What I learned in Afghanistan

Lucas Tomlinson Former Human Terrain Analyst, US Military
Font Size:

Last year, as I served with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in southern Afghanistan, I had the recurring thought that watching the first three seasons of “The Wire” was good preparation for understanding life in Zhari District of Kandahar Province.

The Soviets called this region in the Arghandab River Valley “the Heart of Darkness” for good reason. It was here that Mullah Omar founded the Taliban in the 1990s. My job as a human terrain team member was to give Army commanders a better sense of the locals and the structures of power that dominate their lives.

Taliban insurgents exist in this region because they are able to inflict a climate of fear and intimidation on the people, just as the gangs portrayed in “The Wire” do in inner-city Baltimore. By day U.S. forces control the Zhari countryside. By night the Taliban can infiltrate villages and impose their will on residents, who know they better not “snitch” to American authorities. The penalty for doing so is death.

On the other hand, the reward for young Afghans who work for the Taliban is the kind of power and money (motorcycles and mobile phones) for which they would have to wait years for if they worked within the seniority-oriented local Afghan power structure. The Afghans I studied appeared to be motivated as much by greed as religion or ideology. They were like drug runners in inner-city Baltimore. Meanwhile, tribal elders and village leaders have learned they would do well not to get too involved in fighting the Taliban.

Once on an air assault mission with an Army platoon in the western Kandahar village of Kotizi, we convinced an Afghan to allow us to spend the night in his compound. Over dinner the Afghan explained that when the platoon left the next morning, he would receive severe punishment from the Taliban.

I told him I understood his fear. “You understand?” he asked incredulously. “No, you don’t understand.”

To me that is the real problem Americans face in Afghanistan. We don’t understand. We don’t understand what our bright and dedicated servicemen can — and cannot — accomplish in this faraway land.

We have imported massive amounts of big-government assets to Afghanistan but they can no more remake the culture of rural Pashtun tribesmen than the War on Poverty can eliminate the drug culture of America’s inner cities.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We should no more pull out all American troops from Afghanistan than we should stop fighting crime in Baltimore — unless we want to leave behind a region where terrorists can stage another 9/11 massacre in the United States.

But we have to understand the limits of what we (i.e., big government) can change in Afghanistan — and restructure our forces and our commitments accordingly.

In rural Kandahar, farmers have been growing grapes — and poppies — for centuries. As long as heroin is a major cause of addiction in Iran, for example, poppies are going to be a big cash crop in Kandahar.

With good intentions, we moved agricultural advisers into the region to advise farmers on more modern ways to grow crops — and substitute wheat for poppies — but that’s not going to happen any time soon. During my first visit to a combat outpost, I admired the ability of our security cameras to capture the lush greenery of the countryside surrounding the base. “But what is that brown spot over here?” I asked a veteran colleague. “That’s America’s model farm,” he quipped with a smile.

Kandahar is not Kansas.

In the same sense, our fighting men and women dominate — when we can face the enemy on the battlefield. NATO forces inflicted hundreds of casualties on the Taliban in 2006 around the village of Pashmul when the Taliban was foolish enough to challenge us openly. Such large-scale battles are rare, however, and the bulk of Taliban forces live in sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

I was enormously impressed by the ability of Army attack helicopters to dominate the battlefield. (The sounds of Army Apache and Kiowa helicopters above the grape walls where the Army patrolled were certainly reassuring.) The importance of air power is another fundamental reason why — if we want to prevent future training camps for terrorists — a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan is unthinkable. Again, we need to be realistic about what we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan. There is no greater need for realism than in our desire to train Afghans to replace American forces — Afghans who may one day have little support from American airpower.

We have to face the fact that we cannot train these Afghan soldiers in a matter of months. Most of the soldiers who populate Afghan Army units are not the seasoned Mujaheddin fighters who defeated the Soviets; nor are they tough, well-motivated servicemen just out of American high schools or colleges. That is simply a fact.

This doesn’t mean we should continue to fund a massive American infrastructure and large bases for an enormous military presence in that country. Just as we accept the fact that big government cannot turn inner-city Baltimore into the safe suburbs of Baltimore County, we need to reshape our military presence in Afghanistan so that it is dominated by military specialists from both conventional combat arms units and special forces — who really know the areas they cover — and air power sufficient to control major danger zones.

We can no longer expect elements of big government to create security and prosperity and eliminate injustice and corruption in Afghanistan any more than we can expect big government to accomplish that in America. (Where would our country be without the genius of Apple — or General Electric?)

That’s what I take away from months of living near and with Afghans in one of Afghanistan’s most contentious regions. That’s also what I took away from the first three seasons of “The Wire.”

Lucas Tomlinson is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who recently returned from volunteer service on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan.

Tags : afghanistan
Lucas Tomlinson