I arrived in Afghanistan almost two weeks ago, flying into Bagram Airfield, then moving to Kabul and finally back to Bagram.
I was transported by semi-covert convoy from Camp Julian to ISAF HQ. I’ll leave the description of the vehicle that I travelled in out of this writing for security purposes. Armed men, contractors working in one of the world’s most unstable countries packed in around me, each carrying Serbian M-92s, 7.62mm, shelled in body armor, sleek Oakleys covering their eyes. We moved through streets packed bumper to bumper with cars and shoulder to shoulder with people. Garbage floated everywhere, piles of random junk stacked high on the sides of the road, craters from IED blasts gaping at us.
I gained a sense of hyper-alertness. Only a few months prior, insurgents killed several officers with a Vehicle-born IED just down the road from where we were driving. Though our vehicles were non-descript, the people somehow knew who we were. I could tell by their looks. I know that look from my days as a cop. The simmering distrust, the envy, the sniggering smile. They knew we were ISAF.
Every few hundred meters we would get sought in a knot of traffic, the bearded driver would swear. “Why’s he taking this fucking route?” Referring to the vehicle in front of us. Every time we stop, I watch for bulging robes, wires sprouting from sleeves, and stumbling gate and blissfully high face of an insurgent, high on heroin, ready to visit paradise. My doors combat locked, the heavy, hidden armor of our vehicles..can it resist a suicide bomber up close? No way. I know better. I imagine a holy warrior, perhaps only a few days prior a dirt farmer, striding up to my door, my last vision: his thumb depressing a plunger. I’d be blown out the other side of the vehicle, my insides liquified if my body held together at all.
We stopped. We raced. We clenched our weapons. But Kabul only winked at us. At anytime she could kill us. But not today. It would be too easy, no fun. Better to play with the mouse before it dies. As we drew closer to ISAF headquarters, it was as if the chaos and dirt melted away. I saw the Afghan police officers suddenly appear pressed uniforms, where only a couple of kilometers before , they appeared dishevelled, unshowered. A sense of calm and order arose as we approached the NATO base. It was an oasis from the anarchy that grips Afghanistan.
Since then, I’ve flown Blackhawk to several districts. What’s the war like? Well, let’s just say that American power and ingenuity are plainly evident on our bases, but Afghanistan’s tribalism, warlordism and primitive state rule the hinterlands. Behind our walls, we are invincible. The foolish man who hopes heroism will come in the form of an arching mortar round into an American base is quickly annihilated in a shower of 30mm cannon, belched from the nose of Apache gunships. Sometimes, they manage to get in, but their losses are catastrophic and for the most part, the insurgents have given up attacking our bases.
But the roads are a different story. Kidnappings, murder, theft. These are the tools of the Talib highway man. And don’t think of this as Taliban against NATO. It’s NATO against Chaos. Just because a man is Taliban or HIG does not mean he kidnaps foreigners for ideological reasons. He may just want money. He may be doing the bidding of his boss who wants regional control.
They are a giant mob, and we’re the cops. The mob is feeding on its moment of freedom, on its rage, rolling itself into a juggernaut-snowball. Only order–any order–can stop this. I don’t know if we can “win”. but I sense that if we leave, hundreds of thousands of civilians will die in the struggle to fill our vacuum. And we won’t be left with anything that amounts to a peaceful, liberated Afghanistan.