~This essay previously appeared in Mosaic Art and Literary Journal (2014).
Editor’s note: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
Chenartu So Near
In that it was barely governed, lay a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, and had experienced a visit from the Governor's militia, Chenartu had more in common with Nesh, down in Kandahar Province, than it did with Chora, the district to which it belonged. Although the district capital sat only 30 kilometers to the north, the track between the two towns had become so rough by 2004 that travelers found it easier to drive into Tarin Kot and go out the other spoke. Five hours total. The District Chief made the journey once; he was in no hurry to do it again. Nor did the Americans get around to it much. Heading out of Forward Operating Base Ripley, near Tarin Kot, the one destination of military interest on the road was an outpost named Anaconda up in Khas Uruzgan District, five hours farther east. Usually they went by helicopter.
No wonder Uruzgan's governor kept asking Kabul to make Chenartu a separate district. He talked as though this were a done deal, with a new district government up and running. The little we knew of the area came from him. He labeled all his enemies, and the man had more than his share, as Taliban. Case in point, his militia would dump bodies at the police gazebo in Tarin Kot's traffic circle. Taliban, he claimed. From Chenartu, of course.
On one thing everybody agreed: the place needed attention. But the infantry battalion headquartered at Ripley was stretched thin, and its commander kept declining the Governor's pleas for joint operations – in Chenartu, or anywhere in Uruzgan. Only Special Forces operated with his militia; they kept to the western end of the province.
If any Americans were going to fill the vacuum, they would have to come, indeed should come, from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Ripley. PRTs were designed to spur development, enhance security, and extend the reach of the national government. The one at Ripley had the means – a dozen armored Humvees, half of which were serviceable – and it had the manpower: commander and support staff, a four-man civil affairs team, some 20 locally-recruited guards for the team when it traveled, some 20 more to watch over the new PRT site then under construction, a handful of Afghan interpreters, three military policemen, a rifle company from the Iowa National Guard, a U.S. aid representative we'll call Kerry, and a State Department employee on his last foreign assignment: me.
So in the latter part of October, after the Afghan presidential election and before our own, an advance party from the Guard drove up for a recon. Strange, they reported, though they couldn’t say why. It just didn’t feel right. Originally we were going to stay a while; you needed some downtime to get a sense of a place. They recommended we start with a day trip. We could overnight when we knew the area better.
The commander gave the go-ahead, scheduling it for two days after Kerry and the civil affairs team returned from Chora's capital and one day after our military-police advisors and I – along with the infantry's Bravo Company – returned from Nesh. We’d start early, about daybreak. Civil affairs needed that; they had a long drive ahead of them. They were going to accompany us as far as Chenartu, and then their contingent, six vehicles in all, including their protective escort led by Farouk, a village headman from the far side of Tarin Kot, would continue on to Anaconda to wrap up projects started by their predecessors. A smaller element would take Kerry and me back to Ripley.
I knew the drill. Silence the alarm, stumble out of sleeping bag, slip into trousers, boots, and jacket, shuffle off to the piss tubes. Out with the bad, in with that crisp, bracing, upcountry air. You could see it on the exhale, and ice had crusted below the cistern used for washing. To the east an orange glow backlit the hills where Chenartu waited, those low, raggedy hills as black as silhouettes. The Halloween colors got me thinking, for a second, how we went around like trick-or-treaters, fierce on the outside, kids at heart. It didn’t hold. Already the colors were changing; yellow streaks heralded the sun. A deeper, faster shade of yellow emerged from the dust at my feet. In the pre-dawn you could smell it, the decomposition, recomposition. You could practically hear it. With the air conditioners off until spring, the generators and tent heaters reduced to background noise, inside the base was almost as quiet as out. Afghanistan: it never got old.
I first came to the country in 1970. Peace Corps. Four years out of college and anxious for a fresh start, I taught English in a village school and then moved into rural development. Now, as I hauled pack, helmet, and body armor out to the Humvees, my mind flashed onto friends from those days, their ages comparable to these new volunteers, young men stomping their feet and rubbing their hands against the cold. Few of us were immune, fewer still would admit, to a righteousness born of hardships endured for a cause. I missed my old buds, the idealism, the cynicism, the great unknown we faced, and I wondered who among them would have liked to come along for the ride. Well, who wouldn’t? Oh, a few might have declined – the militarization and all. Or they’d be torn. I understood.
The prickle of cigarette smoke and the click-clack of an ammo belt locking into a machine gun brought me to. This was not the occasion for fantasies, or memories. That would come soon enough: the future in retrospect. Fate had given one of us a second chance, a third, really, and in two weeks even I would fly away, never to see Afghanistan again.
I didn’t realize this would be my last trip to the districts. I was angling – successfully, I thought – for the infantry to take me to western Uruzgan. So I set out for Chenartu with a penultimate, not final, intensity. Better that way. The last time, when you know it, can get emotional. Besides, this wasn’t about me, then or now. I was merely the medium, the channeler.
For most of the way we followed the main branch of the Tarin Kot River on its descent from Khas Uruzgan. The flow increased as we proceeded upstream of the irrigation channels that made the valley floor almost as lush as it was narrow. Our route took us past isolated family compounds, compounds in clusters, small villages, and a large one. Probably because of the hour, time of year (the crops were in), and our unanticipated appearance, we observed more women than men. They swept packed-earth patios, sorted grains, or stood around chatting or silently watching the convoy approach, the kids at their feet rather than off playing or tending flocks, as was often the case. Those men who were out squatted with backs against walls, shawls around their shoulders to ward off the chill. They faced the road, us as we crossed, and the sun that reappeared when the dust from our passage settled.
Everything above the water line showed brown and gray, the usual sand, dirt, dust, and rock. For many a mile we saw no vehicles or animals, just goat and sheep paths. The farther we drove, the more the topography forced the road from the river and the buildings near it. Always climbing, we passed through a stony desert typical of Uruzgan until we rejoined the river plain at Chenartu.
Chenartu seemed different, all right. It had a provisional, highland feel. Smaller even than Nesh, though not as bad off, it was a village, not a town. A string of shops ran for a few hundred meters and through a dogleg in the road. No side streets, no traffic. Everything adobe. Almost everything, the one exception being a concrete schoolhouse, door locked, nobody inside. Closed for Ramazan, we supposed. The month of fasting had begun. Only the multiplier effect gave Chenartu any importance in the grand scheme of things – Afghanistan had thousands of settlements like this where nobody, not even Afghans, went unless they were local.
We cruised the length of the village, retraced our route through the dogleg, and stopped. See and be seen. Engines off. Everybody but drivers and gunners got out. Pedestrians and even animals – dogs, donkeys, mules – turned our way and then froze, as if in a game of red light. Shopkeepers stepped out of their stalls for a closer look. A hush settled in. From out of that stasis, from a tea house, actually, a loose-jointed, youngish man with a shiny black turban and a shaggy goatee sauntered forward and introduced himself as police chief, Mahmad Nasim the name. He was unarmed, in contrast to several idlers who leaned against the walls between shops on the sunny side. Their number was growing. On the shady side, too. Like them, Nasim was amused as well as bemused by our presence. We said we wanted to talk with him and the “District Chief.” He dispatched one of his posse for the latter, who lived outside town. Lacking offices, the two worked out of the tea house or their homes.
Nasim led Kerry, our interpreter Ismatullah, two military policemen, a civil affairs sergeant, and me to a hill behind the bazaar. The open setting gave us conversational privacy: boys and men with AK-47s stood between us and the village at a distance from which they could not hear. We sat on a low berm beside a shallow trench. A few of our soldiers and a few of Farouk’s stood guard.
The rest of our troop stayed with the vehicles, hidden from view by the shops. I detected the high notes the civil-affairs interpreter reached when excited. I couldn't make out the words. He was speaking English, apparently. He laughed. The guys with him joined in. You what? resonated in a southern accent. That'd be the team sergeant. Tell me you didn't!
No lie. That was the interpreter, still laughing. Everybody called him Doc. A lab tech in western Uruzgan during the time of the Taliban, he'd worked for Americans – first Special Forces and now on his third civil affairs team – since 2001.
Ismatullah was more subdued. A shawl draped over the uniform the PRT issued him suggested a foot in both worlds, a hesitation or ambivalence. Out of Kandahar and a distant relation of the Governor, he was still getting used to us. Sometimes he had to think fast while talking low and slow. Other times he had to talk fast without thinking unless he remembered it for later. Anyway, he didn’t seem as callow as he once did. Time on the job had given him either confidence or an increased fatalism. His English was better, his beard thicker. He had put on weight. It compressed his eyes into those of a common gunman. He wore a wedding band. I hadn’t noticed that before.
A military policeman and I reached for our notepads. The civil affairs sergeant followed suit. His team had been in country less than a month, and he couldn’t keep from grinning. Although their focus for this trip was Khas Uruzgan, he liked having something to do. Kerry, on the other hand, never wrote anything down until we got to specifics, and getting there would take a while. He had other things on his mind. A trip home, for starters.
The “District Chief” soon arrived, armed only with a Thuraya satellite phone like the one I myself carried. He too was young for his position, though his beard was fully formed and crowsfeet appeared when he smiled. His name was Malim Faez Mahmad, malim an honorific that meant teacher. The two chiefs were cousins, a term defined more loosely than in our own culture.
They said everybody in Chenartu belonged to the Populzai tribe, same as the Governor and same as the presidential candidate all of them voted for – Hamid Karzai. The chiefs reported directly to the Governor. He knew them from the anti-Soviet jihad, which made them older than they looked. They became policemen after the communists fell from power. When the Taliban took over, these two reinvented themselves as shopkeepers. They claimed to have fought alongside Karzai when he slipped into Uruzgan to drive out the Taliban in the fall of 2001. Somewhere in there Faez Mahmad had taught school, and he served as a district chief in western Uruzgan until the Governor transferred him back to his home district.
By local standards the cousins were upper, i.e., ruling, class. Although they wore the standard tunic over baggy trousers, with vest and turban, Faez Mahmad’s a dapper charcoal with pinstripes, their clothes were cleaner, or newer, than their neighbors’. Unlike the lower classes, they showed us no deference. In the manner of a younger brother who knew his turn would come, Nasim let Faez Mahmad do most of the talking. Like many Afghans, the Governor a prominent exception, the cousins spoke softly and with an upward crinkle around their mouths and eyes that suggested either irony or a readiness to banter. Maybe they were pulling our legs, and in this country more than most there was always another layer to the onion, another connection you wouldn’t have guessed, but they came off as straightforward – plain folk with nothing but the facts and assessments I asked for.
The Governor provided a food ration but no salary for the district militia. Their weapons were taken from the Taliban. They had no uniforms. The Governor had given them three vehicles, one of which still ran. Faez Mahmad kept a radio, captured from the Taliban, at home for communication with the Governor. The Taliban got his other Thuraya when they attacked his house a few weeks back. This one – he patted it – never left his hand. They held prisoners in a market stall until the Governor ordered their release or transport to Tarin Kot; none were currently in custody. Although the cousins had little to offer recruits in the way of remuneration or equipment, they had sent their ten best for a week’s training at the American facility in Kandahar, and they had managed to increase the force from thirty to a hundred men. They said they had to: the Taliban were increasing theirs.
Chenartu lay close by the mountains separating Uruzgan from Zabul Province to the south. According to the cousins, that was where the Taliban came from, including the ones who attacked Faez Mahmad’s house and wounded his brother. Two were killed. The others made off with the Thuraya and two prisoners they later executed. A counterattack launched with the Governor's blessing produced the bodies I'd seen at the traffic circle in Tarin Kot.
The Taliban were holed up in a valley between the village and the mountains. It looked green, greener than Chenartu. That might have been an illusion – the sun didn’t reach into its depths from where we sat. The valley was a five-hour walk, Faez Mahmad said, and as with Chora, you couldn’t drive there from here. You had to go into Tarin Kot, take the road toward Kandahar and then turn east on a track parallel to the one we followed that morning. Our Guardsmen had raced down that track in response to a Taliban ambush on election day. Bravo Company once conducted an air assault into the valley, hoping to catch the bad guys napping. Not a shot was fired. Instead of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, they found plowshares.
The cousins said the Governor never visited unless you counted the time he and the provincial police chief drove through en route to Khas Uruzgan, and Americans had stopped to talk only once. That happened last year, though nothing came of it, Nasim complained. We could learn more from the district council that met every month but which would assemble on request if we made one. Chenartu needed schools, school supplies, better teachers, roads, irrigation, a clinic (it had none), identity cards for the police, and a building for the new district government. Faez Mahmad said he’d seen a letter in the Governor’s office from the Ministry of Interior approving Chenartu’s status as a district. He offered to show us around.
Kerry frowned, and a Guardsman who recently joined the conversation shook his head.
Next time, I demurred. Once the main force left, and that would be soon, the remaining soldiers didn’t want to linger.
Around town, our host clarified. His arm swept toward the bazaar. A gathering crowd inched toward us. And nearby, he added.
I grimaced to show we wanted to but just couldn’t.
He smiled. This was awkward. If not for Ramazan, we’d be sipping tea.
We mean it, I insisted. These guys may have been hard men. They might have cheated, lied, and stolen if you gave them half a chance. It didn’t matter. They represented Chenartu, and their militia was all that stood between the town and the Taliban. They were desperate for a sign that somebody, some organization beyond the district’s boundaries, cared.
We cared, just not that much, and I hope it showed. We might finance a project here and there but we weren’t going to become anybody’s guardian angel, steadfast and true, a deus ex machina always there when needed. America as well as Afghanistan would tire of the effort. We were temps. Placeholders. For that reason Afghan counterparts formed an integral part of PRTs. In theory. In fact, the Ministry of Interior sent us a police colonel from its headquarters the day I left Kabul. That was months ago. He’d yet to arrive. Rumor had him in Kandahar. The year before I did a similar stint in Jalalabad. Like here, all the PRT Afghans were either interpreters or guards. None worked for their government.
One sign of progress: the national army had recently established beachheads at Ripley and at our base in western Uruzgan. They had almost no interaction with the PRT, however. Nor did they operate on their own, or with local officials. Everything they did was with their American advisors and our infantry.
To whom would we pass the baton? The Governor, a presidential appointee, was known as a thug and a crook. The provincial cabinet, which he appointed, had no budget, the province no tax base, and the pittance the central government allocated went no further than the Governor, his militia, and the police. The national cabinet stayed away. As did the bureaucracy. And our embassy. Whatever funding State and USAID could tap into was already accounted for. As for new money, AID was waiting on a supplemental. Washington stuff. They told me the same thing in Jalalabad. Our military filled the breach.
Last month when Kerry and I traveled to Anaconda, a breeze because we went by helicopter, we nominated the mountainous part of the road between Chenartu and Khas Uruzgan for improvement. That leg was reputedly the most dangerous, and that was where civil affairs and the military police were headed. Doc, Farouk, and his merry band were accompanying, Doc chipper and chattering, Farouk’s feral eyes taking it all in, pleased to be doing what he did best. The Afghans rode in rented pickups, the Americans in armored Humvees.
Neither Kerry nor I saw much point in tagging along. Our colleagues had worked with Anaconda's Alpha Company in Chora; all were plenty competent. Also, Kerry had project recommendations to write up before leaving for Kabul and a visit with his family in Indonesia. Surfing first took him to the islands. Then he met a townie. Now they had a son.
It was a good time for a break, since we couldn’t commit to anything. Kerry gave me his proxy as long as any recommendations I forwarded were small. I was hoping to take Faez Mahmad up on his offer to show us around – tomorrow, even – if I could talk the PRT commander into releasing the Iowans again so soon.
The cousins walked us to the street, Kerry and I assured them the PRT wouldn’t remain strangers, close-in bystanders gawked to hear my canned Pashtu farewells, and the civil affairs convoy rumbled off into the dogleg and beyond.
Our detachment was traveling light – two Humvee gunships and five Guardsmen, two of whom were driving. Because Kerry and I rode in separate vehicles, we wouldn’t get to catch up with each other like we did on longer trips. Meetings filled our days in Tarin Kot and Ripley, and in the evenings I drafted reports while he watched DVDs on his laptop. For all our differences, we got along fine. I was just in more of a hurry. I had less time. That was a fact. It was also my nature. Standard practice, he carried an AK; Ismatullah and I went unarmed.
Nobody mentioned our minimal force. There’d been no incidents on this part of the road, and we had driven it that morning. By the afternoon kids old enough to walk had parted from their moms, and men outnumbered the women. Unlike more-frequented districts where children were accustomed to soldiers tossing out candy and giving the high sign, few ran out to greet us. Some waved but only if we initiated it. The older the kid, the less likely he’d respond. Most men in their twenties simply stared. Men whose beards had turned white waved back, though barely, as if they had forgotten how or didn’t really want to but couldn’t suppress the motion.
Going back on the same road allowed us to see things twice. This time I looked less to the front and more to the side. The route after we dropped down from the desert must have been the greenest in all Uruzgan. A trail appeared high above the far bank of the river, the terrain there mostly shale and stone. Occasional breaks in the escarpment accommodated solitary compounds and a tree or two. Apart from the dust we unsettled, the air was clear, the sky so blue I could imagine the black expanse behind it, the ridgelines sharp and two-dimensional. Altitude and season made that air brisk on the way up and then, warmed by the sun, comfortable on the ride back. Corncobs laid out to dry painted rooftops in the largest village yellow, and down by the riverside women did laundry. When no men were around, they too stared.
Coming out of a curve, we had to brake hard for a nomad caravan that took up the entire road. In that section it was carved out of a hillside, and the shoulder fell off steeply though not far – maybe 30 feet – on the river side. Plastic jerrycans used for water but now empty jounced on the camels’ backs. Disturbed perhaps by the scent of foreigners, the beasts snorted as they lumbered ahead. Donkeys kept pace, and the dogs didn’t bother us. The women added color – red and purple mostly with some green and blue. The men dressed in somber tones. They nodded, quickly looking away, and plodded along with their hands behind their backs.
I asked Ismatullah where they wintered.
He wasn't sure.
Kandahar, I guessed. They were coming from Khas Uruzgan.
I saw them as provincial flies on the wall and wanted to stick around to talk, but the soldiers were tired and concerned about security, all the more because they couldn’t raise anybody on the radio. Our gunners studied the slopes above us, the boulders, gullies, and bushes that would have already passed into oblivion had we not stopped. Their eyes swept forward, where the road disappeared around a bend. Anybody hereabouts with an interest in these things could assume we’d return the way we came, but he wouldn’t know when.
We nudged our way through.
No Americans except a few Special Forces and the like came to Uruzgan until earlier that year. Kerry was the first and only foreign aid worker. Although the UN leased a compound in Tarin Kot, it forbade expatriate staff from spending the night. Too risky. They could have stayed at our bases, but the donors didn’t want to sully their image. So they tried from afar, paying local contractors to carry out projects. Naturally they didn't put much into a province where they couldn't document the results necessary to make a case for replenishment. Their absence showed. Economically, the people of Uruzgan must have been better off during the Taliban, before the drought deepened and blight hit the opium crop. Security had been better then as well. In those days nobody messed with the status quo.
Ismatullah didn't have much to say about it. He had been in Pakistan at the time, a teenager. I couldn't get him to say much about anything. The fast might have factored into that. Hanging out with Americans could mess with a young man’s head, even though we tried not to eat or drink in sight of those who refrained. A more fundamental restraint: he just didn't know the area. And he might have been feeling vulnerable as the only one of us without an armored vest. The PRT had none to spare for the locals it hired. The one exception was Doc, who had acquired his from Special Forces. This was the first the two interpreters had traveled together, and so Ismatullah might not have been aware of Doc's before today. The long tails from the latter’s headdress (you couldn't call that a turban) partially hid it, as did the dust that coated everything. Plus, he was usually talking, which drew attention to his face. If you didn't know about the vest, you'd look again, however, because you knew he was small-boned. Even the weights he lifted at Ripley would never give him a chest as developed as that.
As the road looped over a low rise, I recognized the grassy slope leading up to an almond grove that served as a voting site on election day. All the sites were outdoors. Rain was never a concern. The lack of it was. We dipped into a ravine near the municipal dump the PRT had started and then climbed to Tarin Kot’s eastern edge. Pedestrians – overbright eyes, out-of-sync motions – reminded me of the town I grew up in. After a while you realized nothing was going to change in a way you’d notice and by the time you did you’d be old.
A policeman waved us through the traffic circle, body-free for more than a week. Peeling off, we caught sight of the gates of Ripley about a kilometer ahead. Sheep and goats bleated from a roadside lot. Hundreds of them. It must have been market day. Men parted the flocks, appraising. We approached the turnoff for Kandahar, easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it, but this time a car was coming in fast from the south. Our gunner and his gun rotated. The car slowed.
Ripley loomed like a crude castle from a rise at the end of the road. A shantytown inhabited by immigrant laborers and PRT construction guards lay outside the concertina wire in the direction of our future home, distinguishable by nearly-finished watchtowers at the four corners. When done, the PRT would no longer co-locate with the infantry. We'd be neighbors.
Afghan guards stepped back, American soldiers beckoned, and before we knew it we were ankle-deep in the moondust that blanketed Ripley. You got used to it, like Alaskans with snow. All the gravel the PRT purchased went to the new site.
At the operations center we learned the main part of the convoy turned around a little past Chenartu when it lost radio contact with the PRT, the infantry at Anaconda as well as Ripley, and our two vehicles. Understandably, they didn’t want to cover that mountainous stretch without radio coverage. Had we known, we would have waited. The PRT didn’t learn of the abort until the convoy got back in radio range.
On the way to the piss tubes I ran into an infantry captain who worked with me during the election. He looked glum, his smile unconvincing. He said unknown assailants gunned down the election coordinator for Khas Uruzgan and his two minor sons as they were getting out of a car in the district capital. The coordinator died on the spot. The battalion, which had no helicopters of its own, got one from Kandahar to fly his sons to the trauma center at Ripley. I remembered the coordinator well. The captain there had a hard time persuading him to go out and do his job. Now I saw why.
Not long after we spoke, a mine struck the civil affairs convoy in Mirabad, the village with corncobs on the roofs. Two Afghans were seriously wounded – Doc, who had been driving, and one of Farouk’s men who had been riding shotgun. The Americans formed a perimeter, assessed the damage, applied emergency first aid, and called for a medevac. The PRT contacted the infantry, which radioed Kandahar for assistance. Kandahar ran it by headquarters at Bagram.
Time was wasting. Unlike our prior civil affairs team, which had a Special Forces medic, the new iteration had none. Both the wounded were in shock, and both – particularly Farouk’s guy – had lost a lot of blood. The mine detonated in front of their pickup, driving the engine into the cab. Both had broken bones in their legs.
Finally, word came from Kandahar – no helicopter. I knew that Kabul and apparently Bagram looked with disfavor on security forces such as those under Farouk. They didn't fall under the Interior Ministry as the police did nor under the Defense Ministry like the army. Their American sponsors were all in the field. Although Doc didn’t work for Farouk, those two might have seemed one and the same from a distance, and maybe in somebody’s mind they both became associated with the Governor's notorious militia.
It wasn’t personal. The opposite. Mid-level commanders in Bagram didn’t know anyone here. That made decisions easier. No armored vests for interpreters? Well, who forced them to work for us? If you were an injured Afghan, better to be an innocent civilian, especially a young one like the election coordinator's sons, or else belong to the national army. The convoy was directed to push on to Ripley.
Surprisingly little was said, in my hearing anyway, considering the pall that hung over the operations center. Nobody had to point out that Farouk and his men put their lives on the line for us every time civil affairs went out. The wounded militiaman was new to the force and introverted the way some teenagers are. None of us really knew him. But we knew Farouk, guide and protector. And Doc, quick to laugh, was friend to many. The new team hadn’t appreciated what it was missing until he reported for duty after an extended visit with his family at the other end of the country.
They’re going to make it, the PRT commander insisted. He had pulled every string in reach; no sense bemoaning that which you couldn't change. The way he strode back and forth, all six-foot-whatever of him, you knew he wasn’t feeling so positive. Me neither, for the guys themselves of course and for my own selfish reasons. I had pushed for Chenartu and getting civil affairs up to Anaconda. Not that anybody mentioned it. Military movements weren’t my responsibility. I could only advocate.
The convoy called in progress reports. It didn’t sound good for the two casualties, especially Farouk’s guy. Bumps in the road aggravated their condition. The young militiaman faded in and out of consciousness, moaning the while. The sun set; darkness descended. After about an hour of going as fast as the team dared, given concerns for security and their wounded, the convoy made it back. The trauma unit met them at the gate. Farouk’s guy was touch and go; at first the doctors thought they would have to amputate one or both legs. But he got through the night intact, and in the morning the battalion arranged for a helicopter to fly him to a hospital in Kandahar. A helicopter took Doc there the following day.
In the Peace Corps we were pretty much on our own. We learned the hard way, and we got together over holidays to swap stories, to remember and forget. Nobody talked achievements; it was too early to tell. We could sense only that the Afghans appreciated the effort, though like us they wanted more, so much more.
Chenartu wouldn’t fit the narrative for our next reunion. It wasn’t that you had to have been there. All of us were, one time, one place, or another, and none of it was what it used to be. Sometimes it came close.
The hard way meant mistakes, which had greater consequences in a combat zone. Lesson learned; move on. The military taught best when it taught by example. Soldiers didn’t dwell on the past. There was no place, operationally, for war stories. The leadership in the field strove to keep emotions in check. Everybody had a job to do, and the jobs were mutually supporting. The practicioners trained until they got it right, until they could do it – not that they would – without thinking.
As habit became character, so mission determined culture. Like Ismatullah, I was caught amidst several. That both enriched and impoverished me. Thirty years and a million roads not taken had trimmed the unknown. More than enough remained.
Two days after Chenartu a mine hit Alpha Company scouts ten kilometers from Mirabad on the track from Tarin Kot to Chora. No injuries – it exploded between their Humvees. Newly active in that part of Uruzgan, the bad guys didn’t quite have it together. They had been overheard bragging on the radio that they killed the PRT commander with the one that hit Doc and the kid. A vehicle with only two persons in it must have seemed special, and it had been next to last in the convoy, considered the safest and thus likeliest position for an officer.
The intended target wanted to lead a show of force into Mirabad with a little tough love thrown in. He would gather the elders and tell them more mines would bring a world of hurt. If on the other hand the mines stopped, the PRT could do wonders for Mirabad. Their choice.
I brought up moral hazard. Did we want to reward previously quiet villages after they attacked us? That might give the wrong message.
He agreed I should go too.
The battalion commander said the proposed mission sounded like deliberate action to him. That was what the infantry did. The commanders compromised: there would be a joint operation, with the infantry in the lead. You wait too long, the lesson gets lost, but the battalion couldn’t go right away. It was about to kick off Operation Outlaw at the other end of the province. Infantry only. No civilians.
First things first, the PRT commander counseled in regard to Chenartu. He wanted us at the new site by month’s end, and the clock was ticking. As Kerry packed for his trip, he promised he wouldn’t forget. When he returned, I’d be gone.
He returned on multiple occasions, over multiple years. I believe he even made it back to Chenartu. The people there would decide which mattered more – the Americans they met or the machine behind us.
In the long run neither mattered, and Kerry didn’t have as much time as we thought. He’s gone now, gone for good. Some day we’ll all be.
Chenartu will get by, as it always has, on its own.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, I rediscovered a journal I had kept for a few weeks in that country in 1971. After returning from that later assignment, I entered the journal on a computer and began to flesh it out. The process led to a draft memoir, titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan, of more than 270,000 words. Knowing no publisher would sign on for a work of such proportions from an unknown, I sent excerpts to literary journals. So far, fourteen journals and anthologies have published or are scheduled to publish those adaptations.
This one was one taken from near the end of the manuscript. Although memoirs tend to focus on their narrators, I hope Redux’s readers will also sense a warm light shining on former Peace Corps volunteers, American soldiers, aid workers, local officials, interpreters, guards, and villagers who want to get on with their lives. None of us were perfect. All of us tried.
ABOUT FRANK LIGHT
Further to Afghanistan, the setting of his essay, Frank Light met his wife on the Bamiyan Buddha the Taliban would later blow up, was on a detail to the Pentagon on 9/11, and returned to that building to work on policy for that country in 2005. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago while in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to the publications noted in the section about the writing process, a few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published. More bio appears in the essay itself.