For many of our returning veterans, there's no real homecoming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Invisible Wounds of War (Prometheus Books, 2012) reveals the lingering impact that the longest wars in our nation's history continue to have on far too many of our finest young people. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard provides the horrific and complex historical backdrop to the conflicts that continue to this day.
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In the United States, the army is a volunteer army. It is carrying the burden and experiencing the dreadful consequences of two long wars, the longest in American history: Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Most of the soldiers have been redeployed many times to make up for the low number of troops. One marine was redeployed six times despite having sustained injuries. Because these wars are fought by a volunteer army, few Americans have any personal stake in them or even know about what is happening in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Previous wars were covered extensively by the media, but only in the past few years have the efforts of US soldiers on the ground been made public. Returning soldiers should be honored and respected for their sacrifices. Learning about the hidden wounds they carry home with them is a matter of human rights, not only because their suffering is unseen but also because so many of them receive neither adequate mental healthcare nor the support they need to regain social trust and to become reintegrated into society.
People enlist in the army for a number of reasons. For example, one woman wanted to get a job and thus get away from an abusive husband. Another woman was dissatisfied with her work and thought the army might be a good place for her. For yet another young man, becoming a soldier was a way out of a dangerous neighborhood; he hoped to build a better life.
Many young people enlist for socioeconomic reasons. They are promised that they will be able to retire after twenty years. They see the military giving them money or college opportunities that once only seemed like distant possibilities. Some young men and women enlist because their parents asked them to leave home and get a job. Many who just graduated from high school are looking for a purpose in life. A number of young people enlist to get away from dysfunctional families and seek a better life.
Among those who enlisted were many young men, like Noah Charles Pierce and Alexander Hohl, who had dreamed of joining the army since they were very young because they wanted to serve their country. A young man, a classics major at Dartmouth College, decided to join the Marines in 1998. It never occurred to him that he would end up in a combat situation. He felt he should join because he was privileged. There were young men who wanted to become heroes, and many of them did, but in ways that they never expected.
The impact of 9/11 was a major factor in increasing the number of volunteers, although, contrary to the claims of the Bush administration, there was no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Though many of those who joined the military had high hopes and a sense of purpose, a large proportion of those who came back were disillusioned and suffering from severe trauma.
National Guard units and reserve forces called up to active duty have drawn heavily on first responders. Those who volunteered often wanted to benefit from the education recruiters had promised them and that they couldn’t afford otherwise. The use of the United States National Guard for overseas combat is a new role for this branch of the military. It has traditionally been used as a civil-defense branch of the armed forces, helping in domestic crises or national disasters. Yet more than 50 percent of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been drawn from the National Guard forces. These weekend warriors generally had full-time jobs, families, and ties to civilian communities. They were older and had a stable income before leaving for battle. But at the same time they may have lacked the intensive combat training, unit camaraderie, and strong leadership from nonactive-duty commanders. Also, in comparison with active-duty soldiers, a greater percentage have suffered from combat trauma when they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For some soldiers, being in the military is a career. Perhaps over time, during the Iraqi war, some lost the sense of national purpose or sacrifice that might have helped them mitigate the hardships they experienced. But many of them were proud of what they accomplished even though the justification for the war shifted over time from hunting for weapons of mass destruction to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. In the end, they helped establish a supposedly democratic government, but one in which there is still a struggle for power among opposing Shiite groups, Sunnis, and Kurds. The prime minister of Iraq, Nour Kamel al-Maliki, is a Shiite, and the parliament does include Sunnis and Kurds, but Iraq is still suffering from recurring terrorist bombings because these factions remain at odds. Also, American influence is waning, as the military withdrew by the end of 2011, even as units of the highly secret Special Operations Forces were brought in and the American embassy is being rebuilt and protected by security forces. Meanwhile, the Iraqi prime minister has expanded his power and undermined the fragile democracy America tried to help create. These developments have affected the attitudes of some of the soldiers who served in Iraq in the final years of the war.
But for others, like the author-soldier Shannon Meehan, what prompted service in Iraq was a desire to put their officer training into practice and exercise leadership. Meehan’s father had been in the military in several conflicts and had instilled in him a yearning for honor ever since he was a child. For a professional soldier like Paul C. Rosser, it was his duty to defend his country. And for the noted writer Brian Turner, who came from a military family, it was the desire to be part of that endeavor.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was dominated by elite security units of the army, such as the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, Fedayeen Saddam, and a paramilitary force, all of which were part of the huge Baath Party. The soldiers were well trained, well armed, and politically loyal, and few of them died in the war. At the beginning of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer, the president’s executive director of the Coalition Provisional Authority, fired all the Baathists and disbanded the Sunni-led soldiers. That left them jobless, and it helped foment a Sunni insurgency that continues today. In so doing, Bremer helped empower the deeply religious Shiite parties that eventually came to power. He paid no attention to the intelligence reports warning that the Iranian secret police were working in Iraq. He didn’t appreciate that the open border with Iran was a problem, either. Yet, Sadr City, on the outskirts of Bagdhad, became one of the most dangerous places for US troops. It was named after Muktar el-Sadr’s father, the Shiite leader who was killed in 1999 by Saddam Hussein’s regime. There were many unemployed young men there who were placing explosive devices on the roads that US soldiers traveled. The city had a huge population that was oppressed under the Sunni regime, as well as many Iranian fighters who crossed the border to join in the battles. And there were many Shiite death squads.
Fallujah was another hostile place. Jaysh-al-Mahdi (JAM) is one of the major terrorist groups that operated there and in Diyala. It has close ties to Iran and is affiliated with the radical cleric Muktada al-Sadr. It infiltrated the local government and rose to positions of power. The mainstream media never covered it, while al Qaeda in Iraq, which was responsible for open, violent attacks, received substantial press coverage. Although there were other, smaller, groups, JAM and al Qaeda were responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians and Iraqi government officials.
There was yet another terrorist group the US Army had to deal with, the People’s Mujahadin of Iran (Mujahadin-e Khaliq or MEK). They were Iranian ex-patriots who fought with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War to bring down the ayatollah of Iran. Although the MEK is Shia, its main objective is to control Iran. Thus its enemy is JAM because of its connections to the Iranian military. As a consequence, it aligned itself with al Qaeda to limit Iran’s influence in Iraq, which helped to destabilize both countries.
From the start of the occupation, the US Army was confronted with the country’s dire need for basic services, including water and electricity. But it had insufficient troops available even to prevent the widespread looting that occurred everywhere. Soldiers looked on as people emptied hospitals, homes, museums, libraries, and universities of anything they could carry away, including ammunition and even copper wires and electrical wiring ripped from the walls. The capital city was plagued by weeks of utter lawlessness while American soldiers stood by and watched helplessly because they were stretched too thin to intervene.
There were significant barriers between the US troops and the Iraqi culture. Few soldiers, diplomats, or reporters could speak more than a few words of Arabic, and there were few translators on the ground. That meant that for many Iraqis, young US soldiers did not appear as benevolent people carrying out their country’s good intentions, but rather as a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance.
As a result, there were countless instances of tragic misunderstandings. After finding a cache of weapons that was hidden under a truck belonging to suicide bombers, soldiers were under orders to stop every car approaching a checkpoint. When a car carrying a large family failed to stop as ordered because they didn’t understand the word stop, the car was gunned down. After lifting out the dead bodies of a mother and her children from that family, one of the soldiers broke down and wept. This kind of incident happened over and over again. Once a woman passed a convoy and raised a white scarf as a gesture of peace. But that gesture was misinterpreted and she was gunned down. Sometimes the reverse happened. What seemed like an innocent child playing on the side of the road turned out to be a terrorist who threw a grenade at a passing Humvee.
Former Defense secretary Robert Gates, who liked to refer to himself as the Soldiers’ Chief, admitted that US troops were not prepared for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For servicemen and servicewomen, leadership and organizational support are essential to creating stability in their lives, especially when they are deployed in combat situations. One soldier recalls being a gunner in an armored truck that had a high center of gravity. It was nerveracking because if the truck turned too quickly, it could easily turn over. He knew that IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were going off on the road and that there were frequent small-arms attacks on the street they traveled. Sometimes he would realize that he escaped death time and time again. He was given two weeks of superficial instruction, basic refresher training, and then he was sent to a base where he received more advanced training. He was originally in air defense artillery with Patriot missiles and studied air defense for a month. After that, he went to Fort Benning for three weeks, where his group was engaged in clerical tasks rather than actual training. Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was supposed to be relearning his job, had no relevance with what he would be faced with in Iraq. Rather than receiving weapons training, he spent his two weeks watching movies about equal opportunity and sexual harassment. By the time he arrived in Iraq, he felt completely lost and didn’t feel that he was ready to meet the challenges he would face. He soon found himself behind the wheel of a truck that he wasn’t qualified to drive. Despite not being prepared, he suddenly found himself in a gun turret in a combat zone. This was deeply anxiety inducing, particularly because, after he returned, he remembered how some of his best friends who went to Iraq had been blown up.
When they arrived in Iraq, many US soldiers felt that they had been trained to fight a battle against a conventional, uniformed army. They believed that the US military had such great superiority that the war would not last long, and that peace would be quickly secured and end with Iraqi elections. Instead they discovered that they were saddled with a multiplicity of goals: holding elections, making friends with local sheiks so that they could work together, providing water supplies and electricity for farms, and more. Sergeants found themselves consoling their severely wounded soldiers, going to frequent memorial services, and trying to keep up the flagging morale of their troops. Ultimately, they learned that befriending Iraqis who cooperated with them could cause the Iraqis to be killed. One soldier remembers that the home of his battalion’s translator was bombed and the man and his family fled to another part of Iraq.
During the first two years of the war, Iraqi men and women would try to run for office, campaigning for votes for the first election of the new national assembly. A number of political parties were created. But then patrols began to find the bodies of those hopeful candidates after they had been tortured and killed. Frequently, Iraqis who sought to become newspaper editors, judges, or politicians were gunned down by insurgents as they went about their daily lives. Soldiers found themselves caught in a confusing war. On the one hand, they had to deal with the insurgents and militias from Sadr City. On the other, they were trying to help the country and depose Saddam Hussein.
The US military began a program to train and equip Iraqi security forces, army divisions, and police forces. But soon they discovered that one of these groups went into Sunni neighborhoods killing and kidnapping civilians. A short time later, al-Sadr began an uprising, and the Iraqi civil defense garrisons, police, and National Guard disappeared.
Besides the barrier of language, there were also two realities, one of which US soldiers were unable to fathom. There were always two conversations the Iraqis were having, one telling the Americans what they wanted to hear, to make them think that they were winning and to keep the money flowing, or even bring them a little peace. Then there were the conversations in Arabic they had among themselves right in front of the US forces. The Iraqis lived a double life. They were concerned with their own survival and their need to look after their children. In their neighborhoods, they were endangered from all sides.
Another notable barrier was the dress and appearance of the insurgents: “It was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Americans would bring in the heavy artillery and the troops. They would roll into Iraqi towns ready for a fight, and would invariably discover that the enemy had disappeared. Often the people they were looking for were standing a few feet away.”
Shannon P. Meehan, a commander and a platoon leader, was in an impossible position, a situation with no clear winner, and the enemy was much more organized than the press revealed. He and his company were not confronting a formally trained army. They kept encountering new methods of inflicting damage with minimal manpower. They didn’t know who the enemy was and they never felt safe, knowing that IEDs were all along the roads they traveled and that HBIEDs (house-borne IEDs) might detonate when the soldiers were inside. Once a soldier had to carry a wounded comrade down the stairs as his buddy’s blood poured into his own mouth. That was an experience he could never forget and that marked him forever.
The military established the Green Zone in central Baghdad, a heavily guarded diplomatic/government area of closed-off streets where the military commanders and Iraqi politicians live and work in relative security. It was surrounded by armed checkpoints; chain-link fences; and reinforced, blast-proof, concrete walls. There were constant lines waiting to go in. One soldier was ordered to shoot an unidentified man who was waiting in line in his car. The young soldier was devastated when he found out that the man he had killed was a physician. But no one could tell who was a friend and who was an enemy. Soldiers and civilians in the Green Zone lived in a false and imagined sense of security while outside, the war moved from one province to another, one village to another. There was no front line, no demarcated area where they could do battle. According to an anonymous Iraqi source, sometimes, after leaving an area, the Iraqi military would blow up an entire village out of rage for what had occurred in one house.
The soldiers lived with the sound of bombs, mortars, and explosive devices like RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) sometimes going off more than twenty times a day. Their bases were often mortared at night. When they were in their Humvees, soldiers would hold their arms behind their backs and keep one foot in front of the other so that their arms and legs wouldn’t be blasted off if their tank was hit by IEDs, EFPs (explosively formed penetrators), or RPGs. After a while, everything began to sound like a bomb—a car backfiring, a door slamming. Sometimes the only sounds they heard were bombs and the call to prayer. When there was silence, the soldiers were worried about a deadly attack in the offing.
Servicemen and servicewomen were no longer able to distinguish between certainty and doubt. They lived and worked with constant ambiguity. Because they could not tell for sure who was an insurgent and who was not, they would often end up killing innocent people. And that was an experience that would haunt them forever. So when soldiers return home, they often have lost their pride and their sense of purpose. Because they have faced so many deaths and suicides in their units, companies, or platoons, they feel numb and they try to bury their turbulent and conflicting emotions. Many of them feel that they are losing their identity. Some of them have had so many close buddies die such horrible deaths, and have seen so many horrors, that they don’t care whether they live or die. It will take years after they return before they are able to care about living and to acknowledge their feelings. One veteran told his professor that he felt every soldier who returns experiences Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew in 1989, leaving behind 1.5 million dead Afghans and millions in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. When they pulled out, the Soviet forces also left behind a country mined and economically ruined, without infrastructure, roads, schools, healthcare, or institutions that could provide legitimate governance. The destruction of the water supply for orchards and farms ultimately led to the production of poppies and a brisk trade in drugs.
After the Soviet withdrawal, there followed a long struggle between the mujahideen and President Najibullah until the latter was finally overthrown in 1992 and the mujahideen captured Kabul. Burhanuddin Rabbani served as president from 1992 to 1996, unable to abate the civil war between Uzbek forces, Tajik forces, and a number of warlord alliances whose fighters kept changing sides, including the mujahideen. The United States trained, funded, and armed the mujahideen. This turbulence paved the way for the Taliban takeover.
In 1994, Pakistan intelligence officers began funneling arms, money, and supplies, along with military advisers, to guide the Taliban in battle. The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Pashtuns trained in madrassas, Islamic theological schools for boys, where students are sometimes taught warfare in addition to the Koran. The Taliban was unique among Afghan political movements in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders and in the refugee origins of its followers during the Soviet war. The Taliban’s goals included disarming the population, enforcing Sharia law, and defending the integrity and the Islamic character of Afghanistan. Sharia, which means “path” in Arabic, guides all aspects of Muslim life, such as daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings. The sayings practices, and teaching of the Prophet Mohammed are the basis of the Koran and the Sunna. There are distinct schools of Islamic thought. The Hanbali school, the orthodox form of Islam, is embraced in Saudi Arabia, where it is known as Wahabi, and it is also embraced by the Taliban.
By 1996, the Taliban effectively controlled Afghanistan. They imposed strict enforcement of fundamentalist Islamic law and provided a haven for Osama bin Laden, a founder of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, an outspoken critic of the United States, fled his native Saudi Arabia in 1991 to Sudan, where he formed and financed al Qaeda as a militant Islamic revolution.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush declared that the United States was now at war with international terrorist organization and gave the Taliban an ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden. When it refused, the United States joined forces with the Northern Alliance, a collection of rebel groups that didn’t accept Taliban rule and represented minority tribes. Shortly thereafter, the president demanded that President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan support the US policy. The government of Pakistan switched sides from helping the Taliban to supporting the United States’ invasion because it feared that its refusal might entail being bombed, having its nuclear facilities threatened, and having the United States create military bases in India, Pakistan’s longstanding enemy.
On October 7, 2011, Operation Enduring Freedom began with heavy US bombing raids on Taliban bases and infrastructure across the country and against the Taliban troops outside Kabul defending a long front line against the Northern Alliance forces. Some of the first major combat of the war occurred in the mountains near Mazar-e-Sharif, where US forces were working with the Northern Alliance. The terrain and conditions were astonishing and extremely difficult for American servicemen and servicewomen. They trudged on mountain paths bordered by thousand-foot precipices. Since even four-wheel-drive vehicles couldn’t maneuver on those winding mountain trails, they used horses to carry their equipment. Many of these troops had never ridden horses. Because of the sheer drop-off, they were told to keep one foot out of the stirrups so that if the horse stumbled, they could fall on the trail as the horse slid off the cliff.
The first forays against the Taliban were in northern Afghanistan because Tajik and Uzbek opposition to the Pashtun regime was strongest there. The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif ended the Taliban’s hold in northern and central Afghanistan. Only two months after the September 11 attacks, the strategically most important city, Kabul, was conquered. Within a month, the Taliban were routed, and soon after northern, western, and central Afghanistan fell to the Northern Alliance as the Taliban retreated to Kandahar in the south.
Afterward, Special Operations Forces advanced from the south toward Kandahar. Elements of the US 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division were involved. They faced insurgent fighters equipped with sniper rifles, machine guns, recoilless rifles, RPGs, and man-portable air defenses (MANPADS). The terrain lent itself for enemy fighters to hide in caves and along steep ridgelines. An al Qaeda manual captured by US troops during combat outlined the utility of rugged terrain for defeating large forces. The valley was eventually cleared of al Qaeda, but at a steep price in casualties as the insurgents shot down helicopters and killed American troops.
Hamid Karzai, a relative of the exiled former king of Afghanistan took office as interim president in 2002. Following the 9/11 attacks, he was one of the few Pashtun commanders who took the risk of rallying the Pashtuns against the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was elected to a five-year term in 2004. He won with a high rate of approval. Although the Afghan people hoped that the new president would provide good governance and economic progress, they were soon disillusioned because aid never reached the many small villages that define the country.
Months after winning the war in Afghanistan, US troops were training for the invasion of Iraq. Special Operations Forces were pulled out of key locations in Afghanistan where they were hunting members of al Qaeda. The US military focus on Iraq meant that Afghanistan had to use National Guard forces rather than active-duty soldiers to train Afghan National Army soldiers. Ahmed Rashid, who has written widely about the Taliban, saw Afghanistan as the victim of the Bush strategy of diverting US resources, including funds and troops, to Iraq. In keeping with that decision, Americans made deals with the newly installed Northern Alliance, even though the majority of its members participated in the 1990s civil war and were hated by the Afghanis.
After they were routed, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani slipped across the Pakistan border into Baluchistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the Northwest Frontier Province, where they established new camps. The Haqqani is a group within the insurgency in Afghanistan that has maintained strong connections with Pakistan’s ISI (the Inter-Service Intelligence) for decades. Ynuis Khais Haqqani, the son of the founder of the organization, is fluent in Arabic and raises a great deal of money from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. He established a close relationship with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. The Haqqanis run a network of madrassas and training bases, and they have invited foreign fighters from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Turkey, and Middle Eastern countries into Afghanistan.
Over the years, these insurgent groups recruited, rearmed, contacted supporters abroad, raised money, and planned their return to power. Yet until 2006, the United States failed to deploy sufficient troops to counter them or to maintain satellite surveillance of the south, where the Taliban was free to come and go unchallenged.
Although the United States was initially successful in removing the Taliban, it focused on killing Osama bin Laden rather than on stabilizing the countryside or rebuilding the economy and the shattered infrastructure. Also, it defined its strategy on the belief that stability could be achieved by helping create a strong central government, a policy that was difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, the Taliban began long-term efforts to conquer the real Afghanistan: tribes, subtribes, clans, and local institutions that were scattered in the mountains and valleys. For centuries, the country’s terrain and population have prevented conquerors from dominating it.
Afghanistan is one of the most ethnically complex countries in the world. It includes overlapping cultures, languages, and tribal loyalties. Eighty percent of its people live in remote villages. The capital (Kabul), Kandahar, and the ancient city of Herat are the major cities where the rest of the population resides. Besides the Pashtun majority, ethnic groups include Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara (descendants of Mongols), Hindi, Kirghiz, and Turkomen. The major languages are Pashto and Dari, a dialect of Persian. There are seven languages, and many Afghans are multilingual. They do not consider their multiple ethnicities as impeding their national sovereignty.
By 2004, US intelligence officers concluded that Pakistan’s ISI was running a training program for the Afghan Taliban, allowing them to raise funds like the Haqqanis in Pakistan and in the Persian Gulf and letting them import arms and ammunition from Dubai. Mullah Omar and senior Taliban leaders operated and held frequent meetings in the villages around Quetta, Pakistan. US troops reported to their superiors that the Pakistan army was protecting the Taliban on the Afghan Tajikistan border as they were either infiltrating Afghanistan or returning to Pakistan after a battle. In 2003 and 2004, the Taliban were conducting low-level insurgency from bases in Pakistan. Insurgents also began attacking Afghans involved in election work, nongovernmental (NGO) workers, and Afghan citizens cooperating with Coalition forces of the Afghan government.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former member of the National Security Counciltook over as US ambassador in late 2003. He was an Afghan who had lived in the United States for many years but was well qualified to develop a new political military strategy to help rebuild Afghanistan. He worked closely with Lieutenant General David Barno, the commander of US forces there. Their goal was to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the militias in order to weaken the warlords. This strategy shifted the US goal from counter-terrorism to nation building and counterinsurgency. Lieutenant General Barno assigned forces to territories where they were intended to secure the population and had achieved excellent early results. Yet, in 2005, the State Department reassigned Zalmay Khalilzad to Iraq as the US ambassador, despite the fact that he had been one of the most effective ambassadors to Afghanistan because he spoke Pashto and Dari and had special relations with Afghanistan’s political leaders. General David Barno was replaced by Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, ending the military-civilian coordination Khalilzad and Barno had carefully developed during their tenure.
Meanwhile, the military campaign by the Taliban demonstrated its expertise with new weapons and tactics. Trained by al Qaeda fighters from Iraq, it had improved its ambush tactics—its use of IEDs and suicide bombers to carry out attacks in urban areas and against troop convoys. Despite President Karzai’s warning to President Bush that the Taliban was a growing threat and a greater regional challenge than al Qaeda, the United States directed all of its military efforts at trying to capture al Qaeda members. President Bush’s close staff ignored the Taliban threat and the steady growth of insurgent violence throughout 2005, and it was not until 2006 that the United States began to engage the Taliban in combat.
In 2008, the Taliban reentered the provinces surrounding Kabul from which they had been driven in 2001. The United States sent its forces to those provinces to safeguard the major roads that ran out of Kabul to the provinces. They were successful in opening the roads and increasing security in these areas.
Although Iraq claimed national attention during the US presidential election campaign of 2008, Barack Obama, as the Democratic candidate, promised to make Afghanistan his principal focus, and he criticized President Bush for overlooking the causes of international terrorism that lay in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was not until Barack Obama became president that the United States began sending the needed troops and funding and developing a new strategy. However, during that election campaign, the Taliban launched high visibility suicide attacks in the cities, engaged in guerrilla assaults in the countryside, and increased its use of IEDs. For the first time, more Western troops were dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
As soon as President Obama took office, he reviewed US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, consulting with all branches of government, especially the military. His new policy promised major attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A new US Army doctrine established that stabilizing war-torn countries was just as important as defeating the enemy militarily.
In 2009, the United States sent twenty-two thousand marines into southern Afghanistan, including military trainers, to intensify the build-up of the Afghan army and police. In 2010, President Obama launched a surge, sending thirty thousand additional troops to Afghanistan with the goal of forcing the Taliban out. This decision was backed by former secretary of defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it was opposed by Vice President Joseph Biden, as well as by some of the president’s political advisors. The latter advocated a more rapid exit strategy, keeping in place a force focused on counterterrorism and the training of Afghans.
As in Iraq, US soldiers sent to Afghanistan were unprepared for the language and cultural differences and for fighting in a terrain unlike any they had ever seen before. Many of those who are being redeployed don’t want to return. Yet even soldiers who are suffering from psychological problems are being redeployed because there are too few available troops to afford giving them sufficient rest time in the United States. Some soldiers are aware that their comrades have come home with a myriad of problems, and they are worried that the same thing will happen to them. They worry that they too will feel numb, have difficulty making the transition home, and incur both physical and psychological damage. It is difficult for them to leave their families and not to see their children grow up.
There are a few soldiers who want to be redeployed even though they were wounded by IEDs. Perhaps they wish to be redeployed because it is difficult for them to return to civilian life, to what has become an unfamiliar world in which their combat skills cannot be easily applied to other careers. One army wife described her husband’s desire to be redeployed as “an addiction.”
As in Iraq, US units in Afghanistan don’t have enough people who can serve as translators. One battalion had only two of them for forty soldiers. American soldiers have difficulty maintaining a feeling of trust with the Afghan police with whom they work. Some of them are illiterate, and as soon as some are paid, they disappear. They are unreliable partners who sometimes skip planned missions or flee as soon as the shooting begins. The allegiances of the district police chiefs are also frequently unclear. In one instance, a police chief was using his men to help his brother, who was running for reelection in the parliament. And there were rumors connecting the chief’s family to militias that smuggled drugs and weapons across the Tajikistan border.
US troops were not prepared for the type of warfare they encountered, an insurgency that crossed borders and involved groups working hand in hand. Although they wore sixty pounds of gear that protected them, the vehicles they rode in, while useful in climbing winding and difficult roads, became death traps as explosive devices ripped through their light armor. Under former secretary of defense Robert Gates, some mine resistant vehicles have been developed. The Department of Defense is testing a revamped version of the Humvee equipped with a chimney to vent blasts from IEDs. The chimney, which rises through the passenger cabin, is intended to funnel some of the explosive gases that travel at supersonic speed and have flipped and mangled many of the conventional vehicles. However, it will take years to make them available to servicemen and servicewomen. Thus, US and Coalition forces encounter hidden explosive devices too many times a day, use unsafe vehicles, and engage in combat along with the soldiers of a weak government in Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai won reelection in 2009, but he exercises little control over the country and tends to remain secluded in Kabul. The hundreds of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released in December 2010 show that bribery, extortion, and embezzlement are the norm within the Karzai regime. They also include allegations of bribes and profit skimming in pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, in purchases of wheat seed, and in economic aid. Many of the federally administrated tribal areas, such as Waziristan, comprise isolated villages that, for years, never received any aid from the government and therefore do not support the Kabul regime. In those villages, when US soldiers seek out insurgents, they find the paths lined with IEDs. Sometimes they succeed in removing them, but it is not an easy task. They often get wounded or killed while the insurgents observe them from behind bushes in nearby fields. Even if they succeed in clearing an area, the Taliban or al Qaeda or another insurgent group soon returns.
There are Afghans who wonder why Americans occupy their country and who would like to see them to leave. Among them is Malalai Joya, who is widely known and celebrated for her important effort in providing education and healthcare for girls and women in concealed areas that are safe from the Taliban. Her mission is to liberate women and girls from Sharia practices that require them to remain at home, unseen and uneducated, and only able to appear in public when accompanied by a male relative. These are just a few of the Sharia rules governing the conduct of women: They must not wear adorning clothes. They must not wear narrow and tight clothes. They must not walk in the middle of streets. They must not talk to strange men, and if it is necessary to talk, they must do so in a low voice and without laughter. They must not look at strangers or mix with strangers. There are many more regulations that oppress women and girls. Malalai Joya’s goal is also to bring down Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, who is one of the insurgents most hated by Afghan villagers and who is also a strategic ally of Pakistan and one of the leaders of the Taliban.
At the 2007 World Economic Forum, Malalai Joya was named one of the 250 Young Global Leaders and nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In 2005, she was the youngest person elected to Afghanistan’s new parliament and, two years later, she was suspended for her persistent criticism of the warlords and drug barons. She voiced her anger about the fact that since the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of civilians have died from gunfire, mortars, bombings, and the ubiquitous IEDs. The fact is the media do not cover the number of civilian casualties, most particularly those resulting from drone attacks.
The parliamentary elections that took place in November 2010 were rigged and thus exacerbated ethnic tensions. The Taliban threatened Pashtun voters, ordering them to boycott the election. As a result, the Pashtuns lost 15 percent of their seats to the Hazaras and Tajiks. Thus these two minorities have achieved advantages that cause resentment among the Pashtuns. The Tajiks and Hazaras dominate the upper officer class in the army and police, even though the training and recruitment given by the United States involves a strict parity between ethnic groups. Traditionally the Afghan officers have been Pashtun. A Tajik general, Atta Muhammad Noor, and his fellow northern warlords are rearming their militias for a long war with the Taliban.
However, as with the police, the attrition rate from the Afghan Army is 24 percent per year, most of them are illiterate, and drug use is a major problem. Although 80 percent of army units are fighting along with coalition forces, no single Afghan unit is ready to fight on its own without American help. This leaves US soldiers with the responsibility to deal with many political tensions without much support from the population in trying to deal not only with the Taliban but also with many other different insurgents.
Besides tension between ethnic groups, there are also many other militias and gangs that go marauding through the country. They are referred to as arbekais, armed groups including semiofficial militias organized and paid by Afghanistan’s intelligence service. These gangs go through villages demanding food, shelter, and money from the local population. Some of these are headed by former mujahideen that once fought against the Soviet Union. Others are created by village elders. Others in Takhar Province provide protection for warlords who traffic narcotics along a drug transport corridor that runs to the Tajik border. These groups and growing disenfranchisement of Pashtuns make the Taliban more attractive to those already disillusioned with the government. Since the government hasn’t protected people from either the Taliban or the militias, villagers feel caught between the two.
In the spring of 2011, the United States launched a program considered by General David Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, as a key part of his counterinsurgency strategy. Its goal is to convert insurgents into village self-defense forces, an Afghan Local Police that is distinct from the existing police force. It is organized and trained by the US Special Forces units in cooperation with the Afghan authorities and working at the village level. But they are paid half of what the national police officers earn. The local police who are intended to lure members of the Taliban into their cause are raising money the same way as the Taliban, by imposing an “Islamic tax” on people in their districts. This has created a public outcry. During their meetings, elders and provincial government officials have expressed their concern. Many Afghans fear a return to the warlord days of the civil war of the 1980s even more than they fear the Taliban. A recent study by Oxfam and three other aid groups reported that the program had failed to provide effective community policing and, instead, produced forces feared by the communities they are supposed to protect. For example, in Kunduz Province, armed thugs acting as local police even before they had completed their training were demanding their taxes just as farmers were harvesting their crops. The headmaster and assistant headmaster of a girls’ school in Kunduz City, the provincial capital, refused. Two commanders along with thirty armed men stormed the school, beating both men unconscious with rifle butts in front of the students, and closed the school. A United Nations Report expressed concern regarding weak oversight, recruitment, vetting, and command-and-control mechanisms.
As Iraq has an open border with Iran, Afghanistan has an open border with Pakistan, a country that harbors the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Pakistan-based militants can cross unchallenged into Afghanistan while Pakistan’s authorities refuse to shut down the sanctuaries used by militants to rest and resupply. The ISI is known to support the militants, including the Taliban, the Haqqani, and al Qaeda, and even Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure), the faction that the United Sates believes was responsible for the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and in 2011. Intelligence experts consider Lashkar to be even more of a threat in Afghanistan than al Qaeda because its operatives come from the region and are less readily identified or resented than al Qaeda’s Arab ranks. Even though the government of Pakistan claims that, under pressure from the Bush administration, it severed ties with Lashkar in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack, the ISI still maintains its connection with it. The Obama administration has estimated that Lashkar-e-Taiba has the capacity to quickly and inexpensively train young men from villages to be driven and proficient killers.
In Pakistan, domination by militants occurred in late 2006 after General Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, brokered an agreement with Islamic districts. Since then, it has been ruled by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who created an alliance with the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was formerly head of the ISI, views the Afghan Taliban as a means to ensure influence on the other side of the border and to keep India’s presence there at bay. He also has close relations with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban.
Even though America cultivates Pakistan’s top military leaders and provides long-term development aid, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Lashkar increasingly act as a syndicate, sharing skills and information. Besides, Pakistan is more concerned with its rivalry with India over Kashmir and with India’s strong presence in Afghanistan than with the war in Afghanistan. There have already been two major wars between these two countries over Kashmir. Further, in 2010, Pakistan closed its border to Afghanistan for weeks on end, keeping long lines of American fuel-supply trucks waiting at the border crossing and making them easy targets for terrorists to blow up.
Pakistan’s economy is in deep trouble owing to bad management, widespread corruption, rising Islamic religious fervor, and worsening relations with the United States, its biggest financial supporter. Its turmoil is caused by a mixture of religious ideology and economic despair. It is also fueled by class differences, lack of support for the government, and resentment toward the landed and industrial classes. The government takes in little in taxes and provides few services to its people. During the catastrophic floods in July 2010, Islamic groups were bringing aid to the millions who were affected while the government provided virtually no relief.
Since the May 2011 Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, his Pakistan hideaway, American officials have grown even more distrustful of that country. The Pakistan military that, in effect, rules the country and has been deeply embarrassed by that raid, wants to alter its relations with the United States. While Americans at home cheered about the raid and wanted to increase pressure on Pakistan to break relations with militant networks, General Kayani was pursuing a strategy aimed at decreasing the United States’ influence over his country while keeping the billions of dollars of American aid flowing in. In addition, the Pakistani government is already reaching out to China and Iran in search of new allies.
There are many centers of power in Pakistan, which are often difficult to fathom or to criticize without creating diplomatic strains. For example, shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda commandos managed to overrun Pakistan’s largest naval base and kill a dozen naval personnel. There was also a suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, the first one to take place in over a year and which was believed to be an act of revenge by the Taliban.
General Kayani, who is the most powerful figure in Pakistan and has led the army since 2008, is now fighting to save his position and to respond to the outrage among the XI Corps commanders who are demanding that he get tougher with the United States. The ISI, headed by Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuha Pasha, Kayani’s partner, is also edging toward a break with the United States. It arrested more than thirty Pakistani informants who had helped the CIA in tracking bin Laden and ordered 120 US military trainers to leave the country as a way to express its anger over the US operation. Both leaders want to end CIA drone attacks against militants in tribal areas.
The anger and disillusionment in the Pakistani army stem from the fact that the Obama administration decided against informing Pakistan in advance about the bin Laden raid. Thus Pakistan was unable to detect or stop it. That bin Laden was living in Pakistan caused little outrage in a country that is more sympathetic to al Qaeda than to the United States. In fact, the US Navy officer who led the raid against bin Laden told senators that he had reasons to believe that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, was also hiding in Pakistan.
There were other incidents by Pakistan’s leaders that exposed their support of the militants and caused the United States to drastically cut its military aid. A Pakistani journalist who wrote a scathing report about the infiltration of militants into the country’s military was abducted from the capital three days after the publication of his article. The article revealed that al Qaeda was responsible for the commando attack on Pakistan’s main naval base as a reprisal for the navy’s arrest of naval personnel who had belonged to an al Qaeda cell. The journalist’s mutilated body was found in a canal, and the ISI denied accusations published in the Pakistani news media that it had been responsible for the murder.
Yet other events caused the United States to reevaluate its support of Pakistan. On four occasions, factories that produced bombs were evacuated shortly after American intelligence officials notified Pakistan’s ISI of their existence. This caused suspicion that such intelligence was being shared with the insurgents. All of these factories produced IEDs that are the most frequent killers of US troops in Afghanistan. As a way to pressure the Pakistani government to end its support of the militants and to chasten the Pakistan military, the Obama administration is suspending or canceling hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, representing over one third of the more than $4 billion in US assistance. That move, it is hoped, will cause the Pakistani army to fight militants more effectively. It is indicative of the seriousness of the debate raging within the Obama administration over how to change the behavior of one of its key counterterrorism partners.
Because the United States is eager to withdraw from Afghanistan and is concerned about Pakistan’s role as a nuclear power, it needs to avoid a rupture of relations like the one that occurred in the 1990s when it imposed sanctions on Pakistan over its development of nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s military and the rest of the country are still bitter about the United States’ cut-off of all military aid at that time. Although President Obama has shown that the days of unconditional support are over, he needs to keep working with Pakistan’s leaders. In addition, Pakistan offers several strategic advantages, such as access to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf and the opportunity to be engaged in pipeline projects transiting to the ocean through Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also serves as a counterweight to the neighboring powers of India, China, and Russia.
American policy needs and its ongoing differences with the Pakistan military have resulted in a very trying situation for US soldiers on the ground. American servicemen and servicewomen have been called upon to perform so many different duties at the same time, such as consoling wounded buddies, dealing with village elders, keeping in constant contact with helicopters to evacuate those who need immediate medical treatment, intercepting radio chatter, digging up and then detonating mines, interrogating prisoners, keeping surveillance of fighters’ funerals, and recovering Taliban documents.
They are dealing with the Taliban, an organization that is widespread and unseen. Again, there are no clear perimeters or a front line for the fighting. As in Iraq, the battle is nowhere and everywhere. Like JAM in Iraq, the Taliban is an underground government of local fighters who have established a civilian administration to complement their fighting activity. They run schools, collect taxes, and adjudicate civil disputes in Islamic courts. Their combat is aided by intelligence and support networks that include villagers who inform them and provide shelter in tunnels where they can elude capture and receive medical care. The villagers signal movements of battalions’ patrols with mirrors or smoke signals. The members of the Taliban are able to disappear by slipping away in canals or village alleys. And their supporters give false information to US troops. An American sweep of a village turned up a detailed terrain model of an FOB (forward operating base) where the battalion’s headquarters are located. Suicide bombers infiltrate seemingly secure areas, exploding their mortar shells that can strike soldiers that are sleeping, standing in a shower, jogging around an airfield, or at meetings—all moments when soldiers are not wearing their sixty-pound protective gear. Local civilians who help Afghan and American troops are identified and assassinated by the Taliban, which operates a vast spy network. Taliban fighters harass Afghan and American forces and lead a campaign of intimidation against residents who cooperate with or even acknowledge the Kabul government. Dressing as civilians, they engage in ambushes, set up IEDs, and conduct mortar attacks. Often wearing the uniforms of Afghan soldiers or police, they blow up buildings housing members of the Afghan government and Allied forces.
Besides dealing with well-organized insurgents, US soldiers are also involved in hearts-and-minds projects—helping to run schools, giving out cash to people in remote villages who can’t find work. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited some of these schools, including those that Greg Mortenson has been building throughout the country, and voiced support for his work. In 2004, the United States deployed one of eight military units known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Helmand. It sought to combine efforts to provide security, create small reconstruction projects, and help Afghan government officers build schools and health clinics and create jobs. But two years later, several Taliban attacks shut down these American projects across the province, destroying America’s most successful undertaking.
To make matters even more difficult, President Karzai has been pursuing conflicting policies from the United States, and this led to tensions between the two countries. On the one hand, he supports US efforts to train the Afghan army and police, while on the other, he has opened secret negotiations with the Taliban.
There are two views of the war, the one in Washington, where policy is made; and the one on the ground in the crucial provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where many US soldiers would prefer a quick withdrawal because they find that the Taliban continually retakes areas they have cleared. The Taliban routinely launches RPGs at a number of bases every night at ten o’clock. Thus, the war is one of conflicting stories one hears from the head of the US forces—General Petraeus—or a soldier crouching in a ditch outside a village. As usual, the governments of the Coalition forces only talk about policy, the big picture of the Afghan war, not the travails that soldiers face in combat and that make the war so difficult to pursue.
Although President Barack Obama has officially declared that the US combat mission has ended and that American forces are now supposedly in an advisory role until their withdrawal from Iraq scheduled for the end of 2011, they were still in harm’s way whether on their bases or moving around. Nearly a year after President Obama’s declaration, American soldiers were still deeply engaged in fighting on two fronts: against Sunni insurgents in the Sunni-dominated areas north of Baghdad and against Shiite militias.
In June 2011, US forces suffered their biggest toll in three years. The casualties resulted from rocket or mortar attacks on US bases by Shiite militias and from increasing threats by IEDs on US convoys. Because of the security agreements between Iraq and the United States, American forces are restricted in their ability to act on their own to confront security threats. This creates a high level of anger and anxiety among the US troops who find themselves under attack but are unable to respond. They are also reluctant to target Shiite militias since they are linked to officials in the Shiite-dominated government.
To make matters worse, the flow of arms from Iran to Iraq has increased along with Iranian influence. Weapons smuggled from Iran are being used against American troops by Shiite militias. The Maliki government’s unwillingness to rein in the Shiite militias adds a new element to the discussions between the US and Iraqi governments. Those discussions are focused on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and on domestic political considerations in Washington and Baghdad, and not on the safety of US troops.
Although the intention of the United States was to help create a democratic government in Iraq, power is rigidly contested on sectarian lines, a situation the de-Baathification policy helped to create. The unequal response by Iraqi security forces to threats from Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups is a legacy of the sectarianism that the US invasion unleashed. Deadlock occurs frequently with each community unwilling to compromise. Many Iraqis believe that the de-Baathification policy and disbanding the entire military in Iraq helped fuel the insurgency that pushed the country into sectarian conflict. Eight years after the United States–led invasion, there were still bombings and assassinations in Iraq almost every day. Yet almost everyone in Iraq regarded the United States as the arbiter even though Iraqi politicians ritually objected to its intervention, especially when it did not reflect their individual interests. The continuing US presence created a very complex and often-contradictory situation. Special Operations Forces were sent there in 2011, but their mission is top secret. Also, depending upon political developments such as parliamentary elections, some sects have insisted that the US presence is needed while others increased their popularity by demanding that “the occupation ends.” This left not only US diplomats but also, even more, US soldiers in an extremely difficult position. Until they are finally withdrawn, they will still face an enemy, need to defend themselves, and continue to suffer casualties.
In August 2011, the powerful Shiite, anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to have his thousands of followers attack any United States troops that stayed past the December 31, 2011, withdrawal deadline. This threat followed the Iraqi government’s decision to open talks with Washington about maintaining some troops in Iraq past the deadline. Worried about a potential backlash, Iraqi officials once tried to characterize American soldiers who would remain as trainers of the Iraqi military, not as combat troops. But American servicemen and servicewomen not only are involved in training but they also assist in Iraqi counterterrorism operations. While security is improving, attacks against US service personnel are still common. June 2011 was one of the bloodiest months for the US military over the past two years.
August 15, 2011, proved even worse, as forty-two coordinated attacks occurred across Iraq against civilians, security forces, and US soldiers. These widespread attacks compared with an average of fourteen attacks daily during this year and suggested that the Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, were growing in power. The attacks occurred two weeks after the Iraqi government agreed to negotiate with the United States about the possibility of maintaining some troops in Iraq after the end of the year. A professor of political science at Baghdad University declared that the Iraqi security forces were more loyal to al Qaeda and to the Shiite militias than to the Iraqi government, and that the Iraqi army was not capable of protecting the country.
The United States will be leaving behind a country that does not have a representative government and is caught in the throes of a civil war. In addition, Iraq has aligned itself with Iran and Syria despite the uprising in Syria that has turned many Arab countries against it. Again, the Sunni and Shiites have differing views on the demonstrations in Syria because of Syria’s multireligious and ethnic fabric. Under these conditions, keeping a reduced number of American troops in Iraq does not bode well for Iraqi security.
On October 21, 2011, President Obama declared that all American troops would be “home for the holidays,” and that only the usual number of troops stationed at American embassies around the world would remain. The decision was an unstated acknowledgement that the Iraqi government refused to agree to a key US condition for leaving American troops behind: immunity from Iraqi law. Some Iraqis in office feel that the consideration of Iran is now important, and many feel that freedom from Saddam Hussein was something to be celebrated, but that afterward they did not like being occupied.
The United States is also scaling back diplomacy in Iraq because of fiscal concerns. For example, the State Department had a plan for 350 contract workers for a police training effort; now the figure is close to 100. There will now be ten Offices of Security Cooperation to manage the sale of weapons and training instead of the planned fifteen. These results reflect the lack of interest in a Congress that is consumed with domestic issues. Even so, the war in Iraq will be a subject of contention in the United States for many years to come.
As of October 22, 2011, the Department of Defense identified 4,469 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraqi war and 32,213 that were left injured.
In July 2011, President Obama announced that he would bring home thirty-three thousand troops from Afghanistan by September 2012 and withdraw the remaining sixty-eight thousand by the end of 2014. However, military leaders, including General Petraeus and retired admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly stated that they would prefer a slower withdrawal. General Petraeus was the leading champion of a counterinsurgency strategy requiring a large number of troops.
But much as in Iraq, the Afghan government appears unprepared to protect Afghanistan. During the week that was supposed to be the beginning of a transition to Afghan control, Kabul, which was supposed to be one of the safest cities and was scheduled to be the first to carry out the transfer, became the scene of mayhem. Nine suicide bombers penetrated the security rings of Kabul’s premier hotel and killed twenty-one people. Many of the guests were provincial officials who had come to Kabul for a conference on transition. When the shooting started, instead of facing up the attackers, the police ran away from the gunmen and urged others to flee. The chairman of the Takhar provincial council in Northern Afghanistan who saw three of his friends killed commented, “The security forces cannot even protect a few people inside the hotel. How can they protect a whole country?” The assault ended only after NATO helicopters joined in the battle. Another Afghan wryly commented, “If they gave the security responsibility to the current government at 10:00 am, the government would collapse around 12 noon.”
On the weekend of August 7, 2011, the Taliban shot down an American Chinook® helicopter in eastern Pakistan, killing thirty Americans aboard, including twenty-two members of an elite Navy SEAL team. It occurred in a valley crossing two provinces, Logar and Wardak, that are gateways to the capital, Kabul, and were liberated in the early years of the war. This represented the greatest loss of American lives in a single day of the war. Both provinces have become increasingly insecure as the Taliban has set up checkpoints on the main road to search people’s pockets for ID cards and documents indicating whether they work either for the Afghan government or for Coalition forces. If the Taliban insurgents do find anything “incriminating,” the people are beheaded on the spot as a way to instill fear and terror. The Chinook attack demonstrated that the insurgents could entrench themselves anywhere they wished and that the Afghan government was weak, absent, and hated for its corruption. In these areas, the Taliban cooperate with the Haqqani and other criminal networks. US troops cannot assert themselves in every village or valley, and often when they do, their night raids and intrusions into people’s homes cause resentment. In these provinces, there is little expectation of the American and Afghan forces gaining the upper hand in the near future.
On September 13, 2011, two days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban and the Haqqani attacked the US embassy and NATO headquarters in the highly secured diplomatic district of Kabul. For twenty hours the insurgents rained RPGs and small-arms fire. Suicide bombers gained access to buildings and were aiming for Afghan and Coalition soldiers.
Political life in Afghanistan is conducted in ways that keep changing and are less than harmonious. For example, members of the Afghan parliament came to blows on July 7, 2011, as a majority began to discuss impeaching President Hamid Karzai, bringing the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis. The dispute was about the legality of a special court established by President Karzai to adjudicate allegations of fraud by candidates who lost their seats or were disqualified in the previous September’s parliamentary elections. That court effectively stopped the normal workings of government for nine months. NATO insists publicly that Afghanistan is a viable democracy in formation; Western diplomats have remained silent.
During the same period, President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmid Wali Karzai, was assassinated. He served as the center of the security and power structures in southern Afghanistan, and his death created a vacuum of authority in the important Pashtun region, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. According to Ahmed Rashid, who knew him personally, the death of Ahmed Wali Karzai meant that three critical efforts were at risk, the war against the Taliban, the drawing down of US troops, and the US efforts to negotiate with the Taliban and forge a peace agreement. President Karzai’s half-brother was involved in all three. He forged tribal alliances to defend the presidency and extend the government’s rule outside Kabul. He helped US forces with strategic advice and his knowledge of the tribes, and he ran a clandestine Afghan special operations team for the CIA. He was also the first prominent Afghan leader to start talks with the Taliban to attempt ending the war.
Soon after, the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, was also killed outside his office when a bomber blew himself up. Mayor Hamidi was a possible successor to Ahmed Wali Karzai, although residents in the area didn’t trust him because of his closeness to Americans, his years of living in the United States, and his lack of tribal connections that are necessary to remain in power. It was a great loss for Kandahar because Ghulam Haider Hamidi had dreams of improving his city, hoping to help create excellent schools equipped with computers, housing developments, and well-regulated shops and parks. Even though he lived through a bombing attack by the Taliban in 2009, he felt that they were only half of the problem. He intended to try to eliminate the vast corruption at the heart of the Afghan government, including the entrepreneurs who won city contracts for lighting, produced inferior goods, and lined their pockets with the profits. He had gone after the local power brokers who demanded their share of the opium trade, the military contracts, and the building projects. He had cleared away 460 illegal shops in order to build a school, had plans for 300 acres of sports fields and a special women’s garden. He wanted to expand the road from the city to the airport and install solar lighting.
The Afghan government itself is not secure. It has been trying to negotiate with the Taliban, but on September 19, 2011, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of Afghan’s High Peace Council, was assassinated, demonstrating how once again the government’s enemies could reach into the most secure areas of the capital, a mile away from the American embassy. This assassination may be the most significant of the war. The seventy-member High Peace Council that had representatives of many different views was reaching out to senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan and attempting to persuade low-level Taliban leaders to join the government. Rabbani traveled all over the country, establishing reconciliation councils in every province and even in neighboring countries. The United States has also made contact with the Taliban, hoping to gain momentum in the peace process. It has concluded that without strong Afghan involvement, peace will not be possible. This action will hamper the ability of the Afghan government to stay in power after the US withdrawal in 2014.
In late September 2011, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces, Mike Mullen, went public, addressing the Senate and criticizing Pakistan as a difficult ally. He stated what the US government has known for years, that the Pakistan army and the ISI had been shielding Osama bin Laden for at least five years and that they have long-standing ties with the Haqqani. He believes, as does retired General Jack Keene, that the Pakistani military leadership has never accepted that we could win the war in Afghanistan and is worried about India’s influence in Afghanistan. Mike Mullen went public because he also thinks that we should change the terms of our relationship with Pakistan, which means reconsidering not only our yearly foreign aid of $4 billion. He is also concerned about Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thus US servicemen and servicewomen may be fighting in Afghanistan, but they are dealing with the involvement of other countries and with shifting political policies, as well as trying to gain the trust of village elders. The village shura, or council, is caught between the Taliban and its own wish for economic aid from Kabul.
Meanwhile, US troops are discussing potential road projects, new dams and bridges, and other development projects that are important elements of their attempts to build goodwill among Afghans and restore the country’s shattered infrastructure. They are running hospitals where Afghan children who were injured by IEDs are cared for, while they simultaneously fight the Taliban, the Haqqani, al Qaeda, and the Lashkar.
But talk among military officers has now turned from establishing a democratic Afghanistan to achieving a more practical and limited goal. Tactically, this means that US military units along the border with Pakistan, where the Haqqani cross unseen, are fighting these insurgents, and it is also placing more Afghan soldiers and police officers into contested areas. These units jointly are also trying to prevent the attacks that have reached Kabul and prominent targets.
A lieutenant colonel who commands a battalion used two companies to cordon off Charbaran Valley, one of the main routes used by the Haqqani to enter Afghanistan, and another to sweep the villages in order to prevent a spectacular attack in Kabul and gather intelligence as well. When they arrived, they found many signs of the insurgents’ presence, from discovering armaments in villagers’ houses, to turning up a bomb hidden in a woodpile, to hearing hidden fighters over two-way radios. But the valley, which fell silent after the insurgents managed only a small attack from outside the cordon, remained out of government hands as the company reached the other side.
What complicates the work of our service personnel even more are the ongoing rocket, mortar, and artillery attacks on forward operating bases positioned on the border with Pakistan in Paktika Province that have occurred since May 2011, when a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden. The attacks occur from insurgent positions just inside Afghanistan, as close as two hundred yards from the border, where rocket crews fire and then rush to Pakistan. US officers and soldiers know that the Pakistani military positions are less than a mile from insurgent firing positions and are certain that the Pakistan military is involved. They are frustrated and angry because they are limited in their ability to respond because of diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan. When receiving fire from Pakistan, they are permitted to return far fewer high-explosive rounds. Attack helicopters and aircraft are less likely to fire ordinance the closer their position is to the border, even if it is on the Afghan side.
Here again, US government policies must be continually reevaluated given the differences between the Afghan political system, Pakistan, and the United States, and the heroic efforts of American soldiers on the ground. Over the course of ten years, the United States has lost 1,786 service members, and an additional 14,342 service members have been wounded.
According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center, the war in Afghanistan accounts for just 4 percent of the nation’s news coverage.
American audiences are suffering from war fatigue, and deep cuts in budgets by the media affect the way the war is covered in this country. It is only in the past two or three years that the New York Times has begun publishing stories about returning veterans, although PBS has always ended its NewsHour program on a weekly basis with the names of the dead soldiers scrolling silently on the television screen.
A soldier returned to the United States with a member of his unit who had tuberculosis. When he was stationed at Abu Ghraib, tuberculosis broke out in the prison and infected a number of other soldiers. He stated, “There was actually a cover-up while there was this huge thing going on. The higher management of the camp wanted to sweep it all under the rug.” It never did get any news coverage.
The several insurgent groups besides al Qaeda that operate in Iraq are rarely mentioned in the press. Nor has the experience of soldiers who have seen their comrades blown to bits or who have piled dead and mangled bodies in their trucks. In his book Beyond Duty, Shannon Meehan wrote, “I just wanted to see some connection between our lives and the lives of our families back home. I just wanted to see some humanity in the news coverage.” He and many others felt that their stories were invisible and that the news needed to have a central figure or major enemy to report, just as often as Muktar al-Sadr or President Karzai.
On May 19, 2009, the New York Times published a number of articles about soldiers in the war zone, including a five-page article, in a section titled “The Reach of War.” It was like opening a window on the truth. Our soldiers were no longer just statistics, and we could learn what was really happening in combat. It included two full pages with the photos of soldiers who were killed in action in Afghanistan, with biographical information about these and other American casualties. The article included a color photo of an army helicopter arriving to evacuate soldiers wounded after their armored vehicle hit an IED in the Tangi Valley, Wardak Province. It was both gruesome and heartbreaking.
There was also an article, “Life and Death Decisions for a Junior Officer,” that revealed the many tasks the author performed in addition to combat, as well as his self-questioning, and a photo of soldiers placing a body into a military truck at the site of a suicide bombing. For the first time, a photo of six soldiers carrying a coffin of one of their buddies also appeared. It was poignant; losing a fellow soldier from a unit is like losing a member of one’s family. There was also a video, accessible online, with interviews with the captain and other soldiers. It was a dramatic change in news reporting.
Under the Bush administration, the display of photos showing coffins returning from the war in Iraq was prohibited. Journalists and newspaper editors were told that showing such photos would undermine the war effort and put the nation at risk. The media were thus used for political and social framing. And this is how a distance was created between our troops who were waging the war and the population at home.
In The Good Soldiers, David Finkel wrote that in the United States, “the news was all macro, not micro.” It was about government policy, the different views of the political parties about the war and their quarrels. US soldiers felt that news reporters who were “embedded” (and therefore could only go where the commanders told them to go) and radio reporters knew nothing about Iraq. The headlines were brief and far from the reality that soldiers witnessed and experienced driving in a Humvee, seeing their comrades with burns and multiple amputations.
Throughout the Bush administration, there was a concerted effort to have the government regulate the visual field, and the use of “embedded journalists” was widely practiced. They traveled in regulated transports that brought them only to carefully selected scenes, and they sent back images and narratives of particular action.
It took this long for newspapers to write about how a war was really being waged and about its consequences. It took this long for parts of our country to recognize the travails of our soldiers. The economic costs for the psychological and health care of our returning veterans will require a budget that is larger than the war itself and will last for decades. But just as important is our attention and our time to inform ourselves, to honor the sacrifices that our soldiers have made, to care for them, and to help their families as well.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Invisible Wounds of War, by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, published by Prometheus Books, 2012.