That's where I met Farah and Rohmal. They expressed appreciation for coalition efforts in the country and respect for the Americans they work with. But they echoed Saifwah's reservations about their safety, where American policies speak louder than words.

Like soldiers, terps get to take leave for weeks at a time. But unlike soldiers, they don't get transport to their home provinces, often hundreds of miles from their bases.

They must travel alone for days over roads crawling with men who want to kill them. "I am from Paktika province," says Farah. "The military flies there every day, but I am not allowed to get on those planes."

American forces have carved out Forward Operating Base Salerno from the countryside of Afghanistan's Khost province.
Rafal Gerszak
American forces have carved out Forward Operating Base Salerno from the countryside of Afghanistan's Khost province.

It's a strange policy, considering terps are indispensable to U.S. operations. Very few Americans speak Pashto or Dari, Afghanistan's two most common languages, so nearly every platoon needs an interpreter.

Yet they're stuck with older body armor, and they don't have guns, sticking out as easy targets for insurgents.

Everybody complains in war, of course. But the terps' gripes are different from those of U.S. soldiers. Though they don't expressly say it, there's a sense of hurt in their words, a feeling that they're being used. While NATO is ostensibly here for the Afghan people, they remain secondary citizens.

Still, it's hard to blame U.S. forces, who've come to understand that today's friend is tomorrow's assassin.

"My buddy was killed by a terp who got religion," says a sergeant with the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He recalls standing next to the soldier on base. Suddenly, a terp grabbed a gun and started shooting at everything in uniform.

The sergeant turned toward the shooter, never guessing that his terp had gone rogue. A bullet ripped through the sergeant's shirt sleeve, missing flesh. The buddy standing next to him wasn't so lucky. By the time the sergeant realized what happened, both his friend and the terp were dead.

"All it takes is for one of these guys to get religion," he says, "and that's all she wrote."

The situation is indicative of the relationship between coalition forces and Afghans. In dozens of conversations with soldiers, they gave the impression that although they wish the country well, they're equally frustrated with Afghans' lack of willingness to rise to their own defense.

A second lieutenant tells the story of Afghan workers in a parking lot outside a base: "The workers, maybe about 30 of them, were walking to their cars. The Taliban rolls up, two guys in a car with AKs. They single out two of the local nationals, pull them aside, and execute them on the spot. What did the other Afghans do? They put their fingers in their ears so the gunshots wouldn't be so loud."

He shook his head with frustration.

"I'm over here, away from my family, willing to sacrifice my life and the life of my men for these people, and they just stand around while one of their own gets murdered. Maybe those gunmen would have taken a few of them out, but there's no way they would have killed all of them. They chose to do nothing."

So goes the philosophical standoff: Soldiers view the populace as lazy and uninterested in their own salvation. Afghans, meanwhile, see little connection lately to NATO's presence and any measurable increase in security.

It has led some Afghans to feel nostalgic for the days of Taliban rule. "At least under the Taliban, there weren't car bombs in the markets," says Jassim, standing before his vegetable stall in Kabul's Chicken Street market. "It was very hard, of course. No music, and I am glad for my daughters that the Taliban is gone. But we were safe."

The differences are further highlighted when U.S. forces try to provide humanitarian aid.

Rafal Gerszak, a Canadian photographer, has been to shuras, meetings between field officers and village elders. Gerszak says most of the captains and lieutenants are "young, 23- or 24-year-old guys. They'll go to these meetings and try to make friends with the elders. And they won't get any real respect, because in this culture, age is respected. The elders will only give respect because they know these guys are military and know they can kill them. But that's not real respect."

The problems get worse when the military makes promises it can't keep. Gerszak recalls going to one village where another platoon had promised to dig a well. "Ten months went by and there was no well. Now these new guys show up and promise to build a well, and the village elder was like, 'Get the fuck out of here. We talk to you, we give you help, you do nothing, and the Taliban comes and gives us trouble.' "


In the fading light of a frigid evening on Bagram Air Field, I stand talking with a group of young grunts. An older soldier stands silently, leaning against a stack of sandbags as the younger soldiers and I joke about how much we miss beer.

They had already completed combat tours in Iraq and were near the end of their deployment in Afghanistan. They had worked office jobs, supply details, and long nights on guard duty.

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