Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

by Douglas A. Wissing


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Award-winning journalist Douglas A. Wissing’s poignant and eye-opening journey across insurgency-wracked Afghanistan casts an unyielding spotlight on greed, dysfunction, and predictable disaster while celebrating the everyday courage and wisdom of frontline soldiers, idealistic humanitarians, and resilient Afghans. As Wissing hauls a hundred pounds of body armor and pack across the Afghan warzone in search of the ground truth, US officials frantically spin a spurious victory narrative, American soldiers try to keep their body parts together, and Afghans try to stay positive and strain to figure out their next move after the US eventually leaves. As one technocrat confided to Wissing, "I am hopeless—but optimistic."

Wissing is everywhere in Afghanistan, sharing an impressionistic view from little white taxis coursing across one of the world’s most mine-ridden places; a perilous view from outside the great walls surrounding America’s largest base, sequestered Bagram Air Field; and compelling inside views from within embattled frontline combat outposts, lumbering armored gun trucks and flitting helicopters, brain trauma clinics, and Kabul’s Oz-like American embassy. It’s Afghan life on the streets; the culture and institutions that anneal them; the poetry that enriches them. It includes the perspectives of cynical military lifers and frightened short-timers; true believers and amoral grabbers; Americans and Afghans trying to make sense of two countries surreally contorted by war-birthed extractive commerce.

Along with a deep inquiry into the 21st-century American way of war and an unforgettable glimpse of the enduring culture and legacy of Afghanistan, Hopeless but Optimistic includes the real stuff of life: the austere grandeur of Afghanistan and its remarkable people; warzone dining, defecation, and sex; as well as the remarkable shopping opportunities for men whose job is to kill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253022851
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/08/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,201,379
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Douglas A. Wissing is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books, including Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban and Pioneer in Tibet: The Life and Perils of Dr. Albert Shelton. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN.com, Fox.com, Salon.com, and Time.com, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Hopeless But Optimistic

Journeying Through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

By Douglas A. Wissing

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Douglas A. Wissing
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02333-9



KABUL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: INCOMING SOLDIERS LIKE to chuckle at Kabul's airport code, KIA — "killed in action." My Safi Airways flight from Dubai descends at dawn, and the light tints the snowcapped mountains that picket Kabul orange, then pink, then a deep rose. Across the aisle, a muscular American in khaki tactical clothes stares straight ahead, deep in thought, face half in shadow, the sunlight reflecting in his eyes as the plane banks over the adobe-brown city with its yellow dome of pollution.

As we approach landing, I have my own reasons for pensiveness. Beyond the standard war trepidation, I'm uneasy about my approvals to embed with US troops. This is my third trip to cover the Afghanistan War, but getting US military approvals has been far more problematic this time, perhaps because my book Funding the Enemy had revealed the US counterinsurgency's systemic dysfunction. Didn't make me any friends in the Pentagon, an intelligence guy told me. So when military PAOs (public affairs officers) repeatedly canceled my approvals for embeds in the volatile eastern and southern battle spaces, l wasn't surprised. One PAO sent a testy e-mail asking if I wrote "The Juice Ain't Worth the Squeeze," a critical Foreign Policy article. Seemed an odd question, given that my name was right under the title. Another canceled embed. It was only after I announced I was flying to Kabul to arrange things from there that the embed approvals seem to come back and firm up — maybe. I didn't know what to expect.

Why am I so intent on going back? I'm afflicted with the writer's delirium: I want to know how the story ends. After all the scandals, the whistleblowers, the critical media and books, the revelations by an array of inspectors general, the scathing congressional investigations, I want to see if the system has reformed. As America's endgame in Afghanistan plays out, have there been any lessons learned, or are the same malign networks that connected ambitious American careerists, greedy US corporations, corrupt Afghan kleptocrats, and the Taliban still pulsing with wasted American tax dollars? As I descend into Kabul a dozen years after the war started, the US government is still pouring $1.5 billion a week into Afghanistan. Sixty-eight thousand American soldiers and probably twice that many contractors are ostensibly (and futilely) trying to bind Afghans to the predatory Karzai government. The Taliban controls major parts of the country. Given these bleak facts, what is the mood of the troops, the contractors, the aid workers, the diplomats, the Afghans? What's going to happen to Afghanistan? I want to know.

But as the plane dips toward the runway, I am more concerned with the fifty-kilometer taxi ride from KIA to BAF (Bagram Air Field), where I am to report for embeds. Just going through Kabul is considered a risky proposition, and the road between KIA and BAF stretches across the dangerous Shomali Plain. Because of the security problem, virtually all Westerners — military, diplomats, contractors, and journalists — now fly the short distance to BAF on small military planes from the military side of the Kabul airport. In my previous embed, the military had arranged for me to fly into BAF almost as a matter of course. But not this time. "Take a taxi," the PAO e-mailed. I'd done it in 2009, using a trusted Afghan taxi service, so that's my plan.

Back in the glitzy Dubai International Airport, the Kabul-bound passengers had buddied up in an almost reflexive way. A group of expat Afghan women returning for family reunions bonded over how to wear their unfamiliar headscarves in Kabul. "Maybe it is our last chance to go, with the Americans ... leaving," a Tajik woman from Fremont said quietly. A fleshy Skol-spitting contractor sauntered over and sat down beside me. He monitored rocket attacks at fob (forward operating base) Sharana, a bleak logistic base that I'd been to. He said security wasn't too bad at Sharana, but was deteriorating as US troops increasingly stayed in their compounds. "Small fobs getting hit all the time — no patrols," he said. "Getting closer all the time." When he heard about my plan to taxi to Bagram, his eyes widened. "No way," he said. A bulky black man with a baby face joined us. Kind eyes, a quick, solid grace. Said he'd been a special forces sergeant, but now was a shooter for one of those Blackwater-cloned private security contractors that thronged Afghanistan. Worked out of a fortified company compound in Kabul. "Triple the money and half the oversight," he said. When the attendants called our flight, a solitary young Afghan woman with frightened eyes lined up beside us. In a lilting British accent she said she hadn't been back to Afghanistan for sixteen years. "I feel safer being with Western people," she said nervously as she tucked a wisp of hair into her headscarf. I asked if someone was meeting her in Kabul. "Oh yes," she said with a broad smile of relief. "My uncle."

After our plane lands at Kabul International Airport, we file down the aluminum stairway to the waiting buses. The KIA terminal is a Brutalist concrete expression of international solidarity that looks downright Stalinist, which makes sense given that the Soviets built the airfield and terminal during the Cold War. We are a glum, sober group. The informal partners reunite. I see the Tajik women have adopted the young returnee. She helps them adjust their headscarves as we head for the terminal. We abruptly arrive in scarcely ordered Afghanistan. Milling and grabbing porters, officious factotums, sullen security guards with automatic weapons. I scramble for my bags, that awful hundred pounds of body armor, Kevlar, computer, cameras, clothes, recorders, files, notebooks, and survival gadgets: penlight with red lens for blacked-out combat bases, Swiss Army knife, an odd little solar charger, duct tape, safety pins, first aid kit, and a plastic ziplock bag with about a pound of lucky charms given to me by loved ones.

The porters descend on the travelers waiting for their luggage. The Sharana contractor's porter quickly wheels off his large, hard-shelled tool case, which is the preferred luggage for war-zone commuters. The contractor nods to me as he follows his porter down the hall. The black shooter comes over while a small, wizened Afghan is wrestling my bags onto a rickety cart. "My peeps are coming to pick me up," he says. "I'm right in Kabul. That fifteen minutes is the most dangerous part of this job. Ooow, you're an hour out there ..." He walks away shaking his head.

* * *

I'd been warned countless times that kidnapping is a cottage industry in Afghanistan. Don't get into unfamiliar taxis. So my trusted taxi driver needs to be there. I worry as I leave the security cordon surrounding the main terminal and shoulder my way through the crowds of Afghans waiting near the parking lot. I nervously call the cell number the taxi company has given me. A crisp voice answers: "This is Nawab." He tells me where to find him in the parking lot. He'll be looking for me. And as I come out the door, there he is.

Nawab is a slender, smiling Tajik in a gray polyester double-breasted jacket and a plaid shirt. He waves as I walk toward him and opens the trunk to help with my bags. The final security checkpoints and we are in the thrum of war-fueled Kabul.

It's cold and murky. The smell of petrol, maybe brimstone. Herds of fat-tailed sheep and donkeys pulling tiny carts share the road with racing Corollas, pickups, motorcycles, and armored SUVs. It's wild, anarchic traffic — vehicular Russian roulette. Laborers stomp down the road. Women in faded blue burqas squat at the verge. There are Afghan police and soldiers everywhere, along with evidence of the failed counterinsurgency. Faded anti-Taliban posters that just seem sad and futile. CCD (Community Center for the Disabled) trucks with red "Danger!" signs graphically advertising Afghanistan's land-mine peril and the tens of thousands of victims. A USAID (United States Agency for International Development) billboard proclaiming women's rights in English and Dari that few Afghan females can read, because almost 90 percent of them are still illiterate after more than a decade and $100 billion spent on grotesquely mismanaged US aid programs. The quagmire, we are in it. "Pouring money in the sand pit," soldiers repeatedly told me. The great, dollar-sucking sand pile of Afghanistan. The Taliban dictum has long been "The Americans have the watches, but we have the time." And time is running out for the Americans.

As we drive through the city, I can see both boomtown Kabul and Kabul in bust. There's the Kabubble, with its sleek office towers and garish multistory wedding halls — City Star, Qasre Uranus, Afghan Kyber. Nawab points to French-themed Sham e Paris with its light-bedecked mock Eiffel Tower. "It is Las Vegas — yes?" Then there is the bust: the paved roads that suddenly give way to rubble; half-finished construction projects shrouded in plastic tarps like rectangular corpses; cur dogs scrapping in the mountainous garbage piles. Looming over a ramshackle stall with a tarp roof, a hand-painted sign proclaims, "New Ci-tee Dairy Superstore." The Kabul New City development — another of the megalomaniac wet dreams that captured the US and Afghan insiders' imagination in the postinvasion boom days of unlimited international development money. Officially it was Dehsabz City, but flacks called it Skyscraper City. Envisioned as an immense megadevelopment stretching out into the Shomali Plain with half a million housing units, industrial parks, agribusinesses, nature parks, and so on, it was to be mostly financed with billions of dollars of international development aid. Lots of money to be made with landgrabs and graft and bloated consultant contracts. Hard-ons galore in board rooms and government offices.

But like the Dairy Superstore shack, the New City is turning out to be a fantasy. The New City is, of course, another wholly inappropriate development for Afghanistan, a basket case of a country with a per capita GDP of about $400. The country sits at the bottom of virtually every development index, from life expectancy to electricity. About 97 percent of Afghanistan's licit gross domestic product comes from international military and development aid. The real economy's main exports are opium and heroin. It is a violent warrior culture riven with centuries-old tribal enmities. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, giroa in the military parlance, is thoroughly and systemically corrupt. This is a failed state, not the Las Vegas of central Asia.

As we motor toward the Shomali Plain, I ask Nawab about how things look to him. "Day by day, it's better," he says, almost by rote. "But the foreigners are going," and he shrugs.



LONG AFTER AMERICA INVADED AFGHANISTAN, THE SHOMALI Plain is still a treacherous place, one of the world's most active land-mine areas. But at least the way to Bagram is easier than my journey in 2009, when my taxi driver had to slowly weave across the bomb-cratered plain, following braided dirt tracks to the air base. Back then soldiers regaled me with tales of wild, high-speed rides to Kabul, dodging snipers, decades-old mines, and fresh IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The new Kabul-Bagram highway opened in 2010, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers and US taxpayers. Albeit another absurdly expensive US- built road, it seems almost worth it as we grandly course along the comforting carapace of black asphalt toward the snow-dusted mountains and BAF's promised security.

The morning is bright and sunny, the five-thousand-foot-high air crisp and clear. Nawab dials the radio and the percussive beat and shrill notes of Afghan pop music leaches out of the speakers. Large villages and tilled fields stretching into the distance speak of Shomali's agricultural importance. Along the way, abandoned construction sites, tattered billboards, and roads leading off to chimeric New City developments stand beside the highway. When I ask Nawab about the apparent lack of progress on the megacity, he smiles and says things have slowed down since the Americans announced their withdrawal.

Following the public affairs officer's directive, I phone as we progress toward Bagram Air Field, the United States' largest base in Afghanistan. "About a half hour out," I report, handing the phone to Nawab so he can confirm our destination. "Call back when you're ten minutes out," the sergeant tells me when Nawab returns the phone. We are heading to ECP 3 (Entry Control Point 3), the main vehicle entrance. Been there before and knew the journalist pick-up drill. When I arrived in my little white taxi in 2009, there was a momentary wait before the massive steel gate rumbled open and an armored gun truck with army publicists in full battle rattle rolled out to fetch me and my stuff. In a flash, we were in the womb of Mother BAF.

Bagram Air Field is the largest US base in Afghanistan. Impounded behind more than eleven miles of meandering security walls and razor wire, the base's five thousand acres are crammed with the air field, command headquarters, office buildings, hospitals, spec ops facilities, roads, housing, rec centers, gyms, classrooms, and a strip mall. With thousands of soldiers and fleets of aircraft and vehicles, BAF is a big, fat target for Taliban rocket and mortar attacks launched from the neighboring villages. In a tense meeting in one of those villages a few years before, a gimlet-eyed security soldier from Kentucky had drawled to me, "It didn't work out so well for the Russians here." While the village leaders enthusiastically feigned US allegiance for promised development money, Taliban fighters imperiously watched from a nearby bluff. The soldier glanced up and said, "It ain't workin' out so good for us. These pee-pul don't like anybody."

The gate at ECP 3 is particularly dangerous. When Vice President Dick Cheney was on BAF in 2007, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his vehicle bomb in ECP 3, killing twenty-three and wounding twenty. When Cheney finally emerged from a bomb shelter, he told reporters the audacious attacks "shouldn't affect our behavior at all." In some ways it didn't. Soldiers complained that BAF force protection was a joke, with high vegetation along the perimeter fences and housing built close to the walls. The sandbags and reinforced concrete of 2005 gave way to thousands of frail plywood B-huts (barracks huts).

In the spring of 2010, the Taliban began to probe Bagram's defenses, including with a rocket attack that killed a contractor in a B-hut. In May 2010, insurgents wearing suicide vests and US Army uniforms attacked BAF. A dozen heavily armed insurgents rushed ECP 1, the pedestrian gate in the Bagram town bazaar. But that was a feint. The real focus was just north of ECP 3 — a brazen, full-frontal assault on the largest base in Afghanistan. Equipped with IEDs, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and AK-47s, the Taliban fighters penetrated the perimeter fence, took a guard tower after the Afghan soldiers fled, and began hurling grenades at the nearby housing. It was an eight-hour firefight with ten US casualties.

So ECP 3 is definitely not a place I want to linger. As we turn onto the dirt road leading to the gate, we pass a new concrete bazaar that Nawab says is owned by a high-ranking Afghan official. I call the public affairs sergeant. We are getting close. Rooster tails of dust billow behind us as we jounce into the rutted truck yard of ECP 3. The high concrete walls of Bagram Air Field loom ahead. An Afghan soldier waves us to a stop at a concrete emplacement, where a clutch of disheveled security guards lounge in resigned torpor. Glancing in the taxi, he waves us on. I call again, say we are in front of the gate. And then it gets hairy. The PAOs can't or won't let me on the base. Sergeant says they have to get my paperwork. Have to wake up the officer. Have to get a truck. They need time. Need to wait.

It's a shock to be marooned outside the gate; stomach-tightening. ECP 3 is BAF's "soak yard," the muddy, rocky field where hundreds of tankers and supply trucks from central and south Asia wait for a day before being allowed inside the base's tall walls. The operant theory is that the twenty-four-hour wait allows for hidden explosives to soak through their wrappings so the K-9 bomb dogs can sniff them out. Sometimes the trucks just blow up. The yard has a simmering menace, like a medieval encampment below a besieged battlement. Hard-faced drivers begin to eye us. Nawab turns off the radio, places his hands on the wheel, and stares straight ahead.


Excerpted from Hopeless But Optimistic by Douglas A. Wissing. Copyright © 2016 Douglas A. Wissing. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Landing
2. Problems
3. In/Out
4. Reify
5. Shoulders
6. Salerno
7. Retrograde
8. Better
9. Boom
10. WHAM
11. Luck
12. Shitholes
13. Road
14. Friends
15. Kandahar
16. Leatherneck
17. Sex
18. Drugs
19. Brains
20. Birds
21. Geronimo
22. Dream
23. Ship
24. Slaughter
25. System
26. Believers
27. Rumi
28. Enduring
29. Beauty
30. Sustaining
31. Challenges
32. Women
33. Dutch
34. Intermediates
35. Embassy
36. Loss
37. Optimism

What People are Saying About This

author of The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War - Nazif Shahrani

A seasoned, award-winning journalist systematically and methodically unpacks with brutal honesty the wasting of a trillion US-taxpayers' dollars by America’s Deep State in withdrawal through its longest, privatized, 21st-century-war in Afghanistan. This is Wissing’s most insightful and heartfelt account of his embeds with America’s best and most dedicated warriors, male and female, in the most insurgency-ridden corners of Afghanistan. Hopeless but Optimistic is a well-crafted, often humorous, and candid narration of Wissing’s most intimate encounters with America’s worst US State Department careerists burning money, army officers spinning self-delusional victory spiels, and the highly paid development consultants re-doing the same projects over again. It is a story of America’s military industrial complex–driven wars filled with moral outrage. A must-read for anyone interested in learning why America’s longest war and reconstruction efforts in collaboration with its corrupt partners in Afghanistan have produced hopelessness, though they remain optimistic.

author of Organizations at War in Afghanistan & Beyond and editor of Muslims in Western Politics - Abdulkader Sinno

Hopeless but Optimistic provides a fascinating ground level account of the effect of absurd and inappropriate Washington strategies on Afghans and on American soldiers.Its short hard-hitting chapters illustrate with pithy anecdotes how 'hearts and minds' and other senseless silver-bullet approaches to the war only benefitted well-connected Beltway contractors and Afghan drug traffickers and warlords, and failed to help Afghan farmers and American soldiers. Americans prefer to forget Afghanistan, but that would be a shame because this lost trillion dollar war illustrates the hubris of policies sold by both the Bush and Obama administrations. This book vividly illustrates the cost of this hubris beyond the trillion dollars wasted and the official casualties numbers.

author of America's War for the Greater Middle East:A Military History - Andrew J. Bacevich

As with an album of closeup photographs, Douglas Wissing’s concise essays cast a sharp and revealing light on their subject. Here we confront in granular detail the waste and folly that is America’s war in Afghanistan. An empire in decline does not make for a pretty picture.

former New York Times and Washington Post editorial board member, and co-author of Tournament of Sha - Karl E. Meyer

This is a fine and troubling book about America’s plunge into the nightmare otherwise known as Afghanistan. Wissing’s concise thirty-odd chapters are like graphic flash-cards conveying the confusing mix of violence and corruption, along with bursts ofdecency and courage, that define this endless war. And alas! No exit is yet in sight.

I particularly appreciated its account of day-to-day frustrations of US personnel who have scant contact with the ordinary Afghans they are pledged to protect. They remain locked in a bottle filled with venomous scorpions.

former US Representative; former vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and co-chairman of the Iraq St - Lee H. Hamilton

Afghanistan is one huge enigma for most Americans. Wissing's book helps us sort it out. He has repeatedly been in Afghanistan, observed everything, and reports it all in this remarkable volume. This book is the place for most of us to learn about this woebegone, but resilient land, and America’s endless war.

author of The Wolves (A John Wells Novel) - Alex Berenson

When historians of the future try to explain how the United States could have accomplished so little in Afghanistan despite spending so much blood and treasure, this trenchant and honest book will be a crucial source. An important read for anyone who cares about American foreign policy in the 21st century.

former US State Department foreign service officer and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose th - Peter Van Buren

If I could recommend one book about Afghanistan to the next president, it'd be this one. If s/he can't learn the lessons of the failed war in Iraq from the ground truth, maybe s/he can learn them from Wissing's brilliant, funny, sad, irreverent, serious, deeply reported, hopeless—but always optimistic—book. Required reading.

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