The Afghanistan Dilemma

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Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1979

 I slipped into Afghanistan across the border with Pakistan in 1979. I went with a couple of guides who did not speak English; I certainly didn’t speak Dari or Pashto so our only form of communication was improvised sign language. I was woefully unprepared. Among my belongings were a plastic cup, a Swiss Army knife, two camera bodies, four lenses, a bag of film and a few bags of airline peanuts. My naiveté was breathtaking, yet my Afghan guides protected me and treated me as their guest. That was my first experience with the legendary Afghan hospitality.

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Village in the Hindu Kush, 1980

I went back when the Russians invaded.   I traveled with many different mujahadeen and militia groups. We mainly traveled at night to avoid being spotted by the Soviet helicopters. Most of the time we walked, but a few times we were able to borrow horses. I was always astonished at the continual pipeline of weapons and supplies going into Afghanistan from Pakistan around the clock. Rockets, mortar rounds, ammunition, were carried in by camels, donkeys, and fighters. It was only later that we found out the staggering amount of money supplied by the U.S. to make it happen.

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Jalalabad, 1988

There was a deep camaraderie amongst the fighters who were on the greatest mission of their lives.  They weren’t looking at the calendar, waiting to go back home on R & R to see friends, family, girlfriends.  They didn’t worry much about casualty numbers. The harder the fight was, the stronger they became. Walking in the snow without boots high up in the Hindu Kush was commonplace. Those men were as tough as it gets, yet they could be gentle and tender with children.

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When I went back over the border into Pakistan, I had blisters, saddle sores, and filthy clothing into which I had sewn rolls of film, which were among the first images of the conflict. Over the years, I went back more than dozens of times on assignment for National Geographic, Time Magazine, ABC News, and other news outlets.  I have spent time in Afghanistan during invasions, retreats, truces, and relative peace. Almost every time I returned, the power centers had shifted. In a great game of musical chairs, elders, warlords, criminals, and mullahs’ power grows and diminishes as predictably as the phases of the moon.. Whole groups change sides when the terms are right.

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Ahmed Shah Massoud, 1992 

Afghans have to be versatile; they are survivors who are wily, clever, smart. They are the original survivors. They outwit, outplay, and outlast their adversaries.

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Kandahar, 1989

As much as outsiders have tried to “re-form” the country in their own image, Afghanistan  has been able to absorb the blows of superpowers, and remain essentially the same. The interesting thing to me is that the people trying to change it,  change more than the country does even after Herculean efforts of well-meaning governments, NGO’s, and coalitions. Look at the Soviet misadventure for evidence.

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Road to Kabul, 1992

Maybe one definition of hell is that is the place where more effort produces fewer results. Five years ago, I could drive from Kabul over mountain passes in safety to the central highlands town of Bamiyan. Today, the only recommended way is to fly – if you can get a flight with the United Nations Assistance Mission. Today we have many more soldiers, contractors, and NGO’S than we did five years ago, yet it is far more dangerous today than it was then. We are getting fewer results with more boots on the ground. That tells me that we do not understand the country, the people, the terrain, the language, the religion, the culture.

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Chitral Valley, 1988

We are in their country, but many times we are not behaving as guests should. The recent story of the contractors responsible for the embassy security in Kabul having drunken sex orgies adds fuel to the Taliban fire. It was embarrassing to see American troops trying to do good by distributing gift to refugees during Eid, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.   Well-meaning troops  gave a trash bag full of stuffed animals to one refugee  family, when what the family needed was food and basic necessities.

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Near Pakistan border, 1984

Everyone wants Afghans to live their lives in a peaceful country where families can thrive, but our ideas to achieve that goal are often built on faulty assumptions.   The president will be damned if he agrees to send more troops, and he will be damned if he doesn’t. He may be a one-term president if the war goes badly, and who will decide if and when we “win.”  The concept of winning is dangerous. Do we win, or do the Afghans win, and do they even want that victory as we define it?  The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that intentions which are based on faulty assumptions are doomed to failure.

45 Responses to “The Afghanistan Dilemma”

  1. Powerful, brilliant, important work. I was there Steve, in 1986, in the mountains with the freedom fighters (mujahideen) and in the squalid refugee camps on the border of Pakistan. You have captured the truth and reminded us again of the insanity of war.

  2. Wow, what an amazing story. These images are both beautiful and at the same time haunting.

  3. Plan O for Out
    by Don Bacon

    The recently published “A New Way Forward” includes a complicated and time-consuming process involving the Afghan parliament, District councils, a national council and broadening the composition of the Afghan Army. The plan de-emphasizes Karzai’s conceived “peace jirga” in favor of an effort by tribal and village leaders. These are all efforts devised by Americans to be accomplished by Afghans at the local level, an approach which unacceptably undermines the Afghanistan central government.

    A new Afghanistan policy is certainly needed. The current NATO effort in Afghanistan, primarily military, has failed after nine years of effort and a tripling of foreign military and civilian personnel. Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces. US leaders agree that there will be no military solution in Afghanistan.

    Anatol Lieven: “Thus the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade, involving descriptions of the present Afghan government and political system not one of which corresponds to reality. Meanwhile the equally laudable desire to bring development to Afghanistan has ensnared us in calculations of “progress” which are virtually Soviet in their misrepresentation of the facts and the experience of ordinary Afghans.”

    The current US political strategy is ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ of the Taliban. Decoded, this amounts to little more than amnesty and surrender. It hasn’t been effective. A recent $250 million program to lure low-level Taliban fighters away from the insurgency has stalled, with Afghans bickering over who should run it, and international donors slow to put up the money they had promised. The flow of Taliban fighters seeking to reintegrate has slowed to a trickle — by the most optimistic estimates, a few hundred in the last six months.

    What is needed instead is a new US policy of genuine accommodation with the Taliban to include understanding and addressing their positions and grievances with the goal of forming a power-sharing Afghan government. Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban.

    Other factions would also have to be accommodated. Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite the civil war.

    There are signs that because of a lack of progress such a policy is currently under consideration in Washington. The Guardian has reported that “feelers had been put out to the Taliban. Negotiations would be conducted largely in secret, through a web of contacts, possibly involving Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or organisations with back-channel links to the Taliban.”

    British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, possibly the next British Prime Minister, has urged the Afghanistan government to consider bringing Taliban supporters into its political system. “Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the neighbors [nearby countries] are onside with the political settlement,” said Miliband,

    President Karzai has not needed urging to talk to the Taliban. Karzai hosted a June peace conference where he called insurgents “brothers” and “dear Talibs,” He asked the United Nations to remove Taliban leaders from the international sanctions black list and ordering the freeing of Taliban suspects from government custody. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters in Washington on July 14 that the Obama administration has agreed only to delist Taliban and al-Qaeda on “case-by-case basis.”

    A recent report indicates that the US has already initiated talks with the Taliban. According to the Asia Times report, the Pakistan military and Saudi Arabia are acting as go-betweens to facilitate the negotiation process. The initial talks have covered two main areas – the issue of about 60 Pakistanis in the US’s Guantanamo detention facility, and al-Qaeda. Another element touched on in the talks is the American demand that it maintain a military presence in northern Afghanistan, while agreeing to give control of the south to the Taliban. The Taliban do not agree with this – they want a complete US withdrawal. This remains a point of major disagreement.

    The problem is that in the most recent Jirga, President Karzai informed the delegates at the outset; “There is no mention of a key Taliban demand that NATO troops leave Afghanistan,” when in fact that was one of the Taliban’s key demands. NATO is currently conducting a military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar province.

    The NATO military presence must be removed for there to be any chance of peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership’s one non-negotiable demand is the complete withdrawal of Western forces. They say that this must take place before they will negotiate any settlement with the government in Kabul, but there might be some room for compromise.

    The oft-repeated objection to any Taliban control in Afghanistan is that the Taliban would establish “safe havens” for al Qaeda. Paul Pillar, deputy CIA chief of the counterterrorist center under President Clinton: “The US and other Western governments say we are in Afghanistan in order to deny terror groups like Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plan new attacks. But that is no longer a valid assumption. Terrorists don’t need a sanctuary to plan attacks from. We are investing enormously in an operation that is based on a flawed assumption. The reality is that the terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan.”

    Would any concessions to the Taliban result in the Taliban taking total control of Afghanistan? Pillar again: “This is another assumption that is rarely questioned. But prior to the U.S. intervention in 2001, the Taliban did not have uncontested control of Afghanistan. They had the upper hand in a civil war against the Northern Alliance; they had the backing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while the Northern Alliance had the backing of Iran, Russia, and India. The U.S. essentially threw its weight behind the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban.”

    While the Taliban is integrated somehow into the Afghan government, which is a matter for the Afghans to decide, there needs to be support for the Afghan effort in the form of a regional effort toward diplomacy and peace. President Obama needs to implement his promise of a new strategy on March 27, 2009: “. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.”

    The main issues concern Pakistan and India, including the dispute over Kashmir and Pakistan’s concern about a growing influence of India in Afghanistan, which should be limited. Pakistan should be included in a regional forum of ‘Friends of Afghanistan’ made up of Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia: these countries would be asked to make pledges of non-interference and recognise Afghanistan as a non-aligned state with no foreign bases.

    Milibanda again: “The political settlement needs to be external as well as internal, involving all of Afghanistan’s neighbours as well as those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al-Qaeda, give up their armed struggle and live within the Afghan constitutional framework.”

    Perhaps the US can succeed at reconciliation in Afghanistan although it has failed in Iraq. That was the main purpose of the surge, remember, but it didn’t happen. Now we’ve had another surge in Afghanistan but this time with a president (Karzai) who is actually in favor of reconciliation. We need to make it work. The alternative is more hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives wasted. Who wants to be the last to die for a lack of trying to end this nine-year war? President Obama has promised another reappraisal of Afghanistan war policy in December — it’s time.

    General Petraeus, Aug 25, 2010: “We sat down across the table in Iraq from individuals who had our blood on their hands. That’s what was done in northern Ireland. It’s what’s done in just about any insurgency as you get to the end stages of it.”

    The US needs to help negotiate a return of Afghanistan back to the Afghans.

  4. besmellah,
    dear Steve!

    i just want to ask yoy, what are your thinking about u.s.a in afghanistan?

    thanks for pictures they were gr8

  5. Thanks you from sharing this information.

    world must know that Afghanistan is the place which no country can exist their forces if that was russain or usa.
    right now American government think that they will not face with any problem ,but I want warn that soon Afghan people will stand oposite them as pasts.

  6. Steve,

    a friend of mine who’s father own lands in Afghanistan and must leave their country after the Russian’s invade Kabul, told me, that the Afghan always fight against each other. It is in their character and may be also the character of Arab tribes. The rule they have to build their society is therefore very hard in the eyes of the west civilization world. In my opinion as a non expert, is that some region and culture the suitable situation is to have a strong leader, in which in the eyes of the western world looks like dictatorship. May be the best way to come out of this problem, is to give better education and some wealthiness, so people can not be easily mobilized to fight against each other. I see that in my country, the smart one is the one who always provocate…

  7. [...] Afghanistan Dilemma  – http://stevemccurry.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/393/ Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Children of WarSMS or WMD?No [...]

  8. [...] The Afghanistan Dilemma Comments (0) [...]

  9. I’m trembling.
    Utterly gorgeous images.

  10. The inability of politicians to learn from history is astounding. We (the U.S.) are more and more involved in pumping money into Afghanistan in mostly the wrong ways, while history shows the British and the Russians doing the same thing over much of the preceding two centuries. Their results are common knowledge and totally ignored.

    Thanks for this site and your remarkable photographs and sensible conclusions.

  11. Very clever analysis. I like what you say and you suggest.

    • Many thanks for reading the blog. I really appreciate your response to my
      thoughts about Afghanistan, a country I have worked in for thirty years.
      Best,
      Steve

  12. [...] Steve McCurry Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" Often called the most famous photograph in the world. If there is one photographer who has influenced myself and just about every other travel/documentary photographer out there today it is Steve McCurry.  While the work ethic of David Alan Harvey, James Stanfield, and Michael “Nick” Nichols has influence me personally, there is no other photographer whose work I turn to for inspiration more than Steve McCurry’s.  This has been said over and over again, by thousands of photographers, and all for good reason.  McCurry’s images are timeless, and the stories behind them are legendary.  While just about everyone has seen his “Afghan Girl”  photo, I am always surprised how many people are unfamiliar with the rest of his work.  If you haven’t been on his website, sit back and click on the link just below. On a very personal note, a picture of Steve discussing one of my images for National Geographic Traveler was published back in 2006.  Now he could have been saying, “Wow, this is real sh@*!”  However, I prefer to think he was saying “Wow, this is real sugar!” Here is the link to his site http://www.stevemccurry.com I especially hope you enjoy his new “Afghanistan 1979″ gallery, which he just added.    Here is a very short correspondence that Steve and I had oh his blog just a day or two before the gallery was posted.   Thanks Steve! Charles Meacham Says:  October 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm [...]

  13. Hi Steve,

    I was out in Afghan just last year in an all together different line of work I am heading into now. You images and words are stunning and hit home hard. It was the futility of conflict that hit me and your work is an inspiration in bringing these issues to the forefront of the collective consciousness.
    Thank-you so much for sharing you experiences with us and I look forward to more in the future!

    Josh

  14. Hi Steve,

    You must get a lot of mail and so you may not remember me – we once communicated over a graffiti piece I came across based on your hauntingly beautiful Afghan Girl image in London.

    I cannot believe I have only just found this blog of yours. Without trying to sound sycophantic, you are quite simply one of my biggest inspirations. Your portraits are stunning – you capture beauty even in tragic situations, and it’s wonderful to be able to hear first-hand accounts from you relating to your images.

    Keep up the fantastic work and I look forward to reading more from you.

    Cheers,
    Tanya

  15. Jed MacKay Says:

    Steve,
    A marvellous post! Thank you!
    Jed

  16. Wow. Such evocative photography!

    I found you through Grace Wang’s blog. I will be back often!

  17. Dustin Lennert Says:

    Steve,

    I’m a freshmen studying photojournalism at Ohio University and in my interview I mentioned you, among other photographers, whose work I admire. I was just wondering if you have any advice for young photojournalists like myself and photographers in general who are just now learning and about to come into the field that you wish you would have known when you started? I know that I’ll end up working for Newspapers for my internships but eventually I want to end up at a publication that allows me to travel because that’s what lured me into this field.

    thanks,
    Dustin

  18. Hi Steve!
    Thanks for all of the insight that you constantly post on your blog. I love learning about the world… especially the places that so many Americans have misconceptions about. I went to Tanzania in May, and when I came back I was amazed at the things my friends actually thought about Africa- that is, once they realized that Tanzania was in Africa and not Australia. What I have learned as a student at a missions-fueled school is that the most important part of missions is establishing a relationship with the people we are trying to serve. The story of the troops giving toys is a good example of the lack of such a relationship. It is a good example of the way that America seems to think. As a nation I feel like we are going about it all wrong. What may be right for us isn’t necessarily what is right for other countries.

    Anyways thank you for sharing your work and your words. Your photos have always inspired me to know more about the world.

  19. That story of you sewing film into your clothing is a legendary one.

    Thank you for sharing this with us, it is a vivid retelling. All sides have a different definition of “win”, and it rarely seems to involve a genuine longing for peace.

    Do you remember how many frames you shot of the photo of the missile launcher (Kandahar, 1989) to get the fired missile in the shot?

  20. Steve,

    That would be great. The story behind your work in Afghanistan has always been a great inspiration. I look forward to any postings.

    Thank you,

    Charles

  21. Steve,

    Is there any where on the web we can see your early images of Afghanistan? I would love to see a gallery added to your website.

    Any links you could share would be much appreciated.

    • Dear Charles,
      Many thanks for your suggestion. I think it’s an excellent idea. I’ll see if we can get that early work scanned for the website.
      Best,
      Steve

  22. Well said Steve and amazing images as always .. Is that Ahmad Shah Massoud in the far left in the first image (Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1979)?

  23. andrewgould Says:

    An amazing story, Steve, and equally amazing images of Afganistan that feature on your website and in your books. Thanks for sharing all this with us and giving us your insights into this land and its people.

  24. Thank you for this wonderful body of work Mr. McCurry!

    Having had a long time association with an Afghan family driven out the the Soviets, I still find myself confused about the region. Perhaps because it IS a confusing place with complex, long established politics that I’m not sure our State Department can discern.

    All those things aside I relish the glimpses you give us of the most important thing, the people. God bless you in your important endeavor to share these images with the world.

  25. Francesco Bonomo Says:

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that intentions which are based on faulty assumptions are doomed to failure.”

    Couldn’t agree more with those closing sentences, Steve.
    Unfortunately, it looks like every time “we” (the “civilized” West) decide that is time to “bring freedom” somewhere, the actual social history and culture of those places are not taken in consideration. Understanding people of different cultures, apparently, it’s a lot harder than starting a war based on lies or faulty assumptions.
    I like to think that if some of our leaders and their advisors had spent a little more time just browsing pictures of Afghanistan and its people, or just talking to those who’ve spent a great deal of time visiting that country and others in the area, maybe they would’ve been more interested in trying to understand what they were getting themselves (and lots of young people) into. Or maybe I’m just a little bit too naive…

    • You may some great points. I think everyone making decisions about war should go to the place and spend a month with the people. I bet they would learn a lot.

      Thanks for reading the blog.
      Best,
      Steve

  26. Hi Steve,

    Its great to read truth without fear.

    -Pawan

  27. “Give peace a chance” (J. Lennon). Thanks for your words Steve.

  28. Nahid Noori Says:

    Your photos warm my soul Mr. McCurry

    I am a second-generation born Afghan and in your photos I relish in the Afghanistan that was. I pine for the day when I can walk on the dirt roads of Afghanistan and bask in its immeasurable beauty. I have never been…Twenty three years born and bred in New York City.

    Thank you for your beautiful work, not just of Afghanistan, but of all places.

    Love&Light

  29. Yajnavalkya Says:

    Namaste Steve,

    Great article! Great understanding! What you have done in Afghanistan is invaluable contribution to the Great Understanding!
    US government (and any world power) should take into consideration opinions and experiences of individuals like you!

  30. Afghanistan … it’s heartbreaking, but thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your beautiful photos of this amazing place.

  31. Hello Mr.Steve,

    That is a great web page! Congratulations!
    The photos and memories you wrote are very intersting and show an other point of view!

    See you in Afghanistan again! I m right now on travel in Afghanistan with tv crew, making documentary film!

    Best regards and take care,

    Maria from Poland

  32. an honest and unbiased story, as usual.

    keep inspire!

  33. Great story and pictures!
    How do you prepare for photographing in a conflict-area? I can imagine it takes special effort, any specific recommendations?

    Best regards

  34. Bettina Says:

    Thank you for your posts! I learn a lot from each of them.

  35. Robert Pljuscec Says:

    People are often manipulated by media or by politics in their country. I’m from Croatia…same thing happened here while Croatia was fighting for its independence. I think that Croatia had luck because it is a small country and we don’t have lots of oil sites, and opium fields…
    Still some day fresh water will become more important or at least of the same value as oil…than Croatia could be something like Qatar, or Afghanistan. Anyway…. politics is determined by the major forces. What is nice to see is that there are those who are trying to wake this world up and make it a better place. This is how I see your work, and I hope mine someday.

    Thank you Steve on all this pictures and stories… I hope that the roads will bring you to Croatia one day, or if they don’t I hope to meet you some other way. I would like to shake the hand of the man who inspired me to become a photograph.

  36. claudiawillmitzer Says:

    steve,

    i read a lot of books about afghanistan. even i don’t have been there to photographs. i think its true the people are strong in their cultures. they was always strong against the countries politic who not take Afghan peolpe seriously. i know Afghan people having a incredible hospitality. They will share the last bowl of rice with people who want to understand the culture, the power of this strong people and religions even guests would be a unbelievers .
    every country lost the war at the hindukusch. the blood which flows throughs the ateries from afghan people is warm, full of love and cold at the same time. i was talking a few times with soldiers they have been in afghanistan.They told me the eyes from these people are empty after so many years of conflicts. But i know eyes couldn’t be empty as long as a nation believe in themself. we are underestimate constantly how strong can be a nation and how less we believe in them.
    we come from western countries and most of us lived a safe live. we always having food and people who care of us. we could leave back to our safe place whenever we want. this is exactly what we reflect when we are guest in a country like afghanistan or pakistan or wherever. the question in this humans game is…..would we lose a live for other poeple even they are our guest? no we wouldn’t…. would we kill anybody or kidnapping?
    No?
    yes!!! if we would living in the same kind of live many years and generations like this people in afghanistan.
    people carry a soul and a heart. Here and in Afghanistan,too

    warm regards and a safe trip on you assignment

    claudia willmitzer

  37. siva prabu Says:

    REALLY HAPPY TO HEAR IT FROM AN AMERICAN…..THANX :)

  38. It seems there is never a winner in war.
    Fanastic images.

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