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Afghanistan War: How not to win over hearts and minds

Essay: Trip to Afghanistan’s east exposes fault lines in US "hearts and minds” strategy.

We waited, biting fingernails and arguing fruitlessly with the guards, until the helicopter took off. Once they saw the chopper rise into the sky, the American guards, with barely concealed smirks, miraculously resolved their “friggin’ protocol” problems and told us we could go. Without being searched, without being vetted. Just inconvenienced in a very major way.

The U.S. contingent took us onto their base, where they gave us “billeting” for the night: canvas cots with no bedding, in a room of 20 or more. Most soldiers passing through have their kit with them; we were unequipped for an overnight stay.

We bought some supplies in the PX — although one of our colleagues, an Afghan journalist wearing traditional Afghan clothes, was denied the privilege until we were issued official “orders.” Funny, I did not have to show orders to buy my toothpaste and Advil.

Our male colleagues were housed with some U.S. soldiers who apparently were still coming down off a battle high. According to my friends, one of them took great delight in boasting how he had personally killed at least 20 “bad guys.”

“How did you know they were ‘bad guys’?” asked one of our members.

“Simple, they had beards, they were dirty and they wore shoes,” he replied. “Most Afghans don’t wear shoes, you know.”

Keep in mind that three out of five of our male colleagues were Afghan. I was livid when they told me the story.

“Oh, he was just a young kid,” said my colleague, indulgently.

“He’s a young kid with a big gun!” I protested.

Somehow, the night passed, aided by coffee from the Green Bean on base. In the morning we were brought back to Bagram, where two soldiers in full battle kit drove us to our van, which was located in that mysterious land “outside the wire.”

Our driver said he had been to Kabul four times, but did not enjoy it. “Anything can happen out there,” he said.

I thought wistfully of my house and garden in a quiet Kabul suburb; of my Afghan friends — all of whom, I assure you, wear shoes, and some have beards, making them fair game for our U.S. soldier, I suppose.

We are supposed to be trying to convince the Afghans we are here to help, yet we treat them as second-class citizens in their own country.

Who are we kidding? Not the Afghans, I assure you.