Originally posted December 2009
It has been eight years since the US-led invasion into Afghanistan that helped bring down the Taliban in late 2001. From my vantage point in Kandahar, the Taliban now seem stronger than ever, having added improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombing to their repertoire. There has been much contemplation, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, about what the role of the United States is in Afghanistan. Many Afghans wonder what the US-led invasion has brought them, and if the US military is really in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people. US General Stanley McChrystal has declared that the protection of Afghan civilians is more important than the number of Taliban captured. But what does this all mean for ordinary Afghans who have had a mixed experience over the past eight years?
I would like to add to the ongoing debate on the situation in Afghanistan from my own personal experience of working as an interpreter for the US Army for five years, starting at the very impressionable age of 17. In the first years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, I tried to show off to my friends during patrols in Kandahar City that I was an interpreter with the US Army — the liberators of Afghanistan. This seems like a long time ago. I would no longer act this way, not only for the sake of my security, but also because I have changed my mind about the role of the US Army in Afghanistan.
I know that there are problems with every organization, and that even bad organizations can have good people in them. I have had a good experience with the US Army, which has impressed me with the discipline among officers (high- and low-ranking alike) and the good behavior toward interpreters. Other armies, such as the British or Dutch, for example, at least from my experience, do not even treat their interpreters well. In an assignment in Helmand, I found out that many British soldiers held all Afghans in contempt, and said things such as, “These [interpreters] are also F… Afghans.” In an assignment with the Dutch Special Forces, we were not told where we would work until we arrived. Worse, initially we were not allowed to drink water without permission, despite scorching temperatures. After some arguments, we were allowed eight bottles of water a day. My personal belongings, especially notebooks in which I recorded poetry, were searched. After these two experiences, I decided that the only good military were the Americans. But while they treated us interpreters well, their behavior toward the Afghan people was deplorable. This is the reason why ultimately I grew ashamed to work with the US military and decided to leave.
While what I am presenting here is only anecdotal evidence, there are enough of these stories to suggest a serious pattern that may explain why the US military is no longer seen in a good light.
First, there is an issue about whether or not international military forces provide security to the local population or endanger their lives. The practice of Forward Operation Bases (FOBs) and other military bases to occupy private land in the vicinity of villages points to the latter. Areas outside the FOBs — often neither clearly marked nor secured — can be used as practice grounds for weapons testing. Sometimes these weapons hit the ground without exploding and are carelessly left behind. Unfortunately, it is often children, sent out in search of wood or water, or to take care of animals, or who are simply curious about these foreigners, who stumble upon these unexploded devices. Many children either have lost body parts or their lives this way. During nighttime operations, the use of flares to help light an area has resulted in setting hay and wheat harvests on fire, destroying entire crops. It often takes villages days, if not weeks, to file their complaint and receive a meager compensation.
Second, there is the indirect negative impact on the quality of life of villagers. In an area that already suffered from drought and water shortage, US soldiers, while trying to level a training area, decided to dump dirt inside a hole that belonged to local irrigation systems (karez). They would not listen to their Afghan interpreter telling them the karez was providing crucial water supply to surrounding villages. When villagers started to notice that the flow of water to their houses was not only decreasing but also polluted, they went to inspect and found the damage. When they tried to complain to the FOB, villagers were left waiting outside the entry gate for several hours until they were informed they should take their complaint to the governor of the province. This went on for days, weeks, and months — all the while the villages lacked clean drinking water, resulting in many children getting sick.
Third, there is the mistreatment of prisoners. One day, a sergeant of the Afghan National Army (ANA) told me that nobody wanted to guard the detainees at the US Special Forces compound because of a practice to punish those who would not confess with a very terrible kind of “music.” The ANA soldiers felt they would lose their minds listening to this music. I had never heard of anything like this — for me, music has only been a pleasant experience. As my experience until then with the US Army had been positive, I thought the ANA sergeant must be joking, so I tried to find a pretense to enter the US Special Forces Base to see for myself. When I came close to where the detainees were held, I indeed heard the music, and even after only a few minutes I could not stand it myself. I was horrified, wondering how people I previously thought very highly of could do something so bad. Some time later, an international friend of mine told me that there was something called “noise torture” or sensory deprivation, which was prohibited under international humanitarian law. I had heard of neither.
After these experiences I decided that I no longer wanted to work with the US Army, or any army for that matter. I once believed that the Americans and other internationals had come to help Afghanistan. Now I am no longer sure. I want to believe the words of General McChrystal that they want to protect the Afghan people, but the track record of the international military so far is so very poor that I am not sure many Afghan villagers who have suffered under past US (or other) military operations are willing to believe there will be a change of strategy. I am not surprised that many villagers have joined the Taliban. I would never do such a thing, but so far I have not had to make the same hard choice that some villagers have. I hope that I will never have to make such a choice, but if forced to, that I will be able to go somewhere else.