More is Less in Afghanistan

The Law of Diminishing Returns

AFGHN-10055

West Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995

 

Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer.  McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results.  We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate.  Many don’t know what the mission is and wonder how they will know when the mission is “accomplished.”

AFGHN-12453

Nangahar, Afghanistan 1989

 

AFGHN-12704

Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995

 

As much as outsiders have tried to create the country in their own image, Afghanistan  has been able to absorb the blows of superpowers and remain essentially the same. The interesting thing  is that the people trying to change it often change more than the country does even after Herculean efforts of well-meaning governments, NGO’s, and coalitions.

AFGHN-10246

Uzbek fighters, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1992

 

AFGHN-12759NF

Afghan Mujahadeen with surface to air stinger missile, near Jalalabad 1989

Over the years, I have been back  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.

AFGHN-12444

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002, U.S. soldier with an interpreter punishing an Afghan recruit by making him crawl in the mud.

AFGHN-10191NF

Kabul, 2002

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 history, the terrain, the language, the religion, the culture.

Everyone wants Afghans to live in a peaceful country where families and communities can thrive, but our strategy to achieve that goal is often built on misunderstandings, faulty assumptions, and a stunning ignorance of the lessons of history.

No one knows how long the bleeding ulcer will keep bleeding, but if history teaches us anything, it is that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union.

55 Responses to “More is Less in Afghanistan”

  1. Steve.. I learn a lot by your picture..
    Thanks’
    It was very interesting to develop humankind and interaction within people by a pieces of art.
    Visit me my blog Steve… i’m waiting for your comment n tips. :)
    klanglocapic.blogspot.com

  2. Jorge Bosch Says:

    It is great to come in contact with who from my
    beginnings as a photojournalist I have valued and learned what
    good and bad of this profession.
    I take this opportunity for a big hug envierte
    a colleague from Argentina.

  3. Barry Thomas Says:

    The USA (where I live) should understand this country, and above all understand itself.
    Thank you Steve McCurry. With respect, Barry Thomas

  4. Dear Steve,

    you did a very insight on the subject. It is very true what you wrote. Keep the reader asking, so why are they exactly there? What is their really intention. As always, I like your images as well!

    regards,

    Jos Runarka

  5. Athena Says:

    Buenos Tardes,

    I find your blog moving and relevant.

    Thank you for sharing these images and your words with all of us.

    Con regard,

    Athena Borozon

  6. Lots of words and the interaction on this topic is vital. Having been to Afghanistan and in the deeper more dangerous areas on my own with no support. I spend some time on “the dark side” of the force as it were and i have to say that its all just a little bit more complicated then that.

    We need to remember that the countries stability is on a lease that is being funding by a hard currency called the US$. When it leaves we will see a change do doubt.

  7. Hello,
    First of all, I’m 14 and I love your pictures, and your vision about the international situation
    I think the situation in Afghanistan could change radicaly because of: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?hp
    What do you think about it? I hope the trillion $ will hepl the population and not some people in the government.
    Excuse for my English but I’m Spanish

  8. As always, I enjoy your photography and the manner in which you present perspective of a land and people which you obviously hold dear.

    I have relatives who lived in Kabul prior to the Soviet invasion. Their eldest son, met his death by drowning in one of the rivers of Afghanistan.

    The people of Afghanistan and their tribal customs remind me very much of my own childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico living in Oaxaca valley and surrounded by the majestic Sierra Madre mountain peaks. Nine indigenous tribes inhabited the mountain belt, the buckle of the belt being the Zapotec indians.

    Best,
    Tammy Swofford

  9. AMEN.
    George w Bush you should read this man wherever you are. Maybe your Generals & Advisors forgotten to tell you this…

  10. semajmik Says:

    intriguing pictures . . . though I wouldn’t want to be in your place anytime soon. Nonetheless, great post!

    http://www.semajmik.com

  11. Célia Campos Says:

    Maravilhosas , o dom perfeito na arte de fotografar , captando a dor , a alegria e o desassossego que toca fundo o ânimo e as paixões de forma comovedora.

  12. [...] The Law of Diminishing Returns West Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995   Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer.  McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results.  We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate.  Many don't know what the mission is and wonder how they will know w … Read More [...]

  13. Steve,
    I recall that marvelous photography you did during the Afghan war of liberation [against the Soviets], especially the most fascinating photo of an Afghan girl in a refugee camp near Peshawar. It was this very photograph that did a miraculous work in creating ton loads of sympathies for the Afghan people who were then fighting against the Soviets.

    Later you did again an investigative story finding out the same Sherbet Gul in a totally different and depressing environment [still worse than what she was having in her childhood days].
    Your current illustrations on Afghanistan with short notes, is again a wonderful piece.

    I am also happy that you are one of those in the western media [unlike the so many of the mainstream media] who can sift the facts from fiction. Unlike that lady from the US army who has painted a picture which does not stand in sync with Afghan history, their culture, their psyche and their current mindset. She says the Afghan women told her that Soviets came to Afghanistan as intruders whereas the US and its allies were invited by the Afghans. It’s an utter misstatement. Bush and Cheney combine attacked Afghanistan under the pretext that they had Osama bin laden with them. I personally neither approve what Osama bin Laden believes / believed nor do I agree with the posture the Taliban had before 2001. But fact remains that neither US nor any other country has any right to decide what is good or what’s bad for the Afghans.
    The US administrations first under GW Bush and now under Barack Obama may maintain that they are there for introducing democracy in Afghanistan. But if they have the democracy so dear to their hearts, why don’t they introduce it in the Saud Kingdom where the words uttered by the King are a law. As a matter of fact not a single Muslim state has true democracy. If some country does try to have some semblance of peoples mandate like they did it in Algeria, and in Palestine, the US did not accept the peoples true aspirations. Since they were Islamists and they might have struck at the US corporate interests as well as distanced themselves from US geostrategic interests therefore they were dubbed as fundamentalists and thus debarred from coming into power. Hamas is presently running the affairs on the West Bank [under a farcical self rule nick named as Palestinian Authority] and we very well know what US is doing to frustrate the Palestinian peoples wishes there [merely becoz it cannot move in a direction where there is even a bit of chance what may annoy the Zionists of Israel].
    The present diplomatic mumblings by the US is a proof that it believes only in lofty slogans on democracy, human rights civilized world etc etc but in heart of its hearts the US administrations only believe and practice in what suits its hegemonic / imperialist interests and same applies to its policy in Afghanistan as well.
    The pictures and your brief notes with concluding remarks should be an eye opening piece for the policy makers in Washington.
    At least I personally was so moved with this slide like pictures presentation, I thought I was in Afghanistan watching the whole political landscape in that war torn country all by myself.
    P. S.
    If you agree with this I may put up this piece on my blog as well.

    Nayyar Hashmey
    http://wondersofpakistan.wordpress.com/

  14. [...] Steve Mccurry’s blog the other day and read his text about Afghanistan. He said, and I quote: “Today we have many more soldiers, contractors, and NGO’S than we did five years ago, yet it is far [...]

  15. [...] The Law of Diminishing Returns West Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995   Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer.  McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results.  We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate.  Many don't know what the mission is and wonder how they will know w … Read More [...]

  16. You are right that we have misunderstood their history and their culture. That’s the point!

    We have to understand their history in true perspective. Just drawing out will never help! We have to understand their history and fully and then act accordingly.

  17. Sorry for my ‘German English’, however, a very good post. I have worked in a lot of international development projects mainly in the CIS including countries in Central Asia. From my experience I fully agree.

    Yes, they have another culture. Yes, they have other traditions. And yes, some of them contradict our understanding of human rights, such as the role of women in society. And yes, we will have to do something to make a change on these issues. But are military forces the right answer?

    I don’t think so. The Afghanistan debate is going on in Germany today and become more visible in public after the first dead soldiers have been sent home.

    Most of the European countries and the US are so called ‘democratic countries’. But we should never forget that it is our kind of democracy that we have. Just another question is whether this kind of democracy model can be implemented just right now in all countries all over the world.

    Onece talking about democracy with a friend in Ukraine he mentioned a very good argument. He said that Western countries have gone a long long way for certain centuries in order to reach that kind of democracy that we have today. So why does the West expect Ukraine to have a Western Democracy after an independence period of 15 years.

    The Germans have even got a ‘democracy’ in todays understanding only after allied forces had defeated the Nazi regime in the so called ‘Third Reich’.

    So why do we expect that other countries to accept Western democracy? Even more, why shouldn’t they resist any attempt to ‘import democracy’ with the help of cruise missiles, bombs and weapons? For every Taliban that will be killed by Western forces another two or even more Talibans will stand up and fight against the Western alliance. This will be even more the case, when Western forces kill innocent people. With every bomb dropped, the quantity of resisting people will rise. This is what I think will have to be the lesson learnt from Afghanistan.

    If we want to ‘fight’ terrorists, we will have to fight powerty in those countries. Giving people a perspective and hope for a better future, that’s the way it will work. We will also have to fight arms trade (with arms that are delivered from the West and from the East), drug trafficking (which had sometimes even been supported from Western intelligence services).

    If we don’t do so, we will breed a group of terrorists that will be even more cruel than those from today and I fear that 9/11 will only be a small kind of taste for what may come tomorrow. One of the main tasks in that matter will be to share wealth.

    Just my two cents

  18. [...] More is Less in Afghanistan (via Steve McCurry’s Blog) The Law of Diminishing Returns West Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995   Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer.  McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results.  We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate.  Many don't know what the mission is and wonder how they will know w … Read More [...]

  19. . . . if history teaches us anything, it is that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. And then who I wonder?

  20. So, why is Uncle Sam beating up people in Afghanistan? Because he is teaching the Afghans to be civilized and to be democratic. Its for their good. :-)

  21. this is a very thoughtful article. great job!

  22. Steve, Thanks for the post and sharing your great photographs!
    I’ll enjoy taking photographs and sketching there!
    All the best to you.
    Jan

  23. My Air Force Grandson just got back from this.

    Your pictures with the tragic faces intensify my wondering why are we there?

  24. I think it is also good to read the book “A thousand splendid suns” by Khaled Hosseini. Though the story is fictional, it still allowed us to see the history of the country through the eyes of Mariam and Laila. I genuinely hope that Afghans will find that peace they are looking for…

  25. Hope this Loya Jirga helps, even a little will be a huge respite.

    G

  26. [...] 3 Jun The Law of Diminishing Returns West Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995   Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer.  McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results.  We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate.  Many don't know what the mission is and wonder how they will know w … Read More [...]

  27. These are the best two things I have heard on Afghanistan. Thank you.

    Is there any way we could get these into the public media, Steve? Arla

  28. Jim Hagen Says:

    As I read your excellent post all I could wonder was why no one in a leadership position sees the obvious facts that you describe and then I read the armychic comment and it all becomes clear.

  29. sayitinasong Says:

    The photos are very good, and very poignant.

  30. ArmyChic Says:

    “No one knows how long the bleeding ulcer will keep bleeding, but if history teaches us anything, it is that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. ”

    I agree, but I think the fundamental difference here is that we (the US) are not trying to “take over” or “oppress” the people of Afghanistan. We are not trying to “do it for them”. We are trying to create an enviroment which allows them to create their own form of democracy. Anyone who works day in and day out with the people of Afghanistan will quickly realize that democracy as we know it will not work there, they have to find a form of it that works in line with there own culture and belief systems.

    During my military service I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to closely work first hand with the people of Afghanistan, both the local populace, government officials, ANP and ANA. As a female military leader I was given the opportunity to meet with some prominent women of Afghanistan. When asked about their feelings about the US being there we were told that the difference between the US and soviet union and other outside forces is that “we invited the U.S. to come here.” Most people don’t take the time to realize that. We didn’t simply invade the country out of our own arrogance and desire to see change. I spent nearly every day of my deployment ‘outside the wire’ with the people of Afghanistan. If your only opinion or view of the situation over there is through the eyes of the media, then you are a mixture of misinformed and underinformed. It would be the equivelant of reading one book of the Bible and declaring yourself well versed in its contents. Even after a year of being in the midst of it all you only begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of the situation.

    There are “good news” stories, but they will never get the ratings to be the highlight in the media. You will never see on TV what I saw every day. I watched many a project go from start to finish in the communities. The reward of watching a community of children enter their new school for the first time. The amazment of locals that we were paving their road even though no big offical lived on it, but just because it would increase their quality of life. Providing medical care to rural villages…some who have never seen a doctor in their lives, where something as simple as asprin is like gold. Over just a year of being there I was able to see first hand the “baby steps” of lives being improved. I don’t question for a minute that what we are doing there is worth it. Not every day was a walk in the park. We risked our lives to do the things we did. Not everyone came back home. But they gave their lives for something they believed in, something they felt was worth their very life. Yet, the general public, who hasn’t been there, hasn’t looked into the eyes of the people, shared their food, played with their kids, stood beside them in a fight, or risked their lives for this cause while sacrificing their lives at home and getting paid what amounts to less then half of the minimum wage, thinks that this cause is not worthy. They say they don’t understand why we are there…..how true that statement is.

    What I will say is that it will get worse before it gets better. The general public looks at the situation and say “we’ve sent more troops there and its only gotten worse!” Yes!! It has!! And that is EXACTLY what I would have expected. Why? Because more troops mean we now have the opportunity to go into places that before we were not able to. We now have the ability to go to those hard-to-reach, isolated areas and reach out to those people and show them that we really are here to help. But we do it at a risk. It is these isolated areas that typically are the most die-hard supporters of the Taliban. These are the people who are the most cut off from what is going on. (Until you’ve been there, you can’t begin to imagine the effect that terrain has on the mission!) The Taliban can tell them whatever they want to earn there support because there is nothing the show them otherwise. (Case in point: After much planning and coordination we found a way to reach an area that our troops previously had not been able to get too (or perhaps previous iterations had not wanted to…it was not an easy trek!) when we arrived….they thought we were the russians!!! ) So, yes. The violence will increase as we reach out to new areas. But it will die down eventually. And we will leave eventually, but we will do it the right way. The American public wants to do things the easy way. This isn’t a scratch you put a bandaid on. You can’t “take a pill” and make it go away. Its about letting the people of Afghanistan create a government that meets their needs. They have ALOT of challenges to overcome. They must find a way to unite there country, to create a stable and prosperous economy, and to learn to provide the security there country needs to make that happen. Until then, they have asked that we provide the security framework they need so they can focus of figuring out the rest. Without security, none of the rest will ever happen.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response.
      Best,
      Steve

      • Steve, you have made the best photographs and documentation. I wish more of the money grubbing pols and corporate heads would look at and listen to you. From your photographs you have posted on your website, and blog, I feel you have a good connection with the people there. You have captured the essence of the people and have gotten inside their cultural facade, the face in which the American People see in the news etc. You are inside.

        What I am amazed to see from your photographs is how the diverse the ethnicity Afghan people are, having fair skin and blue/green eyes to the darker skin found in other nations such as Iran, India and Pakistan.

        My personal opinion is to help Afghanistan, is we need to help the people from the bottom up rather than the top down. The old proverb, if you give a person a fish, they’ll have a meal. If you teach a person to fish, they’ll eat for life.

        A land that is plentiful in crops won’t need to fight for them. We must teach them how to cultivate their land, for something other than poppies. We must have them do the work and keep them busy. That will keep them out of trouble. I know in my heart the people of Afghanistan are good people, if we (the western world) do all the work for them, what do they have? Nothing. They must do the work.

    • muhammadabduh02 Says:

      lies lies lies, in the name of cnn, lies, lies, lies, in the name of US government…..

  31. [...] More Published in: Uncategorized on June 3, 2010 at 3:30 pm Leave a Comment [...]

  32. I read your post about the found boy, and it truly touched me, but I never commented about it. Today I read the post about Afghanistan and it touched me again.

    The fact that there are people who are ready to admit the world we live in, and the side we came from, might not be the best possible option. Understanding and respect are the very needed weapons to fight aggression, but honestly… does one has to fight at all? In the name of peace? it is rather humiliating what people are capable of doing to one another.. Thanks a lot for your blog. It brought peace… even for a moment.

  33. Your photos are breathtaking. I will certainly follow your blog and check back often!

  34. dailypink Says:

    I am glad to have come across your blog page! very insightful. keep blogging!

  35. The photographs really make the story stand out…excellent post!
    http://www.denwrites.com

  36. Here is an article showing the progressive nature of Afghanistan during the 1950′s and 1960′s. Its very sad that after all these years of war these pics of normalcy look very surreal. But the fact is, this was what Afghanistan once was. 30 years of brutal war has changed all that.

    http://haphazardcontemplations.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/identify-the-country/

  37. Amazing photographs. I’m in Afghanistan now, working in Kabul, and your pictures really capture the feel of things– even though many of them are a decade old. When I first came here in 2007 things were just getting dodgy– more IEDs and attacks but still relatively peaceful (you could even visit Kunduz, where I stayed at a nice German guesthouse and worked out at a local Afghan gym)… and I’ve watched it go downhill ever since.

    Afghanistan is indeed the graveyard of Empires– though Alexander didn’t meet his match until reaching the Indus River in Pakistan, and actually enjoyed a good deal of military success in AFG– in fact, he liked it so much here that he took an Afghan wife. The collapse of Alexander’s Empire only happened because he’d spent so much time fighting that he never took the time to built a proper state apparatus for his dominion– and as soon as he died (in Babylon), it all fell apart in a decade. Sort of like what’ll happen when ISAF withdraws– except much faster.

    Anyhow, great pics, great blog. I plan to keep checking here.

    Nick

    http://proofoflifetravel.wordpress.com/

  38. Your blog is such an inspiration.
    Truth be told, I am speechless on how to comment on this blog; it’s because the world “dead”, “victim”, “politics,” war” are always scary to me. I am currently reading a novel by Greg Mortenson, a non-fiction book about Greg who was willing to build a school for children there. I teach children, so it’s kinda sad that children there don’t have the same opportunities as other children in other parts of the country. How lucky we are now; in front of the computer sipping nice drinks, and people there??? You know.

  39. It’s very nice to find an interesting blog, thank you very much for share this with the world.
    Unfortunately my blog isn’t in english, but maybe some of this days I’ll writte something ………
    Nice to meet you!
    Claudia

  40. This was a very interesting article…thanks for posting!

    http://www.wutevs.wordpress.com

  41. sharma24 Says:

    Nice pictures, Steve. Would love to see pictures of day today Afghanistan, if you have taken any – away from the war!! Great you been there. Chow!!

  42. “if history teaches us anything, it is that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union.” That’s a powerful and scary statement.

  43. Your assessment is right on the money. If the lessons of history are ignored, our efforts will be diminished.

  44. Ramiro Gomez Says:

    Hi Steve, How many time (I guess years in total) have you spent in Afghanistan?

    Do you speak their language?

    Congratulations for your impresive work!

  45. hi Steve,

    You have immense experience of Afghanistan.

    Regards,
    Pawan

  46. Perhaps a solution for Stanley Mc Chrystals “bleeding ulcer” in Marjah may be to assist the people there by allowing them to grow Opium as a legal crop – as is done in parts of India whereby it is a government controlled crop that the grower must have an opium licence. The opium from India is purchased by major pharmeceutical companies for the manufacture of painkillers. I’m sure that destroying someones livelihood that is their opium crop without offering a viable alternative will build resentment and keep the ulcer festering.
    Thanks for the informative Blog Steve- Best Wishes to you

  47. Olivier Laude Says:

    Anyone interested in learning about Afghanistan should start by picking up a copy of “The great Game” by Peter Hopkirk.. Great background read on a stunning and utterly different place…. No one who visits Afghanistan remains untransformed by it…in a fundamental way..!

  48. I’m glad to have found your blog! I agree, the US is overlooking a wealth of history where formidable armies have tried to take over the area in the past and have failed (miserably). What bothers me most is how we have pulled out of Iraq to funnel troops to Afghanistan. Like you, I don’t see the benefit in it.

  49. Ramiro Gomez Says:

    It is very interesting to read the opinion of somebody who has spent so many time there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,873 other followers

%d bloggers like this: