This Is What Winning Looks Like
I didn’t plan on spending six years covering the war in Afghanistan. But with each year, casualties and deaths rose as steadily as the local opium crop and I became obsessed with what I witnessed there—how different it was from the conflict’s portrayal...
US Specialist Christopher Saenz looks out over the landscape during a patrol outside the village of Musa Qala, Helmand province. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
I didn’t plan on spending six years covering the war in Afghanistan. I went there in 2007 to make a film about the vicious fighting between undermanned, underequipped British forces and the Taliban in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province. But I became obsessed with what I witnessed there—how different it was from the conflict’s portrayal in the media and in official government statements.
All I had to do was trek out to one of the many tiny, isolated patrol bases that dot the barren, sunbaked landscape and hang out with British infantry troops to see the chaotic reality of the war firsthand: firefights that lasted entire days, suicide bombers who leaped onto unarmored jeeps from behind market stalls, IEDs buried everywhere, and bombs dropped onto Afghans’ homes, sometimes with whole families of innocent civilians inside.
In 2006, when troops were sent into Helmand, British command didn’t think there’d be much fighting at all. The mission was simple: “Facilitate reconstruction and development.” The UK Defense Secretary John Reid even said he hoped the army could complete their mission “without a single shot being fired.”
But with each year that followed, casualties and deaths rose as steadily as the local opium crop. Thousands more British troops were deployed, then tens of thousands of US troops, at the request of General Stanley McChrystal, following a six-month review of the war after President Obama took office. Still, the carnage and confusion continued unabated. Suicide bombings increased sevenfold. Every step you took might reveal yet another IED.
In February 2013, on his last day at the helm of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen described what he thought the war’s legacy will be: ‘‘Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.’’
The US and British forces are preparing to leave Afghanistan for good (officially, by the end of 2014), and my time in the country over the last six years has convinced me that our legacy will be the exact opposite of what Allen posits—not a stable Afghanistan, but one at war with itself yet again. Here are a few encapsulated snapshots of what I’ve seen and what we’re leaving behind.
November 2012 – “Chai Boys”
Lieutenant Will Felder, left, after speaking with a villager in the Baghran Valley in Helmand province. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
For the vast majority of troops in Sangin, a city of 14,000 and a hub of opium production in the south of the country, the war was already over by late 2012. The US Marines had abandoned the patrol bases they’d established at great cost over the last six years and pulled back to the safety of their headquarters, just north of the city center, which they rarely left. Sangin was firmly in the hands of the Afghan government. Two teams of 18 marine “advisors” occasionally visited the patrol bases, which had been repurposed by the Afghan police and army, but in no way could this be construed as a sign of success.
Transition is the fourth and final stage of NATO’s counterinsurgency policy, but it isn’t supposed to happen until the Taliban have been cleared out, infrastructure has been built up, and the Afghan security forces have been trained and recruited to the point where they are ready to take over without outside support.
After spending five weeks in Sangin, it was obvious to me that Afghan security was nowhere near ready. I’d seen policemen so high on heroin they couldn’t stand up straight or tie sandbags, and soldiers firing hundreds of rockets, bullets, and grenades at the smallest of suspicious movements in the desert—“Fuck them, they are all Taliban here,” one blurted out when he was told to stop shooting at a father and son—and on at least six different occasions, the use of child soldiers.
The Afghan Police was still active, too, kidnapping civilians for ransom or as bargaining chips in prisoner exchanges. Weapons, fuel, and equipment NATO had supplied to the Afghan National Army were being sold at the local bazaar, and “ghosts”—officers who technically didn’t exist—filled police payroll sheets. “Have you ever seen The Sopranos?” said Major Bill Steuber, the marine in charge of the police-advisory team, describing the corruption. “It’s vast.”
Worst of all, police commanders were routinely abducting young men and using them as “chai boys,” house servants who were also kept as sex slaves. In separate incidents, three of those boys had been shot dead while trying to escape. One was shot in the face and one was shot at police headquarters. When a fourth boy was shot, Steuber marched into the police chief’s office and demanded action.
The police chief first said that the boys had chosen to live on the patrol bases: “They like being there and giving their asses at night.” He also claimed that the practice of soldiers sexually abusing them was necessary. “If my commanders don’t fuck these boys, who will they fuck? Their own grandmothers?”
January 2011 – “The Taliban Will Be Here Half an Hour After You Leave.”
An Afghan National Army soldier prepares for an operation in Taliban-held territory.
The man who came out of the mosque told the marines standing in the street that his daughter had been shot in the shoulder by a stray bullet the day before. The family had taken her to a hospital themselves, with no help from either the marines or the Afghan National Army.
One of the marines blamed the shooting on the Taliban, saying that they use civilians for cover. He added that in the present scope of things, this was a good sign because it meant they were losing control and becoming more desperate.
The mullah who accompanied the man from inside the mosque smiled as if his suspicions had been confirmed, then spoke directly to an Afghan National Army sergeant nearby. “There is no security beyond the road,” he said. “They are just saying this to make themselves happy. The Russians did the same. God willing, they will suffer the same fate as the Russians.
“Yes, the Taliban are here, but who are the Taliban? They are Afghans,” he continued, waving his hand at the marines. “Who are they? We two have to come together! Because my orphans will be left to you, yours to me. They,” he waved at the marines again, “will be leaving. God will cause them such problems that they will forget about here.” Instead of imparting the mullah’s words to the soldiers, the translator balked, saying instead, “We used to live in the Green Zone but it was dangerous, so now we live here and it’s very good. The children can play.”
“That’s good,” said one marine, unaware of how badly he was being misled. “We are trying to increase security, and I’m happy that you feel safer.”
The interpreter spoke directly to the mullah. “I told him you said it was very secure here. I didn’t tell him what you said. I told him the security was good here.”
The mullah argued that the three of them—the ANA sergeant, the translator, and himself—should unite against the foreigners. “Yesterday they killed six people in a house,” he said. “Only two babies were spared. Is that the meaning of democracy? We don’t want this democracy. We don’t want this law of the infidel. We want the rule of Islam.”
The mullah’s claim that six people had been killed in their home was eventually translated for the marine. “Well, we do drop a lot of bombs,” he said, “but when we do, we are very careful where we drop those bombs, and who we are dropping them on.”
“If you don’t get upset, I will tell you something,” said the mullah. “Whatever you have brought into Afghanistan, your people are here for killing. Your tanks are here for killing. Your cannons are here for killing. Your planes are here for killing. You haven’t brought anything that we like. All you have brought are the things for death.”
“I understand that you don’t like us here because we attract bullets and we make a lot of noise and sometimes people get hurt because of us,” said the marine. “But these things are going to have to happen before your country can become peaceful, and if you help us and help the ANA and we win, we’re not going to have to be here in your lives.”
“The Taliban will be here half an hour after you leave,” said the mullah, smiling. “They don’t kill us. With them, we don’t worry about going outside. They don’t touch us. We don’t touch them.”
It was difficult to tell if the mullah was on the verge of laughter or rage. “Thousands of people have died in this area. As you can see, it’s empty. All you have done is build one and a half kilometers of road in the bazaar, but against that, more than 5,000 people have lost their lives. Men, women, and children. Now you can compare these two things against each other, which one of these do you say is better?”
When the conversation ended, the mullah softened slightly. He said there was a small guesthouse inside the mosque and invited everyone in for a cup of tea. The marine looked at his watch and replied, “I would love to drink tea with you today, but unfortunately I’m all out of time, and I need to continue my patrol. But the next time we come down here, I would be more than happy to sit down with you and drink tea and discuss things.”
The mullah’s smile turned back to a snarl. He gave up on whatever he thought talking could have achieved.
January 2010 – “Jesus Fucking Christ. It Was Right There.”
The Afghan police HQ is full of jeeps that have been destroyed by IEDs or shot up. US and British soldiers drive around in million-dollar bombproof trucks, but Afghan soldiers are given unarmored pickup trucks.
Outside a house in Sangin, several large rocks were suspiciously strewn along a path. Lance Corporal Jeff Payne was on his knees, scraping at the ground with his knife, feeling for metal. Lance Corporal Blake Hancock slowly followed, stretching each leg straight out and pressing lightly on the ground with his toes before each step, looking like someone trying to avoid puddles in his best pair of shoes. Hancock thought the rocks were a guide for someone at the other end of a command wire. “They see someone walk by it, they know that’s when to pull the trigger... Boom!” He fanned his hands out to demonstrate the explosion.
“See that hole filled with rock?” said Hancock. “I’m not going there. That’s like the one that hit McGuinness,” a fellow soldier who was the victim of an IED.
We approached an S-shaped bend in the path, a junction of four alleys.
“There have to be IEDs on this fucking corner,” Hancock said.
No one knew it at the time, but Hancock was absolutely right. Buried underneath our feet was a seven-IED-long daisy chain, designed to kill or maim an entire platoon. Two command wires led down a pair of alleys; at the end of one, someone watched, waiting to detonate the bombs. That person held the power source, probably a battery, in one hand and the command wire in the other. As soon as he connected the two, the daisy chain would go off. This method left no metal in the ground for the soldiers to detect.
I held my breath until I got past the corner. Four marines appeared behind me, looking down each alley through the sights of their rifles. Payne propped a ladder against a wall, trying to find a route off the path—the “fucking path,” as everyone now called it. As he reached the top of the ladder, a huge explosion roared behind us. I turned to see two plumes of brown dust rising in the air. Stones and rocks rained down on us.
“IS ANYBODY HIT? IS ANYBODY HIT?” screamed the marines. I couldn’t see around the corner but could hear a few awful groans.
I walked back to see what had happened. Everyone had frozen where they stood. The groans became horrendous. As the dust cleared, I saw a crater with the fragments of a yellow plastic jug in it. The jug was big enough to have held about 40 pounds of explosives, enough to blow several people to pieces.
“Jesus fucking Christ. It was right there,” said a marine. He pointed at the crater, about eight feet away.
Another marine was on his knees, his right hand reaching for something to grab hold of. But his palm couldn’t find the ground. In the distance a medic was screaming: Could he hear? Could he see? Could he crawl away from the corner? At least three IEDs had gone off together, but everyone was certain there were more around them.
Payne appeared next to me. He surveyed the corner for a second, then quietly walked forward. He stepped over the first crater and bent down to assess the casualty. It was Corporal Christian Thomas, known as Big T. The other marines used to playfully mock him because he flinched at any explosion, even small, controlled ones.
“Can you stand up, can you see?” asked Payne.
“He’s blind! Big T’s a priority!” someone screamed into a radio. Less than three feet away from Big T’s head was another crater, full of a fizzing dark powder that sounded like a fistful of matches being scratched alight at once.
Payne tried to get Big T onto his feet, but he just patted the ground around him and groaned. “Can you see? Can you stand up?”
“Can you see?”
“He can’t hear you, man,” the medic shouted. Big T was blind and deaf. Payne helped him to his feet, but he collapsed, groaning. “Arrrggggh, fuck.”
“Follow me, grab my shoulder,” said Payne. Putting Big T’s arm around his neck, he staggered back down the path.
I was suddenly alone, standing between two smoking craters. “Stay where you’re at, don’t move,” yelled a marine in front of me.
Big T was lowered to the ground. He groaned some more as his arms hung lifelessly from his body, like a stuffed dummy’s. The black powder in the crater was now on fire, crackling ominously.
Big T put his hands to his ears. His mouth was wide open, and his glasses were covered in thick dust, hiding his eyes.
I shouted to the nearest marine that the powder was still burning. “Could it explode?”
“I don’t know, I’m not going over there,” he said.
Miraculously, none of the marines had been directly on top of the IEDs when they exploded. No one other than Big T had been seriously injured. The people at the front of the patrol—Payne, Hancock, four other marines, and me—had been standing on top of a bunch of the IEDs for about ten minutes before we had walked around the corner. Payne returned to continue sweeping the path until we could get up to a roof.
A marine pointed down one of the alleys. He said he was sure that was where the triggerman was hiding. “It’s all right,” he said. “He’ll be dead soon.”
August 2009 – “This Is Some Vietnam Shit.”
An Afghan police officer so high on heroin that he can barely stand or tie sandbags.
The marines slept on the concrete floor of a long, thin building that was once a school. I was told to sleep with the medics, who had one room to treat casualties, one room for the doctor, and a mud courtyard that I shared with about 15 others. My bed was a stretcher, when the medics weren’t using it.
“Have you seen what’s next door?” said a marine. “A gynecologist’s bench with a dustbin at the end. How apt for this country.”
There was one casualty at the medical center. He was a local boy, a paraplegic who, despite being “somewhere between 16 and 30,” couldn’t have weighed more than 85 pounds. He’d been discovered in a nearby house that was ablaze after being hit by a Hellfire missile. His family had fled, along with everyone else, when the marines first landed. Unable to move and barely able to talk, the boy had almost starved to death. He told the interpreter that he’d been injured in a farming accident, which none of the marines believed. They assumed anyone who had been injured in the area was either involved in combat or making IEDs.
The marines patrolled the surrounding area daily, but the Taliban were all but invisible. “This is some Vietnam shit,” said one. “Most of the time it’s like we’re getting shot at by bushes.”
One soldier was miserable because his first phone call home had not gone well. During the pep talk before the operation, Echo Company had been told that “the world is watching,” but his friends back home told him that most Americans didn’t know there had been any fighting. He was just 21, had completed a tour of Iraq, and spent some time in prison for assault.
“Our families know what’s going on,” he growled. “People in the military know, but the general population doesn’t. America’s not at war. America’s at the mall,” he growled. “No one fucking cares. It’s, ‘What’s up with Paris Hilton now? Britney Spears fucking this...’ The average American doesn’t fucking know when people die over here.”
Another marine agreed. “Every day, we get shot at. I finally got to make a phone call today, expecting it to be like, ‘Oh, I miss you so much.’ No. It’s ‘Everything’s fine. I’m partying, having a good life down here.’ Doesn’t even ask me how I’m doing. That’s when I realized that people don’t give a shit. No one even really mentions 9/11 anymore. To me, that’s the whole reason I’m over here. That’s why I went to Iraq, why I joined the Marine Corps. Now we’re here, and I really don’t know why.”
Some of the marines were just 11 or 12 years old when 9/11 happened. And the younger they were, it seemed, the less convinced they were that they were fighting the war on terror. One private, who had signed up exactly one year before, five days after his eighteenth birthday, said, “I don’t know. Where I was, the economy wasn’t good, you couldn’t get a job, my stepdad was suffering, had a hard time finding a job. I knew this was a good organization, regular paycheck, they take care of you. Sitting here now, I’m helping my parents out a lot.” His pay was just over $20,000 a year.
A fellow marine stroked a small bush with his gloved hand. “Look at this fucking thing, it’s nothing but thorns. It’s just angry. It literally has no function except to cause pain. Everything in this country is just so fucking angry.”
June 2007 – “They Are Our Kings.”
The finger of the Gereshk district police chief trembled as he raised it in emphasis. He was a small man with a neatly cropped, graying beard. “The ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] operations are not useful,” he said. “They leave, and the Taliban come back. They are indiscriminate. They see no difference between women and children and the Taliban.”
I thought he was going over the top, trying to let everyone know that he empathized with them. But then I realized that he too had lost several family members to an air strike, which surprised no one but me. “They have hit me so hard that I am stunned. What can I do? I have lost four of my brothers. How can I look after their families now?”
When he had finished, the elders raged about the bombings, saying that the Taliban were often far away by the time the bombs were dropped, that security was getting worse, and that more civilians would soon start joining the Taliban if things didn’t change. “Life has no meaning for me anymore,” said one man. “I have lost 27 members of my family. My house has been destroyed. Everything I’ve built for 70 years is gone.”
Metal containers were brought in, placed on tables in front of the group, and opened. The elders were given bricks of 500-afghani notes, signing for them by dipping their right thumbs in ink and making prints. They received roughly $2,000 for each family member killed.
“I lost 20 people, and I was given 2 million afghanis [about $36,000],” said one man. “It was before 12:30 at night, when your forces came to our area. They were involved in a fight, but the Taliban retreated. Later, a jet came and dropped bombs on our house. Two rooms were destroyed. In one of the rooms, my two nephews and my son were there. My son survived. I rescued him from the debris. Six of my uncle’s family were in the other room. All became martyrs. They were buried under the soil. I moved the children away and came back to rescue those under the debris. While we were trying to do that, the children were so frightened they started running away. The plane shot them one by one.
“All we want is security, whether you bring it or the Taliban. We are not supporting war. We support peace and security. If you bring peace and security, you are my king. If they bring security, they are our kings.”
For more misery and hopelessness from Afghanistan, watch Ben Anderson’s new film, This Is What Winning Looks Like, airing this Wednesday on VICE.com.
Also, go buy Ben's book, No Worse Enemy, now out in paperback.
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