Connect to share and comment

Life, death and the Taliban: Counterinsurgency

"We totally missed the boat."

KABUL — We were heading for the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency training camp where field officers study how to avoid repeating the fate of so many other empires in Afghanistan.

Along the way, we drove past a 19th-century British military graveyard where broken headstones mark the resting place of the empire’s doomed, colonial adventures among the Afghans.

The road continued past the ugly Soviet architecture of the National Military Hospital and on past a rusted, old Russian tank covered in graffiti that still lay where it was stopped dead in its tracks by the mujahedeen.

And finally, we arrived on the western fringes of Kabul at the Darulaman Palace — its once-grand European facade punched through by mortars and chewed down by machine-gun fire. On the back side of the palace grounds is a maze of razor wire and blast walls that lead to the first checkpoint of the counterinsurgency training center at Camp Julien.

At every turn in Kabul, there are the remains and ruins of old kingdoms and empires that provide hard lessons, for those willing to learn them, on the fate of those who have tried to rule this place and to subdue its people.

After the vehicle checks and body searches, we were inside the counterinsurgency training center, a small cluster of wooden, military-issue huts known as a FOB, or Forward Operating Base.

FOBs like this are sometimes referred to by those who reside in them as “Fobistan,” a closed, insular and separate world, a little American gated community, that is cut off from the reality of Afghanistan and its people.

As I walked through the rows of huts, there was a dull hum of generators and air conditioners, a strange quiet after spending so much time in Kabul’s bustling, crowded streets full of sounds and smells and snatches of conversation and Bollywood music. 

Only when Col. John Agoglia, director of the counterinsurgency training center, swung open the door of his hut to greet us was the silence broken by the blaring sounds of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

“How you guys doing?” he asked, shouting over the heavy metal and not waiting for an answer as he led us back into a quieter conference room, where we were offered an array of all-American junk food, including Pop Tarts and Doritos. The air conditioning hummed on high.