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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.