There’s a painful effort here at the KIV—a sort of never-ending gnashing of teeth—to balance winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans with the coalition’s personal protection. Safety is always supposed to come first, but the only way to be truly safe is to leave the country, and even then our reprieve would be short-lived. If history’s any indication (which it should be unless you’re an idiot), disengagement ultimately makes things worse, global security-wise.
From generals to janitors, we have to work with the Afghans. Your perspective depends a lot on your role. The coalition advisors take a more optimistic approach, seeing the good even in the corruption.
“The vast majority of Afghans don’t want to kill you,” they’re quick to point out to anyone who’ll listen, along with a stock photo of an Afghan holding a flower. But…you can never truly know what’s in someone’s heart and mind.
“You can’t trust any of them!” the Marine in charge of security reminds us about once a day. “They will shoot you in the back and you’ll never see it coming, even the ones you think are your friends. Never forget that.”
“You know,” I told my officemate, “if we die here, it’ll probably be from an IED, a rocket attack, or getting shot in the back. Either way, we’ll have no idea we’re about to die until we’re actually dead, which means we won’t suffer, and that’s a good thing, right?”
My officemate just frowned at me. He didn’t see the bright side.
I knew a guy at a training class I took before I came to Kabul who had a decidedly negative view of the culture. He was a short, roly-poly man of Pilipino decent I think, who had this weird verbal tick of giggling between sentences. Maybe that came from his culture. During a field exercise, I remember him getting uncharacteristically agitated over a pretend-Afghan hanging around our fake-village.
“I got no love for these people,” he said as he paced in circles with his rifle at the ready, then giggled. “When you’ve been to as many of your friend’s funerals as I have”—giggle—“you don’t take any chances.” Giggle. “I got no love for these people.” Giggle. “No love.” Giggle.
From my own perspective, Afghans are like everyone else in the world—some are good, some are bad, most are in-between. The major difference is their priorities, i.e. the things they value, also called currency in social-dynamics lingo: family vs. religion vs. country vs. honor, etc. Unfortunately for us, US currency is vastly different from Afghan currency, meaning we’re unlikely to leave this country satisfied, no matter what we do.
One thing that’s been a rousing success, however, has been the West’s influence on Afghan males’ hairstyles. Traveling down the streets of Kabul (in full body armor and an up-armored vehicle) you’ll see a virtual parade of Afghan men with fabulous pompadours, certainly inspired by Justin Bieber. My own Afghan counterpart has an impressive poof I imagine he spends a good amount of time gelling just right each morning. He’s got a US visa, and could take his family and immigrate to the United State and live the American Dream at any time if he wanted. But he stays and works with the coalition, putting himself and his loved ones in danger, because he genuinely wants to help his country.
“I worked for the Afghan government once,” he told me, “but quit because they were too corrupt. I’m hoping to make a difference with the coalition instead.”
He’s one of the good ones. Despite his country’s terrible history with women’s rights, he treats me with respect, which is more than some people in my own country do. I think he’d make Mr. Bieber proud.