a gaping hole blown into the road, there a building pockmarked by shrapnel. Each spot spoke of a tragedy that had been inflicted on innocent bystanders. Every blast mark sent us a clear message: the grim Taliban masters who had transformed this vibrant capital into a religious prison camp were down, but they were far from out. They had made a comeback.
For all of the outward signs of progress and security, there was little the pro-American Karzai government could do to keep fanatical Taliban suicide bombers from infiltrating the city and wreaking havoc. Ironically, since my last visit, Operation Iraqi Freedom had spawned a virulent form of suicide bombing in Iraq that appeared to have inspired the fanatical Taliban guerrillas. What had begun as a trickle of bombings had become a full-fledged campaign, and Afghanistan's fragile progress appeared to have been jeopardized.
Reflecting on the hatred that would drive a suicide bomber to transform his own body into so many pieces of bone-shrapnel, I was grateful to arrive safely at our compound in a Kabul suburb. I was also ready to begin exploring the city, but my eagerness was accompanied by the shadow of lurking suicide bombers hanging over me.
A Taliban Beheading
The next day I decided to visit central Kabul. My journey began on a hilltop in the center of the city that was topped by a shell-blasted concrete mausoleum belonging to the former king of Afghanistan. As I arrived on the hilltop plateau, a group of Afghan soccer players came over to say hello and welcome me to their country.
They were thrilled when I offered to take their photograph and show it to Americans back home. I invariably found this to be the case as I strolled through the city below. Although the burqa-less girls were often shy when I took their picture, everyone from bread sellers to wandering Sufi fortune-tellers and bicyclists seemed to have an almost childlike delight in having a foreigner take their photograph. Many said, "Hello welcome," and this English catchphrase seemed to be widespread in the city.
But as I made my way to the town center, I encountered a sad sight that reminded me that this was still a country threatened by those who were less than welcoming to outsiders. On a small knoll I noticed a gathering of Afghans dressed in Western clothing. There I found a group of local journalists commemorating the death of one of their own. In the middle of the crowd I found pictures of an Afghan freelance journalist and translator who had recently been beheaded by the Taliban.
The journalist's name was Ajmal Naqshbandi. His name is not as widely known as that of his former compatriot, an Italian correspondent named Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Mastrogiacomo made headlines around the world when he was kidnapped in the south by the Taliban. He was eventually released in exchange for the return of five Taliban commanders held captive by the Karzai government. Mastrogiacomo's five-to-one release came about as a result of Italian government pressure.
But Afghanistan's Karzai government refused to release further Taliban prisoners to obtain Naqshbandi's release. The government feared that it would set a bad precedent and set off a cycle of Taliban kidnappings. As a result, Naqshbandi was brutally beheaded on film, another practice traceable to Iraq. The Afghans with whom I spoke resented the implication that a foreigner's life was worth more than that of an Afghan. They also bemoaned the fact that the news of Naqshbandi's beheading had not been as widely reported abroad as the story of Mastrogiacomo's release.
Although I was reflexively inclined to argue against the Afghan journalists' belief that the life of a Westerner was worth more than that of an Afghan, I knew better. A burnt-out war correspondent I met in Kosovo back in 2001 had told me of a racist "mathematical equation" that appalled me at the time but helped explain the lack of Western journalists at Naqshbandi's memorial. The correspondent's bitter equation for American reporting priorities went something like this: One dead American was equal to two dead Englishman, who were equal to five French, who were in turn equal to ten Arabs, and so forth until you finally reached China.
"Americans aren't interested in the tragedies of the world," my cynical war correspondent informed me after having one too many whiskeys in a Kosovar bar. "They are less interested in hearing about the ten thousand dead Bangladeshis than they are about who Britney Spears is dating in any given week."
Although this might be the unavoidable truth, I hated it then and I hate it now. For this reason alone, I wanted to share the name of Ajmal Naqshbandi, whose mourning friend I photographed as she signed a condolence book at the site of his memorial. I later saw her wandering the streets of Kabul with tears still in her eyes, and my heart went out to her. Having appreciated the hospitality Afghans gave me every time I visited their country, I felt as if I owed it to her and her people to share her friend's tragic story with my countrymen— even if he was, in one war correspondent's terms, unworthy of a higher ranking in the "mathematical equation."
The Secret Life of Foreigners in Kabul
The next day I decided to see how foreigners live in Kabul, a capital under siege. On my previous trips I had used Kabul as a springboard for launching myself into the less-stable provinces to do research. For this reason I was not as familiar with Afghanistan's relatively safe capital. Nor was I familiar with that strange breed of foreigners who leave their safe homes to live and work in Kabul.
It is from the Afghan capital that the world is directing the reconstruction of this war-torn country, and for this reason it has a considerable foreign presence. Although the only foreigners I saw in the northern deserts and mountains through which I tended to travel were the occasional heavily armed International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol, in Kabul one finds UN representatives, war correspondents, NGO aid workers, diplomats, and foreigners tied to a wide variety of international groups, all involved in the rebuilding of Eurasia's most shattered country.
One night I met with some French members of the UN who were assisting me in gaining access to captured Taliban prisoners of war. In the process I was introduced to the foreign expatriate life that I had missed during my previous expeditions. Expatriate stories rarely get told but are nonetheless fascinating.
Foreigners involved in helping the Afghan people recover from over twenty-five years of war live in a place that is both alien and, on occasion, dangerous (foreign workers have been kidnapped, blown up by suicide bombers, beheaded, and gunned down by the Taliban). The stress of working in such an environment, often for stints that last years, takes its toll on even the strongest individuals. Many have been shaken by incidents that have left them traumatized.
One woman I flew out with a few years ago had to leave the country after a Taliban terrorist threw a live hand grenade into her van's half-open window. Luckily, the grenade landed on the lap of a fast-thinking coworker, who reflexively tossed it back out the half-open window seconds before it exploded, covering her in shards of glass.
To survive in such a world, the foreigners in Kabul have created safe havens that aim to bring them many of the amenities of home and provide momentary reprieve from the troubles they encounter. One such place is the Mustafa Hotel. The Mustafa Hotel was opened within days of the Taliban's fall by a colorful Afghan exile who had been living in New Jersey since the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. As the ultimate "fixer," and the only person in Kabul driving a Camaro with a Jersey accent, Wais Faisi quickly became a legend. He became known as "the Fonz of Kabul" after he was described as a wheeler-dealer in a novel by Christina Lamb titled The Sewing Circles of Herat, and he ran the first functioning bar in post-Taliban Afghanistan. He could also solve any problem you brought to him and get you a fine Scotch or a pint of beer.
When I went to him in 2003, he asked me what he could do for me. Although I was initially taken aback by his Sopranos-style accent and appearance, I began to negotiate the price for one gunman and a driver to take me over the Hindu Kush Mountains to meet the larger-than-life Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum. Dostum had led his horse men in attacking the Taliban in 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom and was said to resemble his Mongol ancestors.
"Are you with CIA?" was Faisi's first response. I promptly replied, "Nope, UMD [University of Massachusetts Dartmouth]."
"Never heard of 'em before," was his reply. "What ever outfit you're with it'll cost you two thousand dollars, take it or leave it. But either way, you're coming to my barbecue Friday night. You have balls to go try hanging with Dostum."
Although I never attended one of Faisi's legendary rooftop barbecues (and ultimately I found some local Uzbek tribal militiamen to take me to Dostum with the help of the Turkish embassy), I had the chance to meet many interesting characters in Faisi's bar. They ranged from DynCorp contract soldiers (DynCorp is a competitor to the more infamous Black Water military contractor and I was told to never call them mercenaries) to war correspondents who had returned from "embeds" with U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in the south and east.
Recalling Faisi's well-known skills as a "fixer," I decided to pop in to the Mustafa Hotel to look him up again soon after I arrived in 2007. But my host broke the bad news to me. Faisi had been killed in the past year under mysterious circumstances. My host on this trip (an organization run by a nephew of President Hamid Karzai) claimed that he was killed by the Taliban teetotalers as punishment for his creation of a "den of iniquity." Another source claimed it was because the Mustafa Hotel had actually been a "spy den," which would not surprise me.
Regardless of what sort of "den" his hotel actually was, Faisi's fate served as a cautionary tale. In the Taliban period one could be killed for drinking alcohol. Even today many traditional Afghans frown on drinking and the socializing of unmarried men and women in restaurants. Alcohol has the same connotation in Afghanistan that drugs do in the United States. Taliban terrorists and fighters routinely rail against the recent import of "alcohol, drugs, prostitutes, and sex" into Islamic Afghanistan. At least one Taliban suicide bomber targeted an Internet café with foreigners in it.
Excerpted from Afghanistan Declassified by Brian Glyn Williams Copyright © 2012 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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