It is an all too familiar story, but beautifully told. How elders seek out foreign strangers, hoping to find solace from the Special Forces’ search operations. Leaving a population not feeling very protected, despite all the recent population-centric military rhetoric. An excerpt from ‘Captain Cats Diaries’.
Am I taking crazy pills? How difficult is it to grasp that all these botched ‘search and kill’ operations carried out by Special Forces (or the CIA) are going to piss people off. Do you need a PhD to get that you are not exactly winning hearts and minds by storming into people’s homes like a bunch of tobacco chewing war-pumped cowboys and arresting or killing the inhabitants, based on what is maybe false information fed to them by their young Afghan ‘advisors’?
I often wonder exactly how many lives have been turned upside down or ruined through the casual relaying of false ‘intel’ (that’s the lingo for ‘intelligence’, which really just means information. I can’t help thinking of Team America here: ‘WE HAVE NO INTELLIGENCE’. But I digress). I’m not saying they get it wrong all the time but they get it so tragically wrong too bloody often.
Yesterday morning four elders from the Waziri tribe set off from a remote, isolated border district in southern Paktika to come to my office. Paktika, which we sometimes affectionately refer to as ‘the black hole’, is one of the most socially conservative parts of the country and is so cut off from the rest of Afghanistan it’s insane.
Paktika is huge and desperately poor, there are very few people (roughly estimated somewhere between 300,000 to 500,000 – low for somewhere so vast) and literacy rates are some of the lowest in the country.
There is minimal government presence in the districts, some of which have long been abandoned to the Taliban. Provincial government officials are mostly corrupt, diverting what little humanitarian assistance that makes it to the province destined for remote and impoverished communities, and selling it off to line their own pockets.
Most of the roads connecting the districts to the provincial capital are too dangerous to travel along due to IEDs planted here and there, as well as insurgent ambushes targeting the international military or the government. Where there are schools (mostly only primary), the teachers are unqualified. Very few girls attend school in Paktika.
For medical assistance, people generally rely on services across the border in Pakistan, where they have to travel through an equally perilous Waziristan to access Peshawar, NWFP’s capital city. Unlike other provinces, there is hardly any assistance coming in from NGOs or other agencies, as it’s too dangerous to work there.
But wait! It gets worse.
These four elders risked life and limb and came to our office via the scenic route, which took them 2 days, because the short cut would have led them to certain death somewhere in Mata Khan district probably. The reason they came is because they have nowhere else to turn, pleas have apparently fallen on deaf ears in Sharana, the provincial capital.
They arrived tired and worn out in the early afternoon. They were a motley crew. The eldest had beautiful pale green eyes and spoke a little English and was keen to practice it with me. He had apparently worked as an engineer with Ariana airlines many years before but had had to retire early due to problems with his kidneys. Another was rather dashing and well groomed, and had worked before as a driver for a UN agency, so knew a little English as well. The third was a gruff, rough southeastern Pashtun with a wild beard and strong accent and had no time for pleasantries. The fourth man was dressed in a thin grubby shalwar kameez minus the waistcoat, and wore black rubber sandals with no socks. Instead of a turban, he had wrapped a dirty white piece of cloth around his head.
Interestingly, these men barely mentioned the Taliban during our meeting, or any other kind of insurgent, though they are of course under pressure from them. What they needed to offload about were these search operations carried out by the US Special Forces, who are being ‘advised’ by one particular young Afghan man. According to the residents of this district as well as those from neighbouring ones, this man is the devil incarnate.
I have met many of these young Afghan men who drawl in highly irritating pseudo American accents, who call me ma’am in all the wrong places, apparently stoked because they hang out on military bases with burly tattooed US soldiers wearing bandanas and black Ray-bans. It’s as though they are desperately trying to be what they imagine it must be like to be American.
I used to feel sorry for them, they seemed like anachronisms, lost and out of place. I wondered how they related to their families anymore.
I also wondered whether I maybe resented these cocky gum-chewing young men because they didn’t conform to my view of Afghans as being, on the whole, gentle, kind, and mild mannered people. At least this to date has been my experience here, with surprisingly few exceptions.
Starry-eyed and somewhat patronising views aside, time has given way to a more jaded opinion and I have become impatient, irritated by the absurdly grotesque glamorising of this army base culture and discussions permeated by gross over-simplifications and a paltry understanding of what is an inordinately complex situation.
I suspect that these young men may not necessarily be in the right position to be putting forward critical information which may determine whether a person lives or dies or gets to spend the next 4 years in jail wearing an orange jump suit.
This may be wild speculation and I am sure their information is sometimes accurate, but from here it almost seems irrelevant. Having spent the best part of 18 months in this region talking to people who have been victims of or witness to these ‘search operations’, seeing time and again desperation and anger in people’s eyes, I know with whom my sympathies lie. Didn’t we come here to help people and gain their trust? Maybe some of us did. Some came to root out the ‘bad guys’, whatever the cost apparently.
“We are caught between the Taliban and Special Forces”, one of the elders tells me. “If we even climb a mountain we are automatically AGEs (Anti Government Elements), if we stay at home, that too looks suspicious”.
“The other day I had to make a phone call. There is one place in our district from where there is telephone reception and we can make calls, but it is at the top of a mountain. I needed to make my phone call, so I had to ask a sheperd if I could accompany him and his flock. I went with him, in disguise” (as a sheep? I wondered to myself momentarily. No, don’t be ridiculous! I chastised myself. As a fellow sheperd. Stop making light of this tragic conversation).
A lot of the time I feel helpless, and then angry. These four men travelled for 2 days to ask us to please do something. Military folk are belligerently obedient creatures, I suppose they have to be, answering only to a very specific command structure. I doubt my whining to a battalion commander will do much good (we are tolerated at best by the military because I assume they have been ordered to ‘cooperate’ with us); but I intend to travel to Paktika to meet with the manoeuvre battalion commander there, and maybe try to take it further up the chain of command. It may not do any good, but sadly I will probably have a better chance of being listened to than these poor men have in their own country.
A blog from eastern Afghanistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020