Ghor Province, Afghanistan – On a per capita basis, Afghanistan is becoming more dangerous for British and American troops than Iraq ever was. For those who fought in places like Anbar, Basra, Baghdad, Diyala, and Nineveh, that’s saying a whole lot. On a per capita basis, there are strong indications that Afghanistan will prove more deadly than Iraq during 2006–07. One can only imagine how many days and nights Sec. Robert Gates and his advisers must have agonized over troop levels here. On one hand, we have a fraction of the troops we need, but on the other, increasing troop levels increases hostility toward us. Secretary Gates has made it clear to me that his biggest concern is that we will lose the goodwill of the people and they will turn against us. This happens to be my own biggest concern. The agony is in knowing we need more medicine and the medicine can be highly toxic here. Many people have complained that the new restrictions on air strikes will hurt us, but from my boots, General McChrystal (the new boss here) has fulfilled the intent of his boss, and that decision, though tough, was wise; if we lose the widespread assent of the Afghan people, it’s over but for the bleeding.
Today our chances are not good, but there remains a real chance to succeed. Those chances improve dramatically when we take a no-kidding inventory of the situation and refine our goals to align with reality.
While war ravages neighboring narco-provinces, sluggish progress is being made in others. Here in Ghor Province, the Japanese, Lithuanians, and a host of other nations have teamed up in this remote area of Afghanistan.
So one morning Lithuanians loaded up a patrol and headed out west, in the direction of Herat, and took along four Japanese who are involved in the oversight of spending $2 billion of Japanese money in Afghanistan. Both the Japanese and the Lithuanians exude a sense of purpose; everybody seems to wish they were elsewhere, but the mission is important.
We started from the Chaghcharan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT); the first step in revealing truth with no mercy about Afghanistan is to call things what they are. There is not a single “Reconstruction” team in Afghanistan. The place was never constructed. Just why the faulty name “reconstruction” was picked is unclear, though it would be fair to guess that political expedience was the culprit. Peoples of developed nations might be more likely to “re” build something they are made to believe they destroyed. The governments can call these PRTs, but henceforth this writer will call them Provincial Construction Teams, or PCTs.
So we loaded up the trucks and headed out west from the PCT. Some readers might recall the last dispatch, wherein we accidentally found Lizard Hole (Karbasha) Village up in the mountains while searching for Kuchi nomads. Today we were heading to Sangow Bar Village. The satellite imagery shows no paved roads because the closest, the “ring road,” is about 175 miles away if you are flying, and much farther if you are on a camel or driving. And so it might seem that we are in the middle of nowhere because by most developed standards we are. If visitors from other galaxies land in this largely Stone Age place, they can expect to be greeted by small-arms fire and RPGs. Though various star-watching peoples are known to have lived here for many thousands of years (including Buddhists, Jews, and invaders of all sorts), there were not a lot of road builders.
It’s worth a moment of silent reflection to look at the image above and ponder this: Though the area appears extremely desolate and remote, there is hardly a fold or wrinkle in the land where you can walk or drive that you will not run across someone. There are areas where few people venture, such as the “Desert of Death” down south, but it seems that as a rule Afghans diffuse into the available volume as if they have a partial pressure. Independence is a key personality trait; if they had a meter of road for every meter of wall they build, the major communities likely all would be connected. Out in the boonies, just when you think you are at the end of the world and nobody could possibly be there, you find a shepherd, or some bearded guy cutting grass with a daas (a long crescent-shaped knife) for his livestock. The people pick over this arid land like ants. Afghan life in the hinterlands is like an eternal camping trip. By their calendar, the year is 1387, but it seems like it could be thousands of years earlier. Young American soldiers who served in Iraq learned about our own country. Often, soldiers would say things like, “Why can’t the Iraqis just get along? They keep themselves down, dragging fights around forever. They fight over stupidness!” Nobody had to fill in the blanks. The reflection was healthy for us.
Along the dusty road to Sangow Bar Village, we passed by shepherds whose livestock shaves the land of nearly every nibble of green.
We rolled into the village of Sangow Bar and were greeted with quiet acceptance. Ghor Province is touted as being poppy-free, and indeed it’s nothing like the rolling hills of Urozgan, the fields of Kandahar, or the mega-producers in Helmand, where I’ve seen miles of poppy growing along the roads and just near bases. This tiny patch, about the size of a walk-in closet, was for personal use.
The sluice gate near the center of the image controls water to the generator downhill.