Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan

Killing the Cranes A Reporters Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan

(Image: Chelsea Green)

It was a warm Thursday afternoon on August 5, 2010, in a remote woodland of the Hindu Kush mountains when a band of men with full beards and ankle-length white gowns appeared out of nowhere. Brandishing Kalashnikovs, they walked up to a team of mostly foreign aid volunteers who had just picnicked near their Land Rovers following a medical mission in Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan province. The eight men and three women had been bringing eye care, dental treatment, and other forms of medical relief to an isolated highland valley. For two weeks, unarmed and unprotected, they had trekked with packhorses from village to village offering medical assistance to some fifty thousand subsistence farmers and shepherds living in this rugged high-mountain region.

The gunmen forced the workers—six Americans, three Afghans, a German, and a Briton—to sit on the ground. They ransacked the vehicles and demanded that everyone empty their pockets. Then they lined them up against a craggy rock face and executed them, one by one. Only the Afghan driver was spared. He had pleaded for his life by reciting verses of the Koran and screaming: “I am Muslim. Don’t kill me!”

The bullet-riddled bodies of the medical team were found the next day, and news of their assassination traveled swiftly. Theories abounded as to who murdered them and why. The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, both insurgent groups fighting the Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, each claimed responsibility. Yet as with so many such attacks against civilians, the perpetrators were never found and never brought to justice.

Two of the executed Americans, Tom Little and Dan Terry, were long-standing members of the International Assistance Mission, a Christian non-governmental organization (or NGO) that has been working in Afghanistan since 1966. “Dr. Tom,” as he was known, was a low-key sixty-two-year-old optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had been working with his wife, Libby, in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. They had first started out helping wayward hippies stranded in Kabul. Running a series of eye clinics, they had remained throughout the Soviet-Afghan war and during the Battle for Kabul of the mid-1990s until the Taliban drove them out. The Littles came straight back after the collapse of the Talib regime.

Dan was a cheerful and dogged aid worker with a dry sense of humor who first visited the country in 1971. During the latter days of the Taliban, when they were destroying villages and killing civilians in central and northern Afghanistan, Dan had mounted a humanitarian relief effort in midwinter to bring food across the front lines.

Both were my friends.

For those familiar with Afghanistan, the killing of the IAM team underscored the brutal reality that much of this mountain and desert country at the cusp of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had become a perilous, no-go zone. Whereas parts of the country, including Nuristan and the neighboring province of Badakshan where the murders took place, had been considered relatively safe for aid workers, the Afghan traditions of hospitality and protection of guests had finally and irretrievably been shattered. Decades of conflict, competing worldviews, and outside interests had turned Afghanistan into a land where neither the Western-backed Kabul government nor the insurgents are in control—and basic humanity seems to have vanished.

For me, the deaths of Dr. Tom and Dan marked the end of an era. They were “old Afghan hands” who, like me, had first ventured into Afghanistan in the 1970s and found themselves inexplicably drawn to this utterly romantic country of cultural contrasts and staggering topographic beauty, but also human tragedy. They kept returning despite being threatened, and despite the personal risk their work entailed. Although both were indeed Christians, they were not missionaries. They were in Afghanistan because of their own convictions and because they simply wanted to help a beleaguered people.

By the time of the IAM murders, the outlook for the future of Afghanistan was already bleak. One senior United Nations official in Kabul with years of Afghan experience was blunt: “It’s become an absolute disaster.” While NATO by early 2011 had largely accepted that there could be no military solution, Western governments were still placing too much emphasis—and funding—on their generals for leadership rather than investing in more imaginative out-of-the-box initiatives and longer-term civilian-led approaches, including talking with the insurgents.

The US-led invasion in October 2001, which was in response to the events of 9/11, helped oust the Taliban but has contributed little to overall security. The American intervention has moved from a limited “war on terrorism” coupled with other agendas, notably counternarcotics, to a full-fledged counterinsurgency. The presence of over 150,000 troops from the United States, Britain, and forty-six other countries as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a situation many Afghans find comparable to the Soviet-Afghan war—a large occupying force, a weak central government, and endless skirmishes and attacks that kill innocent civilians and incite new recruits to the fundamentalist ranks. For a growing number of Afghans and foreign analysts, the Western military presence has proved a failure, with lost opportunities littering the trail of international intervention since the collapse of the Talib regime. Even the killing, by the Americans, of Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was unlikely to bring about much change.

Not unlike their Red Army counterparts during the 1980s, the Americans and their military allies are increasingly perceived by ordinary Afghans as an unwelcome foreign occupation force. Their behavior and lack of cultural awareness often emerge as affronts to Afghan customs and their sense of independence. NATO forces also have been involved in bombing and other military assaults that have inflicted severe civilian casualties. While such incidents may be regarded officially as unfortunate “collateral damage,” Afghans consider them a blatant disregard for human life. This is disheartening for those among the Western troops who genuinely regard their role as one of helping maintain peace and bringing socioeconomic development to a desperately impoverished land.

The growing resentment of Afghans toward the Western presence is not because Afghans necessarily prefer the Taliban and other insurgents, but because they have always resented outsiders, particularly those who insist on imposing themselves. Even more disconcerting, many Afghans no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers. Western policies have largely undermined the recovery process by usurping the traditional humanitarian role through the deployment of military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the deployment of foreign mercenaries and private contractors with little or no understanding of the country. Afghans also legitimately question the purpose of the United States spending one hundred million dollars a day on its military effort given that such funds might be far better spent on recovery itself. If US troops were to pull out tomorrow, what would they have left behind? The Soviets spent nearly a decade fighting their war in Afghanistan. Little tangible remains of their past involvement today.

NATO forces have now occupied Afghanistan longer than the Soviets. In a war with objectives difficult, if not impossible, to define, Western military casualties have been swelling steadily since 2004, when the Taliban began to reemerge as a formidable force. By mid 2011, over twenty-five hundred American, British, French, German, Canadian, Italian, and other soldiers had been killed. More than half the injuries and deaths were not the result of direct combat. The insurgents have been inflicting increasing casualties by roadside bombs, booby traps, and other improvised explosive devices (or IEDs). In contrast, over eighteen thousand Afghans had lost their lives in less than a decade, at least half of them civilian. A further forty thousand, both military and civilian, have been wounded. While NATO analysts argue that current Afghan casualties are “modest” compared with the 1.5 million believed to have died during the Soviet-Afghan war, others point out that the current conflict could have been avoided had the West adopted a more realistic approach to Afghanistan during the early 2000s and not been obsessed by terrorism, narcotics, and other distracting factors—notably the war in Iraq.

The reality is that overall security, particularly in the countryside, is worsening. Former mujahideen whom I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, and who had contacts with the insurgents, apologized for not being able to take me into parts of eastern Afghanistan. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” they told me. Even friends whom I know are involved with the insurgents, but still respect traditional Afghan hospitality, are reluctant to take me through their zones of control. Traveling has become a highly hazardous undertaking. I had felt far safer trekking clandestinely through the mountains during the Soviet era than today.

But Afghanistan’s problems are not just a lack of security. Too much money, combined with expectations too high and unrealistic, has been thrown at Afghanistan, propping up an ineffectual and corrupt regime. The overall economy is highly artificial and largely dependent on international development aid, military expenditure, and narcotics trafficking. In addition to the foreign aid contractors, the bulk of the revenue has gone to a small but powerful privileged elite of Afghans, notably senior government officials, warlords, and businesspeople with the right connections. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s most corrupt country, with graft permeating all levels of the administration, including President Hamid Karzai’s own family, who have benefited overwhelmingly from the recovery process.

Certainly, there are areas where significant progress has been made. These include education, health, freedom of the media, and some highly imaginative employment initiatives based on local entrepreneurship. Impressively, the number of boys and girls attending school has leapt by over 500 percent to seven million—although seven million more still have no access to education. However, militant threats since 2007 against female pupils and teachers have been forcing the closures of hundreds of schools. And while the number of health care facilities has improved dramatically, many rural populations still lack access to even the most rudimentary medical services.

This is not surprising. Although rural Afghanistan has nearly 80 percent of the population, it has been seriously neglected in the recovery process, leading Afghans to wonder who is benefiting from the huge amounts of aid they keep hearing about. The bulk of international funding has remained focused on Kabul and other urban centers. Too much emphasis has been placed on quick fixes that do not necessarily improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, but that play well back in Washington, London, and Bonn.

Although billions of dollars in aid and military support are being given to Afghanistan by the United States and other Western countries, it remains difficult to comprehend the strategy behind either the war or the recovery plan. There appears to be no long-term vision nor any real sustainable commitment beyond the NATO “endgame” of 2014, the deadline set to pull out troops in order to satisfy increasingly dissatisfied electorates back home. Many Afghans, including government ministers, are hedging their bets, making as much money as they can from the system before the game is up. Property purchases by Afghans in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere have shot up since mid-2005. Visa applications in 2011 to leave Afghanistan are the highest since the Soviet-Afghan war.

This panic and profiteering before yet another deluge in Afghan history is familiar to me. As a young foreign correspondent based in Paris, I made my first reporting trip to Afghanistan in October 1979, three months prior to the Soviet invasion. My few weeks in Peshawar, in what was then Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (or NWFP, though in 2010 the Islamabad government changed the name to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where Afghanistan’s new resistance groups were establishing their exile bases, led me to believe that I was witnessing the emergence of a conflict—or a series of conflicts as it later turned out—with profound global implications.

Little did I imagine in 1979, however, that this initial Afghan war would evolve into yet more wars, each distinct, involving a plethora of international players, notably the Soviet Union, United States, Britain, Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and NATO. Nor could I have thought that by 2010 the international community would be mired in a conflict that threatened to become a new Vietnam, not only for the United States but also for NATO.

From 1979 onward, I remained based in Paris but operated out of Peshawar, which had become the principal humanitarian center for refugees and for providing clandestine cross-border relief to Afghanistan. For Western journalists unable to cover the war from the Soviet side—visas were virtually impossible to get—the city became our jumping-off point for reporting inside the country. I covered Afghanistan on a regular basis, visiting the region at least two or three times a year, sometimes for several months. Throughout the Soviet occupation, Peshawar was a tantalizing mix of Casablanca, Shanghai, and Paris spiced up with real or perceived dangers. For many of us, particularly those working in war situations around the world, the Pakistani frontier city became addictive.

Working in Afghanistan was like being a character in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Journeying hundreds of miles by foot, horse, vehicle, and camel, I was handed from one mujahed group to another based on personal contacts and traditional handwritten letters of recommendation. I also trekked with humanitarian caravans operated by the “French doctors” (Médecins sans Frontières and other French medical groups were the first international aid bodies to operate clandestinely inside Afghanistan) and other voluntary relief organizations working among destitute civilian populations across the border. Most of these trips were “illegal” (from the Soviet point of view) and took me through some of the world’s most arduous but also spectacular terrain involving daily sixteen-hour slogs over sixteen-thousand-foot-high snow-covered mountain passes and across scorching, rocky deserts.

When not in Pakistan or Afghanistan, I reported humanitarian and conflict situations in such places as Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique, and Sri Lanka. In steamy jungles and arid deserts, I gained a deep insight into how guerrilla wars are fought and understood that many were proxy conflicts with each superpower supporting its respective side, thus becoming indirect extensions of the Cold War. During the 1980s, the United States and Soviet Union were both supporting rival factions in Somalia and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, both conflicts in which Afghanistan served as a benchmark.

While reporting the Afghan wars, I quickly grasped that every valley, district, province, and region was distinct, with its own peculiar characteristics. One could not assume that what one witnessed in one part of the country was the same as another. It was difficult to talk about “typical” Afghans. All tribal, clan, and ethnic groups were different, so I made a point of traveling with diverse guerrilla factions throughout the southern, eastern, and northern parts of the country. These ranged from turbaned Baluch fighters operating among the desert Chagai Hills in Helmand province to the south to enthusiastic but largely incompetent Pushtun nationalists in the thickly forested Safed Koh range of Nangrahar in the east to long-haired, battle-hardened Tajik mujahideen in the mighty Hindu Kush to the north. I preferred the Tajiks, who seemed better organized, but I also met and traveled with exceptional commanders among the Pushtuns and Hazaras. I also encountered some of the leading figures, such as Ahmed Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Osama bin Laden.

My numerous journeys throughout Afghanistan provided a firsthand understanding of the way Afghanistan’s broad mosaic of resistance fronts operated. It is clear that the Taliban and other insurgents who emerged during the post-2001 period have embraced these same tactics. In fact, many of today’s fighters were trained with American support and earned their combat spurs during the Soviet-Afghan war. By 2009, numerous insurgents were even calling themselves “mujahideen” in an effort to recall the legitimacy of the anti-communist resistance movement. Often, while examining how the Americans, British, and other NATO forces are fighting this latest Afghan conflict, I am reminded of the uncanny resemblance to the anti-Soviet jihad. Coalition efforts to hunt down the guerrillas by “clearing” areas only to find that the insurgents slip back in again once they have left hark back to similar efforts by the Red Army. The advantage of traveling on foot, the only form of transportation available to me for most of my journeys (in some areas, I was able to travel by vehicle), was that I was in daily contact with ordinary Afghans. I met villagers, peasant farmers, guerrillas, teachers, doctors, civil servants, and engineers as well as urban refugees fleeing Soviet-occupied cities. As part of traditional Afghan hospitality, particularly in Pushtun areas that twenty years later became the killing zones for NATO forces, I spent many hours discussing the fighting while drinking tea in makeshift chaikhane (teahouses) along caravan routes or on carpets laid out under mulberry trees. Such constant mingling is the only way to understand this country.

In comparison, the bulk of Western coverage of the post-2001 insurgency has involved a stream of journalists “embedded” with the Coalition forces. Many American and European reporters never have the chance to see the “real” Afghanistan by living and working among Afghans themselves. Such NATO-linked reporting may provide largely sympathetic insights into the lives and fighting capabilities of Western troops emblazoned with Hollywood labels such as “Task Force Mountain Warriors.” Frustratingly, however, this has also led to often one-sided, if not misleading, stories that fail to capture the realities of Afghan civilians caught up in the fighting. Such reporting cannot really gauge the effectiveness of the guerrillas or how they operate.

For a nation traditionally dominated by Pushtuns but riddled with ethnic and tribal division, it was both the Soviet-Afghan war and Islam that helped bring Afghans together as a people. I was always impressed by the sight of Afghans from contrasting parts of the country who had never met before, but who readily knelt together in the direction of Mecca to pray on a mountaintop, the bank of a river, or the roof of a house. Then they would rise, wrap their patous (blankets) over their shoulders, and head off in different directions to continue their struggle against the outside infidels. This unity of cause is a factor that cannot be ignored in the current NATO counterinsurgency.

Understanding the lessons of the past is critical for the Western intervention to have any long-lasting positive impact on Afghanistan. Yet experience has convinced me that whether out of political expedience, arrogance, or plain ignorance, too many Western policy makers continually fail to examine the history of this defiant country. They refuse to learn the lessons from the previous two hundred years, starting with the rise of strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia followed by the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War of 1842. All of this was part of the “Great Game,” as British writer Rudyard Kipling dubbed Britain’s involvement with Afghanistan in its confrontation with tzarist Russia during the nineteenth century. This same game is still being played today, but with a cast of new players.

One cannot help but be overwhelmed by Afghanistan’s past. While Paleolithic humans probably lived in what is now northern Afghanistan fifty thousand years ago, the country has provided a backdrop to two of the world’s great religions, Gandhara Buddhism and Islam. Historically, Afghanistan has repelled, absorbed, or simply let pass through all those who have invaded, rampaged, or marched across its borders. As many as twenty-five ruling dynasties have swept through Afghanistan over the past three millennia. Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur all had preceded the Russians in attempting to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, mostly with disastrous results. Few if any of these invaders stayed—albeit some left behind traces of their passage. Some blue-eyed, fair-haired Nuristanis claim descent from Alexander’s soldiers, while the Mongolian-featured Hazaras (hazara means “one thousand”) suggest ancestry among the hordes of Genghis Khan, who is reputed to have left behind detachments of troops “one thousand strong” to protect the far-flung southern outposts of his empire.

Throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British military strategists considered Afghanistan a buffer zone against tzarist Russia’s forward thrust, with various isolated Afghan fortresses such as Herat, Kandahar, and Ghazni serving as the “key” to India. They also perceived insurgent Afghan tribes, who often led raids deep into India, as a threat. As part of the “Great Game,” Britain sought to prevent invasion through intrigue, sorties by intelligence officers, diplomacy, bribery, assassination, and direct military intervention. The Russians did the same. The two sides confronted each other with often missionary zeal—at one point coming close to outright war over a small village near the Oxus—but also through the deployment of sometimes flamboyant and gentlemanly adventurers, who, dressing like Afghans and speaking the language, would disappear into the interior for months if not years on end. More than a few lost their lives along the way.

While some of these gung-ho intelligence officers had a close understanding of what to do—or not to do—in Afghanistan, the British government clearly did not. British armies twice invaded Kabul within the space of forty years in a bid to control unruly tribesmen and to shore up the western approaches to India. The first British invasion ended in a spectacular defeat in 1842 involving the near annihilation of a sixteen-thousand-strong military expeditionary force; the second proved a fruitless intervention. In the end, the British managed to impose in 1893 a unilateral demarcation between Afghanistan and India known as the Durand Line, which today still constitutes the de facto Afghan-Pakistani border. (It has yet to be recognized by the Kabul government.) But the British never controlled Afghanistan.

While Britain fought a third (but short) war in 1919, most colonial strategists had realized by then that there was no point in trying to seek military solutions in this rugged, mountainous country. This was a lesson the Soviets failed to heed in December 1979. It is also one that the US-led Coalition forces have ignored more than two decades later. Perhaps the West should have invested more astutely in a few flamboyant and adventurous agents willing to embed themselves into the Afghan heartland rather than relying on satellite links, remote-controlled drones, or heavily armed sorties, which provide little insight into the soul of this hard and insolent land.

When the United States started bombing in October 2001, in retaliation for 9/11, the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that Afghanistan could not be treated simply as part of a jingoistic propaganda show of black versus white, good versus evil. As part of its “war on terror,” the administration initially invaded Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda for their suspected role in the attacks on American soil. But it seemed unaware that it was reentering a civil war that the United States had largely abandoned shortly after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The diverse conflicts that followed had left an indelible and painful stain on the country and its people. It wasn’t long before the Americans were treated with suspicion over their motives. For many Afghans, the post-9/11 war was simply another episode in a country whose people were tired of invasions, betrayal, and international grandstanding.

At the same time, it was hard to fathom the full intent of renewed American military interest in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda operatives could be more easily ousted through good intelligence than bombings. Were there justifiable strategic or economic interests, such as mineral resources, that needed to be defended? Had the West determined that peace in Afghanistan is the key to regional security with regard to Central Asia, the Gulf, Pakistan, Iran, India, and China? Could the world afford to ignore Afghanistan?

Whatever the reasons, history has shown repeatedly that there are no military solutions in Afghanistan. The Great Game of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has become the Great Pretend Game of the twenty-first. It is a pretense to believe that military intervention, even with responsibility now being shunted onto the Afghan security forces, can bring about peace after more than three decades of war. There is broad skepticism that the West will be able to train a capable security force of army and police by 2014, as NATO has promised. Nor is simply pouring in more aid going to make a difference. The Taliban and other insurgents are not succeeding out of military prowess, or because they are popular, but rather because the vast bulk of the international community has failed to understand how to deal with Afghans in an effective and pragmatic way.

Nor does the West understand the nature of the Taliban and their insurgent allies, including ongoing support by elements of Pakistani’s military Interservices Intelligence Agency (or ISI). While groups close to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Islamic movement, may regard themselves as Taliban, the current anti-Western insurgency is really a loose formation of guerrilla fronts, all with their own motivation. These include groups such as “neo-Taliban,” the Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami, Pakistani Taliban, angry local tribesmen, and various so-called foreign Taliban sympathetic to al Qaeda or its affiliates. Even such an influential figure as Mullah Abdul Qayuum Zakir, a former Guantanamo detainee who by 2010 was believed to be the day-to-day head of the Taliban, can only speak for the Helmand and Kandahar region and a few other scattered allies. Nevertheless, Western media reports repeatedly refer to the Taliban as a homogeneous movement even though no single faction can claim to speak for the insurgency as a whole.

Ultimately, what will determine the credibility of the Western-backed recovery effort—and the government it supports—is not whether the Taliban is vanquished militarily but whether justice is ever rendered in Afghanistan. Justice remains a primordial issue for ordinary Afghans traumatized by so many years of war and abused by so many still in positions of power and influence. The communists were not the only ones to commit crimes against humanity. From the mujahideen in the 1980s to the Americans and Taliban today, human rights abuses and crimes against humanity continue to be carried out with impunity.

Building a just nation is not simply an imperative of the West. It is an obligation for Afghans themselves. Weaving a united country out of the twisted patchwork of self-interest, corruption, and greed that Afghanistan has become will not be easy. However, it is only when those who have regularly acted with impunity are brought to justice, including the perpetuators of the IAM medical team’s executions, that Afghanistan can consider itself on the road to recovery.

The journey of Tom and Dan through the decades of war in Afghanistan ended in their deaths in the mountains of Badakshan bordering Nuristan. My journey continues, but it is increasingly marked by a sense of despair at the senseless loss of dedicated aid workers, Afghan civilians, and young Western soldiers. The ongoing insistence of the West that somehow a combination of military force with sufficient international recovery support over the next few years will provide the solution appears far-fetched. Occupying Afghanistan with foreign soldiers has never been and never will be the solution. Nor will simply throwing more money at the problem, particularly if it continues to involve wasteful (if not corrupt) foreign contractors with no real interest in the country.

In the end, as Masood Khalili maintains, it will be up to Afghans themselves to find their way. We cannot do it for them. But this may take another three decades, if not longer. The international community needs to make the effort to look beyond the short term with initiatives that respond to real Afghan needs, not those of the West. This includes bringing pressure on regional players such as Pakistan and Iran to halt their conniving, which only subverts Afghanistan’s efforts at establishing renewed stability. If not, we will only entrench even further the current inability of Afghans to find peace among themselves.

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© Chelsea Green

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