By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
The road leading to Bagram Air Base is a mess. Car-sized craters dot the lane, interspersed with ruts deep enough to get lost in. For stretches, it's hard even to know where the road is as it peters out into expanses of dusty scrubland stretching for miles. Every few hundred yards, a half-built structure rises from uneven ground. It's impossible to tell whether these buildings are in the middle of construction or demolition.
Filthy children play in shadows. They throw rocks at crippled dogs and kick makeshift soccer balls of wadded trash wrapped in string.
It's about half past 9 in the morning as I ride down this road with a man named Farooz, a driver and translator. I'd hired Farooz in the Afghan capital of Kabul, about 45 minutes behind us.
Through the swirling grit that fills the air, I see large, low shapes before us. A roadblock.
"It's not always like this," Farooz says. "There must be something going on today."
There is. Somebody called in the threat of a car bomb.
A traffic jam includes ancient minivans, half-broken pickups, and what's called jingle trucks — transport vehicles adorned with flags, bells, and banners. U.S. soldiers walk about in the dusty sun shouting testily.
"Stay the fuck there!" a soldier growls, pointing an assault rifle at a man on a bicycle. He stops and fixes the soldier with a bored stare.
Farooz pulls around the mass, attempting to jump the line. Two Americans materialize, weapons fixed.
"Are you kidding?!" one of them shouts. "Fucking stop!"
Farooz steers back to the road.
The soldiers retreat to the roadblock behind two massive armored vehicles. Gunners sit atop, helmeted heads rising above .50-caliber machine guns like turtle shells.
Around us, people wait, packed into cars like frogs in a pickle jar. The jingle-truck drivers smoke. I step from the car and trudge toward the soldiers.
A young grunt stands calmly in the sun, cradling a machine gun with a grenade-launcher attachment. I wave a crumpled piece of paper, my orders, telling him I've been assigned to cover a unit. Any chance I can get through the roadblock?
He ignores the rumpled document and listens implacably behind wraparound shades. Wait like everyone else, he says. He offers to walk me back to my car.
Just then, a sedan roars around the traffic. It bears down on us in third gear. The soldier shoulders his weapon. He aims at the driver's chest while marching quick time at the oncoming car.
The soldiers behind us raise their weapons. A dozen barrels follow the man on point.
"What the fuck are you doing?" the soldier yells at the car while I step behind him. "Stop now!"
The sedan halts just ten yards from us. The soldier lowers his machine gun and smiles. "Everybody speaks weapon," he says, chuckling.
So begins my vacation in Afghanistan.
Standing on that sunny road, watching the occupants of that car throw up their hands in stark terror, I begin to doubt the wisdom of my decision. Why didn't I go to the beach?
Like many Americans, I never questioned the justness of our Afghan adventure. Basic logic: We invaded Central Asia because of the horrors of 9/11. The Taliban sheltered bin Laden. They let al Qaeda plot in safety. We had to kick their ass.
But eight years later, we're still there, and I had no idea why. Conversations with smart people in the United States got me nowhere. They talked of "geopolitical ramifications" and "bookending Pakistan." What the hell does that mean?
So I decided to go to Afghanistan and see for myself.
Saifwah stands on the porch of the Media Operations Center at Forward Operating Base Salerno , a frown wrinkling his normally smooth brow. "Walking to my car is very dangerous," he says, staring off toward the parking lot for Afghan employees. "We have a separate entrance, and it's unguarded. We could all be killed by the time soldiers came to help."
Saifwah works as a liaison to the Afghan media. He translates Army press releases and monitors newspapers and radio broadcasts. He lives in a nearby village instead of on base, which is near the town of Khost, only a few miles from the Pakistan border.
A fastidious, conservative man, Saifwah seems uncomfortable with the soldiers' rough language, and he often gets in heated discussions over the length of women's skirts with Sgt. Barbara Ospina, the public affairs officer who is his boss.
He has bigger woes, though, than skirts that are too short. The mere fact that he works here could mean a death sentence from the Taliban.
But at this moment, he's just worried about making it to his car alive. He likes his job and his boss, but he thinks the military isn't too concerned about his safety. "They don't care about us," he says. "They don't protect us enough."
It's America's essential problem in Afghanistan: Even our own employees don't feel we have their best interests at heart.
Other interpreters — called "terps" — feel the same way. Some live on Salerno in a cluster of military huts called Terp Village. It's in a far corner of the base, near an open-air market where locals sell rugs, scarves, bootleg DVDs, and hookahs.
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."
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.
The older man is an Army intelligence analyst. His job is to read reports on everything from enemy movements to the weather and pass it up the chain of command. But on this night, he speaks of the sobering difficulty of bringing peace to this land.
"This country is ruled valley to valley," he says. "Each valley is in many ways its own state. Most people who live in these valleys spend their whole lives there, sometimes never leaving. I've had our guys tell me that when they first got here back in '02, some of these people thought we were Russians. They didn't know that Ivan was gone and that we'd showed up."
I gasp in disbelief.
"Believe it. And that's just how these mullahs like it."
Leaders in Afghanistan's remote areas are fiercely xenophobic, he explains. They don't hate Americans; they hate the people from the valley next door.
"They can tell just by looking if you're from their valley or the one just over the hill, and respond accordingly," he says, making a slashing motion across his throat. In his mind, the thousands of little dictators who rule the country equate peace with loss of power. They don't like TV because it gives people ideas about the world outside the valley. They don't like roads because they allow people to leave — and for outsiders to come in. And they don't like the idea of a central government in Kabul because it gives someone far away power over the valley. Their valley.
"So what does the coalition do?" I ask.
He smiles. "We build the damned roads and make sure they're safe for locals to use."
"But what if the Taliban blows them up?"
"Then we fix them."
It was dark now and very cold. He was wearing only shorts and a light jacket, so he shook my hand, turned away, and trudged off into the dark and dusty night.
Every journalist who comes to Salerno receives a briefing from public affairs Maj. Patrick Sieber. He's a gruff, barrel-chested officer with a buzz cut and a look-you-in-the-eye manner.
The two forces are perhaps NATO's most pressing issue. Until the United States can be reasonably certain that Afghans are safe — from both insurgents and street crime — our soldiers aren't going anywhere.
The problem isn't just Afghans. One of U.S. soldiers' favorite pastimes is making fun of the French troops.
A lieutenant tells of a dangerous mission in which his unit was working with French soldiers, who led a convoy of Humvees down a rutted, one-lane road into a Taliban ambush. The lead vehicles manned by the French took fire that didn't inflict any damage. But rather than fighting back or driving through to safety, the French tried to pull a U-turn, nearly colliding with the U.S. vehicles behind them.
"I almost shot them myself," says the lieutenant. "We were trapped because the French vehicles were now facing the wrong way. Meanwhile, one of our vehicles in the rear had been hit, so it couldn't move."
But the real challenge is working with the Afghan forces, which are plagued by corruption, incompetence, and lots of hash smoking.
"Everybody knows if you want to get hash in Afghanistan," Gerszak says, "you ask a cop."
Afghanistan has had a national army for most of the past 150 years, but the current, 80,000-plus iteration was started, equipped, and paid for by the U.S. and NATO allies.
Last year, 1st Sgt. Tommy Scott was stationed at FOB Airborne in Wardak. At the time, the base was manned by a small force of U.S. army personnel, some French troops, and a group of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers.
"The ANA guys would pull guard duty on their side of the base," Scott says. "There were nights when I would come and check on them and they'd be asleep at their post. Literally asleep. We're out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by guys that want to kill us, and the ANA were asleep. That right there just says it all."
U.S. soldiers repeatedly tell stories of ANA troops and Afghan police (ANP) abandoning checkpoints or refusing to leave the roadside buildings that function as their offices.
And then there's the hashish.
I had dinner one night with a young captain, a tall, strapping guy in his early 20s who had spent most of his tour at a small firebase near the Pakistan border. He was enthusiastic about his mission, telling me how proud he was of the work he'd done with the ANA.
"They want to see a better country for their children," he said. "But they know it will take sacrifice."
He talked about how the Afghans had really begun to trust him and how he had come to rely on them. He seemed so positive and enthusiastic that my notes only identify him as "Captain America."
"I've heard," I eventually said, "that the ANA guys smoke a lot of hash."
"Oh, of course," said Captain America, without missing a beat. "They're all huge hash eaters. No question. But the thing is, when you're out on a mission, that shit is a no-go. You have to make that clear."
My personal contact with ANA forces was pretty limited. Yet at Salerno, I was very aware of their presence. That's because they kept getting blown up.
There are audio speakers mounted everywhere that broadcast alerts whenever a medic chopper is inbound with casualties. If I was standing with a photographer, he or she would usually sprint toward the hospital.
Later, I would run into the photographers in the chow hall.
"Who was it?" I'd ask. The answer was almost always the same.
"Just some ANA guys. They got blown up."
The chow halls in Afghanistan stand as testament to the bounty of America.
Food is piled everywhere. Burgers and grilled sandwiches. Steam trays brimming with meat, vegetables and starches of every description. Pasta bars, burrito stations, build-your-own sandwich tables. Pies and sundae bars.
The dining facilities are run by KBR, a spinoff of Halliburton. Every meal costs the U.S. military $17. Multiply that by the 10,000 people living on Bagram and it costs more than $500,000 a day to feed one base.
And that's pocket change compared to the cost of equipment. The MRAP vehicle is the hottest thing going in Afghanistan. If a Brinks truck and a Tonka truck had a child, it would look like an MRAP.
It was created in response to the failures of Humvees in Iraq, which proved to be death traps for roadside mines. The MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) has a V-shaped hull that deflects bomb blasts. More than a few soldiers have walked away from direct hits thanks to this creature.
But it is expensive, with a price tag of $600,000 to $1 million a truck. And most MRAPs are flown in — at an additional cost of $135,000 per vehicle.
Yet it's cost-prohibitive to fly much else into Afghanistan. Roughly 80 percent of coalition supplies come via roads from Pakistan through some of the most dangerous territory on Earth. The cost of these trips has risen sharply as the Taliban steps up attacks on the supply line, blowing up convoys and recently destroying a key bridge through the Khyber Pass.
It all leads to a mind-blowing tab for U.S. taxpayers. The monthly bill is estimated at $16 billion, more than the annual budgets of all but 13 states. And that doesn't include the $500 billion we spend each year on the Defense Department and the so-called "black ops" budget for the CIA.
Is it worth it?
The problem with Afghanistan is figuring out what we're buying. Are we buying security for the Afghan people? They'll say no, since they're just as likely to get robbed by police as they are by criminals.
Stability in the region? We've definitely taken away al Qaeda's ability to strike the United States from Afghanistan. But we accomplished that nearly eight years ago.
Democracy? Kind of. President Hamid Karzai was indeed elected, but his administration is awash with corruption, and Afghans are losing faith. That means we'll have to shell out more to make them happy.
"So why are we in Afghanistan?" I asked a young specialist from Nebraska.
She pursed her lips and squinted, as if looking off behind me.
"Umm... Osama bin Laden?" she said hesitantly, more questioning herself than answering me.
It was something I asked many soldiers, and the answer still eluded me. Maj. Sieber cited infrastructure projects, security, democracy. The rank and file echoed these sentiments; that was the mission as explained to them.
When we first invaded Afghanistan, the goals seemed clear: Topple the Taliban, destroy al Qaeda, and kill Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban ceded power almost overnight. Al Qaeda loyalists still mount attacks on U.S. supply lines and troops, but their training camps are gone. As for bin Laden, he could be anywhere. Meanwhile, security has deteriorated, and the people of Afghanistan don't seem thrilled to have us around.
So what are we still doing there?
I finally got an answer on Thanksgiving Day in the chow hall at Salerno. I was with Sgt. Jason Lyke, an Army intelligence analyst. We had stuffed ourselves with turkey, roast beef, and trimmings served up by officers, an Army tradition during holidays.
We talked about football, his boys back in Tennessee, and the complexities of running an office in a war zone. I asked him why we were having this conversation in Afghanistan instead of back home.
The sergeant looked down at his plate in silence. "That's a political question, sir. I can't get into that."
"No," I pressed, "it's a strategic question. Why are we here?"
He kept looking at his food. Then, using the irrefutable logic of a soldier, he raised his head and said: "I'm here because I was told to be here."